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Cashing In on the Continent : Even with a tight budget, Europe is worth the effort

May 11, 1997|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

In 1972, I spent six months rambling through Western Europe for about $10 a day, which was cheap even back then. But I managed quite comfortably.

Those days are long gone, but Europe can still be surprisingly affordable--if you count your pennies carefully. And even on a tight budget, you can have the time of your life. For a while now, the dollar has been gaining strength against the German mark and other major European currencies. In January, it was at a 2 1/2-year high, according to the European Travel Commission, a tourism organization representing 26 European nations. When the dollar is strong, Europe is less pricey.

So what does it cost to travel cheaply in Europe today? It all depends on how much or how little you are willing and able to pay, say the experts. Your biggest expenses--which can make or break your budget--are lodging and meals. But these also are the costs over which you have the most control.

On a bare-bones budget (the kind I adhered to 25 years ago), you should be able to get by on $30 a day for food and lodging, says Louis CasaBianca, author of "First-Time Europe" (Rough Guides, $9.95), a budget-traveler's guide to the Continent.

He assumes you will be sleeping in hostels and eating picnic meals purchased from neighborhood markets. It's not a bad way to travel if you are young and adventurous . . . or even old and adventurous.

The famous Arthur Frommer guide, which debuted in 1957 as "Europe on $5 a Day," is now "Europe from $50 a Day" (Macmillan, $21.95). The $50 figure is for lodging and meals only, and it assumes you will be sharing the cost of a modest hotel room with a companion and eating in inexpensive neighborhood cafes. The publisher pitches the book as "the Grown-Up's Guide to Budget Travel."

Guidebook author Rick Steves, an experienced and enthusiastic budget traveler, sets $60 as the daily average travelers should expect to spend for lodging and meals. You will pay less in southern Europe, he writes in "Europe Through the Back Door 1997" (John Muir, $19.95), and more in northern Europe. His idea of cheap lodgings is "simple but not sleazy." Usually, the toilet and shower are down the hall.

Personally, I have progressed over the years from "simple," as a lodging qualifier, to "charming," and charming costs more. In preparation for an upcoming trip to northern Italy, my wife, Sandy, and I have reserved rooms (each with a private bath) in several small, charming (we hope), moderately priced hotels at rates that begin at about $85 a night. We've budgeted about $50 a night for dinner for two, and in Italy at this price we can expect to dine quite nicely.

The amount you are willing to pay for lodging and meals may depend on what you are interested in getting out of your European holiday. When I first crossed the Atlantic, I wanted to see all the famous sights of Europe's capitals, and I didn't much care where I stayed so long as the place was reasonably clean and safe. This is the attitude shared by the guidebook authors mentioned above.

But nowadays when I return, I'm interested in absorbing a bit of the local atmosphere, as well as seeing the sights. I take long walks outside the standard tourist precincts, visit neighborhood parks and spend a lot of time people-watching from sidewalk cafes. When possible, I like to stay in small inns or hotels that reflect the local culture. I'll stretch my budget to pay the added cost of these lodgings.

Your budget also is shaped by the length of your stay. If you plan to spend the summer abroad, you really do have to search out cheaper lodgings. If you are going for only a week, rooms at $100 a night or more aren't so daunting. When I traveled for six months, I kept close watch over my room costs. If I saved a few bucks on a humble place in one city, I treated myself to a nice room with a bath in the next.

In any travel budget, leave a little money for a splurge.

When Sandy and I were in Venice, I overheard an exchange between an American couple and a gondolier. "How much is a ride?" the man asked, and the gondolier replied with a figure in lira that amounted to about $50. "That's an outrage," the American shouted. "I'm not going to waste my money." The gondolier shrugged.

I had watched this exchange with interest. The night before, Sandy and I had paid the same $50 fee for a 45-minute ride. We carried a small bottle of champagne and plastic glasses for ourselves and the gondolier, who was pleased to be remembered. As the sun set, we glided beneath the city's lovely arched bridges, sipping our champagne and reveling in the beauty of the evening. For a lifelong memory like this, our 50 bucks was actually quite a bargain.

Whatever your comfort level, there are a number of easy ways to keep the costs of European travel down.

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