Smart ways to save money in Europe this crazy, crowded summer



CNN
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Still hoping to get to Europe this summer but wondering if there’s a way to finagle a vacation there during what remains of this record-breaking season without completely busting your budget?

With full airplanes crisscrossing the Atlantic Ocean and hotels having no trouble filling rooms across tourist hot spots, you’re going to need to play it smart.

If you have yet to book your airfare across the pond, get ready for sticker shock from the start.

“Last-minute flight prices, especially international ones, are expensive,” says Katy Nastro of Going.com (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) about airfares from North American to Europe. “Yet, if you target the last two weeks in August, you’ll find them to be substantially cheaper than in July.”

As summer winds down and schools go back into session, Nastro says reduced demand for travel can bring with it some price relief.

If you’ve been sitting on a pile of frequent flyer miles, now’s a great time to stop hoarding them.

“Their best value comes when cash prices are high, and there’s no time more expensive than last-minute summer travel,” Nastro says. “Even as cash fares exceed $1,500, tickets are often available on the same flights for as low as 30,000 points round trip.”

Even if you can’t save much on the getting-there part of a European summer vacation, there are some other ways to consider cutting costs once you’re on the ground.

CNN Travel talked to travel agents, experts and expert travelers, too, for their tips on saving money on European travels this unprecedented summer.

Hevelyn Villar Silva and her family -- from Tampa, Florida -- figured they spent just over $300 a day for the family for their cruise (not counting airfare). They traveled on their own to Portofino after their cruise ship stopped at the nearby port of Genoa.

Been on the fence about cruising in Europe? The moment to consider it might be right now.

“As hotel rates and airfares rise even more this summer, cruising continues to be a really high-value vacation option – and a fantastic way to explore Europe in a more cost-effective way than if you were to travel by land,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic.

Particularly if you’re looking to make the most of the airfare you paid to get to Europe and visit more than one destination without hopping on another plane, she says, cruising can reap serious savings over what you’d pay for a similar vacation connecting countries by land.

Architect Hevelyn Villar Silva of Tampa, Florida, agrees.

Her family’s seven-night cruise on 3,223-passenger MSC Magnifica in late May from Valencia, Spain, likely saved them thousands of dollars on what they would have spent traveling during a similar vacation on land exploring several European countries.

For the family of four (including her two young sons who sailed for free thanks to MSC Cruises’ regularly offered Kids Sail Free promotion), she says the Silvas spent around $310 per day total over the course of the week (not including their airfare).

That daily figure includes what they paid for the cruise fare ($1,469.80 for a cabin with a window but no balcony, although the family was later upgraded for free) and the extra money they spent in port on things such as gelato and train or bus fares to do their own excursions in places such as Pisa and Portofino in Italy.

“There is no way that you can travel that much, see all of those places, eat all your meals and sleep well at that cost per day for a family of four people,” she said about their seven-night cruise – which started and finished in Valencia and had five ports of call (and one at-sea day) in Italy, France and Spain over the course of the week.

MSC Cruises’ current fares include seven-night cruises around the Mediterranean in July and August starting from $799 per person aboard MSC Magnifica and $968 aboard the line’s largest ship, MSC World Europa (with a passenger capacity of 6,762), both of which include kids and teens clubs, entertainment and all meals in the rate.

Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas has seven-night Western Mediterranean sailings in August from $1,799 per person on itineraries that call into port in Palma de Mallorca as well as Italy and France.

Other ships to scour in Europe for summer deals:

• Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Jade has fares starting from $599 per person for seven-night cruises around the Greek Isles from Athens.
• For cooler climes, check out Hurtigruten Norway’s 40%-off fares offered in July and August aboard the newly launched Svalbard Express.
• Eight-day southbound voyages from the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to Bergen in mainland Norway start from $2,812 per person (down from $5,509) and include all meals (plus wine and beer during meals).

Milan, Italy - May 17, 2017: Modern high-speed trains at the railway Milan Central Station. Industrial landmark and tourist place of Milan. Concept of travel and transport across Milan and Europe.

Prefer to travel overland? For people looking to cover a lot of ground and families with young children who can benefit from free rail passes, train travel can be more cost effective than flying between European countries or relying on one-way car rentals (plus gas and tolls) to get around.

“Most travelers going to Europe have a few destinations in mind, “ says Henley Vazquez, co-founder of luxury travel advisor group Fora. “This summer, choose cities and towns that are connected by train, so you can avoid multiple flights and high rental car costs.”

Eurail offers youth discounts of up to 25% off train travel in Europe for travelers who are 27 or younger as well as 10% off for seniors (60 and older) and free passes for kids from 4 to 11 when traveling together with someone on a Eurail Adult Pass. Children younger than 4 ride free and do not require a Eurail Pass. Eurail also offers pass holders discounts on things such as ferry fares and city cards that can help cut costs.

To make the most of your Eurail Pass, search for routes that don’t require reservations (and therefore an additional fee).

“It’s essential, however, to consider the cost-effectiveness based on your specific itinerary, as point-to-point tickets might be cheaper for shorter or less frequent journeys,” advises Ethan Williams of the blog Traveling Gossip.

Limiting your European train travels to a single country?

Individual countries often offer their own deals on rail travel, including Germany with its German Rail Pass (available only to people residing outside of Germany); Italy’s Trentalia pass for foreign citizens living outside of Italy; Austria’s Einfach-Raus-Ticket for groups of two to five people traveling on local and regional trains within the country and Czech Railways’ Summer Ticket, with seven- and 14-day passes good for unlimited rail trips in the Czech Republic.

If you’re set on traveling around Europe by air, look at routes in and out of alternate airports instead of the main hubs, said Georgia Bird of the travel planning blog, First Step: Europe.

“For example, flying into Rome Ciampino, then flying out of Rome Fiumicino,” she said. “This can take hundreds off the price of tickets.”

WW879H France, Paris, city centre, Canal Saint Martin, shipping channel, excursion boat, sightseeing tour

If you haven’t already booked your accommodations, snagging last-minute offers on discounted accommodation can be an option for saving money on hotel stays and apartment and vacation rentals, says Ignacio Eguren of Checkin Cantabria, a vacation rental website with accommodations across Cantabria province in northern Spain.

“If you’re looking for better prices, you should be open to last-minute offers and be flexible with the location and dates, too,” Eguren says. “The demand can be high, so it’s recommended to explore different options and be prepared to adjust your plans based on the available offers.”

The flexibility of traveling by car can come in handy for accommodating impromptu destination changes if you’re open to booking stays at the last minute.

Some revenue managers for vacation rentals use dynamic pricing, Eguren says, which means nightly pricing can fluctuate with supply and demand.

“At the last minute, you can get better prices because establishments that are still unreserved or have had last-minute cancellations offer deals to fill up their accommodations,” he says.

Booking.com lets hosts use dynamic pricing through Genius, its loyalty program, to boost occupancy, which can translate to last-minute discounts on stays for potential guests at times when occupancy goals aren’t being met.

And while sites such as Airbnb don’t use dynamic pricing, they do offer their hosts, who set their own prices, tools such as Smart Pricing that automatically adjust nightly pricing based on demand. So the price you see one day for a stay could potentially vary the next.

That means last-minute deals can open for travelers who can deal with the uncertainty of waiting until the night before (or even the day of) to book where they’ll be sleeping next.

For example, a recent search on Booking.com’s Getaway Deals page (offering 15% off stays worldwide through September 28) showed a same-night stay in early July at the centrally located Hotel Library Amsterdam (a 10-minute walk from the Rembrandt House Museum) for $150 per night for two people and $108 per night at the Best Western Premier Faubourg 88 in Paris’ 10th arrondissement.

“Remember to stay alert for last-minute offers on not only accommodation booking platforms, but on the websites of the establishments themselves, too,” Eguren said. “You can also consider contacting the accommodations directly to inquire about availability or special promotions.”

In Copenhagen, you’ll see crowds of young people along the city’s canals enjoying beer from the grocery store. Why not do the same?

Veteran European traveler, travel TV host and guidebook author Rick Steves advises American travelers to think more like Europeans when traveling the continent – both to save money and for a rewarding overall experience.

“In Europe’s priciest places, it helps to follow the lead of people who live there,” he said in an email to CNN Travel.

“The last time I was in a restaurant in Oslo, 16 of 20 diners were drinking only tap water,” Steves said. “And you’ll see crowds of young people who can’t afford Copenhagen’s bars enjoying beer from the grocery store along the city’s canals. Why not do the same?”

After all, little savings here and there add up.

Steves also suggests setting your sights on Europe’s less glamorous “second” cities for savings as well as a unique experience. These places he calls “the Chicagos of Europe” include Marseille in France, Hamburg in Germany and Liverpool in England.

“A lot of money and effort is being put into revitalizing these once-depressed, former Industrial Age powers, giving them a certain energy you don’t find in their more well-known siblings,” Steves said.

Wherever you go, be open to those impromptu experiences that rarely ever break the bank.

“In Rome, climb up the Scala Santa Holy Stairs on your knees to learn what it feels like to be a pilgrim,” Steves said. “At a French produce market, gather a gourmet picnic to enjoy in the garden of a Loire château … join the Scotsman who runs your B&B in a game of lawn bowling.”

“I find that the less I spend, the richer the experience I have.”