I’m sitting here sipping English tea and nibbling on galettes, reminiscing on the incredible vacation we had last week.
Two years ago when we went to Europe, we spent two weeks there and it cost a good deal of money. This time around, we had limited vacation days and also a limited budget. But I REALLY wanted to go to Paris, and a stop in nearby London seemed to make sense—we’d never been to either city.
We were able to make the trip work for less than $1,400 per person (including flights, train tickets, accommodations, meals, and sight-seeing costs)—for what I would say was a pretty luxurious week-long vacation in Europe. Below are a few of the tricks we used to score some great deals!
- Go in the off season of winter or early spring. Bonus to going in off season? Way smaller tourist crowds! I dislike cold weather and was worried about being miserable, but I was fine. It was definitely cold (in the upper 30s some days in Paris), but the key is dressing appropriately—layers under a warm coat, gloves, and scarf. Going in December is especially charming with all the Christmas decorations.
- Use your airline miles to book flights. Even off-season flights to Europe are running $1,300+ roundtrip, so we used our miles to save a bundle. It only took 20k miles per person, per flight, (so 80k total) to book direct flights to/from London and Paris. These discounted mileage rates are available from November through about mid-May. (Tip: Always avoid British Airways when booking with miles—they charge hundreds of dollars in fees.) Don’t have enough miles? Apply for an airline credit card that will give you bonus miles for signing up—we have one that gave us 50k just for joining, plus we earn miles on purchases.
- Use credit card points to help pay for hotels. Lots of cards offer travel rewards, so find one that works for you. (Preferably one without an annual fee.) We used $500 in travel rewards to book our London hotel, which was $515 total—so we only paid $15 out of pocket.
- Book an apartment rental instead of a hotel in Paris. This may sound more like a splurge than a save—but surprisingly, beautiful apartments in Paris rent for the same or not much more than nice hotels. Our rental worked out to about $260 night. It had a full kitchen, so we could save money on meals out—which can be very pricey in Paris. We ate at a nice restaurant once a day, and had our other meals at “home.” We found shopping in a Paris grocery store or food market to be fun and a great way to feel immersed in the culture.
The living room of our apartment in Paris
- Book accommodations with free wifi. We didn’t need any pricey international plans for our phones because we always had wifi at our hotel or apartment. We survived just fine without internet access when we were out and about. (Some airports and cafes have free wifi if you’re desperate.)
- Use discount passes or go to the free-entry museums and sights. In London, you can spend hundreds of dollars just visiting a few museums and churches. Instead, we went to the free museums like the National Gallery and British Museum. Many of the churches (like Westminster Abbey) charge for tours—but you can attend a service, such as evensong, for free—which can be a more special experience than just a tour, anyway. In Paris, the museum pass (http://en.parismuseumpass.com/) is a great deal and covers nearly all the major sights.
Scott in front of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, on display at the National Gallery in London
- Take public transportation. Instead of pricey cabs or car services, we used the Underground in London and the Metro in Paris. (The key to comfortably doing this is to pack light, which I plan to talk about in another post.) We even took a public bus to the airport in Paris. I was very skeptical when my husband first suggested the bus—but it turned out to be super easy and uncrowded and probably a third of the cost of a cab.
- Use Rick Steves audio tours. No need to pay for guided tours or the audio tours they sell at the museums—Rick Steves audio tours are free when you download his app. These were a huge help at places like the Louvre and British Museum. (You don’t need an internet connection to play the audio once you’ve downloaded it.)
- Use a credit card with no international fees and get local currency from an ATM. I recommend Capital One for no foreign transaction fees (and great conversion rates). Before you leave, call your bank to find out which international banks it partners with—you can use your debit card at those ATMs to get local currency without paying an ATM fee.
- Research, research, research. Planning the vacation is part of the fun. We looked at dozens of hotels and apartments before booking. Great values are out there, you just have to find them—so try not to get your heart set on a particular place before thoroughly researching all options. Use TripAdvisor and other review sites to make sure what you’re booking isn’t just cheap—it’s a value.
Bonus Tip: Don’t go into debt to pay for a vacation. There’s no point in getting a great deal only to end up paying a ton of credit card interest.
A note on when to splurge
Our general spending philosophy—not just for travel but in life—is save ruthlessly on the things that matter least, and splurge on what you love. Friends and family sometimes will look at us strangely when we talk about our latest luxurious vacation—then see us clipping coupons and unplugging appliances to save on the electric bill. But we’d rather scrimp on things like groceries on utilities and spend the difference on what we love—like traveling. Here are a couple things we splurged on this trip:
Afternoon tea in London. I was so excited to have a traditional English tea. I tried and tried to find an inexpensive place to go, but couldn’t find one that didn’t sacrifice the experience. So we booked an elegant afternoon tea at the Wolseley for about $75.
Apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower. We could have found a cheaper apartment rental, but to have the Eiffel Tower sparkling out the kitchen window while making dinner? That was priceless.
Kitchen with a view of the Eiffel Tower
If we’d had the time, we could have easily extended our trip to 10 or 14 days. A week definitely only gives you a taste of these two great cities. (But now we have a reason to go back!)
Traveling is so personal based on your own tastes and preferences, but hopefully a few of these tips help. I know I learned a lot by reading others’ experiences—I’d love to hear what YOU saved/splurged on in Europe!