Arthur Frommer: Lessons learned from travels in Europe

07/31/2011 12:00 AM

07/31/2011 6:15 AM

Heaven knows how many times I've been to Europe (several hundred?), and yet every trip brings either new lessons or emphasizes the worth of old lessons. Here are 10 of those — some painfully obvious but important to repeat.

1. Increasingly, the most pleasant yet economical way to experience Europe is to establish a base in one city for five days to a week, and to rent an apartment rather than a hotel for lodgings. A housekeeping apartment almost always will provide more spacious and more comfortable accommodations for far less than you would have spent at an equivalent hotel.

2. The best sources for obtaining such an apartment are local real estate brokers. You'll have far more confidence in the lodgings they provide than if you had gone through a giant international real estate broker that can't possibly be familiar with all the properties it rents.

3. Never change your money at airport or train station kiosks, or by using any commercial money changer — all of them base the transaction on badly disadvantageous rates of exchange. Use those facilities only for the smallest amount of money you will need on arrival, and then change all additional sums at the bank ATM machines now found in every city. ATMs invariably give the best rates.

4. Unless you are certain you will need to use unattended gasoline filling stations or unattended rail-ticket kiosks in the course of your trip, don't succumb to the offer of a U.S.-issued chip-and-PIN credit card. Currently, the cost of such cards and the rates of exchange for the foreign currencies loaded into them are grossly unfavorable. You generally can rely on your own U.S.-based magnetic-stripe card, unless you know in advance that you will at some point need to use an unattended kiosk.

5. Using one of the budget airlines — Easyjet or others — for your intra-European trips almost always will save a great deal of money, unless you are carrying large and heavy suitcases whose weight will incur catastrophic extra charges. If you are traveling light, then even the charge for your checked luggage will fail to wipe out the savings these airlines provide.

6. Turn off data roaming on your cellphone while traveling in Europe. Charges can otherwise be disastrous.

7. Sharing dishes at a European restaurant is an important means of saving money. Portions usually are huge, too much for comfortable dining, and you'll not only cut costs, but you'll emerge from your meals feeling vigorous and at ease.

8. Independent sightseeing almost always is to be preferred to the escorted variety. By not taking guided tours on hop-on, hop-off buses, you'll feel like a discoverer when you chance upon an important location. Approaching cities on your own and forming your own impressions always is more satisfying than simply hearing the canned commentary of a local guide.

9. Reading about the destination in advance makes an enormous difference, enabling you to understand what you are seeing, avoiding the prejudiced and incorrect explanations that so many local residents spout.

10. Finally, prepare a written checklist of the contents of your suitcase, and adhere to it. If you do, you'll end up taking half the clothes you otherwise would bring unnecessarily, and your trip will be tremendously improved by the ease of carrying a tiny suitcase.

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