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Reader secrets to affordable Europe

Last month, we asked you to send in your favorite affordable finds in Europe and received a flood of great ideas. The submissions were as varied as Europe itself, but from Italy’s Cilento Coast to Krakow’s medieval city squares, our favorite stories featured unforgettable locales, ways to save money without sacrificing the experience, and the sort of travel savvy that can turn a good vacation into an inspired one.

A local vacation spot in Italy

Bonnie Krasik of Michigan reports that the best way to soak in the good life for less is to find out where the locals spend their vacations:

“Whatever country you’re in, the locals are usually too smart to buy into the internationally-known, high-priced hot spots such as Capri or Provence. You’ll get a better bang for your buck if you find out where countrymen take their vacations. Just be sure to go at a different time of year!

“For example, in Italy several years ago, a friend rented a villa just south of the Amalfi Coast, along the lesser-known Cilento Coast of the Mediterranean. There we found lovely low-priced fishing villages such as Maria Di Castellabate, and Acciaroli, where Hemingway once visited. Prices were much lower, we were the only Americans there, and we could easily drive up the coast to see the hilltop towns such as Positano without paying the sky-high prices. Since Italians vacation in August, we went in June and skipped the crowds.”

A one-through-five star hotel in Amsterdam

Alison Gardner of Victoria, British Columbia, wrote in about an Amsterdam hotel that caters to all types of travelers with its variety of rooms, which range from basic to luxurious:

“While visiting Amsterdam recently, I discovered an intriguing accommodation, the Lloyd Hotel, awash with cultural, historical, and architectural qualities. What caught my attention was the fact that it boasted rooms from one- to five-stars, so I asked to spend a night in each of these extremes.

“In this cavernous, six-story, 116-room waterfront beauty that has served as a North American emigration center and youth prison over more than 100 years, there are no two rooms alike in architecture, furnishings, or size. The adjectives quirky and eccentric come to mind, and no expense is spared. My one-star room with a shared bathroom three times the size of my bedroom proved to be my favorite, even more than the enormous five-star room with attic skylights and a soaker tub in the middle.

“Price is linked exclusively to surface area, and ranges from €80 to €300 (about $100 to $400; see for current exchange rates), which includes a varied and healthy buffet breakfast. The Lloyd equally attracts leisure and business travelers from around the world, as well as art and culture specialists who often perform there in public spaces.”

Memorable music in Krakow

Cori Peterson’s submission won us over with its blend of local color and money-saving tips for Krakow, Poland:

“Over the bellowings of an accordion quartet and the jarring cobblestone clip-clop of successive horse-drawn carriages, a lone trumpet note floats high above Rynek Glowny, Poland’s largest medieval square. From that one note, the trumpet’s melody builds, its rich timbre swelling in the nearby bell tower, filling the Renaissance merchants’ arcade, echoing around the cafe tables edging the square’s perimeter. Midway through the song, the trumpet’s clear, piercing tones crescendo–and then they abruptly stop mid-phrase, a slight quaver sounding their demise. A pause, an exhalation, and life resumes again, with another hour past.

“The song? An ancient bugle warning to the residents of medieval Krakow. The ending? A commemoration of the bugler’s death, caught mid-song by an arrow through the throat. When to hear it? Every hour in the historic center of Krakow.

“And where to stay to enjoy Poland’s most picturesque square and its hourly musical spectacle? Right off the square, of course. While most lodging in this area can cost up to $300 a night, and certainly no less than $150 for a standard double, the GardenHouse Hostel represents a better value. $50 will secure you an immaculate, newly-refurbished private room in a 15th-century building less than 20 yards away from the center of Krakow. Add in a complimentary continental breakfast and use of the Internet, and you’ve found one of the top lodging deals in Poland. Best yet, the wake-up call is free.”

An Italian Lake District hideaway

Dr. Lynn Burton of Vancouver sent in a tip about a villa that comes with lake views and mosaic art courses in Northern Italy:

“We have a secret. Nestled on a hillside overlooking beautiful Lake Garda is a private villa owned by renowned artist Christina Ayer and her handsome Italian husband Gabrielle Bigoloni.

“On the ground level overlooking the hot tub, kidney shaped pool, and glorious vistas of the Italian lake where Europeans vacation, is a fully furnished self-contained apartment with kitchen, ensuite bathroom, dining area, and fireplace.

“Following a twisty path of cobblestone lanes, it is a five-minute walk to the Centro del Mosaico (Mosaic Center), the studio and shop of Xinamarie Mosaics. The villa is also just a 15-minute walk to the beach and the lakeside cafes of Salò, a boat ride to all of the other wonderful medieval towns like Sirmione on the lake, and a drive of half an hour to Verona and an hour and a half to Venice.

“This magnificent find is part of the package deal when taking Open Studio Mosaic courses with Christina starting at €300 per week based on double occupancy. Christina and Gabrielle are wonderful hosts who speak Italian, English, and French. She is also a terrific mosaic artist and teacher. Christina has been featured on HGTV and exhibits her amazing work at shows around the world.”

Taking to the hills in Umbria

While in Italy’s less-touristed Umbria region, Judy Leaver and six friends discovered the best way to immerse themselves in the countryside was to walk through it:

“Six women friends and I took a weeklong hiking vacation in Umbria in the spring of 2005. We used a British travel company that made reservations for sleeping accommodations including huge breakfasts; moved the luggage from inn to inn; supplied maps and narrative descriptions of the hikes; and provided a route manager in case we needed help, restaurant suggestions, or updates on the condition of the hiking trail. Combine their expertise with seven women’s sense of adventure and you’ve got a memory-maker on your hands.

“Our hike in Umbria was packed with stunning vistas, fabulous meals and wine, challenging hikes, laugh-til-your-sides-ache experiences, and opportunities to deepen our friendships. After flying to Rome, we caught a local train to Todi, where the hike began. We swayed along as the train clattered through the countryside, windows open, dust swirling, curtains dancing. A bunch of noisy school kids hopped on, enroute home after classes. We were soon seduced by the green rolling hills, just-blooming grape vineyards, silvery olive groves, and wide open valley vistas that took our breath away.

“Close to 35 miles of hiking trails took us to Giano dell’Umbria, Montefalco, Bevagna, Spello, and to our final destination: Assisi. Along the way, we were mesmerized by a quality of light that can’t be found anywhere else on earth and the lyrical Italian language, and even transported back to the Renaissance with a colorful street festival in Assisi. The cost? Under $2,000. The memories? Priceless.”

Tried and true tips for getting to, from, and around Madrid

Smarter Traveler Catherine wrote in with tips on finding the sweet spot between savings and sanity for transportation in Spain:

“In Madrid, use AeroCity transport shuttles (more information about the service is available on Go Madrid) from the airport. You can make a reservation online before you go, or just call them when you arrive. I’ve never had to wait more than a few minutes (I have waited an hour for ‘free’ hotel shuttles), and the price is the same for one traveler or a family—about €20 with tip into the center of Madrid. Sure beats a €50 taxi ride and the chance of taxi drivers who choose the long way to a destination.

“Don’t try to save money by using the Metro from the airport into Madrid if you’ve got more than one bag. There are lots of steps to walk down and up, plus you’ll be more vulnerable to pickpockets. Metros are fantastic if you’ve only got one small bag, but try hauling two bags alone up several flights of steps like I did during my first visit— it was the first and last time!

“Also, travel by Renfe’s high-speed AVE train from Madrid to Seville! No airports! And, it’s less expensive and faster.”

And we couldn’t resist including Catherine’s brilliant strategy for finding good shopping:

“In any large city, ask the female employees at the hotel where they shop. Or, compliment a well-dressed local woman and ask–they are happy to offer suggestions.”

Best value family vacation

Mark Brandstein and his family made the most of their travel dollars by combining a Europe cruise with a few extra days of land exploration made more affordable by absurdly cheap airfare:

“In planning our summer trip to Europe, we decided on taking a cruise for our family of five, partially for the convenience of not having to drive or take the train to so many places and partially to lock in an all-inclusive fixed price for food, travel, accommodations, and access to sightseeing in dollars, freeing us from the poor exchange rate of the dollar to the euro.

“After the cruise, we are taking several days to sightsee in Rome, but had to figure out how to most cost effectively get there. Second-class train travel from Venice to Rome would have been about $400 for the five of us and taken some six hours of one of our days. The rental price for a car large enough to handle five people and all our luggage would have been about $350 for the one day trip too!

“Then we discovered a one-way fare of €0.99 (plus taxes) per person to get from Venice to Rome on Ryanair. Including taxes it added up to about $30 per person for the evening flight, which leaves us with a full day to see Venice rather than spending the day on a train or the autostrada (and getting lost). Not only was I surprised about the cost, but also that an Irish airline flew within Italy rather than back to Ireland and then to Rome.”

The bus as unsung bargain hero

With so much buzz surrounding low-fare carriers, it’s easy to forget that there are other cheap ways to get around Europe as well. Facing pricey last-minute travel, Stephen Puddle learned the bus was an affordable (and surprisingly convenient) alternative:

“Despite the perception that you can always fly cheaply within Europe, it isn’t always the case. European discount airlines do not always offer super-cheap fares for last-minute travel. In fact I found the reverse to be true last year when I discovered a last-minute flight from Madrid to the U.K. was going to cost me around €300!

“Train travel can also be pricey if you can’t get discounted rates. So, when I took my Spanish trip I’m glad I kept looking for cheaper ways of traveling within the country. After checking many websites and possibilities, I finally did a search for Spanish bus companies. Not only did I find a bus that traveled directly from Madrid Airport to my small coastal town in the east, I also saved over €100 compared to the train! (And the train didn’t even take me into the town I wanted to go to!)

“So when the pennies are few and the desire to travel is big, search out coach travel. Eurolines is a great place to start for inter-country travel in Europe, and there are also specific country-based bus companies worth checking out.”

Thanks to all our contributors for sharing their tips for affordable and memorable trips to Europe. We’re always on the lookout for great value travel tips from Smarter Travelers, so if you’ve got a good one, send it in and we just might use it for a future readers’ tips article.

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