European Vacation – Gotchas to avoid and frugal options

We did a 9-day trip to Europe in the Summer of 2008 covering England, Scotland, and Ireland and below are our list of gotchas to avoid for frugal travelers:
  1. Exchanging money at the airport: It is tempting to use the Travelex counters prevalent at various airports for converting US dollars into Euros or Pounds as the destination demands. While there is no denying the convenience, the fees and the difference between the buy and sell rates makes this prohibitively expensive. To exemplify, around our travel time, the official exchange rate for Euros was hovering around 1.5 while pounds was around 2.0. With Travelex, we got roughly £40 for $100 and converting to Euros while in Ireland got us €44 for that £40. Finally converting back to dollars at the end of our trip, we ended up with roughly $45 thereby reducing our money to less than half in that round-trip conversion. A better alternative is the ATM. We used the Bank Of America Visa debit card at ATM’s and the average fees added up to around $7 per withdrawal. By managing wisely the frequency of withdrawals, the fees as a percentage of total withdrawals can be contained within reasonable levels. The best option by far, is to do the currency conversion from your local bank before embarking on the trip. This obviously requires planning a budget and sticking to it. If using a money exchange service is a necessity, American Express counters have much better rates overall compared to Travelex, although Travelex counters are much more established at the airports we were in. Minimizing money exchanges by using credit cards for your expenses is another great choice. 
  2. Opting for GPS at car-hire places in Europe: There are several downsides to using this option –
    • The maps are invariably outdated as rental companies do not renew them rendering them as old as the GPS itself,
    • They are expensive – we availed of the GPS while in Dublin at the cost of €25 for the two days. At that rate, buying a GPS with European maps before leaving the US would have paid for itself in less a week. Good choices in this regard at the moment are the Garmin nüvi 270 3.5-Inch Portable GPS Navigator (less than $150 at most retailers) and the TomTom GO 930T 4.3-Inch Widescreen Bluetooth Portable GPS Navigator with Traffic Receiver
      (around $250 at most retailers).
  3. Opting to use the train instead of flying between European cities: Ryan Air has revolutionized flying within Europe and has made it extremely affordable assuming one steers clear of frills which can cost an arm and a leg. For e.g., we used Ryan Air to fly from London Stanstead airport to Glasgow Prestwick (to visit Edinburgh), then to Dublin, Ireland, and back to London Stanstead. The entire trip at peak July airfares for the two of us weighed in just over $170. Ryan air charges fees for most conveniences including a convenience fee for purchasing your ticket using a credit/debit card. Even so, the savings compared to the alternatives is tremendous. To illustrate, if we had instead chosen to get to Dublin from London using the heavily touted “cheap” alternative of train+ferry, it is £27 one-way per person. The downsides are two-fold:
    • It adds up to roughly $215 round-trip for the two of us which is well above what Ryan Air ended up costing us including the trip to Edinburgh. For Edinburgh, the cheapest fare was £39 round-trip for GNER’s (Great North Eastern Railway) standard-class (no flexibility) off-peak tickets, and
    • The train+ferry trip uses up the better part of a day and so you essentially lose two days on the round-trip.
  4. Driving: In the English archipelago, they drive on the right side of the road and correspondingly the steering wheel is located on what is the passenger-side for an American. While this arrangement enables the driver to get the “feeling” right, the minute you take the steering wheel, it is a couple of other gotchas that make it imperative that you take the first-hour of driving easy and preferably with someone who is experienced driving there:
    • Roundabouts: This is Europe’s alternative to traffic signals at junctions as in the US. Instead of having signals, they get by with a circular road called the roundabout in the middle of the junction and the right-of-way rules in place mandates who gets to use it first and dictates the turns of the others. In the UK, as you approach the roundabout, one signals their intention of how they plan to use the roundabout by using turn signals - Left-turn signal indicates you are planning to take the first “exit” out of the round-about. No signal at all indicates you plan to take the 2nd exit and the right turn signal indicates your intention is the third one or a later one. As you approach the exit while in the roundabout, the left turn signal is still clue to fellow travelers of your exit indication. These basic rules, intuitive after the first few times, can be very confusing for a first-time visitor,
    • Narrow Roads: Roads that can barely fit two cars are the norm in the UK and this can cause undue grief for US drivers who may have forgotten the benefits of steering as much to the driver’s side as possible to avoid side-swiping on the passenger side.
  5. Rental Cars: The rates quoted through the Internet are seemingly low, but several factors can add significantly to this base cost:
    • Insurance: On the upside, liability coverage is mandatory and so is included in the base rate. But, your American auto-insurance coverage is useless outside the US. Credit card CDW coverage is spotty in many countries. For example, Ireland (Dublin) is one of the countries in the exclusion list (Master Card Gold or Platinum card may offer this coverage in Ireland – please check with the card company) and so you need this coverage from the rental car company while driving in Ireland. Further, the base CDW has a deductible of €500- €2000 and so excess waiver coverage that takes out the deductible will also be necessary,
    • Airport Surcharges: This is upwards of €25 and applies if you rent the car from the airport. A better alternative might be to rent from a location nearer to your hotel as opposed to the airport,
    • No coverage is available for Tires as rental companies recognize that the passenger front and rear tires take a lot of abuse from American drivers as they adjust to smaller driving lanes, 
    • Automatic cars are generally a lot more expensive to rent than stick shift cars. This again is a ploy by the car companies as they recognize that many Americans are not used to driving a manual and will be forced to use the automatic option even though it is much more expensive.
    • All said, our two-day car hire from Budget at Dublin airport for a mid-size (Toyota Yaris is surprisingly a mid-size car in Dublin) stick shift including GPS and insurance coverage added up to a whopping $220 for two days. With careful planning, it probably could have been much easier on our pockets.
  6. Restaurants: Restaurants in general are much more expensive than the US. For e.g., a relatively simple meal (no drinks, no appetizers) at a local Thai restaurant in the Celbridge neighborhood in Dublin cost more than $100 for four of us – a comparable meal in the US would be well below $50. The alternatives are pubs and fast-food places but then healthy options take a back seat. For healthy eating, the best choice is to purchase food from 24-hour grocery shops. Another oddity is the option of taking away, which buys an almost 10% discount in the bill – it applies if you purchase the food at the counter and choose to take it with you as opposed to sitting inside – Sitting in the patios outside is fine…
  7. Tipping: Tipping is far less customary than in the US. Restaurants sometimes add a surcharge in the 5-10% range and if not, you might do it on your own – giving the change directly to the server as opposed to charging the tip to the credit card. Rounding off is all that is expected for taxis and tipping hotel staff is also nominal – one euro per night/bag for the cleaning staff/porter. Carrying around coins is fairly mandatory as public restrooms are rarely free – 30 Euro-cents is the average.
  8. Opting for car/cab in the city centers as opposed to using public transportation and/or walking: Most of the cities have very good public transportation compared to US cities and many of them are pedestrian friendly. Unless speed is of the essence using a cab usually is a waste of money.

Related Posts:

1. European Vacation – Gotchas to avoid and frugal options for cost conscious American Visitors.
2. Best sites of London & Cambridge - Trip Report.
3. Best sites of Edinburgh - Trip Report.
4. Best sites of Ireland - Trip Report.

Last Updated: 12/2012.


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