The warm Spanish sun splashes onto our balcony as my husband, Peter, and I sit down to a breakfast of crusty bread, viejo cheese, soft-boiled eggs, slices of tomato and onion, and olive oil. Our sunny balcony overlooks a wide canal leading to the Mediterranean, and sleek sailboats and shiny yachts glide by as we sip coffee and talk about what we’ll do today. Visit a small fishing village known for its labyrinth streets or head to Salvador Dali’s birthplace, where a museum showcases his theatrical art?
Taking a vacation like this may sound out of reach, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve taken numerous trips to Europe over the years with my husband and kids—one of the perks of marrying a Dutchman—and we’ve learned how to do it affordably. Europe doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, now with the strong dollar and low fuel prices, bargains await. Here are a few tips for making that trip to Europe you’ve always dreamed of.
1. Choose an affordable destination. It’s tempting to go to Europe and try to see everything at once. Trust me, I’ve been there and done that. Instead, pick one place and just let that be your Europe experience. You can always return for another visit once you find out how easy and affordable going to the Old Country can be. Our favorite budget destination? Spain, hands down. If you choose to stay near the French or Portuguese borders, you can experience two countries without blowing your budget.
2. Visit in the shoulder season. Peter and I love traveling in May and September. The weather is usually perfect, and flights are more affordable. Keep an eye on fares, and you’ll occasionally find amazing deals. For example, airfares from Norfolk to Barcelona or Madrid can get as low as $700-800 roundtrip. I spent the same amount 30 years ago to fly to Europe!
3. Rent a car and design your own itinerary. Driving in Europe takes a little getting used to, but once you’re comfortable with the signs and situations, it’s a breeze. We love the roundabouts, for example. No need to stop for a red light when cars can flow into a circle, entering and exiting with ease. Car rental rates in Spain are very affordable. We paid $150 per week for a roomy five-door Peugeot.
4. Check out self-catering rental companies like Pierre et Vacances, a French company that manages 200+ residences. Most of their properties are in France, but they also manage lodgings elsewhere in Europe. Peter and I found an amazing one-BR apartment in Spain’s Costa Brava region about 90 min. north of Barcelona for around 500 euro ($550) per week. Besides a well-equipped kitchen and sunny balcony overlooking the marina, the resort has a pool, and there’s a wide sandy beach nearby. The town of Empuriabrava is filled with shops and restaurants and you can explore tons of cool places nearby. Plus the French border is just a half hour north, perfect for a day trip!
5. Keep costs down by preparing your own meals. Every morning Peter goes to the bakery for a fresh baguette. We shop in the local market for tasty produce and get staples at the supermarket just up the street. Food is inexpensive in Spain, and it’s often locally grown. Last night we made pasta with artichokes, olives, onions, garlic, and tomatoes plus lots of EVOO, of course. Tonight we dined on half a roasted chicken we bought at the market plus baked potatoes and sautéed zucchini—super easy to prepare and healthy, too.
6. Plan your outings carefully. You can balance attractions that require an admission fee with free or nearly free activities. For example, going to the beach, strolling through the outdoor market, and hiking in the local park cost little more than a parking fee—if that. Then you have money leftover to splurge on special activities. For example, in Empuriabrava, you can rent a boat for 40 euro an hour (about $45) and cruise through the canals. Or drive to Figueres, just 20 kilometers (12 miles) up the road and visit Salvador Dali’s jaw-dropping museum (14 euros). Afterwards sit on a terrace and enjoy a glass of wine or pastis (anise-flavored liqueur) with water. You’ll be surprised how little it costs when the bill arrives. And in my humble opinion, sitting on a sunny terrace and watching the world go by is one of my favorite pastimes when I’m abroad.
7. Shop efficiently. Of course, everyone wants to bring home souvenirs or local products that remind you of your special trip. Peter and I have learned to buy useful items like olive wood salad spoons to use in the kitchen or ceramic knobs to dress up an old bureau. Even if you splurge on a new handbag or piece of jewelry, keep in mind how much you are saving on your budget trip to Europe.
8. Schedule a special night out. Remember to include at least one special meal. Do some research and find a restaurant that offers local specialties that reflect the culture and heritage of the place you visit. In Spain, dining on paella is a must-do. Don’t forget to pair your meal with one of Spain’s exceptional wines. Ask the server for his recommendation, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how affordable quality wine is in Spain.
9. Take lots of photos. Capturing memories in photos is practically free these days. Make sure you take pictures of small details—the gorgeous red geraniums on a windowsill—as well as lofty cathedrals and lovely landscapes. When you get back home, create a memory book of photos with an online photography service.
10. Write down what you see and feel. Back in the day, people sent postcards to connect with friends and family when they were abroad. Try sending a few and you’ll be surprised at how much this old-school gesture will mean to your friends back home. Keep a journal while you’re traveling. It’s the best way to remember your perceptions and memories of your trip. Traveling is about being in the moment, and there’s nothing to bring you into the present more than sipping a lovely Cava—Spanish bubbly—on a cozy terrace overlooking the Med as you write your thoughts and feelings in a journal.
11. Don’t be afraid to connect with locals. Peter and I always seek out the local markets when we arrive anywhere in Europe. Besides the obvious benefit of enjoying fresh produce from the region you are visiting, you can also chat with the farmers and learn about everything from preparing local dishes to off-the-beaten-path restaurants. That’s how Peter and I found out about one of our favorite Spanish restaurants. It was located way up on the side of a mountain, and we would never have discovered it without a friendly local pointing the way.
12. Be open to serendipity. Make sure you leave room in your itinerary to accommodate new discoveries. Peter and I were exploring the port of a small Spanish town and noticed a wholesale fish market was taking place in one of the warehouses. Inside we watched conveyor belts carrying containers full of glistening fresh fish as local chefs and shop owners chose their catch. Luckily, outside we found a retail counter where we bought some lovely little sardines to take home and cook for dinner. Delicious!
Pierre & Vacances is the largest provider of self-catering apartments in France. Accommodation ranges from car-free holiday resorts on the Cote D’Azur, to beach apartments on the Costa del Sol, to city apartments in Paris and to luxury ski apartments in the French Alps. Selected accommodations are also available in Spain, Italy, Croatia, and the French Caribbean. For more information, visit www.pierreetvacances.com/gb-en.
Find out more about Spain here: www.spain.info/en_US/
For more of Peggy’s travel adventures, visit www.tidewaterwomen.com/travel