By Liz Weston
Tourism rebounded this summer in Europe — and Europe wasn’t ready. Pandemic-related staff shortages led to massive lines and flight cancellations at many airports; meanwhile, prices for hotels and taxis soared.
Then there were the record-breaking temperatures that caused roads, airport runways and railroad tracks to buckle, leading to further disruptions.
Our family of three visited Europe this summer — our first trip there in three years — and had a great time despite the challenges. Still, climate change, growing crowds and lingering effects of the pandemic have altered the way we travel. If you’re planning a trip to Europe, consider the following tips to save money and have a better experience.
1. Explore alternative locations
Europe’s capital cities — Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Rome and so on — are hugely popular for good reasons. But often, you can get a better feel for a country’s culture in one of its smaller cities while enjoying lower prices.
For example, France’s third-largest city, Lyon, has a lovely old town, spectacular Roman ruins, world-class museums and amazing restaurants. Even in peak season, I found a three-star hotel room for less than $100 a night and never encountered any long, soul-killing queues for attractions that could make Paris a trial.
Similarly, we enjoyed Austria’s second-largest city, Graz, a beautiful, affordable alternative to Vienna, and pretty Delft, a canal city just an hour’s train ride away from Amsterdam.
Europe’s capitals are still well worth a visit, but adding some alternative destinations can save you money and stress.
2. Rethink summer travel
Spring and fall are typically cooler, cheaper and far less crowded. If summer travel is your only option, try to go as soon after Memorial Day as possible, as crowds (and prices) soar in July and August. Scott’s Cheap Flights, a deal site, recommends booking international travel two to eight months in advance for good deals.
3. Don’t assume — ask
Early in our marriage — not realizing that many old European buildings didn’t have elevators — we rented a top-floor apartment on Paris’ Ile Saint-Louis for a week. Our little garret had a great view, but confronting six flights of stairs after walking around Paris all day wasn’t fun.
These days, we also ensure there’s air conditioning, which still isn’t nearly as common in Europe as in the United States. Hotels and apartments with air conditioning usually mention that fact in their online listings, but if there’s any doubt about AC or elevators, ask before you book.
4. Treat Europe like a theme park
Hear me out: Disney /zigman2/quotes/203410047/composite DIS -0.01% tip sites such as Undercover Tourist and Mouse Hacking recommend arriving at “rope drop” — when the parks first open. Then you can retreat to your hotel in the afternoon, when crowds and temperatures peak, and return in the calmer, cooler evening hours.
Consider a similar approach while traveling in Europe in the summer: Get to the most popular attractions when they first open, escape from the heat in the afternoon and go out again when it’s more pleasant. If you’re booking an outdoor activity , schedule it for the morning or after sunset, if possible.
Find refuge from the afternoon heat in cinemas, old stone cathedrals and the many art museums that are air-conditioned to protect the paintings. Don’t stand in sweltering lines to buy tickets for anything without first checking to see if admission can be purchased online.
5. Prioritize flexibility
Before the pandemic, we often tried to save money by buying nonrefundable travel. These days, we’re happy to pay more for flexibility.
For example, we were scheduled to fly out of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport a few days after its luggage system malfunctioned, separating thousands of travelers from their bags and causing KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to ban checked baggage on flights within Europe briefly. Even after the luggage issue was fixed, passengers reported hourslong waits to check in and get through security because of staffing shortages.
Rather than endure the chaos, we decided to take the train to Austria instead. We didn’t get all of our money back — Austrian Airlines charged a fee of roughly $70 for each ticket, or about one-third of what we originally paid — but the refund offset part of the last-minute train fare.
We could have paid a lot more for completely refundable airfares, but this “refundable with a fee” option hit the sweet spot of affordability and flexibility.
We also avoided renting apartments or Airbnbs /zigman2/quotes/222990650/composite ABNB +1.08% with onerous cancellation policies . Hotels typically have much more flexible policies and staff to help make travel easier. A front desk clerk in Lyon, for instance, recommended a wonderful restaurant that served traditional Lyonnaise cuisine and arranged my taxi to the train station after three Uber /zigman2/quotes/211348248/composite UBER -1.01% drivers in a row canceled.
6. Get travel insurance
We also had — but fortunately didn’t need — travel interruption and delay coverage through the credit cards we used. In addition, we had a travel insurance policy that would have paid for hotels, meals and rebooked flights if any of us had to quarantine. The policy added about $100 a week to our travel costs, which seemed like a small price to pay for peace of mind.
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Liz Weston, CFP® writes for NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @lizweston.