Europe Without Breaking The Bank?
May 23, 2009 7:29 AM   Subscribe

Help me plan a trip to Western Europe (Paris, London, and Rome) on the cheap. More details inside.

So I'm planning a trip to Paris, London, and Rome in the future (either this winter or next summer) and am completely lost as to how I should prepare. I've checked previous AskMeFi threads, but they're either really old or don't deal with the cities I want to visit. Plus I live in India and many sites are too US-centric to be of much use.

So, my questions:

1. I'd like to spend roughly 20 days in Europe (5 in each major city, plus day trips to Normandy, Brussels, Venice and a couple of others.) Is this doable on a budget of EUR 50-70 a day? I'm amenable to living in hostels and will be a student at the time, so I can probably swing some discounts with an ISIC card.

2. I have two potential windows of travel: 20 May- 10 June and 15 December- 5 January. Which would be better? I'm fluent in French and plan to become at least passable in Italian before I go, so non-English language tours aren't an issue. I don't much like cold and rain, though, or crowds.

3. Are there any sites I shouldn't miss, no matter what? Conversely, any really overrated tourist traps? I'm a museum and history geek, and don't really care for clubbing or any kind of nightlife short of sitting around and chatting or curling up with a good book.

4. Finally, any other advice for a first-time single female traveler? I'm also vegetarian (ovo-lacto) so any info y'all might have on that count would be great.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Tamanna to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
OK,Tamanna aka Tammy (good god):

1. Paris/London are expensive, including hostels. You'll be spending roughly 60EU at least every day, and that's a somewhat conservative estimate.

2. I'd prefer 20 May - 10 June over 15 Dec - Jan. The former period has great weather and hence it's peak tourist season, and maybe also more expensive than usual. Crowds are unavoidable at both times -- tourists in summer and Christmas shoppers in winter.

3. I'd say the Eiffel Tower is abit overrated.

4. Food in Paris is expensive. But you should have no problem finding vegetarian food in any of those cities. At worst you can go to the local grocery store and make something for yourself in the hostel kitchen.
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 7:49 AM on May 23, 2009

1.If you stay in hostels and make it a point to eat cheap, 50-70 Euros a day should be manageable, especially if you use a Eurail pass to get around and make it a point to eat cheap. Stay well away from the touristy areas for food. Better eateries aren't far off and they're much cheaper.

2. Your May-June dates will certainly be more scenic, but that's high tourist season. If you travel in December-January, it will be cold but deserted. I've been to Europe in both seasons and found that winter is great if most of the stuff you want to do and see is indoors. Off-season will also be cheaper, and you won't have a difficult time booking hostels and such.

3. It's all what you like. Europe is full of religious (mostly Christian) tourist sites, but they contain some of the most stunning architecture you'll see anywhere. In each city, be sure to go to the main church or cathedral as the most notable denizens are usually buried there. This is especially true at Westminster Abbey, where non-political figures are buried as well. If you like archaeology, see the British Museum. In Paris, there's all the obvious stuff, but one of the more unique places I visited was the catacombs. It's full of human bones. Rome is great- make sure to see all the standard stuff, especially the Vatican. Rome is particularly walkable, so spend some time wandering. Normandy is neat, and if you're limited on time, you can do the whole thing in a day from Paris if you want. Just make sure to leave early in the morning and you'll get to see Bayeux/Caen plus Omaha Beach. I'm sure someone is bound to disagree with me on this, but I'd skip Brussels. I've been there twice, and neither time have I been particularly captivated by it. There's so many more interesting places (Amsterdam, Florence, Venice, Munich, etc) to spend a couple of days, and you're already cramming 3 major world cities with thousands of years of history into 20 days. Personally, I could spend a week or two in London and not get to do everything I wanted.

4. I am neither female nor vegetarian, so I don't have any experience here.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 7:50 AM on May 23, 2009

Take a jar of peanut butter with you. You can get bread and fresh jelly everywhere in Europe. With one jar of peanut butter, you will have plenty of cheap meals to eat in a park.
posted by Flood at 8:04 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Perhaps you've already seen them, but HostelWorld and HostelBookers are both great for finding cheap accommodation around Europe. There's a lot of overlap between the two sites, but it's worth checking both because there are a few gems that only appear on one. I've used both of these sites in the past with no problems. Once you've found a good hostel, check to see if it has its own website; sometimes it's slightly cheaper to book directly.

Fluently speaking French and English will make life easy for you pretty much anywhere west of, say, Italy. They're both very widely spoken in western Europe, especially in big cities. Passable Italian will also make life easy for you if you pop across the border from France to Spain, as several Spanish people I know have said that Italian and Spanish are similar enough to have useful, if very basic, conversations.

If you have a chance, I'd recommend hopping on a train to a more Eastern European country for a day or two. Prague is beautiful if rather touristy, Dubrovnik is fantastic, Budapest seemed to have fewer tourists, and I;ve been told that Riga and Talin are both wonderful. They're slightly more akward for English speakers to get around in, but they have a very noticably different style and atmosphere from the more western countries that you mention.

My advice for London:
Almost all transport in London (tube, rail, buses, some river services) are significantly cheaper if you pay for them with an Oyster Card. Buy one at any tube station for a £3 deposit, then either choose to "top up" by paying to have credit put on it or buy a week's travel pass for unlimited travel within the (concentric) zones you pay for. If you choose to "top up" your card with cash, each journey you make will cost money until the total cost for that day reaches the price of a one day travel card; after that all additional travel is free. When you leave London, you can return the card to any tube station to get your £3 deposit back along with any unused credit.

Information on the Oyster card everything you need to know about getting around in the city is here.

---Don't go to Oxford Street / Oxford Circus or Regent Street. It's hellishly crowded and, really, just another big street lined with chain stores. For the life of me, I've never been able to understand why anyone, especially tourists, goes there.
---Covent Garden is quite nice, although often busy. I like the market and the Royal Opera House is worth a look if you can get inside. Walk there, don't take the tube - it's popular enough that the Tube is packed in high season, and the surrounding area is actually quite nice. Head south from there toward Seven Dials for some much nicer little alleyways with interesting shops.
---When you go to Westminster, don't just take a photo of the Parliament buildings then leave; there are some fantastic buildings in that area, as well as the Churchill War Rooms (a museum set in the command centre from which Churchill et al. commanded Britain's involvement in WW2) that too many people overlook.
---My favourite (free!) view of the parliament buildings is from the West/South footpath on Hungerford bridge, that runs between Embankment and Waterloo stations. From there you can see the London Eye, Parliament and several other beautiful and important buildings.
---Don't bother with the London Eye... I think. Several of my friends like it, but it's quite expensive for what it is. If you want to look at the city from above, head to Monument (Monument/Bank tube station). It's a big stone column that, for a few pounds, you can climb up inside and get a view across central London. Not as tall as the Eye, but about a fifth of the price and poorly advertised so there's rarely much of a queue.
---Only go to the Tower of London if you really want to see the Crown Jewels. They're very impressive, but it's expensive and there's not a great deal more to see in there unless you've never been inside a stone-built castle before.

--London's Museums are free to enter, and you could cheerfully spend a couple of weeks exporing them. The Science Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum ("V&A") and Natural History Museum are huge and fascinating, and all virtually next door to each other if you want to skip quickly between them.
--Don't neglect London's smaller museums. Just opposite Euston rail/tube station is the Wellcome Gallery, which has various biological and medical curios ancient and modern. Well worth dropping into for half an hour. I also like the museum in the clockmakers' guild. They have some beautiful clocks and, more importantly, tell the story of the "Worshipful Guilds and Companies", private societies which shaped so much of London's history and still wield a surprising amount of power.
--I think the Museum of London (near Barbican tube) is fascinating with some great stuff about the history of the city, although some of my friends think it's a bit too dry.

Consider going to Foyles on Charing Cross Road. It's a huge independent bookshop with a combined coffee shop and jazz music shop on one of the floors, much nicer to drop in to than a Starbucks or similar. If you prefer, another big bookshop called Waterstones on Piccadilly Circus has a cocktail bar on its top floor with, I'm told, good views across the city.

If you have a few days in London, I suggest you spend at least a few hours in Greenwich. It's pretty a town on the outskirts (approx 15 minutes by train from London Bridge) with two or three lively and interesting markets, the Royal Observatory (good displays of historic clocks, a planetarium) and the National Maritime Museum. The NMM is in a very impressive building - go toward the river (ask for where the "Cutty Sark" used to be) and you'll find a small round redbrick building that's actually an entrance to a foot tunnel. Take the lift or stairs down, walk a few minutes to cross underneath the river and come up the other side for a fantastic view of the former headquarters of the British Navy.

Finally, consider taking a walking tour of London. I'd suggest this company; I've never used them myself but they're very popular and I've only ever heard good things about them.
posted by metaBugs at 9:34 AM on May 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

I've checked previous AskMeFi threads, but they're either really old or don't deal with the cities I want to visit.

I sincerely doubt that - have you checked the tags for each?

- London
- Paris
- Rome

Variations on the 'what should I do/how do I stay cheaply' etc threads come up for those three cities constantly - have a dig around and you will find stacks of recent threads.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:52 AM on May 23, 2009

Oops, borked the Rome Link. Here it is - Rome.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:55 AM on May 23, 2009

Response by poster: @Happy Dave: Oops, I didn't think to check the respective city tags, just Europe and budget travel in general. Merci beaucoup!
posted by Tamanna at 10:26 AM on May 23, 2009

I think it's doable. If you dislike cold and rain forget about winter, Paris and London tend to be hideous.

I don't know Rome. As for Paris and London, I'd personally, take no tours, it will save you money, and don't litter your experience of the city with the buzz of 30 irritating tourists around you. Walking is cheap and extremely rewarding in those cities. Pick an area from your favourites in some city guide and just wander around. In London, basically any area around the center, but out of it, that is, draw a circle taking euston to embankment, and from oxford circus to holborn, and don't enter. Mostly anything around it will show you different characters of the town, try as many as you can and linger in your favourite ones. Shoreditch, Notting Hill, Various Parks.. for me Hampstead or Highgate are really nice to see this time of the year, and not very touristy, any of the ones mentioned above. Camden is disgusting, if you must go to markets try Spitalfields or Notting Hill. In Paris its worth getting lost in St. Germain, Marais, Ille de Saint Louis, Montmartre.. almost anywhere central really. You'll find plenty of places you like in the street, just follow your whims. I'd say Paris is more expensive to eat and drink, if you want to save, just buy food in supermarkets make yourself a sandwich and eat in the river, or parks.

If you like the historic thing, do get into the Louvre, British Museum, National Gallery, etc. The cemeteries in both cities are fantastic, specially Highgate in London and Pere Lachaise in Paris. Don't miss the Catacombs.
posted by varoa at 10:43 AM on May 23, 2009

When you say ovo-lacto vegetarian, I assume you eat eggs (I know, I know, that is what it means, but just checking). If you do, you'll be fine in London. Just about everywhere has vegetarian options on the menu. Although I have seen a small, upward trend in labelling fish dishes as vegetarian (Leon's - I'm looking at you).

If you are really strict, watch out for cheese. I suspect a lot of places don't bother checking if the cheese is vegetarian.

If you don't eat eggs, take care, as most places won't have thought about that. You'll have to ask the servers.

I haven't been to Paris for a long time, although I have been to other places in France. You will struggle to find vegetarian options in rural areas. They just don't get it. What you do about this depends on how strict you are. Sometimes they'll be happy to run up an omelet for you (again, cheese!), sometimes they give you a strange look, shrug and you end up picking vegetables out of the gravy. I've always stayed in places where I can cook my own food, so usually, we'll go out for lunch and cook our own evening meal, vegetarian ingredients are not hard to come by.

So, if you are strict, then you may sometimes struggle to find things to eat in restaurants. I'm always a bit flexible about my vegetarianism when I'm abroad, so I don't mind picking round the animal products. I know other people vary.

That said, I've eaten in a fantastic vegetarian restaurant in the centre of a small town in the middle of nowhere France, so it's not always bad.

Paris, and the larger towns, I'm sure, will be easier to find places to eat and people who understand what you can and can't eat.

I've never been to Italy, but I suspect it's more at the French end of the spectrum than the British.
posted by Helga-woo at 12:04 PM on May 23, 2009

Oh, Brussels, do you have a reason to go there? Because it has some great museums, a pretty town centre, and, well, a lot of bureaucrats. There are prettier and lovelier towns and cities in Belgium and France.

However, I don't know how easy it is to get to other places on a day trip from Paris. I suspect other people will be able to chime in with suggestions.
posted by Helga-woo at 12:10 PM on May 23, 2009

I'd personally, take no tours, it will save you money

I'm more enthusiastic about the hop-on, hop-off tours. While there are regular bus routes that can be treated as sightseeing tours (especially on the top deck of a double-decker) it's usually a relatively low expense that gives you a decent sense of the city layout (far better than the Tube or Métro, which leads you to think of cities as discrete areas around stations) and gives you the chance to pick out things you can chase up later. (I've talked about this, in relation to London, on some of the previous threads.)

For Paris, I'd normally recommend the museum pass. It often allows you to skip the lines and use the group entrance, which means that you can see more, which in turn pays back the cost. However, your ISIC card may mean that it's cheaper to pick and choose a few sites of interest, especially if you can go at the times when they offer discounted entrance.

City Secrets has London and Rome volumes. They're worth the money.
posted by holgate at 12:54 PM on May 23, 2009

Wikitravel and Time Out are useful websites that may help you plan for your trip. I also like Londonist.


You should not have any trouble as an ovo-lacto-vegetarian. It may limit your choices but you will always find something you can eat on any menus. Seconding the advice above about the Oyster cards; also, buy a Tube map and carry it around with you, it will make your life much easier as stations are often too crowded for you to plan out your routes using the big maps on the walls there. London museums are excellent; the British Museum in particular is AMAZING and worth two/three visits because there's so much stuff there. Have fun!
posted by Ziggy500 at 1:31 PM on May 23, 2009

I've stayed at Hostelling International all over Europe and the US, and have never been disappointed.

Simple, healthy picnics from the grocery store are totally the way to go.
posted by aquafortis at 3:09 PM on May 23, 2009

Don't miss San Gimignano, in Tuscany. You won't regret it!
posted by ninotchka at 7:25 AM on May 24, 2009

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