DUBLIN, Ireland - Europe. For two. Five days, four nights. Total cost: as little as possible.
Now that's my sort of challenge. As a Europhile and veteran of far too many Atlantic hops - many of them as a student, and therefore on the cheap - I've accumulated a roster of tips and tricks for finding and making the most of bargain fares.
Time to put them to the test. Armed with a stack of travel magazines, a laptop and a yearning for another jaunt, I challenged myself to see just how cheaply I could get two people to Europe. I set an optimistic total budget of $1,200.
After hunting for bargain fares and plugging into a new trend called couch-surfing, I ended up in Dublin sleeping in someone's spare room, hanging out in local eateries and at a lively neighborhood pub called Kavanagh's. Most importantly, I stuck to my budget. Here's how I did it.
First, the rules.
- No frequent flyer miles. For the challenge to be meaningful, anyone should be able to replicate it.
- The trip should be during or as close to high season as possible. Anybody can find cheap flights to Europe in February.
- Not expensive doesn't mean not fun. Sleeping in an airport and fasting are cheap, but don't make for great vacations.
I began the challenge in June. Wishful thinking. Peak season in Europe typically stretches from June through September. No matter how many airlines, discounters and Web sites I tried, I rarely found rates below $800.
Time for a new strategy. When my wife and I travel, we usually go in early fall. The weather generally still is good, the crowds are dissipating, and flight and accommodation prices are starting to drop.
So this would be a cusp trip, squeezed into late September and early October when high and low seasons blur.
First stop, the major Internet travel portals, including Expedia, Travelocity and Kayak.com. I wasn't expecting bargains, and wasn't disappointed. But at least it gave me a base against which to compare other rates.
Because I cared more about price than destination, I searched a handful of hubs - Frankfurt, Rome, Paris, London and Madrid. Most flights were clocking in at $500 or more.
With my base price set, I next hit discount, consolidator and last-minute Web sites (such as Lastminutetravel.com). This is where I expected to find a winner, but was surprised to be stuck firmly in $500 territory, regardless of the destination.
Onward. Airline Web sites can be hit or miss. We've all heard rumors of outrageously low and fleeting fares offered by airlines on their own sites, but I've never seen much substance behind the stories.
Still, some airlines have earned reputations for great prices to Europe, including Iceland Air and Ireland's Aer Lingus. On a whim, I tried the latter and found a $440 flight to Dublin. Now we're talking.
Aer Lingus also goes all over Europe, but a bit of experimentation soon revealed an important budget-breaker. Landing fees and taxes in London and continental Europe - regardless of the airline - added $100 or more to the ticket price.
For some reason, those same fees to Ireland were far less. Dublin was sounding like a winner. Now to beat down the price.
Airline ticket prices are based in part on departure and return dates, making some days cheaper than others. Flexible flyers can make the most of this by planning their flights on the days when fares are cheapest (often midweek).
But most airlines make that impossible. They don't tell you what the rate is on any given day. The only way to find the best price is to enter an almost endless combination of departure and return dates and compare the resulting prices.
Thankfully, Aer Lingus and U.S. Airways are kind enough to post their rates on monthly calendars. This allowed me to see not only which days were the least expensive, but also when in October their prices would drop for the season.
Using this method, I was able to book two tickets at $402 each on U.S. Airways from Boston to Dublin during the first week of October. Had I been willing to leave two weeks later I could have shaved off another $30 from each ticket.
Total so far: $804. That left me $396 for accommodation, food and activities.
Housing would be the tough part. Hotels and B&Bs were right out. Four nights in even a dump would eat every penny. Hostels were an option. But while cheap (about $30 per person per night) and ubiquitous, they definitely are an acquired taste.
Most are dorm-style (though they usually offer more expensive private rooms) and are better suited to college students and backpackers. I just didn't have it in me to share a room with a dozen snoring strangers.
Enter couch-surfing, a growing travel trend in which people use the Internet to find residents of their destination who are willing to let them crash on their couches. Everything is free and no reciprocation is required.
This isn't for everyone and there is an element of adventure here. But there also are major advantages. Staying with locals means you get inside information on where to go, what to see and where to eat. Locals also tend to know where the bargains are.
A number of Web sites (including couchsurfing.com) have cropped up to serve this community. Most let you search user profiles by country and city, then make contact - and if you're lucky, make friends.
If the dates work for your would-be host - and you don't give each other the willies - you have housing. Free.
Don't assume couch-surfing is only for the backpacking set. Many participants are families who enjoy traveling, meeting new people and exposing their children to other cultures. Such was the case with the Dublin family I arranged to stay with, Caelinn Largey and her husband and two sons.
They were fantastic hosts. We enjoyed meals with them; they pointed us to fantastic pubs like Kavanagh's (1 Prospect Square, Glasnevin) that you'd need to be a local to find; and they helped us navigate the city's buses. Best of all, they provided each of us with a bed and private room.
With flights and accommodations taken care of, how do you make the most of your time on the ground?
- Limit yourself to one city. This isn't the time to tour all of Tuscany or wander the Scottish Highlands. Sticking to one place means you can rely on (cheap) public transportation and won't need a rental car.
- Be flexible. Don't waste time looking for a bargain dream trip to the French Riviera. This is about getting away for a quick break on the cheap. Go where the bargains are. And go when. Spring and fall are the best compromise of price and weather.
- If your time on the ground is limited, making the most of it means minimizing jet lag. Unless you find sleeping in economy class a breeze, consider getting a prescription for something that will knock you out on the trip over. Some passengers find a Benadryl or other over-the-counter antihistamine is enough.
- For breakfast and lunch, hit local bakers and grocers. It will be much cheaper than eating out, allowing you to splurge later on dinner and the local brew.
- Focus your spending. My traveling companion is artsy, so he splurged on museums. I'm a food writer, so for me eating is the most important part of travel. I spent my money on pubs, food markets and in restaurants.
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