Go with the flow on the continent

<em>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</em>
Illustration: michaelmucci.com 

A deckchair by the pool or croissants at a sidewalk cafe? The strong Aussie dollar and cheap airfares make Europe a hot option for winter getaways.

If you're thinking about escaping winter, how does drinking sangria in Spain sound? Or how about island hopping in the Greek Isles?

This could be the year to skip Fiji and take a jaunt to Europe, with airfares low and the Aussie dollar still stretching a long, long way.

I found myself on a recent visit repeatedly saying "Wow, that's cheap", with everything from coffee to clothes to be found for less than here in Australia; a sharp contrast to all the times I have gasped in horror upon doing the conversion.

We are heading into the peak season for travel to Europe, yet fares are being advertised for less than $1500 return, putting them below the level of many of the early-bird specials released late last year.

You need to be flexible with dates and locations to pick up the bargains, but they're definitely out there.

The chief executive of Travelscene American Express, Mike Thompson, says even with the recent dip in the dollar, travel to Europe is cheaper than it has been for a "very, very long time".

"What may have once been 'the trip of a lifetime' has become a reality for many Australians," Thompson says.

Examples of deals in the market include an eight-day, all-inclusive European river cruise from $2875 a person and a nine-day coach tour with accommodation and most meals from about $1800 a person.

"The strength of the Aussie dollar against the pound and the euro has unlocked some incredible opportunities," Thompson says.

For independent travellers, the booking website lastminute.com.au has shared its top tips for doing Europe on the cheap, from getting the best flights to finding eateries that don't break the bank.

 

Flight bargains

General manager of the website lastminute.com.au Kirsty Labruniy says flexibility is key to picking up a great deal, not just with travel dates, but also with alternative airports.

"I think Australians still have the mindset of going to London and then travelling around but if you start in Amsterdam, or Paris even, they have some of the best specials," Labruniy says.

Alternative airports often have lower taxes as well as lesser demand, making fare specials more readily available.

Once in Europe, Labruniy says travellers should make the most of cheap flights around the continent but beware of baggage charges.

She also warns travellers to check the location of each airport, as the cost of transfers can negate the savings on the flight.

"Barcelona, for example, has three airports, but only one is near the city. This might still work for you, but it's worth checking the cost to reach the city centre."

 

Timing your trip

While Europe has an overall peak season in July and August, the most expensive times can vary, region to region. The best time to visit Central and Eastern Europe is July and August, with accommodation more expensive in May and September.

Istanbul and Athens are also cheaper in August, as many people are heading to the beach instead.

The Greek islands, however, are busy and expensive in July and August, so it's better for the bargain hunter to visit in May or June.

 

Better beds

Lastminute.com.au recommends looking for apartments as an alternative to hotels, especially for those travelling in a group.

European hotels are not only "a little squeezier" than what the average Australian traveller may be used to, but there are considerable savings to be found in doing some self-catering, even if it is only one meal a day.

Labruniy says travellers should also do their research on what events are coming up in their destination. This will enable them to avoid paying premiums on accommodation.

 

Tours on the cheap

Online information and mobile phone apps have made it much easier for travellers to skip expensive day tours and do their own thing, Labruniy says.

"It's easier than ever to be an independent traveller," she says, and recommends looking up lists such as the top 10 things to do in a city or downloading maps for walking tours, so you can take yourself.

"You don't have to stalk a tour group any more; there are easier ways to be cheap," she says.

Labruniy says travellers can also research public transport routes online. Often there's benefit in buying a swipe card or pass for getting around rather than paying per trip.

 

Eating out

"Avoid restaurants on the main squares," Labruniy says about finding meals abroad.

"Head down the side streets or try to find out where the locals eat, as that will be the best food without the big prices."

Labruniy says making savings on tours and other aspects of your trip can give you greater freedom to eat out and experience the local scene.

"You've gone all the way to Europe, so you need to splash out on some things," she says.

jane@janeefraser.com.au

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