Medieval Towns, Ski Slopes and Servo Stops

My wife Lorraine and I retired to Europe three years ago. Since then we’ve toured the U.K. and France; caravan and beloved dalmatian dog, Scooter, in tow. We’ve bought and sold property in France and now we’re exploring Spain and Portugal rent-free thanks to housesitting.

We’ve always been thrifty and over the past few years we’ve discovered some handy ways to save money on our European adventures which I’m happy to share with you…

1. Time it Right

If you’re keen to take in the tourist hotspots then you need to time it right—prices hit their peak in the European summer months and this is also when the locals take their holidays. You’ll pay a premium for accommodation and transport costs are higher too. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid Europe at this time. The weather’s spot on, making it the perfect time to get off the beaten track and explore the many low-cost, hidden gems Europe has to offer.

When you land somewhere you want to explore, do yourself a favour and start early in the day. It makes a huge difference wandering around narrow streets and, if you are in a tourist hotspot, it will save you competing with the crowds for a seat in a cafe. It has paid off for Lorraine and I, time and time again. On a trip to Carcassonne, we were out and about by 9 a.m. and had time to amble about before stopping for a leisurely breakfast and a spot of people-watching in a picturesque square.

Carcassonne breakfast

Breakfast in sun-soaked Carcassonne.

A few hours later, just as we were leaving, bus-loads of tourists and school outings had started to arrive, changing the peaceful ambience of the ancient city that our early start had allowed us to savour.

2. Dining Options

Those outdoor restaurants in the most picturesque parts of towns are certainly alluring. But you’re paying a premium for the view…and the food too. In our experience, they’re good, but not great. Take the time to wander about and you’ll find a better and cheaper option. The service is usually better off the tourist trail too.

In Ponte de Lima, Portugal’s oldest town, the Medieval bridge built in 1370 is a big draw. You’ll find plenty of restaurants overlooking the bridge but with main courses around €30 ($47) or more I recommend you look further afield. Lorraine and I strolled the streets and, in a small square, found a charming, family-run restaurant offering a three-course menu for €9.50 ($15) a head. Great home cooked local fare and although the setting was lovely, let’s face it, when you’re eating you don’t really need a river view.

In Bordeaux, there was a queue of about 50 people waiting to get into L’Entrecote. They’re famous for their steak and chips, in fact, it’s all they sell. Dinner here will run you €19 ($30) each and you can’t book a table so expect to queue. But, all around it you’ll find great restaurants with lots of choice and lower prices. I’m not saying you shouldn’t check out the “must-see” spots, by all means, drop in for an aperitif and enjoy the ambience…but save some dollars and the wait time by eating elsewhere.

Another way to make some savings on your food budget is to hit the supermarket. In France, a warm, crusty baguette won’t cost more than $1, grab a round of Camembert or Brie for $1.60, some cured meat for $2 and a bottle of Bordeaux for $5. Find a bench near a fountain or river or a lawn in a park and enjoy a picnic. That’s lunch for two for less than $10.

3. Filling Up

This one can save you a lot of money. When travelling around Europe on the excellent super highways you can chug along at 130 km/h. Getting places this way is easy and the tolls are worth paying so you can save time and spend longer at your destination. But avoid filling up at service stations on the big roads. You will be paying up to .40 (euro cents) a litre more for fuel—on a 50 litre fill up that’s €20 ($31), enough for four or five bottles of decent wine or a three-course set menu at a restaurant—including wine and coffee!

When in France, fill up at the big supermarkets like Carrefour, Intermarche and E.Leclerc, most of which have a fuel station attached. It’s about the cheapest fuel you’ll find. Also check prices in various countries. If you’re going across borders it may be cheaper on the other side. We have a friend who lives about 20 minutes from Andorra in the Pyrenees. Fuel in the principality is about half the price of France and Spain so he pops over the border to fill up.

Hit the slopes—and the servo—in Andorra.

4. Try Airbnb

For us, the great advantage of using Airbnb was having cooking facilities and being able to travel with our dogs, Scooter and Diego. We spent two months travelling around France, Spain and Portugal and generally the places we stayed were terrific. Because of the dogs we tend to look for places within easy reach of the tourist destinations and so paid on average around €40 ($63) a night. Some were as low as €27 ($42) a night.

Our essential search criteria were simple: Dog friendly, decent WiFi and a washing machine. Having cooking facilities means you can go to the local supermarket or the many great markets and sample the local fresh produce at a fraction of the price you would pay in a restaurant. The owners are usually experts on their locality and we got to visit some terrific places off the beaten track thanks to their recommendations.

House-sitting is also an option but usually means caring for pets too so that may limit the times at which you can get out and about. A small price to pay for an otherwise free stay…

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