3 Ways to Stretch Your Dollar on a European Vacation

Avoid tourist hotspots and travel offseason to save. You could even get some cash back on delayed flights.
Sally French
By Sally French 
Edited by Meghan Coyle

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With the excitement of the summer Olympics in Paris 2024 heating up, Europe is expected to be a top travel destination this year. With 10 million tickets available for the Olympic Games, expect a whole lot of people to flood Paris. But also expect people who might have gone to Paris for their usual vacation to head elsewhere in Europe. And given how it's relatively easy to cross borders and visit multiple countries during a European vacation, expect Olympic fans to arrive in other European countries this summer, too.

In short, expect big crowds in Europe this summer. Crowds entail demand, and high demand typically leads to high costs.

High prices are especially apparent in Paris and the surrounding region, where the average nightly hotel rate in Paris is 522 euros (about $570 at the time of writing) per night during the Olympic Games, according to a January 2024 report from the Paris Tourist Office. That’s about 2.5 times the average nightly rates in July 2023 and more than three times the average in August 2023.

All that comes on top of the fact that European travel has already been booming over the past couple of years. According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration (ITA), 43% more Americans flew to Europe in the first half of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. Meanwhile, soaring inflation isn't unique to the U.S.; it's hit Europe too.

Soaring inflation, which has hit Europe harder than the U.S., is another reason why travelers should be prepared for some sticker shock. While June 2023 data showed a yearly inflation rate of 3% in the U.S., the European Union saw a steeper climb at 6.4% according to Eurostat. But fear not, budget-savvy travelers! Despite the crowds and cost increases, there are still ways to make your European vacation affordable.

That's not to say you should skip a European vacation this summer. Especially with the 2024 Paris Olympics, this summer is set to be particularly festive. And while some costs are higher, some are actually lower. According to the American Express Global Business Travel Air Monitor 2024 report, average economy airfares from North America to Europe are expected to drop by 3.5% in 2024.

Sure, you should expect many aspects of European travel to be expensive and crowded this year. But, a few strategies can make a European vacation more affordable.

1. Save money by looking to second cities

Second cities are the lesser-known, less-populated areas around major cities. They can often offer lighter crowds and lower prices than the big tourist destinations.

As far as European second cities (or third or fourth cities) go, you might enjoy Austria’s second-largest city by population, Graz, which is about a 2 ½-hour train ride from Vienna. Between the Graz Truffle Festival and the abundance of places to enjoy Backhendl (Austrian fried chicken), it’s a foodie paradise. And with sites like the Eggenberg Palace and the world’s largest historical armory, it’s a must-visit for history buffs.

In France, you might skip Paris for the country’s third-largest city by population, Lyon, which has a lovely historic district called Vieux Lyon, as well as spectacular Roman ruins that are free to visit.

2. Stretch your budget by being flexible with travel dates

If you're not there for the Olympics, that might be a good time to avoid Europe. The 2024 Olympics run from July 26 through Aug. 11. It's best practice to avoid those two weeks generally, Olympics year or not. That's because July tends to be one of the busiest months for European travel, period.

Instead, consider traveling during what's called shoulder season, which is the period between the peak season and the offseason. It often has lighter crowds (and typically lower prices) than peak season. Plus, there’s generally cooler weather and more local things to do.

The exact dates of off-peak versus peak seasons can vary by region, based on factors like weather and tourist attractions. But according to 2019 ITA data, across Europe, the four least busy months to fly were November through February.

The four busiest months in the same year were May, June, July and September. That leaves March, April and October as those shoulder season months — and potentially the best months to travel to Europe.

But even if you can’t be flexible with which month you travel, sometimes adjusting your trip by a day or two could save hundreds of dollars in airfare. Travel booking tools like Google Flights and Hopper offer date grids that show you the cheapest airfare in the period surrounding your intended travel date.

3. Get compensated if your travel is delayed

Even with the perfect flight itinerary, anticipate delays. 2023 has been brutal for European air travel, which has been met with everything from computer problems to ongoing airport staff strikes.

If your European flight is delayed, you may be entitled to compensation. An EU regulation called EU261 forces airlines to compensate travelers for most cancellations, denied boarding, or delays of two or more hours on flights into, out of or within the EU.

As long as the flight wasn’t disrupted due to circumstances that are beyond human control — such as weather — passengers are entitled to compensation ranging from 250 euros (about $275) to 600 euros (about $660), depending on the length of the flight and delay.

The regulation is controversial, and some experts say the regulation hasn’t done anything to actually mitigate flight disruptions.

“Penalizing airlines raises airline costs but does not address delays caused by factors over which airlines have no control, such as inefficient air traffic management or staffing shortages at air navigation service providers,” read a June 2023 statement from airline lobbying group the International Air Transport Association.

But at least for passengers waiting out a delayed flight, the compensation serves as a small consolation prize in the event of a disrupted European vacation.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

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