The best ways we’ve found to get good prices on airfare, lodging, and car rentals.
Finding affordable flights.
Finding reasonably priced flights is getting more and more difficult as airlines both cut flight routes and raise prices. Summertime flights are always the most expensive, but deals can still be found if you are flexible. The best rates are to be found October-early December and January-early April. Premium times to fly are Christmas, New Year’s, and mid May-September. Car rental and hotel rates will also be more expensive during those times. Airfare sales are usually posted on Tuesday. Cheapest days to fly are usually Tuesday and Wednesday. On many sites dedicated to travel you’ll find advice telling you to fly to a major airport (e.g. Paris or London), then take a budget European airline to get to your true destination (e.g. Ryanair or easyJet). The trouble with this: Often the budget airlines are flying to obscure airports, which may have no rental car facilities and odd hours. Budget airlines also have all kinds of fees for baggage, ticketing and other concerns (this is how they make their money – on fees), so you need to read ALL the fine print to make sure you know what you’re in for.
One good thing to know is that you can often find good deals on “open-jaw” tickets (flying into one city, and out of another). This also works well with their rental car policies (when renting within the same country only). Flying open-jaw can help you avoid driving time. You may also get a better deal — sometimes it’s cheaper to fly in to Rome and out of Milan, you just need to check prices for each.
When looking for tickets, be sure to use a private search window — airline websites and booking websites track what you’re searched and offer higher rates once they notice you’ve searched the same fare more than once.
We usually buy flights a few months in advance, as we find the best prices then. It’s possible, though rare, to find last-minute deals, but then you will miss out on one of the nicest aspects of a trip, which is all the planning and fantasizing you do about the trip in the months before you leave. (This idea is even backed by scientific research: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/18/how-vacations-affect-your-happiness/)
One important thing to note is that sites like Travelocity and Orbitz are great search engines, but once you find a good flight it’s best to book directly with the airline. In the event flights are cancelled or changed, you’re much more likely to have the problem dealt with if you’ve purchased the ticket from the airline. The last thing you want, when stuck overseas, is to have American Airlines say “Call Orbitz, this is their issue”, and then call Orbitz to have them say “You need to talk to AA”. Trust us, we’ve been there.
Good search engines are skyskanner.net, kayak.com, and airfarewatchdog.com. When booking an airline ticket, if you are also planning to drive, check out the “Vacations” tab on airline sites — you can combine your plane fare with a rental car. Often great deals can be found here, because the exact distribution of airfare and car rental costs are not broken down, which allows airlines to sell cheaper fares without revealing its true cost to the consumer (and therefore not creating expectation of cheap fares in the future). If the airline is looking to fill up a flight, they sometimes put their cheap fares in these vacation package deals.
Be mindful of connections.
The quality of the trip is just as important as the price. Living in Nashville, we always have to take two flights to get to Europe. We try to avoid northern states in the winter if possible, to minimize the risk of having flights cancelled due to snow. We never take more than one layover, as that makes the trip much more difficult, while greatly increasing the chance of missed/delayed flights. It’s better to have a long layover than a very short one. If there is a very short layover, and your first flight is delayed at all, you risk missing your second flight. US flights are frequently delayed; but overseas flights rarely are, and if you miss your flight there is no guarantee they’ll get you on the next one, even if it was their fault.
A long layover can be a great way to visit family, friends, or just do some sightseeing. We generally try to get the earliest flight out possible, then arrive in Miami, Philadelphia or Chicago by 9am. We’ll rent a car, or meet friends or family, and spend a day sightseeing, or hanging on the beach and having a great lunch. Then return to the airport, drop off the rental car, go back through security and get on our overseas flight, totally exhausted (and very ready to sleep on the plane). This is also a nice way of making a travel day feel like a vacation day.
Finding affordable cars.
Anywhere you drive in Europe you will want the smallest car possible. In the UK and Ireland, consider getting an automatic, unless you are prepared to learn to drive on the left side of the road, while also managing a stick shift that feels backwards. Automatics are more expensive, but we think the extra expense is worth it (UK and Ireland only), just for the increased safety. In mainland Europe you’ll want a small car to navigate the smaller roads, and to find easy parking. Luckily the smallest cars also happen to be the cheapest. If you’re packing light, you won’t need a huge car anyway. See our tips on packing here.
Be sure when booking your car that you know where you will be picking up the car. Sometimes you’ll find that the cheapest car is so priced because you have to take a long shuttle bus to get to their satellite location. After you’ve been on a 10-hour flight, you’ll regret saving the extra $25 if you have to schlep all your stuff and blow a lot of time just to get to the car. There is a fee for picking up a car at the airport, in our opinion it’s better to pay the fee and get going quickly, versus taking a train to a smaller town to save a few bucks.
You’ll also need to do some research on insurance. Different countries have varying rules on what insurance is required when renting a car. Italy requires CDW (collision damage waiver), so that is built into the price. CDW will be offered in other countries as an option; it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to upgrade. Your credit card or your personal car insurance might cover extra insurance, so before you leave, just know what insurances you plan to purchase or decline so you can save time at the rental counter, where they will invariably try to upgrade you on every option. If your credit card does indeed cover extra insurance, you might want to bring a copy of the policy with you.
One good thing to know is that there is no fee for dropping off cars at different locations within the same country. So, for example, you can pick up a car in Rome and return it in Milan, and it would cost the same as picking up in Rome and returning in Rome. This is great to know if you are employing an open-jaw ticket.
After a major snowstorm in 2011 that stranded hundreds on the roads, Italy passed a new law requiring snow tires or snow chains on your car from November 15-April 15. Rental companies are not responsible — you are, so if traveling during that time you need to check with the company to make sure your car is legal. Chains vary widely in price but we’ve fond them for about 30€/week; the fine for not having chains is much higher.
Good sites for finding cheap European cars are Kemwel.com, Sixt.com, and autoeurope.com. If booking through a major agency (e.g. Hertz, Alamo, National, etc), check a site like retailmenot.com, which has coupon codes you can use for online discounts. If you are a member at Costco, sometimes booking through their travel page can net you rental car discounts. Be sure to print all discounts and rental agreements and bring them with you to the rental counter when you pick up your car — it’s not always necessary to have this but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Finding affordable hotels.
In small towns, hotels are family-run affairs. You’ll find plenty of B&B’s as well. In Italy, try an agriturismo (farm stay). You’ll be out in the country, in a beautiful setting, and often have a chance to sample cheese, veg, honey, meat and wine from the farm. Many agriturismos offer dinner as well (for an extra fee). B&B’s can be a great way to stay in a small walled town, and feel like you are living there, even if just for a few days. (Italian B&B breakfasts are different than in the US; read about that here). In Italy, we find cheap accommodations in a great location, so we can walk to bars, sights, and more importantly, restaurants. In Italy, it’s all about the food.
In the UK, we like to get self-catering apartments, so we’ll have a kitchen and we can cook. Pub food is great and a nice treat, but neither of us can handle that for an entire week. We like to find an apartment in a stunning location, preferably on one of the coastal paths that ring the island, so we can walk right out our front door and hike the cliffs and hear the crashing waves. There are great farm shops all throughout England; we stock up on local cider, cheese, bread, veg, meats, beer and tea and spend our days hiking the coastal paths, searching out standing stones and stone circles. When we stay in small towns, we look for pubs with rooms — many pubs have a few rooms upstairs.
If possible, it’s nice to book directly with the hotel or B&B, so they don’t have to pay booking fees associated with online sites.
In mainland Europe, good sites to look for hotels are venere.com, booking.com, and agriturismo.it. In the UK, try ruralretreats.co.uk, and in Ireland try irishlandmark.com. If traveling off-season (which we always recommend), you’ll always find the lowest rates for accommodation. Rental agencies (like Rural Retreats or Irish Landmark, or rental agencies in Italy), usually have discounts or deals in off-season months; hotels and B&Bs offer their lowest rates — be sure to always check their ‘special offers’ page.