How To Dine for Less in Europe: 10 Tips

Posted by Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb on June 02, 2010 at 10:45:14 AM EDT | Post a Comment

Fodors.com Contributor

From sampling local breakfast spreads to saving at the bar, here are some great ways to cut costs on your next trip across the pond.

Breakfast

Mom was right. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Nevertheless, eating it at your hotel can be unnecessarily expensive. Take the surprisingly stylish Holiday Inn in Amsterdam. In mid-July it charges €166 a night for two guests sharing a standard room with complimentary breakfast included; conversely, when you reserve the room alone, the rate drops to €144. Since that "free" breakfast actually costs about $13.50 a person, take a pass and head instead for a budget-friendly café.

If having a morning meal is mandatory at the hotel you choose, you might as well make the most of it by lingering over coffee and tasting everything in sight. That's especially easy to do in British and Scandinavian countries where bountiful breakfasts (as opposed to skimpy continental ones) are still common. Aside from offering opportunities to gorge, they let you sample foods you mightn't otherwise try. Anyone for blood pudding or reindeer meatballs?

Lunch

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Conventional wisdom says picnicking is Europe's primo noontime experience – and it's hard to disagree. After all, a ten-spot will buy a veritable feast that you can spread out wherever you please. Purchasing picnic supplies, moreover, gives you a good excuse to visit all those atmospheric outdoor markets, to-die-for delis, and sublime sweet shops you've been eyeing. Even urban grocery stores (you'll often find them in department store basements) yield delectable goodies.

Jonesing for fast food? Purists abhor McDonalds, which is ubiquitous abroad. But it's your vacation, not theirs, so feel free to satisfy your craving. Better still, try a native answer to the Golden Arches, like the Quick Burger chain in France and the Benelux nations. Fast, affordable street foods – think Czech sausages (my pick for the best of the wurst), gloriously greasy English fish and chips, or Belgian moules et frites (mussels and fries) – rate even higher on the authenticity scale.

Dinner

If you're really worried about your wallet, noshing at night is one solution. In Seville, for instance, you can make a meal of tapas. Reasonably priced and available virtually everywhere, these small plates might include bites of Serrano ham, chorizo, or fried potato wedges. In Athens, mezédes offer a variation on the theme; while in Venice, it's cicchetti (individual tidbits of, say, grilled prawns or stuffed calamari sold at traditional baccari wine bars for $1 to $2 a pop).

When something more substantial is in order, avoid those touristy spots with English menus smack in the center of town, and suss out mom-and-pop eateries just off the beaten path (university zones are great place to start looking). Once you've found one, follow the locals' lead by ordering the set menu. Whether it's called a prix fixe, menú del día, or prezzo fisso, you can expect a memorable multi-course meal for relatively little. The more genuine ambiance is an added bonus.

The Splurge

There are plenty of star chefs who charge astronomical prices at their Michelin-rated restaurants. Yet several leading lights also happen to operate more modest satellite venues that focus on affordability – not formality. In Paris, for example, Alain Dutournier offers brasserie-style dining at Pinxo off Rue Saint-Honore, just minutes from his two-star flagship Carré des Feuillants. Similarly, Christian Constant, goes causal at Café Constant near his one-star Violin d'Ingres.

Prefer a restaurant that has earned a Michelin nod in its own right? Check online for ones continent-wide that have been given Michelin's Bib Gourmand designation. They promise multiple courses of "good food at moderate prices." (The upper limit varies by locale, but it is under €35 in the Paris area and under €29 elsewhere in France). Wherever you dine, bear in mind the best deals are invariably available at lunch when the total bill can be as much as 30% less.

And to Wash it Down...

When it comes to libations, local is the way to go. A glass of Kölsch ale in Cologne or Riesling wine on the Rhine will set you back less than a Coke. In fact, they can even be cheaper than water, assuming you get the bottled stuff – which is what will be brought to your table unless you specify otherwise. Remember, tap water is safe to drink plus it's free. If requesting some leaves you feeling cheap, just remind yourself that by forgoing the bottle you are doing the environment a favor.

Speaking of drinking, you can frequently cut your costs in half by remaining on your feet. If the goal is to relax, by all means pull up a chair. However, if you are merely interested in quaffing a quick cappuccino or throwing back a thirst-quenching brew, then stand at the bar instead. Commonsense dictates that you review your bar tab (or any bill for that matter) before paying. When a service charge is automatically included, as it so often is, further tipping isn't necessary.

Photo credit: istock/Lise Gagne

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Member Comments (6)  Post a Comment

  • PrimoVacations_Dave on Jun 9, 10 at 08:00 AM

    Eat like and with the locals where possible. Sampling regional dishes and avoiding anywhere that says "English food and EastEnders here" will pretty much guarantee that you will dine OK.
    I recommend Cornish Pasties in England (Must be in Cornwall though), cafe/bar kebabs in outlying Cyprus villages and Tapas in Spain.

  • Eurocentric on Jun 5, 10 at 11:40 AM

    This is another reason we prefer to stay in apartments. Breakfast can be fruit and pastries purchased at a nearby shop or taken out at a bakery. The savings can be used for a mid-morning coffee break.
    We stash an inexpensive bottle of local wine in the fridge for a pre-dinner taste.
    Must confess, though, the kitchen doesn't get much of a workout - we'd still rather someone else does the work on our vacation. On the other hand, when traveling with family or friends a takeout meal, even of sandwiches or pizza, can be enjoyed at our pace and the savings can go toward a splurge.
    Agree with Californiagirl on lunch vs. dinner. We chose that option at Taillevent in Paris, where a three-course lunch is 80 euros plus wine. Choosing a special dessert and decent bottle ran the bill to 250, but that still was about half the cost at dinner. There was no sacrifice in service or atmosphere, particularly since I told them it was our anniversary.

  • mirolex on Jun 3, 10 at 08:54 PM

    In England we ate really good, comparatively inexpensive meals in pubs--generous servings, usually 2-3 entree choices, local flavor. We also enjoyed the selections in Marks&Spenser food area and whatever grocery store was handy - best prices, lots of choices with no cooking needed. Bagged salads, sandwiches, pastas, cold quiche--oh, & desserts! = ) Not fine dining or necessarily how you'd want to eat every day, but economical with good variety.

  • PeterthejustOkay on Jun 3, 10 at 07:42 PM

    In Italy, I gave 10 euro to the cheese shop lady and asked for samples of her wares. She gave me wonderful and generous portions and with some fruit and bread, I had a great lunch and plenty left over for breakfast. It's a good way to go!

  • karbop1 on Jun 3, 10 at 03:09 PM

    We ate the included breakfast at our hotels everywhere in Europe and got mega food except Venice. We were able to eat our fill and skip lunch most days. I did take Cracklin Oat Bran and Teddy Grahams with us and they came in quite handy when places were closed for the afternoon rest. We also had lots of picnics and always ate where the locals did and got by for 6-10 euro a day. BTW, Switzerland has the best dairy products I've every had.

  • Californiagirl51 on Jun 3, 10 at 03:02 PM

    Great article. Other tips....eat your fanciest gourmet meal for lunch, just as in the US, it will cost half what it would at dinner time. Great food can be had at wine bars in Switzerland which otherwise is unaffordable for eating. Steak and fries and a whole bottle of wine will cost you about $25 for two people if you head to the movie theater mall in Paris.

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