Monday, 20 November 2006

More fun for less

Travel can be expensive. Loads of hotels would like to relieve you of a couple of hundred euros a night, and restaurants aren't much less greedy for your wallet. Add in a few visits to the sights and you can end up spending more than you want to.

But you can have more fun for less. My tips?

- seek out the places behind the railway station. Quite often, a few hundred yards away there are some great little bars and restaurants.

- use the markets. I lost weight, kept fit and saved money in Venice going down to the Rialto market to buy strawberries, grapes, satsumas, and apples to keep hunger away during the day. Many markets have great fast food for very little. It's usually local-style fast food, too - churros y chocolate in Spain, choucroute or andouillettes in France (though I don't do andouilletes, they're just too rank for me, I eat merguez sausages in a baguette instead).  And you get a great atmosphere. Restaurants near markets are often good - they're using today's produce, fresh.

- Find small, family run hotels. Sometimes you don't strike lucky - more often, you find a cheaper hotel than any of the chains, with a bit of character. Often, too, you'll find whoever's  behind the desk is a mine of information on the town and its customs.  They may be able to recommend good places for a meal. Use resources such as to look for somewhere.

- Get off the beaten track. In Bruges, for instance, just heading out of the touristic centre of the city towards the north or east can save you money on your dinner or drink.

- Swap traveller's tales. I met up with a couple in the de Garre bar in Bruges who told me where they usually stayed - a nice hotel I had passed up as looking too expensive! They also recommended me some great places to eat. And don't overlook the locals as a source of information. I stopped for a bottle of beer at the beer shop in Akademiestraat in Bruges - and managed to find out where I ought to stop for beer and a bite.

- When you do want to splurge,  do it properly. One really fantastic meal every week is worth it. Go for the best - don't be at home to Mr In-Between. On Mont Saint-Michel, it's La Mère Poulard - just omelette and lamb gigot is the traditional meal, and you wouldn't believe the difference between eating it there, and in one of the other places on the island. The omelette is delightfully fluffy and the lamb tastes wickedly sea-salty.

- Eat seasonal! If you're in Holland at the right time, try an all-asparagus menu (yes! even asparagus ice cream!). In Cefalu, Sicily, one restaurant does an almost all artichoke menu - that's the local crop - though they don't do ice cream (or didn't, when I was there).

- Make sure to look around for the best room rate. Hotels don't have a single rate - you could pay a range of different prices for the same hotel, sometimes depending on the web site you booked through. If you're going to arrive late, sometimes local tourist offices have bargains going just before closing time - this worked well for me in Cologne, Worms and Speyer a few years back.

- Get return tickets or weekend tickets on public transport. Bruges to Ghent is seven euros each way - or seven euros return, at weekends. That's quite a saving.

- Go off-season. It's obvious, but just a few weeks either side of the season can make a big difference. Don't go to Venice during Carnival unless you're really, really determined to see it. You might also want to check out commercial exhibitions - for instance anywhere around Hanover is going to triple in price and halve in availability when the big computer fair CEBIT is on in March.

- Remember the metro exists! You don't have to stay in the centre of London or Barcelona - or Paris. Look for hotels out of town, but close to the underground or Metro system. I quite like La Villette/Porte de Pantin area in Paris -  still a bit edgy, but with fine walks along the Canal de l'Ourcq and in the Parc de la Villette, and just a few stops from Gare du Nord on the metro. Prices are a lot lower than in the centre. And there's an Ibis hotel with lots of little ethnic restaurants charging relatively little for a solid dinner.

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