An Online Primer for Budget Exploration
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The best bargain I can recommend is camping. It is the cheapest way to go by far and one of the best ways to meet the Europeans. European family vacations generally involve camping. Even the smallest villages have some sort of camping facilities, almost all of which include hot showers, food shops and bus accessibility.
It is important to realize there are big differences between camping in Europe and other parts of the world. In Europe, campgrounds are usually well-maintained, and rather than large RV's, most Europeans use tents or pop-up campers. The campgrounds are often located along rivers, lakes or other scenic areas, have bathhouses, a basic camp store and usually lots of space. They are often remarkably close to urban centers.
There are a few specific advantages of camping. There are no curfews like in youth hostels. There is incredibly little crime. Even though a tent is easily broken into, I have almost never heard of it happening. Camping is completely self-contained. You do not have to worry about arriving without a reservation in a crowded city, because campgrounds will almost always squeeze in a tent camper arriving on foot. You can also put up your tent just about anywhere you get the urge to out in the countryside (as long as you get the consent of the property owner first, if possible).
The cost for camping ranges from four to 12 dollars in most countries, with Switzerland generally being the most expensive. Most campgrounds charge between three and eight dollars a night, less than half any other budget-type accommodation. Some charge a flat fee; others charge a per tent and per person fee. In Scandinavia, you can camp anywhere you want for one night, but if it is on private property it is reasonable to ask permission first.
There are some disadvantages, natch. Campgrounds can be dirty in the southern countries, although they vary greatly. In the larger cities where groups of European backpackers and bus tours of young people stay, things can get very noisy. Some campgrounds are rather remote from the cities, such as in Vienna, Rome, Bordeaux, or London, and most are also closed during winter. You also gotta lug a few pounds of gear around in order to camp.
There are some books and online resources. One fun site that pulls all the information together (although you'll need to sift through a lot of junk) is provided by our fellow bums at the karmabum café: http://www.karmabum.com/index.htm. You can also once again take a look at Art of Travel in the camping section: http://www.artoftravel.com/03accommodation.htm#camping
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