Traveling upscale on the cheap

by Charlie Leocha on October 13, 2003

Cheap Charlie spends his nights in youth hostels, campsites and one-star hotels when on the road, right? Doesn’t this champion of the cheap masses yearning to travel inexpensively regularly dine at unassuming cafeterias and small, low-cost Mom-and-Pop hole-in-the-walls?

If the truth be told, Cheap Charlie does all of that. He has stayed in every kind of cheap, inexpensive, low-cost, budget accommodations in countries across the world. He has even slept on tables in train-station waiting rooms and across chairs at many airports. He is an expert at finding good, affordable restaurants packed with locals in cities throughout Europe, the Americas and Asia. He has paid his dues by spending as little as possible.

However when Cheap Charlie is traveling with his girlfriend, she has often protested his level of cheap digs and eats. Now, in his old age, he has decided to go slightly more upscale when it comes to lodging and dining on the road.

The results have been amazing. His girlfriend still travels with him and he still saves money while staying in excellent places.

The best guidebooks for travelers going through Europe planning an affordable and comfortable vacation are the Michelin Red Guide and Rick Steves’ guides. Both of these guides have been well-researched and provide excellent information travelers can trust.

The only problem with hotels, pensions and B&Bs detailed in the Rick Steves’ is the zealous legions of Rick Steves aficionados who seem to fill these places. From Paris to Sorrento and Rome to Madrid, Cheap Charlie finds troops of tourists having their breakfast of coffee or tea with toast and jelly intently reading their Rick Steves’ guides.

Suffice it to say, if you want to stay with the locals, you won’t find them in these Rick Steves’ accommodations. But there will be a gaggle of other tourists all following the same routes. Breakfast at your hotel can turn into a great time to compare notes and help each other make the most of time in town. Normally, the top hotels listed by Rick Steves are Cheap Charlie’s favorites when he needs good and affordable lodging. Read the descriptions carefully – they are normally very accurate.

The overview of sights presented by Rick Steves is as good as I have read in years. His neighborhood walks are always fun and informative. His museum guides, complete with commentary about historic sculpture and storied artworks are wonderful and add another dimension to sometimes stodgy, hard-to-comprehend museums.

At the other end of the scale are the Michelin guides. These famous guidebooks are packed the best and most expensive lodging and dining that Europe has to offer. If any traveler finds dining experiences one of the most important factors in a vacation, the cryptic Red Guides are a must.

These guidebooks are packed with listings. There are plenty of symbols designating facilities but there are no descriptions. There is also all the basic information one needs to make a reservation – phone number, fax number, address, price range, facilities, opening dates and every so often a special comment.

No property or restaurant can find its way into the Michelin Red Guides without passing the strict Michelin excellence gauntlet. Every establishment noted in these guides is good.

That said, Cheap Charlie scours the least expensive hotels and restaurants and select from those properties and eateries. He has never been let down by the comfort or level of service at even the most humble of any Michelin-recommended restaurants or lodges. Plus, these hotels have a far better chance of being packed with Europeans rather than other American tourists.

For sightseeing, the Michelin Green Guides provide by far the best simplified descriptions of major sites at cities throughout Europe. The guidebooks allow travelers to aim their sightseeing at the most important museums, regions and buildings, and also includes a basic description of each sight. The Green Guides are also packed with maps to help tourists make their way through cities as large as London, Paris or Berlin and as tiny as Les Baux, Lucca and Segovia.

These are two of Cheap Charlie’s most consistent standbys when it comes to traveling in Europe. Pick the best of Rick Steves and the least expensive of Michelin Red Guides and a frugal traveler will seldom go wrong.

Cheap Charlie also highly recommends the Michelin maps that can be purchased at many bookstores in the United States, Canada and throughout Europe.

If planning a ski or snowboard vacation, Cheap Charlie would rather you purchase his own guidebooks – SkiSnowboard America and Canada or SkiSnowboard Europe by Charles Leocha.

May you travel well. May you travel cheaply.

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