We looked so savvy, but here’s how we made it on the cheap

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / October 4, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

It takes attitude to travel proudly on a budget. Remember that you’re not cheap - you’re practical, maybe even savvy. We know. For the last two years we gallivanted across Spain writing two guidebooks, pinching pennies while passing ourselves off as well-heeled travelers. As we became experts on Spain, we also became adept in the down-and-dirty side of low-cost travel. But since guidebooks don’t address day-to-day vicissitudes, we’ve kept our coping strategies to ourselves - until now. Welcome to our real-life, behind-the-scenes tips (at least the ones we’ll own up to) for surviving and thriving on the road.

1. Cheese is your friend
We bought our first Spanish cheese at a rural farmers’ market because we thought the woman and her pet goats were cute. The delicious small cheese (about 2 pounds) kept us going for more than a week through afternoon hunger pangs and missed meals. We’ve been buying aged farmstead cheeses ever since because we can toss them in the trunk of the car and slice off a piece whenever we want. When we tire of the taste, we remind ourselves that it would cost four times as much at Whole Foods, so we should enjoy it while we can. This practice doesn’t just apply to cheesemaking regions, though there’s hardly a corner of Europe that doesn’t make cheese. Wherever you go, indulge in a local, traditional food - preferably one that evolved before the advent of refrigeration.

2. Everything goes better with wine
Nothing compensates for a long day of getting lost on goat paths in the wrong set of mountains like a cold bottle of white wine. Or a lukewarm bottle of red. The local plonk is inevitably a disappointment when you bring it home, but it always tastes good where it’s made. Many wineries in Europe will even fill your screw-top water bottles from a tank that looks like an overgrown gas pump. And it’s usually about the same price as gasoline - under $2 per liter. Of course, you can also buy good wines (already bottled!) at higher prices, but they don’t take well to the jostling of constant travel. Drink ’em if you’ve got ’em.

3. Become a grocery store gourmet
It’s not possible to survive on cheese and wine alone. We know; we’ve tried. For starters, you also need bread. And as long as you’re in the grocery store, check out the refrigerated section for the convenience foods that locals would buy for a quick and cheap meal. We experienced a culinary epiphany when we purchased our first packaged tortilla española, the potato omelet that is the unofficial national food of Spain. A whole one from the grocery store provides four meal-sized servings at about the same price as a single sliver in a bar. (As experts on bar tortillas, we suspect many came from the grocery store.) Don’t overlook the canned goods, either. Whether it’s tinned pâté in France or delicate olive-oil-packed anchovies in Spain, you can assemble a gourmet feast. We used to tease a friend who traveled with a cereal bowl and a spoon. Now we carry shallow Gladware containers and heavy-duty plastic knives and forks.

4. Visit the church before Mass
OK, it’s tacky, but it can cost up to $5 to take a gander at a church’s art and architecture and the fees add up quickly. Even churches that charge admission usually open free for a half hour before services, which is plenty of time to look around respectfully before the worship begins. Feel bad? Leave a donation for church upkeep.

5. Free museums have free bathrooms
We’ve often wondered if the reason Europeans drink such tiny cups of coffee is that restrooms are in short supply. The cleanest and nicest restrooms are invariably inside museums, even the ones with free admission. You’ll be surprised how fascinating old statuary can seem, especially if the building has good lavatories.

6. Occasionally splurge on a good hotel
We have an unspoken agreement that we won’t spend more than four nights in a row in monastic hotels. Soft sheets, plump pillows, and a hot shower do wonders for our morale and restore a kind of psychic balance. If we arrive without a reservation, we dicker with the front desk over the price. If they won’t come down, we ask if they’ll throw in breakfast. Remember, you can restock your toiletry kit from the bathroom amenities.

7. Don’t forget the shoeshine sponge
Not only will it make your dusty brogues look presentable, the judicious application of the sponge will cover minor scratches on your rental car. (If it looks too dull, add a smear of clear lip gloss.) By the way, when reserving a car in Europe, ask for a diesel model. Not only does European diesel burn cleanly, it costs less than gasoline and diesel vehicles get much better mileage. When fuel is $7 per gallon and up, every little bit helps.

8. Bring a dummy credit card
We now save the fake credit cards that banks send out in their promotions. Hotels that use key cards often require that you park them in a slot to turn on the lights and air conditioning. That’s great, except that it means that the already feeble air conditioning shuts off when you leave the room. A fake credit card in the slot not only keeps some cool air pumping, it also keeps the power on so you can recharge your iPod batteries.

9. Use your bidet
Many Americans have no clue what a bidet is good for. We know. A sanitized bidet is the perfect washing machine for hand laundry. We’re big fans of Woolite, since a 3-ounce bottle (the size allowed aboard an airplane) lasts up to two weeks if you only use it on underwear and socks. Most hotel rooms are BYOC (bring your own clothesline). That string hanging from the wall is meant to summon help if you fall in the tub.

10. Change towns, not clothes
You don’t really need a lot of duds because you can get extra mileage from outer garments as long as you change towns every day. Packing light can be a real joy. We’ve found that a good pair of slacks, a shirt or blouse that buttons down the front and has a real collar, and real shoes constitute acceptable dress for men and women in all but the most formal situations.

11. Charge local
When you use a credit card, the clerk may ask if you want the charge in US dollars or the local currency. Never choose US dollars. Even the most usurious US credit card companies give a better exchange rate on foreign currency than you can get overseas. The only exception would be when the dollar is sinking rapidly vis-a-vis the local currency.

12. Good gifts can be cheap
There’s no need to break the bank on gifts for the plant-sitter if you get a little creative. For example, we discovered that 39-cent bags of Spanish sea salt make good gifts. The packaging is attractive and the product is unavailable here. Best of all, it doesn’t end up on a shelf collecting dust. The only downside is that the salt is so tasty that it pains us to give it away.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, coauthors of “Pauline Frommer’s Spain’’ and the upcoming “Frommer’s Spain Day by Day,’’ can be reached at