Europe on Five Dollars a Day

We did it in 1967!

Only 10 months after our wedding we toured Europe for eight weeks in 1967 during our first summer of marriage.  We bought Arthur Frommer’s “Five Dollars a Day” book, paid $300 each for a seat on PanAm, and flew from Detroit to London.  (I was attending Michigan State University at the time.)

But first, let me explain one crucial point.  The “Five Dollars a Day” goal was meant to include only room and meals.  It was never mean to cover bus fares, museum fees, and certainly not for traveling from city to city. With those ground rules we took up the challenge. 

We kept a careful cash journal and rejoiced every day we didn’t go over ten bucks ($5 x 2 people) and worried a bit when blew out the budget:  say, eleven dollars.  About once a week we laid all of our cash and travelers checks out on the bed and audited the situation to make sure we wouldn’t run out.  (Those were the days before credit and debit cards, believe it or not.)

Frommer wrote that this low budget is easy in low cost places like Portugal and Greece, but requires more thought and planning in places like Paris, London, and Rome.  He was right, but even in London our records show that we could find a Bed and Breakfast in suburban London for $5, and find simple meals for $1.25 each to cover lunch and dinner.  One of those was usually a picnic on a park bench, and the other meal was often the European version of fast food. We were never hungry a single time. 

It was a simple choice:  travel on the cheap, or stay home.  Our teaching salaries in Pocahontas, AR, in 1967 were $5000 for Kay and $6,000 for me.  That’s for the year, not per month!  (I made more because the high school band director was expected to work extra hours in the summer and evenings.)  That’s $11,000 total.  Our eight week trip to Europe totaled $2100:  flights, meals, rooms, gas for the VW, everything.

What kind of room did one get for $5?   In London they were little Mom and Pop 15 room hotels in the suburbs with one or two maids from Bulgaria or Hungary.   In the European countryside they were often farm houses where the owners rented a bedroom, or, in the small towns, even a real hotel with an actual lobby and elevator!  The bathroom was down the hall.  Only once in those 56 nights, did we have a private bath, and that was because of a free upgrade in Dover, England.

The word “hippy” was big in 1967, but we were not one!  Although we traveled light, I took a few ties and dress shirts, and Kay packed dresses and heels for special occasions. We took no jeans. We each had a nice trench coat which doubled as a robe when going down the hallway to the bathroom.  We would never have dreamed of getting on PanAm, or attending a concert, without dressing up.

We travelled from city to city in, get this, a brand new VW convertible which my brother Presley had ordered from the factory and we picked up in Amsterdam and drove for 5 weeks before shipping it to him from London.  Again, Five Dollars a Day was never meant to cover transportation.

FYI, that summer included London, Scotland, Ireland, Amsterdam, the Rhine Valley, Switzerland, Northern Italy, and Paris, about a week in each place.  We’ve also learned to slow down in recent years, but, on our first trip, we kept moving.

Of course, prices have gone up.  Way up.  Over the years we used later editions of the book when the goal was raised to $10, then $15, then $25, and then $50.  By that time we no longer needed a book.  We had learned how to cut corners without sacrificing fun.

We learned not to judge a hotel by its cover, and we learned that eating expensive meals at name restaurants is not a requirement of a successful trip.  To this day, we seldom stay in a Hilton, Marriott, or other chain overseas, or eat at restaurants where a bottle of wine costs $20, much less $75.  In the early days we ate a few meals while standing up at a train station snack bar, but often enjoyed table cloths and waiters.

We returned to Europe for 8 weeks twice, in 1969 and 1972.  Over the years we’ve been there dozens of times but for shorter stays, except that we lived in Vienna for 18 months in 2004/5.  Nowadays we’ve discovered the great value of renting an apartment for a week or two and preparing most of our meals.  (See story about rentals)

These days we don’t pinch pennies as much, but we are still comfortable in places that the local middle class people use.   Sure, occasionally we splurge. We DID stay in a Hilton in Lima, Peru, last year for a few nights, to be near Andrew’s apartment.  It’s been twelve years (at the Regent Palace Hotel in London) since we shared a bathroom down the hall, but we still know how to enjoy a good picnic on a park bench from the grocery store, usually more than we enjoy an expensive meal.

It’s still a case of traveling on a budget vs. staying at home.