I am sitting in Alla Fontana, a pizzeria in a working-class district of Milan, well off the path of massive churches and chic shops. Between mouthfuls of fish and pasta ($8.50) and sips of cold beer (about $1.50), I watch as locals draw me maps on napkins and argue about navigating this city of piazzas. Their elaborate gesturing keeps me riveted and, best of all, it's free! As I proved on a recent three-city trip, you can still enjoy Europe without an Oprah-like bank account—and as an American who lives in France, I can show you how.
My goal: three cities, nine days, $999. This doesn't include the flight from the United States, but bargains abound. In mid-June I found roundtrip flights from New York City to London for about $450. (Sign up with sites such as airfarewatchdog.com, which e-mails news about sales.) For my stay—four days in London, two in Milan, three in Paris—I flew with Ryanair and easyJet, Europe-based "secondary" airlines that offer cheap tickets, even with handling and gas-tax charges (learn more at euroflights.info). Ryanair flies mainly to small alternative airports; easyJet tends to go through major ones. I paid $68 to fly Ryanair from London to Bergamo Airport (about 28 miles from Milan); and $69 on easyJet, from Milan to Paris (with fees). It was cheaper than rail: Euro Railways (954-323-8389) can cost $133 from Paris to Milan.
I traveled during high season (late April to August), so bargain hunting was harder. Hotel amenities were a low priority, so I looked for an apartment. Rentals can cost 50 to 80 percent less than hotels: in Paris, studios start at about $62 per night. (Go to ownerdirect.com or homeaway.com for info.) I couldn't find rentals in my budget on short notice, so I went to couchsurfing.org, a database of people offering short-term travelers their couches or guest rooms for free. I couch-surfed a few years ago in Geneva and loved it, thanks to the lovely accommodations and the largely absent but welcoming host. Most hosts I found in London seemed too eager to party, so I chose a bed-and-breakfast. Booking sites such as eurocheapo.com and venere.com described most as "cozy," but tripadvisor.com, a peer-review site, gave the real scoop (similar sites include igougo.com and realtravel.com). The London Visitors Hotel got positive ratings, and at about $54 per night, the clean B&B was a find in posh Kensington. (Reserve directly to avoid booking fees—I paid one when I used a third party.) To save funds, I picnicked in Kew Gardens and Hyde Park and enjoyed a free concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields church, but I also splurged on $12 takeout at inexpensive Indian restaurants. On my last day I stopped at an outdoor market...and missed my airport bus! I paid $178 for a cab, instead of $14.90 for the National Express Coach. Ouch.
Transportation: $57 (estimated, without cab ride)
Hostels are a good budget option: I found the modern Pop House-Milano hostel via a Web search. My room overlooking the courtyard cost $50 per night, including taxes. The Pop House was a rarity, since I paid a single rate for a private room (this costs double at many hostels). Once settled, I toured the city on foot, asking locals where to go. One recommendation: the Chiesa di San Bernardino alle Ossa, a church with fabulous frescoes. When it was time to eat—the city center is languorous with Italian cooking aromas—I bought a hefty $3 panino from a street vendor and lunched beside a spewing fountain. I also ate for a pittance at eateries suggested by locals, with one meal so cheap it still surprises me: for $4—the cost of a white wine at Frida Café—I ate a dinner's worth of free appetizers.
I arrived at my charming hotel—the $79-per-night Hôtel Mistral—and was out the door. Paris is full of free activities, so I strolled along the Seine River and visited the Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens. And I didn't go to pricey restaurants for Parisian food. During my stay I bought fresh goat cheese, chunky apricot jam, smoked salmon, and thick yogurt made in Brittany, for about $22. For laid-back dining, I ordered two gourmet takeout meals for $24—half the dining-in price. But my best meal came (I was chatting with locals again) when I was invited to dinner at a private home. I savored goat cheese salad, sautéed string beans, and a flavorful tarte for dessert. And as a travel experience, it was priceless.
Transportation: $141 (with estimated return fare to London)
Judith Reitman, a native New Yorker, lives in Provence and is the author of several nonfiction books. (On this trip the exchange rate for the GBP was 1.49 to U.S.$1.00 and the euro was 1.32 to U.S.$1.00.)