By Brad Beckstrom
Wait, The Frug hanging out at a four-star resort in the Greek Islands? That doesn’t sound very frugal. The fact is, it’s never been more frugal. This has a lot to do with the strength of the US dollar versus the Euro which is regularly hitting 10 year lows, but it has more to do with Greek hospitality and choosing the right time and the right island to visit.
Location, Location, Location
While I was researching Greece, I was a bit disappointed to see pictures of summer crowds in places like Santorini and Mykonos. One website even included photos titled “perception” and “reality” showing a photo of beautiful whitewashed houses and windmills on Santorini next to a photo of the same spot, covered in tourists, with every alleyway bursting at the seams with dreaded shoppers and selfie stick wavers.
From the start, I wanted to avoid the crowds. That was going to be tough as our kids weren’t getting out of school til late June and, like many other families. we’d all be hitting the highways and airports about the same time. The strategy we came up with was to visit a few Greek islands that most Americans have never heard of, Paros and Antiparos. We talked to some Greek insiders including a celebrity chef my 14-year-old son had been chatting up on Twitter and got the scoop on these two islands. They’re in the same Cyclades chain of islands with Santorini and Mykonos, but because Paros is a ferry hub, it’s often the first stop coming and going on the ferry from Athens. This would be our destination.
The other key element in our plan was timing.
In the Greek islands, the month of June is considered shoulder season and, even though the weather’s perfect, everything is less expensive, ferry rides, hotels, restaurants, rental cars. The key is, after July 1 everything changes and prime season begins. In many European countries students get out of school the first week in July so that’s when the resorts kick into high gear. Since my youngest son wasn’t graduating eighth grade until June 22, we had to plan for getting on a plane that night. This would allow us to squeeze in about a week and a half of our trip within the shoulder season.
A two-week vacation is something I’ve probably done maybe three times in my life. As a small business owner to pull this off would take some planning. We started nine months in advance, tracking some flights to Athens with weekly alerts on Kayak. Prices seemed to be consistently in the $1100-$1900 range per ticket! Most of the tickets on the low end of that range had some crazy layover times and were on carriers like Aeroflot which we weren’t comfortable with. So, I broadened the search to include some other European cities that we could connect through and to my surprise was able to grab four tickets on Wow Airlines to Paris at $740 each round trip with only a 1 hour layover. We were able to cover most of the cost of the 4 airline tickets using 2% cash back points from our Fidelity AMEX card. If you’re on a budget or using points towards European tickets, always get your airline tickets booked before any airbnb or hotel reservations. Once you’re locked in with the flights, you can take advantage of prepaid hotel discounts on Hotels.com or use AirBnb’s that require a deposit. We were able to bookend our trip with 5 nights in Paris and jump an EasyJet flight to Athens $190 round trip each. Most of the discount carriers charge for checked bags and prices can vary wildly so always pack light and check bag prices (and weights) before you hit the buy button. In our case we were still saving a lot even with the layover in Paris.
For this trip we used AirBnB for a 2 room flat in the swank Le Marais neighborhood central to most of what we wanted to see in Paris for a total of $143 a night. About half of what decent hotels charge in the area. I was also excited that UBER was working again in Paris. We were able to avoid cabs and use our credit card for a better exchange rates. The trip into the middle of Paris from Charles de Gaulle airport was $45 which was dirt cheap, expect to pay more during rush hour. We didn’t sign up for any prepaid tours, we just walked each day with a destination in mind. I use the Tripadvisor app to save the locations we wanted to see and link to Google maps.(You can now download the Google map for the area and the Tripadvisor guide while you’re on Wi-Fi so you save money on data charges). We also grabbed a few hop on hop off tickets on the Seine river boat and used the Metro. This allowed us to avoid traffic and get around to some of the more popular sites on our own schedule.
From Paris, we hopped on a 6 AM EasyJet to Athens so that we could catch the 2 PM ferry to Paros. Again, I was excited that UBER was also working in Athens. It’s so nice to open an app and have a knowledgeable driver who knows where you’re going, show up curbside. We got a local driver who beamed with Greek pride as he showed us the Olympic Stadium and talked about local dishes we must eat like Moussaka and Souvlaki. Nearly everyone we met spoke English and most signs including all of the road signs were bilingual.
If you spend your time reading news headlines and you might be led to think that Paris or Athens are unsafe cities. Both of my sons expressed concerns about traveling to Europe with everything going on. Sure, I worry but who’s going to let ISIS disrupt their travel plans, not me. As it turns out the only dangerous part of this trip was the ride to the airport through Arlington Virginia where we got hung up in a road closing due to a live police shootout, we could see from our vehicle. Thanks to some quick thinking by the Arlington Police, our UBER driver was allowed to back up to a ramp and get us out of harms way. I hung out the window to help our driver navigate in reverse. We later learned via twitter that after shots were exchanged the shooter took his own life, literally 100 yards from us. I felt pretty sure that Paris, Athens, or the Greek islands would have trouble topping that! Regardless, learning about other cultures is one of the safest moves you can make with your kids.
Part of the reason we planned to visit Europe was due to the strength of the dollar versus the euro. The dollar is regularly hitting 10 year highs versus the euro and it’s a great time to go. Right on schedule, a day after we landed in Paris the financial world was rocked by Britain’s exit vote from the EU, also known as Brexit. I tried to ignore the news and enjoy myself but what I didn’t expect is that the crisis would push the US dollar even higher. For most of our trip €1.10 equaled one dollar, as a comparison the last time we traveled in Europe it was about one €.1.47 That’s like getting a 25% discount on everything.
Prices in the Greek islands were already low due to a weak economy and the fact that we were visiting during shoulder season. For example we stayed in a wonderful 4 star resort in Parikia on the island of Paros for $126.00 US per night. The rate included tax and an excellent breakfast each day for all four of us, as well as an extra bed in our large room. Based on the view alone I’m not sure if we’ve ever gotten a better value from a hotel. The Sunset View hotel is family-owned and the owner seemed to be available at all hours making sure everything was running smoothly.
We wanted to rent a car to explore the large island and paid $35 per day cash, no credit card, drivers license or passport required and they dropped off new 4 door Nissan right at the hotel. Take a look at my Greek rental car agreement. The island of Paros is so large we only got to see about half of it during our six-day visit as well as a day trip over to Antiparos, its smaller even quieter sister island.
One thing I’d heard about Greece is that the wine and the beer were not very good. There are some great advantages to not being a wine snob. I immediately liked the local white wines that were very crisp and had a very slight pine aftertaste which was unique. In fact, they were perfect for the chicken and seafood entrées that averaged between €9 and €11. The best part of my Greek beverage experience was the local Alfa Weiss beer that averaged €4 for a big 500 ML bottle at even at the nicest beachfront restaurants.
Before we arrived in Greece I had a whole speech ready for the kids about the size of the rooms. I assumed we would encounter small rooms cramped quarters which would raise some complaints. I got just a few but considering our amazing surroundings, how often are we in the room anyway? I did not even have to give that speech. Anytime our family of four has been in a cramped hotel room, I always like to bring up my camping analogy. How big would our tent be if we were camping in the Adirondacks, look at all the amazing space here in this deluxe hotel room, and it has a shower!. I still want to get to the Adirondacks but for now I’ll just enjoy the view from here.