You know the saying, your money's no good here? Well, it has taken on a whole new (and depressing) meaning in Europe.
Example: You're in London, feeling a little homesick. You stroll into a Planet Hollywood, just to grab a taste of home: a burger. No cheese, no fries, no drink. Just a plain old hamburger.
Unfortunately, that little exercise in nostalgia just cost you $20.
Welcome to Shrinking Dollarland and be careful, or you really will be taken for a ride on the current U.S.-European economic theme park.
But hear me out: It's not all doom and gloom.
There are ways to make your dollar stretch (and places where it will stretch further). What about the all-important airfare? You can stretch that with deals to Europe (they are out there). And that's my cue to tell you all about the ins and outs of Open Skies.
Open Skies, which was inaugurated just this past Sunday, is the name for the landmark agreement between the United States and European nations that effectively loosens antiquated regulations for trans-Atlantic flights. Before Open Skies, there were a lot of limitations on which airlines could fly to which countries or airports.
Now all that has changed: Essentially, the free market has taken over, so now, for the first time, folks in Washington, D.C., can fly nonstop to Dublin, and people in Dallas can fly direct to London's major hub, Heathrow, which provides easy connections to the rest of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
What does Open Skies mean for you? Choice. And good airfare deals. Having a wider choice spurs competition and competition, of course, means lower prices. And I think that's a wonderful thing.
Some disagree with me; they see Open Skies as a benefit mostly to the "road warriors" among us. They cite plans by British Airways to push ahead with a new, mostly business-class airline called OpenSkies (kind of catchy, isn't it?); look for OpenSkies to join the ranks of likeminded airlines such as Silverjet and eos.
I say, baloney. You see, business class is only part of the picture (after all, Maxjet wouldn't have gone bankrupt if business class was all people wanted); there are still plenty of economy passengers looking for trans-Atlantic flights.
No airline knows that better than Delta, which is cutting U.S. routes while putting more and more of its resources into international flights. Hey, the more the merrier. In my six years of tracking airfares, I have not once seen domestic or international routes get under way without price drops. So look for airfare specials. It'll happen.
And look for the real price choppers to jump in; I can't wait to see what kind of airfares a trans-Atlantic Ryanair might be willing to charge. Let's hope the Dublin-based carrier and others such as EasyJet are listening.
Fly During the Cheaper Seasons
You may not realize this, but there are well-defined seasons when it comes to European travel, and prices change significantly from season to season.
You can determine when seasonal changes occur by checking out monthly price calendars of the cheapest possible airfare (our site has this information); you'll see for yourself when prices drop off, and rise again. You can save $500 or more by flying to Europe just before the high summer season begins (a season that typically runs from the end of May through early September).
By the way, did you know there is an Aussie "version" of Open Skies? I can't wait to see cheaper fares to Australia (now if they could just figure out a way to make the flights shorter).
Now for a dash of cold water: I am talking about fuel surcharges. The price of fuel, as we know, is going up, up, up, and that's pretty much universal. And, increasingly, airlines around the world are passing this cost on to us (fuel surcharges are averaging about $215 roundtrip for trans-Atlantic flights). So, while you may find a great deal on a trans-Atlantic airfare, look at it closely, and be sure to add up all the costs to avoid the dreaded painful price pangs.
Understand the Total Cost of Your Airfare
Case in point: I saw a great deal on United last week -- Dallas to Zurich, roundtrip, in June -- for an incredible base airfare of $488 roundtrip (just so you know, our historical data tells us that a roundtrip base airfare for summer travel to Europe is rarely published for less than $900).
Typically (in years gone by), taxes and fees to Europe have averaged in the low $100s, so this would normally make a $488 airfare to Zurich an out-the-door price of about $600 or so, and that is an absolutely incredible price for summer travel to Europe. But unfortunately, that's not the total price today.
You must factor in the hefty fuel surcharge along with all the other taxes and fees. That $488 base airfare will increase with $309 in fees, taxes and surcharges. (They are: $200 fuel surcharge; $30.80 U.S. international departure/arrival tax; $5.50 U.S. customs fee; $7.50 U.S. 9/11 security fee; $5 USDA. agriculture fee; $7 U.S. immigration fee; $13.50 U.S. airport passenger facility charge and a $40 Swiss passenger security fee.)
Suddenly, that incredible $488 airfare is a somewhat less-than-incredible $797. But it is still a really good deal for a 2008 summer trip to Europe (which usually goes for about $1,200 out the door); you simply need to understand that travel to Europe starts at about $330 -- in taxes, fees and fuel surcharges -- before the actual base airfare is even factored in. So be prepared for some summer sticker shock this year.
And, once you get to Europe, well, there's always that $20 hamburger.
But there are a lot of Web sites devoted to stretching your dollars on the Continent (one of the most appealing ideas, I think, is for going a restaurant on occasion in favor of a family picnic in one of Europe's beautiful parks); check those out. But also check out cheaper destinations: Look at some of the lesser-known gems of Eastern Europe, or broaden your outlook to include the Bahamas, Brazil or New Zealand.
Something else to note about Open Skies: It's a two-way street (or, flight route). The year 2007 brought record-breaking numbers of international travelers to the United States but, thanks to Open Skies, watch that record shatter (despite the fact that our government -- with its Byzantine security measures -- makes the process somewhat painful for the international visitor). These visitors help our economy; they spend money.
And you better believe U.S. airport executives are ecstatic about these visitors and Open Skies in general; in the Dallas area alone, officials expect it will bring in an additional $125 million each year.
So, I say, hurrah for Open Skies. And I suggest you start checking out the new routes and new airlines being introduced in your city (or in a city near you): often such inaugural flights are dressed up with special sales.
Thought you couldn't go to Europe this summer? Might want to think again.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new generation, software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.