Texas college student Cheryl Halbert experienced sticker shock on a visit to Rome in early March.
"We've spent so much on where we are staying and what we eat that I'll be working all summer to pay it back," said Halbert, 19, from San Antonio, who was traveling with Andrea Schweikhard, a fellow student at Abilene Christian University.
Even a half-liter bottle of mineral water cost more than twice the 75 cents the young women would normally pay back home — two euros, or about $1.60.
Like Halbert and her friend, many Americans heading to Europe as prime travel season gets under way will be disheartened by how little a dollar buys. The euro hit a five-year-high against the dollar in February, trading at $1.29, although it was down slightly to $1.24 in early March. But as recently as mid-2002, the euro was worth just 88 cents. That means in two years, European vacations have gotten over 40 percent more expensive for Americans.
But experts say there are plenty of ways to make the best of a lousy exchange rate — from getting all-inclusive package deals, to choosing destinations in Eastern rather than Western Europe, to using discount airlines and train passes for local travel.
Pent-Up Plans to See Europe
Linda Teter, director for American Express Travel, notes that despite the weak dollar, "we have seen very, very strong demand for European travel, particularly for peak travel periods in spring and summer. There's a lot of pent-up demand" from travelers who postponed trips in the last three years due to concerns about terrorism and a weak domestic economy. In January alone, American Express' European cruise and tour sales were up by double digits over the same period in 2003. Amy Ziff, editor-at-large for the online company Travelocity, has also seen strong demand, with European trips comprising a 30 percent larger share of all Travelocity bookings this season compared to a year ago. And while Paris, London and Rome remain Travelocity's top three European destinations, bookings to Eastern Europe — where hotels, food and amenities are cheaper — are on the rise. The May 1 addition of 10 new countries to the European Union — the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, as well as Cyprus and Malta — may further raise their profiles among bargain-hunting vacationers.
Nancy Dunnan, editor of TravelSmart newsletter, agrees that budget travelers should consider venturing outside the most popular — and most expensive — European cities. "Prague and Krakow are such beautiful medieval cities," she said. "I can't imagine anyone being disappointed."
No More Designer Deals
Smart consumers will also stay away from luxury items that were cheap when the dollar was strong but are bargains no more. On a visit to Paris in January, New Yorker Susan Gray purchased a Chanel No. 5 purse-size refill for $88 — exactly what U.S. retailers charge for the same item over the Internet. And Alison Brod, who owns a Manhattan public relations company, has decided to forgo her twice-annual shopping trips to Europe. She remembers visiting a European Gucci store several years ago that "was like a giant flea market — everything was 45 percent off!" But these days, she buys her European designer items on eBay.