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.
Dunnan, Teter and Ziff all recommend package deals as the best way to get the most for your weak dollar. Because package organizers book a large volume of trips, they get better rates than you can. "A package can be as simple as a series of hotel nights; some will include transfers from the airport to the hotel; some will include continental breakfast," said Teter. An additional benefit, she notes: "You're buying that package in U.S. dollars" at a locked-in rate.
Web Packages a Good Bet
While Dunnan and Teter say the best packages are found through travel agents, Ziff says consumers can increasingly build their own packages through the Internet.
Cruises are also a good option. "You fly to a point in Europe, spend a week or two on board a ship. Your meals are included, transfers are included. You are covering the majority of your expenses before you leave home," said Teter.
But Dunnan advises looking at the terms for sightseeing at ports of call before booking passage. In some cases, excursions can add hundreds of dollars to your cruise cost; in other cases, you can simply borrow a bicycle from the ship and tour the local villages on your own.
Among the ports of call on a 14-day Holland America cruise sailing July 27 from Copenhagen are Oslo, Dover, LeHavre, Lisbon, Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Dubrovnik, with daylong stopovers in each. Scenery on the cruise route includes the Rock of Gibraltar, the Stromboli Volcano and Mt. Etna. Fares for inside staterooms, not including airfare from New York, begin at well under $2,500 per person, double occupancy.
But you will pay extra for sightseeing when the ship docks. In Barcelona, for example, a $37 excursion from the Holland America cruise focuses on tours of Antoni Gaudi's works, while a $33 tour for cruise guests includes Barcelona's Gothic Quarter and the Picasso Museum. If you're visiting more than one city or country, compare your transportation options. If you're traveling with others, sharing a rental car might cost less than train tickets for everyone. But be prepared for fast, aggressive drivers, and of course, signs in another language. And remember that standard-shift cars are the norm in Europe.
For train travel, Eurail still offers the classic Youthpass for those under 26 ($414, 15 days, good in 17 countries). Other deals include the Saverpass, for two or more people traveling together ($498 per person, 15 days, 17 countries) and a Selectpass good for any combination of three, four or five adjoining countries. Kids age 4 to 11 can get half-price passes. But you must buy your pass before you go overseas.
New European discount airlines like Ryanair, Spanair, Air Berlin and EasyJet offer flights as low as $30 to $40 between major cities. But Wendy Perrin, editor at Conde Nast Traveler, cautions in the magazine's March issue that "low-fare carriers work only if you have a couple of hours to spare. You need to factor in the trip to and from the airport, possibly long check-in queues, and strick check-in deadlines." In other words, Europe's high-speed trains — which often connect cities at 150 mph — are sometimes faster.
Save money on museums and cultural sites by checking out days and times where admission is free or reduced, and by looking into passes that provide admission to multiple sites. BritRail's Great British Heritage Pass is good at over 600 historic homes, castles, gardens and ruins, including Windsor Castle and Kensington Palace in London, the Roman Baths in Bath, Edinburgh Castle in Scotland and Bodnant Gardens in Wales. A pass good for four consecutive days is $35. A Paris Museum Pass — $22.50 for one day, $42 for three days — provides admission to 70 museums and monuments. Many sites, including the Louvre and Versailles, charge around $9.25 at current exchange rates, so the pass pays for itself after a few stops.
Use common sense about daily necessities, just as you would if you were home. Don't eat in restaurants three times a day if you're on a budget. Grab a muffin or croissant from a bakery and a piece of fruit from a market for breakfast. For lunch, buy a hunk of cheese and bread. Get a tart or truffle to go from a chocolaterie instead of ordering dessert in a restaurant. Take subways and buses instead of cabs, and buy passes that allow you unlimited use of public transportation.
Avoid currency exchange services, like the kiosks found in airports and train stations. Experts say even teller's windows at banks don't give the best deals anymore. "You get the best rate with ATMs," Dunnan said.
Finally, if you can take your trip in the offseason, you'll save a bundle. Paris in January and London in November — that's when you can find bargains. Round-trip fares this past winter to Europe have been as low as $190, but Ziff says "you'll be getting a great deal if you get plane fare for under $400" come the warm weather.
Ziff adds that there will be few last-minute bargains to popular destinations in peak season. "If you're traveling to Europe this summer, buy early; buy now," she said. "Don't wait too long, thinking you're going to get a better deal."
If You Go…
AMERICAN EXPRESS: (800) 346-3607 or www.americanexpress.com/travel BRITRAIL OR BRITISH HERITAGE PASS: (877) 677-1066 or visit www.britrail.net. CONDE NAST TRAVELER: www.concierge.com/cntraveler/ DISCOUNT EUROPEAN AIRLINES: www.ryanair.com, www.easyjet.com, www.airberlin.com, www.spanair.com. EuropeByAir (www.europebyair.com) sells $99 one-way passes within Europe to 150 European cities, but you must buy tickets before leaving home. EURAIL: (800) 4EURAIL or www.eurail.com HOLLAND AMERICA: (877) SAIL-HAL or www.hollandamerica.com PARIS MUSEUM PASS: www.museumpass.com TRAVELOCITY: www.travelocity.com TRAVELSMART NEWSLETTER: (800) FARE-OFF or www.TravelSmartNewsletter.com.