The U.S. dollar has been steadily sliding against the euro for years, but now that it takes almost $1.50 to buy one euro and more than $2 to buy one pound sterling, it’s finally sinking in with American travelers that a trip to Europe is going to cost a bundle. Paying for a European vacation can feel like buying a diamond engagement ring: Your ballpark budget could easily be two months’ salary.
I recently met with tourism bureau representatives from close to 20 European destinations. Most believe 2008 is going to be the year that tourism from the U.S. either flattens out or drops. Some are facing that probability with resignation, while others are trying to find ways to ease the bite for those carrying battered dollars. If you are a budget-minded traveler determined to visit Europe, you will have to plan carefully and be willing to try something different.
“Everyone wants to go to Tuscany,” sighed one villa rental representative I met with in November. “We can offer twice the space for half the money elsewhere, but it’s hard to get clients to look beyond the well-known regions.” This sums up one problem that causes a vacation budget to go through the roof: going where everyone else is going.
A willingness to go to less-heralded places is essential to bringing down the cost on the other side of the Atlantic. Whether you are renting a villa or staying in hotels, these destinations will nearly always cost you significantly less. Head to Eastern Europe instead of the West. Try a Greek island none of your neighbors has heard about instead of Santorini or Mykonos. Ski in the Alps of Slovenia instead of Austria or Italy. With any of these strategies, your total cost can easily drop by a third or a half.
As I noted in an earlier column, rural areas are almost always easier on the budget than capital cities. Visit Moravia instead of Prague, the English countryside instead of London, or the towns of Andalusia instead of Barcelona. If you are heading to Croatia because it’s suddenly “the hot place to go,” or if you plan on following the 75 million vacationers visiting France each year, plan on paying top dollar.
Tracking down the discounts
More than in the past, this is the time to become a deal sleuth if you want any chance of keeping your vacation budget at a reasonable level. The Norwegian capital of Oslo is going all-out to ease visitors’ pains, offering all kinds of free entertainment, a visitors pass good for entry at 28 museums and for unlimited public transportation (cost: $38 a day or less), as well as $20 “cheap seats” at the new opera house opening in April. The $15 Luxembourg Card gives visitors unlimited local transportation, free admission to a long list of attractions, and sizable discounts on major attractions in Luxembourg. Scour the official tourism sites and regional visitors sites to track down similar savings opportunities for other areas — but do the math to make sure they make sense for your interests.
Before scouting out flight prices, check into package deals being offered by airlines that have a lot at stake in keeping their U.S. routes filled. Companies like Air Berlin and Icelandair don’t just offer some of the most attractive fares across the Atlantic; they frequently put together package deals that deliver good hotel rates priced in dollars — as low as $99 a night in expensive places like Reykjavik, Stockholm and Amsterdam.
Most people know that Europe gets more expensive in the summer, so avoid those three months if at all possible. Also realize that business districts in European capitals are busy during the week while the tourist districts are busiest on weekends. If you can stay at one or the other at the opposite time, you’ll probably get a much better rate on your hotel room.
Be flexible in your transportation options, too. When looking at flight options, investigate flying into a neighboring country and then catching a budget flight or train for the last leg. The savings can be substantial. Once at your destination, join the locals on a bus or train. You can get almost anywhere in Europe without an expensive rental car and will probably end up with far fewer hassles.
Above all, plan your trip around the deals instead of trying to find deals that fit your rigid plans. Those who go into the planning process with their options wide open can experience a European vacation without maxing out their credit card. Those who go to the most popular places at the most popular time of year are the ones most likely to feel the sting of the currency exchange rates.