Thanks to the ailing greenback, a single ride on the London tube costs about $8 these days. A gelato in Florence can run upwards of $5. And those are just the "little things" — it gets uglier when you add in hotel stays and airfare.
The U.S. dollar has been on the decline against the euro for almost five years now. In the past year, it suffered a severe drop, pushing prices for everything from gold jewelry to imported cars higher. Try paying for your next vacation to Europe with that weak currency, and you'll easily end up paying about 20% more than you did just two years ago.
It's enough to make anyone refrain from pulling out their passport. In fact, a growing number of Americans — who are also facing a recession — are skipping vacations abroad altogether, opting instead to stick close to home. A recent survey by the U.S. Tour Operators Association, found that more than half of its members said their bookings to Europe and the U.K. have dropped off significantly, some by as much as 20% in the past year. And bookings for 2008 aren't expected to be any better.
For Americans who can't seem to fend off the international travel bug, there are ways to get to Europe (or get the feeling that you're in Europe) for much less. Here's how:
For travelers intent on visiting the art museums of Barcelona or the cathedrals of Italy, cruises are now one of the most affordable options. Cruise packages are typically all-inclusive (the cost covers the room, meals and onboard entertainment), which will help you better budget your trip. But now there's an added bonus: In an effort to fill their ships, cruise lines are throwing airfare into the price, says Stewart Chiron, industry expert and president of cruiseguy.com. With some of these deals, cruise goers can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars off the regular price.
"Passengers who can get away in April, May or June are going to find some fantastic deals," says Chiron.
Norwegian Cruise Lines, for example, reduced its price on a seven-night Western Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona to cities like Naples, Nice and Monte Carlo by more than 50% to $1,549 per person from $3,599. The price includes roundtrip air from select U.S. cities and a two-night hotel stay in Paris or Barcelona. Another pick of Chiron's is a Celebrity 12-night cruise that leaves from Southampton, England and goes to cities in France, Portugal, and Spain. The cruise's regular price can run as high as $5,000, but is now a much more affordable $2,650.
If you've never heard of Zoom or Eurofly, you're not alone. These U.S.-based start-up airlines are a good option for those who have their hearts set on visiting big European cities but don't have the big budget to get there, according to Judi Janofsky, co-publisher of travel e-newsletter WheretoGoNext.com. But travelers should know that their options will be limited. Zoom currently only flies out of New York and has scheduled flights to London just twice a week (the airline will begin flying out of Ft. Lauderdale in May and San Diego in June). Eurofly flies only from New York to about a dozen cities in Italy. The airline is currently promoting a $399 roundtrip fare from New York's JFK Airport to Rome.
Another option, says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, is to fly to one of the big European hubs like London or Paris on a major carrier and switch to a discount airline to get to your final destination. Europe's two main low-cost airlines are RyanAir and EasyJet. Because these airlines are ultra-low-cost, Banas says travelers should be wary of added fees for things like checking baggage that can quickly add up.
Lodging is by far the biggest expense when traveling abroad, and the weak dollar isn't helping it get any cheaper. The average daily hotel rate in Western Europe, for instance, increased 22.5% from December 2006 to December 2007, according to a survey by Smith Travel Research, a lodging industry data provider, and U.K.-based research outfit The Bench.
That's made the idea of house swapping all the more attractive. Exchange your apartment in New York for one in Paris and all you have to worry about is airfare and meals. Ed Kushins, president of HomeExchange.com, one of several online home-swapping clubs, says his site has seen its membership double to about 20,000 since April 2006.
"Especially now, we're hearing all kinds of stories from members saying they couldn't do a Europe trip this year if not for home exchange because the dollar is so bad and hotel prices are so high," says Kushins. And since the U.S. is such a bargain now — for Europeans in particular — Americans itching to stay in the English countryside or Siena, Italy for a week won't have a problem finding takers. "People over there can't wait to get to the U.S.," he says.
Broaden your travel horizons
Travel experts agree on at least one thing: Latin America offers the best overseas value for American travelers. Since most Latin American currencies are tied to the dollar, either officially or in practice, the greenback goes at least as far as it did before it started declining.
"I think this year Americans are going to discover the western hemisphere," says Chris McGinnis, editor of the Expedia Travel Trendwatch. Expedia's bookings to Latin America were up 8% in 2007, compared with 2006. The average roundtrip airfare to Latin America on Expedia is $489, says McGinnis; for South America in particular, it's $800.
The big cities in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay are known for their European-like feel, so even though they're the most expensive to get to — compared with, say, Mexico — the payoff is big for Americans eager to get that sitting-in-a-cafe-sipping-espresso-for-hours experience. For adventure seekers, South America has fjords, glaciers, trips to Antarctica and wine country, as well as skiing in the summer.
Also, some lesser-known parts of easy-to-get-to places like Puerto Rico and Mexico feature more than just a nice beach. The colonial region of Mexico, north of Guadalajara, for example, has old Spanish towns built by the Conquistadors. "It's relatively unknown to Americans. It has plazas, churches. It's a cultural experience," says McGinnis.
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