Ah, springtime in Paris. Well, perhaps not this spring. Although the dollar has recently gained about 5% against the euro, Europe is still an expensive proposition for Americans.
But if you're determined to visit the Continent, you can find ways to keep spending below sticker-shock levels. You can shave costs by buying a prepaid package, considering less-trodden destinations, or traveling within Europe on budget airlines. "You won't get great deals in Europe, but you can be a smart traveler," says Chris Loughlin, a vice-president at Travelzoo (TZOO ), an Internet site that lists travel sales and links.
The first step on your journey: Visit travel Web sites to get a feel for sales, specials, and the variety of airfare, hotel, and car-rental rates. Each wholesaler cuts its own deals, so prices and offerings vary. Also, deals can change by the minute.
Although airline competition should keep ticket prices from getting out of hand, Amy Ziff, editor-at-large at Travelocity.com (TSG ), says the lowest fares for warm-weather travel to Europe will be posted in early spring. "It will be wise to plan your trip a little early and take advantage of those springtime sales," Ziff says. "They tend not to last long."
For hotels, look for deals by booking early or by lowering your standards of luxury. Although prices will likely rise as summer gets closer, three-star hotels and a smattering of four-star ones in Rome and Paris have been offering nightly rates under $175 for June and July at sites such as www.activereservations.com and discounthotels.com. Make sure the final price includes all taxes and service charges and try to find hotels that include breakfast.
An air-hotel package is one of the most economical ways to go. Unlike past packages that offered a single flight and no choice of lodging, today's deals let you customize your vacation online by picking your travel dates and selecting among numerous flights and hotels at a bundled price. For instance, in mid-February, CheapTickets (CD ) offered two travelers wishing to leave on July 6 from Chicago to Rome a selection of 13 four-star hotels for six nights; the total air-hotel package ranged from $2,753 to $5,181, depending on which hotel is chosen.
Other sites worth checking are Travelzoo, Orbitz (CD ), Expedia (IACI ), priceline.com, TripAdvisor, and go-today.com, as well as the airline sites. For luxury packages, Classic Custom Vacations, based in San Jose, Calif., provides up to 50% discounts, says Suzi LeVine, vice-president for sales and marketing.
All-inclusive cruises are another way to find value. Jan Swartz, senior vice-president for sales and customer service at Cunard Line (CCL ) and Princess Cruises (CCL ), says both added European itineraries this summer. A new 12-day Mediterranean cruise on Cunard to France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain with a May departure starts at $2,400 per person, not including airfare. Try securing a cruise or barge deal by visiting LuxuryLink.com, an auction site that promises up to 40% off retail prices.
Beyond packages and cruises, travelers can stretch their euros by avoiding the highest-cost cities, such as Milan, Paris, and Rome. Instead, try Amsterdam or Vienna or cities in Portugal or Spain. At Hotels.com (IACI ), a four-star hotel for two in Paris for July 13 was about $332 with tax, while a five-star hotel in Amsterdam for the same night was selling for $174. The best deals -- while they last -- are in Eastern Europe, in cities such as Budapest, Krakow, Prague, and Warsaw. Although the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were admitted to the European Union last year, their currencies have not yet converted. Rooms at five-star hotels in Budapest and Prague were listed recently at $316 and $325 for June, vs. around $500 in Rome. What's more, says Douglas Stallings of Fodor's Travel Publications: "You can still get a great meal in Prague for $40 per person."
If you intend to city-hop, fly on one of the no-frills airlines that have sprung up since the EU deregulated air travel. A June 4 flight from Milan to Paris was posted at $35, including tax, at easyjet.com. Other low-cost carriers are bmibaby, ryanair.com, and SkyEurope. Despite the strong euro, travel experts expect Europe to be busy this vacation season. So if a deal looks good, don't wait around for a better one -- grab it.
By Susan Garland