Eastern Europe holds promise of bargain travel

April 23, 1995|By Louis Trager | Louis Trager,San Francisco Examiner

Travel-bargain specialists have a word of advice for vacation planners worried about the dollar's collapse: Bulgaria.

Yes, Bulgaria. Not the undifferentiated, gray land mass conjured up by Cold War stereotypes, but a colorful, bucolic -- even flashy -- gem of a destination, offering attractions from a seacoast with casinos to unspoiled countrysides with skiing.

It's a locale where the dollar reigns supreme, unbowed by its swoon on world markets this year.

"We advised our readership to stay away from Germany and most of Western Europe," says Herbert Teison, editor of the Travel Smart newsletter in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. "On the other hand, Eastern Europe, particularly Bulgaria, is a good buy."

The once-mighty dollar has crashed to record low values in relation to the world's other key currencies, the Japanese yen and the German mark. Pitiless money traders, referring to the even more severe collapse of Mexico's money since December, talk about the United States belonging to the "peso bloc" of currencies.

"There is a sticker shock when people want to book a five-star hotel" in Europe, says Bill Graham of Graham Travel in San Francisco. "When they see the prices, they're very willing to jump down to a three-star hotel to save money. The real shock when they get over there is the price of meals."

Thus, vacationers in Amsterdam can downgrade from the five-star Hotel Krasnapolsky, which runs $250-a-night and up, to the three-star Hotel Toren, where rates run about $120. But they're still going to pay $75 or more for a good dinner, Mr. Graham says.

Travel agents, however, say that weeks of alarming headlines about the dollar's travails haven't disturbed travel patterns much.

Emily Porter, a spokeswoman for American Express Travel Related Services, took a survey of some of her U.S. offices on the currency question last week.

"The answer -- almost emphatically -- was that it was not affecting travel patterns in any significant way," she says. "They [travelers] grumble about it, but they're still booking their trips."

Few customers are concerned enough about what may be a few hundred extra dollars' expense, on a several thousand dollar trip, to seek strong-dollar destinations.

Agents note little shift away from Western and Northern European countries with expensive currencies, like Germany and France, and toward cheaper southern and eastern locales like Portugal, Turkey and the former Soviet bloc.

Even the precipitous drop of the dollar against the yen didn't depress interest in Japan, travel agents say, because that country already had been so expensive for Americans for so many years.

Travel offices do report a flurry of inquiries about Mexico from consumers seeking super bargains.

But they quickly learn that most tours, air fares and big-city and resort hotels quote their prices in dollars, and tour prices have been locked in months earlier, before the peso debacle.

Still, Mexico represents a good value for American travelers this year.

In Mexico, Mr. Teison says, "You can get artwork, meals, taxi rides and -- if you pay in pesos -- hotels at very reasonable prices," He suggests going to Mexico before mid-summer, because he expects price increases to have kicked in by then.

Scott McNeely, executive editor of the Berkeley Guides book series, says Mexican airline packages that would have cost $600 for a week just days ago have dropped below $500. He suggests a trip to Oaxaca state, via Mexico City, or the ruins and less-touristy beaches of the Yucatan peninsula, by way of Cancun.

But he's especially enthusiastic about the cheap and gorgeous beaches of Belize and Honduras. An international scuba certificate that would cost at least $800 in the United States and $350 in Mexico can be had for $150 in Honduras, Mr. McNeely says.

Likewise, the Canadian dollar is weak. Tourism authorities in British Columbia often run attractive package deals.

For the adventurous, the least expensive destinations, apart from air fares, are in the former Communist bloc. Many of the shattered economies are desperate for anything resembling a hard currency, and the money systems aren't closely tied to the mark and the yen.

Then there's Bulgaria: Bounded by Greece, Romania, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and the Black Sea., it is a land of contrasts and bargains.

"Right in the center of the capital, Sofia, next to the ultra-deluxe Sheraton Hotel, you have a fourth-century church," says Max Starkov, president of Balkan Holidays, the world's biggest Bulgarian tour operator.

"We have the best-preserved folklore in Europe -- the music, the songs, the dances. This year [in August] there will be again a national folklore festival, which is held every five years. It's the event among people who love folklore."

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