If you've been holding out for a bargain trip to Europe, now is the time to jump on the wagon: The deals are rolling in.
Tour operators, travel agents and Web travel sites looking to keep travel on the minds of economically beleaguered Americans are dangling enticing packages and prices under their noses.
Why now? Off-season - Nov. 1 to March 31 in Europe - is fast approaching.
In most of Europe, fall and winter temperatures cool off inflated prices. So if you can stand a little chill in the air, you could end up with more trip for less cash. In many cases, you'll be spending from 35 percent to 50 percent less than you would to take a similar trip during summer.
"You could do a week's trip to just about any European capital for less than $1,000 right now," says Joan Dunne, vice president of travel coordination for Octopus Travel (octopustravel.com) in New York. "Next year, I promise, is going to be more expensive."
Dunne says off-season prices are lower this year because "people were still a little resistant to travel this year, and the only thing that's going to get people to travel is a lower price."
Besides price, there are many reasons to pay Europe an off-season visit. Crowds and lines are a summer memory, as are cluttered subways, trains and buses. Culture particularly shines. In the off-season, "you're doing museums, you're going to cultural performances, you're asking for advice on restaurants and so on," says Matthew Klein, president of Continental Journeys (continentaljourneys.com), a travel agency in Los Angeles that specializes in packages in Scandinavia, the Baltics, Russia, Eastern and Central Europe.
Restaurants, tourist attractions and shops are less cluttered with humanity, and you'll likely be joining the locals at opera, ballet and orchestra performances, because, well, being outdoors may be too cold.
Just how nippy would that be? Klein likens winters in Europe to "East Coast-ish weather." He adds, "It does snow there, but not heavily,"
Off-season Europe isn't all parkas and heavy boots, though. Consider the Mediterranean, where winter temperatures remain moderate. But consider, also, that off-season deals in the Mediterranean aren't as good as you'll find in less-temperate places such as Vienna, Munich, Prague, Paris and London.
You can scout out off-season deals by scanning advertisements or by calling a travel agent to ask what packages tour operators are offering.
The Web is also rich with off-season bargains. Try sites such as GoToday.com and LastMinuteTravel.com, as well the Web sites of individual tour operators and travel agents. The U.S. Tour Operators Association Web site (ustoa.com) offers a listing of its members, as does the American Society of Travel Agents (astanet.com).
You'll likely find some tempting trips, but in the process of going gaga over them, don't check your brain at the door.
Note, for instance, that advertisements may state "from $399," with the word "from" in small type, and that that price is likely to be for a trip that starts from a major East Coast gateway, such as New York or Miami. You'll have to pay an air supplement to get to that gateway.
When you've zeroed in on an off-season package, start asking questions:
Are air and security taxes included in the price? How much of a deposit is required? Will I lose my money or pay more if I change my plans? Is the airfare portion nonrefundable?
What class of hotel does the package include? Is the property centrally located or in the middle of nowhere? Is it near a subway or a train station? Does it front a major road? Is breakfast included? Is it continental fare or something more substantial?
Are transfers from the airport to the hotel and back included? Is the price quoted for double or single occupancy? If it's double and I'm traveling alone, is there a single supplement?
After you've gotten satisfactory answers and signed on the dotted line, consider one other purchase: third-party travel cancellation insurance from an underwriter such as TravelGuard (check InsureMyTrip.com for more options).
Shop for a policy that will cover you if you have to cancel your trip for any reason, and that will cover your losses and the interruption of your trip if your tour operator suddenly files for bankruptcy, as did Miami-based Far & Wide Travel, the parent company of 21 operators, last month.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
All deals are subject to availability. Here are three to check out:
Octopustravel.com is offering packages to London starting from $339 departing from Boston; Newark, N.J.; or New York.
The package includes round-trip airfare, six nights' hotel with daily continental breakfast and hotel taxes and fees. Expect to pay another $125 in airport taxes and fees. Prices are for travel Mondays through Thursdays; there is a $25 surcharge each way for travel on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays.