Winter cools off cost of visiting Europe

With a strong euro, planning is needed, but good deals are available


December 28, 2003|By Alfred Borcover | Alfred Borcover,Chicago Tribune

Winter isn't the ideal time to go to Europe, but it's the ideal period in which to find deals -- meaning lower than usual prices, though European countries are not about to give away the store.

Finding deals also involves contending with the strength of the euro, the common currency for most of Europe. At this writing, it takes about $1.20 to buy one euro. It wasn't so long ago that the two currencies were on par. Now it takes more dollars to buy a meal or purchase a gift than it used to, with a dollar actually worth about 82 cents. It means that Americans need to adjust their thinking and their budgets when planning a trip.

"With the strength of the euro and the [British] pound, it makes sense to buy a package as basic as one that includes a flight, a hotel and perhaps ground transportation before you go," advised Rob Franklin, chairman of the 33-nation European Travel Commission and executive vice president of Visit Britain.

"If you're on a finite budget, you might shorten the trip by one day. Or consider downgrading to one level below the hotel you plan to use. If you normally stay at a four-star, stay at a three-star hotel to stretch your dollar. I think it's all about common sense, really. This is why when we see the number of American visitors beginning to return to Europe, we realize they are using their heads and budgeting accordingly."

Franklin suggested that travelers buy transit and museum passes and take advantage of other money-saving deals -- fixed-price lunches, which are less expensive than dinners, and the half-price theater ticket booth in London's Leicester Square, for example.

Often a hotel concierge can advise you on other money-saving offers, Franklin added. "The important message, I suppose, for all of our visitors is that we want them to think their trip has been worthwhile."

Anyone looking to go to Europe after the holidays should first shop the airlines, where low fares still exist. Airlines don't make money when flying with a lot of empty seats, so they adjust their fares to attract more bodies during the chill of January, February and March.

"Sales for winter travel have been running since August, the earliest I've seen them begin, but there is flexibility for fares to go a little lower," said Tom Parsons, president and CEO of, who tracks low fares on a daily basis. "The number of cheap seats available is becoming less and less every week. But you probably still have room to roll the dice. At a certain point, you've got to lock in a fare. For sure, if you don't see the right airfare you want 30 days or less before departure, you'd better start coughing up money."

The trick to finding a low fare is to search multiple Web sites -- Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia,, the carriers. The best time to check, advised Parsons, is on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when most sales are posted. There's still time, he said, for fares to come down a little in short-lived sales, especially in the major hubs such as New York / Newark, Washington and Philadelphia.

Here's a short sampling of deals for winter travelers:

* Britain. For $1,499, British Midland passengers get air, three nights in a four-star hotel, airport transfers, breakfasts, a sightseeing tour and the kicker -- a Harrods voucher worth about $330 a couple. The package is based on a per-person, double-occupancy rate that includes local taxes but not airport taxes. Details: www.; 888-669-8205.

* France. Air France's Winter in Paris package starting at $455 includes round-trip airfare, three nights accommodations including taxes, a continental buffet or full American breakfast depending on the hotel selected, a Seine River cruise and complimentary membership to Club France, which entitles you to many discounts. The package is good now through the end of March. 800-237-2623; / us.

* Spain. Iberia Airlines has a two-for-one promotional sale for travel in January and February to Madrid priced between $478 and $578, excluding fees and taxes. The prices are for two people. In Madrid, the Hotel Catalonia Moratin, a four-star property, is offering a double rate of about $120 a night and dinners for about $15 a person during January, February and March. 212-265-8822;

* Eurail. RailEurope says it is extending its 2003 prices through 2004. Newest products are the France 'n' Switzerland Pass, which starts at $259 per person for two people traveling together, and a Switzerland 'n' Austria Pass, which starts at $256. 888-382-7245;

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