Dollar dips, but travel abroad can still be a good deal

U.S. travelers find top values in China, Mexico, Argentina


February 06, 2005|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight Ridder / Tribune

A year ago, an American traveler paid $125 for a modest hotel room in London at that time's rate of exchange. Today, the same room in the same hotel costs $153, and the $25 meal he had then now runs $29.

In most of the world, the story is the same: Costs for American travelers are sharply higher this year because of the declining value of the dollar against the other currencies. And the situation isn't likely to get any better in the near run.

"The dollar has nowhere to go but down," said Arthur Frommer, the longtime guru of budget travel.

That doesn't mean Americans should put off travel abroad, though, he said. There are alternatives.

"The dollar is down against many currencies, but one major destination that is not affected is China," Frommer said. "China maintains an 8 1/2 yuan to $1 exchange, and that makes everything cheap. It's easy to go there, and there are good tours and packages."

For Americans who are loath to travel that far, there are closer destinations where they can get a bigger bang for their buck.

"Mexico and the Dominican Republic are value packed," said Steve Loucks of the giant Carlson Wagonlit travel agency. "Mexico is the biggest value for the dollar; it's by far our biggest destination." Over the past couple of years, the dollar actually has gained in value against Mexico's peso.

In general, countries that are locked to the U.S. dollar offer the best value, Loucks said. That's why Argentina, Panama and Hong Kong, among other destinations, remain attractive to American vacationers.

Argentina, "wonderfully inexpensive," is a excellent deal for Americans, according to Frommer, as is Brazil to some extent. Chile also is affordable. "And the Caribbean, while not especially cheap, is no more expensive than it was before," he said.

Canada, whose loonies (dollars) have strengthened against the U.S. dollar, is not as good a buy as before but represents "great value as an alternative to Europe," according to Loucks.

Pacific, Southeast Asia

In the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand still offer value to vacationers, though their currency has strengthened considerably against the dollar.

In Melbourne, Australia, the average cost for a first-class hotel plus three meals is US $164.24 for a single traveler, according to Runzheimer's Travel Management Network, a Web-based tool for benchmarking corporate travel costs, travel policies and travel programs. For couples, of course, meal costs (but not lodging) will be higher. Transportation costs, admissions, entertainment and the like must be added as well.

Southeast Asia looks to offer excellent value. Though many resort areas were spared by the tsunami, publicity about the disaster has put off many would-be visitors to the region. In Indonesia, for instance, Sumatra was hit hard, but Bali, a popular destination, was untouched. And while the west side of the island of Phuket in Thailand was struck, the east side was not.

"I bet there will be good prices as these places try to get tourists to return," said Lila Tell of New World Travel, a Miami travel agency. "That's a given. You'll see all sorts of deals," predicted Marshall Harris of Harris Travel of Miami.

Despite currency inroads, Eastern Europe remains a relatively good buy. "The dollar has lost 10 to 15 percent in value there, but prices are still lower than in Western Europe," said Loucks.

"Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia and Turkey offer value," said David Kolner, director of global programs for Orbitz for Business and Travelport, which are part of Cendant's Corporate Travel Solutions group. Non-euro Sweden is also affordable, the company said, but it warned that "with the euro now fully established, and more countries joining in the future, the chances of finding a 'really cheap' country in Europe are probably lower than ever before."

In Greece, Athens, which built new hotels for last year's Olympic Games, also offers good value compared to prices in London, Paris and Rome, according to Mary Novak-Beatty of "Usually there's a 20- to 40-euro difference in hotel rates," she said.

Visiting less expensive countries also can work for travelers in other ways. For one thing, luxury accommodations often are available at an affordable price, a boon for those who want to put a little elegance into their journey. A stay in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Istanbul, for instance, starts at $170 per night. The Four Seasons rate in Jordan is $183, and in Shanghai a third-night-free deal cuts the Four Seasons daily cost down to $153.

Western Europe

Despite Western Europe's higher costs, however, Americans seem determined to visit that region this year, perhaps in record numbers.

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