It's not too late for a European getaway

Strategies

May 07, 2006|By ALFRED BORCOVER | ALFRED BORCOVER,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Europe is looking forward to a huge influx of Americans this summer, more than last year and perhaps more than in 2000, when a record 13.1 million traveled to Britain, Ireland and the Continent, according to the European Travel Commission.

With the euro and the pound a bit weaker against the dollar, Americans might be able to save a few bucks as they tour this summer.

What could break the piggy bank, however, are airfares, which are higher. Here, in several nutshells, are some coping tips for Europe-bound travelers.

GETTING THERE / / "Seats for travel in May, when fares are still relatively low, are becoming scarce as we move toward June," said Tom Parsons, airfare guru and publisher of bestfares.com, an online magazine. And, if you're planning to travel next month, don't wait another moment to lock in your flights, he advised.

Parsons said that between June 1 and July 18, "you're probably going to pay as much as $400 to $500 above the April-May fares. You'll probably see fares between $200 and $300 higher if you can go from July 18 on. The further out in July you take off, the more flexibility you'll have coming back."

What Americans forget is that millions of Europeans are also filling trans-Atlantic flights to vacation in the United States and to take advantage of our "lower prices."

It stands to reason that more Americans are traveling to Europe in the summer -- the traditional vacation season -- so seat demand is high and so are fares. Besides the supply-and-demand factor, airlines are adding fuel surcharges to their tickets -- $110 to $130.

If you are looking for the best bang for your buck, Parsons said, the best deals are this month, September and October. "For those who want to gamble, you might see fare sales toward the end of August for fall travel," he said.

EURO AND POUND VS. DOLLAR / / Americans going to Europe in the near future will benefit from a dollar stronger than in 2005. In April 2005, the euro was worth $1.30. As of May 4, the euro was 1.2638. Given the way prices for meals and lodging tend to increase, not drop, it's difficult to say how much Americans will benefit from the stronger dollar.

Travelers bound for the United Kingdom will find the dollar somewhat stronger against the pound too. Last year around this time a pound was worth $1.90. On May 4, it was 1.8445, a slight drop. If nothing else, Americans can feel a bit better about the exchange rates.

Besides the UK, other European countries that don't use the euro are Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland, as well as the Eastern European nations -- Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Croatia. Check out oanda.com for other currency rates.

Lodging

Web sites can lead you to lodging all over Europe, but for sheer ease, call your travel agent and have him or her do the searching. If you are limiting your Europe experience to cities, you might consider hotel packages, which can be bundled with air reservations and transfers.

The travel agent / tour company route appears to be popular with many travelers. "We're seeing double-digit growth over a year ago," said Audrey Hendley, vice president of marketing for American Express Leisure Travel. Locking in as much of your European vacation as you can in dollars is a way to avoid euro and pound fluctuations, she said.

Strategies

Traveling to Europe this summer or anytime without first doing your homework is a big mistake. That is, unless you don't mind leaving your vacation in someone else's hands. Even if you use a travel agent, you should decide for yourself what you want to see. Homework leads to discovery, finding places that tie into your personal passions and enrich your trip.

Homework includes researching using guidebooks, newspaper travel sections, travel magazines and Web sites such as visiteurope.com, the official site of the 33-nation European Travel Commission. The ETC site has links to every member nation.

Pay for as much of your trip as you can before your departure. Eurail Passes, for example, can only be purchased at a limited number of locations in Europe.

Make a list of places you would like to visit. That will help you set an itinerary to make the best use of your time. Leave time for cafe sitting.

Consider buying a one-day or multi-day subway ticket, but only if you think it will pay off. In London, a Tube ride using a pre-paid Oyster Card is about $2.68, as opposed to the $5.35 regular fare. In Paris, a carnet of 10 tickets costs about $13.20, bringing the cost of a single ride to $1.32 instead of a regular single ticket fare of $1.73. Public transportation is always cheaper than taxis.

For the best exchange rates, use your ATM card to get euros or pounds or a credit card for purchases. Notify your ATM and credit card issuers that you will be using your cards overseas. Issuers can block cards when they are used overseas on the assumption that the card might be stolen.

Make certain your passport hasn't expired or isn't near expiration. Some countries will deny you entry if your passport is due to expire soon, sometimes as far out as six months.

Final suggestions: Don't over pack. Leave your valuable jewelry at home. And safeguard your money and your passport. Forewarned is forearmed.

Alfred Borcover is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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