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How to Afford Europe This Summer
May 1, 1988 --Maybe it's time to face hard facts like the mature, rational adults we claim to be. Maybe it's time to look the plain truth right in the metaphorical eye.
The hard facts: Europe is going to be expensive this summer. That's the incontrovertible logic of foreign-exchange rates. The almighty dollar that allowed us to spend profusely and carry a large shopping bag in the summer of 1985 is treading much more softly in Europe now. Compared to the invincible greenback of three summers ago, 1988's dollar buys a third fewer British pounds, 40 percent fewer Italian lire and French francs and only half as many German marks.
The plain truth: We'll travel to Europe this summer anyway, no matter how much more it costs. Deep within the hearts of most Americans is an unquenchable passion for the Continent. The Mexican peso's collapsed, but no one shops in Mexico City if they'd rather be on Bond Street. Sydney's cheap enough, but it ain't Rome. And Seoul may have the Olympics, but only Munich has the Marienplatz, where the church bells chime sweetly on warm summer evenings.
The facts surrounding the dollar's decline in Europe are harsh indeed, but it's probably a mistake to dwell on the buck's buying power in 1985. That was an aberration, a grand glitch in the monetary machinery. That summer of 10 francs and three marks and 2,000 lire to the dollar was a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza.
Besides, the 1988 dollar isn't as weak as many financial shamans would have us believe. It buys significantly more pounds, francs and lire than the dollar commanded in the summer of 1980 or 1981. As the currency charts flow, the summer of 1988 looks to be a fiscal replay of 1982.
We traveled to Europe in 1982, didn't we? And it's clear that the state of the dollar won't stop us this year. By all accounts, 1988 promises to be a busy year for European travel from the United States. The airlines, the hotels, the tour packagers and the travel commissions all say the same thing: We're booking travel to the Continent in numbers large enough to actually rival the summer of 1985.
Still, there'll be few bargains, and traveling the Continent in the style to which we've become accustomed will cost more than before. Managing Europe in this summer of the unmighty dollar will force us to budget strategically, be flexible, plan well--and well in advance--and cut the odd corner.
There's some good news right at the start. Getting to Europe won't be too expensive. Making some allowance for inflation, 21-day advance-purchase (APEX) airfares to four of our favorite continental haunts--London, Paris, Rome and Munich--are virtually the same as they were in 1985. APEX fares to the rest of Europe are also on a par with that summer's. And nimble travel agents will be able to pluck legal and deeply discounted fares from the burgeoning gray market in international airline tickets.
(But be warned: the cost of unrestricted fares to Europe has skyrocketed. For example, the typical New York–London APEX fare this summer is $722 round-trip, but unrestricted coach is $754 one-way.) There's also good news for those of us headed for European countries where the dollar hasn't been savaged by the exchange rate. The dollar is buying about 135 drachmas now, so it's no surprise that bookings to Greece are up about 30 percent compared with last summer. Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia and Turkey are also shaping up as solid summer values.
Around Western Europe, however, careful planning is likely to be the order of the summer. We won't have to backpack and share bathrooms in disreputable tourist fleabags; things aren't that bad. You can do Europe in style this summer without throwing prudence to the wind. But fiscal caution will pay exceedingly handsome rewards. Stepping down one star in the restaurant ratings or checking into a good hotel just a few minutes from a great one might be the way to go this year.
It might also be wise to take full advantage of a wide variety of discount opportunities. Any good travel agent can tie your airfare to a "land package" that includes hotel accommodations and car rentals. The savings on these fly-stay-drive deals often run to 25 percent or more. And don't prejudge packages. They aren't all "charter tours." The vast majority use scheduled airlines and they can book virtually any hotel in Europe.
But even if you insist on booking your flight and hotel separately, you can find substantial discounts. For example, Hilton International's Premium Plus European Summer Bonus plan groups almost two dozen of the chain's best European hotels into three affordable categories of $49, $66 and $89 per person per night. Consider, also, a Mediterranean cruise. It's a great way to lock in the price of meals, accommodations and transportation despite high prices in the ports of call.
This will also be a year when paying scrupulous attention to the oft-repeated rules of European travel will yield substantial financial benefits. Heed the local value-added taxes and know how to claim your VAT refund. Taxis are for swells: local bus lines, trolleys and trains are just fine. Spur-of-the-moment airline travel within Europe is outrageously expensive; the efficient national rail systems offer economical passes (which should be purchased in the United States). Don't shop at airports; the duty-free shops and foreign-exchange booths are rarely bargains.
Overseas telephone calls from your hotel room are also out; AT&T's USA Direct is in. It allows you to dial a code from virtually any telephone in 9 countries (or from special phones, often in airports, in other countries), reach an AT&T operator and pay AT&T rates for calls. (Call AT&T before you leave to get access codes: 800-874-4000, extension 333.)
And there's one especially good rule for European travel in the summer of 1988: buy it here before you go. Anything you can prearrange and prepay will be cheaper in dollars than in European currency. That includes airline seats, hotel rooms, car rentals, restaurant meals, bus and rail passes, travelers cheques, sightseeing excursions and theater tickets.
For that matter, it even includes Champagne, which sells for several dollars less per bottle in New York than in Paris.
This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.
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