The Brancatelli File



May 1, 1997 -- Planning to travel in Europe this summer? Congratulate yourself: You've not only made a great travel choice, you've also made an astute economic decision. Roaming the continent hasn't been this cheap in years.

To what do we owe our good fortune? The rampaging U.S. dollar. Although it may never again be the Almighty Dollar of the 1950s, it's doing a darned good impersonation in 1997. The Almost Almighty Dollar has been gaining in value against major European currencies for months.

For travelers, the cost-cutting effects of these financial fluctuations are obvious. In Geneva, a Swatch watch priced at 59 Swiss francs cost $50 a year ago; now that 59-franc watch costs just $40. Spend 500 francs for a meal in Paris this year and it will cost $86 versus $100 a year ago. And a hotel room in Germany priced at 290 marks, which cost $200 last year, is just $168 now.

But don't let this dollar-denominated windfall make you a spendthrift. Happy days may be here again, but savvy travelers always watch the bottom line. Here are some tips to stretch your strengthened buck even further.

BUY IN BUNDLES The easiest way to keep costs down is to buy a land/air bundle from a travel packager. Since they purchase huge blocks of everything--including airplane seats, rooms, theater tickets and sightseeing tours--packagers can offer big discounts. One example: An advance-purchase roundtrip ticket to Brussels costs $904 this summer, but $825 buys a Euroweekend package from Sabena Airlines (800-955-2000). The bundle includes the airfare, two nights in a hotel, airport transfers, daily breakfast, a lunch, a dinner--and is $79 cheaper to boot.

Worried that a package means guided tours? Don't be. Packages are now so flexible that you can build your own vacation by mixing and matching hotels, itineraries and options such as meals, museum excursions, car rentals and train passes. Especially notable this summer is the Create Your Own Vacation program from British Airways Holidays (800-AIRWAYS) and the escorted tours from Globus (800-851-0728).

GET A HOTEL DEAL Unlike U.S. hotels, European properties have rigid rate structures and rarely offer last-minute discounts. But many make one concession to American sensibilities: flat-rate summer prices guaranteed in U.S. dollars. For example, Summer Sale prices at Sofitel properties (800-SOFITEL) range from $125 to $165 a night, which represents discounts of as much as 50 percent off the hotels' published rates. Other bundled summer rates are available from Inter-Continental (800-327-0200), Sheraton's Luxury Collection (800-325-3589), and SRS Hotels (800-223-5652).

PAY NOW, PLAY LATER Even when it benefits us, the relationship between currency rates and travel costs is convoluted. But trust me: You'll save money if you pay for as much of your travel as possible before departing. That not only includes your transatlantic flights and lodging, but also as many of the incidentals--local transportation, meals, sightseeing, theater tickets--as possible.

RECLAIM THE VAT The price tags on goods purchased in Europe include value-added tax (VAT) levies as high as 24 percent. In many cases, however, the VAT is refundable. VAT reclamation is complicated, but call Europe Tax-free Shopping (800-KNOW-VAT) for help. The company, allied with more than 100,000 European retailers in 23 countries, offers a relatively painless refund program.

USE YOUR PLASTIC Pay with credit cards in Europe whenever you can. Banks get a special rate on currency conversion, so you'll be billed between 2 and 10 percent less than it would cost you to change money and pay cash.

Of course, you will need some cash during your trip, but don't change dollars for local currency at "cambio" shops. Head for the nearest automated-teller machine instead. Your bank card will work in ATMs throughout Western Europe if it carries either the Cirrus (800-424-7787) or Plus (800-843-7587) logos. You'll not only get that advantageous bank exchange rate, but any ATM-access fee you may pay will be negligible compared to a cambio's transaction charges.

KNOW YOUR GEOGRAPHY The strength of the 1997 dollar doesn't change the fact that traveling in some parts of Europe--most notably, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Switzerland--is traditionally more costly than touring the continent's "best-value" destinations: Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey. And while living costs are low in Eastern Europe, a shortage of tourist facilities means travel prices there are comparable to those of Western Europe.

And beware of Italy. Not only hasn't the lira lost much value against the dollar, travel prices there are rising at a breathtaking rate. "No place has gone up as much as Italy," notes John Martinen, the president of Globus. "The demand for travel to Italy is growing dramatically and the Italians are really taking advantage."

This column originally appeared in Frommer's Travel Update.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.