April 3, 1998 -- This is not open for debate: If you're not going to Asia on your summer vacation, you're nuts.
Ever since last summer, when Thailand devalued its currency, Asia's economies have been in the tank. An example: one U.S. dollar bought about 2,400 Indonesian rupiah last summer. Now, a buck buys about 10,000. The dollar has doubled in value against the South Korean won and the Thai baht, racked up gigantic gains in Malaysia and the Philippines, and is now as much as 25 percent stronger in Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.
Add the return of the Almighty Dollar to the fact that the currency turmoil has kept Asian travelers at home and you have an unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime windfall for American vacationers. Hotels and airlines all over Asia are giving away their product. I estimate penny-pinching vacationers can probably squeeze about 33 percent more travel out of their expenditures this summer. If you're a big spender, expect to pay half what you would have paid last year for the super-swanky resorts and the big-deal meals.
Want just one example of the incredible bargains in Asia this year? Cathay Pacific, the top-notch Hong Kong airline, is offering an All-Asia Pass for as low as $999. For that price, you get virtually unlimited travel around the Pacific for 30 days. Travel is so weak in Asia that Cathay is also selling extensions up to 90 days and cheap upgrades into its excellent first- and business-class cabins. Best of all, buy the pass from Cathay's Web site (cathay-usa.com) and they'll knock the starting price down to $899. Last year at this time, travelers were paying $1,300 just for a roundtrip coach flight to Hong Kong--and feeling like they scored a bargain.
But all that said, you're gonna go to Europe this summer, aren't you? God, you people are so predictable.
I mean, I wouldn't mind your going to Europe summer after summer if it were the best time to go. But it ain't. Why are you going to Tuscany in August when the only people you're gonna meet are Brits and Germans and Aussies? Trust me, there are no Tuscans in Tuscany in August. There are no Parisians in Paris in August. And the only Brits you're gonna meet in London in July are from Glasgow. They're tourists, too, and you'll all end up in Pizzaland before the matinee performance of Starlight Express wondering where all the Londoners have gone.
But, you know what, I ain't gonna argue with you. You want to go to Europe in August? Go ahead. Just don't blame me. I warned you.
Unfortunately, I can't leave it at that. Even though I think you're crazy to go over the Atlantic when the financial imperative is to head over the Pacific, I feel compelled to offer you some tips to make your life in Europe a little better. I can't have you tromping off to Europe unarmed and ripe for the shearing. So here goes.
BUY BUNDLES The easiest way to keep your costs down is to buy a land/air bundle from a travel packager. They purchase huge blocks of everything--airplane seats, rooms, theater tickets, sightseeing tours--so they can offer big discounts. One example: Advance-purchase roundtrip tickets to Brussels cost $904 this summer, but $830 buys a Brussels Euroweekend package from Sabena Airlines. The bundle includes the airfare, two nights in a five-star hotel, airport transfers, daily breakfast, a lunch, a dinner--and is $74 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 is the Create Your Own Vacation program from British Airways Holidays.
GET A HOTEL DEAL Unlike U.S. hotels, European properties have rigid rate structures and rarely offer last-minute discounts. But many do make one concession to American sensibilities: Flat-rate summer prices guaranteed in U.S. dollars. For example, the 50 European properties managed by Sofitel run a Summer Sale promotion that knocks about 40 percent off the published prices. Sofitels are generally 4-star properties favored by business travelers. You'll pay less and get more at a Sofitel than if you stay in one of those European boutique hotels that believe they are doing you a favor by charging you a bundle for the privilege of plastic cups in the bathrooms and cubicle-sized rooms.
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 European 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 enormous "value-added tax" levies as high as 24 percent. In many cases, however, the VAT is refundable. VAT reclamation is paper-intensive and confusing as hell, but call Europe Tax-free Shopping (800-KNOW-VAT) for help. The company is allied with more than 100,000 European retailers in 23 countries and offers a relatively painless VAT-refund program.
USE YOUR PLASTIC Pay with credit cards in Europe whenever you can. Banks get a special "wholesale" rate on currency conversion, so you will be billed between 2 and 10 percent less than it would cost you to change your dollars into the local currency and then pay cash. Of course, this assumes you will pay your credit-card bill pronto and not get hit with those outrageous interest rates that your bank undoubtedly charges.
USE AN ATM Of course, you will need some cash during your trip, but don't change dollars for local currency at "cambio" shops. Their fees are rapacious. You'll do better by heading for the nearest automated-teller machine. Your checking or savings card will work in most ATMs throughout Western Europe if it carries either the Cirrus or PLUS logos. You'll not only get that advantageous wholesale exchange rate, but ATM fees are also much less than cambio commissions.
RIDE THE RAILS Firms such as Auto Europe (800-223-5555) and Kemwel (800-678-0678) offer terrific European fly/drive packages, but driving in Europe isn't for everyone. Gasoline is ridiculously priced ($4 to $5 a gallon), many European rental cars are minuscule and driving in towns like Rome or Amsterdam is harrowing. Take my advice: Stick to public transit in Europe's big cities. And unless you plan to meander the scenic back roads, travel by train between cities. Every national rail system sells inexpensive domestic passes and RailEurope (800-4EURAIL) sells cost-effective multinational deals.
GET PASS PROTECTION Most of Europe's big towns have great deals called "city passes." Although they vary by city, all the programs slash the cost of mass transit, entertainment, dining and cultural attractions. One example: The Vienna Card. It costs less than $20 and is valid for three days of unlimited public transportation; reduced-price admission to museums and tourist attractions; and shopping, dining and sightseeing discounts. For complete details, check with the tourist board of the countries you plan to visit.
GRAB THE GUIDE How do you find the tourist boards? Well, you can surf the Web for hours, call around blindly or just grab the Planning Your Trip to Europe pamphlet from the European Travel Commission. All the basic facts are there. Get a free copy by tapping into the ETC's Web site (visiteurope.com). And remember: The data you get from tourism promotion boards are promotions. That's sort of advertising with a guilty conscience.
FLY AND SAVE Flying within Europe is financial suicide, and, frankly, much less convenient than rail travel. Still, if you're intent on jetting around the continent, purchase an "airpass." Airpass deals differ by airline, but the basic concept is the same: Travelers who book a transatlantic flight can then fly from the carrier's hub cities to other destinations in Europe at a set price for each flight. The passes can only be purchased in the United States before your European departure. Check with your travel agent or transatlantic carrier for prices and restrictions.
KNOW YOUR GEOGRAPHY It has gone unnoticed in light of the currency carnage in Asia, but the dollar has gained as much as 20 percent against major European currencies in the last few years. Yet the strength of the 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 local living costs are low in Eastern Europe, a shortage of tourist facilities means travel prices are comparable to those in Western Europe. Beware of England and Ireland, where the local currencies have gained in value against the U.S. dollar. Both places are pretty costly this year. And watch your wallet in Italy and France. The gains the U.S. dollar has made against the Italian lira and French franc have been more than offset by breathtaking price increases imposed by locals who think people like you won't notice you're being fleeced.
Me, I'll be in Asia this summer. And when you get back from Europe, that's when I'll be going: October or November, when the locals are back at the opera and the restaurants--and prices have dropped enough so I won't have to follow any of the rules I just gave you.This column originally appeared at ThoughtfulTraveler.com.