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Eleven Ways to Stretch Your Dollars in Europe
April 15, 1995 -- Europe's peak season has arrived and the financial news is sobering: Unless you plan carefully and think creatively, you'll pay as much as 15 percent more for a summer holiday.

Blame this sudden surge in prices on the decline in the value of the dollar on world currency markets. Since last December, the dollar has plunged by double-digit percentages against most of Europe's currencies. Practically speaking, this means a 100-mark meal in Munich now costs about $73 instead of $64 and a 700-franc hotel room in Paris now costs $145 instead of $129. And the experts don't expect the dollar to rebound anytime soon. If anything, it's likely to continue its decline.

Does this mean you should abandon your plans for a European holiday? I wouldn't. Just exercise a smidgen of self-control. "A lot of shopping and eating at expensive restaurants is definitely out," says Suzanne Hall of Jet Vacations, a tour operator. And I suggest you follow the Enlightened Traveler's 11-step program for European fiscal fitness.

1. RETHINK YOUR ITINERARY
Shorten your visits to countries where the dollar is notably weaker than it was last year--Germany, France, Switzerland, and much of Scandinavia, Stay longer in Italy, Hungary, and Turkey, where the dollar is stronger. Spain, Portugal, and Greece are still bargains, although the dollar has declined there, too. Prices in Britain and Ireland are about the same as they were last year.

2. CONCENTRATE YOUR TRAVEL
This is a good time for putting down roots in one place. Taking day trips into the countryside from one city will cost less than moving from one place to another every few days.

3. BUY BEFORE YOU FLY
To protect yourself if the dollar continues to slide, look for deals on accommodations, airfares, car rentals, sightseeing and dining that lock in your costs before departure. Pay for as much of your vacation as possible in U.S. dollars.

4. PACKAGES ARE THE BEST DEALS
The decline of the dollar has been so precipitous that many tour packagers are slapping surcharges of 3 to 7 percent on the prices in their brochures. (The fee is euphemistically labeled "currency supplements.") Even with the surcharges, however, package deals are your best defense against the declining dollar. The more elements you buy in a bundle, the more you save. And once you put your money down, your prices are locked in.

5. INVESTIGATE AIRLINE CONSOLIDATORS
These wholesalers buy seats that airlines can't sell and resell them at discount prices. For tips on using consolidators, see this primer.

6. SEEK OUT HOTEL BARGAINS
Several big chains, including Sofitel (800-763-4835), Inter-Continental (800-327-0200), Holiday Inn (800-465-4329) , and Forte (800-225-5843) , are running summer sales. The sale rates offer good value because they are guaranteed in dollars and many include breakfast and taxes. Of the various clubs and programs that promise half-price hotel rooms, the Entertainment Europe Edition hotel guide (800-445-4137; $53) has the best selection--although you won't necessarily get 50 percent off, especially in high season.

7. TRAVEL LIKE A EUROPEAN
Do what Europeans do: rely on mass transit and intercity rail services. Call Eurail (800-438-7245) for the best deals. One example: the Eurail Flexipass offers up to 15 days of first-class rail travel for $348 to $740, the same prices as last year. If you must rent a car, prepay for a model with manual transmission; automatics cost substantially more. If you must fly, buy an intra-Europe air pass from your transatlantic carrier. The "Visit Scandinavia" and "Visit Baltic" passes, from SAS (800-221-2350) , for example, cut the cost of some flights to as little as $80.

8. USE NATIONAL TOURIST OFFICES
Planning Your Trip to Europe, published by the European Travel Commission (P.O. Box 1754, New York, NY 10185), lists phone numbers for European tourist offices in the United States. Call them for information about transit passes, museum-discount cards, and other dollar-stretching schemes. One example: a seven-day British Heritage Pass (212-529-9069) offers free or reduced-price admission to more than 500 properties. It costs just $35.

9. GET YOUR VAT BACK
The price tags on goods purchased in Europe include a value-added tax as high as 24 percent. Many VATs are refundable. Call Europe Tax-free Shopping (312-382-1100) for details. The organization has refund offices in 18 countries and at many of Europe's largest airports.

10. CHARGE IT!
Pay with a credit card in Europe whenever you can. Card-issuing banks receive a "wholesale" rate on currency conversions, so you're billed between 2 and 10 percent less than it would cost you to change money yourself and pay cash.

11. USE YOUR ATM CARD FOR CASH
You can also take advantage of the wholesale rate by using your banking or checking card to obtain local currency from overseas automated-teller machines. Make sure your bank doesn't charge you a foreign-currency fee and be sure your PIN is a four-digit code, the European standard.

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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