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A Ten-Step Europe Summer Sanity Program
May 15, 1996 -- The annual mad dash to Europe is just about to get under way and I'm sorry to report that the financial outlook for your summer trip isn't great. Prices have crept up, the dollar is no longer Almighty, and you'll be competing with a record number of other Americans for everything from a good deal on a hotel room to a seat on the Spanish Steps.

So what's an enlightened traveler to do? Crack the fiscal whip. You can tour the continent this summer without raiding your retirement fund by pledging allegiance to my 10-Step Program for European Summer Sanity.

1. Buy in Bundles The fastest, easiest way to cut your cost is to buy a land/air bundle from a tour operator. These packagers buy huge quantities of everything from theater tickets and sightseeing trips to airline tickets and hotel rooms, so they can offer terrific discounts. One example: roundtrip coach tickets to Madrid this summer cost $838, but $849 buys the "Discover Madrid" package from Iberia (800-228-5757). It bundles the airfare with three nights of accommodations, daily breakfast, a Madrid sightseeing tour, and roundtrip airport transfers. Not bad for $11.

Worried that buying a bundled package means buying a "guided tour?" Don't be. Packages are now so flexible that you build your own vacation by mixing and matching hotels, itineraries, side trips, and options like meals, theater and museum excursions, and car rentals. Your travel agent surely has brochures from several reliable packagers, but we're particularly impressed with this year's offerings from Globus (800-851-0728) and British Airways Holidays (800-247-9297)

2. Pay Now, Play Later The relationship between foreign exchange rates and European travel costs is convoluted, but trust us: you'll save money if you pay for as much of your vacation as possible before you depart. Try to prepay everything: hotel rooms, car-rentals, train tickets, sightseeing excursions, and even smaller items like restaurant meals and theater tickets.

3. Do a Hotel Deal Unlike U.S. hotels, most European properties have rigid rate structures and they rarely offer last-minute sales or unannounced specials. But they do make one concession to American sensibilities: flat-rate summer prices that often include free breakfasts and other perks. Check the chart below.

4. Bypass the Airlines Who has the best prices on airline seats to Europe this summer? Not the airlines. Consider airline consolidators. These guys undersell the airlines on their own product and you reap the savings.

5. Do the Math--and Geography You'll save a bundle if you travel where the greenback is strongest and avoid the nations where the dollar is limp. The dollar always packs substantial buying power in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, but this year's hottest spots are Turkey and Hungary. The dollar has doubled its buying power in Turkey since 1994 and is about 30 percent stronger in Hungary. However, the dollar continues to lag in most of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. France merits special attention: travel prices there have skyrocketed for no reason other than what seems like typical French contrariness. One eye-popping example: the "Paris Pas Cher" deal from Jet Vacations, the tour-package arm of Air France. In the summer of 1994, the package cost $679 and included six nights of accommodations, but this summer's price is $940 for just five hotel nights. That's an effective price hike of 66 percent.

6. Ride the Rails Intra-continental airline service is costly--there are few discount airlines even fewer fare wars--and renting a car in Europe is economic suicide. So how do you get around? Do what the Europeans do: take the train. The European rail network is extensive, efficient and inexpensive. Better yet, firms like RailEurope (800-438-7245) and Europe Through the Back Door (206-771-8303) sell bargain-priced rail passes that allow you to plan and prepay excursions. If you must rent a car, consider cost-effective fly-drive packages from Auto Europe (800-223-5555) or Kemwel (800-333-1423). These firms can bundle your transatlantic flights with a European car rental, unlimited miles, and insurance.

7. Play Your Cards Right All of Europe's major cities promote tourist cards that allow big discounts on a variety of attractions. One example: The Vienna Card costs about $17 and includes three days of unlimited use of Vienna's mass-transit system; admission discounts at 25 museums; special offers at a dozen shops; and dining and drinking discounts. Depending on the city, tourist cards are sold at tourist offices, train stations, hotels, and even tobacco shops.

8. Beat the Taxman The price of virtually every European product and service you buy includes a value-added tax as high as 24 percent. Many of these odious taxes are refundable, but don't let anyone tell you the process is easy. The tax rates, refund rules, and paperwork involved is clearly the work of a maniacal taxman, but one company, Europe Tax-free Shopping (312-382-1100). has a comparatively effortless refund system.

9. Charge It! Pay with your credit card in Europe whenever you can. Banks get a special rate on currency conversion, so you get billed between two and ten percent less than it would cost you to change money and pay cash for your purchase.

10. Curse the Moneychangers The days of changing dollars for local currency at "cambio" shops and paying rapacious fees for the privilege are over. Look at your bank card: if either the Cirrus (800-424-7787) or Plus (800-491-1145) logo appears, you can withdraw cash from automated-teller machines throughout Western Europe. You'll not only get that advantageous bank exchange rate, the ATM fee you may pay is between you and your financial institution.

WHERE THE DEALS ARE THIS SUMMER

THE DEAL                THE PLACES              THE PRICE         THE OFFER

Holiday Inn             126 full-service        $83-$200* per     Room and breakfast

Weekender Plus 1996     and economy hotels      night, until      for two, all taxes;

800-465-4329            in 122 cities           September 30      rates may apply for

                                                                  mid-week stay

 

Hotel Sofitel           59 full-service         $119-$159* per    Room and breakfast

Summer Sale             hotels in 39 cities     night, until      for two, and most

800-763-4835                                    September 1       taxes

 

Inter-Continental       57 full-service         $100-$310* per    Room and breakfast

Summer Spectacular      and deluxe hotels       night, until      for two, all taxes,

800-327-0200            in 42 cities            September 2       $25-$50 discount                                                                      on future stay

 

ITT Sheraton           29 full-service and     $103-$385* per    Room for two, all

Freedom of Europe       luxury hotels in        night, until      taxes; some rates

800-334-8484            27 cities               August 31         include breakfast

 

Kempinski Hotels      10 luxury hotels        $120-$280 per     Room for two; some

Summer Rates            in 9 cities             night, until      rates include all

800-426-3135                                    August 31         taxes, breakfast

 

Luxury Collection      26 luxury hotels        $175-$465* per    Room and breakfast,

A Taste of Europe       (mostly Ciga)           night, September  all taxes; 3-night

800-325-3589            in 18 cities            and October       minimum stay

 

Rafael Group           Luxury hotels in        $235-$370 per     Room, breakfast, all

Summer at the Hotel     Geneva, Munich and      night, until      taxes; some rates

800-223-1588            Düsseldorf              September 15      include drinks

 

Thistle Hotels          80 full-service         $96 or $136*      Room, breakfast,

$96 in '96              hotels throughout       per person per    all taxes, transit

800-847-4358            Britain                 night, until      pass or car rental;

                                                December 31       3-night minimum stay

*Rates guaranteed in U.S. dollars



This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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