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 been in the tank. An example: one
U.S. dollar bought about 2400 Indonesian rupiah last summer. Now,
a buck buys about 10,000 rupiah. 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
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
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 (www.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.
1. 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 (888-SABENA1 or www.sabena-usa.com). 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 (800-AIRWAYS). Want the traditional escorted
motorcoach tours? Cosmos and Globus (800-851-0728) does a great
job and many of its itineraries are actually less expensive than
2. 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 (800-SOFITEL) run a "Summer Sale"
promotion which 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.
3. 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 trans-Atlantic
flights and lodging, but also as many of the incidentals -- local
transportation, meals, sightseeing, theater tickets -- as possible.
4. 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.
5. 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
your bank undoubtedly charges.
6. 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 (800-424-7787) or PLUS (800-THE-PLUS) logos. You'll not
only get that advantageous wholesale exchange rate, ATM fees are
much less than cambio commissions.
7. RIDE THE RAILS Firms such 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.
8. 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.
9. 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 at www.visiteurope.com. And remember:
The data you get from tourism promotion boards are promotions. That's
sort of advertising with a guilty conscience.
10. THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT Best-known as a domestic half-price dining
club, Entertainment International (800-445-4137) has arranged for
hundreds of hotels in 28 European countries to knock 50 percent
off their published rates. The program has holes -- rooms aren't
always available at peak times and reservations must be booked directly
with the each hotel, necessitating overseas phone calls or faxes
-- but the membership cost is very low (about $10) and accommodations
are confirmed in advance.
11. 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 trans-Atlantic 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 trans-Atlantic carrier for prices and restrictions.
12. 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.