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Bad news for Europe, good news for U.S. tourists

By Blake Ellis, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The troubled euro zone is being eyed by Americans as this summer's hot spot.

Rioting in Greece and a looming debt crisis in much of Europe are leading to a weaker currency and steep discounts designed to lure in more dollars.

In the past six months alone, the euro has dropped nearly 17% against the buck, making travel more affordable for visitors with U.S. dollars.

"This is a rare chance for U.S. travelers to take advantage of a weak euro and a weak economy," said Kathy Lien, director of currency research at Global Forex Trading.

Not only will you get more for your buck, but now is a great time to book hotels, buy plane tickets and find shopping bargains because of the euro zone's down economy.

"The savings you'll get are incredible and because of the stronger dollar, you'll have a lot more day-to-day cash to play with while you're there," said Vassilis Comitis, commercial director at Fantasy Travel, a travel agency based in Athens.

Getting there: While plane tickets right now are significantly more expensive than last year's recession-era fares, that doesn't mean you can't find a good deal on a ticket this summer, said Rick Seaney, co-founder and CEO of FareCompare.com.

Seaney said he expects ticket fares to edge lower over the next few weeks and recommends buying a ticket no later than mid-June, since that's the time of year that ticket prices tend to jump.

And if you're looking for a real steal, tickets to Ireland and Portugal are the best deals right now with below average prices, said Jennifer Gaines, contributing editor of Travelocity.

Plus, the strong dollar will make your trip to Europe well worth the higher fare, said Seaney.

"If you look at all the costs for everything and for doing activities once you get there, it's probably even more optimal a bargain than it was last year when airline tickets were so low," said Seaney. "Most people get bogged down with airfare but should be looking at total trip costs."

Sleep tight: While you may have to fork over more than you would like for a plane ticket, you'll be able to find steeply discounted European lodging as hotels lower their prices to attract tourists, said Gaines.

"Relatively low hotel rates coupled with a stronger U.S. dollar helps to make Europe more affordable than in years past," she said. "While airline capacity cuts and higher fuel costs have driven the cost of airfare up, hotel rates have been slower to recover because, unlike the airlines, they do not have the option to cut capacity, and they still need to fill rooms."

As travelers worry about the euro zone's economic stability and pull back on discretionary spending, hotels need to cut prices to attract guests.

For example, a king-sized room at Rome's 5-Star hotel, Ambasciatori Palace, cost $310 per person last year, but can now be snagged for $205 a night through Central Holidays travel agency.

In Barcelona, where hotels rates are an average of $222 a night during the summer, you can find a room for $89 per night at the 3-star Hotel Onix Fira or a $113 per night room at the 4-star Novotel Barcelona Cornella, said Gaines.

The stronger dollar will also bring rates down significantly, said Lien of Global Forex Trading.

If you traveled to Europe six months ago, a 5-night stay in a hotel room at a rate of 100 euros per night would cost 500 euros or about $750. But if you travel there now, that same stay would cost you only $620.

Bargain shopping: Though some travel destinations in Europe are known for expensive department stores and gourmet food and wine, unexpected bargains are now seeping into even the most upscale stores.

In addition to the stronger dollar buying more, the weak economies of many European nations have forced store owners to stay competitive by steeply discounting their products and services.

For example, George Zarifopoulos, owner of jewelry shop Byzantino Jewelry in Athens, will offer a 20% discount from June to September in the hope of bringing in summer travelers.

And as more deals arise, Americans are heading to Europe just to splurge on luxury items that would have broken the bank only a couple years ago.

"For a while, people from Europe were bringing over empty suitcases to fill up with cheap things once they got to the U.S.," said Seaney of FareCompare.com, "but now it's Americans' turn to go over there and fill their suitcases with bargains."  To top of page

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