European vacations on sale

Thanks to a resurgent dollar and recession-induced price cutting, this will be the best summer in years to head across the Atlantic.

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By Donna Rosato, Money Magazine senior writer

Vacations on the cheap
These big-city alternatives offer a similar experience for less.
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(Money Magazine) -- When the dollar sank to a record low against the euro last July, many Americans decided that a trip to Europe would have to wait for another time. That time may have arrived.

It's not just that the greenback is reviving. It's also that the travel industry, hit hard by the recession, is cutting prices like mad to lure customers. Roundtrip flights to Europe, which averaged $1,200 to $1,400 in peak season during the past couple of years, can now be had for half that, says Anne Banas, executive editor of

You'll pay up to 50% less for hotels, meals, and souvenirs too. Deals are especially enticing on four- and five-star accommodations because of cutbacks on corporate travel.

Yes, a European vacation is still an investment, but it's no longer a ridiculous prospect. Read on for smart strategies to make your dollar go the furthest - and start daydreaming of sipping lattes, lambics, or lambrusco.

When to book: As soon as you can

Used to be, waiting until the last minute to book a summer trip could yield substantial savings. These days that's a risky move. Airlines in the U.S. and Europe cut back on capacity when fuel costs were high last year. Oil prices have fallen, but with the recession dampening travel demand, airlines continue to fly smaller and fewer planes. That means the cheapest seats fill up fast. So book your flight this month.

Sign up for low-fare e-mail alerts at or, which combs through airline websites for unpublished sales. In February, Airfarewatchdog noted that US Airways was offering roundtrip flights to Paris from many U.S. hubs for about $600, compared with an average of about $1,000. Such sales are fleeting - this one lasted two days - so be ready to jump.

Travel packagers and hotels are also offering breaks to those who buy in advance. Trafalgar Tours is discounting the airfare part of its peak-season packages to six European destinations by 56% for those who pay by March. At the luxury Fairmont chain, which has six hotels in Europe, guests who pay three weeks in advance get 30% or more off the best available rates - as low as $138 a night at the Fairmont in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Bottom line: The early booker gets the deal. "If you wait past April, you'll need to be flexible on where and when you go to save," says SmarterTravel's Banas.

But if you can't book by April ... reduce costs by looking for flights with one or more stops. On United, for example, midsummer roundtrips to Paris are about $1,000 nonstop, but as low as $614 if you connect through Frankfurt. Or fly a non-European carrier that stops in Europe. Going with Air Tahiti, which stops in Paris on its way from Los Angeles to Tahiti, can knock several hundred bucks off the fare.

Find it online: Best flight deals

When to go: Think nonpeak

Another big factor in determining how much you'll pay is when you travel. Peak season for Europe is mid-June through early September. Travel in the "shoulder season" - April through mid-June, mid-September through October - for the best prices. (Bonus: fewer people elbowing their way between you and the Venus de Milo.)

For example, a nine-day trip including airfare and hotel to Rome, Florence, and Venice starts at $1,500 in April and May at but starts at $1,900 if you travel in midsummer. Your money will go further at hotels too. In July, $250 buys you a night at a three-star Barcelona hotel; in early October that same money will get you a room with a terrace at the four-star Gran Hotel La Florida.

But if you can't avoid the peak ... score some savings by going to the big cities in August. Because most Europeans flee for the country or beach then and many shops shut down too, you may not have quite the same experience. But you can nab great deals at business hotels. Rates at Le Mridien Etoile in Paris, which run $615 a night in June or July, drop to $289 in August.

Find it online: Luxury deals

Where to go: Off the beaten path

Big cities tend to offer the least value (except in August) because they are the most popular with tourists. Also poor deals: luxury regions like Spain's Costa del Sol and Italy's Tuscany, where Europeans go to get away. But for those areas, at least, there are often alternatives that offer a similar experience for less.

For example, if you want to visit Italian wine country, go to the lovely but lesser-known Umbria region instead of Tuscany; you can rent a two-bedroom villa there for $850 a week in June vs. $2,000 a week in Tuscany. Ask a travel agent for advice as well. You'll pay to use one worth his or her salt, but the fees are relatively low ($150 to $300 a trip) and agents often have access to lower prices and perks like free tours and room upgrades.

But if you must see the Eiffel Tower ... book a package that bundles hotel, airfare, and other travel elements together. Such arrangements tend to offer the best value in major cities because of sheer volume, says Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer guidebooks. Also visit the airlines' sites; many have their own vacation divisions, Frommer adds.

Find it online: Best travel agents

Find it online: Best package deals

Where to stay: Four star all the way

High-end hotels are suffering acutely from the slump in business travel. So many are offering tourist packages with extra perks, such as guaranteed room upgrades, free local tours, and restaurant meals.

At the four-star FitzWilliam Hotel in downtown Dublin, for example, guests who pay in advance for a spring stay get breakfast each morning and one three-course dinner for just $149 a night. In London, rooms at the trendy Halkin hotel in Belgravia Square cost $285 a night if you book and pay by May 31, down from $575.

One of the very best deals right now is on luxury river cruises. French Country Waterways is offering a two-for-one deal from April to August. A six-night trip through Burgundy is $7,300 a couple vs. $15,000 normally. "It's unprecedented," says Jill Jergel, an agent who books such trips at Frontiers International Travel.

But if you'd rather live like a local ... rent an apartment in the city or a villa in the country. They are generally more economical than hotels if you're traveling with a group of friends or family. For example, the Villa Book, which does luxury rentals worldwide, lists a house in the Dordogne in France that sleeps eight people for $4,800 a week. That's just $86 per person per night. There are tradeoffs (no room service, no concierge), but you'll also have a more authentic experience.

Find it online: Hotel deals

Find it online: Villa rental deals

How to get around: Forget the train

If you want to visit more than one destination, you might think first of Europe's extensive train system. But such travel can be surprisingly costly, and it means you waste as much as a day of vacation getting around. I

f you're going less than 200 miles, European no-frill airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet may prove a better deal. A roundtrip flight from Paris to Barcelona is just $165 on Ryanair, vs. $230 for a Eurail train ticket. Just be sure you're wise to no-frill carriers' pricing gimmicks. Checking luggage can cost extra, as can getting an assigned seat. Factor those costs in. Booking at least two weeks in advance will give you the biggest savings.

But if you're traveling with a caravan ... think road trip. With three or more people, it's probably cheaper to rent a car. Keep in mind that the price of gas is higher in Europe ($5 to $6 a gallon) and the cost of insurance is greater in some countries too. Even so, you'll have a little extra to spend on your lattes in Paris or pints in London.

Find it online: Intra-europe flights

Find it online: Car-rental deals

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