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Europe for the Weekend? It's Not Just for the Rich

Bargains: Winter dates and a quick jump on unusually low fares can mean a guilt-free, cheap jaunt to the Continent.


Karin is a Burbank Germanophile with an enterprising travel agent. One day in mid-November, that travel agent called Karin with urgent news: fares falling fast on Delta Airlines. Frankfurt flights frightfully cheap.

Laura is a Los Feliz Francophile who had planned a California driving vacation in late November. But then she got wind of a good air fare to Paris. Really good.

These are scenarios that have haunted us all. You see the billboard or the newspaper ad announcing some amazing low price for a European flight. You look a little more closely and discover that the cheapest fares go only to those willing to travel in chilling temperatures, usually at short notice and sometimes with a jarringly quick turnaround. So you write it off--or at least, I always have. But last November, Karin and Laura, both friends of mine, chose to leap instead of just look.

One went to Germany for five days; one to France for six. That's a daunting thought, considering a nonstop flight from LAX to Europe lasts 10 to 12 hours, with probably at least three more hours in airports. Is this insanity? Isn't this kind of travel exactly what Europeans make fun of us for? Or is this a prime opportunity for a veteran traveler?

As these sagas suggest, it can be a prime opportunity. Not for a first-time visitor to Europe, probably, nor for a traveler planning multiple stops. But a quick, cheap dash to Europe can be a joy if: a) the fare still looks attractive once you've reconciled the restrictions with your ambitions; b) you largely confine yourself to one city; c) you're already comfortable with the country; d) you know where to sleep; and e) you're capable of napping without guilt.

Every year, from November through late March, these possibilities tempt us. As I write, several airlines are offering highly restricted round-trip tickets to London for under $350, Paris for under $450, Frankfurt and Rome for under $500. Swissair has announced four-day, three-night, air-and-hotel "European Escape" packages to 13 leading cities, with round-trip prices from LAX beginning as low as $726 per person. As with many off-season offers, travel must be completed by March 31. At the height of summer, these rates are likely to double. (It's impossible for a weekly travel section to keep up-to-the-minute on all air fares; it's necessary to contact a travel agent or airline for most recent numbers.)

Cutting loose: In Karin's case, the irresistible ticket was a $368 round-trip "Turkey fare" between LAX and Frankfurt, Germany, over the Thanksgiving holiday. After taking the tip-off from her travel agent, Karin called and recruited her fiance to the cause (he has family about 2 1/2 hours' drive from Frankfurt), had the agent make a tentative reservation, requested a few vacation days, then called the agent back to give her credit-card number to solidify the booking. Knowing that airlines usually set aside only a small number of tickets at rock-bottom prices, Karin moved fast.

"The whole thing took about 10 minutes," she reports. It helped that she and her fiance knew they could stay with his family in Germany, and that she had engineered a short-notice Euro-bargain trip in 1995, when she grabbed a winter round-trip ticket to Frankfurt for $498. Her Thanksgiving travel itinerary: Depart LAX on Nov. 27, return Dec. 1. To get them around while there, they found a Hertz rental car for $99 per week.

Laura, too, had connections abroad. She'd been to France more than half a dozen times, and her sister has lived in Paris for more than 15 years. Having learned that she could get a $548 round-trip ticket on Air France, Laura called her sister, then made her booking on Nov. 28 for travel four days later. The plan: Depart LAX on a Dec. 2 red-eye flight (and end up with a row of three seats to herself, as it turned out), spend five nights at the home of her sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew, then return Dec. 8.

Karin and Laura agree that trips like theirs can also be executed with hotel lodgings. Going that way, Laura said, she'd probably only do it if she had an advance reservation. Karin would take her chances on arrival, so long as the trip was in the low-demand weeks of winter.

Being there: Forget about racing from landmark to landmark. Aside from relaxing with in-laws-to-be and strolling through a palace near Stuttgart, Karin shopped at the open-air Christmas markets that pop up yearly in German towns, enjoyed the seasonal decorations and music, and made a daily ritual of eating German gelato-style ice cream. On departure day, four scoops, to celebrate the trip's success.

The key, she has decided, was having no agenda. "The fare was so cheap that it didn't matter if I saw anything," Karin said. "When you go there and you feel tired from jet lag . . . you don't feel you're wasting all this money." Instead, she says, you take a nap, whatever the hour, guilt-free.

Laura's Parisian days passed similarly, built around "eating and window-shopping" with her sister. She didn't set foot in a museum. It was, Laura said, "one of the most fun trips I've had there." Summing up: Laura guessed she spent $1,000 on her six days, air fare included. Karin guessed she and her fiance together spent $1,200. For Laura, there was an unforeseen shopping bonus: She saved the cost of shipping a birthday present to her 6-year-old niece Jessica. All it took was a quick stop at Toys R Us, about 10 blocks from the Louvre, to pick up a Hula Barbie.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail

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