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DESTINATION: EUROPE

Should Balkan War Change Your Trip?

May 16, 1999|CAROLYN SPENCER BROWN | WASHINGTON POST

The NATO campaign of airstrikes in Yugoslavia is disrupting European travel. Cruise lines offering Adriatic Sea itineraries, whose highlights include Venice, Italy, and Dubrovnik, Croatia, have altered port stops; some, such as Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Costa and First European, have rerouted to avoid the area entirely, picking Genoa and Savona on Italy's west coast instead. Officials at EuroControl, an organization that tracks European air traffic, report that 30% of flights within Europe have been delayed because of NATO airstrikes against Serbian Yugoslavia. More chilling is a public announcement by the U.S. State Department that warns Americans about rising levels of anti-American sentiment in Eastern and Western Europe (and China).

Should you avoid traveling to Europe this summer? Despite the disruptions and occasional violent outbursts, there's no simple yes or no answer. Before you decide, consider these questions:

* Are there parts of Europe I should avoid?

Obvious no-go zones include Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia-Herzogovina. Other potentially dicey destinations--because of anti-NATO and anti-American sentiments--include Russia, Turkey and Greece. NATO's use of Hungary as a staging ground for troops could cause logistical complications for travelers. Security sources say Croatia, while currently undisturbed, suffers from geographic proximity to the conflict.

Cruises to the Eastern Mediterranean are slow sellers right now, and some river voyages on the Danube have been canceled.

On the other hand, travel agents and tour operators are reporting hot demand in peripheral European locales such as Scandinavia, France, Italy's western coast, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Regardless of your destination, be aware of the possibility of demonstrations against the NATO bombing (and U.S. involvement). Avoid large-scale gatherings, says David Clough, a security analyst with Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services. Don't wear identifiable American logos or engage in public political debates. "I can't think of a time right off when anti-American sentiment was at this level," Clough says. "Not even when we were bombing the Mideast."

What's the impact on mainstream European destinations? Currently, the biggest annoyances to travelers are commercial flight delays and cancellations. The problems aren't caused as much by the closing of Balkan airspace (which primarily affects passengers flying from Europe to Asia and the Mideast) but by increased military activity at air bases that happen to be near major airports, such as Frankfurt, Germany (Europe's second busiest), and Madrid. According to EuroControl, air traffic has been regularly delayed about 30 to 50 minutes; airports frequently plagued include Frankfurt, Madrid, Rome and Milan, Italy. Iberia announced recently that it has cut 16,000 flights through the end of the year, a 6% reduction caused in part by the Kosovo conflict. For the most part, air traffic delays apply to intra-Europe, rather than transatlantic, travel, so plan ahead if your itinerary requires a connecting flight from one of the U.S.-Europe hub cities.

* If I've booked a trip and want to cancel, will I get my money back?

Most travel companies are sympathetic to anxious travelers. "We gain nothing by charging people penalties who don't want to go," says George Kessanis of Olympic Airways, the Greek national airline, which is offering full refunds. Tour operators Butterfield & Robinson, which organizes upscale walking and cycling trips, and Vantage Deluxe World Travel, geared to seniors, report a handful of cancellations and say they're crediting the cost to a future trip or a replacement destination.

Cruise lines, alas, are less flexible. Most allow full refunds for long-notice cancellations (60 to 90 days before sailing), but forget about it if you're bailing out at the last minute because the lines have rerouted from war-affected areas. "We're not going where the war is, so why should we give you your money back?" says Rich Steck, spokesman for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity.

If you've bought a cruise line's own insurance, you may be able to cancel "for any reason," but policies vary. Insurance via outside agencies may not cover "anxiety"; Access America, for instance, doesn't cover wars.

* Are there any bargains because of fear or cancellations?

Opportunistic travelers can find some great deals, particularly to Greece and Turkey and on European cruises. Olympic Airways has cut round trips to Athens from New York or Boston from $732 to $549 for the month of May. Princess is offering a two-for-one deal on some 12-night sailings from Venice, Italy, and Barcelona, Spain, to Istanbul, Turkey, on Grand Princess--the ship that in its inaugural season last summer was selling out at full price. Windstar, the pricey small-ship line, is offering two-for-one deals, starting at $2,493 per person on Rome, Venice and Nice (France) itineraries.

Still unsure? The only thing anyone in the industry can gauge with any confidence is the unpredictably of the Kosovo conflict, which could end tomorrow or stretch through the summer.

Bottom line, says Glenn Tucker, a Washington travel agent: "I certainly wouldn't be looking around for a weekend deal in Belgrade right now. Kosovo may not be the place to go, and Albania never was. But I think there's been a lot of overreaction. This is the most contained war I've ever seen."

For updated travel reports, consult the State Department's Web site, http://travel.state.gov/travel _warnings.html. Other Internet resources: http://www.airsecurity .com/hotspots.htm and http://pgis .pinkertons.com/pgis.

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