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Soaring Fares, Lingering Fears Put European Travel on Hold

June 14, 2002|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The dollar's recent weakening against the euro isn't helping to boost overseas leisure travel this summer, but tour operators say sky-high prices--and some residual 9/11 flying fears--are keeping more vacationers grounded. Bargain fares to Europe are simply too hard to find.

"You have to really hunt and peck around to get a decent rate right now," said Jerry Greenberg, president of Baldwin Travel Bureau in Los Angeles, which specializes in foreign vacations. "And by decent I mean, there's nothing bargain about it."

Americans still are crossing the Atlantic, but they are doing so in smaller numbers. About 13% fewer Americans will be traveling to Europe this summer, and those going are probably experienced travelers who have few qualms about flying and are unwilling to put off their vacations for any reason, travel agents said.

Summer travel overall is expected to be flat this year, with air travel down 14% from last year, according to a forecast by the Travel Industry Assn. of America. More Americans will be hitting the road--rentals of cars and RVs are up 25% and 40%, respectively--as vacationers plan shorter trips that are closer to home.

A mix of fearful fliers, higher summer fares, fewer Europe-bound flights since Sept. 11 and, to a lesser extent, a stronger euro all are contributing to fewer tourists heading for Europe. The dollar has dropped about 9% against the euro since Feb. 1.

The European Travel Commission, the New York-based tourism bureau representing 31 nations, expects about 5.5 million Americans to fly to Europe from May through the end of September this year, compared with 6.35 million for the same period last year and a record 6.71 million in 2000. With each tourist spending about $2,000, the decrease represents about $1.7 billion in lost revenue for Europe's tourism industry.

"It could take another few years to get back to our 2000 levels," said commission spokesman Neil Martin.

"We can't forget that the economy is a huge factor in all of this too.... We need several things to turn around for us to fully recover."

Those who are heading across the pond tend to be repeat customers or veteran travelers, according to the nation's travel agents. The American Society of Travel Agents estimates that group tour bookings--especially for escorted bus trips within Europe preferred by fledgling tourists--are down 15% this year.

"The fear factor remains for first-time travelers, yes, because they are not savvy enough to understand how safe it is to go," said Mamia Reynolds, an agent at TraveLeaders in Irvine. "The clients we're getting for Europe have been there many times before, they know the drill and they are ready to fly across the ocean, no problem."

But some still have to get over "air fare shock," said Tom Livermore, chief operating officer of TraveLeaders, a national network of 30 agencies and 600 employees. A round-trip, coach ticket to Paris in July booked within the last month, for example, is running about $1,100--far more than many vacationers were counting on, he said.

"To think you're going to get a $400 fare to Europe now, forget about it," said Livermore, noting that his company's bookings to Europe are off as much as 20%. "Trust me, there is no inventory in the cheap-fare category."

At Delta Air Lines, the largest U.S. carrier to Europe with 38 daily departures, spokesman Anthony Black said international fares are bringing in more revenue than domestic bookings, but neither is near what they were a year ago.

Although Delta cut some international flights post-Sept. 11--mostly from Los Angeles to Japan--the airline has since added two new Europe-bound flights: from Atlanta to Milan, Italy, and from Cincinnati to Rome.

Air fares are in line with last year's rates because there are no low-cost carriers to contend with and because Europe remains popular among seasoned travelers, Black said.

Travelers who made reservations late last year or earlier this year may have snagged some of the low fares that have since disappeared, he said.

"With domestic travel, people have all kinds of options," he said. "But when you want to go to Europe, you won't be driving or taking the train."

To get the most for their money this year, many travelers are opting to stretch out their vacations in Europe from the typical seven or 14 days to a month or more.

Charlene Levin of Laguna Beach said her son bought her and her husband tickets to Paris this summer as a Christmas present, and the couple decided to extend the trip for most of July to cover jaunts to Rome; Florence, Italy; and Zurich, Switzerland.

"We were surprised and disappointed that the prices weren't lower," said Levin, adding that her son paid about $7,000 for the first-class tickets to Paris and they threw in $2,000 for the additional flights within Europe. "So we decided if we're going to spend that much, we better make the most of it."

As for the strengthening euro--the dollar is buying about 94 euros--Levin said it was a nonissue.

"We'd like it to be better, sure," she said. "But we're not going to wait for the exchange rate to improve so we can take a vacation of a lifetime."

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