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Euro may be rising, but airfares to the Continent are falling

You might pay $16 for a cheeseburger and fries in Rome, but at least you won't go broke getting there.

August 03, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

If you're fence-sitting about a trip to Europe, here's a suggestion: Stop dithering and start grabbing some of the best fall and winter deals in years. They'll probably disappear as fast as autumn leaves in a rainstorm.

Among recent offers:

* A five-night package to Paris, with hotel and round-trip air from LAX, starting at $599 per person, double occupancy, for September and October. That's $80 less than France Vacations charged last fall and the same price as 10 years ago, said John Biggerstaff, president of the Los Angeles-based discounter.

* Round-trip airfare for $99 for your companion when both of you book a "Winter Breaks" vacation, for travel Nov. 1 through April, with Trafalgar Tours. It's the first time the mass-market tour operator has paired this offer with low-season trips to Europe, said John Severini, president of Trafalgar Tours USA.

* A weeklong fly-drive jaunt in England, with round-trip air to Manchester from LAX, and seven-day car rental in fall, starting at $529 per person, double occupancy, from Virgin Vacations, the vacation arm of Virgin Atlantic. (Lodging is extra.)

These deals, still bookable in late July, were subject to availability -- an important caveat, judging from this summer's experience.

Travelers who held off booking summer trips to Europe, hoping for their plans to settle or for last-minute discounts, paid a heavy price. Published airfares gained altitude through the peak season, topping $1,000 for many transatlantic round trips.

Adding to procrastinators' woes, the euro, the currency used in much of Western Europe, has blasted past the U.S. dollar, producing espresso-strength sticker shock for travelers clutching outdated guidebooks. The dollar buys nearly 14% less now than a year ago. (It has lost less, nearly 3%, against the British pound.)

Tom Noyes, an oceanography professor from Torrance, and girlfriend Karen Tosti, a student from Sunland, waited until June 26 to book their July vacation in Dublin. They considered their round-trip fares of more than $900 each "not bad." But they found dining in Ireland, which uses the euro, to be challenging. "Dinners were rather expensive -- about $25," Noyes said. "You can only eat so many fish and chips."

Elsewhere in Europe, an average cheeseburger-and-fries lunch may set you back nearly $14 in Paris --about $3 more than last year -- and $16 in Rome, according to Runzheimer International, which advises businesses on travel expenses. Gasoline in much of Europe has increased 30% or more in the last year, to $4.50 or more a gallon.

The weakened dollar makes it all the more worthwhile to consider going in fall or winter.

One reason for good off-season discounts this year: A big rebound in American visitors, which was expected after the Iraq war wound down, hasn't happened. Europe expects to host 10.3 million to 11 million U.S. visitors in 2003, slightly below last year's total and nearly a fifth fewer than in 2000, according to the European Travel Commission.

The erosion may be worse than these numbers suggest. At France Vacations, which sent about 15,000 people to France last year, Biggerstaff figures "this year we'll be lucky if we reach 9,000." Portugal, which usually hosts about 290,000 Americans annually, expects only 127,000 this year, said Luis Avides, director of the San Francisco branch of the Portuguese National Tourist Office.

It's not just geopolitics holding travel back. After all, Portugal, unlike France, backed the U.S. campaign in Iraq. Rather, Avides said, Americans are worried about their dwindling retirement nest eggs and, with recent terrorist and respiratory disease threats, they are uneasy about traveling far from home. He doesn't think those concerns will disappear soon.

Neither, apparently, do the airlines. For transatlantic travel starting Sept. 1, "most airlines have cut their fares substantially," Biggerstaff said. "That's an indication that the forward bookings haven't come in as they were hoping."

The difference can be dramatic. Virgin Atlantic's nonstop round-trip fares between LAX and London started at $847 for August travel and $595 for September on the same route, same flights, when I recently checked them online. British Airways' comparable fares fell from $1,005 to $595. (Fares fluctuate daily, so you may find higher or lower ones now.)

"Anybody who is thinking of going on holiday would be stupid to leave in August," said Brian Clewer, who owns Continental Travel Shop in Santa Monica, which specializes in discounted air fares to Europe. "Wait until September."

Clewer is finding more off-season discounting this year than last, even though published fares recently booked for September appeared to be a bit higher than last September, said Geoff Silvers, director of marketing for Internet travel seller Clewer, like other discounters, gets deals by negotiating months in advance.

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