By Quentin Fottrell
With Europe’s economy in shambles and its currency taking a beating, experts say now may be a great time to visit.
Travel pros say Americans may be able to capitalize on the euro sinking to new lows. Today it hit $1.29, its lowest level in 11 months. Flights to Europe aren’t much cheaper now, but once there tourists can find deals on hotels, food and trips within the Continent, says Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel tour operator. “Once travelers land in a major European hub some the best deals can be scored flying on budget airlines within Europe,” she says. Ryanair, Europe’s biggest low-fares airline by passengers, has flights to most European cities from $15 one-way, but that doesn’t include taxes and fees.
It makes sense to pay euros – and not dollars – whenever possible, experts say. European merchants often give American travelers who use plastic the courtesy of paying for purchases in U.S. dollars. “Don’t fall for it,” says Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO at CardHub.com. Playing on the discomfort that comes from shopping in a foreign country, merchants offer this so-called service – known as “dynamic currency conversion” – in order to charge exchange rates up to 10% higher than those offered by MasterCard and Visa, Papadimitriou says.
Hotels and many restaurants have cut prices by as much as 20% in the past year, Papadimitriou says. There are steep bargains in the troubled economies of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland this winter versus a year ago, says Goldman. “There are even some bargains in Italy — even though Italy is an all-year-round destination,” she says. December hotel prices are down 24% and 10% in Madrid and Lisbon respectively versus last year, partly due to the weaker euro and struggling economies in those countries, according to travel site Hotwire.com.
Shoppers may feel more emboldened than in past trips across the Atlantic, experts say. It’s a good time to buy locally produced goods in euros: In Italy, that means leather in Rome and glass in Murano, which comes from the Venetian island of the same name. “It will definitely cost you less than it did when the euro was stronger,” Goldman says. “It’s a good opportunity to go to Europe and buy fashions.” And, those shopping in Milan should visit market towns like Como where shoppers may find last season’s Valentino sunglasses at a fraction of the price sold in the big cities – or even the same pair in New York stores.
To be sure, for those wanting to load up on gifts it might be better to buy toys for children from U.S. stores and use wrapping paper with pictures of the Eiffel Tower, says Ed Perkins, a contributing editor for SmarterTravel.com. “Anything I really want overseas I can usually get in CostCo cheaper than I can over there,” he says. “Simply because even with a weak euro consumer goods in Europe carry pretty high value-added tax.”
For bigger spenders, real estate has also come down in much of Europe. For example, a castle in Ireland is going for 50% off, as the real estate market there has fallen by around half since the peak in 2006. Property prices outside of Athens in middle class suburbs and market towns in Greece have fallen by 20%, according to a report released this week by the Bank of Greece. Islands like Mykonos, Paros and Skyros may also have bargains if property hunters have the time to look for them, Perkins says. But, he adds, It’s tough to know whether the low prices are due to local economic weakness in Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, or the weak euro. “That said, it’s hard to separate the two.”