What's new in Europe this year? Prices, for one thing. The value of the dollar against the euro has dropped enough to hike costs significantly for American travelers. Here's how it pencils...

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What’s new in Europe this year?

Prices, for one thing.

The value of the dollar against the euro has dropped enough to hike costs significantly for American travelers.

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Here’s how it pencils out: A hotel room priced at 100 euros per night cost American travelers $87 last March. This year the same room is $108.

Coffee at a Parisian cafe priced at 3.5 euros was $3 last year. Now it’s $3.78. A 50-euro dinner for two in Rome cost $43 in 2002. Now it’s $54.

Costs in London and other parts of Great Britain are just as high, with a 75 pound-a-night hotel room now costing $118 compared with $111 this time last year.

All this means that if you’re heading off to Europe this spring or summer, you’ll have to search a little harder for bargains. Not to worry. Travel is down. Dig hard and you’ll find the deals.

One piece of good news is that the quality of many smaller two-star hotels has gone up a notch or two as many took the winter to renovate and add bathrooms. In some cases, where the improvements weren’t enough to earn the hotels an extra star, price increases haven’t been significant.

Typical is the newly decorated room for two with a private bath (new fixtures and shower), TV and telephone in the charming Grand Hotel Jeanne D’Arc in the Marais area of Paris, where I stayed in January. A room for two is $80 and a family of four can stay for $134. The bonus here was an elevator. Not many two-star hotels have one.

There are lots of way to find hotels, but a few places to start are www.cheaphotellinks.com/eu, with links to useful hotel-finding sites; www.eurocheapo.com with candid reader reviews and photos; and www.tripadvisor.com, with information and links to recent magazine articles about European cities.

Don’t discount some of the small European chain hotels for clean, reliable and inexpensive accommodations at a good price. Timhotel, a chain of 15 hotels around Paris, tosses in a little charm with hotels in classic neighborhoods such as Montmartre and the Latin Quarter. Doubles are in the $125 range. See www.timhotel.com.


Packages can save you money and hassles. Several people I ran into were happy with arrangements made by Bothell-based Gotoday.com (www.go-today.com) and France Vacations Inc. (www.francevacations.net). Both offer easy-to-book packages that include air fare from Seattle and a hotel for a week, with the ability to upgrade your hotel for a higher price. But read the fine print. The initial price quotes don’t include airport taxes, about $90 per person. Surcharges for weekend travel add another $50.

Air fares

Air fares may end up being the year’s best travel bargain.

British Airways came up with a three-day fare sale a few weeks ago that put Seattle-London or Seattle-Amsterdam round trips in the $300 range for spring travel.

The sale is over, but watch for all the airlines to start a sell-off, depending on how much uncertainty about a war in Iraq affects travel.

If you find a good fare to and from London, consider taking side trips to other cities on one of the smaller low-fare carriers that many Europeans are using to get around cheaply.

The two biggest, Ryanair and Easyjet, can be booked online from here (www.ryanair.com and www.easyjet.com) but there are a couple of caveats.

The advertisements for low fares don’t include taxes and airport fees. Those can double the price of a ticket. Most of the flights leave from far-flung airports such as London’s Stansted. Public transportation by express train is convenient, but it adds to the cost and takes extra time.

Here’s an example: A flight to Venice on Ryanair was advertised recently for 11.5 pounds — about $18 each way. It ended up costing $39 with taxes and airport charges. Add in the $35 round-trip train fare for the 45-minute ride between Central London and Stansted (info at www.stanstedexpress.com) and the price ends up at $113 for a round trip.

That said, there are deals out there. I spotted an offer on Ryanair’s Web site in January for a “free” fare from London to Dublin in January. The fare was indeed free, part of an anniversary promotion. Taxes and airport fees added up to $17 each way for a total of $34 for the round trip.

The service was fast and efficient. The desk clerk who checked us in at the airport did double duty as our flight attendant, and the train connections to and from Stansted were seamless. I’d do it again, but I’d also check out special offers that might be available from British Air (www.britishairways.com) or British Midland (www.flybmi.com). Both fly from the more convenient Heathrow Airport ($5.20 from London on the Tube’s Piccadilly line).

British Midland, by the way, is launching two new flights from Heathrow. Starting next month, the airline will fly a daily round trip to Venice and to Alicante, Spain.

If you’re going to be in Germany, check out cheap hops from the Cologne-Bonn airport to Rome, Madrid, Milan, Naples, Paris and other cities in Europe on Germanwings (www.germanwings.com), a Lufthansa partner; and Hapag-Lloyd Express (www.hlx.com).

Coffee and cigarettes

One of my favorite low-cost pastimes is people-watching at a cafe while pretending to be reading the International Herald Tribune, but if you’re not in France or Italy, the quality of the coffee has always been dubious, and smoking everywhere is a problem.

Things are changing on both fronts.

Starbucks almost looks like an afterthought in cities like London and Dublin. More popular are European chains such as Caffè Nero (think leather armchairs, classical music, great Italian coffee and imported sweets); Costa Coffee, with airport locations; and Coffee Republic.

Even McDonald’s is on the scene with its McCafes. Espresso drinks and fancy pastries are served in special sections of its stores decorated like French bistros. More pubs and cafes are setting aside areas for nonsmokers. The spaces range from a single table or two (useless) to whole rooms.

My vote for the best nonsmoking pub in London goes to the Hereford Arms near the Gloucester Road underground station. A cozy, carpeted dining room is reserved for nonsmokers; you can order a side of mushy minty peas with your fish and chips and wash it down with a pint of London Pride.

The biggest change will come about in Ireland next year when a total ban on smoking in work places goes into effect. Pubs are included.

Major events

Graz, Austria’s second-largest city, is Europe’s Cultural Capital for 2003. Several new arts venues have been built including the Island in the Mur, a sculptural steel-and-glass structure floating between the banks of the city’s Mur river, connected to land by tubular walkways.

In London, Shakespeare’s Globe on Southbank will stage a summer season of Elizabethan productions, while a major exhibition of the Queen Mother’s personal belongings and relics will go on show at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (www.nmm.ac.uk).

In Holland, two major exhibitions signal the start of Van Gogh Year. March 30 marks the 150th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s birth. In Amsterdam, The Van Gogh Museum is presenting “Vincent’s Choice” (through June 15), 150 paintings Van Gogh was known to have admired, while the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo is showing “Vincent and Helene” an exploration of founder Helene Kröller-Müller’s collection of Van Gogh’s work (through Oct. 12).

For more information on other events in Europe, see the European Travel Commission’s Web site at www.visiteurope.com. Rick Steves has more about what’s new in Europe at www.ricksteves.com.

Carol Pucci’s Travel Wise column runs in the Sunday travel section. Comments are welcome. Contact her at 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com.