Image: English countryside
Scott Barbour  /  Getty Images
So, you want to see Europe but don't want to feel the currency crunch? Columnist Tim Leffel suggests looking at rural areas. The English countryside, such as the grounds of Windsor Castle, shown above, will be more cost effective than visiting London, for example.
By Tim Leffel Travel columnist
updated 11/29/2007 2:05:38 PM ET 2007-11-29T19:05:38

The U.S. dollar has been steadily sliding against the euro for years, but now that it takes almost $1.50 to buy one euro and more than $2 to buy one pound sterling, it's finally sinking in with American travelers that a trip to Europe is going to cost a bundle. Paying for a European vacation can feel like buying a diamond engagement ring: Your ballpark budget could easily be two months' salary.

I recently met with tourism bureau representatives from close to 20 European destinations. Most believe 2008 is going to be the year that tourism from the U.S. either flattens out or drops. Some are facing that probability with resignation, while others are trying to find ways to ease the bite for those carrying battered dollars. If you are a budget-minded traveler determined to visit Europe, you will have to plan carefully and be willing to try something different.

Nontraditional destinations
"Everyone wants to go to Tuscany," sighed one villa rental representative I met with in November. "We can offer twice the space for half the money elsewhere, but it's hard to get clients to look beyond the well-known regions." This sums up one problem that causes a vacation budget to go through the roof: going where everyone else is going.

A willingness to go to less-heralded places is essential to bringing down the cost on the other side of the Atlantic. Whether you are renting a villa or staying in hotels, these destinations will nearly always cost you significantly less. Head to Eastern Europe instead of the West. Try a Greek island none of your neighbors has heard about instead of Santorini or Mykonos. Ski in the Alps of Slovenia instead of Austria or Italy. With any of these strategies, your total cost can easily drop by a third or a half.

As I noted in an earlier column, rural areas are almost always easier on the budget than capital cities. Visit Moravia instead of Prague, the English countryside instead of London, or the towns of Andalusia instead of Barcelona. If you are heading to Croatia because it's suddenly "the hot place to go," or if you plan on following the 75 million vacationers visiting France each year, plan on paying top dollar.

Tracking down the discounts
More than in the past, this is the time to become a deal sleuth if you want any chance of keeping your vacation budget at a reasonable level. The Norwegian capital of Oslo is going all-out to ease visitors' pains, offering all kinds of free entertainment, a visitors pass good for entry at 28 museums and for unlimited public transportation (cost: $38 a day or less), as well as $20 "cheap seats" at the new opera house opening in April. The $15 Luxembourg Card gives visitors unlimited local transportation, free admission to a long list of attractions, and sizable discounts on major attractions in Luxembourg. Scour the official tourism sites and regional visitors sites to track down similar savings opportunities for other areas — but do the math to make sure they make sense for your interests.

Before scouting out flight prices, check into package deals being offered by airlines that have a lot at stake in keeping their U.S. routes filled. Companies like Air Berlin and Icelandair don't just offer some of the most attractive fares across the Atlantic; they frequently put together package deals that deliver good hotel rates priced in dollars — as low as $99 a night in expensive places like Reykjavik, Stockholm and Amsterdam.

Be flexible
Most people know that Europe gets more expensive in the summer, so avoid those three months if at all possible. Also realize that business districts in European capitals are busy during the week while the tourist districts are busiest on weekends. If you can stay at one or the other at the opposite time, you'll probably get a much better rate on your hotel room.

Be flexible in your transportation options, too. When looking at flight options, investigate flying into a neighboring country and then catching a budget flight or train for the last leg. The savings can be substantial. Once at your destination, join the locals on a bus or train. You can get almost anywhere in Europe without an expensive rental car and will probably end up with far fewer hassles.

Above all, plan your trip around the deals instead of trying to find deals that fit your rigid plans. Those who go into the planning process with their options wide open can experience a European vacation without maxing out their credit card. Those who go to the most popular places at the most popular time of year are the ones most likely to feel the sting of the currency exchange rates.

Tim Leffel is author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and “The World's Cheapest Destinations.”He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine Perceptive Travel.

Photos: A European tour

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  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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