The weak dollar doesn't mean you have to substitute a Roman Holiday for "National Lampoon's European Vacation."
Though it's more difficult than ever to travel the continent without going over budget, it's not impossible. By looking for incentive packages with added value, booking an apartment stay over a hotel room and exploring lesser-known regions, for example, travelers are able to overcome a lousy exchange rate and end up with a luxurious stay.
It's possible to visit Italy, France and the United Kingdom, which are the continent's most popular destinations, says Barbara King, co-president of Leawood, Kan.-based Great Getaways, if you're smart about your accommodations.
Exploring off-the-beaten track properties — such as a countryside villa instead of a city hotel — can offer great savings, especially when you factor in transportation, says Sandy Cutrone, president of European Connection, a Roslyn Heights, N.Y.-based specialty tour operator and a preferred member of Virtuoso, a network of travel agents. Villa Olmi Resort — a luxuriously restored old farm estate on about 15 acres of land with 62 rooms — is one such place. It offers guests a heated outdoor pool, a restaurant and wine bar, and is located 3.1 miles from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, with complimentary transportation to and from the city. Cutrone says the villa is a third less expensive than a comparable stay in the city.
Those set on a hotel stay may find working with an experienced hotel booking company can help them navigate the exchange rate by negotiating better nightly hotel rates.
"We are making an extra effort to ask our hotels and resorts to give our clients a break," says Ken Simms, president of HotelLine.com, a full-service Web-based travel agency that caters to high-net-worth travelers. "Most of the hotels in Europe will work with us on the more expensive suites," says Simms, "especially if their occupancy is down ." HotelLine.com recently booked a deluxe suite in a five-star London hotel for 2,000 pounds per night instead of the rack rate of 3,000 pounds per night — a savings of $1,969 per night.
Incentive packages with added value are also important to consider. For example, the Rose Garden Palace, a luxury hotel in Rome's city center, offers an extra night if you stay for three consecutive nights in July or two consecutive nights in August. In July, prices start from 340 euros for a superior double room with either one king bed or two twin beds; in August, 288 euros for the same. These prices are per night and include breakfast, service and taxes.
Staying in lesser-known regions can offer exceptional bargains and a new experience for those who have already visited the continent. Cutrone suggests Umbria, Puglia or Sardinia in Italy and Provence or Bordeaux in France.
"It used to be that we would recommend Prague or Budapest," she says, "but Prague has become as expensive as any other city."
Which nearby destinations haven't? Bucharest, Romania. With an exchange rate of 2.36 leu to $1, the dollar can get you far.
"I think what makes Romania stand out most is the combination of modern European advantages alongside that authentic old Europe feel and old Europe prices," says Dana Toma, a spokeswoman for Kensington Tours, a Wilmington, Del.-based company that organizes private tours. "It is also a great place to escape the crowds that hit Western Europe, particularly in the summer."
Kensington Tours' nine-day Romania Exclusive tour, priced at $4,203 per person for a party of two, includes all hotels and meals, private transfers with English-speaking drivers and private tours with a private vehicle and an English-speaking guide. And there's no hassle of securing a visa.
Other programs focus on a fixed exchange rate with locked-in prices. These programs intend to save travelers money by working from a pre-determined price, set when the exchange rate was more favorable. Others, though, say it is better to take a chance on favorable future rates.
"I'm not a big fan of guaranteed dollar programs," says Cutrone. "I prefer working in euros and lowering our tariff rates — what if the exchange rate gets better later on?"
Great Getaways' King suggests insuring your trip price by buying a waiver. For example, certain companies, such as Classic Vacations, allow you to buy a waiver for $89 per person, where if the exchange rate goes up, the price of your trip does not; however if the exchange rate happens to go down, then you would actually get charged less.
Regardless of which European holiday you choose, be sure to plan in advance and "pay everything with credit card," says King. "Especially while you're there, because the exchange rate is the most favorable."