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Don’t let euro shock keep you at home

Traveling economically can be an adventure in itself

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Currency swings affect the prices that Americans pay when traveling abroad.

Currency swings affect the prices that Americans pay when traveling abroad.

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Do you feel your heart sinking when you think about what that long-planned trip to Europe is going to cost?

Look at a price in British pounds — say 85 pounds for a modest hotel room in London or 6 pounds for an all-day subway pass — and roughly double it. Your price for the room is $160; $11.30 for the Tube ticket.

Add up the cost of anything in euros — a book of 10 tickets for the Paris Metro for 10.5 euros, for instance. Add one-third; the price jumps to $14.

Take a big gulp.

Now relax.

There's hope.

Finding decent and reasonably priced lodging will be your biggest challenge, but once you've done that, there are dozens of ways to cushion the costs of foreign travel and still enjoy the best of what a big city or small town has to offer.

It helps to remember why you're going in the first place. It's not to go shopping or to brag to your friends about a marble bathroom.

Soaking up a foreign culture, meeting people, sampling great food and art are a few of the reasons we travel, and these kinds of activities are often best sampled by spending less rather than more.

Many museums are free — including the British Museum and most other major museums in London — and most theaters and museums everywhere offer discounts on certain days or times.

Churches often sponsor free music concerts. Pubs and bistros away from the main tourist areas are reasonable and more fun to discover than expensive tourist restaurants.

Pick up the fixings for a picnic lunch at a street market. Skip hotel breakfasts, unless they're free, and find a neighborhood cafe. Buy day passes for public transportation instead of using taxis, and you'll save enough to pay for dinner.

Most important, bend your mind around the fact that the dollar's value is relative to what you'd pay in any American big city and the experience you'd have there.

Three euros for coffee at a sidewalk cafe in Rome is $4. Put it in perspective by comparing the experience to sipping a $3.06 tall soy latte at a Starbucks, and it goes down a little easier.

Touring the Louvre in Paris costs 8.5 euros, about $11.30; The New York Museum of Modern Art costs $20.

Youths pay the same price — about $15 — to get into the Tower of London and the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

There are, of course, destinations that are simply better values than others. Latin America and Asia are obvious choices, and there are bargains within Eastern Europe waiting to be discovered.

In Dubrovnik in Croatia, where the dollar is down 10 percent against the kuna compared with last year, a meal of fresh mussels and salad for two with local wine still costs only about $12. Compare that with $13 for one order of fish and chips at Rock & Sole Plaice in London, and you start to get the picture.

Even within Western Europe, some countries are better values than others.

Austria and Germany are better values than Switzerland or Norway, says guidebook author and public-television host Rick Steves.

"London is horrible, and Ireland is really expensive. On the other hand, you can get on a train and go three hours to Paris and get yourself a $100 room that's really, really nice."

One thing no one is counting on is the dollar gaining strength anytime soon.

"I think it's fairly permanent, myself," says Patty Price, owner of Patty's Places, a Seattle tour company that's been leading groups to Europe since 1984.

Her advice: "Quit buying lattes, cut where you can and start putting it in the piggybank."

Here are some other money-saving ideas:

— Not everyone can travel off-season, but if you can, it's a great way to pump some muscle into your dollars.

— The weekend rate on a double room with buffet breakfast at the two-star Art Gallery Hotel in Amsterdam's museum quarter is $113 until March 1, when it jumps to $144. The three-star Hotel Castex in the Marais district of Paris chips in a fourth night free in August and November through February, bringing the rate on a double down from $160 to $120.

— If you don't need an elevator, downgrade from a three-star to a two-star and feel your wallet expanding. Stay in a neighborhood rather than a high-rent tourist area. Consider renting an apartment or a room in a private home where the rate includes breakfast and the company of locals with tips to share on neighborhood restaurants and pubs. A list of agencies approved by the Bed and Breakfast and Homestay Association in London is at www.bbha.org.uk.

— Some of the new no-frills European chains offer great deals for families. The London County Hall, a hotel next to the London Eye and Houses of Parliament, offers modern rooms big enough for two adults and two children for $160. It's part of the British Travel Inn hotel chain (www.travelinn.co.uk) with 440 hotels around the UK.

— If you're traveling alone or with just one other person and want to pay even less, consider a hostel (many take older adults) or sharing a bathroom, the way many Europeans do.

— One of my favorite London budget finds is the spic-and-span Vicarage Hotel in fashionable Kensington. A single room with a big breakfast is 46 pounds, about $86, with a shared shower and toilet. The price jumps to

$140 with a private bathroom. Show me a picture of a bathroom that's worth $54 a night and I'll buy you a round of fish and chips.

— Web sites such as www.hotwire.com and www.priceline.com can turn up deals on more luxurious digs. These act as clearing houses for hotels to unload slow-moving rooms at fire-sale prices. See www.betterbidding.com for tips on how to book.

Laterooms.com lists last-minute discounts on thousands of European hotels categorized by city and neighborhood. The "deals" I checked weren't much better than what the hotels offered on their own Web sites.

Eurocheapo.com lists its 20 to 25 best budget beds in cities such as Madrid, Lisbon and Florence. The site supplies phone numbers so you can call the hotels directly.

— Before booking any room, check the user reviews on www.tripadvisor.com. The easiest way to find these reviews is to enter your destination, then go into the search box at left and put in the name of the hotel, or do a search for the hotel itself on www.google.com. The Trip Advisor reviews usually pop up near the top of the list.

— The one bright spot is that airfares are low this year and likely will stay that way. Round-trip spring fares from Seattle are around $640 to London; $580 to Amsterdam and $680 to Rome.

"They might go even lower given how much new service to Europe the U.S. Big Six (airlines) are adding this summer," says Joe Brancatelli, who tracks travel trends for business travelers at www.joesentme.com.

Book midweek and you'll usually save $50 each way.

—The package-tour operators are using the weak dollar as a marketing tool to tout the savings of all-inclusive, paid-in-advance trips. Check the itineraries closely for changes in the class of restaurants or hotels.

Some operators have shortened their trips or gone to cheaper hotels or restaurants to keep prices down. Read the fine print for "price adjustment clauses."

"Packages that might have been five nights and four days last year are four days and three nights this year," says Brancatelli.

— Some deals initially sound better than they actually are.

Grand Circle Travel, for instance, recently send out an e-mail advertising 15-day trips to Spain's Costa del Sol from $1,095 ($73 a day) including meals and airfare. But that was the price per person based on two people traveling together in early January or late November and departing from New York. Leave in March from Seattle and the price jumps to $1,845 per person — $246 per day for a couple.

— Packages that combine air and hotel only can be money-savers. Check Hotwire and Priceline or www.go-today.com.

— Consult message boards where travelers share information and post questions.

A few that I like include the Graffiti Wall at www.ricksteves.com (go to "Plan Your Trip"); Slow Talk (www.slowtalk.com); TheTravelzine, a Yahoo message group at www.thetravelzine.com and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree at thorntree.lonelyplanet.com. Steves publishes money-saving tips at www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/thrifty50.htm.

— Paying for as much as possible in advance is one way to protect yourself from further declines in the dollar, but don't bother buying large amounts of foreign currency here. The high fees generally offset any savings.

Use credit cards and cash cards to withdraw cash from ATM machines, but check first with your bank about surcharges. Credit-card issuers have been raising fees for using credit cards and making ATM withdrawals in foreign countries.

Visa and MasterCard automatically add a 1 percent fee to all foreign credit-card charges. That means if you charge a 100-euro hotel room and the current exchange rate is $1.35, you'll be paying $136. Some banks tack on surcharges of another 2 percent to 3 percent.

Most credit unions that issue credit cards and cash cards don't add extra fees.

— One of the worst deals around is the pre-paid AAA Visa TravelMoney Card. Use this to pay for something in another country and you'll be hit with a $4.95 "activation fee," a 7 percent surcharge above the current exchange rate and a $2 charge for a cash-machine withdrawal.

This is one card you can afford to leave home without.

© The Seattle Times