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Europe Made Easy: Everything You Need to Plan a Trip

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Thinking of heading to Europe this year? A tough economy makes it all the more important to plan your trip wisely. Not to worry—I’m here to help! Follow these common-sense strategies, and you’ll be heading overseas in the near future (and with a little extra money in your pocket, too).
Know Which Destinations Are In Demand

I spoke with representatives from three major Europe vacation providers to find out which destinations are attracting the crowds this year. If your preferred destination is on the hot list, you’ll want to start bargain hunting now (if you haven’t already).

“London, Paris, and the cities of Italy—Rome, Florence, and Venice—are always in high demand,” says Paula McKay, president of “We are also seeing a lot of interest in Barcelona this year.”

“Italy and Spain, [particularly] Venice, Florence, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, and Andalucia, are where we’re seeing the biggest growth,” says Marty Seslow, VP of Marketing, Gate 1 Travel. “Those are not necessarily the destinations that have the best prices or overall value, but they’ve definitely had the best demand.”

“Business to Britain is up 30 percent so far, year over year,” says Nigel Osborne, president, Virgin Vacations. “U.K. is number one, Italy number two, then France number three.”

Every supplier I spoke with said the royal wedding in London is not showing the increased interest initially expected—most likely as a result of inflated prices. “I think if anything the [U.K.] destinations will get a bump from the publicity, but I just don’t think it’s going to be around that date,” says Seslow.

If you’re planning a vacation to Britain, France, Italy, or Spain, the bargains do exist, but only for the most dedicated of sleuths.

Track Down the Best Deals

“If the deal is right, people will travel,” says Osborne. Take this as your own personal mantra, and let the deals be your guide.

The earlier you get started, the better—Osborne recommends booking your vacation three to five months in advance, where as Seslow suggested five to eight months’ lead time. The main reason? Oil. With fluctuating fuel prices, it’s a good idea to lock in your airfare once you’ve found a price that fits your budget, as it’s likely only to go up as summer approaches. Last-minute deals will be scarce this year, as there’s been no diminished interest in travel, and thus no incentive to move unsold inventory.

When planning, consider the following:

Seasonality trumps all: “It’s all about season,” says Seslow. “If someone is willing to travel during a shoulder or low season, they’re definitely going to get a much better price. You can still be in Europe in November and in March, which is considered low season, and the weather is still good and the crowds are lower.” Summer will always be the busiest, and subsequently the most expensive time to travel. If you have flexibility in your schedule, take your vacation during a different season and take advantage of the savings.

Look for new routes: “London fares are all over the place at the moment because Delta announced expansion [there] from Boston, New York City, and Washington,” says Osborne. “Continental has increased capacity as well with the new United merger. Travelers will be able to get some fairly good deals across the Pond.” Check your preferred airline to see if new service is being offered in the coming months, as expanded routes tend to be coupled with affordable introductory fares to drum up new business.

Broaden your airport search—even if it means an extra flight: “If folks are living in a major gateway, like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, they have competition and multiple choices,” says Seslow. “But in secondary markets, that competition dwindles. We’ve found there are a decent number of [travelers in smaller cities] who wind up buying a low-cost domestic ticket on their own, to Atlanta, New York, or Chicago from their smaller town and then take advantage of the better options from the bigger town. That’s always something that’s been a possibility, [but] it seems like it’s becoming increasingly a better option.” So if you’re traveling from Pittsburgh to Paris, for example, don’t just look at flights between the two, as you may actually spend more money than, say, taking Southwest from Pittsburgh to Chicago or New York, and then a major carrier to Paris.

Maximize your hotel schedule: “Hotels tend to give better rates if you arrive on a Sunday,” says Osborne. “Their local leisure traffic stays Friday and Saturday night and they leave, and the business [travelers] don’t arrive until Monday. So most hotels have empty Sunday nights and they like to get people to stay [then].”

McKay also suggests looking at a variety of hotel classes, as you might be surprised by what you can afford. “Look at location and star classification, and decide what fits your travel style best. While the lead-in price might be really cheap, there is usually great value when upgrading to a four-star property,” she says. Looking at what each hotel offers (taking amenities, daily breakfast, and the like into account) can help you determine the best fit for your budget.

Consider cruising: “The major cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean, have more ships over in Europe,” says Seslow. “If [travelers] book a cruise as their vacation, they can hit multiple destinations, meals are included, and they’re spending a lot less money than the overpriced hotel accommodations in many of these main destinations. And you’re paying upfront in U.S. dollars, so there’s no currency exchange fees or issues.”

Finally, do a little pre-sightseeing legwork. “It’s best to purchase sightseeing tours in advance of your trip,” says McKay. “You’ll avoid long lines on the ground, saving valuable vacation time.” You may also get an advance-purchase discount by ordering attractions admissions before you depart.

Get Great Values Once You’ve Arrived

It’s great to find a deal, but it’s even better to be a cost-conscious consumer once you’re in-country. Follow these recommendations and you’ll get the most out of your trip abroad.

  • Avoid public transit or taxi sticker shock by using hop/on-hop/off buses like your personal chauffeurs. “Work it out within your schedule as a part taxi service,” says Osborne. “That way, you don’t have to buy a tube card or take a taxi.” Study the hop/on-hop/off bus schedule and sightseeing map, then plan your day’s explorations accordingly.
  • If you have a multi-city itinerary, choose rail over low-cost carriers. You’ll see the countryside, have easier point-to-point connections, and enjoy fee-free travel. Ryanair is notorious for nickel-and-diming travelers—with the train, you may have a longer trip, but the convenience of downtown train terminals, no baggage fees, a snack car, extra legroom, and other amenities make the experience an overall better value.
  • Plan your meals wisely. “Everybody wants to try a fancy restaurant in a new city,” says Osborne. “Go for the luncheon special rather than dinner and it’s usually half the price.” Osborne also recommends European department stores for an “elegant self-service lunch” on a budget. Harrod’s, Marks and Spencer, and Printemps Paris all offer refined lunch counters. You can also check with your store of choice to see if you can snag a meal at a bargain.

Your Turn

Are you planning a trip to Europe in 2011? What are your best savings strategies?

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