So, the dollar's weak and the euro's strong. Ergo, traveling around Europe is devilishly expensive for American tourists.
Expensive like $5 for a pint of Guinness in a Dublin bar, $80 to gas up a rental car, and $6 for a liter of mineral water in a country restaurant.
What, then, is a poor Europhile to do? Stay home and eat Twinkies? Or go anyway and work on some smart strategies for keeping travel costs affordable?
The latter, we think. And hope.
Last week we discussed a bunch of ideas for dealing with some of the big-ticket items: accommodations, eating out, and flying no-frills within Europe.
Today it's time for some more euro-taming devices, starting with the offbeat idea of staying in places that may not be top-tier destinations - yet - but where living is a whole lot cheaper.
Example: We just got back from a week in Krakow - an emerging area, but hardly A-list. It's ravishingly beautiful, culturally buzzing, but also eminently affordable. Much more so than Prague, for instance, which in the last dozen years has blossomed into Eastern Europe's chic and hip destination - with crowds and prices to match.
Another Prague alternative might be the glorious university city of Ljubljana in Slovenia, which combines great charm, cozy restaurants, a lively arts scene, and a river running through it with very reasonably priced lodgings. For $120 you can get you a super room - with a view.
You can apply this same thinking to any of Europe's top destinations, which have become so popular that they can charge whatever they want and get away with it.
So, lose the crowds. And save money. All it takes is research and the determination not to follow blindly where others are treading!
It's no great secret that traveling off-season is another serious money-saver. Airfares are much lower. Ditto hotel prices.
We make it a practice of avoiding the peak summer season and do our euro-tripping between February and May, September and November. Of course, that opens up June, July, and August for countries that have their winters in our summers.
Another smart strategy for keeping costs down is to pick a single destination and stay there, using it as a base from which to explore the surrounding country. You probably won't be covering as much territory as you would in the traditional hotel-to-hotel approach, but you will be getting to know a place, a region, and a people, which is the whole point of overseas travel anyway. And you won't be packing and unpacking every day!
It's no secret that we're big railway fans, and thankfully, the European rail system has come up with affordable passes to match our shrinking pocketbooks.
You can pretty well forget the standard 17-country Eurailpass because it now costs a whopping $946. But one- or two-country passes that allow travel on several days within a month are ideal for getting from A to B, and for exploring the hinterlands.
Drop down from first class to second. Use an occasional overnight train and avoid an extra hotel night. Look for saver passes where two or more people travel together, and for the significant discounts for those under 26 and over 60.
There are always travelers, God love 'em, who are not happy unless they are behind the wheel of a rental car (as our e-mail attests whenever we bang on about trains!). But there are numerous ways of cutting down expenses there, too.
Arrange car rental in the States before you leave. Ask the credit card company that you're using to pay for the rental if it covers Collision Damage Waiver - the insurance that pays the car's full value in case of an accident. If not, you can get it in the U.S through Travel Guard (www.travel-guard.com) for about $7 a day, a quarter of what you'll pay if you get it at the rental agency on arrival.
Ask for a diesel-engine car, which will give you a greatly improved mileage. Never use cars in big cities; it's much better to pick it up after you've been to your first city and drop it off before you arrive at your last one. No point in paying just to park.
And finally, just drive less!
To really cut expenses, check out some of the super budget car rentals available from a British outfit, Easycar, associated with Easyjet, which has locations in France, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the UK. It rents out only subcompacts, but prices can be as low as $6 a day (www.easycar.com).
Finally, we come to phones, and the almost pathological desire of so many tourists to phone home.
We say, don't unless absolutely necessary. But Rick Steves, travel guru who knows about these things, says the cheapest way of keeping in contact with home is to dial direct, using international phone cards with PIN numbers that you can buy at newsstands all over Europe.
Calls to the States cost just 10 cents a minute versus the $3 a minute charged by big U.S. providers.