Cruising Europe can ease shock of exchange rate

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The euro has taken off and, along with the British pound, has put the U.S. dollar in the dust, at a time when many Americans were pushing Europe back to the top of their vacation plans.

But there's a way to make your dollar a winner this year: Look at cruising Europe. You pay in U.S. dollars for your intra-European transportation, accommodations, meals and sightseeing--no worries about the exchange rate for the major costs of your trip.

Add some other benefits: You move from country to country but check in and unpack only once. You return to the same room every night and you don't have to hunt for a restaurant with prices that won't give you indigestion. And, the amenities you get cruising--from the quality and service in accommodations and dining to the entertainment and facilities aboard ships--can't be matched at the price on land.

"Cruising in general is a good value but certainly now with the exchange rate with the euro, the European experience comes with that much more value added," says Terry L. Dale, president of Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 20 cruise lines in the North American market.

"There is a comfort level that comes with the cruise experience through Europe. You no longer have to chart out your course between land destinations. The cruise ship provides you with that itinerary and every evening you return to the ship. There's a comfort with the package that's attractive to many new visitors to the European market," Dale says.

For both the first-timer and the veteran traveler wanting a more intimate look at Europe, there are numerous cruising options, ranging from budget to deluxe. We've checked vacation ideas that would appeal to different travelers: Large cruise ships with more traditional introductory itineraries, riverboats plying the inner waterways, and, for the more independent, affluent traveler seeking luxury at a savings, some smaller, yachtlike ships.

From scores of itineraries, we picked an interesting variety to indicate options and good deals found in research in late March. All prices are per person, double occupancy, for an inside cabin usually (some riverboats have all outside cabins) and are cruise-only unless noted otherwise. Extra taxes apply. Prices were the lines' specials at the time but these change constantly so these costs should be used as examples. Prices may apply only to specific sailings. These or better deals may be available through discount cruise agencies.

In general, the lowest prices are early and late in the season, in March and April and from late September into early November. None of the cruise lines we contacted have added any surcharges because of the exchange rate, as some land tour operators have begun doing. Prices could change, but once you book, your rate usually is locked.

Larger ships offer many options. For example: seven-day trips from the Spanish port of Barcelona to the French and Italian Rivieras with calls for Florence and Rome. Ten-day trips from Italy to Greece, Croatia, Turkey, Malta and Spain. From Harwich/London 10-and 12-day explorations of the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Norwegian fiords, St. Petersburg, Russia, and Baltic ports. Or all the way from Copenhagen or Harwich/London to Athens, visiting a dozen countries in 15-16 days.

Ocean-cruising deals

- Of Holland America Line's four ships in Europe, the older Noordam has some great bargains: nine-day Romantic Rivieras in early November from Civitavecchia/Rome to Lisbon, from $1,009, or $112 a day; and the 10-day Mediterranean Mosaic from Rome to Barcelona, from $1,148 ($1,248 outside cabin) or $115 a day. The newer flagship Rotterdam does 15-day Jewels of Europe--Piraeus/Athens to Harwich/London--from $1,646 ($1,946 outside) or $110 a day; if that's too long, check on doing nine days of it to Barcelona.

- Of Royal Caribbean International's three ships, the Splendour of the Seas has the biggest bargain: seven-day Mediterranean sailings round-trip from Barcelona from $699 ($899 outside cabin) in late October to November, or $100 a day (lowest prices were $699 to $819 from late September onward). Air fare will be lower in October than summer, and temperatures still should be in the upper 60s and 70s.

- Of Princess Cruises' three ships, the Royal Princess sails from Southampton, England, on two 12-day British Isles/Western Europe itineraries to seven countries, from $1,799, or $150 a day.

While some above prices are enticingly low, remember that air fare and sightseeing tours are extra. We saw many tour options in the $30-$60 range, but longer excursions run above $100. A number of ships have special visits to the beaches of Normandy for this 60th anniversary year of D-Day. Also, lines offer cruise-tours, which extend the trip with a land package.

On the downside: these cruise itineraries are like an appetizer of Europe. You won't have much time in any one place. For instance, ships spend about 12 hours at Civitavecchia for passengers to visit Rome, which is a 90-minute ride by bus each way, so tours allow about seven hours in the city.

Riverboats take you where no cruise ship can go--into the heart of Europe, from such major cities as Amsterdam, Munich, Vienna and Budapest to little-known villages in beautiful countryside. Several lines have modern fleets of riverboats catering to North American travelers with itineraries on Europe's legendary rivers--the Seine and Rhone in France, the Po in Italy and the Rhine, Main and Danube, which flow 2,200 miles through 15 countries from the North Sea/Holland through Central Europe to the Black Sea/Eastern Europe and U-kraine.

Carrying 50 to 200 passengers, the boats give a more casual, intimate experience, though dinners can be dressy. The riverboats usually have only two or three decks and the top is flat, an area for sunning and watching the changing scenery. Cabins are similar to those on cruise ships. Besides having a restaurant, lounge and bar, the boats may have an outdoor pool, small spa, library and hair salon.

The boats dock beside the towns, often putting you within steps of the historic districts. At some stops, passengers go in small groups on guided walking tours while combination bus-walking tours are done in larger cities. Some lines include shore excursions while others have them optional.

Riverboats tend to run more expensive than the mass-market cruise ships noted above and don't have the discounting, but the experience is much more personal, like being in a small luxury hotel.

River-cruising deals

Peter Deilmann Cruises has 10 riverboats in 14 countries. Its prices remain at 2001 levels for both 2004 and 2005. Most cruises are seven days with land-extension options. If you choose the cruise only, you can pre-purchase a package of shore excursions or buy only those you want when onboard, well-suited for the independent-minded traveler.

Among Deilmann's many options: Two seven-day South of France wine country cruises from Lyon from $1,375/$1,450 (late fall) or $196/$207 a day cruise only. Of its dozen cruises on the Rhine-Main-Danube-Moselle, the starting prices range from $1,395 to $1,735, or about $200-$250 a day, depending on the season for such options as seven-day Amsterdam round-trip including Holland and Belgium, Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland, or Frankfurt to Munich, Germany.

- Viking River Cruises has 11 riverboats in Europe, from the major cruising areas to Russian and Ukraine. Its prices include most shore excursions, and it offers packages that provide air and transfers.

Among Viking options: A seven-night Danube Explorer between Vienna and Nuremberg in late November-December timed for the traditional Christmas Markets of Austria and Germany, from $959, or $137 a day. Also, on the Seine River seven days from Paris to Honfleur, visiting Monet's Giverny, from $1,359, or $194 a day, and 10-day Waterways of the Czars to Russia from $1,459, or $146 a day.

- Continental Waterways is best known for its barge cruises in smaller vessels but also has the 50-passenger Anacoluthe on the Seine for six-day Normandy and Ile de France cruises through Paris, from $1,990, or $332 a day (prices include transfers, excursions and wine with meals).

While the riverboats often have some evening entertainment, if you want a casino and a cornucopia of activities, river cruising won't suit you. Also, not all the boats have elevators, so ask if that's important.

For the affluent who like to push their dollars the farthest, Seabourn Cruise Line and SeaDream Yacht Club have acclaimed ultra-luxury small vessels that call at picturesque ports where big ships can't go, such as Portofino, Italy; Seville, Spain; and smaller Greek isles.

- Seabourn, which has three all-suite 208-passenger ships, has numerous seven-day itineraries in the Mediterranean starting at $2,998, all-inclusive even to wine and an open bar. In a cost comparison done by Seabourn with comparable euro-priced land-based five-star lodging, gourmet restaurants, other meals and transportation, its base fare for two of $5,996 was approximately 40 less than the $9,912 calculated on land.

- SeaDream Yacht Club, which has two megayachts carrying about 100 passengers each, also does seven-day itineraries around the Mediterranean from such ports as Istanbul, Nice, Monte Carlo and Venice. Its yachts have been highly rated for their service and overall experience, geared for those who prefer a more unstructured vacation. Its fares are all-inclusive and start at around $3,000.

On the downside: The lines usually offer hotel packages for two-three extra days in the departure city. These are priced per person and may not be the best deals.

Double-check rates on the specified hotel's Web site for comparison. Our check of several packages showed you could save money booking your own rooms at the specified hotels; while the packages included some extras, such as breakfast and transfers, these expenses aren't likely to make up the difference in price.

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THE CRUISE LINES

Travel agents can assist with information and bookings for cruises and riverboats in Europe. For more information:

OCEAN CRUISING

Celebrity Cruises: 800-437-3111, www.celebrity.com

Costa Cruises: 800-462-6782, www.costacruises.com (geared mainly toward European trav-elers)

Holland America Line: 800-426-0327, www.hollandamerica.com

Norwegian Cruise Line: 800-327-7030, www.ncl.com

Princess Cruises: 800-PRINCESS, www.princess.com

Royal Caribbean International: 800-722-5045, www.royalcaribbean.com

Seabourn Cruise Line: 800-929-9391, www.seabourn.com

SeaDream Yacht Club: 800-707-4911, www.seadreamyachtclub.com

RIVER CRUISING

Continental Waterways: 800-676-6613, www.continentalwaterways.com

Peter Deilmann Cruises: 800-348-8287, www.deilmann-cruises.com

Viking River Cruises: 877-66VIKING, www.vikingrivercruises.com

Uniworld: 800-733-7820, www.uniworld.com

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