All in all, you wouldn't know that Europe has suffered through an economic crisis as brutal as ours, because strong social programs in the social democracies we love to visit — England, Italy and France — keep people at work, which is part of the problem. Governments that don't have the resources to pay for such programs — Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain — have needed bailouts from neighbors, generating ill will and doomsday scenarios about the impending collapse of the European Union. If you think that's of marginal interest to tourists, you've forgotten what it was like to travel on the Continent before the advent of open borders and a single currency.
It's worth thinking about as you plan your trip, though nobody expects the EU to unravel this year. "Europe is an evolution, for 60 years going two steps forward and one step back," says Europe travel expert Rick Steves. "We always hear about the stumbles. But I can't imagine the euro zone falling apart."
Here's what you'll need to know about trips to Europe this year:
Priced to go
If you've always wanted to visit Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, Greece, Spain, Romania or Bulgaria, 2011 is the year to go. That's because these countries were hit hardest by the recession, forcing some travel providers to "try to create demand through value pricing," says Jerre Fuqua, president of Travcoa, based in El Segundo.
At the same time, the governments of these nations are increasing efforts to support tourism, creating new options and incentives for travelers. Iceland, laid low in recent times by a bank collapse and a volcanic eruption, has set the standard, enticing travelers to a once extremely expensive destination by ramping up air and tour package deals, says Jan Rudomina, U.S. chairman of the European Travel Commission.
Hard times in the most economically distressed countries of Europe resulted in protests and strikes last year, which turned violent in Greece, though tourists were marginally affected. "I was just in Athens and didn't feel it was in crisis," Steves says. "For a visitor, I'd say the troubles are almost unnoticeable."
Hotel prices are rock bottom in Prague, Czech Republic; Budapest, Hungary; and Madrid, with southern European capitals such as Lisbon, Rome and Athens still somewhat below normal, according to Colliers PKF Consulting, a hotel industry research firm. On the other end of the spectrum, rates are sky high in Geneva, Stockholm, London, Moscow and Oslo, Norway.
In other words, hotel bargains are to be had where you least expect them, but not always where you most want to go. As ever, France is the world's favorite travel destination, visited by almost 99 million people in 2010, according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization; in second and third places were the U.S. and China, which bumped Spain off the list last year.
This year marks the 30th birthday of European high-speed trains, which debuted between Paris and Lyon, France, in September 1981. Since then, 1.5 billion people have traveled on fast TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) trains in France, and high-speed lines have proliferated across the Continent.
Besides TGV, you'll find ICE in Germany; Eurostar connecting Britain, France and Belgium; Thalys between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne, Germany; AVE in Spain; X 2000 in Sweden; and Eurostar Italia and NTV, a new private rail company putting luxury, state-of-the-art, French-manufactured AGV (Automotrice à Grande Vitesse) trains on Italian government tracks.
Europe's super trains travel as fast as 200 mph and have the added money-saving convenience of embarkations and disembarkations in city-center stations, including London's gloriously renovated St. Pancras, with a 100-foot-high train shed that was the biggest enclosed space in the world when completed in 1868.
But Europe's railways aren't just for train buffs and speed demons. More and more, taking a fast train is a principal part of the European tourist experience, especially for Americans who think railroad travel is almost as bad as taking the bus.
Even if you book second class, there are roomy, reserved seats, clean restrooms and appealing buffet cars. If you go business or first class, amenities include light and full meal service, Wi-Fi and laptop plug-ins, special check-in counters and waiting lounges, complimentary newspapers and the opportunity to book a taxi that will be awaiting for you on arrival.
And then there are the views of lavender fields in Provence, the cliffs of Dover and Rome's ancient walls.
Recently completed routes include Paris-Stuttgart, Germany (31/2 hours), Madrid-Valencia, Spain (11/2 hours) and Perpignan, France-Figueres, Spain (11/4 hours). The most popular — and my favorite — line is Paris-Avignon, France (21/2 hours), which costs between $100 and $250 one way, depending on class and date of travel. To get the best rates, book early on the line's website (for instance, http://www.thalys.com) or at Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com).
In the euro zone