Travelers to Europe Must Beat an Uncertain Path

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Fly to Italy. Drive around England. Cruise the Greek Isles.

Book now. Book later. Or don’t book at all.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t figure out what to do. It’s tough to plan travel to Europe this summer when even experts can’t figure out whether air fares are going up or down, tours will proceed as planned or cruise ship fares or hotel rates will increase. If you think such uncertainty is normal this time of year, think again. This is shaping up to be a summer on the Continent like no other.

The traditional bus tour, for instance, which more risk-averse tourists tend to favor, is turning into a nail-biter. For the first time in his 30 years of organizing trips, Jimmy Murphy, president of Chatsworth-based Brendan Tours, says he can’t answer this simple question: “How’s business?”

In past years, he could fairly accurately estimate by March 17 how many tourists he would send to Europe in the summer. By mid-April of this year, he still wasn’t sure, thanks partly to travelers booking at the last minute. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.


Surprised by a late surge in demand, his company, which serves about 70,000 customers in a typical year, is reopening tours for June that it canceled just two months ago, he says. (After the Sept. 11 attacks, Brendan pulled about 25% of the trips it listed in its October brochures for 2002.)

At New York-based Trafalgar Tours, an industry giant that counts its yearly customers “in the six figures” (officials won’t give an exact number), President Gavin Tollman says his clients usually plan their European vacations about six months in advance. This year it’s about 30 to 45 days ahead.

The lag in bookings is producing some deals on summer tours. Trafalgar, for instance, has been offering $300 off per couple on packages that include travel on American Airlines. “I can assure you, you wouldn’t have seen that last year,” Tollman says. But it’s also disrupting travelers’ plans as tour operators rejigger itineraries and struggle to secure last-minute airline seats.

As for air fares, fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be bumpy. It looks as though fewer Americans will be traveling to Europe this summer than last, which ordinarily would force fares down. But here’s the other shoe: Airlines are scheduling fewer transatlantic flights, which decreases the supply of seats. So we may not get lower prices in this peak season after all.

About 12 million Americans went to Europe last year and a record 13 million in 2000, the European Travel Commission reported this year. Travel commission President Einar Gustavsson is figuring on about 10% fewer American travelers, or about 10.8 million, this year. “It’s not going to be a banner year for sure, but it’s going to be a fairly good year,” he said.

Meanwhile, several European airlines have announced plans to cut transatlantic flights by more than 10% from last year: 14% for Air France, 17% for Virgin Atlantic and 30% for Alitalia, according to the ETC. Although British Airways and some American carriers are adding flights, it’s unclear whether that will be enough to meet demand, Gustavsson says.


Some Americans are already having trouble getting the flights and fares they want.

“We can’t find anything to London for the last three to four days of the spring fare,” says Brian Clewer, owner of Continental Travel Shop, a Santa Monica-based air fare consolidator, referring to the traditional June 15 cutoff before peak-season fares kick in. Overall, he says summer fares are a bit higher this year than last. He has been able to offer discounted LAX-to-London nonstops for $699 round trip this year, compared with about $649 last summer.

Although airlines extended deadlines on some sales to Europe past May 31, as of April 17 they were still enforcing higher summer fares, adding $200 to $300 more for flights after June 15, says Harriet Roop, a manager at Sundial Travel in Fountain Valley and president of the Orange County chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents. Peak-season round-trip fares to Europe from the Los Angeles area were running about $1,000 to $1,300, she says.

By the time this column is published, there could be a late sale on summer air fares--highly unusual, but possible if airlines get caught with unsold seats, travel agents say.

Buy now? Buy later? “It’s kind of like Russian roulette,” Roop says. But agents say that if you need to fly on a specific date, book far ahead.

Once in Europe, you may or may not find hotel deals. Through February (the latest statistics available), room rates were down an average of 12.5% in London, 9.6% in Rome and 6.4% in Madrid from last year, Smith Travel Research reports. But you’ll have to compete for space with the locals, who didn’t stop traveling. Stung by the swift drop in U.S. tourists since Sept. 11, hotels have adapted by pitching more heavily to Europeans. As a result, rooms are being snapped up by Europeans who buy discounted packages advertised locally, tour operator Murphy says.

As for cruises, much depends on where you want to go and how. The renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict is making some Americans, especially occasional vacationers, avoid not just the Mideast but also Greece and Turkey. Agents and others report quiet last-minute discounts on some Eastern Mediterranean cruises. By contrast, Scandinavian and river cruises are popular and less likely to be discounted, they say. In any event, don’t rely on cruise brochures issued last year for 2002 because many lines redeployed ships after Sept. 11; even brochures issued this year may be outdated in this shifting market. Ask your travel agent for the latest information.


Safety and control, actual or perceived, seem to be big factors in where Americans are going this summer. Britain, Ireland, Norway and Italy are popular, agents and tour operators say; Turkey and to some extent Greece are less so. Fewer people are taking escorted tours, possibly because those vacationers are more reluctant to travel because of security hassles and other difficulties, Murphy says. By contrast, he has seen a surge of interest in fly-drive trips to the British Isles and in independent travel.

Despite the uncertainty, this could be a uniquely good summer for Americans to visit the Continent. With the introduction earlier this year of the euro in 12 Western European countries, we no longer have to juggle moneys as we cross borders. The dollar continues to gain on the new currency, buying about 1.13 euros, which gives us more purchasing power. And with fewer of our countrymen there, we may actually be able to see the Mona Lisa without having to crane our necks in the Louvre.


Jane Engle welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail