The lights are still on at the Eiffel Tower. They keep ringing up sales at Prada in Rome, and London is getting ready to start partying for about a year and a half, beginning with the April 29 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey.
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, https://www.thalys.com) or at Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com).
In the euro zone
For a brief few years after its adoption in 1999, the euro was worth a buck. Those were the good old days when converting from one currency to the other didn’t take advanced math and traveling in Europe wasn’t too much more expensive than living day to day in the States.
Then the euro got stronger, peaking in 2008 at an exchange rate of about 1.6 against the dollar. Europeans like that, but they also know that tourists won’t come if the euro gets too robust. The breaking point seems to be 1.4, experts say. If the euro’s value breeches that mark, people stay away; if it’s under 1.4, they come.
The rate stands at the time of writing at about 1.39, which means that the 20-euro lunch you put on plastic at the Café Les Deux Magots in Paris will show up on your statement as about $28, not counting the tip. And transaction fees can add $2 to $5 every time you make a charge.
Despite the hidden fees, bank-issued credit cards, especially MasterCard and Visa, are a safe and convenient way to make purchases, and they’re widely accepted in Europe unless you go way off the beaten track, where merchants may not have the equivalent type of terminal or the expertise to use it. Make sure you have a card with an embedded microchip and a four-digit PIN, a security feature that has replaced the magnetic strip still prevalent in the U.S.
You’ll also need euros. The cheapest way to get them is by using your card’s debit function, which takes the money directly from your savings or checking account, although a transaction fee may be charged. Ben Woolsey, marketing and research director for CreditCards.com, advises travelers to use established bank ATMs, which are less susceptible to fraud than stand-alone cash machines in shops, cafes and other public places.
Woolsey also suggests travelers:
— Carry a back-up piece of plastic and some extra cash.
— Keep credit card photocopies while on the road (in a safe place), so you know the card number and how to contact the lost-or-stolen hotline in case of trouble.
— Call the issuer before leaving home to ask how international transaction fees are calculated, whether there’s a daily or weekly limit on the amount of cash you can get from the card and whether it carries any basic car rental insurance. Also, to avoid having your card automatically canceled when charges show up from unfamiliar places, report where you’re going.
Very merry olde England
Europe is a little quiet this year. A big Rembrandt show opens this month at the Louvre in Paris; Germany is lighting 200 candles for the bicentennial birthday of composer Franz Liszt; and all across the boot they’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of Italian unification.
It’s a different story in London, which is about to launch a trifecta of mega-events: William and Kate’s wedding; Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne (June 2012); and the Summer Olympics (July 27-Aug. 12, 2012), which are making the English capital more tourist friendly than ever.
The Olympic Park rising in eastern London, where most of the Games will be staged, is about 80% complete, including a 250-acre park meant to provide space, air and greenery long after the big summer of 2012. Even now, visitors can get a peek at the park from the View Tube to Olympic Park and on official walking tours sponsored by the British Tourist Authority (www.visitbritainshop.com).
With London aiming to make it possible for spectators to reach main venues by walking, biking or public transportation, green is clearly the color of the 2012 games. Construction of a high-speed train link from St. Pancras in central London to Olympic Park in seven minutes and a new cable car over the River Thames between Greenwich and the Docklands is underway. Meanwhile, London has instituted a bicycle rental program similar to those already popular among tourists in Paris and Rome, with about 6,000 bikes available at 400 docking stations around the capital.
Now is the time to get Olympic tickets (www.london2012.com) and to reserve a hotel. London already has plenty of rooms, not to mention some of the highest prices in Europe. The average room rate is $222, expected to double during big events.
The year of the app
I’m betting that 2011 is the year we say goodbye to guidebooks in their old familiar form and start using travel applications on hand-held mobile devices. IPhones, Androids, BlackBerries and the like are more portable. And with 17,000 travel apps now on the market — “fly-in” Google Earth maps, flight and hotel search engines, train fares and timetables, live snow reports for skiers, currency converters, talking foreign language translators — the range of things you can learn and do on the road has vastly expanded. But the real boon is that apps harness GPS to find out where you are and provide travel information specific to that location.
“It never takes more than three clicks to pinpoint where you are, along with restaurants, sites, shops and things to do in the neighborhood,” says Robert Reid, an editor for Lonely Planet, one of the first companies to put the content of its travel guides on downloadable mobile applications. Lonely Planet now offers more than 100 iPhone-compatible applications, including city guides and phrasebooks (priced about $5.99 a download).
The London-based city guide publisher Time Out waited until this year to offer mobile applications because travelers were wary about roaming charges for using Internet-reliant apps on smart phones abroad. “We’re on all-you-can-eat mobile plans at home, but when you travel you’re charged by the megapixel,” says David Pepper, Time Out’s digital managing director. “People were coming home with crazy bills.”
Time Out’s city guide apps — London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Spain, and Zagreb, Croatia — launched to date (about $4 each) use the built-in GPS devices that come with most smart phones to provide location-specific information, without incurring roaming charges for Internet access.
Quietly, but inexorably, apps are changing the way people travel. Inveterate road warriors can book last-minute hotel bargains while sitting in a taxi at the entrance. For others, it’s about having the flexibility to spontaneously change plans, travel without a pre-set itinerary and wander, knowing that wherever you land, there’s an app at hand to tell you how to get home.