Take that European spring break before spring comes.

Air travel and ticket prices are normalizing after the events of Sept. 11, which means those rock-bottom prices to Europe will vanish once the weather warms.

"Get in before the end of March," says Adriane D. Greene, chairman emeritus of the Association of Retail Travel Agents. "You can go anywhere before March 31 and those deals are fantastic. Depending on the flight, you can probably go anywhere in Europe for under $500."

Data already show that travel is firming. On Feb. 11, the International Air Transport Association forecast that international travel would stabilize in 2002, returning to normal after 2001's massive losses. Bookings have been increasing since an October low, according to recent statistics from the Airlines Reporting Corporation.

Indeed, people are growing gradually less afraid to travel. A January poll by the Travel Industry of America (TIA) shows 4% of the travelers polled said safety concerns were a reason for not planning a trip, down from 14% in November.

"The people that have canceled or postponed after 9/11 are back and rebooking," says Denis Verhagen, a travel agent with Travel Network, in Appleton, Wis. "Summer fares are returning to normal."


Slow but Picking Up
Travel volume is slowly getting back to normal
Month International Bookings via Travel Agencies % Change vs. Year Ago
September 2001 $1.5 billion -43%
October 2001 1.0 billion -45
November 2001 1.2 billion -29
December 2001 1.4 billion -17
January 2002 1.5 billion -19
Source: ARC

The Almighty Dollar

Going now offers another advantage. Because of the strong dollar, U.S. travelers have a tremendous amount of purchasing power abroad. Currently, one euro is worth 87 cents, not far from the record low of 82 cents set in October 2000. Consider the currency effect on a Canon Sure Shot 85, list price of $129.99 in the U.S. and $119.00 in Europe. It's more than $26 cheaper overseas -- and that's without any additional discounting.

But you can expect discounting. Because of the economic recession and slumping tourism, European retailers have been cutting prices, creating a buyer's market in which pricing is flexible. "They're craving your business," Greene says. "This is the time to do your bargaining."

An added bonus: Those European woes should keep the euro unchanged after airfare prices begin to rise. "The U.S. economy is coming back more robustly, so, if anything, you'll see a steady to slightly lower euro in the coming month," says Jamie Coleman, foreign exchange analyst for Thomson Financial.

Coleman recommends that travelers use credit cards as much as possible because credit card companies give far better rates than the currency exchange counters at the airport. A credit card also can protect you from receiving incorrect change, a common pitfall as 12 countries phase out their old currencies.

Just Do It

Currently, England is the best bargain, with lots of available flights and a large selection of empty hotel rooms, says Greene. Flying in the middle of the week, you can get a round-trip fare from New York to London for $350, she adds. A full week in Europe for one person can cost less than a $1,000, including hotel and airfare.

If your heart is set on Italy, it's best to look now, because good deals might become impossible to find in the coming months. A week ago, Greene found a $434 round-trip flight to Italy, but says that currently the same flight goes for more than $1,100. "Italy last year was the most popular place on earth," Greene says. "You won't get another sale."

Prepackaged vacations are also quite inexpensive, says Cathy Keefe, a spokesperson with the TIA. EuroVacations.com offers a $399 trip to London or Paris that includes airfare and three nights at a three-star hotel, requiring a Saturday night stay-over -- $125 less than a year ago. "Prices are at their lowest levels in 10 years," says Joe Bueller, a spokesman for EuroVacations.com.

But if you're looking to take an all-inclusive cruise, think again. After Sept. 11, major cruise lines such as Princess Cruises, Holland America and Royal Caribbean pulled cruise ships from the Mediterranean Sea, limiting your options. As a result, finding a room on a ship can be difficult. Securing a great price could be even more difficult, because much of what's left is luxury class.

If you want to find bargains -- be flexible. Since everyone wants to leave for a trip just after work on Friday, prices for those tickets are far more expensive. Much better prices are available during the week. "Plan your vacation around the deals," Keefe says. "Tell your travel agent you're looking for deals sometime at the end of February instead of specific dates. It's easier to find things that way."

Book a flight immediately to ensure you'll fly out when you want, an important consideration because the number of European flights has been reduced. "Airlines have been doing a very good job at controlling capacity," says Ray Neidl, airline analyst for ABN Amro. "Airlines aren't going to throw more flights out there. There are going to be fewer seats."

An experienced travel agent can help. Although the Internet makes it easy to compare and track down fares, often a travel agent knows how to find a better one by adjusting departure times and selecting different routes. Use the Internet to research prices and availability, then call an agent to sniff out a better deal.


Wait Now, Pay Later
How price varies for a single round-trip airline ticket as summer approaches
Travel Route Price from March 16-23* Price from July 13-20* % Change
New York to London $387.65, Virgin $878.65, Virgin +127%
New York to Barcelona 585.23, KLM 963.29, Delta +65
New York to Rome 680.42, Northwest 1,139.16, Air Canada +67
Los Angeles to London 647.93, Delta 1,138.65, British Airways +76
Los Angeles to Barcelona 991.42, Iberia 1,283.33, British Airways +29
Los Angeles to Rome 801.42, Northwest 1,332.26, Air Canada +66
Chicago to London 688.15, United 1,085.15, British Airways +58
Chicago to Barcelona 708.92, Iberia 986.03, Alitalia +39
Chicago to Rome 638.65, Iberia 1,163.67, Air Canada +82
San Francisco to London 570.13, American Airlines 1,191.15, Virgin +109
San Francisco to Barcelona 856.92, Iberia 1,284.83, British Airways +50
San Francisco to Rome 752.92, Northwest 1,339.57, Air France +78
* -- All flights are one-person, round-trip fares in 2002. Carriers shown were the lowest priced as of Thursday, Feb. 21.
Source: Expedia.com

Waiting to book, though, could be costly. The chances of catching a last-minute break are slim. "If traffic doesn't develop, then you may get some last-minute bargains," says Neidl, the airline analyst. "But I don't really see that happening."

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