3 European Vacations that Escape the Euro

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Congratulations to Estonia for joining the eurozone this year, but condolences to the Americans and Brits who lost yet another slacker holiday destination.

It wasn't much, but the Estonian kroon at one point last summer traded at nearly 13 to every dollar and would have made a trip to its capital city of Tallin for this year's European Capital of Culture festival a lot more enticing for Americans already facing $700 to $1,100 round-trip airfares from New York on Lufthansa, Finnair and Aeroflot. Now Tallin is just another town taunting American tourists and their deflated dollar.

Prague Castle and the rest of this beautiful, ancient Czech city remain one of Europe's great non-euro bargains.

For a brief moment in June, the value of the dollar and euro were separated by less than 20 cents and France, Germany, Italy and other eurozone countries were becoming all too accessible. The world's travelers spent January through November booking 17% more trips to countries on the euro than they did the year before, according to AAA Travel, as troubles in Greece, Portugal and elsewhere put a strain on the perennially strong currency.

Since last summer, however, the gap has once again widened in the euro's favor to a nearly 50-cent divide before settling into a 34-cent disparity. The damage was done, however, as trips to European nations outside the eurozone rose only 10% last year by AAA Travel's estimates. Their share of total European bookings by backpack-laden Americans and stag-seeking Brits disappeared, while Britain saw 11% growth in non-euro bookings from 2009 to last year.

With the euro once again gaining steam, TheStreet found three non-euro countries that still offer a steal for European travel skinflints. Just dress warm:

When your national airline is the arctic equivalent of AirTran, it's a lot easier to offer low fares and cheap packages. So it is with Icelandair, which operates like a low-cost carrier by offering Americans in Boston, New York, Seattle, Minneapolis, Orlando, Fla., and Washington flight and hotel packages for as little as $500 round-trip (with horseback riding thrown in free) to $1,900 for trips out to the glaciers, geysers and waterfalls north and east of Reykjavik.

While the area that greets visitors when they touch down at Keflavik Airport looks like a lunar landscape, the Blue Lagoon hot springs, Gullfoss waterfalls and expansive crest valley that hosted the world's first parliament at Thingvellir National Park more than make up for it. Staying up to see the Aurora Borealis -- which doesn't take much stamina during days with as few as four hours -- and partying until dawn at Reykjavik's all-night clubs is worth the trip alone, but isn't anything that can't be done while waiting for a flight somewhere else.

"IcelandAir has always been one of the cheaper carriers to Europe, and what's great about them is that they do a free stopover," says Anne Banas, editor of SmarterTravel. "If you want to go to Norway, Sweden or London, you get there through Iceland and get that free stopover if you want to go to spend some time in Reyjevik or go to the Blue Lagoon."

Other carriers have caught on, as competing airline Iceland Express, which offers regular service from Newark, N.J., offers seasonal service from Boston and Chicago starting in June, while Delta ( DAL) will become the first U.S. carrier to fly to Iceland when it begins service from Minneapolis/St. Paul and New York's JFK on June 1. Part of the new-found interest comes as a result of Iceland's banking crisis in 2008 -- which pushed a once-strong Icelandic krona to near parity with the dollar late last year -- but last year's Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption that wiped out travel to most of Europe also has Icelandic travel firms and businesses offering incentives.

"It's brought intrigue, but it's hurt to some degree, so I think you're going to find cheaper ground costs than in the past," Banas says.

Putting "Bulgaria" and "vacation hot spot" in the same sentence isn't nearly as unusual as it once was, since savvy Brits and other ski-happy Europeans discovered Bulgaria's slopes and cheap RyanAir tickets to their doorstep.

Despite its position firmly outside the eurozone, former Communist-bloc Bulgaria and its lev currency were still shaken up by the euro's crazy summer of 2010. In June, Yanks fortunate enough to be summering in Sofia got 60% more value out of their dollar than they would have by "staycationing" in the States. It's recovered a bit, but the lev still gives Americans roughly 50% more for their money and is far more accessible during ski season.

"We were looking at packages from Los Angeles to Sofia that were $1,541 in the summer and $985 in January or February, which covers air and hotel for a six-day stay," says Banas of SmarterTravel.

A package from Miami, meanwhile was just $886. Once you've skied Mount Rita, though, there are still plenty of sights and activities helping make Bulgaria one of Lonely Planet's Top 10 countries to visit next year. Sofia's galleries, museums and historical sites date back to the fourth century and, during the cold months its rakia plum or apricot brandy warms the spirit with its 120 proof alcohol.

Czech Republic
Yes, it's about as cliched among the hipster set as moving to Brooklyn and forming a noise band, but Prague's financial draw today is still much as it was in the '90s, with Americans still getting upward of 19 Czech koruna to the dollar and quaffing beers such as Gambrinus, Staropramen and Budvar for 75 cents to $1 a pint.

Some of the city's best experiences -- strolling Old Town Square in the early hours and gazing into the Astronomical Clock before the tourists arrive, crossing the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River and taking in the statues, artists and varied faces lining it and scribbling your name on the Lennon Wall, taking in Dvorak concerts at small churches and stopping by Franz Kafka's various homes -- are all free. Seeing Prague Castle and learning the origins of defenestration -- throwing your enemies out of windows in high places -- and touring the old Jewish quarter is possible for a pittance.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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