The Dollar Moves Up
I hesitate to mention it for fear it will turn and go the other way, but while we've been merry-making over the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays, watching interminable, televised football games, and electing and inaugurating a new president, our lil' old greenback has been quietly rising against European currencies. I say quietly because, to my knowledge, the dollar's steady climb from being worth DM 1.39 to DM 1.64—a tidy little jump of 18%—has taken place without comment from the media in this country. That, of course, is in sharp contrast to what happened late last summer when every bump in the buck's tumble was gleefully accompanied by alarmist press reports of how the slide was taking Europe beyond the financial reach of North American travelers.
To get overly excited now about the current rebound would be just as irresponsible as what happened last September when the press went into their "sky is falling" act. The dollar up-tick does, however, come at a good time because now is when some European travel providers set their prices. Here's a look at what a stronger dollar could mean to the traveler to Europe in 1993:
Car rental firms are just now coming out with their 1993 rates armed with the knowledge that each $100 they collect translates to 164 Deutsche Mark instead of 139, as was the case last September. The stronger dollar could thus mean smaller than anticipated increases in 1993 rates.
On the other hand, after last year's dollar dip we can expect fewer European rental companies to guarantee their rates in dollars. When a German car rental firm establishes and guarantees a weekly rate of, say, $200 for a certain car, basing that rate on the dollar being worth 1.6 German Mark, it expects to wind up with 320 Mark. But when the dollar falls after the rates are set, and becomes worth only 1.4 Mark, the company's take is only 280 Mark. Last year some companies - seeing each succeeding rental yield fewer and fewer Mark, francs, etc. - changed in mid-stream. In the early fall, DER Tours tacked a 9% surcharge onto its dollar rates (then rescinded it when the dollar rallied later in the year) and Connex issued new, higher rates in the late summer. Steinke Autos in Europe took a different tack. It stuck by its prices as long as the dollar stayed at DM 1.6 or higher. Below that, adjustments were made.
Of course it's a windfall for these companies when, if they have guaranteed dollar rates, the dollar rises against European currencies.
We think it is likely that this year you'll pay about the same as in 1992 for a rental car in Europe. However, when you get a price quote in dollars, - especially for reserve-now, pay-later deals - be sure to find out just how firm that price really is.
These fares were set months ago and if past experience is a guideline they'll not change. The basic, 15-day, first-class, Eurailpass for 1993 is $460 per person, up $30 from 1992. More geographically limited passes such as the German Rail Pass, the Swiss Pass and the Austrian Rabbit card are much better values unless you've got one of those silly, exhausting Paris-Rome-Vienna-Zürich-Budapest-Stockholm-in-two-weeks kind of itineraries in mind.
(While we're on this subject, let us hypothesize that European rail companies have a virtual monopoly and price accordingly, reacting only to ridership and the cost of operation. A look back at the March 1989 issue of Gemütlichkeit reveals a 1989 15-day Eurailpass cost $320 per person; nearly a 44% increase in four years. In 1989, a Gemütlichkeit subscriber could rent a VW Golf from Steinke Autos in Europe for two weeks for $328 including tax. Today Steinke is accepting reservations for the 1993 VW Golf at a guaranteed two-week rate of $352 [provided the dollar stays at DM 1.6 or above], including tax. That's less than an 8% increase over four years. The same car from Connex or DER Tours is about the same price.)
Food and Lodging
Your dollar buys more. Last spring we got excited over a terrific country hotel in Kandersteg, Switzerland. In September the Waldhotel Doldenhorn's best double room was 250 SFr. or about $200. As this is written, that same room is $169. A small double room at the Hotel Domus in the heart of the Berlin (where according to the Associated Press "good" hotel rooms "start" at $250) now rents for $110 vs. $129. A hearty meal at a simple gasthof for 25 DM is now $15 instead of $18. A mineral water in a Swiss restaurant is now $2.16 vs. $2.72. That's enough arithmetic, you get the idea.
In addition, the larger chains such as Steigenberger, Kempinski and Leading Hotels, who sometimes offer guaranteed dollar rates through toll-free 800 numbers in this country, are now more able to cut dollar prices knowing they'll wind up with more Mark, francs, shillings, etc.
It's hard to imagine transatlantic fares going any lower than they have in the past couple of years. A stronger dollar, however, makes it easier for foreign carriers like Swissair and Lufthansa to compete in the U. S. The question now is what will happen this summer?
There are few deals around right now for travel after March 31. If you're planning a June trip, as an example, the best roundtrip fares currently offered by the major carriers are $736 from New York, $854 from Chicago and $982 from the West Coast. It's a stand-off. The airlines are waiting for heavy summer bookings in the hope of avoiding heavy discounting while vacation travelers await the next fare war. Put your money on the customers. In a few weeks the airlines will blink and the sale will be on. In the meantime, Southern Californians, should know that DER Tours is selling roundtrip space on weekly Air New Zealand 747-400 non-stops from L. A. to Frankfurt for from $549 to $919. A super-saver, Tuesday departure in early June is $699 and in July, $799. Two members of our staff flew Air New Zealand to Frankfurt last summer and give it a thumbs-up. Condor, incidentally, will not serve the West Coast this summer.
• The Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury) is closed and, if repairs proceed on schedule, will re-open in March.
• The Grand Hall of the Austrian National Library is closed "until further notice" due to "waterlogged ceilings."
• The morning workout of the Spanish Riding School is not currently open to the public though that could change as early as mid-February.
• The various Hofburg museums with the exception of the Schatzkammer will be open as usual.
Speaking of Tourist Offices
Unlike the French Tourist Offices in this country, which dispense travel advice on a dialing-for-dollars basis - 900 phone number, you pay by the minute - their Swiss, German and Austrian counterparts still give free advice over the phone and will send you reams of valuable brochures and booklets at no charge. The young people who staff these outposts are some of the best and brightest their countries have to offer. Take advantage of their expertise now because they may be a dying breed. Eastern European countries may be opening tourist offices in this country but the rest of Europe is closing them.