Controlling your costs in Europe

It's a fine fall morning here in Ashland at the foot of the Cascades in southern Oregon. However, as I check xe.com for today's currency exchange rates, a cloud dims the sun. The powerful euro is getting mightier by the day and now buys US$1.41. A 100 euro hotel room now costs $141. A dinner of smoked pork chops with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut (10.50 euros) at the Fraundorfer in Garmisch-Partenkirchen is now $14.81. The pork chops we can live with, but the seven-course tasting menu at Baiersbronn's Restaurant Bareiss in the Black Forest (128 euros) is now $180 per person, beverages extra.

This is a time to travel wisely, to know what you're getting into. For most, it is a time for the Fraundorfers instead of the Restaurant Bareisses. Certainly it is a time for careful planning. Here are some suggestions for controlling costs:

Take a river cruise: Given the dollar's current direction, we may never see a river cruise deal as good as this one. For the past few years my good friend, David Rowell, author of an acclaimed and informative electronic travel newsletter, occasionally hosts small groups of friends and readers on Amadeus vessels that ply Europe's rivers. This year he's leading a seven-night Nürnberg-to-Budapest Christmas markets cruise aboard Amadeus' Amadagio. (Notable ports of call: Regensburg, Passau, Melk, Salzburg, and Vienna.) Sailing date from Nürnberg is December 9. Two days ago David mentioned that he's had illness-forced cancellations for two of his best cabins (at 170 sq feet, he says they are the largest staterooms on any European riverboat) and is looking to fill them ASAP. To do so he is willing to offer Gemütlichkeit/ETR readers a 10% discount. One cabin is $2098 per person ($1888 with our discount) and the other is $2198 -$1978 with the discount. Remember, these are guaranteed U.S. dollar prices that were set 12-18 months ago when the dollar was in much better shape. That's why I say you may never find a better Europe river cruise price. Read all about the cruise, the Amadagio, onboard events, the free extras David offers (an excursion to Salzburg being one), various pre and post-cruise options, and other details at his Website or you can email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

2008 cruise discounts: Pay in full for a 2008 Uniworld cruise and save $2000 per couple PLUS the 5% Gemütlichkeit/ETR discount. That means the May 3, 2008, 14-day, "Legendary Rhine & Mosel" sailing will cost $3125 rather than $4289 per person in category 2. For the less expensive categories 3 and 4 the discount is $500 per person, plus our 5% off. Call us at 800-521-6722x3 for a full color brochure or go to uniworld.com/en/, find the cruise you want and then phone us for the 5% discount.

Rental cars still relatively cheap in Germany: Rentals guaranteed in U.S. dollars are still a great way to control costs and get around Europe inexpensively. We can book you into a compact Avis car for a week in Germany for $228 including the 19% VAT. That's less than $33 per day or, if two persons are traveling together, less than $17 per person, per day. The same car at the Zürich Airport is $271.

Car rental atrocities: Readers Greg and Dave Peters (not their real names) each booked cars for one week in Italy. Circumstances forced the brothers to return both cars two hours beyond the time of pickup-two hours late in other words. Back in the U.S. they discovered their credit cards had been charged for an extra day at the highest local rate-in this case, Italy being Europe's most expensive country in which to rent a car, that came to $350 each. Yes, you read that correctly: a $350 penalty per rental for returning a rental car two hours late. Through our Auto Europe partner, we were able to persuade Europcar to extend both rentals for one day at the same rate. Though that got rid of the exorbitant local rate, the brothers still got nicked for just over $200 each for the late return. Tip: the time you pick up a rental car is noted on the rental contract. Make sure return it no later than that time.

Getting to Europe now is cheap: Because we're paying for more security and soaring fuel prices, the days of off-season $250 to $400 transatlantic air fares are forever gone. Compared to high season travel, however, there are some very attractive fares for fall/winter travel. Our travel department has access to a Lufthansa consolidator contract and we are able to offer consistently lower fares than the Lufthansa website or travel sellers such as Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity. Many low fares being thrown around in ads and in the media, but the question always remains: can you actually book at those numbers. It's a bit like real estate: to truly know what's happening in the market you don't look at the prices on offer, you see what houses have actually sold for. So, I asked Laura Riedel, our air tickets manager, what has actually been booked and paid for today, including all taxes and fees:

Atlanta-Leipzig, Lufthansa, $730, 12/18-12/30 (Christmas travel)

San Francisco-Munich, Lufthansa non-stop, $663, 11/17-11/26

San Francisco-Salzburg/Paris-San Francisco, United, $837, 11/1-11/17.

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Finding good value hotels in Europe: Where the weak dollar really impacts North American travelers is hotel rates. Here are some quick tips for managing costs:

· Stay in small towns in the countryside where excellent accommodations can still be found for from about 65 to 110 euros. In a coming issue of Gemütlichkeit we'll chart the 25 to 30 hotels in Germany that Michelin rates "Bib" hotels (good level of comfort and service with most rooms under 90 euros) and that also have a Bib Gourmand restaurant (good food at moderate prices).

· Killer hotels deals are virtually impossible to find right now in Zürich, Geneva, Munich, and Vienna, though a few good rates can be booked through our website.

· Another source for hotel rates is Hotwire.com. You don't know which hotel you're getting but you do know whether it's one, two, three, four or five stars and you'll have a general idea of location. It's hard to go wrong with any three to five-star hotel in our three countries. For even lower prices, make a bid at Priceline.com. Before you do, get an idea of how much to bid at biddingfortravel.com. I've personally used both Hotwire and Priceline at least a dozen times and have never gotten a bad hotel. As I was writing this I did a quick Hotwire check for a hotel in Munich for two nights in late October. The best deal was a four-star for $129 (dollars not euros). Hotwire says examples of its four-star hotels include Intercontinental and Hyatt.

Some final words: We learned last week that London has the world's most expensive restaurants. According Zagat the average price per person for a three-course meal with one glass of wine is 39 British pounds, or about $79 LTU, the German airline, has been purchased by AirBerlin. Another deal is in the works for AirBerlin to acquire Condor Travel columnist/consumer advocate, Ed Perkins, has an enlightening piece on cheap flights within Europe and probably the best advice I've seen on trip insurance.