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Dollar leaves its mark on travel

Imagine visiting the same vacation spots as you did last year, only to find that eating out costs 30 percent less, hotel rates have plunged and the expense of traveling there is down 25 percent.

Where are these spots? Paris, London, Milan and other European cities.

Thanks largely to a sharp increase in the value of the dollar, the cost of vacationing in Europe has plummeted, and industry experts predict the savings will lure American tourists in droves this summer.

Strengthened by economic stagnation abroad and currency devaluations by European governments, the dollar has surged by up to 40 percent against European currencies from lows reached last September. In the past two weeks, the dollar has rallied an additional 5 to 7 percent to its highest levels since mid-1991. Tuesday, the dollar surged to a 20-month high against the German mark and rose against other leading currencies.

That means American travelers will pay about 45 percent less for dinner in Rome compared with last September's prices. And they'll sleep in tourist-class hotel rooms that cost about $70 a night, compared with $100 last summer.

In Madrid, a meal with wine at a leading restaurant costs about $55, down from $70.

Luxury seekers in London can stay at the Dorchester Hotel for less than $400 a night including breakfast, compared with $542 last September. They can celebrate the savings by downing a mug of British beer for $2.25 _ about 75 cents less than last year.

In Finland, once one of the most expensive European destinations, a dollar now fetches about 50 percent more than it did last summer. A light meal and beverage in Helsinki's cafes and sandwich shops runs about $5. A one-week vacation in a farmhouse in the Finnish countryside including meals costs as little as $345 a person.

As the rise in the dollar has driven down the cost of hotel accommodations, eating out and everything from camera film to souvenirs, major airlines are preparing for what has become an annual summertime ritual: fare wars.

While last year's round of fare cuts was limited to domestic ticket prices, this year's sales are expected to extend to overseas routes as well. Several travel experts predict airlines may start reducing prices for foreign destinations within the next month.

The cost of flying overseas already has fallen considerably. A round-trip flight from New York to Paris costs $768 compared with more than $900 last summer, and $950 from San Diego to Madrid, down from $1,250.

"People are beginning to make reservations earlier due to good deals the airlines are putting out now," said Eric Munro, chief executive and president at Uniglobe Wide-World Travel in San Diego.

The number of American tourists in Europe is expected to climb to as high as 7.5-million this year, an increase from 1992's 7-million, according to the European Travel Commission. That would match the record set in 1990 for U.S. travelers to Europe.

Neil Martin, spokesman for the commission, said the dollar's rise comes during a period of relatively low inflation in Europe, which means savings won't be diluted by price increases in individual countries.

In addition to enticing new travelers to Europe, the lower prices may lure tourists of modest means to try more lavish vacations, said Jack Bloch, owner of JB's World Travel Consultants in New York, which works with wealthier travelers and corporations.

"When I advise clients they can stay in a deluxe hotel for $200 a night, they can't believe it. That's the middle-of-the-road traveler who now can travel top-of-the-road," Bloch said.

Europe's a bargain

Thanks largely to a rally in the dollar, the cost of traveling to Europe this summer has declined sharply from last year's levels. A sampling:

1993 1992

Luxury hotel in London or Milan,

per nite, dbl. occupancy $200 $300

Tourist class hotel in Rome: per

nite, dbl occupancy $70 $100

Dinner for one at fine Rome

restaurant (3-course meal, not

including drinks) $60 $80

Dinner for one at fine Paris

restaurant (3-course meal,

including bottle of wine) $87 $100

Mug of beer in London $2.25 $3.00

Roundtrip airfare

New York to Paris $768 over $900

San Diego to Madrid $950 $1,250