... but good for the passport

If 1999 isn't the year to invest in Europe, it may be the time to vacation there.

Travel is cheap.

"It's a superb time to go to Europe -better than any time in recent years, because of the strong dollar," says Arthur Frommer, author of several bestselling travel guides.

With most European currencies linked to a weakened euro, the American greenback buys more when it heads for Europe.

That's what Suzanne Siber found on a 10-day trip to Italy earlier this month.

"Everything was much cheaper this time around," says the public-relations specialist from New York.

She bought a leather jacket for $1,500 that listed for $1,800 when she visited three years ago.

Mr. Frommer expects at least 10 million American tourists to land in Europe this year,a record high.

But even though the cost of traveling in Europe will be cheap, the price of traveling to Europe won't. Air fares and other services priced in dollars will be costly, says Frommer.

Despite a brief fare war early in June, ticket prices have soared. Even during the fare war, a round trip ticket from Boston to London cost $500 - no bargain.

After the price cuts expired, some of the best deals to fly round trip from New York to Paris rang in at $700; from New York to Frankfurt: $1,100.

Still, there are places to find deals, Frommer says.

Consolidators, travel clubs, Web sites, and airlines all offer a few seats at low rates.

A travel boom usually makes companies overly optimistic, and they add too much capacity, says Frommer.

Overcapacity forced United Airlines to cut prices 25 percent to London and Paris this month.

For the best deals on hotels, try booking package deals through the airlines, say experts.

Even so, many affordable hotels are overbooked and hard to find this summer, says Ms. Siber. Travel agents confirm the trend.

Caroline Haberfeld, executive editor of Fodor's travel guides, recommends avoiding big hotels that cater to American tours in favor of smaller, local places. They cost less and offer more local flavor.

One trip that should offer consistent deals this summer: a Mediterranean cruise, says Paul Lasley, co-host of "The Touring Company," a public-radio travel show in Los Angeles.

Cruise companies cut prices to rebuild business after the Kosovo crisis drove business elsewhere. A lot of Americans "irrationally" canceled trips to Europe when the Kosovo crisis erupted, says Frommer.

They avoided places such as Greece, Turkey, Italy, and the Mediterranean -hundreds of miles from danger, he says.

But that means great deals for diligent bargain seekers.

Cruise lines canceled Venice trips when the crisis broke out, and have slashed rates to fill berths for Mediterranean ports, says Mr. Lasley.

The euro itself should save travelers a little money, too.

Because 11 European currencies are fixed to the euro, travelers won't lose money to shifting exchange rates between those countries (see chart, right), says Ms. Haberfeld.

Even so, she and other travel experts recommend buying just enough local currency for cab and subway rides. Cover all other expenses by using a credit or ATM card, she says.

US credit-card companies offer better exchange rates than local banks, she says.

Another bargain is rental cars in Germany, which have never been so cheap, says Anne Leonard, travel specialist at Inside Flyer magazine in Colorado Springs, Colo.

It's possible, for example, for some frequent-flier members to book a BMW in Germany for $40 a day.

As with most of these travel bargains, it helps to be a member of a travel club or mileage program.

And it pays to be flexible.

"The best deals come at the last minute," says Ms. Leonard. Only "there's no guarantee of where you're going."

Europe's hot and not-so-hot travel spots

Four popular European destinations this year ...

1. London -always the No. 1 overseas destination for Americans. Londoners do, after all, speak a language similar to American.

2. Paris -the No. 1 European destination for travelers from all over the world.

3. Italy -history, romance, and cheap.

4. Greece -not part of the euro monetary zone, its currency has suffered more than others. That makes for really affordable travel.

... and six that aren't

1. Belgium -very affordable home of the Middle Ages. Yet undiscovered.

2. Scandinavia -bad weather, short summer, and expensive.

3. Russia-economic and political turmoil has kept Americans away.

4. Czech republic (outside of Prague)-undiscovered by most tourists.

5. Slovenia -undiscovered.

6. Austria - undiscovered.

Source: Arthur Frommer

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