US tourists flock to Paris despite prices

Despite a record exchange rate of $1.37 to the euro, Americans flock to the world's No. 1 tourist stop.

For Americans, summer in Europe evokes fun and education: Soak in the Tuscany hills, visit storied castles, wander the Normandy beaches, take in a London play. Connect with the Renaissance and World War II. Hop a plane, pop in a Joni Mitchell CD, and dream of "a free man in Paris ... unfettered and alive."

Yet as the dollar sinks like 10 lead balloons against the euro this summer, very little in the eurozone seems "free." Visitors from dollar-land are fettered by $10 onion soups, $7 ice teas, and street exchange rates that run as high as $1.55 to the euro.

"We got the dinner bill and found [$28] for mineral water," says Robert Behrens, an acoustics specialist from Boston who visited Germany, France, and Switzerland with a family of five in July. "We didn't think when ordering it, but now we are."

Still, Americans are coming. They aren't thrilled about prices, they aren't shopping much, but nor are they yet reconsidering a visit. A baby-boom nation willing to pay $5 for designer lattes is grinning and bearing the high cost of vacationing across the puddle.

"After several years of the euro getting stronger against the dollar, last year I said I'm not going back until it gets better," says Phyllis Fenner, a high school French teacher and devoted Francophile from Manassas, Va. "Then I realized it's probably never going to get better. So here we are, because we love it."

In the peak travel month of June, passenger travel to Europe from the US on the top nine air carriers was up 4.5 percent this year over 2006 figures, according to Donald N. Martin and Co. of New York, a marketing agency that follows transatlantic travel trends. In its July 25 newsletter, Martin and Co. predicts a record 7 million-plus US visits to Europe between May and September. And all at a time when the dollar is at 72 cents to the euro, a record low.

There really is no more Europe on $5 dollars a day, as the old guide books used to say, when visitors pay $5 for a coke. "It is more like $500 a day," says Fred Hunter, a screenwriter from Santa Barbara, Calif., who most notices the hike in food prices since he last visited Paris 20 years ago. "Our four daily croissants were $5, our quart of fresh-squeezed jus d'orange was $7... about $12 for the lightest of continental breakfasts. But ... where else do you get such croissants?"

France remains the world's No. 1 tourist destination, with 79 million visits last year, according to French official figures. Europe as a whole continues to be a hot spot for US vacationers. "Tourists with high spending power from the United States, the Middle East and Asia, who spend more than 150 euros a day," continue to arrive in high numbers, says Didier Arino, the head of the Paris-based Protourisme.

Erik Smith, a newlywed from Philadelphia honeymooning here with his wife, Kelly, is one of them – though perhaps unintentionally.

"We took out 200 euros at the ATM. But after a couple of cafés, a ride around the city, a few museums, we are down to five," he says. "It feels like we spent 200 euros on nothing."

By all accounts, families are hardest hit. Everything multiplies – hotel rooms, dinner bills, transport, and venues. Some US families say costs would still be high if the exchange rate were 1 to 1, so they simply decide not to spoil their time by living in fear of the euro. "We just tried not to look, told ourselves a euro equaled a dollar, and didn't bother with reality checks until we got home," Mr. Hunter said.

Still, despite such strategies, the current rate of ¤1 to $1.37 isn't entirely forgettable, and many Americans are changing behaviors and itineraries. There's a search for decent two-star hotels, a rethinking of big-ticket items like operas and EuroDisney, and the discovery of grocery stores.

"For a short vacation, pizza, pasta, tomatoes, and figs will definitely do it!" says Daniella del Amo, a translator from Venice Beach, Calif., who annually visits Rome, where she says the tomatoes and figs are cheaper and better than in California supermarkets. "It's a savings."

Ms. Fenner has also looked to economize, shopping at markets and picnicking by the Seine. But she allows herself the occasional treat. "Yesterday we splurged and went to Au Pied de Cochon [a famous brasserie], and had a full-course meal, were waited on and pampered. But we don't do it every day," she says.

Another tourist discovery: Budding low-cost airlines in Europe like EasyJet, Air Berlin, Lauda Air, and RyanAir that allow immediate online booking for costs as low as $75 per one-way ticket for intra-Europe travel.

Americans also find it saves to pay with cash in many places, and that ATM machines give better rates than banks and private vendors. Credit-card transaction firms often tack on exorbitant fees for purchases, noted in the fine print. Hotels and shops in Rome, for example, may use card processing firms that add as much as another 15 to 20 cents to the dollar.

Tiffany Gobbi, from a Washington suburb, bought a pair of sunglasses in Rome for ¤200. When she got home, her credit-card statement read $297. "I just could not believe that."

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How much has a euro cost lately?

2002 $0.98

2003 $1.13

2004 $1.20

2005 $1.21

2006 $1.27

2007 $1.37