There's a smart way for U.S. travelers to Europe to cope with the pinch on the pocketbook caused by the euro: Don't use it.
Pay in Polish zlotys. Or Hungarian forints. Or Bulgarian levs.
For Americans, those and other non-euro currencies often stretch twice as far as the euro.
These days travelers are paying $1.34 per euro, compared with $1.22 a year ago. If you thought you couldn't afford a trip to Europe this spring or summer, consider taking the less-traveled road into Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia and other countries outside the euro zone.
Lodging and meals in the Polish city of Krakow, whose baroque cityscape was featured as a backdrop in the 1993 movie "Schindler's List," are a good example. A hearty dinner for two at the popular restaurant Pod Aniolami costs around $45, compared with the $100 that similar fare would set you back in Munich or Paris. And a double room at the centrally located Pensjonat Rycerska runs $45 -- far less than the rates in similar properties at the euro zone.
"We're booking tours to great destinations in Croatia for around half what they would cost to nearby Italy," says Judy Koblenz, an agent at Kollander World Travel in Cleveland, which organizes customized and group tours throughout Europe.
Trailblazing in unfamiliar and often less-developed countries outside the heart of Europe is not for every traveler. While many of the non-euro countries are moving quickly to build a tourism infrastructure, the progress is mixed. Outside major urban areas, the biggest barrier probably will be language. Hard-to-reach places like Lviv, Ukraine, or Levoca, Slovakia, have pristine charm, but it's never certain if hotel clerks will speak English or museum placards will be written in anything but the native tongue. As a veteran traveler to many non-euro countries, I've found that patience and a good phrasebook can usually get you a decent room and a meal, even in rural areas.
Be prepared to discover sights that parallel, if not exceed, heavily touristed venues in Great Britain or on the Continent. The architectural splendor of Prague's Golden Ring ranks with the grand vistas of Rome. The Chopok slopes in the Tatra mountain region of Slovakia are as attractive to skiers as the Alps of Austria or France. White sandy beaches in Cyprus are a suitable alternative to those along Spain's Costa del Sol or France's Cote d'Azur.
But remember that not all of the non-euro countries are a bargain. Although Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Great Britain have opted against using the euro, hotels, restaurants and other attractions in the major urban areas of those countries are among Europe's priciest.
And in some of the most popular destinations in Central Europe and the Balkans, a limited supply of hotels and restaurants has driven prices to London and Paris levels. For example, a double at the five-star Dubrovnik Palace runs almost $400 a night in high season. So those seeking the best deals in non-euro countries should heed the first rule of budget travel: Shop around.