Remember when . . . you could buy a multicourse Italian dinner in Venice for the same price as a meal at Olive Garden? You could purchase your spring wardrobe in Paris, without having to pawn your wedding ring? You could stay at a top hotel in Vienna and still have money left over for the opera -- balcony seats?
Remember when . . . the dollar was robust and the euro was weak?
London's ritzy Athenaeum Hotel lets Americans book room rates in dollars.
"When the euro was first introduced [in 2002], it was extremely strong, at about 85 cents to the dollar. Then about two years ago, the tide really turned," says Steve Loucks, spokesman for Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates, a travel group with a number of agencies nationwide. "In the past 15 months, the dollar has really taken a beating against the euro."
That hammering translates to about $1.34 to one euro.
For Americans visiting any of the dozen euro countries -- or such alternative currency destinations as England, where U.S. cash also seems as flimsy as Monopoly money -- the sticker shock can be jarring. Those who once traveled in bourgeois comfort now find themselves booking two-star hotels and eating appetizers for dinner. Meanwhile, frugal visitors are watching their shoestring budgets fray, and downgrading to hostels or pensiones and visiting A-list museums during their discounted hours.
"We really give a lot of second thought to what we are spending because we are adding another 25 percent on top of the cost," says Trudi Epstein, 59, of Longmeadow, Mass., who travels to Europe at least three times a year and owns an apartment in France. "In England, I almost gagged on a grilled cheese, knowing that I was spending $10 on it."
Some visitors, though, barely feel the pinch because they suss out cost-saving tips before they leave -- and have an idea of the dollar's worth even before boarding the plane.
"I stayed at an 841-euro [$1,122] room, but paid only $80" a night, says Gary Knight, a fiftyish writer from D.C. who was last in Paris in February. "I booked last-minute and went off-season. That's when all of the deals are."
Knight, who travels to the French capital at least three times year, has also limited his fine-dining outings to once a day (vs. five times a day), even giving up his "morning dessert and afternoon tea with crumpets." He also skips the overpriced hotel buffet breakfast ($37 at his $80-a-night place) for bread and pastries at the local boulangerie or patisserie. "I eat and go, much like the French," he says. In addition, Knight purchases tickets and passes to attractions far in advance to spread out the expenses and reduce his out-of-pocket spending in Paris. One treat he misses, though: buying crepes from a roadside vender. Once 20 cents, the thin, sweet delicacies are now $2.80.
With such astute -- and flexible -- planning, Americans can learn to stretch the dollar abroad without having to sacrifice comfort or curtail the full European experience. Below are tips assembled from travel industry experts and seasoned travelers that will let you focus more on enjoying your European vacation than on plugging numbers into your currency-exchange calculator.