The agents at a downtown Washington travel agency barely blinked an eye when a customer popped in to tell them about his purchases in London the previous week -- antiques, jewelry and two Rolls Royces.
With the extraordinary strength of the dollar, more and more Americans are returning from Europe loaded down with Burberry raincoats, Waterford Crystal, exclusive perfumes and furs after stays in top-flight hotels during visits to London, Paris, Florence and Rome, the agents said.
"It's just absolute chaos," said Steven Heydt, senior vice president of GOGO Tours, a major wholesale tour operator. "They're just going over there with empty suitcases" to bring back purchases.
Travel agents are having difficulty finding available hotels in London and Paris, and foreign currency dealers have had a run on French francs, British pounds, West German deutsche marks and Italian lira. Many tourists who ordinarily would see America are fleeing to Europe to take advantage of the record high value of the dollar, which is making foreign goods substantially cheaper than U.S. products.
A London visitor last week saw the movie "Blood Simple" for 3.50 British pounds -- which today is less than $3.70 and far cheaper than the $5 tab for movies here. And movies are just one of the bargains.
"The whole place is on sale," Heydt said. Even business groups planning conventions are opting to meet in Europe because it has become so cheap, Heydt said.
"We had a group thinking of going to Rio," Heydt said. Now they have decided instead to meet in Monte Carlo next February, Heydt said. "They decided this far out that they're going to Europe next year -- in the winter!"
In the past year the dollar's value has increased about 30 percent against the currencies of Britain, France and Italy, the favorite countries of tourists.
Some Americans who are not traveling overseas until July and August, the peak tourist months, already are buying foreign currency in case the dollar should fall between now and then, said Barney Zeng, manager of the Deak-Perera Southeast Inc. office at 18th and K streets NW.
It has gotten so bad that people who want to buy their currency now have to wait, Zeng said. He can lock in prices for them, and they can pick up their currencies later, he said. "It's a problem for the people who are traveling today" to get pounds, the most popular currency, and French francs, a close second. Deutsche marks are the third most sought after currency, Zeng said.
Prices of hotels and meals in dollars have plummeted so much that it is difficult for tour operators to book packages because hotel space is scarce, said Dick Erlanger of Arthur Frommer Holidays' wholesale tour department in New York. Hotels in London are hard to come by now, and Venice and Florence "are very, very tight," Erlanger said.
Because prices are relatively cheap in Europe now, people who once waited all year for their one big trip abroad are now going twice a year, travel agents said.
The Grosvenor Court hotel, a tourist-class establishment near Paddington Station in London, charges 33 pounds sterling a night for a room. A year ago that price would have translated into $48.84. Today it is $34.65.
The Meurice Hotel, a deluxe hotel on Paris' right bank, charges FrF 1,720 per room per night, which would have been $216 a year ago. It is now equivalent to $166.50.
A light meal at a chic outdoor cafe along the Via Veneto in Rome costing 33,000 lira would have been equivalent to $20.56 last March. Today it would be equivalent to $15.51.
Ireland is also becoming a popular tourist haven, attracting acquisitive Americans with crystal, linens and other items. "My last client bought all of her china, all of her glassware in Ireland," a local travel agent said. That agent, who declined to be identified, said that although prices in local currencies are becoming cheaper, Americans booking travel packages here may not be getting lower prices.
Heydt, however, disputed that assertion, saying that since November his company's tour packages to London and Paris have dropped 5 percent in price and that Paris tours are about to be reduced another 7 percent, despite the increased demand for travel to those places. Heydt said that he has to keep his prices below what a tourist would be able to negotiate abroad separately, otherwise that person would have no need for his services.
For example, excluding air fare -- which now is as cheap as $338 to London -- a tour package for a week in London with airport transfers, hotels and other amenities could go for about $139 a person, beginning April 1, which starts the peak tourist season, Heydt said. It had dropped 5 percent since late last year. An American also can get a week in Paris for $159, Heydt said, which is 5 percent lower than last fall.
A first-rate play in London's West End can be seen for as little as about 4 pounds, which was about $6 a year ago and is about $4.20 now. A three-course dinner with wine for two in a trendy Covent Garden French restaurant can be had for about $40, compared with about $60 a year ago.
A round-trip train ride from London to Southampton, England, was about $13 a year ago. It is now $9.50.