If the falling dollar in Europe has put the cost of a transatlantic trip outside your budget, consider instead a vacation in neighboring Mexico, where the dollar is unusually strong these days.
As a result of the recent plunge in the Mexican peso, the dollar is now buying perhaps 30 percent more than it did only a few weeks ago. In October, a dollar bought 1,510 pesos, according to Jeanne Weaver of Reusch International Monetary Services in Washington, a currency exchange dealer. By early December, a dollar easily bought 2,000 and sometimes as many as 4,000 pesos, depending on how eager an exchange office was to get dollars.
What does this mean for the traveler? "You're going to get all the bargains in the world," says Eduardo Saenz, director of the Mexican Government Tourism Office in Washington.
The best buys probably are for travelers who have not already committed to a prepaid tour but plan to travel independently. They are the ones, says Saenz, who can take advantage of the newly increased buying power of the dollar to pay for hotel rooms, meals, entertainment and shopping. Package holders may be locked into higher costs.
Saenz says his office is getting phone calls indicating many travelers are bound for Mexico on shopping sprees.
Because of the instability of the peso, Reusch's Weaver suggests travelers carry only U.S. dollar traveler's checks and some U.S. currency to Mexico. Normally, the firm also recommends taking along pesos bought at home, if only to have cash to pay for a cab ride from the airport. But because peso exchange rates are much better in Mexico than in this country, "we're not even recommending that now -- and it goes against our business."
She advises travelers to keep an eye on the peso while they are abroad. If it continues to drop, buy only enough pesos to see you through a day or two because the exchange rate becomes more favorable each day.
Standard advice for credit card holders when the dollar is strong and getting stronger is to charge purchases. By the time the charge is processed, you may get a better exchange rate on your purchase.
PROPER DOCUMENTS: Americans bound for a Caribbean holiday this winter are being warned by the State Department to carry proper documentation or face the possibility of long delays at airport immigration offices.
Several Caribbean nations, among them Barbados, do not require visiting Americans to carry U.S. passports. The only stipulation is that they possess some proof of nationality. But what constitutes proof? That's where the problem lies.
Recently, American tourists without passports have been delayed and questioned on arrival in Barbados, according to Donna Sherman of the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. The travelers carried a valid driver's license from their home state or a voter registration card, but these documents were not accepted because they do not state the nationality of the holder.
In some instances, she says, travelers were detained at the airport until they could arrange with the State Department for official documentation.
Sherman advises that a passport is the best identification for foreign travel. The only sure alternative for proof of nationality -- where passports are not required -- is a birth certificate or a naturalization certificate.
SKI VERMONT: Five ski resorts in northwestern Vermont have banded together to promote the Burlington International Airport as a convenient gateway for vacationers from the Middle Atlantic region who don't want to make the day-long drive north.
The resorts, all within a little more than an hour's drive from the airport, are Jay Peak, Bolton Valley, Stowe, Smugglers' Notch and Sugarbush.
USAir has several flights daily to Burlington from Washington-area airports, although each has at least one stop. A nonrefundable ticket is $126 round trip, good for travel between Monday noon and Thursday noon or Saturday noon and Sunday noon. The weekend rate is $140. An unrestricted ticket is $330.
SLED VERMONT: In your wildest daydreams, you may have pictured yourself driving a team of dogs and sled through a remote winter landscape. Konari Outfitters of Vergennes, Vt., can put you into that picture on a one-day excursion (for the hesitant) or a three-, four- or five-day adventure (for the hardy) that involves camping in tents.
The overnight trips are limited to six participants plus guides, and the pace is set by the ability of the group, according to spokesman Ed Blechner. Each group takes two or three sleds, depending on the amount of food and gear, and everybody gets a chance to handle the dogs in rotation. Those who aren't driving travel on cross-country skis. If conditions are right, they may be able to hook up to a dog who will pull them on skis. Nobody gets to ride seated in the sled.
Before departure, overnight participants are given a day-long orientation on dog handling and safety in cold weather conditions. You must be in good physical condition, and skiing experience is desirable though not always necessary. Part of the instruction includes feeding the dogs and cold-weather survival.
Day trips are less strenuous, and less time is spent on orientation. But everyone also gets a chance to drive a team.
Day-trip departures are Jan. 9 and 24, Feb. 7, and March 12 and 13 from Middlebury, Vt. The fee is $85 per person. A three-day trip through northern Vermont departs March 4 ($305 per person); a four-day trip through the Adirondack Mountains of New York departs Jan. 15 ($395) and a five-day trip through northern Maine departs Feb. 16 ($525).
For information: Konari Outfitters Ltd., RD 1, Box 441B, Vergennes, Vt. 05491, 1-802-759-2100.
MOZART'S EUROPE: Norman Eagle is a Mozart fan who has spent the past 25 years researching the life of his cultural hero. Each summer he and his wife lead a series of two- and three-week musical tours through central Europe by motorcoach, retracing Mozart's footsteps and visiting the sites most important in the composer's life.
This year Eagle is offering three tours, each a little bit different because he seeks out Mozart concerts and festivals. For example, Tour One, departing May 31, takes in two opera companies (the Budapest State Opera and the Vienna State Opera) and eight concerts, including a performance of Schubert lieder by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at Hohenems Castle on the Rhine River in Hohenems, Austria.
Depending on the tour, participants attend private concerts on original instruments from Mozart's time; enjoy coffee at the inn in Linz, Austria, where Mozart made a public appearance at age 6; and dine at a Salzburg restaurant where the Mozart family sometimes ate. One tour visits Prague, where the group sees the locations used in the film "Amadeus." The guide for the tour worked as the Czech production coordinator for the film.
Tour One, departing May 31, visits Hungary, Austria and West Germany. The price is $2,579 per person (double occupancy). Tour Two, departing July 13, travels from Vienna to West Germany and Switzerland. The price is $2,475. Tour Three, departing Sept. 11, visits Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria and West Germany. The price is $2,878. The rate includes first-class lodging, many meals and touring. Air fare is extra.
For information: Now Voyager Tours, Deer Lane, Pawlet, Vt. 05761, 1-802-325-3656.
MONTREAL DISCOUNTS: When the weather gets nippy, as it does at this time of the year, Montreal thrives on good music and good food. To introduce these attributes to American travelers, a group of 39 hotels is offering a 50 percent discount on hotel rooms from Thursday through Sunday until April 3.
Hotel guests also are given a booklet at check-in with 50 coupons for savings on dining, sightseeing and entertainment costs. Travelers should contact the individual hotels for reservations, asking for the discounted weekend rate.
A brochure, "Montreal, Minus 50," is available listing participating hotels. It also has a calendar of events.
For a copy of the brochure: Province of Quebec tourism, 1-800-443-7000.