Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Bratislava and Vienna are the world capitals closest to each other. The African capital cities of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, are the closest. This version has been corrected.
With gas prices soaring, this is not the best year to book a last-minute international Spring Break flight. But if you’re lucky enough to score a cheap ticket to another continent, you might be surprised how far you can stretch a dollar. With global markets in perpetual flux, the euro crisis did a lot to help the U.S. dollar in cities across the world.
“We like to say you can find a deal when cities are overexposed, over the hill or over a barrel,” said Mark Peyser, editor of Budget Travel magazine. “In cases like Portugal or Greece, they’re over a barrel. But you have to decide if it’s worth the trade-offs.”
Those trade-offs include risks. But natural disasters, protest movements or bad publicity (think of the Costa Concordia’s effects on European cruises) can create cheap travel opportunities.
We talked to luxury and budget travel experts to get the scoop on how to make the dollar go far this year. You might be surprised which international cities you can visit on the cheap in 2012.
Where the dollar goes far: The global recession hit some countries hard, and places that were once expensive are now prime destinations. Reykjavik, Iceland, appeals because of dramatic currency fluctuations. “Before the financial crises, you would get 67 kroner to dollar. Now you get 123 to the dollar. . . . Your dollar goes much farther than it did before,” Peyser said. Jetsetter Editor in Chief Kate Maxwell says that “Poland and Romania are . . . cheaper since they’re off the euro.”
Euro zone countries to visit: So the euro exchange rate still hovers around $1.32 to 1 euro (much better than in 2008). But did the European debt crisis make all destinations cheaper. “The dollar goes further in some places, but not all,” Peyser said. “Ireland has a temporary reduction in value-added tax, encouraging people to come now. Spain, though, has raised its VAT tax since 2010, so it’s more expensive for tourists.” Greece is also a great option if you can get to a less-populated island. “There are shorter lines at tourist destinations, and lesser-known islands are running deals,” Maxwell said. “Avoid Santorini and Mykonos.” Also, consider countries loved for their bed-and-breakfast cultures. A room at an Irish inn is considerably cheaper (and negotiable!) in a time of financial hardship. So use the bartering tools in our previous column.
When the crowds stop going: There’s no polite way to say this: Nothing hurts a travel industry like accidents or high-profile tragedies. After the Costa Concordia sinking, Jetsetter says its phones have been ringing off the hook with cruise companies wanting to do flash sales. “Demand for cruises has dropped 20 percent. . . . It’s a good time to get a deal on a cruise,” Maxwell said. Japan’s tourism is still recovering from the 2011 tsunami. “It’s not cheap to visit Tokyo, but for Americans, it’s much cheaper now than it was before,” Peyser said.
Risky business: There are dangerous countries, and there are their neighbors. American travelers often disregard places that have a history of crime, poverty or war. Avoid the countries on the State Department’s travel warning list, but traveling to neighboring countries will help you find a deal, Peyser and Maxwell advise. For example, although much of Northern Africa is still unsafe to visit after uprisings, Morocco has always been a tourist destination. And surprisingly, Tunisia and Egypt are off the advisory list. Now might be the best time to visit Carthaginian ruins or take that Bedouin tour.
Savings can be negligible: A vacation is a vacation. You might save a few hundred bucks heading to Bratislava instead of Vienna (the two capitals are just about 40 miles apart), but you’ve gone so far already and paid for that international flight. Don’t visit a city you have no interest in. A deal gotten simply for deal’s sake probably won’t be.
Exchange rates don’t mean cheap: Just because the U.S. dollar gets you 1.8 Brazilian real doesn’t mean Rio de Janeiro is cheap. (It’s not.) Many of the must-see hot spots in developing countries aren’t any cheaper than New York City. “Brazil is one of the biggest travel stories because of the Olympics and World Cup. You have to stay slightly off the beaten path to find a deal there,” Maxwell said. In contrast, Peyser thinks London will have deals after the Olympics. “The dollar is pretty strong against pound at the moment, and a lot of capacity will go unused.”
Avoid rural retreats or proceed with caution: Colombia is home to Cartagena, and Mexico has Tulum. These hot spots are expensive, and the surrounding areas are cheap — and dangerous. Don’t save a few dollars in these areas by sacrificing your safety. Always check the State Department travel warning list, and register online with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which informs embassies abroad of your trip.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Now is the time to stretch your dollar. With favorable exchange rates and global protests accompanying volatile markets, there are cheap travel opportunities and short lines at some of the most famous sites in the world. (Pyramids or Acropolis, anyone?) But a favorable exchange rate doesn’t mean cheap. Check out all costs before booking an overnight flight.
ON SALE THIS WEEK
You’re worth it, especially during Wellness Week, when you can indulge in treatments, services and classes for $50 or at a 50 percent discount from participating salons, spas and yoga studios across the area. Go posh with the 50-minute stress reliever massage ($80, originally $160) at the Mandarin Oriental (1330 Maryland Ave. SW, 202- 787-6064. mandarinoriental.com/washington) or zen with a cranial-sacral massage for deep relaxation ($50) at Radiant Sun Therapies (11701 Bowman Green Dr., Reston, 703-584-7997, radiantsuntherapies.com). Book early. March 19-25. wellnessweek2012.com.
Despite the fact we never had a real winter, Old Town boutique Treat is toasting the upcoming season with a Spring Fever event next weekend. Save 20 percent when you buy one item, 30 percent on two or more. The discount applies to new apparel as well as sale merchandise. Friday to March 18. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday. 103 S. Saint Asaph St., Alexandria, 703- 535-3294.
Get a Tracy Reese shift, reduced from $265 to $190, for an extra 20 percent off ($152) during Proper Topper’s bye-bye winter sale. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday. 1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-842-3055, www.propertopper.com.
Outfit the kids for less at TotSwap this Sunday, where new and like-new books, toys, videos, cribs, strollers, along with shoes and clothing from Gymboree, Graco and OshKosh, will be 50 percent off. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Montgomery County Fairgrounds, Gaithersburg. www.totswap.net/shop.html.
— Janet Bennett Kelly