Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Now Is the Time for Transatlantic Travel
November 17, 2016 -- You need to stop what you're doing and plan a trip to Europe. Right now.
A confluence of factors has made travel to the continent in the next six months or so as cheap as it has been in about 30 years. There's time for a pre-Christmas shopping trip — or one last business trip to schmooze a prospect. Or fly over in January and catch the continent's highly anticipated "winter sales." Maybe hit some shows in London or an opera in Milan. Perhaps visit a few Michelin-starred dining palaces in Paris. Consider starting 2017 right with an early sales trip.
Or do them all. It's that cheap. The travel powers that be are literally giving it away.
I do not exaggerate. Roundtrip coach fares to Madrid from Boston dropped below $450 this week. Denver to Paris is less than $500 roundtrip. Six hundred bucks and some change will get you to Scandinavia from San Francisco.
Hotels? Cheaper than in a long time. Hilton says you can score a room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Rome's swanky Parioli neighborhood for as little as $71 a night. A Hampton Inn in the City West business district of Berlin is $81 a night. Accor, the French hotel behemoth, says its properties in France can be had for 40 percent off this winter. The chain also promises two nights for the price of one in Austria, Switzerland or Germany.
It's not just flights and rooms, either. With the euro plunging to $1.07 against the U.S. dollar and the British pound down to $1.25, everything in Europe is cheaper: restaurant meals, museum admissions, theatrical and musical events. And, of course, the shopping, especially when the designated sale periods start right after the New Year. I mentioned these bargains in Seat 2B a few months ago, but, if anything, the deals are improving because the dollar is almighty again.
The dollar-denominated windfall is all the more stunning because we were bemoaning the weakened state of the greenback only eight years ago when the British pound surged above $2 and a single euro was worth $1.60. (If you're of a political bent, a hearty and unironic "Thanks, Obama!" might be appropriate here.)
How to explain this new golden age of Europe travel? The causes are interrelated, but let's start with those insanely low airfares.
Fueled by relatively cheap oil, traditional airlines have added waves of additional capacity across the Atlantic. And new routes keep coming. Aer Lingus of Ireland this week announced it would start flying between Miami and Dublin. British Airways two weeks ago added three new routes to London. Austrian Airlines will soon fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Vienna. A resurgent TAP Air Portugal has also added nonstops.
This build-up is partially in response to a rapid expansion by a traditional European discounter, Icelandair, and two aggressive newcomers, Norwegian Air Shuttle and WOW, another Iceland-based carrier. Icelandair and WOW direct their Europe-bound flyers via Keflavik Airport in Reykjavík, but Norwegian flies nonstop to the continent from cities such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Boston, New York and Fort Lauderdale.
Yet customers aren't necessarily flocking to the new flights. As Lewis Lazare noted in the Chicago Business Journal last week, transatlantic traffic and load factors in October at United Airlines fell nearly 5 percent.
Some Americans have been hesitant to fly to Europe because of terror concerns. Meanwhile, Europeans have curtailed travel to the United States because the declining values of the euro and the pound have made America a much more costly destination.
In years past, airlines would have dropped transatlantic flights when both Americans and Europeans were reluctant to fly. And some routes have been cut, especially to secondary British destinations, Belgium, Italy and Turkey. But jet fuel is cheap — the government says carriers paid $1.47 a gallon in September, less than half the 2013 price — so airlines can discount lustily in coach. As long as premium classes remain relatively full (and business travel to and from Europe has been strong), airlines can cut coach fares without risking profit.
Europe's hotel industry is slashing prices because it is getting hit with the double whammy of terrorism and the growth of alternate lodging sites such as Airbnb.com and HomeAway.com.
France, Belgium and Turkey — all victims of terrorist attacks in the last year — have been forced to ratchet up discounts because visitors have stopped coming. In France, tourism is down 8 percent since January. It may be down twice as much in Brussels and visitors have turned away from Turkey, partially due to terrorism and partially due to a brutal post-coup crackdown by Tayyip Erdogan, the country's autocratic president.
Terrorism fears aside, however, Europe in the next few months should be paradise for U.S. travelers. Sure the weather will be chilly (around the Mediterranean) or dank (Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland) or downright cold and snowy (Scandinavia and Eastern Europe), but a strong dollar is a remarkably bracing pick-me-up.
A Pinter play starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in London is always a treat. But it's a lot more fun when a 150-pound seat in the stalls of the Wyndham Theater translates to $187.50 at current exchange rates rather than the $300 it would have cost in 2008.
And having recently returned from a quick trip to Rome, trust me when I tell you that pitching a client over a 16-euro plate of spaghetti cacio e pepe with zucchini flowers at Antico Arco on the Janiculum Hill is much more succulent when it converts to $17 instead of the $25 it cost just a few years ago.