Americans' euro pain

The Baltimore Sun

BERLIN-- --Standing before the majestic Brandenburg Gate on cobblestoned Pariser Platz, where President Reagan gave his famous "Tear Down This Wall" speech at the former divide between East and West Berlin, the Reed family from Atlanta had lunch on their minds.

Only they weren't thinking about what they would eat; they were searching for a restaurant that would sustain the family of five for more sightseeing without breaking the bank.

With the value of the dollar at historical lows against the euro -- the euro is worth about $1.37 as of Friday -- the Reeds are some of the many American tourists feeling the price pinch while traveling across Europe this summer.

"It certainly didn't change our plans, but it did change what we're doing here," said matriarch Kerin Reed. "We're doing more visual things, and not entering museums as much."

Even in Berlin, which is cheaper than many European capital cities, the Reeds say the conversion from dollars to euros works against them.

"We are overwhelmed by the cost of liquids here," Kerin Reed said. "Cokes here are outrageous." (At the currywurst stand near the Unter den Linden S-bahn stop in Berlin, not far from where the Reeds are standing, a bottle of Coke cost 2 euros, or about $2.70.)

"And no refills," said son Brian, 15.

He and his sisters Allison, 20, and Caitlin, 7, also lamented the smaller portions in Europe compared with those back home, which signals to them they're paying even more for less.

Even drinks that are pricey at home seem exorbitant in euros. A Starbucks venti (large) caramel machiatto, which sells for $4 in the United States, cost $6.49 at the Starbucks near where the Reeds were standing.

While the dollar's slide against the euro was worrisome, their father, Mark, said the family had no intention of postponing their plans.

"We knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip," Mark Reed said. "So we're paying."

In Italy and Spain, the Grassini sisters were surprised to learn they had to pay for dinner rolls and water at restaurants, a service which is usually complimentary in the United States.

"Even if you take one bite out of a roll, you pay a euro," said Molly Grassini, 21, who will be a senior at New York University this fall.

In Venice, they decided against taking a gondola ride through the famed canals because it cost $100. A singer was an extra $100.

In Amsterdam, Netherlands, they debated whether to stay at a hotel closer to the airport, which would allow them to save money on taxis but would be farther from the nightlife.

"We knew coming here we were going to spend more," said Mandy Grassini, 23, who lives in Los Angeles. "But we definitely had to call the parents a few times and say we're running out of money."

So on a sunny Sunday in Berlin, they decided to forgo the trendy shops and visit the flea market at Mauerpark.

Despite the weak value of the dollar, travel by Americans to Europe continues to climb, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Flights to Europe in the first five months of 2007 were up 1 percent to 4.8 million, though data for the busy summer months are not in yet. Yet travel to Canada and Mexico -- typically the top two destinations for American tourists -- has declined, by 4 percent and 1 percent respectively, said Ron Erdmann, deputy director of the Commerce Department's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.

"The market tends to be resilient," Erdmann said. "Obviously, there will be some impact. They may shorten their trip or scale down: Instead of staying at an upper-class hotel, they may move down a star."

Europe also tends to be a repeat market; based on surveys of travelers by his staff, he said 90 percent of Americans who fly to Europe have been there before. He said business travelers tend to make up about a quarter of the traffic.

Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, said the dollar has long fluctuated against the euro, which not too long ago was considerably weaker than the dollar. He does not think the strong value of the euro has affected tourism and spending in Europe. At the same time, though, more affordable European countries such as Germany may gain more business as a result.

"New York is a hell of a lot more expensive than even Munich, no matter what currency you have," Joffe said.

Mel Mossovitz, of Lutherville, said Paris has nothing on New York City. He and his family of four spent four days in Paris before meeting his daughter and son-in-law for a Greek cruise.

He took 500 euros for "spending money" in Paris and quickly realized it wasn't enough: He had to resort to plastic. "For a family of four, even a sandwich and drink [each] at a cafe was 50 euros," he said. "And we got just basic cheese sandwiches."

He said he and his family took trains instead of taxis, and thought about their purchases before making them. When his daughter wanted to buy a drink after leaving the famous church landmark La Madeleine, he asked her to wait until they got farther from the tourist attraction because he figured it would be cheaper.

"Some people tell me they drink wine here instead of water because it's cheaper," he said.

Another recent traveler to Europe, Owings Mills native Rachel Kay, was shocked not only by the strong euro, but also the outrageous prices in Norway, where the currency is the kroner.

At the TGI Fridays in her hotel in Oslo, she found 100-kroner, or $17, martinis on the menu.

"This is at TGI Fridays! That's just standard there," said Kay, 28, who visited Scandinavia, Estonia and Germany with her husband, Michael, 27.

In Finland, she tried to save euros on bottled water -- which she said cost the equivalent of $5 each -- by refilling empty bottles in the mornings before leaving the hotel and heading out on sightseeing trips. They ate at pizza joints and other cheap places. Still, a cup of hot java cost between $3 and $5.

For Kay, who has been to Europe at least eight times, this year's trip was the most expensive because of the weak dollar.

"Every choice we made, we had to be cost-conscious," she said. "It's just a shame when you plan a trip a year ahead of time that it is so much more expensive when you get there, even for basic things."

In Berlin, the city is using the weak dollar -- as well as the momentum from last year's World Cup soccer championship -- as a marketing tool to land more business from American tourists.

"The value for the dollar here is great if you compare with other European cities," said Christian Taenzler, spokesman for Berlin's Tourism Organization.

He said the average price of a night's stay at a hotel in Berlin is 140 euros, compared with 315 euros in London.

Berlin's pitch appears to be working: The number of American visitors is up 15 percent to 80,000 between January and May over the like period last year, and they are staying 20 percent longer, an average of 2.6 days, he said. It also helps that Berlin is the second-biggest hub for the cheap, no-frills airlines, behind Britain's Stansted Airport, encouraging tourists to add Germany to their itineraries, he said.

"Americans are very important to us, and they are coming more and more," Taenzler said.

As a reward for finishing law school and taking the bar exam, Philadelphia resident James Petkun, 26, took three weeks off to travel Europe, starting in London and ending in Paris, with eight major cities in between, including Berlin.

Petkun said he suffered his first case of sticker shock in England, where the British pound is nearly twice the value of the dollar.

"Buying an English National soccer jersey is a lot more expensive than I thought," he said.

In Amsterdam, he wasn't prepared to pay 50 euro cents each time he needed to use the bathroom. "In a bar, that can add up," he said.

But like the Reeds, Petkun figures it's worth it. "You only live once," he said, as he followed a walking tour in Berlin.

Sun reporter Allison Connolly is in Germany on a reporting fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists.

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