T+L European planner

By Alison Cameron, Sarah Thomas and Yolanda Cross

Planning a trip to Europe, and counting the cost? From planes, trains and automobiles to hotels and apartments, T+L provides you with the latest tips and travel news that will make your trip easier and save you money.


Getting there

In response to the global economic downturn at the end of last year airlines began offering business travellers some of the best deals that have been seen for many years. Australian travel commentator Martin Kelly, from TravelTrends.biz, says: “2009 is set to be the best year to travel internationally. Airlines are looking to stimulate demand.” One of the techniques being used to lure passengers back in to premium seats is companion fares. When you buy one ticket at the premium price you are given a second identical ticket for free. Japan Airlines (au.jal.com) was offering a companion business class fare for flights from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to London and Paris for $6079 (plus taxes).

Meanwhile Etihad (www.etihadairways.com) also released economy companion fares to 13 European cities with prices starting at $1515 (including taxes).

Industry observers believe that discounted prices and offers which have traditionally been restricted “early bird” packages, usually available from around October until March, may begin to appear throughout the year. As airline prices and plans are changing in response to demand the best way to keep up to date with all the latest deals is to subscribe to online airline newsletters. Online travel agents travel.com.au and bestflights.com.au also have newsletters that highlight new deals as they are announced.


LOW-COST CARRIERS

As more budget-conscious travellers opt for low-cost airlines, discount European carriers are expanding their networks. With 40 new routes planned for 2009, Ryanair (ryanair.com) is leading the way with flights between Edinburgh and Malta, and Oslo and Bolonga.

Rival EasyJet (easyjet.com) plans to launch 22 new routes this year, including from London Gatwick to Copenhagen and Berlin to Dubrovnik.

Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) has just launched its own low-cost carrier Lufthansa Italia, connecting Milan Malpensa to eight other European destinations, including Lisbon and Barcelona. We found a round trip ticket from Milan to Lisbon for $193.
But the best offers, at the time of writing, came from Ryanair, which was offering free seats throughout Europe. There were restrictions to the number of free seats available on each flight and it took time and patience to find return flights.

However, by being flexible with times, dates and even the destination it was possible to score free return tickets.

T+L TIP when booking online beware that insurance and checked-in luggage is often automatically selected. To avoid paying unnecessary charges make sure you unclick and update the page before making any payment.


Getting around

CARS

Short-term car rentals

The biggest news in European car rentals is short-term hires. Last spring, Hertz introduced Hertz 369, a program which allows travellers in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, UK, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to rent cars for three, six and nine-hour periods. This allows travellers the independence to have a day jaunt to the countryside, travel between neighbouring cities, or take one-way commutes to the airport.
However, like many European deals or special offers this is not currently available to book from Australia or New Zealand. You have to book once you are in Europe (hertz.co.uk).
Another option is the new Connect service from Hertz (connectbyhertz.com). This is a Mini Cooper car-share scheme with hourly rates for members. Again this is only available when you are in Europe and only in Paris and London.
The annual membership is $109 with hourly rates starting at $8.60 an hour with the first 50 kilometres free and 55 cents for every extra mile. Fuel, insurance and roadside assistance is all included making it a very attractive option.

Fuel efficiency
In Europe Avis, Europcar and Hertz have the Toyota Prius Hybrid as part of their fleets and these can be booked from here in advance.

Another alternative is to rent a fuel-efficient diesel, such as the Ford Focus Diesel and Opel Astra models. This can reduce the pain of high European fuel costs and offer substantial savings. But be warned, diesel is not automatically cheaper in all countries. Many Eastern Europe countries such as Slovakia, Estonia and Latvia have very expensive diesel but it is a good economic choice in France and Portugal where diesel is 33 cents a litre cheaper than unleaded.

T+L TIP When booking a car online or by phone directly with rental companies, your credit card details will be held but the payment will not be made until the car is picked up. However, if you want to lock in the exchange rate then book through a travel agent who has access to contracted Australian or New Zealand dollar rates and pay up front.

CRUISE
In terms of the best all-inclusive cost, you would be hard pressed to beat a cruise trip in the current climate. "It’s just a great value holiday,” says Brett Dudley, owner of cruise travel agency Ecruising. "For anyone going from Australia, there’s no comparison to a land-based holiday. It’s just such an economical way to see Europe."
Once all costs are factored into a driving or land-based holiday, costs can reach $1000 a day, says Dudley, whereas a seven-night itinerary with Costa Cruises (costacruise.com) can cost from $100 a day, which covers accommodation, transportation, all meals and entertainment.

The fares for top-end cruise operators can reach up to $800 a day, but cover everything from luxury suites to fine dining, alcoholic beverages and gratuities.
Fares and itineraries are also set fairly far in advance with heavily discounted early-bird booking savings, such as 2010 world cruises with 60 per cent off. Competition between cruise-line operators is less fierce this year than in the previous few years, but there are still also many late deals available up to two or three weeks ahead of departure.

Cruise versus land-based trip
By sea Luxury operator Silversea Cruises (toll-free Australia 1300 306 872; 0800 701 427 New Zealand; silversea.com). has a 14-day Venice to Monte Carlo itinerary, with ports of call including Croatia, Sicily, Rome, Sorrento and Livorno, departing August 1. Prices start from $10,830 per person, based on double occupancy in a vista suite, which includes accommodation, dining, onboard entertainment, wines, champagne and spirits throughout the ship and gratuities.

By land A comparable itinerary would mean booking 11 different top-end hotels. Luxury properties in the regions covered by the cruise can be sought at about $1020 a night for an equivalent standard of room in Venice’s Hotel Gritti Palace. When all the equivalent costs of food, air travel between cities and ground transportation are added on, however, cruising can work out as a better value option.

HIGH-SPEED RAIL
Advances in Europe’s rail infrastructure have shaved hours off inter-country travel. Touring this way also saves precious holiday time in avoiding lengthy check-in requirements at airports, while most stations are conveniently located in the centre of cities. "The city-centre to city-centre trip is value because you’re not having to pay to get out to the airports and obviously a lot of people are time-poor so this helps as well," says Greg McCallum, national sales manager for Rail Plus (1300 555 003; +64 9 377 5415; railplus.com.au). The Eurostar route between London and Paris takes just two hours and 15 minutes, with return fares from $130. Elsewhere, a new route between Madrid and Barcelona has cut three hours off the trip, which is now about two hours and 45 minutes. Rail operator Thalys, which runs between Paris, Cologne, Brussels and Amsterdam, is also launching faster routes; its Paris-Amsterdam trip is now three hours and 15 minutes. New fast routes are also scheduled to open between Figueres, Spain and Perpignan, France this year, while Italy is continuing to expand its high-speed network with a Rome-Milan service of three-and-a-half hours that runs 18 times a day. Be aware that some rail lines only allow bookings 60-90 days in advance.

LUXURY ROUTES
Central Europe has a new top-end rail service with the launch of the Budapest-based Danube Express(+44 1462 441400; danube-express.com), which takes in destinations including Prague, Vienna, Berlin and Istanbul. The 10-day Bosphorus Journey itinerary travels from London to Istanbul and covers seven nights’ hotel accommodation and two nights on the train, sightseeing tours and most meals, from about $5730 per person The Royal Scotsman (royalscotsman.com) runs a four-day tour out of Edinburgh with stops at Inverness and Perth, and includes the opportunity for fishing, clay-pigeon shooting and guided walks, with all meals and drinks included for $7230.

T+L TIP The UK is jammed packed with stately homes and historical buildings. The Great Heritage Pass (britishheritagepass.com) offers free access to over 580 properties. Prices start at a very reasonable $70 for four days and a family 4-day pass costs $216. A typical entry fee is $32 per person, for a visit to Leeds Castle in Kent, making the passes great value.

Breakout: BEATING EXCHANGE RATES
Australian travellers have not had the luxury that US visitors to Europe have had with some hotel chains offering fixed US dollar rates to beat currency changes. Many operators have included currency surcharge fees to counter the volatile economic climate, although there are some operators that have guaranteed no extra fees. Peregrine Adventures introduced a no currency surcharge policy last November on all its tours departing up until August 31, 2009. Marketing manager Jane Reed said the company had been confident that the prices there were offering weren’t going to be impacted by fluctuating exchange rates. "It certainly gives the consumer confidence in booking," she says. "There’s so much going on in the marketplace at the moment; on the one hand there’s a certain amount of discounting going on, but there are also surcharges. Our policy just cuts through all that confusion for the traveller to let them book with confidence."

Where to stay

BUSINESS BRAND HOTELS
Staying at a business chain hotel is a good way to score a bargain. Because corporate travellers are their bread-and-butter, these hotels often offer reduced rates to fill up rooms on the weekends.
“At the end of 2008, there was a rapid deterioration in occupancy in most European cities," says Ben Walker, research manager for TRI Hospitality Consulting in London. "For the first time in many years, even London is a more affordable destination."

WEEKEND DELIGHTS
At the time of writing, weekend rates at the Hilton London Olympia Hotel (380 Kensington High Street, W14 8NL; +44 207 603 3333; hilton.com/olympia) had dipped around 33 per cent to as low as $194 a night, while end-of the week prices at the Park Lane Intercontinental (One Hamilton Place, W1J 7QY; +44 207 409 3131; ichotelsgroup.com) dropped about 20 per cent to $645 per night. Even in busy periods it is worth checking out if hotels offer weekend deals that may include breakfast, free parking or family specials.
But as difficult as things are for established brands, says Walker, new hotels will have to work even harder to fill their rooms. Scandic Hotels (+46 8517 51720; scandichotels.com), for example, is opening seven new properties in Europe this year as part of a planned five-year expansion. New outposts include the Scandic Oslo Airport and a rebranding of the Palace Hotel in Copenhagen. When we went online the chain was offering a 40 per cent reduction per night at the Copenhagen Webers Hotel for guest staying between Friday and Sunday. The weekend rate was $199 compared to $330 during the week.
Spain-based Sol Melia (solmelia.com) is also debuting several new hotels. As part of its re-launch of the Gran Melia luxury brand, the company opened the doors of the renovated Gran Meliá Colón in the old quarter of Seville in February, and will open the doors of the Gran Meliá Creta in Crete in June. At the time of its launch, rooms were available online for $283 per night – almost 50 per cent off standard rates. In June the $240 million Rocco Forte Verdura Gofl and Spa Resort (Contrada Verdura Sciacca; +44 207 7663141; roccofortecollection.com) is due to open on the south coast of Sicily. Opening deals included seven nights for the price of five or 12 nights for the price of nine.

LOW-RATE CHAINS
Now more than ever, budget brands are popping up across Europe. This January, Hotel Indigo (+44 207 835 2000; hotelindigo.com), Intercontinental Hotel Group's boutique brand, opened its first property in London, with plans for three more in the city by 2012. The 64-room Hotel Indigo London Paddington is long on personality and perks and short on price; double rooms start from $272 per night.

CitizenM (+31 208 117 055, citizenm.com) has opened its second property, CitizenM Amsterdam City, with a third hotel in Glasgow expected later this year. The openings are part of a five-year plan to have 20 properties throughout Europe. The current rates start at about $193 per night. The small rooms still manage to accommodate king-size beds, flat-screen televisions, wall-to-wall windows, and a MoodPad that allows technophiles to adjust all the room's gadgets (television, music, window blinds, temperature, coloured lighting and wake-up alarm) from one spot.

DESIGNER DEALS
Last-minute bookings are become the worrying norm for the hotel industry so to encourage guests to book in advance Design Hotels (designhotels.com) is offering 10 per cent off bookings made 21 days in advance. The offer is valid only at certain of the company’s member hotels but includes properties in Italy, Spain, Estonia, Germany and Turkey.

VILLA RENTALS
European villas have always offered great value, especially if you have a large family or group of friends to split the tab.

* Abercrombie & Kent has an arm dedicated to villas and apartments. At Sanctuary Retreats (1300 851 800; sanctuary-retreats.com) there are more than 50 properties to browse. On offer are two types of rental; the villa only “tailor-made” rentals or “sanctuary hosted” which includes a welcome at the airport, daily maid, a stocked kitchen and breakfast delivered on your first morning.
On the online special deals page there were discounted villas offering prices 25 per cent cheaper than 2008 tariffs. The five-bedroom Tuscan property Podere Il Poggio has a permanent $3000 drop of price for a week-long stay. The house sleeps 10 making the new rate $1860 per person. Other offers include free hampers and discounted golf games.

* Elegant Resorts and Villas (02 8370 4850; elegantresorts.com.au) has a range of apartments in Florence, Paris, London, Venice and Rome. At the time of going to press this Australian company was offering a $200 discount on selected apartments in Italy. A stylish two-bedroom apartment in Rome’s Spanish Steps area starts at $365 per night for a minimum three-night stay. Meanwhile in London a two-bedroom apartment in Chelsea starts at $3530 a week.

* Citadines (citadines.com) offers what they describe as “apart’hotels” which are units with kitchens and other facilities including high-speed internet and access to meeting rooms. Citadines are currently operating in France, Germany, Belgium and the UK. Their website has a promotions page listing the current offers which can run up to two months in advance. At the time of writing the Citadines Paris La Défense, which is 10 minutes from the Champs-Élysées, was offering a weekend special; an apartment for four for $193 a night.

T+L TIP European school holidays are July and August so only week-long bookings are available. For more flexible short stays avoid those months.

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