2009 Airfare to Europe is already about 33% below 2008 levels. Cruise bargains and a strong dollar mean Europe is the best value in years.
In terms of sheer bargains, this is the best year to cruise in Europe I have ever seen - and it isn't just that cruise fares for European cruises are phenomenally low. The dollar is stronger now that it has been for almost five years, but there is still more! Airline analysts are predicting airfare to Europe will be lower this summer than it was in 2008, and possibly cheaper than it has been for years.
Airfare Expected to Be Lower
Indeed, one of the top concerns I have been hearing from cruisers about cruising in Europe this year is the fear of extremely high airfares. I was on a frequent flyer oriented web site earlier this week and the consensus of the non-professional readers was that "last year's $600 airfare is the $800 airfare for 2009."
Not true, according to the people who monitor and predict airfares for a living. Those in the know are saying that due to highly reduced fuel costs and a significant drop in demand for pleasure trips, airfares will be significantly lower in the 2009 European travel season than they were in 2008.
But there is more to the "value of European cruises" equation: the Dollar to Euro conversion rate is presently at $1.33 Dollars to one Euro, when last year it was closer to $1.60 to one Euro. Additionally, cruise sales in Europe are very slow so far this year, and so we are seeing huge discounts on many truly great ships in Europe this season.
According to the latest data, sales of Alaska cruises are just now starting to pick up. That is due to several reasons, but bottom line it means sales of European cruises will also take off soon, especially if we hold on to the prices we are seeing now for a while longer.
For example, you can book a balcony cabin on the beautiful new Celebrity Solstice on a 10-day cruise in the Mediterranean out of Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, for as low as $1348 per person. Yes, that is a balcony stateroom in Europe on the newest cruise ship in the world -- for under $140 per person per day.
Here is another extraordinary deal, the beautiful, brand new Holland America Eurodam has inside cabins available on a 10-night Baltic Sea cruise starting at just $977 per person - under $100/day. There are even balcony cabins available on the May 23 sailing for just $1268 pp. These are balcony staterooms on Holland America's newest ship sailing on a great itinerary for about $126 per person per day.
But getting back to the airfare equation - because for many people this is what has been holding them back from a European cruise.
I consulted our own copy editor, James Glab, who is also a well-known air travel writer and a former contributor to Travel & Leisure magazine's Best Deals page and its "bargains newsletter," as well as Frequent Flyer Magazine.
Jim Glab told me, "I think there's no question that transatlantic air fares, like so many other aspects of travel this year, will be significantly lower than they were last summer, for two reasons..."
- "Last summer, oil reached $140 a barrel and airline fuel costs were through the roof. Most international airlines tacked on large fuel surcharges to their fares, increasing the cost of travel to Europe by as much as a few hundred dollars roundtrip. Those surcharges have been significantly scaled back this year."
- "Passenger demand has dropped off substantially due to the world financial crisis. Airlines have been reducing capacity, even on the Atlantic, to cope with the fall-off in demand, but in many cases demand is dropping faster than capacity. The result: Fares are dropping."
But this really convinced me; Jim gets news of airfare sales before most people and he sent me a news release from American Airlines that he received just yesterday. AA has flights to international destinations on sale through mid-May. This includes air from all U.S. states, except Alaska, to the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, Asia and Europe.
Here are some of the European airfare offers from American Airlines; one-way based on round-trip purchases:
- New York Kennedy - London Heathrow, England: $196
- Los Angeles - London Heathrow, England: $203
- Dallas/Fort Worth - Paris Charles de Gaulle, France: $277
Jim, in his usual modest way, also referred me to a quote by Ed Perkins from Smarter Travel who is also a well-known expert in future airfare speculation (no matter what, price prediction is never an exact science).
Perkins notes that many airlines are currently offering last minute sales, which indicates more availability on flights than the airlines expected - which indicates current pricing is too high. Perkins notes that Smarter Travel's All Airfare Deals page shows several short term sales to Europe right now (February 2009) including round-trip on Air France from San Francisco to Stockholm for $789, total, including taxes.
Now, these are short-term, off-peak season sales. Air will not be that low during the peak summer tourist season, but all indications are that it will still be lower than 2008. How much lower no one really knows, but the point is that it will not be higher, as I have been hearing many cruisers say.
Once again, the key is significantly lower fuel prices and lower demand. So, it naturally follows that hotel rates are also already lower in Europe this year than they were last year. Here is yet another consideration - the United States is already in a recession, we all know that, but the economy is even worse in Europe. It is bad enough over there that even the taxi drivers will be happy to get your business (but you still have to watch the meter).
Getting back to Ed Perkins - here is what he cites as the gamble you take; it is the "buy or wait" dilemma as exemplified by the 2009 Super Bowl. This year the best deals went to those people who waited until the last minute, according to Perkins. But you never know if or when this gamble will work.
Most cruise lines are offering a price guarantee this year, so if the cruise fare goes even lower you can get a rebate for the difference. This is not true with airfare, once you buy a ticket you are locked in unless you pay a hefty exchange fee. Waiting for a last minute deal on airfare is always risky, but even if it is not significantly discounted the experts are predicting that it will be cheaper than last year at least.
Here is a method you can try to gauge when to buy your air ticket. By checking on the airfares for your trip every few days you can see if it is changing. If it is going lower wait and see how low it goes before it stops or turns higher again. You can buy your ticket at any time, or wait until you see it start to uptick again, which may indicate the flights are filling up. The alternative is to take the big gamble and hope for last minute sales.
More specifically, here is what Jim Glab recommends for finding the best airfare:
"The level of fares will follow traditional seasonal patterns: Higher fares from roughly June through September; somewhat lower in spring and fall; lowest from November through March."
"Many airlines are currently offering good sale fares to Europe, but only for travel during the next couple of months. They're still waiting to assess summer demand before they start coming out with summer fare sales -- which they certainly will, unless demand takes a sharp turnaround."
Jim Glab's airfare strategies for travelers:
- Use a good aggregator site to search for fares; Vayama.com is especially good for international travel;
- Check individual airline web sites for Internet-only fare sales;
- Sign up for e-mail alerts that some airlines offer for fare sales and other special offers; e.g., to Europe, British Airways and Air France offer this capability.
- Don't buy your tickets too early; wait until you are within a few months of departure.
Gauging Cruise Fares
As I have already mentioned, cruise fares to Europe are incredibly low right now. This is because the cruise lines are not seeing many buyers and they are pricing accordingly. But that is also partially an anomaly because most cruise buyers are not buying any cruise very far in advance this year. This is for two main reasons, worry over their own economic situations and a feeling that prices might still go lower.
However, we are just now getting reports that Alaska is starting to sell, and many of those cruises have been priced at rates as low as $499 pp for a few months now. As those cruises start to fill up (as they should) those cruise prices will go higher.
European cruise fares are still very cheap, but once they start to fill up the prices will also go higher. You heard it here first, but soon the news about cheap cruise fares, cheap airfare, the Dollar now being much stronger and the weak European economy will sink in. Once the word is out more and more people will be looking at European cruises this year.
The most desirable staterooms on any cruise ship always sell out first - the mid-ship balcony cabins. If you book your cruise now you know you have gotten a great deal on it. You can choose to wait and see what happens with airfare with a reasonable certainty it will be lower than last year. Or if you book a May cruise now and take advantage of that American Airlines offer that is good through mid-May.
Think of it - airfare from Los Angeles to London for $404 roundtrip, plus a 10-day cruise in the Mediterranean in a balcony cabin for $1348 per person. If you book a European cruise later in the summer then I recommend you follow Jim Glab's strategy for getting the best airfare as outlined above.
There is also nothing wrong with booking a cruise with air included in the cruise fare. These cruise lines should offer you price protection, so if the cruise fare goes down they will give you a rebate. The people who watch air prices at these cruise lines already know fares are looking lower this year. That is one reason why you are seeing so many "free airfare" offers from cruise lines like Oceania Cruises, Regent, Crystal, Silversea and others.
The Economy Equation
Bottom line, it isn't my place to tell anyone who is struggling to balance his or her checkbook to book a cruise to Europe this year. But, I can say with confidence that you would have been better off "investing" in a cruise six months ago than keeping any discretionary income you may have had in the stock market. No one knows where the economy will go in the future, but I can tell you that life goes on and you will not see many years where you can get a European cruise at prices like we are seeing today.
And most importantly, if the airfare question is what has been holding you back then I suggest you re-think that. The sale by American airlines - currently good through mid-May - is more than enough proof that airfare is likely to be as affordable as cruises are this summer.
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