For the past few years, European currencies have so overpowered the weak Canadian dollar that travellers despaired of savoring another Paris spring. This year, however, the chance is theirs.
But it is an opportunity that most are ignoring, even though the Canadian dollar has finally returned to more traditional levels in Europe. During the past year the French franc fell 27 per cent against the Canadian dollar, the British pound sterling 29 per cent, and the Italian lira 32 per cent. Long-lost tourist meccas such as the Netherlands, France, West Germany and Switzerland now offer package hotel prices averaging $60 a night—$20 less than a comparable room in North America or the Caribbean. Still, travel agents across the country report few takers for two-week, five-star hotel vacations in Portugal priced under $1,000. Nor are consumers yet flocking to buy 14-day excursions to Scandinavia, priced at roughly 20 per cent less than last year.
Industry spokesmen blame the wariness on the sluggishness with which Canadians respond to international currency fluctuations. But currency savings aside, prospective travellers balk at the rising cost of crossing the Atlantic. Accustomed to the price wars inspired by Freddie Laker—which forced round-trip fares down as low as $459 earlier this year—they are often dismayed to learn that a high-season ticket to Europe this summer costs $850. Meanwhile, travel agents cling to the hope that because charter regulations used to demand a three-month advance sign-up and now require only 21 days, a tardy public could still begin stripping the brochure racks.
One traveller who will not is Toronto writer Clare Slater. She used to fly to Britain twice a year to visit friends, but she will make only one trip in 1982 and she still has not booked it. Steep transportation costs, exorbitant hotel rates and blatant overpricing of food have dictated austerity, and a better exchange rate is small consolation. “You get hit with large out-of-pocket expenses,” she says. “We went for a very average salad-and-wine lunch and got stuck for £22 [about $38.50].”
“Bargain,” it seems, is a relative term. In London, for one, city tour prices have dropped since 1979 when hotel rooms fetched $150 a night and the
beleaguered city was the most expensive in the world. A recent Financial Times survey reported that London had plummeted from that position to 22nd spot. But though a London-bought shetland sweater, thanks to the currency bonanza, costs 30 per cent less than in previous years, the necessities of a wayfarer’s life still do not come cheap —a cup of coffee continues to cost a dollar. British Airways’ ebullient Bargain Britain campaign boasts a 20-per-cent turnaround over last year on middle-ofthe-road hotel rates and a 15-per-cent drop in car rental costs, but there is another side to the story. Admits John Cornish, manager of tours for Thomas Cook Travel in Toronto: “It’s like a store sale where the prices are bumped up and then cut.”
The public stubbornness reflects a
larger trend toward forgoing the frills. Inflation is forcing even the affluent to cut back. Comments Mike Woodbridge, manager of Fisher-Fremont Travel, which draws much of its clientele from Toronto’s posh Forest Hill district: “I’ve got big builders—and you’d never guess who else—travelling charter class.”
Indeed, many are travelling by oncelowly bus. Most agents indicate that bookings for European coach tours have picked up dramatically. At Torontobased wholesaler Insight International Tours business has trebled since last year, with its British excursion a frontrunner (14 days for $1,110). Members of the coach contingent are not the only travellers to pick up on the currency turnaround. Students, whose knapsacks have been gathering attic dust for sev-
eral summers, are on the move again. Bruce Homer, director of marketing for Travel Cuts, formerly Canadian Universities Travel Service, reports that since last year his Toronto office has seen almost a 35-per-cent increase in the number of people flying to Europe. Good values still exist to lure the footloose: tourists in Portugal can buy dinner for two with wine for $15.
More persuasive, however, is the prospect of far pricier trips in the future. Some agents predict that current air fares will seem paltry next summer, with Laker gone and the cut-price competition vanished. Helen and Joseph DesRoches, a retired Toronto couple, will not delay: this month they realize their dream of seeing Europe by bus. Says Helen: “Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow?”-WENDY DENNIS
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