When Mark D. Merkel says, "Europe is on sale," pay attention. Merkel is the Director and Senior Foreign Exchange Specialist for Wells Fargo Foreign Exchange Solutions Group.
In 2008, it would have cost you almost $1.60 to buy one euro's equivalent worth of goods and services, "but now you're giving up just barely north of $1," he says. "In the past year alone, the euro has lost about one-third of its value relative to the U.S. dollar. Of course, prices in the eurozone are rising to reflect the loss of value in the currency, but you're still looking at a 25 percent to 30 percent discount" from previous years in what you would typically pay for hotel rooms, dining, shopping, concerts, etc. The timing is excellent for luxury travelers who enjoy grand hotels and other pleasures with costs that, several years ago, might have even discouraged those for whom money is no object.
Merkel keeps an especially close eye on these trends — not just because he's planning his next trip, but because Wells Fargo's Foreign Exchange Solutions Group computes exchange rates and provides currencies for more than 100 countries. (Clients can order more than 70 currencies online, and they pay no service fee on their purchases.) His division also buys back unused banknotes at competitive exchange rates and arranges foreign bank drafts and wire transfers, so if you're renting a villa from someone who doesn't accept credit cards, says Merkel, "this is a low-cost way to deliver the funds."
Is Europe on sale beyond the eurozone? "No currency has been immune to the rising dollar," states Merkel. "If you go to the Czech Republic or Poland, you'll see a 30 percent reduction in the dollar cost of the same trip you might have taken last year. The pound sterling has only declined about 10 percent, but that's still a good buy — we'll take it!"
With your dollar stretching further, here are some enticing European options for your next vacation:
Fanciful windmills and pristine beaches are among the delights that draw visitors to Mykonos, Greece.
What makes Mykonos Greece's most desirable island? The windmills and tiny domed churches? The many beaches? Restaurants like Nammos, Panormos, and Kiki's? Nightspots like Astra and Jackie O's? Those great mustaches? All of the above.
Chic singles love Mykonos, but this island also welcomes families with rental villas that have indoor and outdoor common areas for quality time together. For example, Villa Drakothea, a two-building, four-bedroom, five-bath compound on a rise overlooking the sea, has whitewashed walls, terraces for each room, fine art, a fireplace, maid service, and a concierge who can arrange anything. During the peak of summer Drakothea costs 10,500 euros a week before tips and taxes.
Enjoy legendary hotels, restaurants, shopping, and museums in the "City of Light."
As Humphrey Bogart said, "We'll always have Paris." But why wait? What a great time to enjoy the legendary hotels, restaurants, shopping, and museums in the "City of Light." There are free and inexpensive pleasures also: the Luxembourg Gardens and Bois de Boulogne, jazz clubs, a tour of Notre Dame Cathedral (but also, see Sainte-Chapelle and the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis), strolling around the Left Bank and Champs-Elysées, and savoring raw-milk Epoisses cheeses.
Rooms at the iconic Four Seasons Hotel George V start at 1,090 euros, but that's all the more reason to book one while the exchange rate is so favorable. The service, spa, and fine dining, not to mention the guest rooms with traditional furnishings, marble baths, and crystal chandeliers, have no equal. Be Bogart and Bergman, but with a '96 Bordeaux.
The art and architecture of Florence — including Il Duomo — are enticing attractions.
The Medicis made Firenze (Florence) the center of the Renaissance, and it still is. Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," Michelangelo's "David," DaVinci's self-portrait, the Cathedral (Il Duomo), the much-photographed Ponte Vecchio, the Pitti Palace, and the Uffizi Gallery — the definitive Renaissance art museum — make Florence a greatest hits of Italy, and that's saying something. Florentine shopping is a fine art, too, and beyond the city lies the countryside of Tuscany.
Portrait Firenze, a 36-suite hotel overlooking the Ponte Vecchio, blends traditional and modern design with clean, white furnishings. It books guides to give its visitors access to sites most tourists never see, and its Leica Experience package (800 euros) includes a day tour with a photography coach and use of a top-drawer Leica camera. Summer rates start at 405 euros per night, or 495 euros for a river view.
The Arlberg Mountains serve as a stunning backdrop for hikers in Lech am Arlberg, Austria.
Lech am Arlberg
This is the Alpine village of dreams: Red geraniums tumble from window boxes of chalets, hiking trails cross "The Sound of Music" meadows, and a cable car lifts skiers to Austria's miles-long White Ring Circuit of ski trails, served by mountain huts, restaurants, and 97 cable cars connecting the peaks and four towns in the Arlberg.
Royal visitors stay at Gasthof Post Lech, a Relais & Chateaux hotel that has a frescoed exterior, cozy wood-walled public rooms with museum-quality Medieval and Baroque art, Austrian haute (in every sense) cuisine, a spa and pool, and guest rooms and suites with yet more art and alpine Geműtlichkeit — or friendliness. Doubles cost 290 euros a night in summer, 500 euros in winter.
The mystical Vltava River flows through the heart of Prague's beautiful city center.
As Wells Fargo's Merkel says, the good values are virtually everywhere in Europe, not just in the eurozone. Prague's UNESCO-honored core, where "Amadeus" was filmed, includes the iconic 10th century Prague Castle and medieval clock tower, world-famous Charles Bridge, cool clubs, classical music concerts, Old World coffee shops, and contemporary restaurants, like Kampa Park and Essencia.
Talk about authenticity — the Golden Well Hotel occupies five 16th-century buildings, one of which was a private residence for the Holy Roman Emperor. Location? It's right by Prague Castle and the rose gardens. Each of the Golden Well's 17 rooms and two suites is different, but all offer Old World touches to go along with those of the new world (Wi-Fi). Its two award-winning restaurants have terrace seating to enjoy the views. Summer rates start at 238 euros per night.
Mediterranean beauty meets European style in the glamorous city of Monte Carlo.
One of the world's most exclusive destinations, the Principality of Monaco isn't just baccarat. Its dining, shopping, sporting and cultural events, nightlife, and elegant vibe are world class. This is one of the few places left where dressing up doesn't feel anachronistic. No wonder James Bond keeps popping in.
The Belle Epoque Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo is even grander than it was when it was built a century ago. The hotel is home to the Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo spa, Michelin-starred Le Vistamar (book the terrace), and a stunning, stained-glass, Eiffel-designed dome. Rooms start at 501 euros in summer; units facing the Mediterranean Sea start at 621 euros.
With all your options, it's easy to get excited about the exchange rate. Merkel is no exception. "Naturally, I do feel compelled to take advantage while I can," he says. "My wife and I are planning a trip to Europe."