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Europe for the Weekend

Pressed for time? A short trip can be the way to go—and the way to saveImage4

To me there are no sweeter words in the English language than "I’m going to Paris for the weekend." Unless, of course, you prefer to substitute London, Dublin, Madrid or Amsterdam for the City of Light. The Euro weekend, a three- or four-day jaunt to the other side of the pond, makes a lot of sense for Americans who find it tough to take time away from their jobs. I love a long weekend in Europe, and I’ve made these brief trips on many occasions. You don’t have to have access to your own Gulfstream V to pull it off, either. A Euro weekend is remarkably easy to arrange and often surprisingly affordable—especially in the winter. Here’s how to make it happen.

FIRST, THINK OF IT AS A LONG WEEKEND

     I confess I’ve stayed as few as two nights in Brussels after traveling from New York, but I think a Euro weekend really should be defined as three nights at a hotel in your destination, four nights if you’re coming from the Rockies or the West Coast. In other words, the night you spend on the plane on the way over doesn’t count.

     So if you fly from Washington, DC, to London, for example, on an overnight flight on Thursday, that gives you part of Friday, as well as all day Saturday and Sunday, to visit museums, go to the theater, stroll in Hyde Park, peruse the food hall at Harrods and have a pub lunch. You depart Monday morning for a return that gets you back in DC by late afternoon. And you’ve been out of the office for only two days.

Image1 RULES OF THE GAME

     Nonstop flights are your best bet, because connections raise the possibility of delay, and on such a short trip, time is especially precious. Minimize costs by traveling anytime from late fall to early spring, the traditional low season in Europe (the Christmas holidays are exceptions to this rule). From November through March, hotels have rooms to spare, airlines have plenty of seats, and all-inclusive packages often make a good thing even better. You can count on a wintertime European vacation costing 40% to 50% less than it would in July or August or even September, when airlines and hotels are charging top dollar. And the crowds that overrun Europe in summer are absent. This is the time of year when you mingle with Parisians in Paris cafés, not tourists from all over the globe. It’s when West End theater seats are available, the Louvre is uncrowded and restaurant reservations are easy to come by. And by leaving on a Thursday and returning on a Monday, you avoid high-priced Friday and Sunday airfares.

CHOOSE YOUR CITY WISELY

     When you’re deciding on your destination, give major consideration to cities such as Dublin, London, Paris and Madrid, which are within six to eight hours of flying time. The same is true for Brussels, Edinburgh and Amsterdam. But honestly, going even an hour or 90 minutes farther—to Rome or Vienna or Berlin—for a three-night trip is pushing it. And once you’re in London, Paris or Dublin, stay there. These weekends are best for exploring a city street by street, for savoring café life and a slower European pace. Don’t plan on extensive day trips, which simply eat up valuable time with extra travel. Not renting a car will also save you money.

GO À LA CARTE

     It’s easy enough to visit Kayak.com, Mobissimo.com or Expedia.com and find a cheap flight. I looked around on Expedia.com for New York-to-London flights over the weekend of November 1 to 5, 2007, and found a $495 fare on Virgin Atlantic. I unearthed a $641 fare from JFK to Paris on Air France and a $531 fare on Delta to Madrid. These are easily 30% to 40% lower than the prices that are offered in late spring, summer and early fall.

     Kayak.com is especially good at rooting out rock-bottom fares during this season. These fares change quite a bit, often going lower to reflect slow sales, and Kayak.com manages to stay on top of those free falls. For the same dates, they found a $416 round-trip from JFK to Dublin on Delta. Compare that to $1,010 in July.

     You can research your hotel room on TripAdvisor.com and even book from there. But many European hotels, especially the independently owned ones, offer special rates on their Web sites, so it pays to visit them individually. Another source for booking that works especially well in Ireland and the United Kingdom is LateRooms.com. Despite its name, all the offerings aren’t last-minute, and you can book months ahead. I found a room for two for three nights with full Irish breakfast at the three-star Hotel St. George in Dublin for $696. Combined with that $416 per person Delta airfare, I was looking at a grand total of $1,528 for two.

GRAB A PACKAGE

     Because there are empty airline seats and empty beds to fill, packages have long been offered from American cities to European capitals in the heart of winter. But are they really a better deal than putting together à la carte components yourself? Let’s say you wanted an air/hotel package from Chicago to Paris on the second weekend of November. The least expensive package from American Airlines Vacations was $1,649, which included airfare for two people and three nights at the Hotel Ferrandi, a three-star in the centrally located sixth arrondissement, with continental breakfast for two served daily.

     À la carte, the best I could find on Kayak.com were tickets on American Airlines for $621 apiece, for a total of $1,242. Three nights at the hotel were $543, while continental breakfast for two came to $90 (a reminder that in Europe, a free breakfast can be worth a lot). The grand total was $1,875. Clearly, the package was the winner, a $226 savings. A cheaper airfare would lower the à la carte price, but the chances of airfares dipping below $621 were slim.

     At a nicer hotel, the Hotel Littre, a four-star property beloved by some of my savviest Francophile friends that s also in the sixth arrondissement, the package tab came to $2,017. You would be booked into a standard room but automatically receive an upgrade to the superior category. And buffet breakfast was included.

     Priced separately, I had that $1,242 airfare on American Airlines, while the best room rate I could find was for a standard at $682 (495 euros) and daily buffet breakfast at 20 euros per person, per day, or a whopping $165 for breakfast alone. That came to a grand total of $2,089. Once again, the package was cheaper, though just barely, and it provided a larger room. You’ll find that package deals are offered by every major American and European carrier, as well as by travel sites like Expedia.com, Travelocity.com and Orbitz.com. But no matter how good the price may seem, remember that it always pays to check the Web and do the math.

Image3 WORDS TO THE WISE

     Admittedly, the Euro weekend comes with compromises. In exchange for lower prices, there’s cold weather and a lack of daylight to contend with. Sheer distance makes the West Coast more of a stretch. And when you arrive in a European city at 8 a.m. on a Friday, you can’t count on your hotel room being ready. My advice is to try to sleep as much as you can on the plane, grab a two- or three-hour catnap in the afternoon after check-in, and head out in the late afternoon for a stroll and an early dinner. Jet lag is perhaps the steepest price you’ll pay for a Euro weekend. But when you’re having lunch in a café overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens, perusing the offerings at the Portobello Road flea market in London or enjoying a pint in an Edinburgh pub, you may well decide that it’s more than worth the price.

FOUR TRIPS FOR TWO
(for under $2,000)*

CHICAGO > BRUSSELS
$1,752.45
American Airlines Vacations
3 nights at 4-star Sofitel Brussels Toison d’Or, including breakfast aavacations.com

NEW YORK > PARIS
$1,575
American Airlines Vacations
3 nights at 3-star Opera Cadet, including breakfast
aavacations.com

ATLANTA > MADRID
$1,954
DELTA Vacations
3 nights at 3-star Petit Palace Londres, including breakfast
delta.com

BOSTON > AMSTERDAM
$1,892
Delta Vacations
3 nights at 3-star Ibis Amsterdam Center
, including breakfast 
delta.com

*All prices, for January 10-14/15, 2008, were valid at press time.

This article originally ran in Diversion.

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