If you're heading off to Europe this summer, just pretend that some generous travel agent handed you a coupon giving you a 10 to 13 percent discount on almost everything you buy.
Unfortunately, those discount coupons don't exist anywhere except in our fantasies. But thanks to the recent rise in the value of the U.S. dollar, Americans are finding that their money is going a bit further than it did at this time last year.
"They're doing the same things and saving a little money," says Susan Booth, supervisor of the business department at the American Express Travel Agency in Buffalo.
Other travelers are finding that they can use their extra buying power to upgrade their plans. "Instead of staying at a three-star hotel, they're staying at a four-star hotel," says Tony Palermo, general sales manager at Stewart & Benson Travel in Buffalo.
Still, the stronger dollar has not started a stampede of tourists toward Europe, in part because the dollar does not go as far as it did four years ago, local travel agents say.
Agents also say the changes in the dollar haven't had enough time to sink in, since most of the tourists who are getting ready to leave for Europe during the next few months started planning their vacations long before the dollar began showing its new strength.
"It is a little too soon to tell what's happening. People who plan ahead really haven't been affected," Palermo says.
In addition, a 13 percent increase in a tourist's buying power probably isn't enough to prompt most Americans to make major changes in their vacation plans, travel agents say.
"I don't think it's so much the dollar as the destination," says John P. Connors, vice president for travel at the Automobile Club of Western New York. "I think swings like this (in the value of the dollar) are not going to influence where people are going."
After all, if a tourist can afford to spend $2,000 for a European vacation, it probably doesn't make a tremendous difference for most travelers whether that same trip costs $1,800 or $2,200, says Hank Land, president of Small World Travel Inc. in Buffalo.
However, some agents, like Palermo, say the stronger dollar might get more Americans thinking about taking a trip to Europe. He says his agency already has been getting more telephone calls from people who might be interested in a European vacation.
"Theoretically, a stronger dollar makes interna
tional travel available to a larger number of people," Land says. "But I don't think it's enough to start a mad rush."
Since January, the dollar has gained nearly 13 percent in value compared to the French franc, West German mark and the British pound. The dollar also is worth nearly 11 percent more compared to the Italian lire since the year began.
Yet, even though the dollar is gaining strength, it has not come close to returning to its peak levels of 1985, which helped convince a record 6.5 million Americans to scurry off to Europe and take advantage of their increased buying power overseas.
The rejuvenated dollar still buys 36 percent fewer marks than it did in late May 1985 and is down about 25 percent compared to the pound and the lire. And forget about the good old days four years ago when a dollar would get you nearly 10 French francs. Now, a dollar will buy fewer than seven.
"It's not back to what it used to be, but it's better than it has been in the last couple of years," Palermo says.
But the dollar's recent rise isn't going to be anywhere near as much help to Western New Yorkers who are headed to the area's most popular international destination -- Canada. Since January, the U.S. dollar has gained only 1.3 percent in value compared to its Canadian counterpart.
Besides, the value of the dollar isn't the only factor Americans consider when they decide whether to take a vacation in Europe. Fears of terrorism also have been a major deterrent, especially after the 1986 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise liner and the bombing of a TWA jetliner over Greece. "I think a lot of people are afraid," Land says.
Pan American Airways also saw its passenger volume drop immediately following the December bombing of the airline's Flight 103 over Scotland, although a spokeswoman says its volume was up during May.
"I think people are feeling safe about traveling now because of all the additional security measures," says Pan Am spokeswoman Elizabeth Manners.
Many Americans still are turning to pre-paid tour packages, which rapidly gained popularity once the dollar started to lose value because they lock in the basic costs of the vacation, travel agents say.
Although tourists sacrifice some freedom when they take a package tour, they also can save a decent amount of money in lodging costs because tour operators receive reduced group rates, Land says.
And while the notion of pre-paying for as much of your trip as possible may not seem like the best idea now that the dollar is rising, Connors says it still is a good way to avoid a lot of guessing in the future about which way the currency markets will turn.
But for travelers who decide to go off on their own, travel agents say there are some basic dos and don'ts for exchanging currency.
Several travel agents say the best way to exchange currency is to do it at a bank, even though rates and commissions can vary there, too. Barring that, putting your purchases on a credit card will give you a fair exchange rate, in most cases. It also will give you a bit more leverage toward resolving any problems that might develop later on with an item you purchased, Land says.
Most agents also agree that travelers should try to avoid exchanging currency at hotels, money-changing offices or tourist offices because their rates are almost always worse than those offered by banks.
Either way, though, when it comes to currency exchange, "it's a crap shoot," Land says.