1. Headline
  1. Headline
Image: Andrian's Arch
Thanassis Stavrakis  /  AP
Tourists take photographs in front of Andrian's Arch as the Acropolis hill is seen in the background March 30 in Athens, Greece. Air fares have repeatedly risen this year, the dollar has struggled against the euro, but Greece remains an affordable destination for American travelers.
By
updated 4/4/2011 4:25:59 PM ET 2011-04-04T20:25:59

Airfares have repeatedly risen this year, the dollar has struggled against the euro, and Europe's economic crisis is still rattling financial markets. Americans planning their summer vacations could well ask what's the point of going to Europe this year?

But savvy tourists considering the continent might also be wondering if there are bargains to be had, especially in the four European countries worst hit by the economic crisis — Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. Known in some circles by the derogatory acronym PIGS, these struggling nations rely heavily on tourism revenue, and they are working hard to boost this sector of their economies.

On the plus side, travel agents are seeing potential bargains in these countries in everything from airfares, hotels and restaurants, to in-country transportation and visits to key tourist sites.

The agents also regard these four nations as potentially cheaper to visit this summer than three other top tourist European destinations: Britain, France and Italy.

  1. More from TODAY.com
    1. TODAY's Takeaway: People reveals Most Beautiful; designers make clothes to save lives

      On TODAY on Wednesday, Lupita Nyong'o is named People's Most Beautiful, Alan Cumming is back on Broadway and Liya Kebede i...

    2. Duchess Camilla's brother Mark Shand dies from head injury in New York
    3. Jodie Foster marries photographer Alexandra Hedison
    4. Macklemore partner Ryan Lewis says his mother has HIV
    5. 'Eat, Pray, Love' author adds ending to her Jersey Victorian

But even as the struggling countries reach out for tourist dollars, visitors will have to plan carefully to find bargains.

They also will have to decide whether to regard Portugal — which is engulfed by an acute financial crisis and courting bankruptcy — and Greece — where strikes against tough austerity measures can turn violent — as potential adventures or too chaotic for a vacation.

Slideshow: Glorious Greece (on this page)

One reason bargains can be tough to find is that predicting airfares is like playing roulette these days, given the way the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, and Japan's nuclear crisis, have driven up oil prices — a key factor in airline ticket costs.

Another is that the unrest in countries such as Tunisia, Libya and Egypt — as well as the crisis in Japan — have made the beach resorts of Spain, Portugal and Greece even more popular than usual among vacationers.

A third is that these nations remain proud that they have long been prized as tourist destinations — and they don't see themselves as a downtrodden alternative.

"We have a resource that is better than oil: our weather, our landscapes, our culture and our gastronomy, which are unlike any other in the world," Spain's Industry, Trade and Tourism Minister Miguel Sebastian said in the Canary Islands, a top lure for European sun-seekers. "Petroleum, he said, "will run out, but tourism has no reason to do so."

Cheaper flights
One potential advantage in these tourist destinations could be the price of a flight there.

"When I look at our summer booking data, at least based on airfare, Spain, Portugal and Ireland are relative bargains," said Genevieve Shaw Brown, a senior official at Travelocity.com. Americans looking for bargains also should consider package bookings that include flights and hotels, she said.

For instance, two people traveling together in the last week of June could fly round-trip from New York to Dublin, Ireland, and stay five nights at a four-star hotel for about $1,300 per person, less than the average airfare this summer for Italy, France and Britain, she said.

Brian Ek, a senior travel analyst for Priceline.com, said airfares from the U.S. to Ireland — on carriers such as Aer Lingus — are likely to be one of the best bargains in Europe this summer, with many hotels in the country also lowering their prices.

"A lot of people don't realize this, but if demand isn't there, an airline reduces flights and raises prices. A hotel and a restaurant can't do that. They must lower prices," Ek said.

George Hobica, president of AirfareWatchdog.com, said consumers looking for deals on airfare or package booking should go online twice a day for a month. He said they should not only use sites such as Expedia, Hotwire, and airline alert services, but also scan the online sites of airlines such as Aer Lingus, Iberia and BA.

Travel agents said flights from the U.S. to Greece are likely to remain more expensive than those to the other three nations. But Greece's airports have reached out to tourists by waiving landing, takeoff and stopover fees, and Parliament recently reduced the value-added tax charged to tourists by hotels to 6.5 percent from 11 percent.

Some struggling hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in countries such as Greece and Portugal also are offering bargain rates that can be found online at sites such as EuroCheapo.com.

Strikes by unions have long been more common in Europe than in the U.S., and some can be big enough to close capitals and shut down airports and public transportation, especially in Greece, where workers are fed up with high unemployment and austerity measures.

Even tourists who arrive on cruise ships in Piraeus, the main port serving Athens, can run into delays. Last summer strikes by workers there delayed the arrival of several ships. But it wasn't all bad. When passengers on one such cruise ship later arrived at the island of Rhodes, they were welcomed by local residents carrying flowers.

Traveling on a budget
Dublin is reaching out to tourists by launching a program in June that provides a free round of drinks and a free tour of the city by a local resident. Travelers 66 years or older can get a Golden Trekker Pass: four days of unlimited free train travel on Irish Rail.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. What's new in Italy for 2011
      Cameron Hewitt

      Visitors to Italy will find less anarchy in 2011 — at times the experience is positively Germanic. Full story

    2. What's new in Germany and Austria for 2011
    3. What's new in Britain and Ireland for 2011
    4. What's new in France and Spain for 2011

Portugal, Greece and Spain have long been known for their great food and restaurants — and Ireland for its fantastic beers and steaks — but some of these countries also serve dinner far later at night than Americans are accustomed to.

There are ways around this for tourists in the know.

For example, visitors to countries such as Ireland can find early bird specials in restaurants, according to Pauline Frommer, the creator of the Pauline Frommer Guide Books.

She also said that one unanticipated advantage of the economic crises in these four nations is that American bargain-hunters are less likely to be looked down upon as they once were.

"It's now easier to be a budget traveler in these four countries because nobody gives you the evil eye if you go into a restaurant and order one entree to share," she said. "It's a sea change. Frugality is no longer looked down upon. It's expected."

Like the United States, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain have regions that remain prosperous, despite the tough economic times, and ones that are hurting. For that reason, it's important for tourists who can't afford to stay in the well-off areas to visit them on day-trips and to spend the night at nearby hotels with cheaper rates.

Slideshow: Spanish glory (on this page)

For instance, Madrid remains pricey, but tourists can visit top museums such the Prado and Reina Sofia (free the last two hours every day), or Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (free on Wednesdays), then use good public transportation to get elsewhere for affordable accommodations.

All four nations have extensive train, subway and bus services that also allow bargain hunters to avoid renting a car and paying steep fuel prices.

Or tourists might just skip expensive areas such as Madrid and Barcelona and fly on a local budget airline from Madrid to Granada or Costa del Sol, two areas in the south that were harder hit by the crisis and have cheaper hotels and restaurants.

Another option could be to give Spain a pass this year and head instead to neighboring Portugal, one of the poorest countries in western Europe.

Despite all Portugal's problems, Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla are currently making official visits there, and to Spain and Morocco.

In May, President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II are both heading to Ireland. Like many Americans, Obama has traced the genealogy of his family back to Europe — in his case an ancestor who fled Ireland's potato famine in 1850.

So, Frommer said, keep this in mind while deciding whether to travel to Portugal, Ireland, Greece or Spain this summer: "In America, much of our culture comes from Europe. If you and your children want to understand your own system, background, law, give it a try."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos:

loading photos...
  1. Crown jewel

    The Alhambra palace in Grenada, completed in the 14th century under Muslim rule, is one of the world's greatest architectural wonders. Today, The Alhambra's famous Ismlamic architecture is one of Spain's major tourist attractions. In 2007, it was among the contenders to become one of the New Seven Wonders of the World through a massive worldwide vote. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Defining lines

    Fireworks explode behind the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum in the Spanish northern Basque city of Bilbao. The museum features modern and contemporary art, and was designed by world-renowned Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. The structure is made with glass, titanium and limestone. (Rafa Rivas / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Quiet retreat

    Although Spanish convents and monasteries such as the Monasterio de San Benito de Montserrat convent outside Barcelona have traditionally opened their doors to accept pilgrims and other members of the cloth, more and more they are accepting non-religious visitors looking for spiritual reflection or a relaxing break from city life. (Cesar Rangel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Windy city

    The town of Tarifa, located in southern Spain across from the Straits of Gibraltar, is particularly popular with windsurfers and kitesurfers due to its strong winds. Two consecutive non-windy days are rare. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A taste of tradition

    Two fishmongers wait for customers at their fish and seafood shop at a market in Madrid. Traditional markets are still a part of the Spanish way of life, and many are distributed through the city. A visit to one of these markets will reveal a large selection of quality vegetables, meat and much of the traditional way of life. (Angel Diaz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. All lined up

    Architect, artist and engineer Santiago Calatrava designed the 'L'Azud D'Or' bridge (foreground) and Principe Felipe Museum (background) of the City of Arts and Sciences complex, one of Spain's top tourist attractions, in Valencia. Visitors are encouraged to touch everything in the museum so they can learn the sciences through experience. (Heino Kalis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Dipping into the culture

    Tourists enjoy the pool of the Costa Encantada Hotel in Lloret de Mar, Spain. The coastal town is one of the most popular holiday resorts in the Costa Brava. (Cate Gillon / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Running tradition

    Participants run ahead of Cebada Gago fighting bulls during the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain. On each day of the festival six, which starts July 6 and ends at midnight on July 14, bulls are released at 8 a.m. to run from their corral through the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town over an 850-meter course. Ahead of them are the runners, who try to stay close to the bulls without falling over or being gored. (Rafa Rivas / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An ancient art

    Famed Spanish matador Miguel Abellan gives a pass with a muleta (the red cloth) to his Conde de la Corte fighting bull during the first corrida of the 2008 San Fermin festivities in Pamplona. (Rafa Rivas / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cultural moves

    Spanish flamenco dancer Fuensanta "La Moneta" performs on the stage during rehearsal for the show "Entre la luna y los hombres" ("Between Moon and Men") at La Zarzuela theatre in Madrid. The flamenco, which embodies a complex musical and cultural tradition and is considered a part of the Spanish culture, actually originates from Andalusia. (Ballesteros / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A sign of the times

    The architecture of the Alpujarras harkens back to when this was the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain. The villages' flat, whitewashed houses and distinctive conical chimneys are reminiscent of Berber villages in the mountains of nearby Morrocco. (Jill Kooyoomjian / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Unfinished beauty

    On March 19, 1882, work on the La Sagrada Familia cathedral was started by architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, but by the end of the next year, Catalan Architect Antoni Gaudi was commissioned to finish it. He did not abandon his task until his death in 1926, when the grand church was left unfinished. Since then, different architects have worked on the cathedral to continue his original idea -- that it mirror the people who built it. (Cesar Rangel / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Liquid currency

    Ricardo Penalba prepares to taste a wine at Penalba's winery in Aranda de Duero, northern Spain. With more than 2.9 million acres planted, the country is the third largest producer of wine in the world, but the most widely planted wine-producing nation. (Felix Ordonez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Grand headquarters

    A scenic view in downtown Madrid highlights the beauty of the Plaza de Cibeles, which features the Fountain of Cibeles and the Palacio de Comunicaciones, which was built between 1905 and 1917 as the headquarters of the post office. In 2007, it became Madrid's official city hall. (Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Square expansion

    A man looks at "The execution of Torrijos and his companions" by Antonio Gisbert at the Prado museum in Madrid. Spanish architect Rafaelo Moneo designed the sober and elegant red-brick cube-shaped expansion building that opened in 2007. (Pedro Armestre / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Tourist attraction

    Members of the Royal Guard take part in the first changing of the guard outside the Palacio Real in Madrid. Every Wednesday, the guard changes in front of the palace in an effort to boost tourism. (Pierre-philippe Marcou / AFP via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Imposing architecture

    Santa Maria del Mar is an imposing church in Barcelona. Located in the district of La Ribera, it was built between 1329 and 1383, at the height of Catalonia's maritime and mercantile preeminence. It is an outstanding example of Catalan Gothic, with a purity and unity of style that are very unusual in large mediaeval buildings. (Espai d’Imatge via Turisme de Barcelona) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Awash with history

    A scenic view of Plaza del General Torrijos shows the "Las Tres Gracias" fountain with the Alcazaba Castle in the background in Malaga. The Alcazaba was built in the 11th century and extended in the 13th and 14th centuries. It originally defended the city from pirates. (Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Tourist walk through the Alhambra palace
    Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (18) Spanish glory
  2. Athens, Greece
    Julian Finney / Getty Images
    Slideshow (18) Glorious Greece

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments