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The British pound is hovering near $2.10 and the Euro has risen as high as $1.51. Translation: Europe isn't inexpensive for Americans these days.But it can be affordable — or more affordable — especially at this time of year.Some of the primary destinations in the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Italy can go way beyond sticker shock and actually kill your budget. However, you should go beyond the usual suspects and check out more unusual destinations such Prague, Bulgaria, and even a winter cruise for savings.But first, we acknowledge the usual suspects:Rome and Florence, Italy Villas can be prohibitively expensive in the summer, but if the cost is split between 6-8 people, and if you go during the low season, you can strike a good deal.Check out www.rentvillas.com, where rates drop almost by half in the low season. A villa in the Val di Pesa region of South Florence, which can accommodate up to 6 people, starts at $585 a week — that’s just $97 per person! High season rates are about $1,100 a week. This Tuscan villa is located in a rural area surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. A medieval farmhouse in Val d'Elsa in the province of Siena can accommodate up to six people, and even includes maid service. At $870 a week, compared to $1,690 in the high season, it’s an unbeatable deal. You might have to bring your sweater, but you'll be Italy surrounded by your friends and family in the Tuscan countryside.As with many major European cities, winter is the time to score very affordable tickets to Rome or Florence. You’ll find good deals well into March. In late January, prices from New York to Rome are so cheap that the taxes are the only thing keeping every American from dropping everything and leaving. Swiss Air starts at just $260 round-trip, American is $260, and Delta has a non-stop starting at $474. From New York to Florence, flights start at $336 round-trip for Alitalia, Lufthansa and United –again, it’s the taxes and fees that raise the price to more than $600, but that’s still far better than what you’ll find in the high season.Sofia, Bulgaria The buzz is slowly starting to build for Bulgaria, particularly as a ski destination. The country recently joined the European Union, which, unfortunately means that prices are going up: In Sofia, hotels raised prices by 10-20 percent from 2005 to 2006 and continue to rise. Translation? The time is to go now.
Major ski resorts include Vitosha, Bansko and Pamporovo. Keep in mind: Nearly 1.5 million visitors travel to Vitosha year-round, so if crowds make you queasy, Bansko and Pamporovo are more remote.Vitosha has long been a getaway for urban Bulgarians from Sofia and overlooks the city. Reasonable prices and accessibility make this resort shine. Stay for a week at the new, conveniently-located Scottys Boutique Hotel in Sofia (http://www.sofiahotels.net), and a standard double is about $70 per night.Bansko is known as a luxury ski resort, with millions of euros having been invested in recent years to make this place a top skiing locale. Although labeled luxury, Banskos prices are quite reasonable: a modest 3-bedroom apartment at the Snow House Apartments (http://www.banskoapartments.com) is about $105 in the winter. Also, since Bansko is popular with British tourists, several restaurants, hotels, and street signs are in English.Pamporovo is an older resort; therefore, facilities tend to be of a lower quality here, but prices, too, are lower. For about $50 per night, per person, skiers can stay at the Orlovetz, widely considered to be the finest hotel in Pamporovo. (http://www.bulgariaski.com/pamporovo/orlovetz.shtml)For about $70 per person per night, skiers can stay at the Panorama Hotel (http://www.bestmountainhotels.com) at the base of the slopes, with breakfast and dinner included.Flights from New York to Sofia in mid to late January average in the mid-$700 range, including taxes and fees.Prague, Czech RepublicPrague is very cold — basically freezing — in the winter, but it doesn't stop the locals from their festivals, celebrations, concerts, and galas. While Prague is not as cheap as it once was, it is not yet on the euro, so you can still find relatively good deals.The Prague Winter Festival is a major draw for visitors, with a series of performances of classical music, opera and ballet by night in some of the city’s most beautiful venues. In 2008, performances will include Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre, and Bizet’s Carmen at the Prague State Opera. You can find tour packages, including performances, city tours, castle visits, receptions, and dinners at www.praguewinter.com.Prague is also a popular location for New Year's Eve. At midnight, crowds gather and watch several firework displays. You can either go to the Charles Bridge, on Petrin Hill or near Prague Castle to see the spectacle. You can also go to the Old Town Square. This is the “adventurous” option, where Czechs set off their own fireworks, but there’s also an aerial display.You can still find incredibly affordable lodging in Prague. For about $60 per night for a double occupancy, you can stay at U Hejtmana, a family-run hotel within walking distance from famous Prague sights and monuments (http://www.pragueholiday.cz/uhejtmana.php). The Art Hotel in the Letna district (across the river from Old Town Square), is a four-star property filled with original artwork. Rates in the winter are about $150 a night(www.arthotel.cz).January airfares from New York to Prague average about $650, including all taxes and fees, aboard Czech Airlines (nonstop), Virgin Atlantic, Northwest, and KLM, among others.Winter cruisingNothing says winter getaway like a cruise along the grand old cities of Europe. Tauck Tours offers a 15-day tour along the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers, which takes you through five countries—the Netherlands to Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. At $4,590 per person, this breaks down to about $300 a day that also includes your shore excursions (including seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites), day tours, canal cruises, meals, and evening entertainment (www.tauck.com).
Viking River Cruises also offers winter getaways along European rivers (they end this month, so start planning for next year!). You can spend Christmas or New Year’s on the Rhine or the Danube. An eight-day cruise from Passau to Vienna offers a sampling of picturesque river towns and bustling cities, starting at just $1,599 (www.vikingrivercruises.com).
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at .