10 Ways the Strong Dollar Can Nab You a Dream Trip
With the U.S. dollar booming, 2015 is shaping up to be one of the best years for Budget Travelers in recent history.
The dollar is at a 12-year high against the euro, for instance (at the time this piece was published, the euro was worth $1.07, compared with $1.38 last April). As a consequence, travel to top-of-your list destinations on the continent (not to mention the U.K. and Scandinavia) can be 20 percent less than they were last year. Even a popular spot like Paris is seeing airfares down 14 percent from last year. Go slightly off the beaten path (to, say, Eastern Europe or the Irish countryside) and you may rack up savings of 30 percent.
It's up to you whether you use the strong dollar to lock in a lower vacation cost or to indulge in a newly affordable splurge; the time is perfect for either strategy. But if all this sounds a little too good to be true, you're right to ask: How, exactly? Truth is, there are some concrete steps we recommend for taking advantage of the strong dollar, and a few great travel destinations in particular where currency rates are making travel especially attractive. Here, our 10 tips for seeing the world on the "super dollar."
You can lock in the dollar's great exchange rate with the euro, pound, peso, and other currencies by pre-paying for your trip now. Package tours and cruises sometimes offer a discount for paying early, and this year you can save even more by paying when the dollar is at its zenith. (Of course, we don't know how currencies will fluctuate later in 2015, but we believe now is the best time to buy.) If you're booking your own flight and lodgings, pay now to lock in the exchange rate and to avoid getting shut out of the busiest travel season in years. Airplane seats and hotel rooms are going fast.
GET YOUR FOREIGN CASH NOW
Rather than wait till the day you fly to procure some euros, rupees, or Canadian dollars (full disclosure: that's been my accidental policy recently), get on it now while the rates are great. Whether you're just filling your wallet with walk-around money or setting up a foreign bank account (a good idea for an extended overseas stay, especially at today's rates), this is a smart way to lower your travel costs before your trip.
GET TRAVELERS CHEQUES OR PREPAID CARDS NOW
While travelers cheques have diminished in popularity with the advent of online banking and debit cards, they do offer you the opportunity to literally "buy" foreign currency at a great rate right now. American Express Travelers Cheques are available in Canadian dollars, Euros, British Pounds Sterling, and Japanese Yen (as well as U.S. dollars, of course) and are best cashed at banks in your destination country (not all retailers accept them these days). Same goes for a prepaid card such as the Travelex Multi-Currency Cash Passport Prepaid MasterCard, which you can load up with euros now and then use at ATMs during your trip.
GET A CREDIT CARD WITH NO FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES
In the past, when you used your credit card overseas you were likely to be socked with a foreign transaction fee. Sadly, any savings you might have seen from a favorable exchange rate could get sucked right back into the void by fees of 3 percent. But in a recent survey, CreditCards.com found that it's easier than ever to find a card with no foreign transaction fees. In fact, four major card issuers (Capital One, Pentagon Federal Credit Union, HSBC, and Discover) do not charge the fee to any of their card holders. Other major companies offer some no-fee cards and others that still come with the fee. The most common fee is 3 percent, but the survey found that American Express charges only 2.7 percent. If you have been one of the estimated 33 percent of cardholders who didn't even know there was a foreign transaction fee, now you know and you should get yourself a fee-free card.
A new study by Hopper.com suggests that the U.S. dollar will buy you 20 percent more this year than last, and that airfares have fallen due to competition with foreign air carriers and the falling price of fuel. The biggest bargain in Europe right now is Russia, where the U.S. dollar can buy nearly twice as many rubles as it did last year and flights are down 25 percent (round-trip airfare from New York to Moscow can be less than $400). But more tried-and-true European destinations are super-bargains this year as well, with Paris down 14 percent (and round-trip flights down around the $500 mark!) and most major Eurozone areas (including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and Austria) down around 20 percent. The British pound and the non-euro currencies of Sweden, Norway, and Iceland are also down against the dollar. Travel to always-more-affordable Eastern and Central European nations (including Hungary, which is not in the Eurozone but whose currency is down against the dollar; and the new addition to the Eurozone, Latvia) for even bigger bargains.
With recent coverage including Spring Break Secrets of Mexico and How to Do the Riviera Maya on a Budget, it's no secret that Budget Travel loves our neighbor to the south. We also love that the U.S. dollar is now worth about 15 pesos, making the stylish steals in Mexico's swanky resort zones more appealing than ever. Flights from the U.S. are plentiful and affordable, and the all-inclusive experience at the country's major waterfront resorts is an indulgence you can't afford not to try.
HEAD NORTH TO CANADA
Enjoy a taste of Europe without leaving North America! Americans have an easy time coming and going across the border, and cities like Montreal and Québec City literally feel like you've hopped the pond for amazing meals, elegant wines, and the chance to brush up on your French. Of course, skiers love Canada's amazing runs, too. Recent years have seen a strong Canadian dollar keep some Americans south of the border, but the surging U.S. dollar has changed all that. HomeAway.com, a leading vacation rental company, is reporting great rates in our friendly neighbor to the north, with Whistler, British Columbia, averaging about $164 per night; Vancouver around $135; Montreal at $96; Toronto at $142; and beautiful Québec City at $143.
GET A TASTE OF SOUTH AMERICA
Brazil's currency has dropped about 30 percent against the dollar over the past year, making hotspots like Rio de Janiero and São Paulo more affordable. Airfare from New York to Rio is now under $1,000 according to Hopper, and hotels are down about 12 percent. Colombia, one of Budget Travel's Where to Go in 2015 picks, is a bargain because its currency is down 18 percent against the dollar, with hotels down about 10 percent. We love Argentina and have recommended Buenos Aires as an affordable alternative to Paris for culture, great food and wine, and romance; these days the dollar has doubled against the Argentine peso.
We love South Africa's cultural diversity, incredible wildlife parks (it may be the best place in Africa to enjoy the safari experience), and unexpectedly awesome wine scene. Cape Town is 13 percent more affordable in 2015 thanks to the strong dollar, with flights from New York down 24 percent according to Hopper. When planning your 2015 travel, remember that Cape Town enjoys one of the world's most perfect climates, and its spring starts just as our summer is ending.
Asian destinations like India and Thailand have always been on our list of affordable luxuries, but with the surging dollar they are more within reach than ever. India has made its visa requirements much easier for Americans, and its economic hiccups have made the exchange rate with the dollar very favorable. And with the dollar now worth about 120 yen (up from about 80 four years ago), pricey Japan is approaching a level of expense that is relatively down to earth compared with recent years.
Gotcha! This Year's Best Travel-Themed April Fools' Jokes (With Videos!)
As soon as we woke up this morning, we checked our news feed for the travel industry's best April Fools' Day jokes. And, hoo, boy, were there some doozies. We're still smiling about these pranks. Madame Tussauds Terrifies Kids as Blue Man Group Springs to Life Yikes! Visitors to Madame Tussauds wax museum in Las Vegas were shocked when the Blue Man Group mannequins (not mannequins at all) moved. It may have been the the curious children who ended up taking the brunt of the joke. Watch below! Uber Touts New UberBOAT Service on the Streets of Bangkok Too soon? In the wake of last Tuesday's flash flood in Thailand, Uber said it was rolling out an UberBOAT service ahead of the rainy season, for people who don't "live on a hill." From Uber's website: Alas, we can’t help with the hill. We can be more reliable, however, and so we’re testing a new UberBOAT service for one day ahead of the rainy season. We’re not talking the Chaopraya River or the multitude of canals around the city. Innovative to the core, we’re talking boats on the streets of Bangkok. Gullible travelers can simply enter promo code HELPIDONTLIVEONAHILL and wait for their ship to come in. Riders who help row the boat will receive a discount. Suh-weet! Honda Rolls Out Its HR-V Selfie Edition We wouldn't be surprised if selfie cameras showed up in cars as an added feature in the very near future. Until that fateful day arrives, enjoy young driver Ashley practicing her best Blue Steel in her new ride's visor cam. Richard Branson Announces He's Moving His Headquarters to Branson, Missouri Whoa, Branson in Branson? With the help of the executive director of Branson Airport and Branson Mayor Raeanne Presley, who were in on the joke, Branson playfully announced that the Virgin Group headquarters would relocate to Branson, Missouri, bringing weekly nonstop flights from San Francisco to the teensy Branson Airport and building chic hotels equipped with "exclusive wagon trails" to the town. Pretty clever! And can we get one of those cool red "Welcome to Branson" T-shirts with Sir Richard's face on it? But...I can't help but play devil's advocate: Was this joke a little cruel? I'm originally from southwest Missouri, and some of my Facebook friends and acquaintances were none too pleased with the prank: Their reactions waffled between unbridled hope and annoyance. One local's opinion: "I don't see the cleverness/humor in this one... If it's not [real], it will go down in history as the worst Richard Branson prank ever." Burn. Cold, hard cash might help smooth things over: Virgin is offering a 10 percent discount on all Virgin America flights booked by end of day today. Promo code: BRANSON, natch. You can also get $10 off any Branson AirExpress flight (the real ones!) if you mention "Virgin America" when booking. What do you think? Are these funny, or did they fall flat? What other travel pranks have you seen and liked?
10 Cheap Eats You MUST Try In Berlin
German cuisine may not garner the recognition that French and Italian do, but a visit to Berlin will show you why this city is a magnet for up-to-date epicureans. You can feast on hearty Teutonic classics like and Schnitzel and Schweinshaxe (roasted pork knuckle), but Berlin really shines when it comes to casual, eclectic eats. The current food scene goes way beyond bratwurst yet doesn't eschew traditional flavors. Get ready for a mouth-watering adventure that's heavy on flavor and light on the wallet. 1. DÖNER KEBAB/ DÖNER KEBAP Best place to try it: All in One, Rosenthaler Str. 43 The doner kebab is a robust sandwich that rarely costs more than a few euros and is served at stands all over the city. Invented by a Turkish immigrant, it's thin slices of flavorful meat carved from a rotating spit, garnished with fresh veggies and your choice of sauce, all piled into warm bread. All in One in Mitte serves a delectable one. The fresh lettuce, cabbage and tomatoes add a salubrious crunch. 2. CURRYWURST Best place to try it: Curry 61, Oranienburger Str. 6 Invented in Berlin after World War II, currywurst is the local's fast food of choice. It's sliced bratwurst served in tomato sauce that has been liberally laced with curry for a sweet-spicy kick. Berliners are so passionate about this fortifying snack, there's even a museum dedicated to it. You'll find currywurst stands all over town, but venerable Curry 61 won't disappoint. 3. CHOCOLATE Best place to try it: Fassbender & Rausch, Charlotten Str. 60 If you've got a sweet tooth, a stop at the self-proclaimed biggest chocolate store in the world, Fassbender & Rausch, is a must. The tempting goodies include truffles, pralines, and single origin chocolate bars. The atmosphere is as whimsical as Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, with eye-catching renditions of local architectural icons like the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Reichstag carved entirely out of chocolate. Make sure to head upstairs to watch the chocolatier spin edible magic. 4. DOUGHNUTS When JFK made his famous speech and proclaimed Ich bin ein Berliner, he was apparently making a grammatical mistake and claiming to be a doughnut, not a resident of Berlin. Berliners are jam-injected rounds of ethereal fried yeast dough dusted with granulated sugar. Mind-bogglingly good, you'll need some serious willpower to eat just one. Sold at every bakery in town. 5. CHICKEN AT DA HENNE Best place to try it: Da Henne, Leuschnerdamm 25 This Kreuzberg stalwart has been serving the same minimalist menu since 1908. Crispy chicken is the star here and though the menu does include a few other choices, the bird is the word. This is fried chicken so good, you'll want to lick not only your fingers but the plate. A side of tangy coleslaw or German potato salad and a frosty beer are the perfect accompaniments. 6. BREAKFAST Best place to try it: Factory Girl, August Str. 29 Unlike most of the Continent, where breakfast is not much more than bread, butter, and jam, Berlin's residents start the day with a fortifying breakfast. The town's trendiest congregate at Factory Girl, where a stylish morning meal is served all day. Nearly everyone orders vitamin-rich Magnolia, a soy-based pudding that somehow tastes like muesli infused with marshmallows. 7. VIETNAMESE FOOD Best place to try it: Monsieur Vuong, AlteSchönhauser Str. 46 Berlin is home to a sizeable Vietnamese community, good news for hungry visitors on a budget. There are many excellent eateries specializing in this delicate cuisine, but inexpensive Monsieur Vuong tops the list. Fresh, tasty, authentic food is the reason this place is always packed, so be prepared to queue. Sink your teeth into the spring rolls, pho, and glass noodles; it's worth the wait. 8. TURKISH DELIGHTS Best place to try it: Leylak, Kottbusser Str. 25 Turks form the largest ethnic minority in Germany and their influence in the edible arena runs deep. Step into barebones eatery Leylak and you may think you've taken a wrong turn and landed in Istanbul. An assortment of sweet and savory pastries wrapped in handmade dough or flaky filo are sliced from a gigantic sheet pan or served in individual portions. Order the fresh mint tea to complement this authentic taste of the Ottoman Empire. 9. BEER Best place to try it: Weihenstephaner, Hackescher Markt No trip to Germany is complete without sampling the local brew. Weihenstephaner is an atmospheric brewery located in a historic building in a scenic market square. They offer an extensive range, from mellow wheat beers to the strong and malty. 10. TAKE A FOOD TOUR Booking a guided food tour is an excellent way to sample a variety of eats in a limited time frame. Even if you're not a foodie, you will learn about the culture, history and sights of Berlin as you stroll the city and nibble away. Berlin Food Tour is owned and operated by a bilingual local who is both passionate and knowledgeable when it comes to what's cooking. They offer a score of diverse itineraries and low prices. This article was written by Allison Tibaldi, a native New Yorker who has lived in Rome, Tuscany, Melbourne, Toronto, and Los Angeles. She is fluent in Italian and Spanish and laughably adequate in French. When she's not traveling, she's scouring NYC for delectable eats. As a freelance travel writer, she focuses on family, culinary, and car-free travel. She's also a senior travel writer at offMetro.com.
The 6 Best Places in the World to Get an Affordable Luxury Hotel Room NOW
Picture this: You. Your dream city. And a hotel with plush carpeting, a seasoned concierge who knows all the city's best spots, and high style you never thought you could swing without one of those fancy black credit cards. Nice, huh? You're going to love this news: Hotels.com just released its Hotel Price Index data for this past year, and there are some very pleasant surprises for Budget Travelers: Hotel rates across the U.S. have gone up, but the opposite happened in several desirable cities abroad. In fact, rates so low that you can afford a chic stay at a 4-star or even 5-star hotel (ahem, Warsaw) for what you would have paid for a lower-star-rated property in years past. Take a quick glance at your travel bucket list and cross-reference it with the cities below, then pick your palace. (Rates are all based on current Hotels.com pricing.) Because sightseeing is that much sweeter when you know you'll have your own personal marble soaking tub to unwind in at the end of the day. Warsaw, Poland Average daily 5-star hotel rate: $107 Change from 2013: Down 13% Why not stay at the... Hotel Bristol. If what you picture when you think of a "luxury hotel" is traditional glam that pays homage to neo-Renaissance and Art Deco styles, rich upholstery in the lobby, towering drapes on the windows, and polished marble as far as the eye can see, book here now. Each room—even the junior suites—has a gray marble bathroom with a separate bathtub and shower, and the hotel has an indoor heated pool with cool-hued tiling in "cobalt blue," "forest green," and "cream." Now let's talk location: The historic, 1908-built hotel is right next to the Presidential Palace and within walking distance of Old Town, the Royal Castle, and the National Theater and Opera House (from $108, hotelbristolwarsaw.pl). Marrakech, Morocco Average daily 4-star hotel rate: $99 Change from 2013: Down 11% Why not stay at the... Riad Flam. You'll think you've died and come back in another life as a Moroccan king when you get a load of this hotel's common areas, decked out with tasseled burgundy cushions, opulent mirrors, and ornate hookahs. Each of the boutique property's eight rooms—all with intricate carved-wood detailling, some with four-poster beds—represents a different soul-nurturing stone, from the Ambre room (used historically for its medicinal properties) to the luxe Ruby room (thought to heighten energy and sensuality). After a long day of bargain-hunting at the souks, drift into the hotel's lush, peaceful courtyard, with lounge chairs for sunbathing, and up into an elevated wood terrace for a soak in a jacuzzi tub with massage jets and a view of the city around you. When you rise the next morning, breakfast is included—pancakes, dates, and fresh juices are a few of the options (from $77, riadflam.com). Jakarta, Indonesia Average daily 4-star hotel rate: $113 Change from 2013: Down 11% Why not stay at the... DoubleTree by Hilton Jakarta-Diponegoro. With retro-style rooms so curvy and modern you'll think you're sleeping in a space pod, plus deep soaking tubs in the bathrooms and resort-like perks including a lagoon-style pool with a streamlined soda parlor–themed cocktail bar that serves milkshakes and booze, this is no ordinary business hotel. Geared toward families, the property has child-friendly amenities, like a kids' pool and indoor kids' club packed with toys (and babysitting services if you need them). With or without the rugrats, a complimentary weekend shuttle will take you to Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, where you can buy batik tapestries and taste local dishes like crispy duck for cheap. While we're on the subject of food: DoubleTree doles out warm chocolate-chip cookies to all its guests upon arrival (from $77, doubletree3.hilton.com). Mumbai (Bombay), India Average daily 4-star hotel rate: $114 Change from 2013: Down 10% Why not stay at the... Vivanta by Taj President. As hot spots go, this business-friendly but design-forward Taj location is quite the scene, especially the Wink bar, known for its social mixing and mingling, infused syrups that incorporate flavors like vanilla and anise, and signature vodka-and-lychee Winktini. Located in South Mumbai, near the Colaba Causeway shopping street (try haggling for a stylish pair of kolhapuri chappals, or leather slippers) and the National Gallery of Modern Art, the hotel has a sizable outdoor pool with beach umbrellas and sleek, modern decor that gives nods to ancient India. Travelers praise it for its attentive service, especially considering its 292-room size (from $124, vivantabytaj.com). Bangkok, Thailand Average daily 4-star hotel rate: $100 Change from 2013: Down 9% Why not stay at the... Eastin Grand Hotel Sathorn. Three words: rooftop infinity pool. You might never leave the water after taking in the streamlined 14th-floor space's sweeping panoramas of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River. Another draw for view hounds: Every single room looks out onto either the river or the city, so you'll be hyperaware that you're not in Kansas anymore. The hotel's Glass House restaurant's massive buffet is legendary: Around 26 bucks buys you a lunchtime spread of foods including sushi; lobster; classic Thai, Japanese, and Chinese dishes; meat entrées cooked to order; fresh fruit; and pastries and desserts so picture-perfect they look like movie props (from $106, eastinhotelsresidences.com). Istanbul, Turkey Average daily 4-star hotel rate: $131 Change from 2013: Down 7% Why not stay at the... Levni Hotel & Spa. So well located it's almost ridiculous—everything from the Hagia Sophia to the Grand Bazaar to the Istanbul Modern Art Museum is within walking distance—the Levni also has surprisingly affordable spa treatments: A traditional kese (exfoliation glove) scrub, including a hammam steam treatment and soap massage, starts at about $42. If you're a spa traditionalist, 60-minute massages (including the deep-compression, sleep-promoting jet lag massage) are about $85. Plus: The longer you stay, the more perks you rack up if you book through the hotel's website. A three-night stay earns you a free airport transfer; six nights or more nets a complimentary transfer, welcome dinner, and 30-minute spa treatment (from $95, levnihotel.com).
Meet America's Coolest Small Town 2015!
Congratulations to Grand Marais, MN, the winner of Budget Travel's 10th annual America's Coolest Small Town contest! The beautiful town on the north shore of Lake Superior amassed a whopping 30 percent of the vote in our contest, surpassing strong second-place finisher Chincoteague, VA, and 13 other semifinalists to attain the title of "Coolest" of 2015. We're psyched that this year's contest had a total of more than 100,000 votes, with loyal Budget Travel readers and fans of our nominated towns coming to the site each day since the contest opened on January 21 to click or tap for their favorite town. Since 2006, Budget Travel has celebrated the culture, history, natural beauty, and old fashioned charm of America's small towns like no other publication, with enthusiastic support from hundreds of thousands of readers around the world. Each fall, we open up the contest by soliciting online nominations for cool American towns with a population under 10,000 from our readers. Budget Travel defines "cool" as an energetic vibe that often combines community spirit with a vibrant arts scene, great food, natural beauty, and unique history. Grand Marais (population 1,351) fits the bill. It's the gateway to the Boundary Water Canoeing Area, one of the world's perfect paddling destinations, with miles of waterways to navigate. It's a perfect vacation town for a romantic getaway or an outdoors adventure, with a little something for everyone, including cozy B&Bs, a vibrant arts community, an annual Fisherman's Picnic, Lake Superior National Forest, and restaurants whose names I personally love and feel say a lot about the town's upbeat spirit: Angry Trout Café, Crooked Spoon, and Sven and Ole's pizza! Here, the top 10 towns in Budget Travel's America's Coolest Small Town 2015 contest. We'll celebrate them all in an upcoming feature and in the July/August issue of our bi-monthly tablet edition. See final contest standings here! Grand Marais, MN (Population: 1,351)Chincoteague, VA (Population: 2,941)Hillsborough, NC (Population: 6,087)Allegan, MI (Population: 4,998)Washington, NC Population: 9,744)Delhi, NY (Population: 3,087)Fort Myers Beach, FLHuron, OH (Population: 7,149)Snohomish, WA (Population: 9,098)Old Orchard Beach, ME (Population: 8,624)