The biggest factor influencing summer travel this year may not be outlandish fuel prices, packed planes or even that pesky Icelandic volcano.
As far as I can tell, it’s the so-called Arab Spring that’s having the biggest effect. The ongoing political turmoil in places like Egypt, Libya and Syria has completely shifted this year’s vacation landscape across the Mediterranean, sending nervous travelers away from Morocco and Egypt to the European coasts. New Yorkers headed east will have to plan ahead.
That’s because when it comes to summer foreign travel, Americans tend to think about places like France and Italy. The French and Italians, meanwhile, think of Tunisia and Algeria as easy-to-reach beaches, with cheap package resorts and a dose of cultural exoticism. North Africa is their Caribbean, but this year’s political upheaval is giving them second thoughts.
So destinations that normally might have gone begging in a recession — the less-popular coastlines of Greece, the Bulgarian and Romanian Black Sea coastlines, and Spain’s overbuilt Costa del Sol, for instance — are already reporting full bookings through August. Israel-bound travelers who might have tacked on a side trip to Petra, Giza or Damascus in a quieter year are also thinking twice, opting to stay longer in Israel proper.
Last year, as Brits tightened their belts and stayed home, scores of boom-time hotels in these second-string resorts went bankrupt or stayed empty. But Europeans are hardwired to stretch out on a palm-shaded beach in August, and if Tunisia is out of the question, they still have to go somewhere. When the Bulgarian coast fills up, you know Italy is going to be tough.
The moral of this story: If you’re planning a vacation anywhere in Southern Europe, book early. And think outside the box. Spain’s Atlantic coastline in Asturias and the Basque Country and France’s Brittany offer gorgeous beaches without the Mediterranean spillover.
Also on the European front, the recent capture of the notorious Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic may have travel benefits, as it radically improved Serbia’s chances of joining the European Union some year soon. While I won’t hold my breath waiting for that, Europe-bound travelers looking for relief from crowds and punishing exchange rates might head to up-and-coming Yugoslav hotspots like Belgrade, Lake Ohrid in Macedonia and the Montenegrin coast, all of which may soon become much more expensive.
Airfares are another strange story. I’ve been surprised by how reality has defied the usual dire springtime predictions for record summer fares, even with the cruel price of fuel. It’s not quite 2009, but as I’ve been researching my own high-season travel, I’ve come across numerous roundtrip fares between the East Coast and Western Europe for well under $1,000, assuming a little flexibility — midweek travel, say.
Increased capacity is probably responsible. This year’s flight trend is an expansion of service to popular vacation hotspots — from JetBlue’s new nonstop roundtrip from New York to Martha’s Vineyard to discounter Ryanair’s new embrace of mainstream-city hubs like Barcelona.
Let’s get back to that Icelandic volcano, 2011’s travel wild card. On the plus side, this one is a whole lot easier to pronounce than the multi-syllabic troublemaker of 2009. And so far, it’s also friendlier, barely disrupting travel in a few North European airports to air travellers.
But you never know. I hovered the mouse over the “Purchase trip cancellation insurance?” checkbox for the first time last month, as images of cancelled flights and civil wars danced in my head. Read the fine print on policies carefully, and if you’re headed to the British Isles or Germany, it’s smart to consider a backup plan.
A more subtle change in the European travel landscape is access to emergency healthcare for foreigners. The debt crisis and resulting austerity measures have prompted governments across Europe to crack down on the free-and-easy hospital care once available to anyone who walked in the door of a public clinic, from Lisbon to Latvia.
Just a few years ago, you could stroll into a German krankenhaus (hospital) or a Spanish urgencias (emergency) ward and be attended to promptly and professionally, often by an English-speaking staff, without any financial exchange. They’d take down your name and home address and maybe a bill would arrive months later; it might be in an incomprehensible foreign language, with a figure somewhere in euros, and no obvious way to transact a payment. Nobody really expected these debts would be paid.
That’s all changed. Today many European hospitals want credit card information up front from Americans, who have no national health card with reciprocal health coverage, as Europeans do. More and more, you’ll encounter a minimum charge for emergency evaluation — typically far less than an American hospital would charge, but still well into the three figures — before anyone so much as takes your blood pressure.
It only makes sense, given the strains on European welfare-state health budgets, and their generally high medical standards. Americans should be prepared — both with cash on hand and, if possible, a travel health insurance plan that covers those $500 stitches from a cobblestone stumble.