Travel to Europe: Be ready for bigger crowds at popular tourist spots – USA TODAY

Thursday evening was bliss for Mika Moulton. It was the third week of her Italian vacation, and she and her wife were sipping wine at a Tuscan restaurant and enjoying the picturesque mountains and cypress trees. To Moulton, it felt as though someone had dropped her right in the middle of a movie.  
The bigger cities they had toured a few days prior were a different story.   
In Rome, they were told they’d have to get to sites at 7 in the morning to beat the crowds. In Florence, they had to wait 30 minutes to see Michelangelo’s David, despite having tickets to see the famous sculpture at a specific time.  
“Wherever you went, it was like sardines. I couldn’t believe it,” Moulton said, adding that the narrow streets and sidewalks didn’t make navigating the cities any easier.  
International tourists are rushing back to Europe thanks to pent-up demand. Fewer COVID-19 restrictions and a weaker euro are added bonuses for U.S. travelers.
But while dollars are stretching further in Europe, so are the lines.
“Everybody’s booked up,” said Brigitte Armand, president of Eurobound, a company that offers European tour packages to travel agents. “For certain destinations like France, or Paris is – oh my God. You can’t get space at Versailles. You can’t get tickets to the Eiffel Tower. Honestly, I haven’t seen this before.” 
Romain Calzia has never seen the tourist season pick up so early in France.
Calzia, 34, had to add 30% more staff to Le Caruso, the restaurant he manages in the southeast region of the country, to help manage the influx of tourists from the U.S. and other countries. While tourist season in the region doesn’t typically begin until July, he said this year is already “much busier” than what he saw in 2019. 
Americans are “really happy to be able to come back to Europe since the COVID crisis,” Calzia said. “This year, we’ve had a little bit of overbooking on hotels, restaurants and everything else compared to the two other years.”
And despite inflation – which is up in both the U.S. and Europe – the customers at Le Caruso have no problem throwing money around.  
“It feels like they have a budget that they haven’t spent in the last couple of years,” Calzia said. “They’re spending more on food and beverages compared to before.” 
Italy is also ‘jam-packed,’ says Joyce Falcone, president of tour operator The Italian Concierge
“We’re beating 2019 numbers,” she said. Travelers “are just grateful that they can travel again with ease, and the mask requirements and vaccination requirements are lifted.” 
Armand said Eurobound, which offers tour packages in a handful of European destinations, has had to turn down requests to keep up with demand. A lack of staffing has been a persistent issue for her company and others.
“We’re not accepting any new requests for travel before July 15,” Armand said. “We can’t. We don’t have the guides, we don’t have the drivers.”
While popular destinations are seeing more visitors, Europe’s tourism industry may not see a full recovery this year. The European Travel Commission, which represents the national tourism organizations of European countries, predicts this year’s overall visitation rates will still fall short of 2019 levels by 20%
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Travelers will need to spend about $1.05 U.S. dollars for a euro, whereas a year ago the exchange rate was $1.21. That means U.S. travelers converting their money into euros can buy “more nice European dinners,” says Barry Eichengreen, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
They can also rent a Fiat longer, upgrade to a deluxe river tour or buy a second box of Belgian chocolate thanks to the dollar’s buying power. 
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Inflation and the war in Ukraine have contributed to the weakening euro, which has been getting closer to parity with the U.S. dollar since the middle of last year. 
That lower exchange rate is good news for U.S. travelers heading to any of the 19 countries that use the currency.
Moulton, the Californian traveler, said she was pleasantly surprised to find the prices in Europe were “comparable to the U.S.”
“I don’t feel like it’s been super expensive,” she said. 
Armand noted that the weakening euro will do little to offset the rise in basic travel costs like hotel room rates and airfare, but said pricing so far has “not been much of an issue.” 
“Clients have all this pent-up desire to travel,” she said. “Nothing is deterring them right now.”
Calzia expects business to pick up even more in the coming months.
“If we don’t have any geopolitical problems concerned to Eastern Europe, I think we’re going to have one of the best summer seasons on the touristic and economic standpoint since many, many years,” he said.   
The Biden administration’s decision to drop the pre-departure COVID-19 testing requirement to fly into the U.S. could also inflate demand from U.S. tourists. 
Armand’s advice for travelers is to wait until the summer rush settles down before booking a European vacation. She suggested September or October, when the weather is “really nice” but crowds are less severe.
“It’s going to be a much nicer experience,” she said. “People should be prepared that June, July – it’s going to be tough. Maybe the service won’t be stellar, and it’ll be super crowded everywhere. I’m not sure I’d want to do that.”
You can follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter @bailey_schulz and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter here for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday.


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