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Europe May Be On Sale, But The Ticket To Get There Isn't

People line up to visit St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Although flights to Europe remain expensive, the falling euro is still leading to a surge in American tourists visiting Europe.
Andrew Medichini
People line up to visit St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Although flights to Europe remain expensive, the falling euro is still leading to a surge in American tourists visiting Europe.

All over the world, free tourist attractions draw crowds at certain times each day — think the changing of the guard in London or Yellowstone's Old Faithful. In Munich, it's the Glockenspiel.

Robert and Kathie Seedroff from Denver are among thousands of tourists who cram Munich's Marienplatz, pointing iPads and phones up toward the clock tower on top of city hall.

"At 5 o'clock [the Glockenspiel's] gonna go around and those little people up there are going to dance and then there's gonna be music," Kathie says.

The whimsical spectacle before them involves re-enactments of 16th century events; for example, a wedding, a joust and the plague. It's all accompanied by lots of bells.

The Seedroffs are having a great time on this trip because the dollar is a bargain in Europe, Kathie says.

"We were very excited when we found out that the U.S. was only [$]1.06 to the euro because we'd been planning for it to be about 1.50, 1.60 — the way it was several years ago when we traveled to Britain. So this makes it very affordable for us," she says.

Food, hotels and souvenirs are all at a discount this year, but that's where the bargains stop. Don't expect airlines to give you a break on flights to Europe, even though oil, their biggest expense, is cheap now.

Flights from the East Coast to Europe's hot spots average about $1,200. Many analysts say that's because over the past decade, airlines have merged to a point where the industry has become an oligopoly.

"An oligopoly is a market structure where you have relatively few players in the market, and since there are so few participants they have quite a bit of pricing power," explains George Hoffer, a transportation economist at the University of Richmond.

In this case, the players are Delta, US Airways, United and American Airlines. They are making money on international routes by filling up planes, and Hoffer says they have no reason to offer discounts this year.

"Demand is strong, and I think that's the most important factor," he says. "Second, while the falling euro should have lowered prices, for the domestic carriers virtually all their costs are in dollars."

And European airlines can't offer much price competition. Hoffer says that's because oil is sold in dollars. A weak euro means they're paying more for jet fuel.

But there are options for bargain travelers willing to start their trip on the edges of Europe.

Patrick Surry is a data scientist with Hopper, a website that finds bargains on travel. "Don't fly to Rome," he says. "Fly to Portugal or fly to Istanbul and take a stopover, and then get a connecting flight." Once you are on the Continent transportation gets cheaper, Surry says. "Europe is actually pretty small. When you're there, you can get around pretty effectively even without using planes."

And you can take in more sights.

Just ask Michael Lybass. The Boston University student had a six-hour stopover in Munich on his train odyssey. "We started in Paris. We went through Berlin, Amsterdam, Prague, Brussels and we have a train tonight to Venice."

Tour operators throughout Europe are reporting an uptick in bookings from Americans ready to enjoy the great sale of Europe.

Copyright 2015 WABE 90.1

Susanna Capelouto