For months, agents have been reporting strong bookings for the Europe season. Now, the booking picture has become brighter still, with the U.S. dollar soaring to its highest level in a decade.
“Already this year, most of our agents have indicated that their bookings are up year over year and that their clients are spending more,” said Barry Liben, CEO of Travel Leaders Group, noting that agent booking data collected late last year for the company’s 2015 Travel Trends Survey indicated a rise in Europe bookings. “We expect that this historic shift in the value of the dollar will further increase those sales, perhaps even exponentially.”
Anecdotal reports from agents corroborate Liben’s contention.
“I have had a number of last-minute bookings for Rome and Paris – predominantly driven by the lower exchange rate right now,” said Claire Schoeder of Century Travel in Atlanta, adding that her early spring business to Europe is significantly higher than last year. “Everyone enjoys good value and I have already seen some undecided clients make plans to visit.”
All tolled, Schoeder said her Europe bookings are up 30 percent compared to 2013. “I expect that to increase as the dollar is expected to be dominant throughout the year.”
Michelle Weller of Travel Leaders in Houston told a similar story. “My phone is ringing off the hook with people wanting to go to Europe and wanting to go by April,” she said. “Somebody just called me about a river cruise to southern France and they only had three cabins left for the whole of April,” said Weller of Travel Leaders in Houston. “They booked!”
While Weller said she has seen dramatic increase in her Europe business over the last two years, last month in particular brought in an unprecedented number of inquiries and bookings. “January was off-the-charts hot,” she said.
Stephanie Serino of New York-based Tzell Travel is also seeing an escalation of close-in Europe bookings.
“I’m booking more Europe than I am last-minute beach getaways, which is crazy given all the storms impacting the Northeast,” she said, adding that, along with the strong dollar, lower gas prices, increases in discretionary income and the economic crisis in Europe are motivating her clients to travel to the destination.
For Joshua Greenberg of New York-based Protravel International, client requests for Europe began in earnest right after the New Year.
“The dollar’s position should only continue that trend,” he said. “There was a definite pressure to find ‘better value’ when the Euro was strong, like going to South America. Now, however, the robust U.S. dollar, coupled with a strengthening economic recovery, will more than likely lead to increased numbers of Europe bookings.
The improving U.S. economy appears to be accounting for another bright spot for Europe: Travelers are spending more.
“I think people are spending big dollars and doing it easily,” said Sondra Wilson of Travel Leaders in Richland, Wash., adding that a Viking River and Ocean event held last week has already garnered a generous number of high-ticket bookings. “Viking carries a big ticket amount and we are having no problem selling it,” she said.
Travelers are also more willing to upgrade to higher levels of accommodations.
“Many of my clients, especially those traveling in the next couple of months, are booking better hotels or rooms than they normally would,” said Schoeder, in addition to longer trips. “Even some of my clients that booked well in advance are changing some aspects of their trip to stay in better hotels or better room categories at hotels they have already booked.”
Although David Rubin said his upscale clientele typically travel when and where they want without paying too much attention to currency exchange rates, he expects travelers to spend more this year. “With the strengthened dollar, I think this will move our clients into more suites at the top hotels,” said Rubin of DavidTravel in Corona del Mar, Calif.
Sticker shock, meanwhile, is dissipating significantly.
“I’ve noticed that many travelers have gotten used to the high cost of airline tickets,” said Sarah Nelson Wandrey of Travel Leaders in Mesa, Ariz. “The higher price tag for seats is no longer scaring Europe clients away, because they have been used to seeing it.”
Although airline fares remain relatively high, Wandrey noted that, in some cases, hotel rates are lower than in past year. “That has helped seal the deal for many travelers,” she said.
For the most part, agents agreed that one fly in the ointment is the prospect of more terror attacks in Europe. But, at least for now, that prospect has had very little impact on bookings.
“I think there is a general overall concern for terrorist activities all over the world,” said Judy Nidetz of Travel Experts in Chicago. “People are being more mindful and watching news reports carefully, but I don't think that is stopping them from traveling.”
It appears not. Like other agents polled, Nidetz’s bookings are decidedly brisk. “I have many more advanced bookings to Europe this year, than ever before,” she said.