Stretching the Euro

Almost every year in recent memory, we have packed up and traveled abroad as a family, from green England to the parched Serengeti. We have enjoyed a sufficient level of material success to make these trips in some comfort, and if our kids have fond memories of afternoon snacks at Le Meurice in Paris or breakfast on the roof of Rome’s La Residenza Napoleone III, their lives can only be the richer for it. This year, however, things were a bit different. While the credit crunch and stock market weakness have had little effect on our portfolio (I subscribe to the modified mattress theory of investment management: safety first and only), global economic conditions have led us to slightly recalibrate the scale of our experiences. In March we canceled plans for a spring break trip to Europe when I calculated that the cost had increased by well over 30 percent on exchange rates alone. We took off for Peru instead.

By summer things had gotten even worse. The dollar reached new lows. My wife’s workload increased. The kids were happy to be home, resting after their freshman years at new schools. So we nixed our June trip. Only Dad, with his inexplicable need to play different golf courses, felt any desire to wander off with some European buddies who had more modest budgets. A sojourn to Scotland was retooled from the Old Course Hotel to a rented house, reducing our lodging costs from $700 to $100 a day—though eight of us would have to share four baths. But a bevy of last-minute cancellations shrunk the group and removed Scotland as a destination. Initially worried that rebooking just a few weeks in advance would make it impossible for an August high-season venture, we need not have given it a second thought. Top hotels from London to Marbella, Spain, were open. At every turn, rooms were available in all categories. Tee times and restaurant bookings also turned out to be no problem at all.

London for 15 percent less and a free upgrade

Once our trip was under way, the sensation of change intensified, though London was as insanely expensive as always. The lovely Connaught hotel, newly refurbished, had no trouble accommodating us, and the only other American I encountered there was one of my companions. He had booked through a travel agent, while I’d booked direct on the Internet and gotten the better rate by 15 percent, plus an upgrade to a massive and exquisite suite after a minor transport snafu (I meant to thank the airport driver for not showing up!). The restaurants and stores were also notably devoid of my countrymen, though the globalization of U.S. college T-shirts might have fooled me save the exotic looks and accents of their wearers. Even with sales and promotions, the stores were prohibitive, and I opted to delay my shopping excursions for our slightly less pricey destinations.

Marbella for a brilliant breakfast buffet

Americans’ signature tracksuits were nowhere to be seen in Marbella, despite its being Summer Olympics season. I didn’t encounter a single American tourist at Hotel Los Monteros’s pool or its stunning and elegant newly renovated beach club, La Cabane. Nor on the golf courses or in the gym, usually the preserve of our fitness-obsessed nationals (though the workout music was strictly West Coast hip-hop). Again, I’d booked direct by e-mail and, despite very particular detail, was originally exiled to a distant and truly dismal room with a view of the parking lot. Fortunately, some well-modulated complaining got me a very nice corner suite on the top floor (the pool suites had much better terraces but no views of the ocean and a total lack of privacy). I had missed the hotel’s Web site package offer, which included perhaps the best breakfast buffet I have seen anywhere on the planet, though the manager was kind enough to throw it in. My sole regret was not buying ibèrico ham and tossing it in my suitcase. The stuff costs $150 a pound back in New York! (But then one can’t bring pork products into the United States, as my editor reminds me.)

Stockholm for superb street-fair shopping

Up north in Stockholm, the experience was similar. A bout of salmon overload had me craving a cheeseburger. Three native friends advised me that T.G.I. Friday’s had the best in town. I felt a weird sense of dislocation making my first foray into the chain on a street called Birger Jarlsgatan, but the overpriced burger really hit the spot. The kids running around were Brits and Germans, and more than a few of the svelte blonde locals were indulging in a touch of U.S.-style saturated fat. And forget the old tactic of buying a luxury car in Europe, driving it, and sending it home. All three cities we visited seemed packed with exotic supercars, but the prices in local showrooms were dizzying once converted to dollars. One relative bargain was about $150 for a round of golf and use of the stupendous clubhouse, locker room, and gym at Bro Hof Slott, the dazzling newcomer 30 minutes out of town.

Stepping out from one of my favorite hotel rooms anywhere in the world (the Dagmar Suite at the Hotel Diplomat), I encountered a street market in the square fronting the jewel-like Ostermalm indoor food store. I had great results shopping at the stalls as opposed to the designer boutiques I’d visited on my last trip. An extremely cool piped cotton jacket for my daughter still had a 300 euro ($425) price tag, but the seller took 200 Swedish kroner, which came to about $30. A twenties blue drinking glass painted with elegant Swedish lettering and a coat of arms, perfect for my wife’s bath sink, set me back 90 kroner (about $13). I got my son a soccer cap for 50 kroner (or $7) and a cute moose T-shirt for 60 kroner ($9), then saw the same one in the airport later for 200! I also ate an inexpensive and spectacular lunch at the market, where the quality of the bread, produce, fish, and meats would have driven the likes of Eli Zabar to distraction.

In a crowded Stureplan bar, the incredible finals of the Olympic 4x100 freestyle swimming relays came on TV. Amid lots of shouting, mine was the only cry for joy when America’s Jason Lezak made an incredible touch to edge out the French by eight hundredths of a second. I felt sheepish, but the contemporaneous Russian activity in Georgia seemed to have reminded everyone that the United States is not, in fact, the Great Satan. To my surprise, several people, including a French tourist, gave me the thumbs-up.

Finding value off the beaten track

While the dollar’s weakness will likely ease over the coming months, it has pointed out the value of searching for hotel packages online, looking away from mainstream destinations where business expense accounts drive pricing, and perhaps redirecting some of the money elsewhere. That trip to Machu Picchu was a total success, and while hardly cheap, nine days cost us about half of what a European sojourn would have run. A great meal for four was less than $100—in Paris it would have been at least three times that amount—and we came home loaded down with beautiful inexpensive sweaters.

We may have passed on that suite at Lucknam Park in Bath but considered instead an economy-boosting trip to Savannah or Charleston, South Carolina, for our October getaway. And with the luxury goods markets’ having begun to show some signs of weakness, it seemed a propitious time to negotiate a nice deal on an investment-quality watch. The best deals were still in New York, where luxury retailers have had to pace their price increases and the discounts surpass those in Europe (plus I know more people in the business here). So we’ll ultimately wind up with a more tangible souvenir of our exchanging times.

Mike Offit spent over two decades on Wall Street, during which he was head commercial mortgage trader at Goldman Sachs.