Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


Travel Expert Stephen Birnbaum Says the Grandest Tours This Summer Don't Include Europe

Posted on

Practically since Attila, U.S. tourists have swept across Europe each summer, papering the continent with their holiday dollars. Then last spring, with U.S. bombs falling on Tripoli and Muammar Gaddafi vowing revenge, Americans decided the time had come to stay home. In recent weeks travelers have begun crossing the Atlantic once more. But for many others this has been the summer for discovering everywhere else. Assistant Editor Susan Reed, who plans to explore Minnesota’s boundary waterways by canoe, spoke with travel writer Stephen Birnbaum, 49, about his suggestions for vacation alternatives.

Is terrorism the real reason American tourism in Europe has dropped off this summer?

Fear of terrorism has had an impact, but it is not the only factor. During the past year the value of the U.S. dollar has decreased about 30 percent in relation to the major currencies. Add this to inflationary rises in hotel and travel service costs, and Americans thinking about traveling to Europe are faced with an effective price increase of as much as 50 percent.

Where are some of the best bargains for travelers this year?

Mexico is a steal at the moment. A year ago the American dollar was worth 280 Mexican pesos. This year it is worth a whopping 618 pesos. Even runaway Mexican inflation hasn’t kept pace with that kind of increase in buying power. Likewise, the Canadian dollar is down. A meal with a price tag of 10 Canadian dollars costs the traveler only about U.S. $7.20. That means someone on a tight budget can afford an unexpected level of luxury.

What if you have your heart set on going to Europe?

Even if you could easily afford it, you should have your head examined if you are planning to visit France in August. It’s a good place to meet your Aunt Frieda from Schenectady, but you won’t meet many French people; that’s the time of year they all go away on holiday. But if you’re the type of person for whom foreign vacation means France, you could try Montreal instead. It is the second largest French-speaking city in the world. And you can be guaranteed that Montreal cab drivers will treat you just as rudely as their Parisian counterparts. So you can have an authentic experience, cheaper and much closer to home. By the same token, if you had been thinking about a trip to Bordeaux or Burgundy, why in the world wouldn’t you consider going to the California wine country? It is just as pretty, accommodations are first rate, and you can enjoy a lot of other diversions ranging from hot tubs to hot-air balloons.

Have other aspects of the European tourist experience found their way into American life?

One of the most outstanding examples is the bed-and-breakfast phenomenon, which brings to mind the image of a charming cottage in the French or British countryside. There are now more than 150 bed-and-breakfast organizations in the U.S. listed with the American Bed and Breakfast Association in Washington, D.C. Inexpensive and comfortable, a bed-and-breakfast arrangement allows you to spend time with local people who are more likely to be familiar with the nuances of an area than the bellboy at some impersonal high-rise hotel.

What if your ultimate travel fantasy is to eat your way across Europe?

We may not have as many three-star restaurants as Europe does, but we certainly have far greater variety. No European country can touch the foods America does best: If you really want to go out and eat yourself into a beef-induced stupor, New York and Kansas City steaks are like no others.

For those who missed Liberty Weekend in New York, are there other extravaganzas worth considering?

Vancouver is expecting 20 million people to visit Expo ’86 by October, but it can be a surprisingly cozy experience. There are 3,000 bed-and-breakfasts available at an average price of about $25 to $30 a night. Texas, which always puts on a good party, is celebrating its 150th anniversary of statehood. Tennessee is running something called Homecoming ’86, with a lot of good C&W music and family entertainment.

Would you advise braving the crowds at such events?

I think it’s criminal not to go. Yes, it may be difficult to get restaurant reservations, but that’s not the real reason for your trip. You’re going to see the events. The same thing is true about visiting a place like Washington, D.C. Despite the crowds, it’s a great family vacation. People who are savvy take advantage of inexpensive hotel packages for Friday and Saturday in D.C., when all the people who normally do business there are out of town.

What about visiting national parks? Aren’t they terribly overcrowded now?

There are going to be moments in some national parks between mid-July and mid-August when you’ll think you are back in rush-hour traffic. But the National Park Service publishes a list of the 10 least-visited national parks. Canyonlands in Utah offers a lot of the same scenery as the Grand Canyon, and Wind Cave in South Dakota gets a fair number of visitors, but few stay overnight. Lassen in California is Yellowstone in miniature, and Denali in Alaska is real wilderness that’s hardly ever crowded.

What would you recommend for travelers who have a limited amount of time but want a total change of scenery?

Spending a week visiting a working farm can be wonderful and inexpensive, especially for an urban or suburban family with kids who have never seen a cow or a chicken and think that milk originates in a cardboard container and eggs arrive in the world in waffle-shape boxes. There are also guest ranches around the country; some are so luxurious that the only thing they lack is an upholstered horse, while others are true working establishments where you’re expected to do your share of chores. Departments of tourism in individual states can guide you to the farms and ranches that accept guests. Or how about renting a houseboat on Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona or on the St. Johns River in Florida? They are comfortable and very easy to operate, and if you get a little hot, you just jump off the side and take a swim.

Is it too hot to try the Caribbean now?

I wouldn’t hesitate, since prices between April 15 and Dec. 15 are anywhere from one-third to two-thirds off. You don’t have to pay a ransom for a lounge chair at the pool, and maids will change the towels during the same calendar year as your stay. That isn’t necessarily true in high season. A restaurant owner can spend more time on food preparation instead of concentrating on how many times he can turn the table over in a given evening. Not only is it less expensive, but it feels more like island living than when the hordes descend on the area in winter.

The dream destination for many American travelers is Hawaii. Is that a good bet this summer?

Excursion fares to Hawaii have never been less expensive. One of my favorite places there is the Hana-Maui Hotel in a little town called Hana on the island of Maui. It’s at the end of a winding road that goes 50 miles through African tulip trees, wild ginger and plumeria on the side of a volcano. You can go swimming in the Seven Sacred Pools or off any number of lonely black-sand beaches. If you get up before dawn and drive to the top of the volcano, you can sit on the crater rim and watch the sun come up over the Pacific. It’s like no other experience.

What about romantic spots to spend a honeymoon this summer?

My No. 1 choice would be a place called Las Brisas, outside Acapulco. It is a series of small casitas that have been carved into the side of a hill. Most rooms have a private pool. The only intrusion on your privacy is when a man sneaks through the hedges around 10 every morning to change the flowers floating in your pool.

Have you made any other memorable discoveries recently?

There are a few places I try to keep secret for myself and my friends. But not too many. Otherwise, I’d have to go back to working for a living. My main advice to travelers is do your homework. A vacation represents one of the largest outflows of money anyone spends in a year. If you don’t do some planning, you should be put in a home for the irresponsible somewhere.