The U.S. dollar is now front page news. It has, as you know, lost value against the German mark and the Japanese yen. At its 1994 high, the buck was worth about 1.7 marks. These days it's fighting to hang around 1.4 DM. As I write this, one German mark is worth just slightly more than one Canadian dollar. Austria's schilling marches in lock step with the mark, so the news there isn't good either. The Swiss franc I would rather not discuss.

For American companies who sell products in Europe, this is good news. For the rest of us, especially those who plan to travel this summer, it is not. When the travel season begins in earnest in June, there will be reports of $8 Coca Colas and $400 hotel rooms. Fearful travelers will cancel their European vacations.

This last happened in 1992. At that time the dollar dropped to about 1.36 DM. CNN and the wire services carried alarmist stories about how expensive Europe was for American tourists. One Germany-based correspondent, in the finest Edward R. Murrow tradition, reported a 21-piece box of Kentucky Fried Chicken cost 43 DM, at the time about $30. As far as I'm concerned, anybody who eats KFC chicken in Europe deserves the $30 price tag and the 10 pounds of saturated fat that comes with it.

But almost immediately the dollar began to recover and the press turned its attention to the hole in the ozone.

So let's get a grip, stay cool and figure out what to do now that the good ol' greenback has done another half-gainer off the high board.

First, let's review the bidding. A few weeks ago the dollar was bumping along at around 1.55 DM and, though it wasn't a number that had us booking a month in a suite at the Brenners Park, we could live with it. Plans were being made, airline tickets procured, cars rented, rail passes purchased and reservations booked. Then, Bingo! The dollar suddenly needs CPR. Phrases like "postwar low" are being bandied about.

So how are you affected? I'm not going to say your European vacation isn't going to be more expensive, but I will say it may not be as bad as you think. I'll also offer a couple of damage control ideas.

To begin with, car rental rates, even though they have risen dramatically in the last 90 days, are still lower than last year. Our most popular car category, the Opel Vectra/Ford Mondeo, now rents for $149 per week plus tax. Last year at this time it was $188. See? Already you're ahead of the game. (But don't get complacent. Book now to lock-in these rates. They are almost sure to go up.)

High season airfares may be slightly above last year. Right now air consolidator DER Tours lists these roundtrip prices to Frankfurt on Delta Airlines: $719 from New York, $753 from Atlanta, $798 from Chicago, $805 from Dallas and $892 from the West Coast. Fares from dozens of other cities are within a few dollars of these. So let's call it a push in this category.

Rail passes. You buy them in this country for dollars at prices set in the fall of the previous year so they aren't immediately affected by currency fluctuations. Though prices have increased over 1994, there are a lot more variations of passes from which to choose. It's quite possible you'll be able to find one that more precisely fits your travel requirements, thus saving money by not having to buy a more encompassing, more expensive pass than you need.

Hotels and meals in Europe. Aye, there's the rub. First, we'll assume two persons traveling together. If you planned to average 150 DM per night for 14 nights, at 1.55 DM per dollar, your hotel budget was $1355. Those same hotels, now that the dollar is worth only 1.4 DM, will cost $1498, an increase of $143. (If you planned to keep hotel costs at 100 DM per night the increase is $97.) I don't see these as trip canceling numbers.

The same goes for food, gas, ice cream, beer, the Herald Tribune, public transportation, parking and other incidentals. If you budgeted $100 per day for these items you're either going to have to cut back or increase the budget by about $11 per day, a total of $154 for the two week trip.

So let's see. You saved $78 on the car, spent about the same as last year on airfare and dropped an additional $297 above your original budget for food, lodging and incidentals. Subtracting the $78 car rental saving, the ballyhooed fall of the dollar will cost you about $219, less than that for those who travel conservatively and more for big spenders. I certainly don't like the idea of parting with $219 simply because some bottom-pinching senator from a western state voted against the balanced budget amendment, but I wouldn't let it interfere with my trip to Europe.

I'm not sure why these currencies fluctuate so wildly, but I am reminded of 1986. At that time the dollar brought 3.3 DM and we stayed at hotels like the Hirschgasse in Heidelberg for $52 a night or, for $26 per night, at the Romantik-Hotel Bierhütte in the Bavarian Forest. A multi-course dinner for two in the Michelin-starred restaurant of the Hotel Feiler, in Muggendorf near Bamberg, was less than $30. I thought at the time, "this can't last." It seemed artificial. Something wasn't quite right, the standard of living in Germany was not much different than in the U.S. And just as things were out of whack then, they are out of whack now. In 1995, nearly $500 (700 DM) for the best double room at that same Hotel Hirschgasse (admittedly remodeled, admittedly charming) is simply unnatural. (Currently at $150 [210 DM] for the top double, the Bierhütte is more realistically priced.) Bestor logic holds that currencies, like water, seek their own level. The dollar is artificially low. Like a California river in March, it will rise.

In the meantime, herewith are a few strategies for minimizing the dollar's demise.

Cut down the time you spend in big cities. Your marks, schillings and francs will go much farther in the countryside.

Use the Michelin Red Guides for Germany and Switzerland to locate hotels and restaurants with prices that fit your budget.

Rent a car. For two or more people traveling together, a car is almost always less expensive than the train, especially if you plan to spend most of your time in small towns. Two persons renting an Opel Corsa in Germany at $119 per week plus 15% VAT provides a per person, per day transportation cost of about $10. For an Opel Astra it's about $11. For four people in an Opel Vectra the per day, per person cost is a little over $4. These figures don't include fuel or parking costs.

Rent an apartment. Europe is full of short-term, self-catering rentals with kitchen. They begin at about $250 per week. (For details on Austrian rentals see Gemütlichkeit, February, 1995; for Switzerland see our August, 1994, issue.)

The corollary to several of the foregoing is don't try to cover too much territory. If you try to see Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Zürich, Munich and Berlin, all in a two or even three week trip, you'll either need a railpass for each person in the traveling party or you'll spend long hours on the Autobahn plus at least $20 per day in parking fees. If you limit your scope of travel to, say, the Black Forest and perhaps Switzerland's Engadine, you can get by with a small car and never drive on the Autobahn. In addition, this sort of itinerary lends itself well to apartment rental.

Use a credit card whenever possible. You'll get the very best exchange rate, you won't be billed for from two to six weeks and if there's a dispute over a transaction you've got some leverage.

Last Night Hotel/Restaurant

Travelers departing Zürich's Kloten Airport are hard-pressed to find reasonably-priced accommodations close to the airport for the last night before a flight back to North America.

The chain hotel, Mövenpick Zürich-Airport, for example, lists a rack rate of 200 Sfr. ($171) for its least expensive singles and 345 ($295) for its highest priced double room.

Last year, however, we happened on a comfortable last-night location that combined a pleasant enough hotel in the town of Dübendorf, just off the Autobahn some 10 minutes from the airport, and, in the village of Gockhausen, the gemütlich Restaurant zur Rossweid, run by Bernie Attinger with an assist from his brother, Werner. (In 1984, incidentally, the brothers Attinger were European curling champions and second in the world.)

The restaurant is rustically decorated with rough wood beams under a barn-style roof, wagon wheels, Doric windows and photos of the champion curlers. From its several separate dining areas, the restaurant's many windows offer views of the valley and the rural landscape.

The plentiful and hearty food is in keeping with the farm motif. By Swiss standards the Rossweid is a modestly-priced country restaurant.

Its best feature, however, is the Attinger family's warm welcome. During dinner, Werner Attinger, told us he and Ursula Schiess, his "significant other," offer carriage rides through the forested hills above Zürich. We made a date for the following morning. By 10 a.m. we were clip-clopping away from the restaurant in a carefully restored open coach behind Natura and Quarto, the couple's handsomely groomed horses. Against the morning chill, our hosts, elegantly turned out in top hat and tails, offered sheepskin blankets, a thermos of tea and a small flask containing a special elixir for warming the inner horseperson.

Though it didn't match the thrill of our helicopter ride some years ago to Les Diableret glacier, or the sheer beauty of the train ride to the Jungfraujoch, this placid, almost regal trot through the forest was just as unforgettable. Natura and Quarto obediently responded to Werner's commands and tirelessly hauled us and our carriage up and down the hills. After two hours behind them, I began to understand how one could develop a real affection for such intelligent, dependable animals.

We finished the ride in a light snowfall and once back at the restaurant warmed ourselves with a bowl of thick soup and a brandy.

For only two persons, the by-appointment rides in the 18th century carriage are expensive, but the 450 Sfr. ($385) price is more realistic for a groups of four to 10. Werner and Ursula can offer several coaches, depending of the number in the party.

Restaurant zur Rossweid, Rossweidstrasse 2, 8044 Gockhausen-Zürich, phone 1/820 2840, fax 1/820 2839. G
The Hotel Sonnental is nothing special, just a straightforward, modern hotel located in an area of light industry near the autobahn. Rooms are spacious, clean and comfortable with the usual amenities.

Hotel Sonnental, Zürichstrasse 94, Dübendorf CH-8600, phone 1/821 41 81, fax 1/821 41 91. Singles 123 to 155 Sfr. ($105-$132), doubles 203 to 235 Sfr. ($174-$202).
Rating: Average 11/20

March 1995