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Whatever happened to the U.S. dollar? Once the undisputed heavyweight champ among international currencies, it's fallen into such a slump over the past four years that economists and politicians worldwide are starting to get that worried and antsy look. Same here, in the travel department, because face it, having a wallet full of greenbacks is just the pits right now, especially if you're traveling in Europe. After reaching a low of 73 cents against the Euro in late December, the dollar is now hovering around 77 cents, but that's still a tough nut for travelers to swallow, especially if they remember the days, only a few years ago, when one dollar bought a cool ¿1.10. Today, everything costs an arm and a leg: hotels, restaurants, tours -- everything.

Except cruises.

"European cruise itineraries for 2005 are filling up fast, in large part because consumers recognize their tremendous value," says Terry L. Dale, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Assn., an industry marketing group. "Because cruisers pay for meals, entertainment, and transportation all at one time and in U.S. dollars, cruise vacationers in Europe recognize significant savings compared with land-based travelers, who pay for these costs out-of-pocket in higher-prices Euros."

The cruise lines know a trend when they see one, and are busily adding capacity and ramping up incentives to get you to pull out the plastic:

  • Carnival: The Big Kahuna of U.S. cruising has traditionally concentrated on tropical destinations, but this summer will be placing its newest, biggest ship, the 2,974-passenger Carnival Liberty, on a series of eight 12-day cruises commencing with the vessel's late July launch. Prices start around $1,900.
  • Celebrity: At Celebrity, demand for Europe has been so intense that the line pulled its 1,750-passenger Century off a year-round Caribbean commitment to reposition it this summer in the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Norwegian Fjords. The vessels will join three other Celebrity megaships already planned for summer Europe sailings. Cruisetour options pair visits to Paris and London, Florence and Rome, and Venice, Florence, and Rome. Prices for 10-night cruises start just above $1,150.
  • Costa: Costa is the numerical leader in European cruising, with ten vessels sailing mostly weeklong itineraries in the Western and Eastern Med, the Norwegian Fjords, and the Baltic. Prices start around $1,050 per person.
  • Holland America: HAL has four ships in European rotation for summer, including the new 1,858-passenger Westerdam, the 1,316-passenger flagship Rotterdam, the boutique-sized 793-passenger Prinsendam, and the older 1,258-passenger Maasdam. All-told, the vessels will visit 98 European cities, including first-ever calls to Falmouth and Liverpool, England; Melila, Spain; Mitilini, Greece; and Sevastopol, Ukraine. Ten-night cruises start at just over $1,650.
  • MSC Cruises: Much more visible this year than in the past, MSC is creeping up on Costa with seven ships in position, including the new, 1,590-passenger Lirica and Opera, sailing primarily from Rome and Venice, respectively. Seven-night cruises starting around $1,100.
  • Norwegian Cruise Line: NCL has eschewed the European market while concentrating on its big new Hawaiian operation and sailings from diverse U.S. homeports. This summer, though, the brand-new, 92,000-ton Norwegian Jewel will offer a handful of 12- and 13-night Mediterranean and Baltic cruises following its August launch from Germany's Meyer Werft Shipyard. A 12-night Scandinavia trip, round-trip from Dover, currently starts around $2,200.
  • Princess: The 2,600-passenger mega-triplets Grand Princess, Golden Princess, and Star Princess will all spend summer in the Mediterranean, the Greek Isles, the Baltic, and Northern Europe -- a bigger commitment than Princess has ever before made in Europe. Pre- and postcruise tour packages allow travelers to tack Tuscany, Ireland, and the English countryside onto their cruise. Prices start around $1,150 for 10-night Med/Scandinavia cruises.
  • Royal Caribbean: RCI has four ships -- Splendour, Legend, Brilliance, and Jewel of the Seas -- in the Med, the British Isles, Scandinavia, and the Norwegian Fjords this summer. Onboard programs include a language lessons, regional dance classes, a Venetian ball and mask-making class, a Roman toga party, and a wine menu listed by region or country rather than varietal, to help guest concentrate on wines from the countries they're visiting. Prices start around $800 for weeklong Mediterranean cruises.

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