If you're thinking about a late-winter or early-spring European trip, hotels and airlines are more than happy to accommodate you. Prices are generally better than in the peak summer season, and you can catch additional "sales" with great deals. But you have to be looking; the deals won't just come to you.
*Airfares. As usual, getting a good airfare is likely to be your main challenge. Major airlines often run promotions for travel to Europe during late winter and early spring, but purchase "windows" for "sale" fares are getting increasingly short. To avoid missing a deal, you have to sign up for one or more online airfare bulletins (such as at www.smartertravel.com) or have a good travel agent looking out for you.
Also, be careful about any "sale" claim. Often competitors' unpromoted fares beat those highly touted "discounted" deals. Always check with one of the big online agencies or search systems for the best deals.
As in the United States, your lowest prices are generally those you get through opaque outlets such as Hotwire (www.hotwire.com, 866-468-9473) and Priceline (www.priceline.com, 800-477-8544). Opaque means you can specify the general location and star rating but don't know the name of the specific hotel until after you make a nonrefundable buy. Both online agencies show opaque listings for major European cities, but coverage is not as full as it is in the U.S. If you're interested in Stresa, Italy, for example, Hotwire shows only two opaque options, both near Milan Malpensa Airport and some 20 miles from Stresa, and Priceline shows none at all. You can certainly give those agencies a shot for the big cities, but look elsewhere for smaller towns. Both agencies are easier to navigate online, but it's possible to deal by phone.
Major hotel chains also run periodic promotions. Currently, Accor Hotels -- one of Europe's major chains -- is running a "50 percent off the second night" promotion at its upscale Pullman hotels worldwide. Sale rates include breakfast; they require prepayment, are nonrefundable, and apply for stays through March 31. Accor also runs periodic promotions on its other brands, from budget Ibis and Etap through midrange Novotel and Mercure to upmarket Sofitel and Pullman. Check with Accor (800-515-5679, www.accor.com).
Rail Europe, probably the largest U.S. agency for European rail tickets, is currently running a promotion that features an extra day of travel on the popular Eurail Pass series. Passes are usually available for periods of any six, eight or 10 days of rail travel over a two-month period for combinations of any three, four or five bordering countries. Sale prices range from $491 for seven travel days within three adjacent countries to $774 for 11 travel days among five countries. "Saver" passes for two travelers who travel together on all trips cost 15 percent less per person. Adult passes are available in first class only, with no senior discounts. The promotion is available for sale through March 30 for travel within six months of purchase. Check with Rail Europe (800-622-8600 www.raileurope.com) or one of the other railpass agencies.
Rail Europe also announced that this year it would start selling individual point-to-point tickets on British railroads for "local/competitive" prices. In the past, savvy travelers have put the knock on U.S.-based rail agencies for their inability to display or sell tickets at the many promotional prices that locals enjoy. Unfortunately, individual national sites are still better for other countries.
Check the usual suspects for your best rates. However, Bob Bestor, publisher of the outstanding newsletter Gemutlichkeit (www.gemut.com), recently warned about a problem for winter rentals. Some countries, including Austria, Finland, Germany and Switzerland, require snow tires during winter months. In most cases, you can rent a car with snow tires, but for an extra fee. The problem: You usually can't get a rental with snow tires in France or Italy, for example, but you risk a big ticket if you cross over into Austria, Germany or Switzerland. Be warned.