For pounds read dollars, and have a nice stay: Strong sterling and airline wars make America the ultimate travel bargain, says Frank Barrett

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The Independent Travel
THE CHEAPNESS OF IT ALL: This week the exchange rate nudged towards dollars 2 to pounds 1 - the best for a decade, and a reminder of the heady days of 1980 when pounds 1 bought dollars 2.40 and the British invasion of Florida began in earnest. In the past 10 years, wages and the cost of living have risen faster in Britain than in the US. The result is that it has never been cheaper to holiday in America.

Petrol costs from 65p a gallon, a Big Mac is 40p, a decent motel room around pounds 20 and US supermarket prices in dollars are the same as we pay in pounds. The question is not whether you can afford to go this summer - but whether you can afford not to.

GETTING THERE: Transatlantic airlines have more than 20 scheduled flights from Heathrow and Gatwick to New York every day - 10,000 seats to just one US destination. They are happy if they fill two-thirds of their seats. The result of this over-capacity is that on a pence-per-mile basis, fares to America remain among the cheapest in the world.

Unease about poor bookings forced the 'Big Three' - American Airlines, British Airways and United Airlines - to embark on a new round of price cutting last month. Bookings have picked up, but not by very much (the exchange rate means it is cheap for us in America but expensive for Americans in the UK).

Fares over the peak July and August period will not be the pounds 179 bargains they were a couple of months ago, but there are still deals to be had. The leading low- fare specialists STA Travel (071- 937 9971) and Trailfinders (071- 937 5400) have return fares to New York from pounds 300 - for a ticket on one of the major carriers, expect to pay pounds 350- pounds 360.

The best buys are to Florida: huge over-capacity on charter flights to Orlando means huge price cuts. Check the small ads (and our Taking Off section) for return seat-only deals from pounds 179.

The best British transatlantic airline is without doubt the tirelessly innovative Virgin Atlantic (0293 562000) - its latest wheeze is a children's service, Kid Class. The US carrier to choose is American Airlines (0800 010151).

AIR PASSES: The two air passes selling best in the UK are from Delta (0800 414767) and Northwest Airlines (0345 747800).

A three-coupon (one coupon per journey) peak-season confirmed seat pass with Northwest costs dollars 349 ( pounds 183); a 30-day standby pass for travel anywhere in the continental US and Canada costs pounds 236 (children pounds 215). A 30-day Delta pass costs pounds 235.

ON THE BUSES: Greyhound (0342 317317) has had troubles, but the buses roll on. A four-day Ameripass costs pounds 49; seven days pounds 85; 15 days pounds 125; 30 days pounds 170.

CAR HIRE: Alamo (0800 272 200) is one of the cheapest operators: car hire in Florida, for example, costs from pounds 73 per week including collision damage waiver and unlimited mileage.

AUTO-DRIVEAWAY: instead of hiring, you can deliver somebody else's car across the country - and get a free tank of petrol for your trouble. The main company is Auto DriveAway, with 85 offices nationwide: the local free number is 800 346 2277; the New York office is 010 1 212 967 2344. Drivers must be 21 and have a valid driving licence. You will be expected to leave a deposit of at least dollars 200: it is refundable by any office.

HOTELS AND MOTELS: Finding a cheap place is usually just a matter of cruising and checking the boards to see who is offering the best deal. Expect to pay from around pounds 20 for a motel.

Most of the chains offer vouchers and passes for pre-paid arrangements - for example, Days Inn has 'go as you please' vouchers with rooms from pounds 35 a night. Further information and bookings: Best Western (081-541 0033); Days Inn (071-633 9662); Holiday Inn (071-722 7755); Howard Johnson (081-688 1418); Ramada (0800 181737).

BED AND BREAKFAST: One of the best ways of meeting real Americans - and enjoying good, inexpensive accommodation. Fodor's and Frommer's both publish guides to B & B accommodation in the US, normally rooms in private houses but furnished to a surprisingly high standard.

Expect to pay around pounds 50 per double room per night for a good house and a warm welcome.

SUMMER RENTALS: There is a particularly good choice of summer rentals in New England. For example, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce (010 1 508 362 3225) in Massachusetts keeps a list of letting agencies.

One company on its list is Craigville Realty (010 1 508 775 3174) which still has summer properties available near the beach: a three-bedroom house with one bathroom costs pounds 1,052 for the whole month or pounds 685 for two weeks.

A house with up to four bedrooms and a private pool in Orlando, Florida, booked through Something Special (0992 586999), costs from pounds 483 to pounds 857 per week. For property rentals in other areas contact the local tourist office.

HOUSE SWAPPING: you are almost too late to house swap this summer, says Intervac (0332 558931) but the company promises to do what it can to fix up prospective swappers with an American exchange. The annual fee of pounds 43 covers entries in three directories and inclusion in the late computer listing.

SPECIALIST OPERATOR: Bon Voyage (0703 330332) is a leading US specialist, full of information on all aspects of travel to the US from air passes and bus travel to coach tours.

MONEY: Do not take sterling travellers cheques - bank staff in America find it impossible to believe that there is any currency other than the Mighty Dollar. Notes showing pictures of the Queen are assumed to be Monopoly money.

Dollar traveller's cheques are what you need to take: they can be used in shops and restaurants just like cash. The most practical way of spending money is to use your credit card; if you know the PIN number, you can also use it to get money from cash dispensers.

INSURANCE: You need a travel and health policy (if you ever saw an American hospital bill, you would know why). Do not contemplate entering America without a policy that will cover you for up to pounds 1m medical expenses.

GUIDE BOOKS: The Rough Guide to the USA (Penguin, pounds 12.99) is the most concise and certainly the best written guide to the whole country.

Let's Go 1992: The Budget Guide to USA (Pan, pounds 4.99) is useful for local tourist office telephone numbers.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact United States Travel & Tourism Administration, 22 Sackville Street, London W1X 2EA (071-495 4466).

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