By THOMAS WAGNER
LONDON - Airfares have repeatedly risen this year, the dollar has struggled against the euro, and Europe's economic crisis is still rattling financial markets. Americans planning their summer vacations could well ask what's the point of going to Europe this year?
But savvy tourists considering the continent might also be wondering if there are bargains to be had, especially in the four European countries worst hit by the economic crisis - Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. Known in some circles by the derogatory acronym PIGS, these struggling nations rely heavily on tourism revenue, and they are working hard to boost this sector of their economies.
On the plus side, travel agents are seeing potential bargains in these countries in everything from airfares, hotels and restaurants, to in-country transportation and visits to key tourist sites.
The agents also regard these four nations as potentially cheaper to visit this summer than three other top tourist European destinations: Britain, France and Italy.
But even as the struggling countries reach out for tourist dollars, visitors will have to plan carefully to find bargains.
They also will have to decide whether to regard Portugal - which is engulfed by an acute financial crisis and courting bankruptcy - and Greece - where strikes against tough austerity measures can turn violent - as potential adventures or too chaotic for a vacation.
One reason bargains can be tough to find is that predicting airfares is like playing roulette these days, given the way the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, and Japan's nuclear crisis, have driven up oil prices - a key factor in airline ticket costs.
Another is that the unrest in countries such as Tunisia, Libya and Egypt - as well as the crisis in Japan - have made the beach resorts of Spain, Portugal and Greece even more popular than usual among vacationers.
A third is that these nations remain proud that they have long been prized as tourist destinations - and they don't see themselves as a downtrodden alternative.
"We have a resource that is better than oil: our weather, our landscapes, our culture and our gastronomy, which are unlike any other in the world," Spain's Industry, Trade and Tourism Minister Miguel Sebastian said in the Canary Islands, a top lure for European sun-seekers. "Petroleum, he said, "will run out, but tourism has no reason to do so."
One potential advantage in these tourist destinations could be the price of a flight there.
"When I look at our summer booking data, at least based on airfare, Spain, Portugal and Ireland are relative bargains," said Genevieve Shaw Brown, a senior official at Travelocity.com. Americans looking for bargains also should consider package bookings that include flights and hotels, she said.
For instance, two people traveling together in the last week of June could fly round-trip from New York to Dublin, Ireland, and stay five nights at a four-star hotel for about $1,300 per person, less than the average airfare this summer for Italy, France and Britain, she said.
Brian Ek, a senior travel analyst for Priceline.com, said airfares from the U.S. to Ireland - on carriers such as Aer Lingus - are likely to be one of the best bargains in Europe this summer, with many hotels in the country also lowering their prices.
"A lot of people don't realize this, but if demand isn't there, an airline reduces flights and raises prices. A hotel and a restaurant can't do that. They must lower prices," Ek said.
George Hobica, president of AirfareWatchdog.com, said consumers looking for deals on airfare or package booking should go online twice a day for a month. He said they should not only use sites such as Expedia, Hotwire, and airline alert services, but also scan the online sites of airlines such as Aer Lingus, Iberia and BA.
Travel agents said flights from the U.S. to Greece are likely to remain more expensive than those to the other three nations. But Greece's airports have reached out to tourists by waiving landing, takeoff and stopover fees, and Parliament recently reduced the value-added tax charged to tourists by hotels to 6.5 percent from 11 percent.
Some struggling hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in countries such as Greece and Portugal also are offering bargain rates that can be found online at sites such as EuroCheapo.com.
Strikes by unions have long been more common in Europe than in the U.S., and some can be big enough to close capitals and shut down airports and public transportation, especially in Greece, where workers are fed up with high unemployment and austerity measures.
Even tourists who arrive on cruise ships in Piraeus, the main port serving Athens, can run into delays. Last summer strikes by workers there delayed the arrival of several ships. But it wasn't all bad. When passengers on one such cruise ship later arrived at the island of Rhodes, they were welcomed by local residents carrying flowers.
Dublin is reaching out to tourists by launching a program in June that provides a free round of drinks and a free tour of the city by a local resident. Travelers 66 years or older can get a Golden Trekker Pass: four days of unlimited free train travel on Irish Rail.
Portugal, Greece and Spain have long been known for their great food and restaurants - and Ireland for its fantastic beers and steaks - but some of these countries also serve dinner far later at night than Americans are accustomed to.
There are ways around this for tourists in the know.
For example, visitors to countries such as Ireland can find early bird specials in restaurants, according to Pauline Frommer, the creator of the Pauline Frommer Guide Books.
She also said that one unanticipated advantage of the economic crises in these four nations is that American bargain-hunters are less likely to be looked down upon as they once were.
"It's now easier to be a budget traveler in these four countries because nobody gives you the evil eye if you go into a restaurant and order one entree to share," she said. "It's a sea change. Frugality is no longer looked down upon. It's expected."
Like the United States, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain have regions that remain prosperous, despite the tough economic times, and ones that are hurting. For that reason, it's important for tourists who can't afford to stay in the well-off areas to visit them on day-trips and to spend the night at nearby hotels with cheaper rates.
For instance, Madrid remains pricey, but tourists can visit top museums such the Prado and Reina Sofia (free the last two hours every day), or Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (free on Wednesdays), then use good public transportation to get elsewhere for affordable accommodations.
All four nations have extensive train, subway and bus services that also allow bargain hunters to avoid renting a car and paying steep fuel prices.
Or tourists might just skip expensive areas such as Madrid and Barcelona and fly on a local budget airline from Madrid to Granada or Costa del Sol, two areas in the south that were harder hit by the crisis and have cheaper hotels and restaurants.
Another option could be to give Spain a pass this year and head instead to neighboring Portugal, one of the poorest countries in western Europe.
Despite all Portugal's problems, Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla are currently making official visits there, and to Spain and Morocco.
In May, President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II are both heading to Ireland. Like many Americans, Obama has traced the genealogy of his family back to Europe - in his case an ancestor who fled Ireland's potato famine in 1850.
So, Frommer said, keep this in mind while deciding whether to travel to Portugal, Ireland, Greece or Spain this summer: "In America, much of our culture comes from Europe. If you and your children want to understand your own system, background, law, give it a try."