VOLCANO? WHAT VOLCANO?

St. Mark's piazza, Venice

Atmospheric and economic conditions across Europe may make this the summer to hook up that trans-Atlantic dream trip.

I’m not big on traveling during peak periods, and summer is about as “peak” as it gets. The weather can be hot a muggy, the crowds are huge, the lines are long and the price on almost everything but the air you breathe is wildly over-inflated.

This especially holds true for über-popular travel destinations like Europe.

But 2010 could be the summer of the exception. If you live anywhere on the East Coast, or can get there cheaply, this may be the summer to head across the Atlantic. You’ll need to stay alert for the right trip at the right price — and be prepared to move fast when you see it — but you need to start looking now. Here’s why.

The Iceland volcano really knocked the pins out from under European air travel for a solid month — and it hasn’t recovered yet. Airlines already struggling with falling sales and rising fuel costs lost even more money when the wandering clouds of volcanic ash prompted travelers by the tens of thousands to cancel their plans.

Result: They’re going to have extra seats to fill this summer. The same can be said for European hotels and vacation rentals, and for the same reasons.

One British low-fare airline, easyJet, is testing an infrared camera mounted on the tails of their planes. These cameras, they believe, can detect an ash cloud at ranges up to 60 miles, enabling pilots to avoid them as easily as they avoid thunderstorms today.

If it works, expect the airlines to head to Europe full-force — and maybe try to lure back their passengers with some uncharacteristically sweet summer fares to Europe.

The other factor — plummeting European currencies. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the whys and wherefores, but the bottom line is this: The euro and the British pound may not yet be in free-fall, but both are standing in the door without a parachute.

As of this writing, each was worth US$1.20. This time in 2008, the euro was worth about US $1.60 and the pound nearly $2. Any American traveler who’s had to count pennies in London or Paris or Rome because the dollar was worth so much less over there can tell you what a difference this makes.

Between these two sets of factors, Europe just became a lot more affordable to American visitors this summer — but only the ones who are prepared to pull the trigger on a good airfare or vacation package.

Because barring the economic equivalent of a BP oil spill, these currencies likely will be going back up some time just before or after Labor Day.

So if you’re lucky enough to be in a position to act on something like this, you need to start scouting right now. Check out your favorite travel sites on the Web, or try some of the ones listed on our Cool Travel Sites page. Talk to travel agents.

Check out travel magazines, both in print and online, for likely-looking hotels or companies offering air/lodging packages and see what they have on offer currently. If they seem open to haggling, haggle. What the hell, the worst they can tell you is “no,” right?

And if they say “yes,” you just might talk your way into one hell of a European summer.

A DISSENTING VIEW: Hilary Potkewitz at Crain’s disagrees with me.

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