Budapest for all Seasons

BUDAPEST TRULY IS A TOURIST DESTINATION for all seasons, though winter tends to be the city's slower time. Many tour operators and cruise lines offer itineraries throughout summer's warmer months, but in an effort to lure visitors to Budapest during the off season of November through March, The Hungarian National Tourist Office ( www.hungary.com), for the second consecutive year, is running its Budapest Winter Invasion promotion (www.budapestwinterinvasion.com).

The promotion, which also seeks to draw attention to Budapest's numerous winter festivals, includes an incentive for tourists to stay three nights at a participating hotel and get the fourth night free. A full range of hotels are participating (a complete list of the 60 or so three-, four- and five-star properties is available on the promotional web site), including familiar favorites like the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace (www.fourseasons.com/budapest) and Le Méridien Budapest (www.starwoodhotels.com), both which Travel Agent had a chance to check out on a recent trip to Hungary's capital . Budapest Parliament near the Danube River

At the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, Danube Premier rooms (be sure to book one with a balcony) provide the basics—albeit the basics in high style and comfort. Rooms are decorated in an Art Deco style, with marble bathrooms that offer a deep soaking tub in addition to a separate glass-walled shower.

Though there are larger suites at the hotel, the best are the Park Suites, which are located on the third and fourth floors. These are not two-room suites that Americans may be used to. Instead, Park Suites are made up of one large open concept living and bedroom area. What makes these standouts is the positioning of their beds, directly facing windows that open up to a fantastic view of the Danube. It's quite a sight to wake up to. Contact Sherryn Bates, the hotel's director of marketing, at +36-1-268-6000 or sherryn.bates@fourseasons.com.   Park Suite at the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace

Le Méridien Budapest is much more opulent than the Four Seasons in both décor and the number of people roaming around it. Le Méridien's lobby offers abundant, velvety cushioned seating, which guests obligingly use: On a Saturday morning, its lobby, which is partially dedicated to food and beverage services, boasted the bustle of a popular sidewalk café.

Guests preferring easy access in and out of the hotel should opt for rooms on the third floor, since they're closest to the lobby. If clients desire a view, ask for a room that faces Erzsébet Park and St. Stephen's Basilica—there are a few on each level of the hotel. The best vista however, is to be had from the balconies of Le Méridien's Diplomatic Suites on the top floor. These suites also are the most spacious. Contact General Manager Adrian Gray at +36-1-429-5670 or adrian.gray@lemeridien.com. A Deluxe Room at Le Méridien Budapest

Both the Four Seasons and Le Méridien are on the Pest side of the Danube River, not far from where the famous Gerbeaud Ház Café (www.gerbeaud.hu) is located. (Try their dark chocolate cake and take home a tin of coffee.)

Cruise and Tour Options

Clients can get a view of both Buda and Pest by taking a river cruise with Avalon Waterways (www.avalonwaterways.com). In all, the company in 2008 has five cruises operating on the Danube, with stops in Budapest. The 20-day "Jewels of Central Europe" travels from Budapest to Paris; guests can also opt to sail for 18 days from Paris to Budapest. Stops along the way include Nuremberg, Passau-Linz and Vienna. Departure dates begin in June and run through October. Prices for the 18-day tour begin at $4,049 and $4,689 for the 20-day tour. Avalon pays between 10 and 17 percent commissions depending on each agent's sales volume. Contact Patrick Clark, Avalon's managing director, at 877-797-8791.

Cruising and most tours aren't options in the colder months; so instead, guests may decide to take a custom tour, such as one offered by Gate 1 Travel (www.gate1travel.com). The company offers two independent trips to Budapest, which include flights and accommodations. Clients can opt to spend six days priced from $629 over Thanksgiving, departing the U.S. on November 19. Custom six-day trips also are available November through March 2008, with prices starting at $649. AGENT ADVICE

On a customized tour, recommend clients visit during a festival, when the city is replete with markets showcasing homemade goods like handmade lace, clothing with a medieval flair, pottery and other original items.

If you think it might be hard to sell a client on a winter vacation that doesn't involve skiing, try mentioning these two points about Budapest: First, traveling to the region is cheaper during the winter (see Getting There). Hungary's currency is the forint, which, in late August, roughly equaled 192 forints for every American dollar. This rate fluctuates a lot and its instability is one of the reasons why Hungary hasn't yet converted to the euro.

Also, despite the annoyance of having to lug a winter coat, witnessing a snowfall in Budapest is quite charming. Of course, it is impossible to guarantee snow, so it's helpful to point out all there is to do in the city, even during the off season, which includes late fall and early spring—also great times to visit.

Recommend a tour of the Spanish Masters Collection at the Fine Arts Museum (www.szepmuveszeti.hu), hosted by a museum curator, and a private backstage tour of the Hungarian Opera House (www.opera.hu). Central to the tour are Budapest and Prague, and clients have the option of adding on Vienna or St. Petersburg, Russia. The trip, which can vary between eight and 13 days, depending on the addition of an extension, spends three nights in Budapest. At press time, 2008 pricing was still being finalized, but departure dates for next year are June 16, July 21, August 18 and September 15.

Getting There

Typically, airfare during the summer months will run about $1,000 for a roundtrip coach flight, while the same flights cost only about $400 during the off season (November-March). Clients can either pocket the savings or put it towards a business- or first-class upgrade.

Various carriers fly to Budapest, but Hungary's own carrier, Malév (www.malev.com), flies direct from New York. Such flights tend to fill up quickly and though it requires a connection, flying Malév's Oneworld alliance partner American Airlines (www.aa.com) gives clients a chance to check out their new lie-flat seat in business class, which will be rolled out across the airline's fleet by the end of this year.