It took a $500 car rental to drive from France to Spain and then another - get this - nearly $10,000 in last-minute air fares from Madrid to New York.

That is what it took for Eileen and Ken Globus of Huntington to finally escape from Europe. The couple had been on a business trip and had expected to fly back Saturday when they found themselves stranded with tens of thousands of travelers because of the havoc wreaked by the volcanic ash cloud spreading from Iceland.

"I have never been so happy to be home," said a grateful but weary Eileen Globus, 56, after stepping off Delta Flight 129 from Madrid, which landed at Kennedy Airport around noon Monday.

"It was like another world over there. Everything was canceled," she said.

The travel hell endured by the Globuses and an army of international airline passengers finally showed significant signs of abating Monday. During a teleconference in Europe, a group of transportation ministers decided that certain air corridors would be reopened after meteorological data indicated that the ash cloud from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull was lessening, according to airline industry officials.

British airspace, with the major hub of Heathrow International Airport, could reopen early Tuesday, said Eurocontrol, the European air traffic agency. Major airports in Germany and France were also expected to reopen Tuesday, while airports in north Italy would open a few hours later, the agency said.

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Late Monday, some passengers checked in at Kennedy Airport for Lufthansa and KLM flights to Europe, The Associated Press reported.

With different levels of airspace opening throughout Europe, Eurocontrol estimated that there had been about 9,000 flights, compared with a normal level of 28,000. On Sunday, there had been only about 5,000 flights.

Out of 300 flights from Europe to the United States daily, about 233 had left, including the Delta flight containing the peripatetic Globuses. Stranded in Nice, the couple spent $500 to rent a car for the drive to Madrid and then hit their credit card for the huge airfare.

"We knew Madrid would be our best bet out," said Eileen Globus. Airports in Spain have generally stayed open. Once in Madrid, the Globuses found the Delta flight leaving for New York and asked to be put on standby.

"We were lucky. A lot of people could not make the flight because everything was canceled, so we got on," she said.

Not so lucky have been the throngs stranded at Kennedy and other airports, where tourist shantytowns have sprung up. At a news conference Monday, officials with the Port Authority and NYC & Co., the city's official tourist agency, announced more hotels were taking part in a 15 percent price cut for stranded tourists. A number of attractions such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Museum of Jewish Heritage are offering free admission to affected tourists.

The Port Authority said it was working to decrease overcrowding at airports and brought in 36 portable showers at Kennedy. It also urged passengers to confirm they have a seat on a flight before showing up at a terminal.

City officials downgraded their estimate of local losses because of the air traffic nightmare, saying they expect the New York economy will take a hit of only $30 million to $50 million, not the $250 million originally feared. About 80 percent of overseas tourists indicated they would rebook their New York vacations later, officials said.

The Globus family hopes their original carrier, Air France, will reimburse them. They also will file a claim under their travel insurance policy.

With Maria Alvarez