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IN THIS ISSUE OF ETR

Dear Traveler,

Albeit with some wind, rain, and chilly days, spring has come to our town of Ashland, here in southern Oregon. Dogwoods and rhododendrons are spectacular. The massive oaks in our backyard are now fully leafed and partly obscure the view to the valley. The town is already full of tourists. So far, Hamlet gets mixed reviews, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is by all accounts a winner, but the sensation of the 2010 Oregon Shakespeare Festival to date is the musical, She Loves Me. The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night have just joined the rotation. Three new, eager restaurants have opened in spaces where dishes served by former tenants had become stale and repetitive. Time will tell if they can join our list of favorites: Peerless, Lila's, Kobe, and Thai Pepper. While I look forward to a summer of outdoor dining, golf, and quick trips to the coast on the hottest days, my thoughts are on Europe where...

...the dollar has strengthened dramatically against the euro. Last November, the buck was worth only 0.67 euro. Today it fetches 0.82 euro. The 100 euro hotel room that cost $150 in November is now $122. That 4-euro beer has dropped from $6 to less than $5. It appears that in 2010 the major in-country cost components of a European vacation are going to be lower than they have been in several years. I profess no knowledge of what makes currencies fluctuate, but it seems pretty clear that the euro's current weakness has to do with worries about the financial problems of certain countries in the so-called "eurozone." Since the fundamentals that caused the dollar to steadily weaken over the past several years haven't changed, it seems logical that when these fears subside, the euro will regain strength. Most currency gurus, however, forecast continued euro anemia, and more than a few predict a Europe traveler's dream: parity for the dollar against the euro. Either way, I say go to Europe now.


NEW FREE GUIDE TO RENTING A CAR IN EUROPE

In my opinion, the process of renting a car in Europe is the most complicated-and fraught with financial peril-of all the major financial decisions involved in planning a European vacation. Rail pass pricing is very straightforward. Hotels quote a price and, except perhaps for phone calls and Internet access, that's what you pay. Airlines are required by law to disclose all taxes and fees in addition to the basic fare. True, you may get nailed for excess baggage weight but your financial exposure is not close to what it is if you make a mistake insuring your rental car against collision and theft. I know a man who paid a road tax fee of $25 in cash instead of using his credit card. In doing so he violated the credit card insurance rule that requires all charges on the rental contract be paid with the credit card used to book the rental. His car was damaged, but the credit card company refused to reimburse the $8,000 repair bill.

Often there are nasty post-rental surprises back in the U.S. when your credit card statement arrives. Of course, if you book with us, not only do you get a great low price, we'll steer you safely through the potentially expensive rocks and shoals. Still, every Europe-bound traveler considering a rental car should read our 16-page special report "What You Need to Know About Renting a Car in Europe." Download it free.


INDUSTRY CONSULTANT SAYS BOOK CAR NOW

The economic turmoil of 2009 hit the car rental business hard and, in order to minimize overhead, companies reduced the size of their fleets. As Neil Abrams, a consultant who advises major car rental companies, recently told the New York Times, this has caused vehicle shortages during peak periods and created an "artificial supply and demand dynamic, which pushes prices up." His advice to Times readers, "As soon as you know you're going to be traveling, get your car locked in," he said.


YOUR BEST BET FOR PASSION PLAY TICKETS

Everybody wants Oberammergau 2010 Passion Play tickets but nobody wants the hotel/tour packages you have to buy to get them. Now, however, individual tickets are said to be available in Germany...but unfortunately not at the Passion Play website. Several readers report buying them through German friends. Expect to pay from $150 to $250 per ticket. Thanks to reader Milton Mickow who tells us he was able to buy tickets through someone in Germany and was subsequently able to find a good selection of small hotels available in and around Oberammergau for under €100. Subscribers Fred and Marion Unger say they are booked at Oberammergau's Hotel Friedenshohe and that the hotel was able to obtain tickets for them.


THE GERMAN PERSPECTIVE…IN ENGLISH

Speaking of Oberammergau, the online English version of Der Spiegel has a fascinating behind-the-scenes story about Oberammergau and its Passion Play. The avant garde director's vision for this year's presentation has created deep divisions within the village and strained life-long relationships.

Der Spiegel's excellent international online edition is free. You'll get a daily-except-weekends email. A fascinating report last week concerned three East Germans aboard a plane hijacked to the West from Poland in 1978. Each had a choice: defect to freedom, or return to lives and homes in East Germany. Three decades later the trio review their decisions.


OUTLOOK FOR 2010 AIR FARES

Best resign yourself to paying this year's higher transatlantic airfares. There are a couple of reasons why prices don't figure to go down. First, seat demand is up over '09—more people want to go to Europe. According to the Airline Reporting Corporation, sales through March are 20-percent higher than last year for May and June flights. The big tour operator, Globus, reports a 66-percent increase in Europe bookings so far this year.

The consolidation of transatlantic airlines into three alliances—Star Alliance, Oneworld and SkyTeam—has meant coordination of flights, code sharing, and ultimately less competition. Consider, too, that Lufthansa now owns both Swiss Airlines and Austrian Airlines; and Air France merged a few years ago with KLM. On this side of the Atlantic, Continential is trying to merge with United, while Delta and Northwest have already joined forces. To these factors add rising 2010 oil prices and an economic downturn that has forced airlines to reduce the number of flights, and you have a recipe for higher fares. For a quote on consolidator fares to Europe click or call Laura at 800-521-6722 x 2


WHY YOU NEED A LIVE TRAVEL AGENT IN TIME OF TROUBLE

More flights to Europe have been canceled, delayed, changed, re-routed, etc. this year than at any time since 9/11. In addition to the celebrated cloud of volcanic ash, there have been labor slowdowns and strikes. In fact, there's one happening right now. British Air cabin crew walked out on Monday. In such times, ticketed travelers are usually desperate for information and/or to change their flights. Problem: phone lines to airlines and online sellers are jammed, with lengthy on-hold times. It's a prime reason to buy your air tickets from a travel agent (or from Laura at Gemut.com, 800-521-6722) rather than online or from an airline. It's much easier to get through (or leave a message and get a call-back) to your T.A. who can access the reservation system and make needed changes. In this situation would you rather deal with a harried reservationist you've never spoken with, or the person you know by name who booked your ticket? To speak with a real live human being about flying to Europe, call Laura at 800-521-6722 x 2


NOW, MORE THAN EVER: TRIP INSURANCE

The expensive lesson of trip insurance was learned again the hard way during the recent volcanic ash crisis. Thousands of stranded North Americans who paid upfront for nonrefundable travel were unable to get to their rented apartments, cruise ships, and package tours. Without insurance, the money paid for those trips was lost. Travel sellers consider earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and the like to be beyond their control. They also expect their customers to protect themselves with trip insurance. In these times of fewer and fewer sure things, and more and more ways for things to go wrong, trip insurance is essential. However, don't make the mistake of equating the total amount you plan to spend on a trip to the amount of coverage you need. If your exposure is limited to a few hundred dollars in air ticket cancellation fees, $200 to $300 in trip insurance premiums probably doesn't make much sense. My rule of thumb is: figure how much you will be out of pocket if, on the day of departure, your trip has to be canceled for a reason covered by a reputable trip insurer. Car rentals can usually be canceled with no penalty as can most hotel bookings. Rail passes can be returned for 85% credit. Big ticket, non-refundable, prepaid travel products such as vacation rentals, tour packages, or cruises are another story. By all means, make sure you are covered for such potential losses. On the other hand, I do not recommend the cancellation coverage offered by travel suppliers as it frequently provides merely a credit for future travel. You want your cash back, so purchase trip cancellation insurance from a reliable company. We recommend one of the largest and best-known, Travel Guard. Trip insurance research tools are available here.


TRICKY (DECEPTIVE?) AVIS WEBSITE

Travelers who use the Avis website to book rental cars in Germany can select from a variety of optional insurance coverages. These choices are displayed as checkboxes, one of which is "Liability Insurance." Check the 'liability' box and you pay an additional $75 on an intermediate sedan for one week. What the Avis website fails to mention on this screen is that the company is required by law on every rental to provide liability insurance as part of the basic rental fee. (Liability covers injury to other persons or their property in an accident involving your car.) In other words, if you are involved in an accident and the other vehicle, or persons in it, are damaged, injured, or worse, the rental company "has your back," as the saying goes. In European rental contracts, the limit for this coverage is often described as "unlimited." If you are sued for millions, the rental company covers you. For obvious reasons, liability insurance cannot be left to the choice of the individual renter, yet Avis makes it appear as if that is exactly the case. One wonders how many of the thousands who book via the Avis website think to themselves, "well, of course, I need liability insurance" and simply check the box?

Only when you click a tiny "help" link are you taken to a page that provides a highly technical description of what this coverage provides, and uses the word "additional" to identify it—"Additional Liability Insurance" or ALI. (When I called Avis, both the reservationist and her supervisor agreed that liability coverage is included in the basic rental fee but neither was able to shed light on the advantages of purchasing ALI. The supervisor said it would be explained to me at the time of rental. Sure it will, and in perfect German, too.) You can go through the entire booking process and never see the key word "additional" in relation to this coverage. Why? I hesitate to accuse Avis of trying to fool site visitors into thinking ALI is the essential, required-by-law, liability insurance, but what other conclusion is possible? I presume including the word "additional" depresses sales of the product. But by doing so, Avis tricks people into buying unnecessary coverage. Shame on Avis. Deal with a real, live human being who knows a lot about European car rental. Call Andy at 800-521-6722 x 2, or get a written quote.


HOTEL RATES BOOKED VIA GEMUT.COM

MUNICH

InterCityHotel München €142

Best Western Atrium €109

Maritim Hotel Munich €96

BERLIN

Crowne Plaza €164

Mondial €130

Steigenberger €141

Modena am Kurfürstendamm €85

VIENNA

DeFrance €157

Carlton Opera €112

Furst Metternich €80

SALZBURG

Crowne Plaza €148

Villa Trapp €98

Jedermann €95

LUCERNE

Wilden Mann CHF220

Schiff CHF190

Etap CHF95

ZÜRICH

Crowne Plaza CHF158

Swissotel CHF180

Mercure Stoller CHF110

Research and get price quotes from a database of some 50,000 European hotels, from the simplest to the most luxurious.