A few years ago travel websites were slow, complex, dead-end online "brochures" with a few pictures that took forever to load. Even today most Web travel sites don't offer much content beyond what they are trying to sell. Some, like the about.com sites for Austria/Switzerland and Germany, are little more than collections of links to related websites and some basic information about the countries they cover. Other than their links, they are of limited use to travelers bound for those countries.

A shining star among Internet travel sites, however, is the website of Switzerland Tourism. Approaching the launch of a website as they might a new super-highway or railway tunnel, the Swiss set out to build the best and most useful travel page on the Web. They just may have succeeded.

Though we have always admired myswitzerland's pretty graphics, its content, and the ambitious concept, at the beginning it was slow, somewhat confusing, and difficult to navigate. But the shakedown cruise is over and myswitzerland is, for the most part, fast, easy to use and loaded with information every Switzerland traveler needs.

No website is perfect and myswitzerland has its faults, but if you're headed that way you'll want to bookmark the site and use it frequently. Here are some of the features we find particularly valuable.

Personal Profile

To begin, choose "My Account" and provide your name and email address. There are a couple of advantages to this. First, myswitzerland is presented in several languages, and next time you visit you won't have to specify a language. But more important, if you request information or make bookings at the site, your data will already be loaded. Saves time.

Brochure Ordering

Switzerland Tourism seems to have a stunning, four-color brochure for every region, town, village, and tourist activity. There are literally hundreds of them and if you order by phone you probably won't know which to request. Click on "Ordering Brochures" on the main page and you will be presented with a simple search engine from which you can select those pamphlets that fit your needs. For the general mail-out kit there is no charge, but for specific titles like Swiss Budget Hotels and Restaurants or Bernese Oberland Camping 2001 or Switzerland on Foot Hiking Tours, there is a 50-cent fee.

Last Minute Hotel Bookings

Perhaps myswitzerland's best, most elegant feature. From the front page click "Lodging/Reservations" and then "Last Minute Hotel Reservations." Next use the "Offer Assistant" to search a region or town. The result is a list of hotels currently offering discounted, last-minute prices and the dates on which they are available. For more information on the hotel click on "Info." We found a couple of very interesting deals: a 100 Sfr. ($57) double room at the Hotel Coronado in Zürich (we don't know the Coronado but the online photos looked good and it offers all the services) and the Alex Schlosshotel Tenne, a fine Zermatt hotel (Gemut, 97/10, Quality Rating: 15/20) for 240 Sfr. ($137). Bookings can be made directly at the Web site.

City Deals

Another nice feature is the attractively-priced special hotel packages offered on city pages. To get to the right place, however, requires some maneuvering. First, we clicked "Switzerland Vacations" and chose "City Breaks." From there use the "Short City Breaks" drop-down menu to pick a city. Once the city page loads, be sure to scroll down to see the offer.

Contacts

Want to contact Switzerland Tourism in the U.S. or the tourist office of a specific region in Switzerland? It's easy; simply click on "Contact" and make a selection from the drop-down menus. You are then presented with that specific tourist office's contact information. In addition, for the regional offices in Switzerland, provided you created a personal profile, all you need do is type in your request or question - brochures, hotel info, etc. - then click the "send" button and you're done. If you haven't first created a profile, you can do it at the time of your online request.

To find contact info for the tourist office of a small city or town is a little trickier. First click on "Switzerland Vacations" to see a list of various seasonal and activity options. If you choose "Summer Vacations," for example, you can select a region from the drop-down menu and then from the "Surrounding Area" menu choose a city or town.

Events

This part of the site is easy to use and contains an exhaustive list of happenings throughout the country with, in most cases, all the requisite dates, phone numbers, street addresses, web and email addresses and prices. Regrettably, only a few are in English.

Links

This is another useful feature of myswitzerland. Links to Switzerland-related websites are arranged by broad categories. Choose "Transportation" and you see links to more than 60 Websites from Swissair to the Automobile Club of Switzerland. Many, unfortunately, are not in English. Among the 30 or so links in the "Culture" category are websites for Swiss castles and fortresses, music events calendars, and a useful one entitled Popular Customs and Festivals in Switzerland.

Could be Better

Though the "Design Your Own Swiss Vacation" section sounds promising, it is merely a link to a very slow, very complex website that packages and sells flights, rail passes, car rentals and hotels.

We had a hard time getting much out of the "Top Tips" search feature. The combination of drop-down menus working in conjunction with buttons, plus the type-in box called "Detail Search," left us scratching our heads.

Finally, there doesn't seem to be a database of restaurants similar to the site's hotel listings. A "Site Search" for "Zürich," for example, yields nothing about the city's restaurants and the sites "Food and Wine" section is of limited use.

Overall, however, this is a great website, the best in the world for Switzerland-bound travelers.

July 2001