Comments on Mr. Clean Toilets. Which is better, ICE vs TGV. Why you should wait until you get to Europe to make seat reservations on trains. The new Swiss Airline. A favorite Swiss hotel closes it doors as does a trendy, Michelin-starred Berlin restaurant.
Notes and musings from a month in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Sorry, but cross them off your list
The small, charming, bargain hotel we've recommended for years in the posh suburb of Chernex in the hills above Montreux. Auberge d'Chernex has closed it doors and the phone is disconnected.
Also kaput, despite winning its first Michelin star in 2002, is Berlin's Restaurant Adermann, which got a glowing review from Gemütlichkeit in 2001.
Little things we like about Switzerland
• Precisely marked streets and roads
• Manicured country roads, no matter how remote
• Drivers who never surprise and are amazingly courteous (except when you go too slow for them)
• The inexpensive but very good offen (open) wines sold by the glass in restaurants
• Swiss Rail's new double-decker rail cars, the quietest and smoothest in Europe
• Calve's liver at Le Dezaley (Römergasse 7-9) in Zürich
Unfortunately, Switzerland is substantially more expensive than Germany or Austria. We had trouble finding a double room in a good, three-star country hotel for under CHF 200 ($134). Similar hotels in Germany and Austria go for around €100 ($98). Main courses on Swiss menus in everyday restaurants are seldom priced lower than CHF 30 ($20), while in Germany and Austria, the range is more like €12 to €15 ($12-$15).
Gas in Switzerland is 1.35 CHF/90 cents per liter or $3.41 per gallon. In Germany, you'll pay about €1.08/$1.06 per liter ($4.01 per gallon) for Super Bleifrei. Fuel costs in Austria are about 10 to 12% less.
Returning a rental car to the Frankfurt Airport, for those who've never done it, is an unnerving experience. As one approaches terminal two there are no car rental return signs. Only as you are about to start up the ramp to the departure curbside drop zones is there a sign on the right requiring an immediate right turn. So go slow, stay in the right lane, and keep your eyes peeled. It's also a good idea to be familiar with the German word Mietwagen (car rental).
How tremendously handy it is to have a cell phone in Europe. Virtually essential to apartment hunting. Sit in your hotel room or car and wade through the list of possibilities. If you're using one with a SIMM card and plan to call the U.S., be sure to find out the per minute rate. It varies hugely from country to country.
Odd sight; vineyards still under harvest covered with mesh netting and crisscrossed with yellow crime-scene tape to scare away birds.
Mr. Clean toilets (you'll see them in railway stations) are definitely worth the 60 cents to $1.25 charged. Super clean. Next best, of course, are the toilets in five-star hotels. Walk in like you're a guest.
We wonder how many travelers in Europe choose trains because of the absence of security checks. It's the same as ever; walk on, find a seat and away you go.
ICE vs TGV. Germany's ICEs seem a little sleeker, a little more stylish, but Frances TGVs may be more comfortable with seats a bit softer and maybe even a shade wider. Both have 2-1 seating, though ICE has some four-seat cubicles and five-seat compartments. Ride about equal. The smoothest and quietest cars of all, however, are Swiss Rails (SBB) new double-deckers.
On one ICE run between Zürich and Munich we sat in two of the six seats right behind the cockpit, with a view down the track ahead.
Why should you make seat reservations in Europe, even though you purchase a rail pass in the U.S.? Cost. In Germany we paid €5.2 ($5.10) for a pair of Berlin-Zürich ICE seats. It's $22 ($11 per person) if you do it in the U.S. In Switzerland we booked Geneva to Avignon (France) seats on the TGV for CHF 10 ($6.70) vs. the same $22 in the U.S.
The new Swiss Airlines. Having arrived in L.A. at 8:20am for our 3pm flight to Zürich, we were anxious to check-in and get rid of some of our luggage. A counter sign said check-in was to start at 11am. Fifteen minutes after the appointed hour they were ready to go. Un-Swiss like.
The shared Swiss and Asiana (Korean) first and business class lounge at the L.A. International terminal is woefully small and not equipped to handle business travelers. There are no Internet connections, no electrical outlets, not even a TV set. The room is furnished with about 36 tightly bunched chairs comfortable for no more than about an hour's wait (forget that nap) and six to eight small round tables. With 25 people in the room it seemed jammed. With passengers from two outbound flights waiting, there was soon no place to sit.
Boarding was chaos. Business class (we used miles) was never called, the harried ground staff was busy paging people to the check-in desk, presumably to fill the airplane.
Once on board, however, things improved dramatically. Cabin crew in both directions were first rate, capable, accommodating and unflappable. One assumes with the downsize of the old Swissair only the most senior in-flight personnel were retained. It showed. On-board service personnel is what separates the foreign carriers - at least this foreign carrier - from U.S. airlines.
Food was unexpectedly good, especially the cold dishes.
Zürich Airport is still the best. Calm, uncrowded and easy to use. Our bags - no doubt the first loaded, given our arrival in L.A. seven hours prior to departure - were last off the plane in Zürich but we were on the road in our Europcar Passat Wagon (a gratis upgrade from a standard class midsize sedan) within 40 minutes after touching down.
The Passat Wagon, by the way, is a great car; smooth riding and driving, with a surprisingly powerful 2.0 liter gas engine, five-speed manual transmission and dial-in-the-temp climate control system. Had 19000 kilometers (11,875 miles). A little fuel thirsty, however. Assuming one extends the luggage cover to hide belongings, there's no more trunk room than a sedan. But, for those who don't mind exposed gear, there's substantially more luggage space. A Citroen C-5 wagon, also in the midsize category, rented later in the trip didn't measure up to the Passat and guzzled fuel like an 18-wheeler.
Short review of Interlaken Tourist Office based on visits three years running: Not friendly, lacks gemütlich. They could learn from Swiss Airlines' in-flight personnel.
The ease of finding and using ATMs has changed the way U.S. visitors obtain local currency in Europe, but it's getting expensive. For example, Citibank AAdvantage card holders who use it to obtain a $300 cash advance from an ATM in Europe will pay a 3% cash advance fee and another 3% conversion fee. This is in addition to a flat fee to use the ATM, usually about $3. That's a total of $21 (7%) to get $300. For credit card purchases, such as hotel rooms or meals, only the 3% conversion fee applies.
Rather than use a credit card for cash advances, it's much cheaper to withdraw cash from your account with a bank-issued ATM card. We did and were charged a flat $3 charge for each ATM withdrawal. However, in order to accumulate miles, we used the Citibank card for purchases and incurred the 3% conversion fee on everything. There may be some cards that don't levy this fee but it's doubtful they offer frequent flyer miles. Your other alternative is to pay for everything out of cash obtained with your ATM card.