The first of a two-part series on traveling without a preset itinerary. It's a style of travel that offers the freedom to do exactly as you choose. We provide strategies and tools to enable you to take full advantage of Europe's complex network of backroads, its historic towns and villages and their charming hotels and restaurants.

Stop me if you've heard this before, but Gemütlichkeit is all about independent travel. You won't find reviews of package tours here. I think most of us agree that choosing our own flights, hotels, restaurants, and sight-seeing destinations, and making such decisions as when to stop for a snack or find a toilet, is the way to go.

What we may not agree on, however, is how structured in advance a European trip should be. Those who have kept up with recent advances in genome research are undoubtedly aware that certain otherwise perfect human beings are born with what has now been identified as the TIO (Trip Itinerary Obsessive) gene. When each city, sight, hotel and meal of the trip is not precisely scheduled, persons with the TIO gene become irritable, experience various sleep disorders, and carry a sense of impending doom both before and during the trip. Those of us fortunate enough to be born without it should try to show compassion for TIO gene carriers and understand that they cannot help themselves. Persons with the gene are strongly advised not to travel with persons without it, and vice versa. Of course, marriage between TIO carriers and non-carriers is the stuff of slapstick movies.

If you know you have the TIO gene you should move on immediately to other stories in the newsletter. TIO cannot be reversed or switched off and you need to focus on things like fax numbers and email addresses; things that will help you plan the trip itinerary down to the nearest tenth of a second.

There are some who, for as yet unknown reasons, believe they have the TIO gene though they actually do not. When confronted with a week in Germany without confirmed hotel reservations, for example, they may experience mild symptoms such as shortness of breath and light sweating. Researchers refer to them as "Neo-TIOs." These are people we can help; no skin patches, no needles, and no drugs with long lists of frightening side effects, just a little counseling.

Let’s begin by addressing the special opportunity for flexible, footloose travel that Europe represents. Last November, we went to China. Though we weren't with a tour, every hotel and virtually every move we made every day was planned weeks prior to the trip. For nearly all westerners, that is the way it must be when traveling in Asia. There, for several very good reasons, one simply doesn't rent a car and take off down the road.

On the other hand, Europe is uniquely suited to such travel and, I think, much superior to the U.S. in that respect. In this country, of course, there's usually no problem at the last minute finding a Holiday Inn to lay your head, or a Red Lobster, Outback Steakhouse or corporate burger joint for sustenance. That's all easy enough, but where are our small, owner-operated hotels with restaurants? Sure, there are quaint bed & breakfast inns, we have 70 of them here in Ashland, and America is not devoid of good places to eat. But the family-run hotels with good restaurants found in almost every town in Germany, Austria and Switzerland are of a type that simply does not exist in the U.S.

When it comes to auto touring I think we can again agree that Europe is unique. All three of our countries have complex networks of beautifully maintained, scenic country roads that can whisk us to interesting, historic towns and villages and their charming hotels and restaurants. I don't know about folks in the rest of the 50 states, but here in the beautiful state of Oregon we have some lovely backroads though far less than in Europe but interesting towns along them are few and far between, and European-style country hotels are unknown. The wild coast of Oregon, for example, is ravishingly beautiful, but if you want to drive its length you'll stay, with a tiny handful of exceptions in boring, cookie-cutter motels and eat bad food.

Let's not even discuss train travel other than to say in Europe it's an option and in this country it is not.

O.k., enough of trashing the good ol' USA; I can see you're getting a little riled up. I love this country and wouldn't live anywhere else, but we have to face the fact that in this particular cultural niche, Europe has it all over us. So let's take full advantage of it when we go there.

At Gemütlichkeit we think the way to do that is to try at least some travel without an itinerary. More than once we have landed in Europe and not decided until we were actually in the rental car whether to head north, south, east or west from the airport. (These trips of many years ago were the result of spur of the moment urges. Throwing a few maps and guidebooks in the suitcase was the extent of trip preparation; which is too bad, because planning for it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of travel.)

There are several advantages to "winging it," mostly related to flexibility. You can easily extend your stay in a hotel or town that turns out to be better than expected. On the other hand, if a place doesn't meet expectations you can vacate in a hurry. You also can easily and quickly move up or down the luxury ladder. For example, if you've spent several days in simple Zimmer Frei lodgings and suddenly get the urge for a night or two of the hedonistic pleasures of one Europe's finest hotels, you aren't encumbered by reservations or previous plans. Of course, the reverse is also true. If you're spending too much money in a chic resort or big expensive city, it's no problem to head for the simpler, cheaper countryside.

There are several factors which make "itinerary-less" travel so effortless in central Europe: the extensive network of excellent, scenic backroads; the marvelous railway systems, and the plethora of hotels in nearly all price categories.

Germany, Switzerland and Austria are compact enough that most spontaneous travel urges can be satisfied in just a few hours. One afternoon a few years ago we were puttering along a backroad north of Nürnberg when we began to reminisce about a particularly good time we'd had on a previous trip at the Gasthof Fraundorfer in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, lots of good food, beer, music and gemütlichkeit. Why not go back? Why not tonight? We called the Fraundorfer to reserve a table, hopped on the Autobahn and were there in just a few hours. Another time we decided after lunch to drive Austria's Grossglockner Road which twists its way to a height of 12,457 feet. Following another sudden urge we elected to stay in a hotel at the summit thereby turning a summer drive into a winter experience.

This kind of travel offers the freedom to do exactly as you choose; to turn at whim down an inviting country road, or decide at the last minute to stay overnight in an out-of-the-way village. When it's all booked in advance, you'll never have the experience of waking up in the morning and realizing you may sleep that night in a town you've never heard of before.

Naturally, there are variations on this theme. One doesn't need to be completely unstructured. If you dread looking for a place to stay in the afternoon, you can plan a few hours or even a day in advance. Choose a destination for the next night and your current hotel will gladly phone ahead for a reservation, or do it yourself. Even in the summer you'll get your first choice of hotel most of the time. And who knows, you're second or third choice might turn out to be something special.

Next month: Essential tools for "winging it" in Europe.

August 2001