What's New in '09

Since that first issue of Gemütlichkeit in January, 1987, a number of world crises have had a temporary affect on travel to Europe. Coming immediately to mind are the stock market plunge of October 1987, the first Gulf War, various economic dips, the horrific events of September 11, 2001, and the Iraq war. The current calamity, however, is different in that it has touched every person I know, though in some cases it’s been a knockout punch to the jaw, not a touch. Eventually, however, the worm will turn; the pendulum can only swing so far and then gravity pulls it in the other direction. Of course, the multi-trillion-dollar question is…when?

All this affects the answer to another question, one I’m more qualified to address: what is new and different about European travel in ’09?

Currency Exchange

For one thing a euro currently worth 1.28 dollars will make our costs in Europe a lot lower than in ‘08 when the euro reached a high of 1.62.

Air Fares

My first reaction to the lowered demand for transatlantic air tickets caused by the current crisis was that it would reduce fares. Supply, however, is also being reduced. Each day seems to bring yet another announcement—mostly from U.S. carriers—of a discontinued flight or route. Bottom line: I don’t think we’re going to see much difference in air fares this year vs. last.

Mobile Phones

One can now buy a basic cell phone in Europe for less than $50 and make in-country calls for pennies a minute. Chips with additional calling time are available everywhere. If you travel to another European country purchase a SIM card for that country at a cost of $10 to $20. Use the same phone year after year and just buy new chips.

International Driving Permit (IDP)

For years, we scoffed at the need for an IDP when renting a car in Europe. Though there is much conflicting information about European law regarding this document, and whether an IDP is required by rental car companies, we at Gemütlichkeit are aware of travelers who, within the last 12 months, have been ticketed in Germany, Austria and Poland and, worse, who have been denied rental cars in these countries, all because they didn’t carry an IDP in addition to their home driver’s license. Better to be safe than sorry: to those who plan to rent a car anywhere on the European continent, I strongly recommend an IDP. Get one for about $15 from the American Automobile Association or the National Auto Club. Caution: Beware of online scammers who sell IPDs for from $35 to $100; only AAA and NAC are authorized by the U.S. State Department to issue the IDP.

Save Money, Drink Tap Water

One way to reduce restaurant costs in Europe is to drink tap water. However, we’re hearing that several Swiss restaurants, especially in Zürich and Geneva, now charge for tap water. Please let us know the names of places where you encounter this practice. We’ll have more later on this in our free email newsletter, Europe Travel Report (sign up at www.gemut.com) and at our website.

Internet Access

I cannot imagine being in Europe without the ability to receive and send email, make hotel and restaurant reservations, find information about the city/region I’m visiting, check railroad timetables, get walking and driving directions, and do all the other tasks I rely on the Internet for. I think I’m safe in saying that most hotels and thousands of public places in Europe now offer Ethernet and/or wireless Internet connectivity, making it worth the trouble to bring along a laptop. I salute hotels such as Berlin’s Art Nouveau that offer free access, and admonish those that charge exorbitant fees (up to $30 per day). Caution: travelers who rely on “smartphones,” such as the iPhone or Blackberry, need to be aware of the extraordinarily high cost of data transfer and international roaming when using these devices in Europe. Call your service provider. Billings to unsuspecting travelers who use the phone as they do at home— continually downloading emails, for example—can be in the thousands of dollars. For most Europe travelers, a laptop is the best way to get emails and access the Internet.

Google Maps

For directions and viewing maps of the countries, regions, and cities you plan to visit, or are visiting, this fantastic Google feature now surpasses all other online map services. In most cases, simply enter the name of a town and country into the regular Google search field and you’ll quickly get a map you can zoom-in to a one-inch equals 200 feet highly detailed scale, or zoom out to see your destination’s geographic position in the region, country, or the entire world. Click “Get Directions,” enter the name of a second destination and you are given a map with turn-by-turn instructions. Want to get point A to point B on foot in any European city? Easy. I just typed Hotel Art Nouveau, Berlin, and KaDeWe, Berlin (the department store), into Google Maps’ “Get Directions” page, selected the “walking” option and got a sharply-defined street map of the route (with U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations marked in case of rain), the street addresses of both places, and detailed directions. By the way, the distance is 2.7 km which Google estimates will take 27 minutes on foot. (Google maps are just one good reason to take a laptop to Europe.)

Point-to-Point Rail Tickets

One can now purchase many of these tickets online from rail company websites, such as Germany (www.bahn.de) and Switzerland (sbb.ch/en/home.html). By doing so you get access to all trains and to discounts not usually available in the U.S. at our website (www.gemut.com is currently an affiliate of Wandrian, a U.S. seller of rail products) or Rail Europe’s Website.

—RHB