Off the top of my head I'd say...

Travel to Europe will be down this year due to economic conditions; times seem uncertain and many retirement portfolios took a licking in 2000. Fewer travelers could mean lower high-season airfares and maybe a few hotel deals.

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• Car rental rates in Germany show no sign of falling back to 1999 levels. Reserve now and you can always re-book later if rates drop. If they go up, you're sitting pretty. Actually, that goes for renting in any European country.

• Belgium is now the cheapest country in which to rent. Here's a little table that compares the current (Jan. 12, 2001) cost for one week in a standard shift, mid-size car, picked up at airport or rail stations. Prices are basic rate—except for Italy which requires the purchase of collision and theft insurance - and include VAT, airport and road or license taxes, if any. Members of AARP or AAA can probably get a small discount off these numbers.

Airport or Rail Station Pickup

Brussels $164

Luxembourg $200

Frankfurt $208

Amsterdam $218

Paris $245

Zürich $287

Vienna $321

Milan $386

If you can manage to avoid airport or rail station pickup, the rankings change somewhat.

City Pickup

Brussels $144

Amsterdam $183

Frankfurt $187

Luxembourg $192

Paris $225

Zürich $254

Vienna $284

Milan $321

• Deciding whether to rent a car or travel by rail used to be a "no-brainer"—at least from a cost standpoint—for couples arriving in Germany from North America. Now it's very much a "brainer." For those traveling only within Germany, the German Twin Pass offers two persons five days rail travel in a one-month period for $426 first class and $294 second class (and second class travel on Germany's ICE trains will make you question how much better first class could possibly be). If you're visiting a couple of extra countries, say Austria and Switzerland, the new Eurail Selectpass charges two persons $560 for first class travel in three countries for five days within two months.

A midsize car for two weeks, picked up at a German airport will cost about $400 including VAT, airport charges and road tax. Then there is fuel at nearly $4 per gallon and parking fees. Of course with a rail pass you don't have nearly the flexibility but, as mentioned before, it's not such an easy decision anymore.

For those who will travel only in Switzerland, that country's rail passes present an even stronger case. They are good for lake steamers, buses and some public transport as well as trains. A two-week, midsize car rental from the Zürich Airport is about $545. A Swiss Saver Flexipass for two persons, good for five days travel in a one-month period, is $540 first class and $360 second class. For six days the prices are $612 and $408. Switzerland is probably the easiest country in the world to travel in without a car.

• The possible mergers of United and USAir and American and TWA can only be bad news for air travelers seeking low fares to Europe.

• Most European tours marketed in this country cost more than if you did the same trip on your own—assuming you might be foolish enough to try to cram the Rhine Valley, Heidelberg, the Black Forest, Schaffhausen and Lucerne into two days. That schedule is part of Grand European Tour's Germany, Switzerland & Austria, a 15-night motorcoach marathon for $2799, including airfare, breakfasts and nine dinners. That's $5598 per couple or $373 per night.

Just for the fun of it, without getting too specific about a routing, let's talk about a trip that might cover much of the same ground but cost less money and allow us to travel at our own pace and not a bus driver's. We'll assume a June departure from Chicago.

We'll have to guess on airfare but right now consolidators are quoting about $750 for a Chicago-Frankfurt roundtrip in June.

That leaves us $4100 for the ground portion. Since were covering a lot of territory Frankfurt, Lucerne, Geneva, Innsbruck, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, and other points, we'll use the new Eurail Selectpass; eight days first class travel for two persons is $716. We've got $3384 left for our 15 nights and 16 days.

Our average hotel price will be $125 per night which will put us in good quality, small, family-run hotels instead of the charmless boxes specialized in by tour companies; which it should be noted, are located well outside town centers. For example, Grand European Tour's Munich hotel, the Sheraton Arabella Bogenhausen, is about three miles from the Marienplatz. Our hotel, however, is the Asam, in a neighborhood of interesting shops and restaurants in the very heart of Munich. The tour's Vienna hotel is the Ananas, outside the Ring. Ours, the Kärntnerhof, is very much inside the Ring, a few blocks from the Stephansplatz.

After paying for our airfare, hotels, and rail passes, we have $1509 left over for the nine dinners provided by the tour, and the public transportation needed to supplement our train passes. If we spend $75 for each of the dinners and another $300 for streetcars, buses and entrances to museums and tourist sights, we've still saved more than $500 by traveling independently. In addition, we've moved at our leisure, coming and going whenever we wanted, taking more time for sights that interested us and skipping over those that didn't. RHB

February 2001