With this month's main story on Bratislava, we welcome a new Gemütlichkeit contributor, Douglas Linton. Mr. Linton, a graduate of the University of Texas, is a resident of Vienna and a travel writer with five years experience reporting on destinations in central Europe for a variety of travel publications. He is also author of To the Coffee House: An Insider's Guide to Vienna's Cafés. We'll be hearing from him frequently over the next several months.
Tales from the Internet
We may have to rethink that old saw "there's no such thing as a free lunch." Actually, there are many free things on the Internet. I don't think you'll find a free ham and cheese sandwich but you can track a portfolio of common stocks and mutual funds, get news tailored to your specific interests, send messages and documents around the world, and find the wholesale prices of new and used cars - all free, provided you're on the Net.
Recently we discovered another great freebie. This Lonely Planet website, in addition to providing users with free email addresses, offers a "travel vault" for storing important information such as credit card numbers, passport numbers, airline ticket numbers, traveler's check numbers, PIN numbers, bank account info, key phone numbers and addresses, medical prescriptions, eyeglasses prescriptions, and so on. Lonely Planet claims eKnos four-level encryption provides 100% security.
Your data is available via the Internet from anywhere in the world, or you can retrieve it by dialing a special Lonely Planet phone number from 51 countries, or have it sent to you via fax. (Download or print the list of local LP phone numbers from the website).
Also offered is a low-cost international phone card and free voicemail service. You can access both voicemail and email messages on the web or via telephone, using the special phone numbers.
Like the email service, the travel vault is free; just register and store your information.
Bad Site, Good Site
As those who prowl the Internet know, there are a number of sites where one can register to get regular travel information free via email. Among the dozen or so I receive are from: www.lifeminders.com and travelocity.com/. Being free, they are heavy on "special offers" and a little light on content. In the content category, one of them recently ran a story about getting the best deal on hotel rooms. It recommended the Hotel Reservation Network (www.hotelreservationnetwork.com which touts itself as the leading hotel discounter on the web.
I immediately put the site to the test and asked to be shown all the Berlin hotels in its database. A grand total of six were found. I selected the Berlin Crowne Plaza and asked for the price of a double room for two nights. The answer came back quickly, $170 per night.
I then headed my browser to gemut.com where I clicked on the Hotelguide icon. When the search option appeared I typed in the word "Berlin" and was shown a list of 276 hotels. In order to compare the two sites, I chose the same Berlin Crowne Plaza Hotel. Though the rack rate for a double room ranges from 340 to 450 DM ($164-$217) I was presented with a huge list of rate options, the lowest being $120 for a nonsmoking "King Leisure" room, provided I was an AAA member. The corporate rate was $124.
I tried another test. Three times this year we have stayed at the Seattle Westin Hotel in the center of downtown. Each time I booked via priceline.com and each time paid $79 per night for a large double room. The best hotelreservationnetwork.com could do was a weekend rate of $209.95 per night. Hotelguide.com came up with $191, not nearly as good at Priceline, but still almost $20 a night better than Hotel Reservation Network.
Until a better one comes along, the place to book hotels online is gemut.com, click the hotelguide icon.
Europe's "Air Pass"
We get many inquiries about cheap flights within Europe. Unfortunately, the continent has no counterpart to Southwest Airlines and paying $400 for a one-way flight of an hour's duration is common.
There is, however, Europe by Air (www.europebyair.com, tel. 888-387-2479); a company that has brought together about 15 small airlines and sells flights between 130 European cities for $99 each - kind of a Eurailpass of the air. Sounds great when you compare that $99 price, say, with the first class rail fare of over $300 (second class $200+) to go from Berlin to Zürich.
There's a slight catch, however. First, you must buy at least three legs at $99 each, and the only way you can fly from Berlin to Zürich is to go by way of Zagreb, Croatia, and stay overnight there.
I spent about half an hour on their website and found it difficult to find three legs that fit any itinerary I was interested in. I did, however, construct a London-Düsseldorf-Berlin-Munich itinerary, and when one considers the price of just a London to Frankfurt ticket on British Midlands is nearly $400, Europe by Air's Flight Pass at $297 seems a good deal.
If you're not interested in the $297 Flight Pass, you can simply use Europe by Air's website to find (and book) flights within Europe. Clicking on "Discount Travel" I found a one-way Berlin-Munich fare on Aero-Lloyd of $93. But most of the other one-way short-hop flights - Berlin to Vienna, Munich to Rome, etc. - were in the $400 range.
Europe by Air is on the right track and is adding new airline partners all the time.
Better Deal on Swissair
Europe by Air is o.k. for those not flying Swissair. But for readers who are, a much better program is Swissair's "Visit Europe Pass." When you order your transatlantic Swissair tickets, you can purchase three coupons for a total of $299, each good for a flight within Europe on Swissair or its partners in the Qualifyer Group which includes Sabena, TAP Air Portugal, Turkish Airlines, AOM French Airlines, Crossair, Air Littoral, AirEurope, LOT Polish Airlines, PGA-Portuglia Airlines and Volare Airlines. The coupons are good for travel to dozens of cities including Munich, Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, etc.
I should also again point out that Gemütlichkeit subscribers (plus family and friends accompanying them) who fly to Europe via Swissair qualify for reduced fares of from $25 to $600 depending on the price and class of ticket purchased. To book tickets at these special reduced rates phone 800-238-0399. RHB