The Hunt for October Rentals

Let's see, where were we? Oh, right, headed for Switzerland on October 1 with plans to find an apartment, flat or chalet overlooking Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) in the Montreux-Lausanne area.

Immediately on arrival, armed with cell phone and list of available apartments (provided by the Montreux Tourist Office), we began to call likely possibilities. After two days of phoning and driving, no apartment. Here are the statistics: 13 no answers, 8 recorded messages in French, 17 not availables, and two walk-throughs of small, dark, unsuitable basement apartments in a small town at the east end of the lake near the French border.

Moving west to Lausanne and Morges, still along the lake, our results were even worse. "Fully booked rang in our ears. Somewhat disappointed, we headed for Locarno in Italian-speaking Switzerland where the weather was warm and sunny. Our spirits lifted when the tourist office used its database to locate four apartments that might meet our requirements. The young woman who assisted us explained that both vacation rentals and hotel rooms in the region were heavily booked, and recommended we use her computer printout description to choose one of the four - they all sounded appealing - and pay on the spot with a credit card. Wisely, as it turned out, we decided to take a look at all four. I won't bore you with the details, but we found only one basement apartment that offered acceptable furnishings and amenities. The rest were dumps. One of the four did have a panoramic lake view but was otherwise filthy and creepy.

After three full days of looking it was time to admit we had run into a buzz saw. Desirable vacation rentals with lake views in these regions at this time of year were simply not available on short notice. On the shores of both lakes - Geneva and Maggiore - the sun was shining, the leaves were turning and wine grapes were being harvested. It was a wonderful time to be in southern Switzerland - a fact that hadn't gone unnoticed by masses of other tourists.

The few apartments we did see only proved the wisdom of our own advice in the July 2002 Gemütlichkeit; never commit to a European vacation rental property without first inspecting it yourself or having it recommended by a reliable source. Time for Plan B; hotels, many of which you'll hear about over the next few months.

Beam Me Up...Please!

While we're on the subject of trip difficulties and promises made in the October issue, let's discuss our access of the Internet - non-access, actually - while in Europe. I refer, of course, to our stated goal of creating the November issue while in Europe during October and emailing it to the U.S. for printing and distribution.

I had visions of sitting with my day's notes - possibly on a balcony overlooking a lake with a cool beer at hand - forming them into intelligible narratives and tapping same into my laptop computer. At some point these would be fashioned into an entire issue and electronically flashed to our mailing house in Tennessee. We do it from Ashland, why not from Interlaken?, was my naive thought.

That I was unable to do so may be instructive to some who dream of sending and receiving work files via the Internet, thereby continuing to be a contributing part of a business while far away across the Atlantic. This does not refer to sending and receiving short, simple messages from an Internet café - of which there are plenty. That is relatively easy. No, I'm talking about emailing, both sending and receiving, work product created on your own computer.

As you've deduced by now, all did not go well. Getting to the Internet from a less than five-star hotel room in Europe ain't easy. From 99% of European hotel rooms your only possibility is a dial-up connection to a service like America Online. Of course, the room has to have a phone, the wall-jack for which has to be accessible, you must have the correct adapter plug (there's a different one for each country) and the line has to be analog, not digital, otherwise you incinerate your modem. I went equipped with all the adapters as well as a phone line tester and even EuroSurge, a somewhat bulky device which claims to protect both computer and modem against voltage surges said to be common in Europe.

Also required is a local access number for an online service provider, AOL in my case.

First night, modern hotel near Montreux. Move furniture to get access to phone plug. Line tests o.k. Hook up computer to phone line, open AOL software and ask it to find local access number. Software messages that my internal modem will dial the U.S. to find a number. Even though the AOL software says it will, it won't. This I was told two days later by AOL in a call to their foreign access help line (703-264-1184, user pays the toll from Europe). I should have obtained a list of access numbers before leaving the U.S. And anyway, I also learn from AOL, most of the numbers won't work with my Macintosh G4 Powerbook with OS X operating system. In Germany, there is a single number for Macs running OS X. So, not only does one pay a monthly AOL fee, plus an approximately 7 cents per minute AOL overseas access charge, but also the long distance phone charges assessed by the hotel, which, if you plan to spend an hour or so downloading email attachments, can be substantial. Of course, AOL limits the size of files that can be sent via email, so, as it was in my case, the whole question of access may be moot. One final note on AOL: if you plan to use it for overseas access, you must have been an AOL member at least 60 days before you travel.

Even if AOL were not expensive, restrictive, and painfully slow, there are other Internet access issues. When tested by our $19.95 line tester, about one out of three hotel room phone lines came up dirty or simply would not yield a dial tone through the adapter.

My laptop is also equipped with an airport card, which enables it, via the so-called Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) technology, to connect without wires or cables to certain high-speed Internet networks. The availability of such networks in public places such as airports, public buildings, major hotels and even coffee shops, is growing, but still scarce in Europe. At the end of the trip I was able to make a wireless connection to the Internet from a Starbucks coffee shop in Berlin. The necessary hardware is not expensive - less $100 to install an airport or Wi-Fi card in a laptop.

Right now, the easiest and cheapest way to send and receive simple emails from Europe, or perhaps check your portfolio, is still an Internet café or other public Internet access point, such as are found at many rail stations. These stand-up Internet kiosks charge about $3 for 15 minutes online. Internet cafés charge about $5 for 30 minutes. And forget AOL, sign up for a free email account at Yahoo! or Hotmail.

Those still determined to connect using their own laptop, might try a North American ISP that has roaming or reciprocity agreements overseas. One such is Toronto-based SoftCom which has POPs (point of presence) in many major European cities. Another possibility is iPass, which has POPs everywhere. Both SoftCom and iPass provide phone-numbers and dialing utilities you can take abroad.

And generally speaking, the best place to make such a connection is from the business center or guest room of a five-star hotel. RHB

November 2002