Getting Ready to Travel

It’s trip planning season—one of my favorite times of year. In the old days, we used to send away for catalogs and fire off letters and faxes to hotels asking for rates and brochures. I haunted bookstores, eager for the arrival of the new Michelin Red Guides, and watched the travel section of the Sunday newspaper for that first ad for the Condor Airlines summer charter flights—“from $488.”

The Internet has changed all that. Now it’s all Google searches and filling in online forms. Instead of a shortage of information, the traveler planning a European trip faces an avalanche of data. Not so many years ago, we were limited to a few guidebooks and tourist office handouts, most of which were fairly reliable. The problem with the Internet is similar to that of the flea market shopper: how to fish a few items of quality from a sea of mediocrity—or worse.

Search engine rankings seem heavily weighted toward quantity. “Content,” more specifically the amount of content, is the watchword. A Website that devotes 100 pages to hotels in Munich is almost certain to rank higher in a Google search for “Munich hotels” than one that has just five pages on the topic. The sophisticated software that ranks Websites isn’t yet sophisticated enough to know which sites have the most accurate and reliable information.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on planning a European vacation this year:

• Top Websites for Travel Planning: See our list on page 5. The ViaMichelin and Germany and Swiss Rail sites are especially useful.

• What’s special about 2006? North Americans visiting Europe this year can expect plenty of company, something to consider when planning a trip. In fact, the total number of North American visitors seems likely to approach the all-time record. The dollar buys a bit more than it did a year ago, and two major events, the World Cup soccer tournament in Germany, and Austria’s celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday, promise to attract visitors in the millions.

• Transatlantic Airfares: Our advice is to buy tickets now. The longer you wait, the higher price you’re likely to pay. Demand is huge and, though most airlines are adding flights, the increased capacity is not likely to create enough of a seat surplus to lower prices. Higher security fees and taxes, plus fuel surcharges, account for much of the increase in ticket prices over 2005. The Gemut.com travel service has low consolidator rates on the major airlines, including Lufthansa, British Air, Swiss, American and others. Click Air Tickets or phone 800-521-6722.

• Car Rental: Germany still has the lowest rates. For example, our travel department offers a subcompact for two weeks at $353, including tax, and a compact (four doors, air) for $432. Renting a car is trickier than ever, so do some reading.

Availability and price during the World Cup could be an issue. One company, Sixt, has already raised prices for this period. Car rental guru, Andy Bestor, advises early booking. You can cancel without fee if necessary.

• Rail: Starting this year, the Swiss Pass includes free entrance to more than 400 museums.

• Hotels: Cancellation penalties are increasingly prevalent. If you provide a credit card to guarantee a booking, make sure you understand the policy for canceling. Thousands of hotels can be booked through Venere, one of Europe’s largest, most reliable online bookers. To use the service, go to Gemut.com and click Hotel Bookings.

Soccer fans are justifiably incensed that some German hotels have raised rates to unconscionable heights (in some cases three to five times normal rates) during the World Cup. Of course, this applies almost entirely to the 12 host cities—and then mostly to dates around matches (no city will host more than six matches in the June 9 to July 9 time frame). Room availability and rates, however, are unlikely to be affected in non ‘Cup’ cities and small, country towns.

• Cell Phones: We currently recommend carrying a GSM phone to Europe. Ask your service provider about Europe roaming: with a small monthly charge you should be able to use your phone in Europe at a per-minute charge of around 99 cents. Those who travel with a laptop computer should investigate Skype, a service that allows users to make very inexpensive calls all over the world. Internet access is required.

• Guidebooks & Maps: Essential books are Michelin’s Green (sights, history) and Red guides (hotels, restaurants). We’re also high on Michelin’s Charming Places Germany ($19.95), identifying 500 mostly small, less expensive, properties.
Never travel Europe by car without detailed maps (1:200,000 or 1:150,000). Since it takes a dozen maps at a scale of 1:200,000 to cover all of Germany, the ADAC Maxiatlas for Germany (1:1500,000) is our first choice. Each map in the series of individual 1:200,000 maps published by Mairs sells for $11.95, but the all-Germany Maxiatlas is $29.95. These books and maps are 20 percent off at Travel Essentials.—RHB

February 2006