Winging It, Part 2

I may have gotten a little carried away last month and perhaps some clarification is in order. While we advocate the flexibility and freedom of traveling without an itinerary, it's not for everyone all the time.

There are practical reasons for a planned itinerary. To insure accommodations in the most popular destination cities, for example, advance hotel reservations are necessary. If you arrive in Munich during the last two weeks of September (Oktoberfest) do not expect to find a place to stay. Similarly, most big cities in our coverage area frequently host events that not only grab all the hotel rooms for miles around but also drive up hotel prices. These are things you find out when you plan ahead.

And, of course, if there is no trip strategy there is nothing to plan for, so we free-wheeling sojourners miss an enjoyable aspect of travel.

But for those pliable souls who can deal with the occasional disappointment, planning as you go offers many rewards.

Last month we poked a little fun at travelers who head for Europe equipped with a spreadsheet itinerary that accounts for every 15-minute segment of their vacation. At the other end of that spectrum are those who have no plan whatsoever. We recommend something between these two extremes. It is probably prudent, for example, to reserve first and last night hotels and in such always busy destinations as Salzburg, Munich, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Vienna, Zermatt and Lucerne. In addition, even if you do not make hotel arrangements in advance, you will probably be more comfortable with at least a rough plan of which regions you want to visit. Wherever you fall along the spectrum, keep a few days of every trip open for just browsing. Pick a backroad and head down it, stopping where and when you feel like it.

Traveling in this footloose fashion, though possible via rail, is tailor-made for the automobile. But as relaxed and free as it is, three questions must still be answered almost daily by the roving traveler: How do I get where I'm going?; What will I see?; and How do I find a place to stay?.

How Do I Find a Place to Stay?

For many, this is the most important question of the trip and there are several useful resources to rely on.

Gemütlichkeit's Hotel Database

You can either download or print it off the Internet and take it with you, or we can mail subscribers a free copy for $3 to cover postage and handling. In Europe, of course, you can access the hotel database from an Internet café or possibly from your hotel.

Tourist Offices

A simple and effective way to locate hotel rooms is to go directly to the local tourist office upon arrival in town. They'll offer a wide choice of available accommodations and often can make bookings. Sometimes they even offer special discounted deals.

Michelin's Red Guides

In Germany and Switzerland (no Red Guide for Austria), these books are essential for the independent auto traveler. Perhaps a better, more contemporary title for the Germany book would be "10,000 Good Places to Eat and Sleep in Germany." That's right, about 10,000 hotels and restaurants; all listed and rated, with prices, phone and fax numbers, email addresses, plus extensive information communicated via symbols on each establishment's facilities and features. The symbols are explained in several languages, including English. The Switzerland guide is smaller but no less comprehensive. These books have so many useful features there isn't space to list them all but here are a few:

City Maps The Germany guide has city maps for about 150 of the larger towns and the Switzerland guide contains maps of about 40 cities. Spotted on them are the hotels and restaurants listed in the guides, and in a major city like Munich that can be 200 or more. (By comparison, Frommer's Germany contains fewer than 100 Munich hotel and restaurant listings. And, of course, Michelin rates establishments in hundreds of small towns and villages that aren't even mentioned by Frommer or Fodor or any of the other well-known, all-purpose guidebooks.)

You can imagine how handy it is to have a map of a city you're driving into for the first time, with the location of your hotel marked on it.

Distance tables These are in kilometers and show the distance between major cities in both Germany and Europe. In addition to the tables, the Red Guide listing for each town, even the smallest, shows the distance to three or four important cities in the region. Using these in combination with the tables, one can come fairly close to figuring the distance between any two cities in the country and in Europe.

Locator maps for best places These are overall maps showing towns where Michelin finds notable hotels and restaurants. An auto traveler can quickly determine which of these special places is within an easy drive. It is then a simple matter to look up hotel and restaurant phone numbers under the town listings and call for reservations.

Restaurant finder While Michelin is famous for its ratings of expensive restaurants, of even greater value to the ordinary traveler is the notation of simpler, cheaper places serving good food. In the listings, the word "Menu" in red type indicates "moderately priced establishments that offer good value for money and serve carefully prepared meals, often of regional cooking." Other restaurants, which "serve simple meals for less than 25 DM" ($11) are marked with a tire symbol.

City information: In Germany, Michelin covers about 2500 cities, towns and villages and supplies a wealth of information for each: postal code, telephone area code, altitude, population, number of chair and ski lifts, location plus phone and fax numbers for the tourist office, availability of recreational activities such as golf courses and a listing of the major sites are just some of the notations for each town.

How do I get where I'm going?

The Right Maps

Don't think that nice map the tourist office sent you for free is in any way suitable to guide you in your backroads travels. Each of our three countries has a complex network of roads and detailed maps are essential. A scale of 1:200,000 (one centimeter equals two kilometers) or 1:150,000 (1 cm=1.5 km) is best. A scale of 1:400,000 will do in a pinch but forget anything above that. Use the free map to get an overall perspective of the country. Be advised that at a 1:200,000 scale it takes several maps to cover a country.

Various map publishers, such as Germany-based Mairs and ADAC, the German Auto Club, sell meticulously detailed maps. One product we particularly recommend is the 1:150,000, spiral-bound Maxi-Atlas for Germany published by Falk and ADAC (doesn't matter which company's atlas you get, they are exactly the same). The advantage is you carry one book that covers the entire country rather than the 24 individual maps it takes to encompass Germany at this scale. The Maxi-Atlas is a kind of travel guide in itself - one that can direct you over Germany's most beautiful backroads to pretty, historic towns that aren't even mentioned in guidebooks.

Similar atlases are available for Austria and Switzerland. Purchase them in Europe or phone 800-521-6722 (ask for your 10% subscribers discount).

Such detailed maps and atlases are fundamental to the wandering traveler with no set itinerary. They display all roads, from Autobahns to footpaths. Here are some of their key features:

• Scenic roads are edged in green and panoramic views along the way are marked with a red or purple rosette. A wine route is marked "Weinstrasse." Roads shown in yellow or gray are usually the quietest and least traveled.

• The names of picturesque towns are enclosed in a red box.

• Places of interest are underlined or marked with stars; the more stars, the better.

• There are many other symbols used to mark such things as golf courses, chair lifts, rack railways, youth hostels, waterfalls, churches, cemeteries, toll roads, tunnels, bridges and so on.

• Make sure the map you purchase shows its legend in English as well as German. Most do.

What will I see?

When you're cruising through the countryside you need a good guidebook to provide background on the charming town you've just rolled into, or the significance of that monastery on the hill.

In our opinion, the best references for European sights, history and culture are found in Michelin's Green Guide series. There is a separate book for each of our three countries. Leading cities and sights are starred according to importance: three stars is "worth a journey," two stars "worth a detour" and one star "interesting." There are suggested walking and driving tours with descriptions and ratings of the sights along the way, maps of the most important cities, and a few pictures.

The guides are updated at three to four year intervals after three years of research and travel. First drafts are done by several top free-lance travel writers, each of whom is familiar with the assigned region. The book's overall editor visits every sight covered in the book. A chief editor oversees the books' editor who, in turn, oversees the free-lancers. Cartographers and editors decide on maps for selected towns. Finally, fact-checkers confirm such details as hours of operation and prices. When compared with guides like Fodor and Frommer it is the pros vs. the amateurs.

With the proper maps, enough reference materials to help locate your style of accommodation and a willingness to fly just a little bit blind, winging it on the backroads of Germany, Austria and Switzerland can be a wonderfully rewarding and relaxing travel experience.