Extra! Extra! Extra! This month in this space... The editor clears his desk! Sorry, no penetrating insights. No philosophical ramble. No shopworn tales of long-ago trips. Just a handful of scribbled phone notes, press releases and various brain burps.

So here we go, please fasten your safety harness and keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times:

Air Fare Info

With the scarcity of cheap summer airfares, charter airlines are worth a look. A good alternative across the Atlantic is Martin Air Holland, the charter line of KLM Royal Dutch, which flies 747s, MD-11s and 767s to Amsterdam from Florida, Newark, Denver, Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles. Rates are from $630 to $770 roundtrip from the West Coast; $748 to $798 from Denver; $748 to $848 from Florida and $498 to $698 from Newark.

For those who want to be more comfortable, Martin Air's Star Class (business class room and amenities) is less than half most regular business class fares to Europe. Roundtrip Star Class is $1698 from the West Coast; $1198 from Newark and $1518 from Denver and Florida. Call your travel agent or Martin Air at 800-627-8462.

Subscribers in the Minneapolis area can fly to Frankfurt this summer via the Saturday charters of Rich International Airlines. Roundtrip fare is $648 (at press time seats were being sold for $548 but the sale was to end on February 29). Bookings must be made through a travel agent.

LTU (not a charter) offers service to Düsseldorf from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and five Florida cities: Miami, Orlando, Ft. Myers, Tampa and Daytona Beach. Except for Daytona, all are nonstop. Passengers can elect to go on to Munich or Hamburg for no additional charge. Fares from L.A. and San Francisco are $848 shoulder season and $948 high season (June 1 through September 15); $648 and $748 from New York; and from Florida $718 and $848.

In past years, LTU has put its regular fares on sale and this may happen again, so pay attention. Monitor LTU fares via their Internet site (http://www.ltu.com/ltu) or by calling your travel agent or LTU direct at 800-888-0200.

We have subleased space in our Travel Essentials retail outlet in Ashland, Oregon to Explorer Travel. I spent four days in Ashland over the Presidents' Day weekend and watched ETs owner, Tom Smith, unearth some very attractive summer airfares to Europe via a Northern California consolidator. Tom is very knowledgeable about European travel and can be reached at 541-482-6698 or 541-488-0333.

Travel Books

The 1996 Michelin Red Guides are on bookstore shelves. I've been poring over mine for the past four weeks. They are simply the most useful travel books in print. Sometimes I am asked to compare Michelin with, say, Frommer's or Fodor's. After all, with either of the latter you get a useful guide that covers hotels, restaurants, sights, historical and cultural information plus the usual basic travel advice. To get the same coverage from Michelin for a single country one must purchase both the red and the green guide (for sights). For Germany, as an example, that comes to about $45, more than double the cost of a Frommer's or Fodor's Germany guide. Even so, there really is no comparison. Michelin is the clear choice. Consider these factors:

The German Red Guide offers detailed information on more than 10,000 hotels and restaurants. A typical Fodor's or Frommer's lists about 1,000 such establishments and simply omits literally hundreds of villages and towns which Michelin covers. Each of those 10,000 hotels and restaurants is visited at least once each year by full-time inspectors who are employed year round by Michelin. On the other hand, I believe many, if not most, of the Frommer's or Fodor's listings are updated from a hotel brochure or tourist office info. Hard to believe? Hear this story:

Last year, a friend of mine attended a weekend travel writers' seminar at which publishers' representatives spoke of paying a writing fee of a mere $8,000 for a complete annual update of a country guide. This was the total fee out of which the writer was responsible for his or her own travel expenses! Think about that for a moment and you quickly realize how hotel and restaurant reviews come to be based on little more than a look at a brochure or a menu. I have since talked with well-known travel writers who confirm the fee and the procedure.

A Michelin Green Guide (updated at three to four year intervals) is only published 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 book's 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. It is the pros vs. the amateurs.

(Please note: I don't profess that Michelin publishes the only worthwhile travel guides. To some extent, all travel guides are useful. For budget travel, I especially like the Let's Go series. In their niche, the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide series' are without peer and the Eyewitness and Knopf books have taken that style of guidebook to a new level. And, for those who want an overall travel reference for all of Europe, I recommend Birnbaum's Europe; it offers a wealth of information in its approximately 2,000 pages.)

Over 65 Hotel Deal, Sort Of...

Subscriber Tom Trutner called to tell us about a unique Radisson Hotel discount program. Persons 65 years of age or over can obtain a percentage discount equal to their age, off rack rates at Radisson hotels throughout Europe. For example, a 65-year-old (for couples, the older of the two determines eligibility), can rent a double room at the SAS-Palais in Vienna for $144 65% off the rack rate of 4950 AS/$471. At the Radisson SAS-Hotel Berlin the cost will be about $110 (454 DM/$313 rack rate).

However, as the Tom Waits song goes, "the big print giveth and the small print taketh away" (words to live by if you're a traveler) the small print in this case being "at participating hotels." At Salzburg Radisson Altstadt the maximum discount is 25%. In Switzerland the only Radisson hotel is Lausanne's Mövenpick Radisson and it offers zero discounts.

I have one question; does the French woman who recently turned 121 get paid for staying in Radisson hotels? Call Radisson at 800-333-3333.

Hotel Deals, Part II

Subscriber and old Germany hand Bob Gillespie sends along a copy of a recent bill from the splendid Parkhotel Adler (four red roof peaks in the 1996 Michelin Red Guide) in Hinterzarten, Germany, in the Black Forest. The per night charge for his single room which he termed magnificent was 133 DM ($92). Rack rates for singles at the Adler range from 165 to 285 DM ($114-$197). This is a Steigenberger Hotel, a chain which periodically offers attractive discounts at its European properties. Phone 800-223-5652.

What to Pack

My wife, Liz, reminds me that as we lower our hotel sights because of a weak dollar, we must now pack items we stopped taking to Europe 15 years ago. Many of Europe's less expensive hotel rooms can be a bit Spartan. Think about taking such things as wash cloths, hand towels, soap, soft toilet paper, shampoo and Kleenex.

Tour's Poor Value

Ah, here's a brochure from Globus Tours and a 14-day "Grand Tour of Germany" for $1519 per person, double occupancy, including all breakfasts and 10 dinners. I get tired just looking at the little brochure map of a route that includes Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Würzburg, Munich, Freiburg and back to to Frankfurt.

Don't do it. A couple can travel for 14-days on their own in Germany for less. Figure it this way:

1. Compact car $275
2. 14 nights hotel @ $80 $1120
3. 10 dinners for 2 @ $70 $700
4. Entrance fees $150
5. Gas, parking $400
6. Total $2645

In addition to saving $393, the couple will travel at their own pace and whim, stay in hotels that are more authentic and charming than the sterile tour stops, probably eat better, and see and meet more Germans.

Self-Guided Walks

Many companies offer walking and biking tours. Look carefully at the routes, particularly with respect to distance and elevation. (Since they list altitudes and mileages to nearby towns, the Michelin Red Guides are a good source for this information.)

For example, a company called Uniquely Europe offers a "self-guided," eight-day walk from Interlaken to Zermatt for $1120 per person, double occupancy. The first leg is from Interlaken to Grindelwald. The brochure doesn't mention the distance or the change in altitude but it's 12.5 miles and nearly 1,600 feet, respectively. The brochure says there are three routes: "advanced, intermediate and a gentle option." My guess is the "gentle option" is via train and/or cable car. Whatever the route, persons planning to get from Interlaken to Grindelwald on their own two feet without a guide had better be in a decent state of fitness and have recently done some hilly walking on a regular basis.

Most of the distance of this seven-night tour is taken up with a train ride from Lauterbrunnen to Zermatt.

By the way, the price works out to $160 per night per person including dinner and breakfast. Again, with a little research and planning you can do something like this on your own for less money RHB.

February 1996