Basel, our lead story this month, is a fine second-tier European city. It isn't Paris, it isn't Vienna or Munich or Zürich. It doesn't dish up mammoth helpings of "old world" ambiance like Salzburg or Rothenburg, or possess the small town charm of Bamberg or Freiburg im Breisgau. As a desirable tourist destination I put it just behind Graz and well ahead of Innsbruck. I like it.
While writing the Basel story I thought what a pleasant surprise it was and how I wished things were a little less expensive in Switzerland these days. I winced as my calculator spit out numbers in the $200 and $300 range when converting Swiss franc hotel prices to dollars.
But wish as I might, things are flat-out expensive in Switzerland. We're not talking "Japan expensive" (you've no doubt heard tales of $200 cab rides to the Tokyo airport), just "Manhattan-when-you're-getting-ripped-off expensive." One very modest hotel reviewed this month, the Steinenschanze, is recommended for students traveling on the cheap by the Let's Go Budget Guide to Austria & Switzerland and its double rooms start at $119!! (Not a rip-off, just the result of an unfortunate currency exchange rate.)
So what are those of us who need an annual Swiss fix to do? For now, I suppose, the only course of action is to spend fewer days in the country, lower our sights insofar as hotels and restaurants are concerned, and do a better job of tracking down bargains.
But courage, help may be on the way. The Paris Herald-Tribune recently reported that August 1995 was Switzerland's worst August for tourists since 1952. A Gemütlichkeit source says when all the numbers are in, tourism in Switzerland in 1995 may be off as much as 30%. And not only are Americans, Germans, French, Canadians and Italians scared off by the strong franc, the Swiss themselves are exchanging Alpine holidays for vacations in North America. If your standard of living is based on the Swiss franc, $89 for an Embassy Suites hotel room is almost free.
Tourism is big business in Switzerland and there will be pressure to avoid a repeat of '95. Something will have to be done. What that "something" will be remains to be seen but it's likely to involve price cutting, discounts and special deals, a course of action independent Swiss hotel operators have been loathe to take. When asked about such things, most hoteliers talk vaguely in terms of free bottles of wine, 10% off for groups and modest discounts for stays of a week or more.
To be blunt about it, that's not enough. Many small hotels, like one we visited this spring outside Gstaad, are locked-in to regional pricing agreements and cannot unilaterally lower their rates no matter how many empty rooms they have. But chains like Sofitel are already looking at their skimpy advance reservations and offering rooms at $118 and $138. Sure, in Zürich I'd rather stay at the more gemütlich Florhof or, better yet, the gemütlich AND luxurious Dolder Grand. But at $283 for a double at the Florhof, and more than $400 for the Dolder, I'll settle for the Sofitel. Yes, it's big and impersonal, but it rates four stars and has many amenities.
So the discounts are going to have to be deep, particularly in the off-season. Fifty-percent off has a nice ring. How about two nights for the price of one? At the very least, three nights for the price of two. My guess is that's what will happen. We will see package arrangements that will entice visitors to stay several days in a particular region or canton. Airlines will join with hotel operators, car rental companies, Swiss Rail and the various regional tourist offices to offer all-inclusive deals guaranteed in U.S. dollars.
But one cautionary note; just because you pay in advance in dollars doesn't mean it's a bargain. (Wundercheck, for example, a German hotel voucher package purchased in advance in the U.S., is not a good deal. One can obtain equal or better rates by booking direct with member hotels. Remember: never pay in advance unless you're getting a good deal.) This pre-pay-in-dollars psychology works on the timid, naive traveler who envisions himself far from home stuck with an astronomical hotel bill he can't contest because he doesn't speak the language. (In Switzerland and in Germany and Austria this is an unlikely scenario; hoteliers there are honest. The price they quote at check-in is what is billed at checkout. There are no hidden or surprise charges.)
Ultimately, the best deals will come from the hotels themselves and from the various tourist authorities. Add a tour operator's cost - travel agent's commission, marketing costs and his own markup - to the wholesale price of a hotel room and you come up with a number close to the rack rate, which is no bargain at all.
But don't give up on Switzerland. We'll evaluate the deals that come along in '96 and tell you about the good ones. In fact, here's an offer to the Swiss hotel industry from Gemütlichkeit. We will publicize to our readers the names of Swiss hotels who offer Gemütlichkeit subscribers a minimum 25% off rack rates for stays as short as one night.
Remember, too, that airfares and car rental rates are still very reasonably priced, so once we get some better hotel prices Switzerland will look a lot more attractive.
Just as we are going to press this month, a fare war has broken out among the major airlines. This one promises to be bloody - just the way we consumers like them - but short. However, these extremely low prices indicate a determination on the airlines part to fill every seat to Europe this winter. So, even if the fares listed below are not in effect for very long, it seems likely prices will remain low for the near term.
Here are some examples of midweek, winter fares in effect at the end of November. Most are for travel through March 15:
Roundtrip San Francisco-Frankfurt: USAir $468; United, Lufthansa, Delta and American $558
Roundtrip Chicago-Frankfurt: Delta, United, USAir, Continental, USAir, TWA $394; Lufthansa $434.
Roundtrip New York-Frankfurt: Delta, United, TWA, USAir, Continental $368; Lufthansa and American $398
Expert Trip Planning
Occasionally we get calls from people who want help planning a European vacation. Anyone in need of such services will do well to turn the chore over to Karen Pasold who specializes in "Romantik Olde World Excursions." Ms. Pasold, who has been a Gemütlichkeit subscriber since we started, knows more rustic, charming, gemütlich hotels in Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary and France, than anybody I know. The last person I sent her way, for whom she planned a trip in celebration of a milestone anniversary, wrote to thank me for recommending her. The trip was apparently a big success.
Ms. Pasold, who is not a travel agent, charges $250 and up for her services. I've talked with her enough, and seen enough of her trip itineraries, to confidently recommend her. Contact: Karen Pasold, 1 Glenmoor, Frisco TX 74034, phone 214-625-6050, fax 214-370-2700.
The Internet address for Switzerland Tourism's new site on the World Wide Web is myswitzerland.com/en-us/home.html. RHB