Planning Your Trip Online

These are trip planning days. Time to grapple with such issues as whether to travel by rail or car, where to book hotels to get the best rates, just which cities and regions to put on the itinerary, and that confusing business of trip insurance, do you need it and, if so, how much do you need. Based on emails and phone calls to this office, there is a lack of awareness of available tools to facilitate these decisions.

A huge percentage of questions posed to us involve auto and train travel. Mrs. Smith, for example, wants to know whether she and her husband should travel in Germany by car or by rail. We can't answer that without knowing about the Smith's personal preferences, proposed itinerary, and their trip budget. In the course of 30 minutes or so, our trip planning people, for a fee, can gather the information and help Mrs. Smith come to a conclusion. But, given the right tools, she can easily do it herself. What she needs to know, in the context of her itinerary, are travel times, routes, train schedules, and costs.

She can email our car rental service (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) for a quote but a good rule of thumb is to figure about $36 per day for a four-door rental car in Germany, plus fuel and parking.

That part is easy. But let's say Mrs. Smith wants to know the driving time vs. train travel time from Munich to Füssen, and the price of individual rail trips. Before the Internet, that information wasn't so easy to find. Now it's a snap.

Three Essential Websites

Google maps, Michelin's travel website and the Deutsche Bahn's Website are indispensable to this process. Mrs. Smith will quickly discover there is hourly train service, that the one-way cost, if she's thinking point-to-point tickets instead of a rail pass, is 20.8 euros, and that the trip takes just over two hours. If she wants, she can book tickets at the site which also has complete timetables for all the railroads of Europe. Want to know about a train trip from Bucharest to Paris? Provided you know to use the word Bucuresti and not Bucharest, the timetable feature of this German Rail website will tell you it can be done in about 35 hours with one change of trains. But you won't find the price here. Fares for most international trips are not computed at any of the national rail websites. More on that in a minute.

At ViaMichelin Mrs. Smith learns the driving time from Munich to Füssen is one hour and 40 minutes and the distance is 133km (83 miles). She'll also gets a zoom-in, zoom-out map and a suggested routing with links to Michelin-recommended hotels at the destination.

Google Maps may be the greatest single Internet aid to the traveler. And so easy. For example, just type “Paris to Munich” in a Google search box, hit return, and then click 'Maps' from the top menu. You'll get a route—both driving and walking—with directions, a zoomable map and estimated travel time. Of course, there's a satellite view and even a live traffic overlay that color-codes slower roads. One of the truly amazing Internet features.

These three websites should be bookmarked in every Europe traveler's browser. Both Google and Viamichelin let the user save route plans, no need to reconstruct them. Mrs. Smith will also find the same listings of hotels and restaurants contained in the Michelin Red Guide series as well as the recommended sights, including descriptions and maps, from the Michelin Green Travel Guide series. Suppose she wants to know what to see in and around Füssen? At ViaMichelin she clicks Tourism/Michelin Travel Guide, then selects Germany and types Füssen' in the city field. That brings up a list of 29 sights Michelin deems worthwhile plus a map of the region spotted with the same 29 sights. Clicking on sight number eight she is presented with a paragraph of information about the two-star Wieskirche, its address, phone, fax, times open to the public, and a link to its website. This is probably the single most useful website for the European traveler.

Another part of the planning process that stumps many rail travelers is determining whether it's cheaper to buy a pass or individual city-to-city tickets. In order to make that call you must first know the cost of both. The prices for the myriad of rail passes is easy to find; just go to www.gemut.com and click "Buy a European Rail Pass." Getting the price of individual tickets is harder. Though the websites of Europe's national railroads provide ticket prices for travel within their own countries, it's a different story when the trip involves crossing borders. For example, the Swiss railroad's website (www.rail.ch) has schedules but no prices for a Zürich-Munich trip. For trips involving more than one country your best bet is a U.S.-based online seller of point-to-point tickets such as www.gemut.com. For long trips that involve train changes you might have to get creative. You won't find a price anywhere that I know of for the Bucharest-Paris trip. However, if you break your search into segments—Bucharest-Vienna, Vienna-Munich, Munich-Paris—you'll get an idea of the cost. With this information you can determine whether you need a multi-country rail pass or just individual tickets. Unfortunately, some point-to-point journeys simply can't be booked here in the U.S.

Of course there are many other websites with reliable, useful info. The U.K.-based seat61.com/, for example. The work of one man, Mark Smith, a former British railroad employee, www.seat61.com will answer just about any question you can dream up on European rail travel.

Finally, I still keep close at hand Michelin Red and Green Guides, a Maxi-Atlas for Germany, 1:200,000 scale maps for Austria and Switzerland, and a Langenscheidt English-Deutsch dictionary. I use 'em every day. -RHB