Save money on an Untour, one of Europe's great travel bargains.
For 22 years now, Gemütlichkeit has been all about independent travel. Fly to Europe, pick up a car at the airport or hop a train and, except for reservations at special hotels or in key cities, proceed as the mood strikes. Less structured itineraries create more opportunities for spontaneity.
It is a style of travel for which the three countries we cover are well suited: vast networks of speedy highways and peaceful back roads, excellent rail systems, thousands of welcoming small hotels, and every few kilometers another interesting town or village. As you can imagine, it would require special circumstances for us to put our stamp of approval on a more structured way of travel. The Untour, we recently discovered, combines the freedom of independent travel with some of the comforts of a guided service—without the usual disadvantages of either.
Untour was created and marketed by Idyll, Ltd., a 33-year-old, family-owned company based in Media, Pennsylvania. The name and the concept behind it have the simple genius of why-didn't-I-think-of-that inventions like Velcro and the safety pin. It consists of two weeks in a private dwelling (house, condo, apartment, or chalet) in one of 10 European countries, including Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. With a price that's guaranteed in U.S. dollars comes a roundtrip airline ticket from the U.S. to Europe, a rail pass or rental car, and about as much or as little in-country assistance as the traveler desires. An Untour representative also escorts arriving travelers to and from airports and provides stacks of useful reference materials, as well as an arrival orientation.
The Untour avoids many of the day-to-day difficulties encountered by other travel modes. The independent traveler, for example, had better be ready for a few surprises and disappointments. A hoped-for hotel—or entire town—may be fully booked, and the last hotel available may not fit the budget. Then there's all that packing and unpacking. And experienced rail travelers are quick to point out that you will carry everything you take to Europe, plus everything you acquire while in Europe, on and off every train you ride.
At the other end of the travel spectrum is the follow-the-lady-with-the-flag, every-minute-of-every-day-is-accounted-for, traditional motorcoach tour marketed by such companies as Globus and Cosmos. Most day-to-day decision-making and problem-solving is in the hands of the tour operator, and travelers simply go with the flow. That the escorted tour traveler knows his or her costs in advance is, for many, a big plus. On the other hand, the guided tours' relentless itineraries—"bags in the lobby at 7am"—the forced camaraderie, and "herd" style of travel are oft-heard criticisms of the genre.
After a first bus tour through Europe, followed by a few independent car or train experiences, it occurs to many that staying put, perhaps in a flat or apartment, has possibilities. It's cheaper than a hotel and you save more money by cooking some or all your own meals. Still, there are a few hurdles. Groceries, for example: What do I buy, and where? Will I have to prepare everything from scratch? What if nobody speaks English at the butcher shop? And who wants to commit a week or more of precious vacation time to a rental unit that could turn out to be all wrong?
The Untour addresses these and other concerns. Beyond cost and convenience, the principal Untour advantage is that the traveler actually lives among the local population. As the company's catalog points out, "Untourists have neighbors" and frequently develop a sense of belonging to the village that is their temporary home. Many develop friendships with locals and return to the same town year after year.
Idyll markets Untours for three regions of Switzerland: the Swiss Heartland, the Swiss Oberland, and Ticino. Germany's two Untours are the Rhine Valley and Castle Untour, the latter offering accommodations in a 14th Century Bavarian Castle near Ansbach. In Austria, Untours are available in villages near Salzburg and in apartments in Vienna.
Untours are also available for France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Holland, Prague, and Budapest. With an Untour sampler, you can divide your time among two or three locations, such as: Prague-Vienna, Vienna-Salzburg, Venice-Paris, Rome-Venice or even Prague-Budapest-Vienna.
Each property has a fully-equipped kitchen; bedding and towels are also supplied. Knowledgeable, English-speaking locals provide the advice and help. Except for a brief arrival orientation, travelers are on their own to explore the country via their rail pass or rental car. For those who prefer to arrange their own air transportation, Untours are also sold as ground-only packages. Either way, in these weak-dollar times, they are an extraordinary value.
For the Untourist who needs it, there are several levels of support. First, Idyll produces several publications tailored to fit the needs of its clientèle. Included with the usual destination descriptions and restaurant recommendations are dozens of hiking and walking itineraries, bike routes, tips on local etiquette, and suggestions for stocking up at local markets.
Two of the booklets prepared for the Swiss Untour, a Planning Guide and an Arrivals Guide, have solid information useful to any Switzerland visitor, but especially the Untourist. There are diagrams of the Zürich Airport's arrival halls and rail station, key rail schedules, meeting points, important phone numbers, addresses of local Untours employees and landlords, and a lot more. The Swiss Heartland Dream Book—each region has its own—is a sort of mini guidebook with information about the area's cities and towns, suggested daytrips, restaurant recommendations, a menu and food section, and even recipes.
In the unlikely event that the printed materials cannot answer a question, Idyll provides toll-free access to its main office in Pennsylvania. On-the-spot assistance is also available from Switzerland-based Untours employees; our Arrivals Guide listed 10 such local contacts. The real day-to-day support, though, comes from the Untours landlords. Quite often, they will be your neighbors.
It was our good fortune to wind up in Chalet Berit in the village of Sachseln on Lake Sarnen, south of Lucerne, where Albert and Berit Greutert are legendary Untour hosts. One of Idyll's most frequent customers, Dr. Vance Roy, a retired American neurologist, liked Chalet Berit and the Greuterts so much that he and his wife, Barbara, now permanently rent the chalet's top floor (there are three), where they live year-round.
At the start of our own abbreviated Untour, Albert and Berit met us at the railway station (regular Untour guests are met at the Zürich Airport), grabbed our bags, loaded us into their car, pointed out restaurant and grocery store possibilities during a quick tour of Sachseln, and then got us up to speed on the apartment. Waiting for us in the fridge were beer, wine, cheese, bread, sliced meat, orange juice, homemade jelly, butter, and milk. And, unlike those $5 bottles of mineral water sitting on the coffee table of your hotel, it's all part of the service.
The Greuterts live next door and the morning after our arrival, Berit knocked on the door to invite us for dinner. To our amazement, Dr. Roy assured us this is standard operating procedure. As we were to discover, Greutert hospitality is extraordinary.
From March to October, every second Wednesday, some 80 to 100 "Untourists"—many of them returning for the 3rd, 10th, or even 20th time—arrive at the Zürich Airport and from there are escorted to the properties they have chosen. Those bound for one of four Greutert apartments will be met, as we were, at the Sachseln rail station by Albert or Berit or both.
Except for the initial orientation that gathers all Untourists in the region, and one optional group activity, such as a visit to a local vintner or cheese-maker, you will not sightsee or socialize with fellow Untourists—unless, of course, you choose to. Your own apartment and rail pass or rental car are the means to your independence.
Roughly speaking, two-week Untours are priced from $1300 to $4,000 per person, with the average around $2,400. A high-season Swiss Untour in 2009 is about $2,900 for each of two people. More Untourists under one roof means lower prices. For two couples on the same Swiss Untour, the per-person price falls to about $2700.
When one considers that a high-season roundtrip transatlantic airline ticket is currently running from about $1000 to $1900, one wonders how Idyll can include a rail pass/rental car, two weeks in an apartment, on-the-ground assistance, and still make a profit.
So, which Untour property should you choose? It is first important to understand that the price is the same regardless of the property one is assigned to—and, though the overall quality is excellent, there are differences among the apartments. You should also be aware that there is a cadre of loyal customers who know which are the best places and return to them year after year, reserving as far in advance as possible. Some properties are already almost fully booked for 2009.
Perhaps the best way to learn about the Untour experience is by signing up for Idyllchat, a free, customer-driven e-mail list. Enroll at untours.com/, and immediately you'll find in your e-mail box a daily dose of half a dozen or so chatty, friendly, useful e-mails put there by Idyll's knowledgeable customers. For newcomers to the Untour way of travel, it's an extraordinary resource. E-mail a question about where to eat, where to walk, where to shop, what to take along etc., and in 30 minutes to 72 hours, you'll have 10 to 20 responses from savvy travelers who have "been there, done that." Gemütlichkeit monitors the list daily and finds plenty of solid, firsthand information that would benefit any frequent traveler to Europe—Untour customer or not.
In addition to our four-day stay in Chalet Berit, Gemütlichkeit was able to inspect several other Untour properties in the Swiss Heartland:
The middle flat of a typical Swiss, dark-wood-over-concrete-block, three-story structure has four small rooms—two bedrooms, kitchen, sitting room—and a fairly spacious bathroom with a window and add-on corner shower. Through the apartment's small, curtained windows, the view is of town, lake, and mountains. There is a TV with satellite, a stereo with a nice selection of CDs, several dozen paperbacks in English, a few games, and a telephone with a calling plan that is so good, it costs only pennies per minute to phone the U.S. Restaurants and a grocery store are five minutes away on foot, and the rail station another five minutes.
(Perhaps it should be noted here that Switzerland, with its marvelous public transport system of trains, buses, boats, cable cars, and funiculars, is particularly suited to the Untour style of travel. With public transportation close to every property, the daytrip possibilities are virtually limitless. This smorgasbord of easily-accessed destinations is perhaps the most pleasant aspect of the Swiss Untour.)
Our dinner in the Greutert home was a relaxed affair that our hosts seemed to enjoy as much as we did—which was considerable. We met children and grandchildren and felt as at-home as we would with good friends in the U.S. Ordinary package tourists almost never—and independent travelers seldom—get this close to a European family. We must emphasize, however, that in every sense of the word, the Greuterts are special; one cannot imagine this level of hospitality from all Untour hosts. Landlords: Albert & Berit Greutert.
Von Moos Lower & Upper
The upper apartment is clearly the better of the two. It has a double and a single bed, a combination tub/shower, balcony with excellent view, full kitchen and nice living room with built-in bookcase and wooden ceilings, walls, and floors. The owners try to have one meal with their guests. The lower apartment is smaller and feels a bit closed in, though the bedroom is brightened by windows in adjoining walls.
The von Moos family owns the local Metzgerei (butcher shop), and we were invited to sit down at the kitchen table for a snack. Afterwards, Frau von Moos wouldn't let us leave without taking along some delicious air-dried meat and a few sausages.
We rate the lower von Moos `average' and the upper apartment 'above average.' Landlords: Lisabeth & Leo von Moos.
Lungern is considered one of the prettiest villages in the Untour portfolio. The views from both the living room and bedroom of this spacious apartment take advantage of the building's lakeside location. A large, recently remodeled kitchen is also a major plus. The bathroom is next on the remodel schedule.
Owner Lukas is a sculptor, and his work is featured throughout the house and yard. Perhaps the only caution is that guests must climb a narrow spiral staircase to the third floor. We rate this property 'above average.' Landlords: Lukas & Alice Gasser-Müggler.
Künzler 1 & 2
These are the two best properties in the group, and Number 2, on the top floor, with its sleek modern decor, highly-polished hardwood floors, and many-windowed living room opening to a wide balcony, is the clear overall winner. The entire apartment and balcony are aimed directly at the Wetterhorn Alps and Rosenlaui Glacier, a stunning mountainscape that seems almost close enough to touch. There are two bedrooms, each of which has an adjoining full bath. This would be a terrific living space anywhere, but the view moves it into the 'very special,' category.
The lower apartment, Number 1, which can accommodate five people, has a pleasant sun porch and a dishwasher, and is more traditionally decorated. It, too, faces the view, but doesn't take full advantage of it.
The lone caveat with Hohfluh is that it is a 14-minute bus ride to the nearest rail station. We rate this property 'excellent.' Landlord: Margaret Künzler.
When it came time to leave Chalet Berit, there was an early morning train to catch. As we stepped outside the apartment into the chilly, predawn darkness, we found both Berit and Albert waiting with the car and trunk lid open to drive us to the station. Twenty years of writing this newsletter and there's still no real English translation of the word Gemütlichkeit. We can tell you where to find it, though—try an Untour in the Swiss Heartland.