Those planning a summer trip to Europe may be wise to purchase airline tickets now.

Heinz Niederhoff, president of DER Tours, one of the largest consolidators of transatlantic airline tickets, says advance bookings between Europe and North America are very strong and some summer flights are already sold out.

He expects his firm's high-season prices for flights on Delta, United, Lufthansa, Northwest, USAir and other carriers to be slightly higher than in 1995 but says there will be fewer seats for sale.

"The question this year is not price, but availability," said Mr. Niederhoff. "If I were personally in the market for airline tickets I would buy them now."

One factor in the predicted transatlantic seat shortage is increased demand from Europe. The weak dollar makes the U.S. and Canada vacation bargains for most Europeans. The summer Olympics in Atlanta will further swell the seat demand.

And Europe still hasn't lost its allure for Americans. The European Travel Commission predicts a record nine million Americans will visit Europe this year.

Will there be the usual spring fare war? Probably, but it likely will be brief and fare cuts won't be as deep as in past years. One airline official warns a fare war would seriously deplete the summer inventory of transatlantic seats and make postwar ticket sales very much a sellers market.

Airline ticket consolidators such as DER Tours purchase tickets in bulk from major airlines and resell them, usually through travel agents. The retail prices for such tickets are typically less than what the airlines sell them for. The exception is a particularly fierce fare war when, usually for only a few days, airlines make very deep fare cuts. Such a war this year seems unlikely.

In this context it should be remembered that Gemütlichkeit subscribers and those who travel with them qualify for Swissair price reductions of from $50 to $600 depending on the fare and class of service. For example, Swissair's current roundtrip fare from Los Angeles to Switzerland is $1,008. The Gemütlichkeit discount at that fare level is $150 per ticket, making the roundtrip fare $858. This is not just for flights into Switzerland. For this price one can fly, via Switzerland, to and return from a variety of central European cities.

For fare quotes and to book a Swissair flight at the lower Gemütlichkeit prices phone 800-238-0399.

Top Hotels: U.S. vs Europe

When last we spoke, your humble but procrastinative servant was desperately seeking to renew his expired passport. It was mid-December and, except in cases of "life and death," the government had decided to temporarily deny these important documents to U.S. citizens. According to a gleeful functionary at the San Francisco passport office, it didn't matter if you had rented the Swiss side of the Matterhorn for a private New Years Eve party; there were no passports to be had unless you could prove that your Aunt Helga was tot, not merely dying mind you, but an actual ex-person with a death certificate to prove it.

I tried to use Gemütlichkeit's political clout but the strings I pulled were all attached to air.

So we stayed home and took a short trip between Christmas and New Years Day to the Monterey Peninsula, one of this galaxy's prettiest chunks of real estate.

Since The Inn at Spanish Bay, on the elite 17-Mile Drive that runs along the coast between Pacific Grove and Carmel, was offering a special midweek deal we decided, as the saying goes, to "live large."

Over the past few years, my rare U.S. hotel experiences have been business-related forays limited to the genre that includes Hilton, Marriott, Quality Inn, Red Lion, Holiday Inn, etc. Of course, there has also been the occasional bed and breakfast stay in conjunction with a weekend getaway. But The Inn at Spanish Bay promises luxury far beyond Hilton's and Marriott's and is, I believe, considered among the finest resort hotels in the U.S. It is part of the Pebble Beach Company's holdings which include The Lodge at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill Golf Course, the Pebble Beach Golf Links where the final round of the AT&T golf tournament (formerly the Bing Crosby) is played, and other resort facilities.

As one who has reviewed hundreds of European hotels, I simply cannot resist comparing this hotel with the best resort hotels I've seen in Germany, Austria and Switzerland; such as the Victoria Jungfrau in Interlaken, the Grüner Baum in Badgastein, Austria, Baden-Baden's Brenner's Park, the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne and Switzerland's Les Sources des Alpes in Leukerbad.

As you no doubt have already deduced, I am about to take a couple of whacks at The Inn at Spanish Bay. After I tell you we encountered not one unpleasant employee, first-rate accommodations and a matchless oceanside setting among low dunes and Monterey cypress, beside a delicious golf course, The Links at Spanish Bay, you may ask why. Well, pleasant though it was, The Inn at Spanish Bay demonstrates that the great five-star resort hotels of Europe are unique, possibly even worth what they charge. It didn't take us long to realize that it takes more than a beautiful location and a friendly young staff to equal them:

Upon check-in at the ISB we were given a key and verbal directions on finding our room. In a hotel of similar class in Europe one is always escorted to the room.

When the bellman arrived with our luggage he merely piled it on the bed, gave us a big smile and left. No explanation of how to operate room gadgets such as the gas-lit fireplace. (This was a person who shares in the automatic $17 per day gratuity charge for bellmen, concierge and housekeeping, not restaurant or bar.)

Our standard size guestroom was quite luxurious with comfortable furniture and the before-mentioned fireplace (which we learned how to operate after a call to "hotel services"). However, compared to European resort hotel rooms, which are typically designed for longer stays, this one was short on closet and storage space. The bathroom design, too, came up a bit short. It's always nice to have a separate bathtub and shower, but to put both in the same room with the toilet is not up to five-star European standards.

Later that evening in the bar we witnessed a revealing little event. It happened so quickly and was so seemingly insignificant we almost missed it. A flick of the hand epitomized the gap between American hotels like The Inn at Spanish Bay and the best of Europe.

Here's what happened: On the bar were several square trays containing various dry snacks such as peanuts and other crunchy, thirst-inducing mixtures. The friendly woman bartender was busily mixing drinks, keeping things shipshape and chatting with customers. While gathering some empty glasses and giving a swipe or two to a spot of water, she picked up a few bits of broken peanuts or crackers lying on the bar and PUT THEM BACK IN THE TRAY. It was a quick reflex action, of course, something she probably wouldn't do consciously, but it speaks volumes about the level of professionalism and training among hotel employees. I kept trying to imagine a black-tied Madhu Kwatra, for many years the Barchef at the Brenner's Park, recycling snack scraps. It was an image impossible to summon.

Now you've heard the small stuff. How about some big stuff?

About 7:15 p.m. on our first night in the hotel, while dressing for dinner after an hours walk along the beach, a soapy Liz was in the shower when suddenly the water went off.

After a couple of minutes of fiddling with faucets I called my new pals at "hotel services" and was told there would be no water for our room (and several others) until about 9:00 p.m. "There was a burst pipe this afternoon, sir, and the repair was scheduled for this time. You should have been informed."

Yes, we should have been informed, but we were not. No phone message, no note under the door.

I asked for another room but was told the hotel was full. When an assistant manager offered to bring us bottles of Evian I told him it was not a matter of thirst but of bathing. At that point the assistant manager ran out of ideas. I had one for him, how about 50% off the room charge? He agreed so quickly I am sorry I didn't ask for more.

Somehow we muddled through and had a decent dinner.

The only other glitch was a phantom, un-itemized $26 mini-bar charge on the final bill. I protested we had had only one drink and two Perriers. The cashier offered no documentation and quickly voided the charges. (ISB calls it an "honor bar." I guess that means guests have to rely on ISBs honor not to overcharge.)

One reason for the superior service in Europe's finest hotels is sheer size. The Inn at Spanish Bay has 270 rooms; Les Sources Des Alpes has 22, the Gürner Baum 90, Brenner's Park 100, the Beau-Rivage Palace 109 and the Victoria Jungfrau 209. A key to the level of service in any hotel is the ratio of employees to guests. In Europe that ratio is typically about two to one two employees for each guest and sometimes as many as three to one. A tiny but exquisite hotel we reviewed several years ago, the Rosalp in Verbier, Switzerland, boasted 56 employees for nine rooms. The Pebble Beach corporations Office of Human Resources says about 500 employees are assigned to The Inn at Spanish Bay. Assuming 400 guests in 270 rooms that's one and a quarter employees for each guest.

But a more important element than the quantity is quality. Employees in Europe's top hotels, bartenders, desk clerks, concierge staff, waiters are well-trained, closely supervised and held to a high standard. They often work in the same hotel for decades. They are viewed by their customers and themselves as craftsmen (and women). My guess is that most of The Inn at Spanish Bay's pleasant, young employees have little formal training and their jobs are, for the most part, brief stops on the way to somewhere else.

How much did it cost? For our midweek package, probably a little less than an off-season deal at any of the European hotels mentioned earlier. For about $430, not including breakfast, we got two nights in a standard double room plus vouchers good for free bike rental for a day, a half-hour massage and tickets to the fabulous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Normally, the ISBs doubles go for $375 per night plus tax and the $17 gratuity.

Except for the water fiasco, we enjoyed our short visit to The Inn at Spanish Bay. Not a single employee was unpleasant; some were just a little overmatched. We will go back. But when we return to Europe we will appreciate all the more those little two and three day splurges at the likes of the Beau Rivage Palace, the Brenners Park and the Victoria Jungfrau.

January 1996