A New, Better Year?

Hello 2002. Let's hope you do a better job than your predecessor.

O.k., enough of formalities, what about travel to Europe this year? Here's a quick, topic-by-topic, roundup of how we see things right now.

Air Travel

Newspaper ads and email promos are full of headlines like "London from $199" and "Frankfurt $209," but just try to book them. Such extremely low fares do exist but airlines offer only a few seats at these prices and for a very limited number of dates. Ask for a quote on the airline you want, on the date you want, and the price is usually much higher. It's all eyewash unless you can actually book the low fare.

The number of flights to Europe has been reduced substantially and we're hearing of full airplanes, even at this time of year. Swissair, which declared bankruptcy and nearly gave up the ghost, is reporting higher loads than a year ago.

Fares are about what they were at this time last year, though there are some decent high season deals for those willing to commit now. Of course, you can roll the dice and wait to see if fares drop in the spring or early summer. Those who don't care which airline or what time of day they travel, can set their own price at Priceline.com. Another deep discount possibility is Lufthansa's online auction. If these don't work for you our consolidators are quoting fares as low as anything we've seen on the web, with the possible exception of last-minute online deals such as at American Airlines. Call for a quote at 800-521-6722.

Rail Passes

Rail Europe which is owned by the Swiss Rail and French Rail systems has increased 2002 prices for rail passes sold to Europe-bound Americans. Under the current circumstances of a strong dollar (which converts to about 20% more of their own currency than it did a couple of years ago), and reduced demand for most overseas travel products, the price rise seems badly timed. However, we must admit that rail prices haven't increased all that much in the past five years: a 5-day Europass Saverpass is $306 today vs. $253 in 1997; a 5-day 1st class German Twin Pass is $217.50 now vs. $207 in 1997; and the 4-day Swiss Pass is actually down from $264 in 1997 to $245 in 2002.

Just announced at press time is a special deal on the 5-day, 3-country Eurail Selectpass Saver. The regular price of $294 is now $199, provided purchase is prior to April 30, travel starts by May 1, and is completed by June 30. The Selectpass Saver is for two or more persons traveling together. And, purchasers of an Austrian Rail Pass by April 30 get an extra, free day of travel. Contact: 800-521-6722.

Car Rental

This is going to be shameless self-promotion, but if you plan to rent a car in Europe this year and don't get a quote from our auto rent expert, Eric Poole, at 800-521-6722, it will almost certainly cost you money. Yes, rates in Germany are no longer the super bargain they were two years ago, but we still have the lowest. Let me give you just one example. A longtime subscriber phoned me the other day to say he had gotten a price from us on an economy car for a week out of Frankfurt. We gave him a price of $163 with taxes and airport fees, his choice of Avis or National. Thinking our price a little steep, he contacted National who quoted him $249 for the same car, and then Avis, who came in at $209. We think our car rental rates are a great subscriber benefit.

We should also mention that, with the increase in rail pass prices, the pendulum in the ongoing rail vs. rental car controversy swings more to the car rental side.

Let's say you and your spouse plan to visit three countries—Germany, Austria, and Switzerland - for two weeks in July. You can purchase the 5-day, 3-country Eurail Selectpass Saver for $294 each for a total of $588. Of course, there will be some other public transport fees involved and you'll only be able to travel on five of the 14 days of your trip. (You can go to the 6-day pass for $644 or the 8-day for $756.)

Now, compare those numbers with a four-door, air-conditioned compact such as a Ford Focus, Opel Astra or VW Golf—very comfortable for two persons—for $313 including tax (add 15% for airport pickup) for the entire two weeks. Yes, you'll have to pay for parking and fuel but the car will be available to you every day of your trip, you won't be wrestling bags in and out of train stations, and you'll set your own schedule.

Train travel in Europe is a joy, and other scenarios—traveling entirely within one country, for example—will show less of a cost disparity, but for the budget-conscious traveler, a rental car is hard to beat.

Trip Insurance

One final thought; with recent events in mind we now recommend every traveler to Europe purchase an insurance policy which protects against trip cancellation and trip interruption. Most such policies also offer other benefits such as emergency medical transport, rental car CDW, lost baggage protection and so on. RHB

February 2002