Auto Rent War

As we enter the summer travel season a few airfare and rental rate skirmishes have flared.

There is a slugfest in the small to medium car rental categories. Through Gemütlichkeit's agreements with various European suppliers, subscribers can now rent a Ford Escort (same category as Opel Astra and VW Golf) in Germany for the astounding rate of $115 per week, not including tax and collision insurance. This is the most popular rental category and the price offered is the lowest in perhaps 10 years. The Opel Vectra category in Germany is an equally astonishing $126. Rates have dropped for other countries as well, though not as dramatically. On the other hand, weekly rates on larger cars have increased. For a specific price quote, call us at 800-521-6722. We do not expect rates to remain this low for very long.

Contributing editors Roger Holliday and Bruce Woelfel, both fierce defenders of train travel, had recently been making some headway in chipping away at my long-held belief that, when two or more persons travel together, a rented automobile provides the most flexible and least expensive way—though perhaps not the most romantic way—to see Europe. With the above rates, however, train travel becomes an expensive alternative. Here is a "for instance." Let's say Fred and Ethyl want to spend two weeks seeing Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Their best train option is probably the Europass which limits travel to three, four or five countries from among Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Austria can be added for a small charge. Let us further stipulate that they decide to stop for a few days in some of the larger cities and so will need to travel only eight of their 14 days in Europe. The cost per person for the "8 days travel in 14 days" Europass is $394, plus the $35 to add Austria, for a total of $429, or $858 for the two of them. A regular Eurailpass for 15 consecutive days travel in all 17 Eurail countries would cost $996, so Fred and Ethyl have saved $138 with the Europass. But as we shall see in a moment, some flexibility has been lost.

If, on the other hand, Fred and Ethyl decide to rent a car in Germany, their cost for two weeks in an Opel Astra will be $265 including tax. (Price predicated on their having a credit card that will provide collision insurance.) Add a generous $225 for gas to run the car 3,000 kilometers (a substantial 214 km per day), plus $100 for parking, and their total auto costs are $590, a saving of $268. As you can see, the conventional wisdom that says one saves money traveling by train in Europe is sometimes not so wise. Though a lone traveler can often go cheaper by railpass, two or more persons who plan to see a lot of country will nearly always pay a premium to ride the rails.

But for the sake of argument, let's say the romance of train travel overwhelms Fred and Ethyl and they decide the $268 premium is worth it to hop those marvelous bullet trains, TGVs, ICEs, etc. Let's see what that will cost them in flexibility and convenience.

• To begin with, they are limited to four countries (remember their pass allows three of the five basic countries but they had to add Austria), which they must choose before they leave the U.S. If they are in Vienna and suddenly decide they'd like to see Budapest (or Paris or Brussels), it will cost extra to get there. In addition, on six of the 14 days, they cannot use their passes.

• Arriving in towns and cities, they'll always first have to deal with moving themselves and their luggage to a hotel. The choices I'm aware of are bus, underground, taxi or on foot.

• I know there are good hotels near most European train stations, but a couple traveling by car can choose any of a city's hotels. Even if Fred and Ethyl stick to hotels near rail stations, there will be frequent carrying of luggage—down streets and through train, bus and underground stations.

• Since every time they move they will have to carry everything they own, they will have to pack light. Weight and bulk will be a major factor; not too many dresses, coats, shoes, books, maps, cameras, hair dryers, laptop computers and all those other nice-to-have-along items the auto traveler really doesn't have to worry about. When I pack, my chief concern is, will it fit in the suitcase? Traveling light is a discipline I am about as familiar with as, say, Tai Chi.

• Though we know European trains are frequent and scrupulously on-time, Fred and Ethyl will be limited to traveling when the trains do. That's pretty handy but not quite as flexible as traveling on your own schedule as auto travelers do (assuming no stau on the Autobahn, of course).

• And finally, they will have to stick close to those railroad tracks. No driving through the woods (unless in a taxi) to remote country hotels. Some of my favorite hotels are miles from the nearest train station.

Roger and Bruce are itching to rebut this. They'll get their chance next month.

DER Lowers Fares

DER Tours, the Germany-based tour company which buys large blocks of seats from the major carriers and then resells them, usually at lower rates than the airlines themselves, now guarantees the lowest fares to Europe. The precise statement from a company flyer to travel agents is "We guarantee our price to be the same or lower than other available fares, for identical flight arrangements. If you find a lower price, fax us the details and we will match it, no questions asked."

DER is now offering Tuesday departures and returns, June through September, to Frankfurt on Lufthansa:

* Atlanta $738
* Chicago $739 (June only)
* Chicago $778 (July-Sept)
* Los Angeles $828
* Miami $748

October prices are about $150 less. DER offers low fares on other airlines from most major U.S. cities. Your travel agent can reach them at 800-782-2424.

Swissair Price Reductions

Of course, the special fare reductions on Swissair remain in effect for Gemütlichkeit subscribers. This summer the per ticket reduction for subscribers and persons traveling with them to or from Europe on Swissair is $50 off summer roundtrip sale fares, $100 off regular roundtrip economy fares, $400 off roundtrip business class fares and $600 off roundtrip first class fares. To obtain fares and the current price reductions, call the main Swissair reservation number, 800-221-4750 and ask the reservationist to access "G-star, reference QL2JLQ." This will provide access by the reservationist to the area of the Swissair reservations computer system which contains information about the Gemütlichkeit program.

Please be aware that you must book and purchase your ticket directly through Swissair. The number to purchase tickets is 800-238-0399.

New Magazine on Germany

Germanophiles will be interested in a new magazine, German Life. The first issue of this bimonthly publication, which bears a July 1994 imprint, carried three articles on Berlin, an interesting photo essay on Eastern Germany, the most complete information we've seen on German genealogy, a short piece on German cuisine, a synopsis of several travel guidebooks to Germany, a story on German football (soccer) and various other features. Subscriptions are $15.95 for six issues and may be obtained by writing Zeitgeist Publishing, PO Box 609, Grantsville, MD 21536, phone 800-314-6843.

May 1994