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We're going to Switzerland and want to see Italy, too. Can someone help us?

MaryBeth Reardon played the role of big sister when her family took in a Swiss exchange student named Steve Ziegler in the late 1970s. Steve kept in touch with the family over the years and always offered to host anyone coming to his hometown, Zürich. After years of saying they should, MaryBeth and her husband, Dan, of Bellmore, N.Y., decided to take Steve up on his offer. "We're both turning 50 this year, and our 30th wedding anniversary was in June."

MaryBeth told Budget Travel. "We want to celebrate 50/30 in a big way." The last of their three daughters would soon be graduating from college, and they'd heard rates to Europe were good, so why not go for it?  

Initially, the Reardons thought about visiting Steve in the summer of 2003, but airfare alone was well over $1,000 a person. Prices were supposed to be better in winter, and besides, MaryBeth always had pictures in her head of snow-covered Swiss chalets, craggy mountains topped in white, and flurries falling in villages right out of a fairy tale. Switzerland without snow just wouldn't seem right. So winter it would be.  

In addition to seeing Switzerland with Steve as host, the Reardons were also intrigued with traveling on their own for a week or so. On a map, Italy looked close and especially tempting. "I can't wait for Dan to get to Italy--to eat," said MaryBeth. "I know he's going to flip."

A group tour or simple air/hotel package wouldn't work for them. They needed advice on finding airfare, deciding where to go in Italy, and figuring out how to get around.

That's where we stepped in. In August, Dan had started searching for airfare for flights leaving in February or March of 2004. At that point, winter prices didn't seem much better than summer--around $800. We told the Reardons to wait, that it was just too early to find good rates. Sure enough, in mid-October, several airlines announced sales to Europe for winter. After shopping around at search engines and various wholesalers, we decided on an American Airlines flight booked directly through the carrier's website, aa.com/. Not only was the price good ($345.50 each, with taxes included), the flight was direct from JFK to Zürich. In order to get winter scenery and winter prices but still have a chance at spring weather, we told them to depart as late in March as possible. (Airlines generally raise fares to Europe starting April 1, and rates are based on when you leave, not when you return.) They decided on a March 31 departure, with a return on April 13--both midweek flights, by the way, which helped ensure the least expensive fare.

Now, where to go on their trip-within-the trip? The Reardons weren't exactly sure what they wanted, but preferred casual strolls in pretty, romantic settings to trudging along with a checklist of must-sees. We advised them to stick to northern Italy--heading all the way down to Rome or

Florence would eat up too much time. They'd never been to Venice, so that was a definite. We recommended dividing up the journey to Venice with a couple of days on gorgeous Lake Como. Finally, instead of retracing their tracks, they would head north from Venice and spend a night in charming Innsbruck, Austria--which has hosted two Winter Olympics--before looping back to Zürich. 

Renting a car seemed like a headache to the Reardons, what with figuring out driving directions, mountain roads, insurance, and foreign signs. The train was much more appealing--fewer worries, and ample time to relax as the scenery rolls on by.

The cheapest rail pass that would work for their itinerary was over $300; point-to-point tickets were cheaper (we compared options using Rail Europe, raileurope.com/). We told the Reardons to skip the reservations, too--at that time of year, it shouldn't be a problem finding seats, so there was no need to pay $10 or $25 on top of each train ticket.    

This was a special trip, so the Reardons didn't want to worry about saving a few bucks if it meant staying in dumpy hotels. They didn't require luxury, just good value and location. Paying a bit over $100 a night was fine, as long as the hotel seemed worth it and they had a private bath.

Here's the itinerary we created for them.

Wednesday, March 31 Fly to Zürich. Thursday, April 1, to Saturday, april 3 Visit Steve, tour Zürich and surroundings. Sunday, April 4 Board a morning train from Zürich to Como. The trip takes three-and-a-half hours, and a second-class seat is $53. Our advice is to consolidate clothing, toiletries, and other necessities into one bag--traveling light is always best--and leave the rest with Steve. At Como, grab the express ferry for a one-hour cruise to Bellagio (bellagiolakecomo.com/, $16). The bus is cheaper but not nearly as pleasant or scenic. Stay two nights at the Suisse, a modest hotel with wood floors and carved furnishings set in a 15th-century palazzo overlooking the lake. Doubles start at $116, with breakfast.

Monday, April 5 Sightsee around Bellagio and Lake Como. If the previous day's boat ride didn't suffice, take a ferry to one of the nearby villages for more stunning scenery. For dinner, dig into traditional pasta dishes and fresh lake fish at cozy Ristorante Barchetta, in the historic center.

Tuesday, April 6 Ferry back to Como (or take the bus if you want to save a few euros). Train from Como to Venice, four hours, $36. Hop on the No. 82 ferry and get off at the Accademia Bridge. Spend two nights at the Hotel Galleria, a 17th-century palazzo at the foot of the bridge on the Grand Canal, where doubles are $134, with breakfast in your room included.

Wednesday, April 7 Enjoy Venice. Overload on art and history at the Accademia Gallery and the Doge's Palace, go window-shopping on Calle Larga XXII Marzo, watch the pigeons have their way with the other tourists in Piazza San Marco, or just get lost wandering among the canals, bridges, palaces, churches, and alleyways.

Thursday, April 8 Train from Venice to Innsbruck, five hours, $48. Spend the night among the cobblestones and colors of the Altstadt (Old Town), at the delightful Weisses Rössl, which dates back to 1410 and is an easy 10-minute walk from the train station. Doubles start at $128, with breakfast included. Or, to save a bit, hail a cab or take the D bus out to Pension Paula, a hillside chalet just outside town with doubles from $63, breakfast included. 

Friday, April 9 Go for a morning stroll along Innsbruck's quaint old-world streets and gaze up at the huge Tyrolean peaks around you. Afternoon train from Innsbruck to Zürich, four hours, $57.

Saturday, April 10 to Monday, April 12 More time in Switzerland with Steve.

Tuesday, April 13 Fly back to New York.

SWITZERLAND, AUSTRIA & ITALY

Lodging:

" Suisse Piazza Mazzini 23, 011-39/031-950-335, bellagio.co.nz/suisse, $116
" Hotel Galleria Campo della Carità 878a, 011-39/041-523-2489, hotelgalleria.it/, $134
" Weisses Rössl Kiebachgasse 8, 011-43/512-583057, roessl.at/, $128
" Pension Paula Weiherburggasse 15, 011-43/512-292262, pensionpaula.at/, $63
Food:

Ristorante Barchetta Salita Mella 13, 011-39/031-951-389

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