Affordable Europe: Save on trains
In Western Europe, trains are a cheaper and more convenient way to get around than many of the other options. City center to city center, with no check-ins, no baggage fees, and no extra costs to reach out-of-town airports. Here are tips on how to book your trip.
If you only remember one website, remember www.bahn.de. Its online timetable will give you train times for almost any train journey anywhere in Europe.
For Germany: Alas, the website www.bahn.de only sells tickets for journeys within Germany and many international trips to, or from, Germany. But it does these tasks well.
For France: The French Railways website will sell tickets for any journey within France, and for the direct international trains from Paris to Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. They don’t make it easy for overseas travelers to book, so there’s advice on how to use it at www.seat61.com/France.htm.
For Italy: The Italian Railways website will sell tickets for any journey within Italy, and for direct international journeys from Italy to France, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany.
For Spain: The Spanish Railways website will sell tickets for any journey in Spain, you may have to use it in Spanish, but there are some special web fares that save 60 percent over what you will pay at the ticket office on the day of travel or if you buy from an agency.
For Britain: See my previous post.
Don’t assume you need an expensive railpass, even though they are heavily advertised. If you go direct to the European train company websites rather than booking through U.S. agencies, and book in advance on a no-refunds, no-changes basis, you can find some bargains out there. For example Paris-Geneva from €35, Paris-Amsterdam €70 return, Paris to Milan from €35.
—Mark Smith, writing from England, for our Affordable Europe series.
Where the dollar is strong: Iceland and South Africa
The dollar has gotten stronger against Iceland's krona (by about 22 percent) and South Africa's rand (by about 26 percent) in the past couple of years, according to the Wall Street Journal. Here's some trip inspiration for these two countries: Iceland has some of the planet's most spectacular (and unusual) natural scenery, not to mention it's the closest European country to the US. The most economical ways to go to the Land of Fire and Ice is to book an air-hotel package through Icelandair Holidays. For example, there is this Real Deal: Iceland Tour, 5 Nights, From $1,859 This whirlwind tour begins and ends in hip Reykjavík, with stops at breathtaking attractions like Skaftafell National Park, the icebergs of Jökulsárlón, and scenic volcanic valleys. Round-trip airfare, five nights' accommodations, some meals, and guided tours from $1,859—plus taxes of about $100. The vacation wing of Icelandair also allows you to "build your own package"....which enables flexibility on number of nights, activities, etc. Should you want to forgo a package, then book your flight with Icelandair, and investigate staying at a guesthouse, which can be much more affordable than hotels, especially in Reykjavik. In summer, many working farms open their doors to visitors for overnight stays too. For listings, check out the Accommodations section of the tourism board's website: Visiticeland.com. Because it's so easy to get around Iceland, we'd also suggest renting a car and exploring on your own, i.e. not spending the extra money for organized tours to places you can easily visit on your own. And don't miss out on the amazing community mineral pools and hot pots-they're inexpensive but you'll leave feeling like a million bucks. South Africa is also a better bargain for Americans than ever. The one hiccup is finding an affordable airfare. That's part of the appeal of the vacation package being offered by Foreign Independent Tours: 10 Nights' South Africa Air/Hotel/Car, $2,599—plus taxes and fees of about $231. The deal includes round-trip airfare, 10 nights' accommodations, car rental, some meals, and game drives at the Amakhala Game Reserve. See our recent Real Deal. If you're thinking about renting a car for a day trip to the vineyards, note that most South African rental agencies put a 200-kilometer cap (about 125 miles) on free daily mileage. Two of the biggest draws near Cape Town—the Cape of Good Hope and the Winelands—are both about an hour from the city. Depending on how many wineries you want to visit, you'll probably have to pay extra. To guarantee unlimited mileage, you should secure reservations before leaving the U.S. Hertz and Avis both operate widely in South Africa, charging about $45 a day for a compact stick-shift car; automatics are typically twice as expensive. Because the dollar is so strong right now in South Africa, you may want to consider hiring a guide, who would double as their designated driver, starting at about $60 a person—or from about $200 per carload. You'll probably travel in a minibus, but at least you won't have to worry about driving. Some of our readers have reported good experiences with Beautiful Cape Town Exclusive Tours. As always, feel free to chime in with your own tips for visiting these countries.
Hotels: Bedtime stories as a new perk?
I don't know about you, but I can't remember the last time someone read me a bedtime story. It used to be one of my favorite things as a kid, particularly when I could talk my grandfather into doing it—almost every night. Recently, big kids got the chance to relive the childhood pastime at the Andaz Liverpool Street, a Hyatt hotel that just opened in London. For a couple of weeks, they had a "Reader in Residence" (journalist Damian Barr) who read to guests free of charge. Hotels are always trying to dream up some new quirky amenity. For example, The Benjamin—a luxury hotel in New York City—has a sleep concierge whose job it is to pick the perfect pillow for you. Will it be buckwheat or water-filled tonight? I generally find these offerings a little too gimmicky, but I have to admit that even I was intrigued by the reader-in-residence program. What do you think? Would you sit by the fireside and let a total stranger read stories to you? For that matter, what would you like to see offered at a hotel?
Test Drive: In-flight IM-ing on Virgin America
If its ad campaigns are any indication, Virgin America has big plans for its in-flight instant messaging service. The airline is apparently convinced that passengers will while away the hours gossiping, discussing breaking news, sharing musical recommendations—and, of course, finding true love only a few (previously inaccessible) aisles away. On a recent cross-country flight, it didn't happen that way. The IM service actually worked really well: It was instantaneous and easy to use, though the keypad was a little awkward for thumbing out your messages with the expected lightning speed. But ease-of-use is only half the battle. It turns out that the attractive woman sitting only two seats away from me wasn't the least bit interested in IMing—and didn't believe for a second that I was just trying to test the service. She was on to me. Rejected, I joined the jet-wide chat room, but there was no one there. For hours. So I toggled over to the TV chat rooms, where you can post comments about the channel you're watching and start a real-time conversation with your fellow travelers. When I saw that every TV chat room was empty, well...I decided to take drastic measures. Over the course of an hour in the CNN chat room, I took pot shots at Hillary Clinton, then George Bush, then Barack Obama—making sure to raise ire on all sides. While watching MTV, I first flamed Led Zeppelin, and then posted some truly heretical comments about the Beatles. The kind of stuff that makes rock fans of the male persuasion, especially, spew indignant best-band-ever trivia for hours. But no one said a word in defense of anybody. There was virtual silence. I finally tested the speed and reliability of the service by holding a long IM discussion with the empty seat next to me. I IM'd to myself for what must have been a half hour, picking up one keypad as I put down the other. At some point, I imagine, the attractive woman two seats away felt that she'd made a really wise decision. The technology on Virgin America is great stuff—the touch screen interface of the airlines' seatback consoles allowed me to order food when I wanted it, for example. I touch-selected a drink and a snack, swept my credit card through the slot at my seat, and the items were delivered in minutes. The airline didn't accept any cash on the flight. On-demand movie service apparently worked with the same cash-less ease, if the passengers around me were any indication. But I don't think the IM service can get a lot better—and right now, despite all the buzz and the great performance, it looks like people simply don't want it.
Girlfriend Getaways: Where are you headed?
The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article today about a subject close to our hearts: girlfriend getaways. The trend is booming, the article tells us, and not just for 20-something spring-breakers. Women of all ages are deciding to leave the guys and kids at home and indulge in a little girl time. And the types of getaways are as varied as the women: knitting trips, spa trips, surf trips, city trips—you name it, women do it. Of course, none of this is news to us here at Budget Travel. After all, we’ve been producing our Girlfriend Getaways magazine since 2006. In fact, the response to the first couple of issues was so overwhelming that we’re now doing two issues a year instead of one—and we have a new website, girlgetaways.com. It’s nice, though, to see that other people are picking up on the trend. As the article mentioned, The Fine Living Network just launched a series called All-Girl Getaways, hosted by Stephanie Oswald, who’s the editor in chief of travelgirl magazine; and Marybeth Bond, author of 50 Best Girlfriends Getaways in North America, has come out with a sequel, Best Girlfriends Getaways Worldwide. We can read stats and studies all day about the girlfriend getaway trend, but as always, we'd rather get the scoop directly from you, our readers. Do you have a trip planned with the girls in the next few months? If so, where are you going, and what will you do there?