Pay Less Than the Passenger Next to You

By Chris Gray
February 19, 2007
courtesy Virgin Trains
It's no secret Europe has a great train system--but not everyone knows how to get a deal.

Many travelers think of low-fare carriers and rail passes as the smartest means for touring Europe. But in the same way that airlines offer last-minute deals to fill empty seats, Europe's rail networks have deeply discounted point-to-point tickets under promotional names like Smart Price and Bargain Berths. The tickets typically sell out quickly and may require Internet booking, though you're saved from the hassles (and costs) of getting to airports.

Offers are generally nonrefundable and valid only on the train you book (no changes). While availability is limited, bargains exist for travelers willing to search. Unless noted, the prices are for one-way tickets in second class.

Normal price: $220

Sale price: $45

Here's the Deal: Trenitalia's Smart Price ticket has a select few bargain fares on routes from Italy to nearby countries. A trip from Milan to Nice costs as little as $20. An overnight train from Rome to Paris, including a bed in a six-couchette compartment, starts at $45.

Booking Details: Advance-purchase requirements vary from 7 to 14 days depending on route. Buy at and collect your ticket at a booth at the point of departure.

Normal price: $135

Sale price: $9

Here's the Deal: For $45, up to five people can split a single Schönes-Wochenende ("Happy Weekend") ticket and have unlimited rides anywhere in Germany on either a Saturday or Sunday. The offer, from Deutsche Bahn, isn't valid on the high-speed ICE, IC, and EC trains.

Booking Details: Tickets are sold at counters and machines in German train stations, with no advance purchase required. To plan an itinerary, go to Using the drop-down menu, search Without ICE/IC/EC and click on Prefer Fast Connections.

Normal price: $146

Sale price: $50

Here's the Deal: Deutsche Bahn's Europe-Special tickets are good for trips from Germany to neighboring countries, including the seven-hour ride from Frankfurt to Vienna, as well as for shorter journeys, like Munich to Bolzano, Italy, for $25 (normal price: $75).

Booking Details: Purchase at least three days in advance, only at Click on Europe-Special and select a city pair and date.

Normal price: $57

Sale price: $31

Here's the Deal: Virgin Trains' Rail and Sail package includes the train ride from London Euston station to Holyhead, a ferry to Dublin Ferry Port, and finally another train to central Dublin. The fare is available in either direction. While scenic, the journey takes nine hours.

Booking Details: For the cheapest tickets, purchase at least 14 days before departure. Book at any Virgin ticket outlet or by calling 011-44/8457-222-333; print tickets at the Virgin FastTicket machine at London Euston. You can't buy tickets online, but more info is available at

Normal price: $124

Sale price: $37

Here's the Deal: Every day, a new lineup of routes goes on sale for last-minute trips inside Switzerland (departing within three days), and between Switzerland and Austria, Germany, and Italy (departing within seven days). We found the Geneva-Venice price in February.

Booking Details: At, after switching the home page to English, select Travel and then Click & Rail Europe. There, you'll have a choice of viewing current offers within Switzerland or between Swiss cities and ones in neighboring countries.

Normal price: $133

Sale price: $37

Here's the Deal: With ScotRail's Bargain Berths promotion, you get a bed on an overnight train between London Euston and one of 42 Scottish towns and cities, at fares ranging from $37 to $96.

Booking Details: Tickets are available up to three months in advance. Pending availability, you can buy them until noon on the departure date. Go to and click on Sleeper Trains, then Bargain Berths. Search for a specific date, or throughout a period of up to three months.

Normal price: $101

Sale price: $39

Here's the Deal: Piccolo prices on the TGV Lyria high-speed train line connecting Paris to the Swiss Alps start as low as $26 for shorter journeys on the line's branch connecting to Geneva. Fares on the Zurich branch can cost $39 to Bern and $45 to the end of the line.

Booking Details: One-month advance purchase is required for trips on the Zurich leg; a two-month advance is necessary for excursions on the Geneva line. Go to, enter your cities, and look for the fares labeled Piccolo.

Normal price: $60

Sale price: $30

Here's the Deal: The latest discounted trips on the high-speed line between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Cologne are listed every Tuesday via Thalys's Last Minute Offers. Fares are routinely sold at about half the standard price (meaning Paris-Brussels costs $50, not $100) for select departures in the week ahead.

Booking Details: Visit and click on Last Minute Offers for the latest discounted trips. Availability is very limited, so if you see a departure that works for you, snap it up.

Normal price: $62

Sale price: $38

Here's the Deal: Austria's SparSchiene tickets are available between Vienna and major cities in nearby countries including Italy, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, and Poland. There are discounts on standard seats, as well as for couchettes and private sleeper rooms--from $38, $50, and $76 respectively for trips to Kraków.

Booking Details: Head to and click on Discount Products, then SparSchiene. The actual booking engine is in German only, though you can talk with English-speaking agents at 011-43/5-1717. And plan well in advance: You must book a minimum of three months ahead of departure.

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A Back Door to VIP Status

I fly five to seven times a year and have never reached elite status with an airline. So I was intrigued after learning about American Airlines' 90-Day Challenge. In contrast to the normal requirement--that a passenger fly 25,000 miles within a year for Gold status or 50,000 miles for Platinum--the challenge is a fast track to elite status. But the carrier never promotes it. The only way to sign up is to call American's reward program (800/421-0600). You must call in advance of a flight; the airline won't give credit retroactively. When starting, you pick whether to go for Gold or Platinum status--5,000 or 10,000 points, respectively--within 90 days. The Platinum perks are better, beginning with double miles on flights, compared to Gold's 25 percent mileage bonus. Points are added using an odd system. American's cheapest flights usually generate half a point for every mile flown, while every mile in a first-class seat gives one-and-a-half points. Ask an airline agent how many points a flight will add to your account. With trips in the works from San Diego to both New York City and London, I went for Platinum. It was a little risky. There's no changing once you decide. If you pick Gold but earn enough points for Platinum, you're stuck with Gold. If you pick Platinum but only earn enough for Gold, you get no special status. My round trip to JFK was 4,892 miles, yielding 2,446 points because I bought a cheap ticket. The London trip was 11,898 miles round trip, and I thought I'd earn half that figure in points because it was another inexpensive fare. But I got lucky: While the leg to London earned half a point per mile, the return was in a fare category that paid off one-to-one. I was over the 10,000-point mark and officially a Platinum member. The first perk was earning double miles--on that return from London. With the bonus, I had 23,746 miles after two flights. Since I'll be getting double miles through year's end, it'll be a cinch to hit 25,000 miles (enough for a free flight). Some of the other perks I'm looking forward to include being among the first people on the free-upgrade list and having access to premium window and aisle seats that are off-limits to regular passengers.

Sounds Like an Interesting Trip

Step 1: Gearing Up The least expensive route is purchasing a device that, when combined with a standard iPod or second-generation Nano (not a Shuffle or older Nano), forms a digital audio recorder. About the size of a Matchbox car, Belkin's TuneTalk Stereo ($70, attached to an iPod at right) has a built-in microphone and plugs into the bottom of an iPod. Or buy the thimble-size Sony ECM-C115 mic ($60), which conveniently clips onto a pocket or lapel. You must plug the Sony device into a microphone adapter (Belkin makes one for $30), which in turn connects to your iPod via the headphone jack. You'll be able to record two hours of high-quality audio for just over a gig of space on your iPod. Step 2: Recording Plug in the TuneTalk, and the Voice Memo menu will appear on the iPod screen. (If for some reason it doesn't, go to Extras and choose Voice Memos.) The newest video iPods let you choose between high- and low-quality audio; the latter eats up less memory. Simply click Record to record, and Stop and Save when you're done. After recording a few seconds, plug your earbuds back in the iPod to check the sound. You can select and listen through Extras/Voice Memos; files are automatically named by the date and time you recorded them. Belkin's devices come with an Auto-Gain switch, which you should turn on for most recordings--the exceptions being especially loud situations, such as concerts, when it's unnecessary (and using the feature could result in muffled sounds). Step 3: Editing and Transferring Audio Once you're at home, plug the iPod into your computer; iTunes will pop up and ask if you'd like to copy your voice memos. Click Yes. You'll be able to do more with the files by using a free program called Audacity ( Once you've downloaded the software, drag the files that you want to edit onto your desktop and then open them in Audacity using File/Open. With the cursor, select a section of audio--say, a street musician's song--and manipulate it with tools found under Edit, such as cut, paste, and delete. Change the order of segments as you please. Play with fade-ins, echoes, and other features in the Effect menu. Once you're happy with the result, shift the files back to iTunes. Now, you'll be able to save them to your iPod or burn them on a CD, just as you would with your favorite songs.

Why You Should Kayak Before Booking a Cruise

While the average traveler is as comfortable reserving a flight online as he or she is buying a book at Amazon, cruise sales are still largely the domain of travel agents. Only 8 percent of passengers book cruises online. But now that you can buy cruises through online agencies such as Expedia, and the meta-search engines Kayak and SideStep make it easy to do research, it's time to reevaluate your approach. 1. Start With KayakThe website provides a great overview. In one of our searches, for a three-to-five-night Caribbean cruise in March, Kayak retrieved 65 results. Winnowing the options by price, style of cabin, departure port, and other factors is easy and quick. We clicked on Western Caribbean, and the list narrowed to 62 cruises within seconds; then we clicked on Miami as the departure port (20 results) and selected Carnival Cruise Lines (11). Under each of the results were price quotes from four consolidators: CruisesOnly, Cruise411,, and Vacation Outlet. For now, SideStep's cruise feature is in beta- testing stage and just searches CruisesOnly, making it less useful. 2. Search ConsolidatorsKayak doesn't sell cruises--or flights, hotels, or car rentals, for that matter. Instead it scours the Internet for prices and then links customers to booking sites. When you go to one of these sites, the offers are sometimes a little different--often for the better. For instance, Kayak displayed a Royal Caribbean cruise priced at $449 through But only after switching to did we discover that the price quote came with special freebies: either a three-night hotel stay or a two-day car rental. Certain last-minute deals sold through consolidators also never make it to Kayak. So while Kayak may be a sensible place to begin, it falls short of giving you all the information necessary to make an informed decision. 3. Call a Travel Agent Websites are good for gathering the basics in a hurry, but you can only do so much online. If you have questions--about what kind of people a ship attracts, the dress code at dinner, or whatever--the best resource is a knowledgeable travel agent. One agent, after matching's $449 price on Royal Caribbean, also warned about a detail no website made clear: At that rate, the cabin wasn't pre-assigned, meaning that it could be in an especially loud location over the engine. Agencies may also have exclusive access to perks, like complimentary upgrades or airport transfers. Most agents don't tack on a service charge for cruises, but you should be sure to ask. 4. Use CruiseCompeteThe first three steps should give you a good idea of which cruise you want, as well as what kinds of offers are available. Now it's simply a matter of finding the best value. Enter your dates, preferred ship and stateroom type, and other details at CruiseCompete, a website that passes along your request to dozens of consolidators and online agencies--which in turn e-mail you their best prices. 5. Evaluate the OffersNowadays, there's rarely a dramatic price difference between travel agencies, consolidators, and even the rate direct from the cruise line. Still, it's fairly common to find the same cruise selling for $20-$30 less at one source or another. Comparing apples to apples is essential, so before booking anything, double-check that port charges, taxes, and any service fees are covered in price quotes. Look closely at the extras included in one offer or another, which may make the difference. All things being equal, go with your gut: Book whichever way makes you feel most comfortable.