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Final Thoughts on a European Vacation

The main thing I took away from my recent European trip was that you can still find comfortable accommodations in smaller European cities for less than $100 a day, and you can eat some great dinners for around $30 per person, including house wine, and some great lunches for half that or less.

When booking my hotels, I specifically selected hotels that promised Wi-Fi and elevators (leg problems). Other than what you may get through the online agencies, you don’t find many discounts on European hotel rates—certainly, not in the smaller, non-chain hotels that still dominate the landscape in Austria and Italy. You can forget even modest senior discounts.

The best restaurant values remain in plain eateries that feature the local cuisines, not the fancy new stuff. And in case you didn’t already know, pizza is a runaway winner in the international favorite-food derby. But the Germanic countries have ruined the wiener schnitzel: It’s now about 80 percent breading, 20 percent meat—if that. If you want to enjoy veal, get medallions. Pork is the dominant meat on moderately priced menus.

You can find a rental car in Germany with automatic for a little more than $300 for two weeks, but you may have to shop around to get a deal that good. Rates are higher in most other countries, although France and the United Kingdom aren’t bad. Avoid airport or rail-station pickup to avoid high “premium station” taxes in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Although fuel is expensive, at around $7 to $8 per gallon (equivalent), my Ford diesel got excellent mileage. And with lots of mountain driving on narrow roads, I appreciated the convenience of the automatic.

The German autobahns are toll-free; the superhighways in France and Italy require payment of tolls—sometimes you take a ticket and pay when you exit, sometimes you go through a booth—and superhighways in Austria and Switzerland require that you have a “vignette” on your windshield. You can buy visitor vignettes for Austria for as short a period as 10 days (about $11), but in Switzerland you either have to find a car that already has one, buy a full calendar year (about $40), or stay off the superhighways. Vignettes are available in advance from TollTickets, although they’re widely sold at visitor information centers as well. TollTickets also arranges short-term “boxes” that allow you to go through automated toll lanes in France, Italy, Spain, and other countries.

Although I’ve written a lot about the desirability of having a credit card with a chip for traveling in Europe, I had no trouble using stripe-style cards to go through toll stations and buy fuel. I did not, however, try to buy fuel from an unattended pumping system.

The A380 “super jumbo” is the quietest jet I’ve ever flown, and also the smoothest flying. Although comfort standards depend on what class you’re in and individual airline installations, the standard 10-across lower-cabin economy layout (3-4-3) allows seats up to an inch or so wider than those on the 747 or 10-across 777s. The plane’s main drawback is the expected mob scene at the departure gate and again at immigration and baggage lines on arrival.

Global Entry works. I did my interview the day before I left the United States, so I wasn’t sure that it would work for my reentry two weeks later. I decided to try anyhow, and the kiosk recognized me and issued the form that let me walk past the long immigration lines and later waived me through the customs check. Because the TSA-preferred traveler program for expedited security works through airlines, and I hadn’t yet enrolled through my airlines’ frequent-flyer programs, I couldn’t try it this time. Those conveniences probably wouldn’t justify the cost ($100 for five years) for occasional travelers, but walking right past those immigration and customs lines sure felt great.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

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