Several hints for your trips

The Ticker

May 26, 1992|By Julius Westheimer

Returning from a 12-day trip to Paris, Venice and Rome -- including a 20-hour exciting ride on the fabled Orient Express -- I list today some hopefully helpful hints on 1992 foreign travel, plus a few reminiscences of the journey.

IN GENERAL: Despite bigger-than-ever crowds that jam Notre Dame, St Mark's Square, Vatican museums, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica and other major attractions, European travel remains pleasant and instructive. . . . There are no safety problems as you walk the streets, day or night. . . . Most foreigners are helpful to tourists. . . . If you need directions, write down and show your destination to residents, a procedure that prevents language and accent barriers. . . . Most hotels now carry CNN-TV, a real plus. . . . Some airlines, such as Air France, offer about 50 coach seats upstairs in 747 jetliners, priced the same as on the main deck. Ask for these in advance; we found upper deck travel more comfortable and private.

SUGGESTIONS: All the above notwithstanding, take more money than you planned to carry. My wife and I found the U.S. dollar surprisingly weak vs. the franc and lira, with $25 breakfasts (prices are for two), $35 lunches and $65 dinners (with no drinks) the rule, even in modest bistros. You can, however, save money by buying bread, meat and cheese and lunch in lovely European parks. Speaking of money, many hotel rooms are priced out of sight. (The Venice Cipriani charges $700 a night, enough to keep anybody awake.) . . . You generally save on foreign exchange by using credit cards rather than travelers checks.

MORE HINTS: Carry a roll of one-dollar bills for tipping, taxis, etc., until you learn the foreign currency. Lock your money, passports, airline tickets, etc., in hotel safe deposit boxes (no charge) when you check in; don't leave valuables in your room. (Someone stole 75 dollar bills from our room early in the trip, completely my fault.) . . . Pack a flashlight; many hotel rooms are dark until you flip a master switch near the door, sometimes hard to find. . . . Take extra shoelaces. . . . Most meal and snack tips are included (15 percent), as they should be in the U.S. . . . Early on, make friends with the hotel concierge; he'll reward your $10 tip with reservations, money-saving hints, etc. . . . When booking tours, ask for those with human guides; our electronic Paris bus tour was a $50 waste. . . . Most everyone in Europe smokes; you hear no talk of calories, cholesterol, exercise, etc.

TRAIN OF KINGS: Gratifying a lifelong desire (if not now, when? see photo above), at 9:45 p.m. in Paris we boarded the 15-car, gleaming blue and gold "train of kings, king of trains," the 1883-vintage crack Orient Express, for what is billed as, and is, one of the world's greatest trains ($1,400 per person.) Climbing aboard, you step into the world of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Enrico Caruso, Harry Houdini, Mata Hari, Agatha Christie, etc.

After an elegant 5-course dinner in the chocolate-and rTC cream-colored Pullman diner (most men were in tuxedos, women in cocktail dresses), passengers sleep through the flat southeastern France leg, awakening at Zurich for a breathtaking five-hour ascent through the majestic Swiss Alps. Here the train climbs through broad fields of sun-drenched buttercups, craggy mountain gorges, 13-mile tunnels, barreling past farms and villages huddled beneath snow-covered peaks -- unforgettable vistas.

TRAIN TALK: A second Murder on the Orient Express was barely averted when I scrambled back onto the moving train at Innsbruck, Austria, after broadcasting to WBAL Radio. . . . Curiously, this luxury train carries no phone. . . . Each compartment has an upper and lower berth. . . . There are no toilet facilities in your compartment; you walk down the hall, European style. . . . The Orient Express supplies travelers with abundant topographic maps. . . . For more data on this train, ask your travel agent or call 800-524-2420. . . . Travelers over age 60 plus their companions over 50 get 10 percent discounts on their fares. . . . A lounge car passenger told me that in Venice, in 1958, he bought a pin for $1, but when he tried to duplicate it this year, the price was $500.

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