The Deal Detective is SmarterTravel.com's resident bargain hunter, Kate Hamman. She's always on the lookout for new travel deals and invites you, dear reader, to submit your own questions.
Daisy writes, "We'd like to celebrate my husband's retirement with our dream trip of a lifetime—a three or four week trip to Switzerland and Germany! We'd like to rent a car, visit our son and grandchildren in Stuttgart, while touring Germany, see and perhaps stay in a castle, then drive around the Alps of Switzerland while staying in chalets or condo/apartments in small towns. Our timeline and route is flexible, and our budget for airfare, car, and accommodations could be from $3,000 to $4,000, about half the price and much more (we think) scenic and interesting than all the escorted tours we've seen. We're not sure where to fly into, how to use miles for upgrades, whether we can drive a rental car across borders, nor how to rent a room in a castle, for example. We would love some help in planning/coordinating the various components of this trip of a lifetime."
I'm wholeheartedly a believer that any excuse for a European vacation is a great excuse, but celebrating a retirement is an especially significant reason. So, I have several suggestions on things to do along the road to make sure that the trip of a lifetime exceeds your expectations.
But first, let's focus on getting you there. Since you didn't provide a departure city, I priced flights from New York City to Frankfurt starting at $522 (including taxes and fees) per person on Lufthansa in April. Though this may not be the exact time you were thinking of going, you can save a bit of money by traveling during the shoulder season. The weather might not be the warmest, but hotels will be less expensive and you will have to deal with fewer crowds. For information on how to get upgrades using your frequent flyer miles, I suggest reading our wiki entry on the topic.
Frankfurt isn't just a great jumping-off point to explore Germany, it's also cheaper than some of the other airports. Start by renting a mini three-door car from Hertz at the airport for $717 with unlimited mileage for three weeks during April. Though some rental companies may impose restrictions on crossing into certain countries, Hertz allows travel to Switzerland and you should have no issues driving across the border.
So far, you've spent $1,761 of your budget on transportation, leaving you with $2,239 or a little less than $110 per day to spend on lodging, incidentals, and activities. I know this may seem like little to live on, but we can make it work with proper planning.
Begin by choosing the places you most want to see. Since you'll be driving, I recommend taking one of Germany's many scenic routes, such as the romantic road or castle road. Both of these drives are close to Stuttgart, so you could easily do both and still see your family with ease.
One of my favorite stops on either of these routes is the nearly perfectly preserved medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. You can find a reasonable room in a pension such as Pension Shrenker for as little as €40 (about $50 U.S.; check XE.com for current exchange rates) per night with breakfast. For a bit of history and fun, the Night Watchman guided tour for €6 per person is worth every penny.
This is only one of the many little towns you'll encounter on your journey, so remember a little bit of research goes a long way.
As for staying in a castle, Germany overflows with royal accommodations. Some offer rooms starting around €75 per night. However, if this seems too extravagant for your budget, you can always grab a room at the Hostel Bacharach for €23. This converted castle sits high above the Rhine River in the lovely town of Bacharach, and is one of the best ways to sleep like a king (or queen) on pauper's wages.
If you decide to travel east, Berlin is hosting several events to honor the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I haven't forgotten about Switzerland. The country's tourism website provides an interactive way for you to familiarize yourself, which makes it easy to choose the places you want to see. The website suggests a 10-day itinerary that takes you along several scenic routes from Basel to Lucerne, through Switzerland's Riviera, and among the fairy tale villages of the Alps. You can find a slew of chalets all over the country, but be aware most require a minimum-night rental. However, many of the hotels offer just as much charm and history of a chalet without the restrictions.
For other ideas of things to do—other than eat chocolate and fondue, of course—here is an easy way to browse Switzerland's top attractions.
Finally, when it comes to plotting a course, Google Maps can't be beat. You can enter any destination, switch the order of stops, and it will give you turn-by-turn directions.
I hope you enjoy all the splendor of these two diverse and glorious countries, as well as the freedom of retirement.
A call to my other readers: I am sure that many of you have wonderful and exciting tips on things to do in Switzerland and Germany, as well as ways to save. Please don't be shy, and leave a comment telling us about your own adventures and discoveries below.
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