Footloose in Europe? Tourist offices can help

The woman at the Strasbourg tourist office had been firm in her opinion that the little village of Obernai, some 10 miles south, was the place to best enjoy the Alsatian countryside. And, true to promise, Obernai turned out to be medievel and half-timbered, with not a straight line or right angle anywhere to offend the traveler's eye.

There was just one small problem. It was the middle of Easter vacation week, and half of Paris and all of Bonn had gotten to Obernai before I had.

The local Syndicat d'Initiative (tourist board) sprang to the rescue. A few phone calls achieved what an hour of trudging about with my luggage had not. The woman behind the counter informed me that my landlady for that night was expecting me.

The traveler with a tour package or on a tightly scheduled itinerary, of course, will seldom, if ever, require this sort of service. But the fancy-free traveler will find it extremely useful. Especially the monolingual fancy-free traveler: The emphasis is on helping foreigners who do not speak the local language. The type of assistance offered, however, varies considerably from country to country.

Most major cities will have a tourist board at the airport and railway stations; in small towns, look toward the railway station or the center of town.

The main function of the French syndicates (and the Offices de Tourisme, in the larger cities), is to pass out free literature and dispense advice as needed. Small offices, like the one in Obernai, will book rooms in their area; the main office in Paris, at 127 Avenue des Champs Elysees, will book rooms for you outside Paris as well as within.

The French have a rating system to help tourists select rooms. The scale ranges from 700 to 1,700 francs ($79 to $193), deluxe; 300-900 francs ($34-$102) , four-star; 200-600 francs ($22-$68) for a three-star; 90-300 francs ($10-$34) for a two-star.

An even more elaborate system for aiding the tourist is in effect in Ireland, where local tourist office personnel will not only book a room for you in their own area but will, for a small fee (less than $5), call ahead to your next destination and make a reservation for you there.

Castle hotels and other luxurious hotels are $40 to $50 per person, double occupancy; "first class" (i.e., all rooms have private bath) are $20 to $25 per person, double occupancy; B-class hotels have smallr rooms, not all with private bath. The cheapest places to stay are the bed & breakfasts; be sure to look for the green shamrock sign that says "Approved." Don't expect your own bathroom at a B&B, though you may not always have to share; cost, for room and board, is approximately $10 per person.

Britain has a program called "Book a Bed Ahead"; this is similar to the Irish system but is only available at the larger tourist offices. A useful book is "Where to Stay in England," available at the British Travel Bookshop at the British Tourist Authority office at 680 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019. That office will send you a map showing where the centers are and what they offer.

Greece has a fairly unusual system. It does have government tourist boards in larger cities where general information can be obtained -- ferry schedules for the islands, for instance. But in smaller places, ask for the tourist police, a special division of the police force whose members have been trained in languages. Look for their smart tan uniforms; also for the little flag on the lapel indicating the country whose language the policeman speaks.

Tourist police can also be found at railway stations and airports. They offer not only assistance in hotel accommodation, but also act as ombudsmen for travelers with a complaint about a shopkeeper or hotel. They check tourist establishments to make sure they conform to standards. Current prices in various categories are: $80 to $150 for a deluxe double room (notm per person); first class, $50-$60; second class, $40-$50; third class, $30-$40.

In Norway, the English word "information" in large letters encircles the tourist board's booth. "When I sat in one of those I spoke five languages every day," says Svanhild Vage of the Norwegian Tourist Office in New York. The tourist boards work very closely with the hotels so that they know where rooms are available. Ms. Vage points out that a local tourist board can recommend excursions unknown to the national tourist boards: "I used to rent out rowing boats because they wanted to go out rowing in the fjord," she says.

In West Germany, where "every little hamlet" has a tourist office, according to Hedy Wurz of the German Tourist Office in New York, the local tourist boards know which hotels have space, and they get a daily list of available private rooms. They don't book rooms as a regular part of their program, but they would make arrangements "if it is 6 at night and you don't have a room and you are desperate." Normally, they give you names of places that have space and you check them out yourself. They also usually have the local train schedules. Mostly, the offices in small towns are closed on the weekend, but some have boxes outside the door containing the more vital brochures. Look for the word Verkehrsamtm (tourist office); if the office isn't at the railway station, it will probably be in the Rathausm (town hall). The tourist boards do not grade hotels.

In Switzerland, the staff at the local tourist board (look for the "i," for information) will book a room for you; it also has lists of apartments for rent on a short-term basis. There is also information on skiing schools. All sorts of guides can be hired there -- for mountain climbing or ski touring, for instance. The tourist board will also try to help if you have run into any "touristical" sort of problem -- poor service, lost items, etc.

The Swiss hotel association grades hotels from 1 to 5 (5 is deluxe). The price range is wide even within a star category; for instance, the deluxe Palace Hotel in St. Moritz in peak season with all meals is $450 a day for two. But Grand Hotel Regina, in the same city and also five-star, will be $150 for two.

In Spain, look for the Oficina de Turismo. Tourist offices don't actually book rooms, but would probably help if they had the time, according to Pilar Vico of the New York office. The mostly multiligual staff will recommend guides and make arrangements for a guide. The tourist board does rate hotels: This year a five black-star hotel will cost $50 to $125; a four-star, $26-50; a three-star, $20-$28; a two-star, $15-$22; and a one-star, $11-$19. There is a subclass for pensions; one to three white stars. Prices are the same as for the one to three black-star categories.

In Italy, some tourist boards (Azienda Automona Turismo) will book rooms for you, but not all. The local boards inspect rooms to keep them up to standard; they are now in the process of switching to a star system like those in other countries. It's best to conduct business in Italy in the morning, as it's not unusual for offices to be open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Some major hotels have representatives in the US; you can get the list from ENIT, the Italian national tourist office, at 630 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1565, New York, N.Y. 10111.

Last general hints for the footloose traveler:

Always have reservations for at least the first two nights of your trip.

Check with your regional tourist office (all European countries have tourist boards in New York; some also have offices in places like Chicago and Los Angeles) to make sure there are no conferences, conventions, summit talks, fashion shows, trade fairs, or other mass gatherings of people who will be occupying most of the hotel space in the place you are headed for.

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