At home in Greece

Our expert offers advice on renting villas, European rail passes, currency exchanging and time shares.


Donald D. Groff
May 6, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

My friends and I want to rent a large luxury villa in the Greek islands and have been stymied at every turn by travel agents who don't return calls, rental firms that try to sell us properties that don't meet our criteria and the sheer lack of information on the subject. Can you tell us where to turn?

Try contacting these sources, all of which handle properties in Greece: Hideaways International, phone (800) 843-4433; LaCure, (800) 387-2726; and Europa-Let, (800) 462-4486. You can also contact the Greek National Tourist Organization, phone (212) 421-5777. At its Web site, search for "villas" and you'll find several more villa possibilities.

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I'd appreciate your advice regarding both the best price and reduction in hassle on rail pass travel. I'd like to "Chunnel" from London to Brussels, then wander through France and maybe Switzerland over a two- or three-week period. I'm a senior. Would a French Rail Pass or a limited Eurailpass be better?

The tangle of rail passes is indeed confusing, but the variations are understandable when you consider how many patterns and paces travelers employ. In your case, the traditional Eurailpass, which includes unlimited travel in 17 countries, would be overkill. Also skewing your needs is the fact that England is not covered under most of the European passes, so you'll have to consider your rail travel there a separate purchase. For your French-Swiss travel, the Europass may be in order; it includes travel in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. The French Flexipass allows three days of travel during a month-long period for $205 (first class), with additional days of travel available for $30 each, up to six more days.

But besides region, you need to consider how many days during your trip you'll be traveling, as well as the distances -- it could be that point-to-point ticketing is less expensive than a rail pass. Also, there are often three classes of pass travel: first, second and youth.

You can sort out all these factors using Rick Steves' 1999 Guide to European Railpasses, which walks you through steps to determine what's best for you. The guide also is available in published form by calling Steves' Europe Through the Back Door at (425) 771-8303. The train service that uses the Channel Tunnel is called Eurostar, and fares and schedules are available through its Web site. Special fare promotions also are described there. Whenever ordering a pass or other rail fare, students should ask if there is a student rate or discount available. Also check out the Eurailpass site, and note that the pass program is commemorating its 40th anniversary with an unusual deal: Anyone turning 40 in 1999 and purchasing the pass between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 gets a 40 percent discount off the normal price. Eurail's phone number is (888) 382-7245.

I will be leaving for Ibiza in a few weeks and planned to buy pesetas prior to going. The rate I have been quoted here in Minneapolis, however, seems very poor. Am I better off just waiting until I get there, knowing that I would have to buy currency at the Barcelona airport anyway?

In recent years I've relied almost exclusively on airport bank branches or my ATM card to purchase foreign currency once I've arrived abroad, and have not been stung. I've heard occasionally from people who had trouble finding compatible machines, and increasingly we need to be aware of extra charges that banks assess for using them (especially true if you're using a credit card rather than a debit card). Still, for those who want the comfort of having cash on hand when they arrive at a distant destination, several options are available that sidestep home banks or travel clubs whose primary job isn't international currency exchange. (Even with these, you'll have to consider, besides the exchange rate, delivery fees and any bank or credit card service charges.) Thomas Cook Currency Services, for instance, will take an order for foreign currency over the phone -- charged to a credit card -- and deliver it to your door. You also can have it delivered to a Thomas Cook branch office for pickup, but the company says 80 percent of people using this service have the currency delivered to their home or business. Call Thomas Cook's National Call Center at (800) 287-7362 to place an order. International Currency Express has a similar program. Phone (888) 278-6628 in Los Angeles or (888) 842-0880 in Washington, D.C. With a call to Travelex America at (800) 445-0295, you can arrange for pickup of your foreign currency at one of its dozens of airport locations around the United States. If you crave knowing what a currency is trading for in Barcelona, try this method: Go to the American Express site to find all the American Express offices around the world, including their phone numbers. By calling abroad, you can find out what's posted at that very moment and compare it with your other cash sources. Another financial services company is Oanda, whose online currency exchange converter offers many types of constantly updated exchange rates.

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Do you have any information on purchasing time-share vacations? We are considering buying one at Disney but would like to know of anyone's experience in this area.

The reputation of timesharing has improved a lot in the past decade, partly because the public better understands the concept and is more wary of pitfalls -- including the fact that the resale market often isn't very good. The average quality of time-share units has improved as developers have added amenities and turned timesharing into a more solid vacation package rather than just the sale of motel space.

Another plus has been the entry of big companies such as Marriott International and Disney into the time-share business. The best way to learn from others' experience is through sites or publications that are clearinghouses for that type of info, such as the Timeshare Users Group, which examines resorts and many other time share-related topics. Another source is TimeSharing Today, a newsletter ($18 for 12 issues; (888) 463-7427) that offers tips on buying and selling, and reviews resorts. The Federal Trade Commission and the American Society of Travel Agents have produced "Timeshare Tips" and "Timeshare Resales," available by contacting Public Reference, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580; phone (202) 326-2222.


Donald D. Groff

Donald D. Groff has been dispensing travel advice for a decade for such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star.

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