Well trained

Our travel expert offers advice on rolling through some European hot spots, plus information on cruising Alaska and Germany's Passion Play 2000.

Published December 2, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I plan to travel from Rome to London by way of the Riviera and Paris in January. Any info on train options? How can I compare costs?

You should have no trouble planning a rail itinerary to suit your travel plans; even at that time of year, there is plenty of service in the areas you want to visit.

A number of European rail guides are available to help plan your trip, some of them with timetables. One of the most recently updated guides is "On the Rails Around Europe: A Comprehensive Guide to Travel by Train," by Melissa Shales (Passport Books, third edition, 1998). Check the European travel section of book stores for others.

As for schedules and prices, the Rail Europe site has a convenient schedule and fare search function. I've had mixed results using it -- I've stumped it several times when it doesn't recognize a town or if the itinerary gets too complex -- but for simple itineraries to main cities, it's fast. You can book tickets using the system, too.

Failing that, you can call Rail Europe at (800) 848-7245. The agents there usually can answer just about any European rail schedule question you have.

With the amount of ground you plan to cover, you should look into the advantages of a rail pass. There's a rail pass section on the Rail Europe site.

A good guide to rail passes is in a free newsletter/catalogue published by "Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door," a guidebook series. It provides a savvy analysis of all the Eurailpasses and national passes -- including those for France, Italy and England -- complete with prices and strategies.

Particularly helpful are country maps that show point-to-point fares between cities. You can add up those fares and compare the sum with what a rail pass would cost.

Get the Guide to European Railpasses by writing Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door, Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020, or calling (206) 771-8303. You can also order through the Web site.

When would be the best time to take an Alaskan cruise to get the best rate?

The Alaskan cruise season starts in May and ends in September, so look for the best rates during those marginal months when the weather generally isn't as warm as during the peak period of July-August. (Cabin location also affects rates, of course.)

Alaska cruises are one of the hottest segments of the industry, and many Web sites, including those of the cruise lines that go there, offer advice. Among companies with cruises in Alaska are Carnival Cruise Lines, (800) 227-6482; Celebrity Cruises, (800) 437-3111; Crystal Cruises, (800) 820-6663; Holland America, (800) 426-0327; Princess Cruises, (800) 774-6237; and Royal Caribbean, (800) 327-6700.

Web links to those lines can be found at the site of Cruise Lines International Association. The group also offers a helpful planning guide; this is available by calling toll-free, (888) 927-8473.

Among guides to Alaskan cruising are "Cruising Alaska," by Larry Ludmer (Hunter Travel Guides); "Fielding's Alaska Cruises" (Fielding Worldwide), by Shirley Slater and Harry Basch; "Alaska: The Cruise Lover's Guide," by Paul and Audrey Grescoe (Alaska Northwest Books); and "Fodor's Alaska Ports of Call" (Fodor's Travel).

The guidebooks can help you decide which ship is right for you, as can a travel agent with experience booking cruises. Look in the Yellow Pages under travel agencies, and look for those that note they are cruise specialists. For price comparisons, also check out one or more of the toll-free cruise booking centers such as Cruise.com.

While on a trip to Europe next year, I'd like to take a side trip to Oberammergau to see the Passion Play. Where can I get details on tickets, lodging, etc.?

The Passion Play, traditionally held every 10 years since 1634, features more than 2,200 women, men and children born in Oberammergau who stage the play about the suffering, death and rebirth of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, individual tickets are sold out for the forthcoming season, according to the Oberammergau Web site. This means that if your heart is set on going, you'll probably have to deal with tour operators who have procured tickets and sell them as part of a larger package.

Among companies still offering all-inclusive tour packages to the play is Brendan Tours,
phone (800) 421-8446. It's worth noting that cancellations affect even sold-out tours, which can create some last-minute availability.

The names of other tour operators can be obtained from the German National Tourist Office, phone (212) 661-7200; ask for the "German Holidays" brochure.

I've also heard reports from past performances that there is a street market in last-minute tickets in the town, but I expect that with the millennium hoopla the availability of such gray-market tickets would be scarcer than usual.

The next staging will start May 22, 2000, and run through Oct. 8. The play is performed five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with a three-hour lunch break. There are 4,700 covered seats, so that nearly 500.000 spectators will be able to view the play, which is performed in German, during the 100 performances.

The historic play entered the Internet age this time around, with a Web site through which reservations could be made and one- or two-day packages booked. For comparison's sake, the basic packages included a ticket to one performance and lodging of various categories. The lowest price for a one-night package was about $232; the two-night packages started at about $290.

A large amount of related information is available at the city's Web site. The address is Passion Play 2000, Eugen-Papst-Strasse 9a, 82487 Oberammergau, Germany; phone (from the United States) 011-49-8822-92310, fax 011-49-8822-923144. The office is open Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to noon (Obergammergau time is six hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time).

By 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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