Q My wife and I plan to fly into Munich and drive to Prague and then Vienna before heading back to Munich. I have heard that driving into the Czech Republic may be difficult and expensive. But train fares are expensive, and we'd enjoy the freedom of stopping along the way. Any recommendations?
ADriving a rental car from Western to Eastern Europe is problematic and expensive, but not impossible. Every company has slightly different rules, but most generally allow you to drive into Eastern Europe if you rent a non-luxury car and pay extra for insurance coverage.
Generally, countries that are frequently restricted include Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Macedonia, Romania, Turkey, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Albania. Some companies also prohibit driving higher-end vehicles into Italy and Ireland -- but policies vary. For example, National Car Rental does not allow cars rented in Germany to be driven to the Czech Republic. Avis, however, will allow select vehicles to travel to the Czech Republic, but an extra charge may be assessed. Confer with an agency that represents various rental firms, such as Auto Europe (888-223-5555, www.autoeurope.com) and Europe by Car (800-223-1516, www.europebycar.com).
Train travel is also possible between your destinations; contact Rail Europe (800-438-7245, www.raileurope.com) for details. At about $220 a person for point-to-point tickets, the train would probably cost less than a car.
Could you identify tour companies that specialize in small groups -- preferably five to 10 but no more than 20 -- and actually stick to that number?
Many companies cater to small groups, but the price is almost always higher and the focus often narrower. For example, Peten Travels, which specializes in archaeology, culture, history and art trips to Turkey, limits its tours to 12 participants. Coopersmiths, a garden tour company, takes between six and 21 participants on each trip. The Italian Connection does walking and culinary tours of Italy and takes no more than 14 travelers. Specialty Travel Index (415-455-1643, www.specialtytravel.com) is a good resource for identifying small group tour operators.
Companies with broader trip interests include:
* Cobblestone Small Group Tours (800-227-7889, www.cobblestonetours.com), which takes a maximum of 21 participants, has itineraries to Spain, Italy and Portugal. A 12-day "Portugal Discoveries" tour is $3,350 per person double, plus airfare.
* Smithsonian Journeys (877-EDU-TOUR, www.smithsonianjourneys.com) limits many of its tours to 12 or 14. For example, its "Lewis & Clark Along the Missouri" tour is limited to 14 and costs $2,475 per person double, plus air.
* Intimate France (800-676-1247, www.intimatefrance.com) offers tours of France and Italy for groups of no more than eight. A 12-day Tuscany tour in October is $3,495 per person double, plus air.
I recently made a deposit on a Norwegian Cruise Line Hawaiian Islands cruise for next summer. We are booked on a new ship, Pride of America. After reading Internet reviews about small cabins, bad service, etc., I am starting to think I made a mistake. Help.
You need a scorecard to keep NCL's ships and Hawaiian itineraries straight.
Any reviews you have read were not of the Pride of America, a new ship that was supposed to launch this summer as the first U.S.-flagged oceangoing cruiser to follow a Hawaiian islands itinerary (foreign-flagged ships are required to visit at least one foreign port when cruising in the United States). The ship sank in a gale while under construction in Germany and is currently undergoing repairs. A new sailing date has not been established, but you're probably in good shape for an August 2005 cruise.
Meanwhile, Norwegian rushed along refurbishment of the Norwegian Sky, which has been renamed the Pride of Aloha, to take the place of the Pride of America. It will set sail in Hawaii July 4.
To further complicate matters, last month the Norwegian Star, which did a regularly scheduled cruise among the Hawaiian islands, suffered damage that forced the ship to change its itinerary: For its April cruises, it stayed within Hawaii instead of also sailing to Fanning Island, 1,200 miles south of Hawaii, to satisfy the foreign port requirement. The Star is now undergoing repairs.
Finally, the Norwegian Wind is also doing 10- and 11-day Hawaii cruises that include a Fanning Island stop.
Even with all these changes and issues, I haven't found a great groundswell of negative reviews on Web sites such as www.cruisemates.com, www.cruisecritic.com and www.cruisereviews.com. Most of the awful reviews were of the Norwegian Sky in the weeks right before it was taken out of commission for refurbishment. The line generally offers fares on the low end, and appeals to a less sophisticated, more casual clientele attracted by its "free-style cruising," which allows more dining choices and a generally more relaxed atmosphere. Info: 800-327-7030, www.ncl.com.
Send queries by e-mail (email@example.com), fax (202-912-3609) or U.S. mail (Travel Q&A, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C. 20071).
What's the Deal? will return next week.