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Oktoberfest (www.oktoberfest.de) a.k.a. Beerfest, is arguably Europe's biggest annual party, attracting nearly six million people. The 172-year-old free event actually starts in September, the 17 in Munich and ends October 3. The opening festivities start at noon, when the Lord Mayor of Munich will tap the first keg. Oktoberfest began in 1810 to honor the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig's marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildurghausen. Its September start allows revelers to take advantage of better weather needed to carouse from one beer and food tent to another -- the frothy stuff is available nearly all day, every day. Activities (other than beer drinking) include an Oktoberfest costume parade and Rifleman's Parade, all held on the Theresienwiese-a.k.a. Therese's fields. So when locals say, "Welcome to the Wiesn" it's a more colloquial way of saying, "Welcome to Oktoberfest."

With wildly popular events such as Oktoberfest, however, finding ways to experience it cheaply is often a trick. Indeed, many hotels are sold out at least a year in advance. Many of the larger tents that seat 3,000 people require reservations and consequently have been sold out to seasoned veterans for months. There are, however, plenty of smaller tents with beer, food, craftspeople and other vendors, so it's hard to go here and not have a good time. We found a few promising opportunities for partygoers.

Serious beer enthusiasts should check out Beer Trips (tel. 406/531-9109; www.beertrips.com/trips/oktoberfest_2005.html) Although at $2,285 its Prague, Bamberg and Munich Oktoberfest special, which does not include airfare, is a little pricey, it gives you nine nights in three beer-loving towns of Central Europe. (If you read the fine print you can indeed book your airfare through Beer Trips; just inquire.) From September 15-25, you will explore breweries large and small, (Pilsner Urquell and Ayinger for example) with nearly two whole days free to enjoy Oktoberfest. The price includes all transportation and attractions once you arrive, including rail, coach, airport transports, fees for brewery visits, tastings and tours, four dinners with beer, three lunches with beer and a tour guide. It may seem like a lot -- indeed it's a tad more costly than what we normally put forth -- but for those in a last-minute jam, it could be perfect.

Real Adventures (tel. 617/738-4700; www.realadventures.com) took nearly 2,000 people to Oktoberfest last year. Their opening weekend, accommodations only package (www.realadventures.com/listings/1038487.htm) is a four-night deal that includes full breakfast daily, tours to Dachau concentration camp and Andechs Monastery as well as shuttles to and from the festival. It starts from $251 per person for four days for an experience that qualifies as roughing it. It's a camping experience: pre-pitched tents are set up at Camping Thalkirchen, just three kilometers from the festival grounds, and you'll need to bring a sleeping bag and other accoutrement.

Ludus Tours (tel. 866/343-6133; www.ludustours.com) specializes in "showing people a good time" according to its website. Its Oktoberfest 2005 package offers a minimum 3-night stay from $725 per person with flexible dates from September 16 through October 3 -- airfare is not part of it though. If you want to extend it, that's possible; just add on $200 per day. The price includes accommodations next to the grounds, continental breakfast, banquet dinner at a beer hall (there are many of them), airport transfers, a bike tour and Neuschwanstein Castle tour, free public transportation during your stay and tour guide assistance. Choose either Hotel Atlas, where a free Turkish bath is included, or Hotel Brack, a soundproof, bright, modern facility.

The Munich Tourism Board (tel. 49/089-230018-0 www.muenchen.de) has a ton of information for travelers about the city's many cultural treasures (museums, orchestras, architecture) and, of course Oktoberfest, including a "survival kit" with maps and links to accommodations and a bit of history. Using their hotel reservations search for accommodations starting Friday September 16 for six nights, three hotels popped up, with rates between ¿1235-1818, for the least expensive hotel available, the Vitalis Munich. The tourism site also offers information about the Munich Welcome Card. Assuming you have any interest in going outside Oktoberfest during your stay, for ¿6.50, you can buy the welcome card, which entitles you to ride all day for free on public transport in the inner area of the city and discounts to numerous attractions; a three-day card is also available.

It can be nearly impossible to find an affordable hotel room in the city center during Oktoberfest if you haven't planned already. A quick check of the usual spots revealed very little, though Expedia (tel. 800/EXPEDIA; www.expedia.com) has a clean, modern hotel in a business park near the airport called the NH Munich Airport from an average rate of $145 per day. The drawback? The hotel is about 23 miles from the city center, but it's about two and a half miles from the airport, and you can catch a train to the city from there. Also, the brand new A&O Hostel in Munich has spotty availability starting on Monday September 18 -- which is fine if you're cool with not arriving for the start, and you're traveling alone, as most of the rooms available only sleep one.

If you miss the special, try out Mobissimo (tel. 650/577-2306; www.mobissimo.com). Selecting September 15 as a departure date and Septmeber 20 a return, there are fares from $585 per person (including taxes and fees), offered by Cheaptickets (tel. 888/922-98849; www.cheaptickets.com), with one stop in Frankfurt. Depart on United Airlines in the evening and arrive in Frankfurt the next morning and change airlines to Lufthansa. Your flight from Frankfurt to Munich is a mere hour. There are oodles of flights to choose from, as Mobissimo scans over 100 airlines and providers, many of them in the $600 range.

Finally, if accommodations options are pushing you further outside the city center, there might be some wisdom to checking into a place in Stuttgart, home of the Stuttgart Beer Festival (tel. 49/0-711-2228-268; www.stuttgart-tourist.de/english/stuttgart/festivals/beerfestival.html). Stuttgart is about two hours by train from Munich and the 160-year-old festival runs September 24-October 9. Best of all, it's typically less crowded but still provides an authentic Bavarian festival experience, with food, beer, oompah music, fireworks, and even a hot air balloon race. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the Stuttgart Marketing and Tourism's special "festival fun for a small price" (tel. 49/0-711-22228-246), which includes one overnight stay, a welcome drink, a map and city guide, a mug of Sttugarter Hofbr¿u festival beer, one half a chicken, and a celebratory T-shirt from ¿60.50 per person based on double occupancy. Hotel reservations can also be made using the tourism site, and a quick search for accommodations starting opening day revealed a wealth of options.

Take advantage of traveler's advice on visiting Germany for Oktoberfest at the Frommers.com Germany Message Board.