March 31, 2004 -- There are websites, and there are websites, we all know. And none of them are equal to one another. Even in Europe, where the EU wants outsiders to think all member countries are treated equally, everyone knows some are more equal than other, to paraphrase Animal Farm in the spirit of 1984. Among the official websites for government tourist offices on the continent, those of the Big Three stand out, all attractive, and most important, very helpful.
Each is designed to help you plan your trip completely around its information, should you so desire. But each has its own little quirks, betraying its country of origin, which makes reading them more fun if you expect a national personality to exert itself in advance.
Britain, for instance, seems a bit more welcoming at first glance, as they have their 800 phone number right up on the site's mainpage, while Germany doesn't mention it there and France doesn't have one at all, making you pay for a toll call. They also allow you to sign up for a monthly customized e-newsletter right there (as does Germany), while France makes you click to get to information about their monthly magazine inside the site, though you may get an e-mail pop-up on page 1 during your website visit offering a free subscription as well.
One of the main features of Britain's mainpage is the promise of "hundreds of special offers." When you click on that, you can't get to the offers without first deciding if you want to try for two free tickets to London (yes or no...why not?), then fill in your contact information before you can proceed (you can ask NOT to be put on their mailing list if you so desire, however). Once on the specials page, you'll see such neat deals such as 60% off the Novotel London Euston hotel, 68% off tickets for the musical Fame, twofers at Stonehenge, $45 off a Hertz rental car and over 50% off the Crowne Plaza hotel in Manchester.
There are dozens of items in the index, including "Take a VirtualVacation" and "Specialty Travel" (family, mature, student, gay, lesbian, sporting, e.g.). Concluding its introductory page, Visit Britain shows off a cameo appearance by Prime Minister Blair, appearing in a TV commercial made for view in the USA. Check them out at www.travelbritain.org. You can also get information at their phone, 800/462-2748 or by e-mailing them at email@example.com.
The mainpage of France's website is livelier in its appearance than either Britain's or Germany's, with a modern, airy look. The French emphasize their events calendar more than the other two countries, pumping up interest in a Joan Miro exhibit from March through June and a Napoleon Dreams of Empire exhibition from October. France's site has a lot on learning about France (including the language), such as walks through the Paris of Napoleon and Josephine (this year marks the 200th anniversary of his coronation as emperor), or a new guidebook just to the bakeries of Paris, assuring that you can find the best croissants or baguettes.
Especially endearing this year, there are many items on the 60th anniversary of D-Day and the subsequent liberation of France by Allied Forces. (In a release to the press, the French Government Tourist Office mentioned a 15-day media tour of the US promoting Operation Open Arms, following up on its popular "Let's Fall in Love Again" publicity campaign to attract more visitors.) On the site is mentioned the fact that The Lower Normandy Region of France has created a special badge honoring the men who fought in the Battle of Normandy in 1944 (visiting US veterans will get one on the spot), and there will be many commemorations on June 5 and 6, 2004, in Normandy itself. Along the way, you might learn about the American Airlines special fare commemorating the D Day anniversary or the Eurovacations.com tours there.
Other items highlighted on the site's mainpage include a new gay friendly guidebook (an American demographic eagerly sought by both British and German sites as well), a chance to win free trips by answering a survey or poll, tips on the Paris Flea Market and something on wine bars. In the index are the usual items one might expect (seaside resort, cities, culture, etc.), but there are also some unusual ideas such as The Art of Living, a Youth Corner, Nature, Naturism, Well-being, and Special Needs. The site is www.franceguide.com. You can phone them at 410/286-8310.
Germany's site is very practical, no surprise, with an emphasis on "great offers" and a listing of events, but if you look around beyond page one and through a link, you may find a recipe for "Grandmother's White Asparagus in White Sauce." (That's at www.spargel-cup.de, in German only). The site offers a chance to win a free one-week trip to Germany, and talks of intercultural exchanges (something the other two sites don't do at the moment), citing an exhibit of German treasures from Dresden in Jackson, Mississippi, for instance. The rich German religious tradition is emphasized, too, with tours for Catholics and Protestants alike. Two examples are pilgrimages in Bavaria to Altotting and the Wittenberg Town Festival, which celebrates Martin Luther's wedding.
Typical of the "Deals of the Month" Germany features are two at the time I looked: A Castles & Manor Homes promotion from Celtic Tours from just $899, including roundtrip airfare from New York to Frankfurt, four nights' lodging with continental breakfast and a rental car with unlimited mileage. They can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 800/833-4373. Departures from April1 through December 10, 2004.
Another bargain: Berlin City Experience, group tour (you join the group) from $729 including airfare from New York (individually, you can join in Berlin and pay ground-only charges of $469). You get four nights in your choice of hotel and daily buffet breakfast. Contact the tour operator at email@example.com or phone 800/221-2216.
The German site is at www.cometogermany.com, and their phone is 800/651-7010.