Q. My husband and I are planning a trip to Norway next July. We are only interested in the Oslo, Bergen, the Flam Railway and Sogne Fjord areas. The tour group that seemed to fit our needs the best is ScanTours. Do you know of this operation and also how it ranks with other tour groups? They also listed as the hotel in Oslo, the Rainbow Hotel Opera. We could not find that one listed in Frommer's Norway. Do you have any info on that?
A. I've actually been on a trip that covered all the areas you listed. All I can say is bring your camera and be ready to take lots of pictures of amazing scenery. ScanTours (800/223-7226) has been around since 1984, and they specialize in escorted tours to Scandinavia, Russia, The Baltic States, Iceland and Greenland. I've never taken a tour with them, but have only heard positive things about them. Plus Frommers has listed them several times with favorable reviews. Furthermore, ScanTours is a member of the American Society of Travel Agents, which is typically a good sign that the travel company is reputable.
The Rainbow Hotel Opera is part of the Rainbow Hotels chain. But since their merger with Golden Tulip Worldwide, they are now part of a group with hotels in 46 countries. I think you'll enjoy your stay there very much.
Q. I will be going to Ireland on a tour package this September, and the tour ends in Dublin. I would like to know if there is a place that I may trace some information on my Irish heritage. Besides checking in Ireland, is there any place in the United States where I may write to get some information?
A. Tracing your Irish ancestry has gotten significantly easier with the Irish Genealogical Project (IGl), an umbrella organization for genealogical research in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, including the Irish Family History Foundation, The Association of Professional Genealogists and the Association of Ulster Genealogists and Record Agents.
The first thing you want to do is go to www.shamrock.org/global/scotsirish/TracingYourAncestors.pdf and download the free "Tracing your Ancestors in Ireland" brochure from Tourism Ireland, which has everything you need to know about genealogy. The brochure includes helpful information such as the history of IGI, what's required to start an ancestry search (such as name of ancestor who left Ireland, approximate date of birth, county and parish of origin, religious denomination), where to look (best place to start is the National Library of Ireland's Genealogy Advisory Service in Dublin), useful addresses and more.
If you don't have enough time, you can also consult www.irishgenealogy.ie, where you can conduct your search from the comfort of your computer.
Additional information can be found through the Embassy of Ireland's Web site at www.irelandemb.org/gene.html, with helpful tips on how to go about tracing your ancestry.
Q. We're visiting Madrid this summer. Does the city have an "all in one" visitors card with admission to museums and other attractions, similar to the one in Paris?
A. The Madrid Card offers entrance to 43 museums, cultural sights, and other attractions in and around the city; unlimited use of the "Madrid Vision" tour bus, access to 36 guided walking tours, entrance to the Zoo Aquarium, and discounts at restaurants, shops, and nightspots. A 24 hour card costs about $30. There are also 48- and 72-hour versions. Cards can be purchases at the airport, train stations, and other places, or on line at www.madridcard.com. By the way, Barcelona has a similar card at www.barcelonaturisme.com.
Q. My husband and I are hoping to go to Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris this year for our 30th anniversary. Our only foreign travel was to England and Ireland 5 years ago and that was a guided tour. We are planning on taking this trip on our own. Is this a doable plan? Neither of us speaks a foreign language. We don't know whether it would be better to fly into Paris and then visit Brussels and Amsterdam or whether to fly into Amsterdam and then visit Brussels and Paris or if it makes much difference. Is it better to fly out of the same place you flew into? Should we rent a car or try and use the train system? Would you recommend making hotel reservations ahead of time or could we just fly by the seat of our pants? We are planning on going somewhere between the end of July and beginning of September.
A. As this will be your 30th anniversary, I'm assuming (and I could be wrong) that you'd want this to be an enjoyable and relaxing trip, so I suggest that you make hotel reservations ahead of time. You probably won't have a hard time finding accommodations in each of the cities once you get there, but do you really want to spend the better part of a day upon arrival calling around looking for a hotel?
If you can find an airfare within your budget that lets you fly in and out from different airports (a so-called open-jaw fare) then that's your best bet; but these types of fares are sometimes more expensive than simple round-trips. If that's not an option, you can easily get between these three cities by train, plane or rental car, or a combination of the three. If you choose rail, and don't plan to deviate from the three cities you mentioned, you'd be better of just purchasing point-to-point tickets. Driving might not be so bad, since according to ViaMichelin (Europe's counterpart to MapQuest), Paris to Brussels is 190 miles and will take about three hours, and Brussels to Amsterdam is 130 miles and takes about two and a half hours. But Amsterdam, Paris and Brussels are connected by great high speed rail lines, so I think I'd go by train rather than drive. Do check out AutoEurope if you plan on renting a car, as they have pretty good rates.
And lastly, I wouldn't worry too much about the language. Unless you plan to visit the outskirts of any of those cities, you shouldn't have a hard time finding English speakers should you get lost.