Tripologist: Hip-pocket help for hire-car country hopping

My husband and I want to hire a car from Paris in December and drive through northern France and Belgium, ending in Amsterdam. It seems most car rental places want to slug us with a €250 ($300) fee for one-way hire. Is there any way around this?
- C. Mitchem, Waverton

As soon as you cross a border and return your hire car in another country from the one you hired in, your car hire operator is going to crunch you with a one-way fee. As you've found out, the charge is not small. There is another way, but in your case it's not going to save you much.

If you hire a VW Polo diesel from Europcar in Paris on December 16 and return it in Amsterdam a week later, it will cost $580. This is almost $300 more than if you were to return the vehicle in Paris.

However, if you return your VW to another location within France, you'll pay the same price as if you were returning it to Paris, just $283. When you finish your tour of northern France and Belgium, you could return your vehicle to the Europcar depot at the TGV train station in Lille, just across the border from Belgium in north-eastern France, then catch the train to Amsterdam. The fastest service will take you about 2½ hours and the fare should be about $140 if you buy your tickets through Rail Europe. Unfortunately, this will eat up most of the savings you make on the one-way hire fee.

Considering that it will only cost you about $25 more, returning your vehicle in Amsterdam might be a better option.

All aboard for a historic and opulent ride

My wife and I (grey nomads) love Europe and have enjoyed several river cruises. We like being in a group but not on the coaches — too rushed for us. Friends have mentioned an Australian company based in Queensland that specialises in group tours of Europe by train. We can't find the company. Can you help us please?
- A. Jones, Broadbeach, Qld

Great Trains of Europe Tours might be the company. They're based in Toowoomba East (0488 423 848) and they do exactly what the name suggests. They organise a number of escorted train tours in various parts of Europe and their itineraries are imaginative. Their tours travel in style in first-class train seats, staying in four- and five-star hotels, and their prices reflect this.

Another alternative would be to take a tour aboard one of Europe's historic trains. Al Andalus is a luxury train that offers a six-day circuit of southern Spain, famous for its white villages, Moorish and baroque cities and bullfights. The cost starts from €2300 ($2755) a person.

In Scotland, The Royal Scotsman is another opulent, Edwardian-style train that offers two-, three-, four-, five- and seven-night journeys through Scotland. The most popular is the four-night Classic, which takes in the lochs, glens and castles of the Southern Highlands, for $7450 a person.

From ship to sure way to hotel

We are two senior couples going on a Princess cruise to Alaska and Japan, disembarking in Beijing for a flight home to Sydney. We need to arrange the transfer from the ship to our hotel in Beijing. Princess Cruises can only offer transport to the airport, or a hotel reservation booked by Princess, which ours is not. Can you please suggest the best way to organise a transfer from the Diamond Princess to the Novotel Peace Hotel?
- L. Brock, Newcastle.

Beijing Tour operates a transfer service between Tianjin International Cruise Port, where your ship will berth, and hotels in Beijing. The price is $US45 ($44) a person.

When you disembark, you will collect your luggage and pass through customs. Leave the customs hall by exit three and you will find a Beijing Tour representative waiting to direct you to your coach. The coach departs about 9.30am. Tianjin Port is about 200 kilometres from Beijing and the journey takes two to three hours.

Don't get duped over a carpet

We are travelling to Europe in mid-September, spending the first four days in Istanbul. We plan to shop there and I would like to send goods back to Australia, but I know nothing about the safety, reliability and cost of postal services from Istanbul. Do you have any information about services? I know some carpet dealers will send rugs or carpets back.
- D. Price, Lake Macquarie.

You can send goods back to Australia through the DHL office in Istanbul. They can pick the goods up from your hotel and ship to your home address. DHL offers a fast, secure service and you can track the consignment every step of the way.

It is also true many merchants will ship your purchases and, provided you're working with a reputable dealer, you should have no problem.

I would be cautious about buying a carpet in Istanbul or anywhere else. Unless you know a lot about what you're looking at, it's easy to be duped, and the silk-tongued rug merchants of the bazaars have plenty of expertise in taking the traveller down.

In a recent letter a reader complained she paid $15,000 for a rug in Istanbul that turned out to be worth a fraction of that. I've met rug merchants from Morocco to Kashmir and I still can't tell synthetic from silk.

Exercise care, but don't be deterred. If you decide to take the plunge, visit several rug merchants and beware the charm offensive. You can demonstrate you're no easy mark if you take photos of carpets that interest you and say you're sending them back to a trusted expert at home for an opinion. Be prepared to bargain, hard. Using a credit card such as American Express may afford you more protection.


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