Our trip started from our home in Wilmington, Delaware. It took us to: Ramstein, Landstuhl, Baden Baden, Germany and then on to Zurich and Lucerne, Switzerland, and finally to Milan and Aviano, Italy. I hope my travel experience will be informative and useful.
We had planned our trip for more than six months to get to Ramstein, Germany from Baltimore on a Patriot flight. We then wanted to come back through Aviano, Italy so we would have a high probability of getting the Patriot flight back through Ramstein to Baltimore. On our last trip to Ramstein AB, it took us several long days waiting in the terminal to get a return flight. Then, we had to catch a C5 to Dover AFB, where we then had to travel back to Baltimore for our car.
About 6 weeks before our expected departure, my wife Natalie started checking train schedules and tours as well as possible rooms at various locations throughout our expected trip. This was helpful on several levels. One, it gave us a good estimate of potential costs. It also gave us an idea of how much time we might want to spend at each location and what activity we might be doing so we could plan accordingly. Our research also alerted us to when certain attractions might be closed for the season. For example, many church tours are not available on Sundays. And in Fall, some tours only operate on weekends or stop altogether.
Our plan was to use the travel agency (RTT Travel) at Ramstein AFB as much as possible, though their greatest help for us was with the trains. We had been following the flights out of Baltimore online and knew most flights left on Tuesday, Monday and Sunday in that order during the time frame we were considering. The flight we wanted left on a Sunday with 150 seats available and the next night about 250 seats. We decided to try for the Monday flight. We later found out that the Sunday flight was a madhouse and many Cat VI didn’t get on. But on Monday there were about 200 seats available, with 50 unused when the flight departed.
After discovering that the main hotel (Ramstein Inn) at Ramstein had no vacancy, we made reservations at the Air Force Inn at Landstuhl. We were advised to take a cab, which cost about €27. However, we discovered there is also a free shuttle between Ramstein and Landstuhl that runs on a regular schedule. The room we were offered was great. It had a bedroom, living room and full kitchen for $63 a night. The only issue was that there was no elevator and we were on the 4th floor. It seems the base took back the original building and future plans did not permit elevator expenditures at that location.
Our hotel room was in building number 3766, which was near the walking gate to the town. It was also near the hospital, which had a cafeteria and a mini-mart. The hotel building was about a 10-minute walk to the gym and 50 meters from there to a gas station/convenience store. There was also an Italian restaurant and a sports bar opening within 50 meters of the barracks.
The town of Landstuhl was interesting; unlike Ramstein it was very close to the base. Patrons can take a cab or walk down a long hill into the town. Be aware in the afternoon many of the restaurants close. We made the mistake of walking to Landstuhl at about 1500 hours for a late lunch and it took us a while to find something we liked that was still open. However, we managed to find a restaurant gem. Located on the main street, there was a place called something close to what I can describe as the New York Deli. We passed by it several times thinking “we didn’t come to Germany to eat in some place called the New York Deli!” It was run by Greeks and had the expected lamb and gyro sandwiches. But we also got some of the best Schnitzel we had on the whole trip. The plate was half filled with French fries, and in my opinion, done perfectly. The other half of the plate was filled with a Greek salad, with a rich Greek dressing. On top of that, covering most of the plate, was a huge chicken schnitzel covered with a nice layer of thick mushroom gravy. All for €9 euros and change.
A warning about the walking gate which is Gate #1: We expected a walk-through gate next to a drive-through gate. Instead, it was a small building with a walk-through passage and a security station just off the main road. It was building number 93517. It is open 24/7. It is right across from the back of the building we stayed in, the Air Force Inn, building number 3766. It took me a while to find it because I kept looking for a roadway. But it was right in front of me every time I left the back of the hotel! Conveniently, there is a taxi stand just outside the walking gate and the hotel clerk can call to make sure there is a cab there for you.
The Landstuhl train station, which was where we took the train to Baden-Baden, is within walking distance from the walking gate. It would take a person in good walking shape about 30 minutes to get there. Once down the long hill and into town, take a left down the main street. A couple of hundred yards near the end of the shopping district the road takes a Y. Go right downhill and the station is at the bottom. You can also take a cab for about €6. My wife would say to take the cab!
We ended up spending two days in Landstuhl, took the shuttle back to Ramstein to make reservations with the travel agency, then going through the mall and arranging for tours and rooms online. Baden-Baden was about a two-hour train ride from Landstuhl. It is known as a resort area for the European elite. It is also known for the Roman-type mineral water spas. There are two main spas. The older one, Friedrichsbad, is over a 150 years old and is like a traditional Roman bath/spa with vaulted ceilings, a sauna, steam rooms, whirlpools and so on. This spa maintains tradition with designated nude days as well as designated clothing days where men and women go separately.
The other spa, Caracalla, is more modern; it is 20 years old. It is strictly for the clothed except for a sun bathing area on an upper level. It has large pools and whirlpools with a variety of experiences both indoor and outdoor. Some of the whirlpool jets were so strong you could barely stand in them and they truly gave a body part you dare expose them to a nice massage. I would advise patrons to be cautious of the perimeter wall, which in select areas will periodically cascade water down for 5-6 feet length. My wife, Natalie, was standing near one when it turned on; it almost got her and would have created a wonderful Internet video moment!
The center of town was clean, well kept, and loaded with stores and restaurants. It is not a heavy nightlife place however, and most places close around 1900 hours in early October. There is also a casino, gardens and a winery (public bus accessible) and hiking. The casino has a high-end gambling area which requires a suit jacket to enter. They also have a less formal slot machine area which you will need your passport to enter.
Touring the nearby countryside is definitely not to be missed. I would highly recommend a hike up to the abandoned castle that overlooks the city. There is also a tour of Roman bath ruins, but it’s operating hours are limited. It is well worth it and gave me a new insight into how they were constructed and operated.
The good news is that it is easy to walk around the town and not need a car. The main places to see are close enough to walk to or take a bus. The rooms started at about €100 and all go up from there.
Then it was off to Zurich, which has the largest train station in Switzerland. There is an excellent tourist office in the station with several attendants who can give information about events and give directions. There are also city maps readily available. Also, the train station had an ATM machine and one of the first things we did was get some Swiss Francs (Swiss currency). The ATM fees are cheaper than getting money exchanged by other means. There is one tip I would like to share about Swiss currency. After 5 Francs, Swiss money goes from coin to paper. So that large coin is not 50 cents, but is 5 Francs! I almost gave a generous tip thinking I was just giving change!
Some comments on the city of Zurich: There is an excellent trolley system and you can get a 24-hour pass. I would suggest asking an attendant about it and how to figure out the transfer points. The tickets are also good for the waterway system. I mentioned the train station in Zurich was the largest in Switzerland, but it may not seem that way at first glance because there are multiple levels. Below the main station there is a mall with about 170 stores of all types. It is pleasant and the stores are nice. The mall has the benefit of being open when outside stores might be closed. Below that level, there are more train tracks!
Be aware that taxis and food in Switzerland are expensive. Our first dinner in a nice restaurant was almost twice as much as we would have expected at home. However, there were several small grocery stores where you could get a salad or sandwich meal economically.
Zurich is clean and cosmopolitan. There is a tour bus station adjacent to the train terminal. There are a series of excellent tours you can purchase. We had a wonderful time roaming through the many stores within a few blocks on either side of the waterway in the center district of Zurich. One main street off of the train station, Bahnhofstrasse Street, rivals some of the finest (or most expensive) shop areas in Europe. So either enjoy it or avoid it! Some of the things we enjoyed were a tour of the central area, which included a fondue dinner on an overlook area of the city. We also took a bus trip to the Rhine River Falls. You can also take boat trips of varied length up to the lake.
Here are a few things to be careful of in Switzerland. If you drive, authorities follow rules and derive a nice income on fines for traffic violations! When walking across the street, lights signal when to walk and when to wait. There is a yellow light signal that is a warning of an upcoming signal change.
A note of caution: the signals don’t necessarily mean patrons can safely cross the complete street, but maybe to a middle-street island where there is a different signal. Therefore, please do not think the first “green” signal means green all the way across the street. Where there is no walking signal, there is a yellow stripped walkway in which pedestrians seem to have the right of way. However, drivers get annoyed if you linger while they wait. My wife got some angry German words when she thought it worked like stop signs here in America, where drivers who get to the sign last waits. It was like a standoff, until you could tell that the driver’s words and hand expressions weren’t saying, “Welcome to Zurich.” Also, my wife being a southern lady, would throw a thank you wave at the drivers for stopping, only she was the only one I saw do it in the four days we were there.
Then it was off to Lucerne. My first thought on walking out of the train station was “Wow, this is better than Zurich!” The town is surrounded by mountains and presents an awesome view when first experiencing it. Right out of the train station you are near the lake. Lucerne is also smaller and less cosmopolitan than Zurich. I would highly suggest stopping by the train station tourist office for a map before you get to far away. You can also get great pamphlets on restaurants, tours and entertainment.
To give you an idea of food costs, entrees run from about 30 to 50 Francs. Pizza and pasta dishes run 22 to 28 Francs. For example, we split a pizza and side salad. My wife had a glass of wine and I had a large beer. The bill was 58 Francs.
We did a walking tour of the city, which was very interesting. We also took a trip up to Mount Pilatus. The trip started with a 30-minute gondola ride, then an aerial cableway ride. The trip down was on a cogwheel train. To understand cog cars think of a gear wheel; its exterior surface is cog shaped. The cog car has a third center rail with cogs. It is the steepest cogwheel train in Europe. We enjoyed the trip, but it was a rainy and cloudy day, so there wasn’t much of a view at the top. Our tour went up one side of the mountain and came down the other side to Lake Lucerne. The tour included a nice one hour and half boat ride back to the city center where we enjoyed a glass of wine.
There are a couple of things not to miss in Lucerne. One is the Musegg Wall that once protected the city. A large portion still remains intact. It is like the castle walls you see in Hollywood movies, complete with a walkway and watchtowers. On one side is the city and on the other side it is mainly countryside.
I would also suggest viewing the Lion Monument (The Lion of Lucerne), which is a sculpture carved into a rock wall. During the French revolution there were 700 Swiss mercenaries guarding the King of France. The French people, while executing the king, queen and anyone else they didn’t like, also executed them. The lion sculpture is dedicated to their massacre and is a fitting memorial. It is really well done.
Out of the train station you can see the Chapel Bridge and Water Tower to your left. This is the most photographed attraction in Lucern. We also went on a 12-hour tour to Mount Jungfraujoch (called the top of Europe). This tour was the visual highlight of the trip. It started with an hour and a half long bus trip, which had some beautiful mountain landscapes and countryside. Then a series of cogwheel trains up the mountain. On the way up it was foggy and cloudy, but when we got to the top it was above cloud level and sunny. It took almost an hour to get to the top, but it was well worth it. The views of snow-covered peaks were spectacular. There was even a display of ice carvings in an ice cave in the mountain. My wife said it was probably the most impressive thing she had seen in our European travels.
The next travel leg of our journey, a train ride to Milan, was also spectacular. As the train weaves its way through Italy you see view after view of mountains and valleys. Our first impression of Milan was definitely a culture shock after visiting Switzerland. It is a very large city, a magnificent train station (2nd largest in Italy), immigrant vendors selling selfi devices, homeless sleeping everywhere and lots of graffiti.
On our second day we had a two-day pass for the On-and-Off tour bus, which we really enjoyed. Milan has a history of being the connecting point with the rest of Europe for Italy. It is very spread out. There is so much to see and do, but it is not centralized as it is in other cities like Rome or Florence. You will want to see the Duomo, the fifth largest church in the world. It took five centuries to construct. You should also see the painting of the Last Supper, but I will warn you, you should purchase tickets well in advance. We could not get tickets to view it and we tried to buy them at least two weeks before our trip. The science museum is another great attraction.
The city was clean considering the age and large population. But unlike the road rules in Switzerland, crossing the street along with all the cars, bikes, motorbikes and buses was more like a big game of chicken! I would suggest travelers take time during the day to roam some of the side streets for a idea of what Milan is like for the working man. We did not see the little open fruit, cheese and sausage shops like we have seen in other places in Italy, but you can find mini-marts with the same and more in a more formal format.
After three days in Milan, we took the train to Venice where we got a local train to Pordenone and then a cab to Aviano AFB, which cost about €27 and change. It was a nice ride but the scenery was definitely different than Switzerland. It looked more like the United States, with lots of building and roads. But to the north, you could always see the Italian northern mountains, the Dolomites, in the distance.
The cab company we used at Aviano AFB can only take you to the outside of the gate and then it is approximately a 15-20 minute walk to the hotel. By the way, you can make reservations with a long lead-time. The room was fabulous and had a kitchen with a microwave and full refrigerator. However, there are no utensils or dishes. It is designed for heating up a microwave meal. The AMC terminal is a good hour walk from the hotel, which made it probably around four miles for us. There was a shuttle on the morning of the Patriot flight from the Air Force Inn to the terminal.
One thing that has changed is one’s ability to get on the Patriot flight at Aviano AFB. In the past, it was relatively easy to catch a flight from Aviano AFB to Baltimore. However, as of fiscal year 2016, the plane on the Baltimore/Ramstein/Aviano route is 100 seats smaller. For example, the week before our trip most of the Cat VI passengers made it onboard, but some passengers could only make it to Ramstein AFB. On our departure date, everyone got on and there were about a total of 80 seats for the flight. By the way, retirees have full BX and commissary privileges at Aviano AFB.
During our trip, we stayed in moderately priced commercial hotels rooms. Most of these hotels included breakfast. The breakfasts were always similar: fresh bread, strong European coffee, sliced meats, cereal, juice, fruit and hard boiled eggs and some sweet bakery items. None of the rooms we stayed in had in-room coffee machines or refrigerators, and only had a few electrical outlets. The style of beds in this level of hotel seems to be two single beds pushed together. They usually have small showers and small elevators. None of the places we were in had ice machines. I am assuming it has to do with trying to convert an existing masonry structure built a couple hundred years ago into a modern structure.
As far as luggage and suggested items to pack goes, we were able to manage with a medium-size suitcase each and a small backpack. We did our own laundry in the rooms with a Scrubba wash bag, which we got online for $55. I also purchased a security wallet from AAA. It hooked to my belt with a security strap and it worked very well.
We wore hiking pants, which are great since they have a lot of hidden pockets with zippers and dry quickly. I also have a small backpack with security wire running through it and special thief proof snaps which I carried in the cities. A fellow passenger we met on the trip back home, reported that they had a phone pick pocketed in Rome, so beware.
We also bring shirts, underwear and socks that wick away moisture and dry well. I bring one pair of shoes that are a hiking/trail running shoe with a Gore-Tex lining. The Gore-Tex has saved me on many occasions from wet feet and shoes.
I found a three outlet plug with two USB ports and I bought a 12” cord for it. It really was a lifesaver. Especially since I could charge my phone, camera and iPad with it. I also bring one of those small multi-item knives with a wine opener, bottle opener, and scissors, and a first aid kit with aspirin, lots of blister pads and a very small sewing kit.
We also bring a couple of plastic plates I picked up at a hiking store and a plastic spork (all in one knife, spoon and fork). It takes no room and works well if you plan on the occasional in-room wine, cheese, fruit and hard sausage meals. We also bring a flat universal sink stopper, as occasionally a hotel will remove the stoppers. Our one excess was bringing the ability to make fresh coffee. I brought an electric pot, a small hand grinder and filter. We do not like the European coffee and my wife loved having a fresh in-room coffee every morning before breakfast. We also brought some plastic cups for coffee or wine.
One thing I will never bring again is a travel steam iron. Quick drying clothes do not need to be ironed and the iron can melt them. By the way, you can get clothes lines with snap hooks for traveling. I personally do not recommend the type that has two twisted lines, where you are supposed to attach the cloths on the twists. We also like a hanger you can get that has about eight plastic clothespins on it.
I would also mention that on the longer train rides, it was worth a little extra to get an assigned seat. On the local trains you can get a first class ticket for a few Euros more. It really only means very few people in your car. But if you happen to travel during a crowded time and you have luggage, it is well worth not having to stand on a crowded train.
John and Natalie Kudach,
Reprint from January–February 2016 • Volume 46, No. 1