By Karen Rubin, David Leiberman, Noah Heymann and Thomas Lehman

Much has changed since, at the age of 18, I made my first trip to Europe, and yet, much is the same, as I found out as I mentally revisited as my 18-year old son made his own preparations for his first trip to Europe. The world has certainly changed; but some things are constant-the most important being the life-changing experience that such an adventure affords. I know that my early travel experiences proved formative.

Indeed, at a time when unfamiliarity only breeds contempt-and worse-face-to-face contacts between different peoples can perhaps put us back on track of cooperation and understanding, rather than conflict.

Youthful travelers want to see for themselves, learn for themselves, form their own conclusions and accumulate their own experiences and their own memories.

For those of you who are confronting this rite of passage in your own household, here is the benefit of our research, so far, to help you find the best services, the best deals, and access to information concerning health and safety issues:

SideStep.com offers a rich selection of flight, hotel, and rental car bargains - including the largest selection of "Web-only" fares available online. SideStep searches more than 140 Web sites for the best travel deals from 585 airlines, 40,000 hotels and 2,800 rental car locations worldwide (you can even customize for your preferences). It tracks bargains straight from the airlines, hotels, and rental car companies - plus agency and consolidator deals. A nice feature is that you can compare prices side-by-side with Expedia, Travelocity, and others. Then, you book your travel directly with the brand: the SideStep site links directly to the sites of travel companies like Continental Airlines, Thrifty Car Rental, and Hyatt to book your reservations. The company has partnerships with leading travel providers such as JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, Orbitz, Thrifty Car Rental, Accor Lodging North America and Amadeus. For more information, visit www.sidestep.com.

We also found that Travelocity has a special "student center" for special fares available to youth travelers; http://travelocity.studentuniverse.com/fly/search. Though the summer is still peak-travel time, there are some deals around; you can check individual carrier sites, such as www.virginatlantic.com; Virgin, for example, is making student vouchers available on some college campuses in the US, but any student can phone the call center and request special student fares (they have to supply a student ID number) for up to 20% off some economy round trip fares.

Some of the carriers, mindful of the unsettled situation, have periodically responded by easing restrictions for changes or cancellations; Virgin Atlantic, for example, was among the first international carriers to offer passengers the chance to buy tickets and make changes to them at no cost (but do not make the assumption that these policies extend beyond certain periods). Flexibility levels vary from carrier to carrier, and by travel retailer. In addition, these policies are changing as world events change. Some airlines, for example, are now enabling customers to make one time changes to their reservations without incurring fees (such as American). For a summary of the policies of major airlines for domestic flights, Orbitz (one of the many sites in the SideStep travel network): http://www.orbitz.com/App/ViewTravelerTips?headline=Changing+domestic+ticket s. For a summary of international flight policies, see http://www.orbitz.com/App/ViewTravelerTips?headline=Airlines+offer+fliers+flexibility.

In terms of hotels, most cancellation windows continue at 24-72 hours when you buy directly from the hotel chain (much of the inventory featured in SideStep comes directly from the hoteliers themselves - Six Continents, Starwood, Choice Hotels, etc.). When you book through a hotel consolidator (we include several in SideStep, such as Hotels.com and Lodging.com), you may incur a cancellation fee. But at $10-20, it is fairly modest.

London-based STA Travel, is world's largest student travel organizations with travel agencies that cater to student travel on most of the largest U.S. college campuses. Students can purchase discounted air, plus rail passes, accommodations, vacation packages. The site, www.statravel.com, also provides a lot of helpful planning information. The company provides services 24/7 (800-329-9537, http://www.statravel.com/statravel/).

STA also sells the all-important International Student Identification Card, used for access to hostels and for travel discounts, for $22. In addition to low air fares through agencies specializing in student travel, the card entitles holders to stay at low-priced student hotels and dormitories, and to discounts on transportation, dining and sightseeing. Worldwide discounts are listed by the International Student Travel Conference at www.istc.org .

If you're not a student, but aged 12-25, you can get the International Youth Travel Card. If you're a teacher or faculty member, order the International Teaching Identity Card.

Rail Europe is also the official North American representative for 60 European railroads, the latest addition being the 25 Train Operating Companies of Britain. Over the past decade, Rail Europe has evolved into the largest distributor of European travel related products, catering to both the leisure and the business traveler. Each year, more than one million American leisure and business travelers use one of our products.

Rail Europe (which is not specifically a student travel company but offers many travel products that are used by student travelers) can be a one-stop source for European travel. Besides Eurailpass, Eurail Selectpass, BritRail and Eurostar (the rail service that connects England with Paris or Brussels by way of the Chunnel), and rail-related travel products covering 35 European countries, the company also offers transatlantic air, 1,500 hotels, car rentals, packaged trips and independent trips that you can tailor on your own, including "Rail 'n Drive" packages. We found that you can also purchase inexpensive rail links to countries that are not part of the Eurail system (for example, we used an extension fare for $35 to get to Prague, Czechoslovakia).

Similar to discounts given to a limited number of passengers per flight offered by airlines, Rail Europe now offers "book-early" low fares for advance- purchase, one-way tickets on certain international rail routes between France and Italy, Switzerland and Belgium. Savings with these new advance purchase fares, available for a limited number of seats per train, range from 40-70%, depending on the route. Bookings may be made as far in advance as 60 days and a minimum of 14 days prior to travel. These are well suited for North American travelers visiting two or more countries and flying into one country, and departing from another, the new advance-purchase, one-way tickets are available on: Artesia day trains between Paris-Milan in 2nd class, on Artesia night trains between Paris and Milan, Venice, Rome or Florence in couchette sleeping compartments; between Paris-Geneva on TGV trains in 2nd class only; between Brussels and numerous destinations in France on TGV trains in 2nd class only.

Contact Rail Europe at 1-888-382-7245 in the US or log onto www.raileurope.com.

You can also get a wealth of information about traveling in Great Britain through the BritRail site (www.BritRail.com).

Hosteling is a special travel experience in and of itself. It is the way most student travelers who are not camping out, get around, and is interestingly also the way many Europeans like to travel. It is somewhat like the communal experience you get with a bed-and-breakfast, but these tend to be larger establishments, each with its own special character (they can be budget hotels, inns, former mansions and castles or cottages); sometimes the hostel is so special, travelers organize their itinerary around staying at some of them (for this reason, you should make reservations in advance). Travelers have to obey the "house rules" (my most enduring image is of the Edinburgh establishment which was operated in a Dickensonian style).

There are hundreds of youth hostels in Europe, and they are a bargain. The International Youth Hostel Card provides access to a network of almost 4,500 hostels around the world. The card is free if you are under 18, and $25 if you're 18 or older. Check out American Youth Hostels at www.hiayh.com or the International Youth Hostels Foundation, http://www.iyhf.org/home_gb.html. The website offers marvelous listings of hostels all around the world. For further information, contact Hostelling International - American Youth Hostels, 733 15th Street N W Suite 840, Washington DC 20005 , 202-783-6161.

Eurailpass, Britrail pass, hostel cards are not the only travel cards that need to be purchased in advance, before traveling overseas.

For example, Visitor Travelcards for London must be purchased here in the U.S. before traveling. Travelers have a choice of two, three, four or seven day tickets, a choice of zones and do not need to provide a photocard. A book of vouchers for discounts at top London attractions and restaurants completes the package. A new website allows visitors to organize their travelling in London before they leave home; payment is made by credit card and the ticket, date stamped and ready to use on arrival, is delivered by post to a home address: www.ticket-on-line.com.

Destination Information

An excellent way to prepare for the trip in advance and finding out about the various discount travel cards, museum-admission passes, and other specials, as well as key events and festivals, recommended itineraries, and links to other sites and individual destinations is on the Internet (this is the student's adventure, of course, but you can help them out by providing lists of websites, and even requesting the maps and information, which your student will undoubtedly not have time to do, and will relieve your anxiety greatly to know there is a little advance planning).

For traveling to Europe, the best place to start is with the European Travel Commission, www.VisitEurope.com-the site also links to its 33 member countries and is very easy to use. Each of the country destination listings gives fabulous planning tools for traveling around, attractions, special events, accommodations, packages and special visitor travel cards.

For example, at the listing for Denmark, we learned about the Copenhagen Card, which entitles holders to free admission to over 70 attractions, museums and sights in the Greater Copenhagen area - not to mention complimentary transportation on buses and trains in the greater metropolitan area ($26 for 24-hour pass; $45 for 48 hours; check www.visitcopenhagen.com).

The VisitEurope site also provides valuable information about visas (none are needed, except for Turkey), health information, and even packing tips.

Similarly, the VisitBritain.org site is a treasure trove of information about traveling about England, Scotland, Wales, and even into the Channel Islands (VisitBritain also has a New York City office). VisitBritain, 551 Fifth Avenue, Suite 701,212-986 2266 or 800-GO 2 BRITAIN, email travelinfo@bta.org.uk, or visit www.visitbritain.org.

Such sites also provide information about the extraordinary number of major festivals and events that go on in Europe during the summer. It is vitally important that you book well in advance in destinations with some of the most popular festivals, because accommodations sell out. For example, the Edinburgh Festival, through most of August, is the most popular festival in the world; tickets sell out.

As an alternative to backpacking independently and making all these separate arrangements, there are youth-oriented tour operators and travel companies that provide superb budget trips for 18-35 year olds.

Contiki Holidays, a company that specializes in budget travel for 18 to 35 year olds, has been around a very long time. Trips, inclusive of accommodation, meals and sightseeing, are affordable because they put four people together in a dorm-style room.

For example, a 27-day "European Escapade," priced from $1,839 for the land portion, visits 11 countries and such places as Paris, Fontainebleu, Beaujolais, Pont du Gard, Barcelona, French Riviera, Monaco, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Vatican City, Venice, Vienna, Munich, Liechtenstein, Lucerne, Heidelberg, Rhine Valley, and Amsterdam.

The trip includes 25 nights accommodation (8 nights in Contiki Special Stopovers, 12 nights in Contiki Villages, 5 nights in hotel ), most breakfasts and dinners, transportation between cities in an air-conditioned coach, ferry crossings, sightseeing tours. Contiki Holidays, 801 East Katella Ave., Anaheim CA, 888-CONTIKI, Email: contiki@contiki.com, www.contiki.com

If you wind up making a hefty investment in travel arrangements, you should consider purchasing travel insurance, which can cover trip cancellation, but also provide medical assistance and emergency assistance. The average cost of insurance is between four and seven percent of the trip cost. One of the largest suppliers, Travel Guard, provides a lot of helpful information on the site-even a heads-up about pending airline strikes, www.travelguard.com. STA Travel also sells travel insurance with worldwide coverage; policy highlights include medical protection, travel accident protection, trip protection and 24-hour emergency assistance, whether you are traveling for 13 days or 13 months; premiums start at $43. You can purchase travel insurance from STA even if you did not book your tickets through STA, but the insurance needs to be purchased prior to departure (http://www.statravel.com/Statravel/travelinsurance/ti_landing.aspx?menuid=5000).

Health, Safety, Security Information

Facts and circumstances regarding health and safety in each study locale are constantly changing. To monitor the latest available information for a program location, please consult the websites of the U.S. Department of State at www.travel.state.gov and the Center for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov .

In the 33 countries of Western Europe, health certificates are not required for entering any of the countries (unless you are coming from an officially declared "infected area"). Nor are they required for your return to the U.S. from these countries. For information on health conditions abroad, see sites of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov/travel/ and the World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/en/, which has the latest information on SARS, malaria and other travel "nasties." I found the "disease maps" of the world informative, as well: http://www.who.int/ith/diseasemaps_index.html

Another resource is Lonely Planet's health resources section- http://www.lonelyplanet.com/health/. Their TravelTicker, located at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel_ticker/travel_advisories.htm, offers their most current health warnings.

Other tips: if you wear eyeglasses, take an extra pair and your prescription. If you need prescription drugs, carry them in a tote bag, not checked baggage, and carry a new prescription. In most countries, pharmacies take turns on weekend and nighttime service. Ask the local tourist office or the concierge at your hotel. U.S. consulates have names of English-speaking doctors.

Leave a copy of your itinerary, with phone numbers, at your home. Make a copy of the opening page of your passport with the number and date of issue (this will speed the replacement process, if necessary). If you lose your passport, report it to the local police and then take a copy of the report to the U.S. consulate for a replacement, usually issued within 24 hours.

Record charge or debit card numbers (and phone numbers for reporting any loss of cards). The same for traveler's checks and airline tickets. Leave a copy at home, along with numbers of travelers checks you are carrying).

Keeping in Touch

It is relatively easy (if not necessarily cheap) to maintain contact using your current cell phone, or arranging in advance for a calling plan. With AT&T Direct Service, for example, you can dial a toll-free number and connect either automatically or with U.S. -based operator (that is an advantage if a local operator would not be speaking English), and use a calling card or a direct access number.

The student traveler can use their cell phone, if it works on the GSM wireless standard (you will find out when you sign up for international service; otherwise, the major companies including AT&T Wireless, Verizon and T-Mobile can rent a phone equipped for international service.

On AT&T Wireless, for example, you pay only for the minutes you use at AT&T Wireless basic international long distance rates-it works out to about $1.24 per minute in most Western European countries. There is no activation charge and no monthly fee; the calls are billed to your regular AT&T Wireless Services account. However, you have to call in advance to register; call 800-888-7600 to order the AT&T Wireless International Dialing, or visit www.attws.com.

When using a regular digital phone outside the U.S., country-specific international access codes are required in some countries in order to place outgoing calls. For specific coverage and rate information when roaming outside of the United States, contact International Wireless Care at 800-335-INTL (4685). Coverage in these countries is limited to the areas where our roaming partners operate. When traveling outside the U.S., customer support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 1 916 843-4685 (International long distance and roaming charges will apply.)

If you don't want to use a cell phone, you can use arrange for direct-calling from abroad. For example, you can enroll in the AT&T Direct One Rate Plan, which adds a monthly fee of $1.99 to your residential phone bill; then the charge for all eligible countries is 89c per call surcharge plus 99c minute for the call. You can also obtain an AT&T calling card, but then you have to use a land-based phone in Europe. You need to obtain the access codes and international calling instructions for the countries you will be visiting, in advance, which can be downloaded from AT&T's site; you can even make your own wallet-sized directory, http://www.travel.att.com/traveler/tools/wallet.jsp. For information, http://www.travel.att.com/traveler/index.jsp


A first trip to Europe forges many life-altering experiences and face-to-face encounters. David Leiberman explores the Italian countryside.

Student travelers are flocking to Europe. Niki Rubin enjoys the view of Portofino, Italy.

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