Better exchange rates and some interesting travel deals are making this a bumper year to explore Europe for those who can't stand the thought of whistle-stop package tours. You don't have to sit in a coach with your knees pressed up against the seat in front for hours, packed lunch on your lap, awaiting the command to alight for all-too-brief visits to some of the continent's leading landmarks. They can be good value, but you will always be surrounded by other tourists, and they only offer a superficial look at each country and its people. Be a little adventurous by travelling independently by car or train and with a little advance planning you will be able to see Europe in much more depth, and learn more about the culture of each country you visit. Money will stretch further this summer for Hong Kongers visiting some European countries. The US dollar is stronger against major currencies, and so is the Hong Kong dollar through its peg. For example, the French franc is at HK$1.33 now compared to $1.50 about the same time last year, the German mark is at $4.48 compared to $5.06 and the Swiss franc is $5.25. Twelve months ago it was $6.25. An excellent 'open jaw' deal from Emirates Airline now makes it possible to fly, for example, to Paris from Hong Kong via Dubai, tour France by car or train, and fly back to Hong Kong from Nice, in the south of France, on the same return ticket, again via Dubai. The airline flies to Paris, Frankfurt, Zurich, Nice, Rome, Athens and Istanbul, and you can arrive in any one of these cities, leaving from another on your return leg, without any surcharge. I made a random check with a popular Hong Kong travel agent, and was given a fare of $8,420 economy class for a round-trip ticket, entering Europe at any one of these destinations and leaving at another. And that is high season, which starts on June 21 and ends in September. Go earlier and you will be given a lower shoulder fare. Ring a few agents before you buy a ticket. You might get a slightly cheaper fare. Emirates also flies to London and Manchester, and you could even tour Britain, if you have time, making your way to Europe by ferry, air or through the Chunnel, leaving for Hong Kong via Dubai from one of the airline's destinations in Europe. The good thing about the Emirates deal is that you can see a lot even if you don't have a lot of time available. The way to do it is by hiring a car, or buying a Eurail Pass in Hong Kong. For example, you could fly to Paris, explore France by car or train, and leave from Nice, if you only have around 10 days. Two weeks would allow you to look around northern France and Germany, leaving from Frankfurt. Or in this time you can see eastern France and northern Spain including Madrid, and back into France, leaving from Nice. Three weeks would allow you to see more of France and Spain, or France, Spain and Portugal, leaving from Nice. Or you could give Portugal a miss, see France and Spain, drop your car off in Nice, and buy an air ticket to Rome from Nice, staying in the Italian capital for a day or two before leaving for Dubai and Hong Kong from Rome. There are numerous choices. Look at a map of Europe, work out the distances, and make your plans. Buy a good guide book, and book your hotel for your first night in Europe by fax or through a travel agent. No one wants to arrive somewhere with suitcases and nowhere to stay. But after that, use your guide book and check for yourself on arrival at each destination. This allows you to get just what you want, at the price you want. It is worth considering camping, especially in France, which has a huge selection of good camping facilities at reasonable prices. But July is the busiest month, so try to avoid it if possible. If you hold a BNO passport, the Schengen agreement opens up much of Europe for you. It allows you to have one visa which entitles you to visit France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and Portugal. There is no need for a visa if you wish to visit Italy. You must apply for the visa at the Hong Kong consulate of whichever of these countries you will visit first. Remember, if you drive from Paris to Spain and Portugal, you must re-enter France to leave from Nice. Ask for a multiple-entry visa. It is not expensive. If you want to stop over in Dubai on the way back to Hong Kong, then good news. The airline surcharge for stopovers has been dropped. A visa will be necessary for BNO passport-holders. It is easy to acquire. Consult your travel agent. I checked out some of the options for hiring cars in Europe. You can hire through Emirates or through a travel agent, but it will be cheaper to do it direct through one of the major international car hire companies. It is also cheaper to book before you leave Hong Kong, through Avis or Hertz. You can do it by telephone. There is a drop-off charge if you intend to pick a car up in one country and leave it at the airport or downtown car hire office in another. I asked for a quote for 21 days car hire from Hertz. There are numerous categories of cars, so I asked about smaller models, manual gears. A one-litre Peugeot 106 would cost 4,242 French francs (about HK$5,640) for this period if picked up in Paris, either at the airport or downtown, and dropped off in France. This includes insurance, local taxes and unlimited mileage. Dropping the car off in Rome would push the rate up to 5,689 francs. A Renault Megane 1.4 would cost 4,578 francs for 21 days and 6,025 if dropped off in Rome. If you are a member of a frequent flyer programme which includes Avis or Hertz, then you can get good discounts. Not everyone wants a holiday where they have to drive on the 'wrong' side of the road, so if you are nervous about this, you could instead go for a Eurail Pass, which can be bought at Thomas Cook in Hong Kong. The pass allows unlimited travel on the national railways of 17 countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The pass allows 15 days' consecutive travel for US$522 (about HK$4,070) in first class. The downside is that second-class passes, which are much cheaper, are only available to those under the age of 26. They are called Eurail Youth passes. Eurail Saver passes are cheaper than Eurail passes if you buy them for two or more travelling together, even though it is an unlucky number: $444 for 15 days. They obviously were not thinking about Chinese visitors when they decided on this price. If you are travelling to Britain, there is also a good deal with the Britrail Pass. Thomas Cook does not sell these, but try Westminster Travel. Don't forget that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on July 5. A number of special events are planned, including a re-enactment of the Charge of the Light Brigade. State rooms at Buckingham Palace will also be opened to the public from August 8 to October 5. Many special offers to Europe, such as stopovers on the way to a final destination, are not advertised. Ask your travel agent.