Thanks for the lively discussions everyone. Unfortunately, I think I'm going to have to disappoint and not get a SLR (too bulky for solo train traveling across Germany, and too expensive from what I can afford after getting zoom lens and other accessories).
Right now, I've narrowed it to either:
(1) Panasonic's FZ35 (for zoom mostly, and the lower cost allows me to put money into accessories). From most of the samples I've seen on this forum, I'm pretty impressed with the quality that the camera is capable of producing (even in low light).
(2) Canon g11 (for better low light quality and more compact - 1/2 the fz35). But it costs ~$120 more and I'm sacrificing a lot of zoom. I have not found a good standardized comparison of the 2 cameras in low light, so I can't really tell if the g11's low light capabilities is that much better (besides what the specs say). Can anyone comment on how much better the g11's low light capabilities are?
I went to 4 b&m big box retail stores and some camera specific shops here in nashville yesterday and no one carries the fz35, so if I get it, it will be a sight-unseen purchase. I'm going to a bestbuy that's further away to see the g11 today.