ROME - Germans, Austrians and other foreigners are heading into Italy to play the lottery ahead of a record C131.5 ($186 million) jackpot, including some who flew into Milan for a few hours just for a chance to win Thursday night.

Germany's top-selling Bild newspaper said 140 passengers aboard a chartered Air Berlin jet won a phone-in contest for free airline tickets aboard an early afternoon flight from Berlin to Milan's Malpensa airport.

Besides the free seats, the winners were being treated to a heaping plateful of pasta, a cup of espresso and the opportunity to buy Superenalotto tickets at a smoke shop at the Milan airport.

Later in the afternoon, without ever leaving the airport, the passengers were flying back to Berlin, "just in time for dinner and to find out if they've won," said Italy private Canale 5 TV.

The six-number combination will be announced by about 8:30 p.m. No one has picked the winning numbers since January, and now the Superenalotto jackpot is Italy's biggest ever - and, according to Italian news reports, the biggest in Europe, as well. Drawings are held three times a week.

Austrians, Croats and Slovenes living close to Italy were "storming" across the border to try their luck, the Austria Press Agency reported on Thursday.

Many of them were packing restaurants and hotels in Italy's German-speaking Alto Adige, or South Tyrol, region, which borders Austria.

French visitors have also been driving into neighbouring northwest Italy for a chance to play the numbers lotto, many Germans have been sighted in resort towns of Lake Maggiore buying tickets, and Superenalotto tickets appeared to be as popular as postcards in many Venice souvenir shops.

Other foreigners catching lotto fever were enjoying already planned vacations in Italy. Nicola and Peter Minchella came from Edinburgh, Scotland.

"I never thought to play in another country before, but since it's making headlines, we'll probably buy a ticket," said Nicola Minchella, as the pair dipped into gelato and sipped coffee at Castellino's, an outside cafe at Piazza Venezia in the heart of Rome.

At a counter inside the cafe, customers waited in line to buy lotto tickets. What if Peter Minchella picked the winning numbers?

"I'd travel the world and keep buying lottery tickets," he said, smiling.

The cost is C1 ($1.42) for the chance to choose two combinations of six winning numbers.

In places like Naples, where a favourite pastime is interpreting dreams in terms of numbers, many people prefer to choose their own. But players can also purchase tickets with two random sets of numbers already printed on them.

With many smoke shops closed in Italy for vacations, those open bustled with players. At Castellino, one customer spent C2,000 (some $2,800), a drop in the bucket against the 1 in 622 million odds, said manager Stefano Menchetti.

Not all have dreams of riches only for themselves.

The mayor and some of his employees in one small town in northeast Italy have chipped in to buy tickets, pledging to use any winnings to build a theatre for Ceneselli's 1,900 citizens.

"We've played our ages, our birth dates" as the lucky numbers, said Mayor Marco Trombini in a telephone interview. "There's no logic in luck anyway."

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Associated Press writers Dave Rising in Berlin, William J. Kole in Vienna and Suzanne Edwards in Rome contributed to this report.