Planning Your European Vacation

From itineraries to passports to packing and more

By By Arthur Frommer, Friday, Apr 15, 2005, 12:00 AM

Except in winter, when tourists tend to visit one European city for a week (like London, or Paris, or Rome), most Americans go to multiple locations when they travel trans-Atlantic in spring, summer and fall. The vacation is more far more active than most. Though some travelers limit their stay to a single European country, they go to at least two or three cities in that country.

Planning the itinerary is therefore a key part of preparing for your European trip. And the right kind of itinerary--a sensible one, that doesn't exhaust or impoverish you--can have a major impact on your enjoyment. How extensive should the trip be? Three cities, four, five? Or should it be a vast, sweeping, circular itinerary of Europe, the "Grand Tour?

The "Grand Tour"

In the mid-1950's, when I first wrote "Europe on $5 a Day," nearly every trans-Atlantic trip was a "Grand Tour." We travel-starved Americans all but ran across the continent, dashing in and out of multiple cities, as if this chance to view the Old World was the only one we would ever have. We were like drunken sailors, exulting in the liberties that earlier conditions--in this case, World War II, and the slow recovery of bomb-damaged Europe--had denied us.

Vacations then were three to four weeks long. A widely-available "multi-stopover" plan permitted you to fly to as many as a dozen cities on a single trans-Atlantic airfare. The best-selling guidebooks by the three "F's"--Fielding, Fodor and Frommer--dealt with all twenty-some-odd European countries in a single volume, and were meant to be read and used almost in full on one trip.

Because your relatives rarely knew where you would be on any given date, you instructed them to send letters "c/o American Express" to the cities you vaguely expected to reach at some point in time. And part of the day of your arrival in a city was spent standing in line for your mail. You joked with the people in front of you, compared notes, asked them whether they had preferred Scandinavia to Spain, England to Italy. You had been to all of them in a single trip.

But although the journey covered as much territory as an 18th century "Grand Tour," it otherwise bore no resemblance to Lord Byron's. It was of a breathtaking and (as viewed today) embarrassing superficiality. Except for London or Paris, you rarely stayed in a single city for more than two days, seldom got to know any Europeans, developed no real ability to use their language, never got under the surface of things. You engaged, instead, in a sort of sensual orgy, experiencing all the kaleidoscopic variety of that richly-varied continent. You moved overnight from cuisine to cuisine, language to language, from one style of architecture and outlook to another.

When, as a young G.I. stationed in Germany, I had my first two-week leave, I flung myself onto the rail system of Europe, slept sitting up as the train moved overnight from country to country, stopped in perhaps eight different nations in the space of 14 days. It was the most exhilarating time of my life until then, and formed the basis for a lifelong interest in Europe. But it resulted in no real understanding or growth.

Alternatives to the "Grand Tour"

We do it better today. Except for the backpackers with an entire summer at their disposal, hardly anyone any longer attempts to do all of Europe in one trip. Even the people on those "If It's Tuesday It Must be Belgium" motorcoach tours, usually confine themselves to a handful of countries (London to Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, and back through France to London, is a typical itinerary), and only a few try to pack in more.

For the vast majority of trans-Atlantic tourists, Europe has become regionalized; they focus on one area at a time, and save the rest for a later trip; they go only to Spain, or only to Britain, or only to Italy. The average trip is two weeks or less, and rarely (except by students) for a month and more. And the great majority of such trips are made by persons on their second, third and fourth visits to Europe; the percentage of first-time travelers, measured against the whole, is steadily dwindling (which worries the European travel interests).

Is it, nevertheless, wrong for a first-time traveler to Europe to dream of a "Grand Tour?" Is there anything foolish about wanting to enjoy the same, thrilling alternation of sights and cultures that formed the appeal of "Europe on $5 a Day?" Of course not. But because the trip is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime splurge, as it used to be regarded, the smart first-time traveler will plan for a more reasonable, limited version of it. Three adjoining countries in two weeks is a sensible choice; four countries in three weeks is equally wise. Travelers who persist in flinging themselves from one end of the continent to another, are simply courting exhaustion--and suffering visual overload--for no good reason.

The best such trips, in my view, are made by train, (or by Europe's new "upstart airlines such as Easyjet, Ryannair or Go) and in easy stages, involving no more than four or five hours at a time en route. You go from Paris to Brussels (less than three hours), not from Paris to Madrid (sixteen hours). You go from Frankfurt to Munich (three hours), not from Frankfurt to Rome (eighteen hours). Choosing to travel in short hops, between cities no more than four to six hours apart, you eliminate both fatigue--and the anxiety of arriving at the station on time for the few trains that make the longer trips. Between closely-located cities, departures are almost hourly, and you simply show up at the station, without advance reservations, and board the next train.

The best such itinerary I know, for a first-time trip to Europe, on a scaled-down version of the "Grand Tour," is London-Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam. The airfare to London and between Amsterdam and London is low; the opening of the "Chunnel" cuts the train distance between London and Paris to three hours; and from Paris to Brussels, and from Brussels to Amsterdam, the train time is about three hours apiece. You spend five days in London, four days in Paris, which is reasonable for a first-time visit, and then two days or so in each of Brussels and Amsterdam. You have gone to four distinctive countries and cultures in two weeks, yet over a reasonable distance in easy train hops, without exhaustion or great expense. In the section below, I've outlined four other possible itineraries for a sensible "Grand Tour."

The important thing, as always, is to make the decision to go; Europe, for an American, is an indispensable visit, to be neglected at the peril of not enjoying a fully-realized life. Some indication of its impact on the mind of a young American who made his own "Grand Tour" there as a soldier, some forty years ago, is found on nearly every page of the first edition of "Europe on $5 a Day." Fresh from an ugly army barracks, and recent graduation as a rather-conventional lawyer, I found myself in a state of unaccustomed rapture: "Try to arrive at night," I wrote, in my chapter on Venice, "when the wonders of the city can steal upon you, piecemeal and slow. At the foot of the Venice Railway Station is a landing from which a city launch embarks for the trip up the Grand Canal. As you glide along, little clusters of candy-striped mooring poles emerge from the dark; a gondola approaches with a lighted lantern hung from its prow; the reflection of a slate-grey church, bathed in a blue spotlight, shimmers in the water as you pass by...."

Four more "pared down" Grand Tours

For a two-week stay in Europe, you'll want to consider the following alternatives to our preferred itinerary of London-Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam:

Spain/France/Italy: Start in Madrid, spend three nights there (seeing the Prado, Toledo, and a bullfight), then drive or take the train to Barcelona (seven hours) for a two-night stay, and then head straight across the French Riviera in a car or train ride of five hours, stopping in your choice of resorts in either Cannes or Nice for three nights. Proceed next across the top of Italy, and south a bit, to Florence (seven hours by train from Nice) for a three-night stay, and then to Venice (3 and 1/2 hours) for three nights. Double back to Milan for a homeward-bound flight. That makes five cities in two weeks, but with short distances between them.

Austria/Hungary/Czech Republic: A less ambitious mini-tour, well suited to the stately, slow lifestyles of Central Europe. Four nights in Prague allows ample time for day excursions to the renowned spa cities of Bohemia; five nights in Vienna includes a day for excursions to nearby Alpine sights and villages; four nights in Budapest includes a day for visiting resorts on Lake Balaton. Vienna is less than four hours from Prague, where you've begun your trip; Budapest is less than three hours from Vienna. You've enjoyed great variety in culture and history, without fatiguing, long-distance travel.

Holland/Germany/Denmark: Start your trip in Amsterdam, to which there are usually low trans-Atlantic fares, spend three days there, then take the train (the only eight-hour trip we recommend) to exciting Berlin for a three-day stay. From there, you go by rail in six hours to Hamburg (one night), and from there, Copenhagen-- happiest capital of Scandinavia--is only four hours by train or car. A sensible itinerary, encompassing four cities in three countries.

France/Switzerland/Italy: On an efficient, straight-line route for most of the trip, involving short hops of four-to-six hours between cities, you travel from Paris (where you've stayed for four nights) for six hours to Zurich (staying two nights), then for six further hours to Venice (two nights), and four hours more to Florence (two nights) and then to Rome (four nights), from which you fly back to the U.S. But this five-city, three-country trip is for fast-moving tourists.

Note that most of these inter-city trips are four hours in duration, and only a few approach six or more hours in length. Such short hops are the key to an enjoyable, but still colorful, European trip, including multiple countries and cultures in the space of just two weeks.

Completing a 15-item checklist

For any trip, to anywhere, advance preparation is a valuable step, a useful precaution. To Europe, it's more than that--it's crucial, indispensable, of make-or-break importance! With 23 nations, a dozen languages, almost as many differing customs, policies and attitudes, Western Europe is a complex continent that requires advance study and planning, as well as early decision-making, if you're to realize the most from your trip. Here's a "check-list" of 15 vital items that must be considered long before you leave:

1. Procure your passport--now

Every European nation requires a valid passport of its American visitors. And with millions of Americans planning an overseas trip each ear, and new security precautions in post-9/11 America, the U.S. Passport Agency experiences frequent delays--it's never been more important that you apply as far ahead as possible to obtain a passport or the extension of one earlier issued. For instructions on applying for a passport, click on our Passports and Visas section [please link] in this section on advance preparations for travel.

2. Make immediate plans for your trans-Atlantic crossing

Those millions of American travelers place a heavy burden on international flights and crossings, and the best departure dates in summer will be sold out long in advance. This is especially the case with advantageous charter flights departing on desirable weekends to the most heavily-visited European cities; as many as 20% of all Americans going to Europe may use such cost-saving charters at some point in the future. For winter and off-season travel, you are more likely to find a bargain last-minute. Plan out your ideal trip, know what the going rate should be, and be ready pounce when an airline sale undercuts its competitors.

3. Decide, in advance of departure, whether to travel by car or train (or airline--see bottom of paragraph)

Most visitors to Europe, for reasons of both convenience and cost, travel either by self-drive car or the train. And both forms of transport cost considerably less when purchased in North America prior to departure. Therefore, decide now on which method is the one for you.

The reason why you must decide now--and not simply put off the decision until after arriving in Europe--has to do with the considerable financial savings for people who purchase their rail or car transportation before departing on their trip. All the rail "passes" for Europe--the various Eurailpasses, the various country passes like the Britrail pass--have to be purchased in advance, and cannot be purchased once you have arrived in Europe or in that particular country. As for international car rentals, they always cost far less if they are purchased in your own home city, many days in advance of your actual trip; and this is a rule that applies to domestic auto rentals as well. The American who puts off making the arrangements for a car rental in Britain, say, is stunned to learn how high is the price of such a rental when ordered at an auto rental counter at Heathrow Airport in London. The difference is major.

So you must decide. Which is the better mode of transportation for Europe?

Consider, first, the train. The life of Europe when viewed from a train window is unique and human, and the camaraderie among the occupants of a European train compartment--for most long-distance European trains are divided into 6-passenger or 8-passenger compartments--is a marvelous dividend of rail travel. European trains are also fast, punctual, convenient and comfortable, just as American trains of the 1950s and 1960s were, before the advent of inexpensive jet air transportation, which destroyed our train system. Rail travel is a perfect means for viewing the countryside of Europe, enabling you also to travel vast distances in a short time.

The self-drive car in Europe? Travel by self-drive car brings you even "closer up" to the life of Europe, and also gives you the maximum of flexibility. You are not bound by schedules. You perform most of your daily sightseeing in the car that brought you to a particular area. You are also able to stay at countryside lodgings, with a car, not limited to cities.

As to the cost of traveling by car, you spend a bit more than you would have for train tickets, if you are only two people traveling together. And that's not because of the high cost of car rentals--they aren't terribly expensive if reserved from the United States--but because of the cost of gas. Those fuel prices are considerably higher than here, reaching $3 and more per gallon, and you are constantly refilling tanks for $30 and more on the average car trip (a reason for renting the smallest size of car). The situation changes when you are three or more using the car, for then a definite cost advantage over train travel begins to emerge.

Finally, you cannot undertake as lengthy a trip by car in Europe as you might have accomplished by train; for the fatigue of such journeys, especially on the secondary European roads, is considerable. And therefore, if you plan to rush from the Benelux countries to Scandinavia, then to Italy and Spain, you'll want to take a train, not a car. If your plans are more modest than that, you'll find that the car is the more enjoyable mode.

{Editor's note: in recent years, the arrival of the so-called "upstart airlines" has vastly reshaped the transportation landscape. In certain cases it is now possible to find cheaper airfares between cities than you will rail tickets. So be sure to check the websites of the upstarts--Ryannair, Virgin Express, Easyjet, Go, Midland Airlines and VG--before deciding on your method of transport.}

4. If you opt for a self-drive European car, make the booking now

Every well-informed travel counselor knows of car rental companies, or airline-sponsored car rental schemes, that will provide you with a car in Europe for about $175 (or less) per car per week, including unlimited mileage privileges--but only if you book the car from the U.S. or Canada, prior to departure. For the very best rates, check out the companies listed in our Car Rental Consolidator section. The same car would cost twice that if booked in Europe after arrival! Accordingly, make the decision now. And book the smallest and most fuel-efficient car your courage will allow; gasoline averages $3 a gallon in Europe. But if more than two of you will be occupying that small car, remember to specify that you want it equipped with a roof rack for luggage you are unable to fit in the trunk compartment.

5. If you opt to travel through Europe by train, decide now on whether to purchase a Eurailpass

It doesn't always pay. And the only way to determine whether such a pass will work for you, is to chart out your itinerary in advance, and then "price it" according to the differing options set forth on the Eurail Web site: www.eurail.com. There you will find the more than a dozen versions of the Eurailpass available to you, with their comparative advantages and disadvantages. If you ultimately decide to purchase one, remember that the Eurailpass is sold only in North America and never in Europe; it must be purchased here, in advance of departure, from your travel agent or from any of the European railroad commissions. For railroad travel limited to a particular European nation, it's also possible to purchase one of several cheaper, national rail passes limited to the trains of one country: the BritRail Pass, the Italian State Railway Pass, for instance. Again, they're sold only in North America, and must be picked up prior to departure.

6. Buy travelers checks

They're your best means of protection against the loss or theft of your funds while traveling in Europe. And they are instantly and conveniently refunded (if lost or stolen) by simply calling a toll-free number (supplied to you by the issuer) from any point in the world. If you plan to use your ATM card to supplement these, be sure it is one that is widely accepted at your destination.

7. Buy travel insurance before you leave

It is also vitally important that you protect yourself against other potential mishaps of European travel (or travel anywhere) by purchasing the key forms of travel insurance prior to your departure from home. Travel, after all, is an intricate activity in which some things occasionally go wrong: Luggage can be lost or delayed, accidents can occur (not simply on the plane, but more realistically on the many common carriers you'll use--buses, subways, trains and taxis), strikes or weather conditions can interrupt or delay travels, causing financial hardship. Smart travelers purchase travel insurance (visit out section on Insuring Yourself against future Mishaps or simply purchasing it from their travel agents.

8. Do your homework

Study in advance the history, culture and political setting of the European countries or cities you're about to visit. You'll enhance the enjoyment of your trip many times over if you do. Condensed histories of Europe by H.G. Wells or Hendrik Willem van Loon are in all libraries; so is Jensen's history of Western European art, as well as countless other books surveying the chief artistic, cultural and political institutions of Europe (for more book suggestions, please go to Advanced Reading for Travel). A few hours at this rewarding task will transform routine moments, in your European trip, into high adventure and profound understanding.

9. Make use of Europe's tourist information offices in North America

Every European nation maintains such bureaus in New York, and some do in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities as well. Their only function is to serve you, by answering specific inquiries, by responding to requests for free literature on accommodations, sights, customs, whatever. You may, incidentally, want to request that they advise you of dates when it is not advisable to arrive in their cities or travel their roads (on August 1 in France, during the time of the Edinburgh Festival or the Paris Air Show).

10. Watch your language

Study some basic phrases in the languages of the countries you plan to visit before you leave; you'll make friends, and encounter better service, if you do. Most bookstores are well supplied with phrase books enabling you to decipher European menus, to count from one to a hundred, to exchange salutations or to make simple requests.

11. And create some electricity

Buy European converters and adapters for your appliances (hair dryers and the like) that you can learn about in our Travel Product section. Since European voltages and socket designs are different from ours, it's often important to schedule a brief visit to a major department store to survey the simple devices needed to keep your appliances functional. Or else choose them from the catalogues of the travel product manufacturers (see above), or buy a comprehensive kit of such items.

12. "Network" before you go

Obtain the names and addresses of Europeans whom you can look up at your various destinations. The organization called "Servas" at 11 John Street in New York City, will supply you with such names, so will the English-Speaking Union at 16 East 69th Street in New York City (but confined, of course, to Britain). Meeting Europeans, visiting their homes, enjoying their company in a non-touristic setting, can be the supreme highlight of a European trip, and the activity should be approached deliberately, and not in the helter-skelter, hoping-lightning-will-strike, fashion adopted by most tourists. Pester your friends and relatives for names of Europeans they know!

13. Make reservations for European lodgings

Provided only that you're willing to accept the consequences of a rigid, fixed itinerary, in which every stay is scheduled, write ahead for the assurance of a specific, named, hotel in each city (or else deliberately forego the use of advance reservations, in which case you'll want to supply yourself with travel guides and other lists of approved recommendations for finding lodgings on the spot). E-mail is the easiest way to contact hotels overseas. You can usually contact a hotel electronically through its Web site.

14. "Join up" to save

If you're a budget-conscious traveler, join Hosteling-International (the former American Youth Hostels, Inc.) before you depart, and thus obtain their list of inexpensive, European youth hostels accommodating persons of all ages (in Europe, the term "youth" in the title of these establishments is defined to mean "young in spirit" and not young in terms of chronological age). If you qualify, you'll also want to obtain an International Student Identity Card from STA Travel or other sources, and thereby acquire the right to use the low-cost student facilities (student hotels, student restaurants, student discounts at museums and theaters) of Europe. In the scope and quality of its student travel facilities, Europe leads the world.

15. Finally, pack light

Confine your luggage to one medium-sized suitcase, lightly packed. To take more is to make yourself a "beast of burden," a prisoner of expensive porters and taxicabs! If you've taken too little, you can always remedy the deficiency in Europe, by simply buying the item of apparel that you've neglected to bring.

And there you have it--a "check-list" based on many decades spent traveling to Europe, the destination that never wanes in appeal. I wish you a safe, pleasant and rewarding trip.