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1st Europe Trip

Hi All,
So excited for our upcoming retirement. Been binge-watching Rick every episode (some twice to show the hubby).
We first thought about a river cruise....starting to understand how expensive most of those may be, so perhaps an intro bus tour like my in-laws did a few years back. Any and all helpful hints, do's and don'ts will be greatly appreciated. (Our dream trip would be that of old-school villages and castles. Oh, and food, as in pastries, desserts, well you know.) We are hoping for 2022 or 2023....depending on the health of our world. Hopefully sooner rather than later.
Thank you,
Ada and Patrick

Posted by
937 posts

Have you reviewed the itineraries for all the tours offered by Rick Steves? These are a great entry into Europe for anyone. Most of the frequent posters here have taken at least one and some take two or more every year! I recommend you read Rick's book Europe through the Back Door and look at all the info on his tours as a start, then narrow down what appeals to you. Then we can help with any specific questions. Lots and lots of experience on this forum!

Posted by
2341 posts

Based on your dream trip, I would do Alsace and Provence...or maybe Spain!

My personal travel style is to travel independently (make our own travel arrangements), and utilize small-group or private tours for visiting sites that we are especially interested in and/or are hard to reach without a car. This is less expensive than an escorted tour.

Before our first trip to Europe, I tried to decide what did I most want to see in the entire continent (I had been to London 3 times for work). I ended up with the Sistine Chapel, the Cinque Terre, and the Swiss Alps. So we went to Rome, the Cinque Terre, and Lauterbrunnen.

In hindsight, I wish we had skipped the Cinque Terre and gone to Florence instead, but that is another conversation.

Another thing, don't just rely on Rick Steves videos and guidebooks. They're great, but they leave out a lot.

Posted by
6833 posts

For your first trip, decide where you want to visit, Italy, Sweden, Greece, or France etc. We prefer one country at a time. It is not hard to travel independently but if you prefer a tour, try one of Rick Steves. You can read about his tours described on this website. Add days before to deal with jet lag and after any tour on your own to relax. And once you start traveling, you will get hooked!

Posted by
1144 posts

Congrats on your retirement! There is no need to take a Bus tour, Europe is so doable on your own, but it does take some research and planning. The suggestion on reading Europe through the back door is where you are going to want to start to see if your up for the challenge. Then start researching the villages and castles you want to see, and just make a dream list ,does not matter if it has 100 different things you want to do. Rick has a really good you tube video on Europe trip planning that I used for my first trip. Once you start filling in the days you quickly realize that you need to pick a TOP 10 list and go from there. Once you have all that down (BIG PICTURE) you can start drilling down and buying your guide books on the places you decided upon and then the attractions figuring out what is open which days and putting that puzzle together. It's lot's of fun and you have plenty of time.

Posted by
2972 posts

Like you, before our first trip to Europe I researched Rick Steves- Europe Through the Back Door, classes at his Travel Store, guidebooks, etc. Our first trip was with a local Tour Company to Tuscany & Umbria. Although we have taken several tours we prefer to travel independently and hire guides or take walking tours. Enjoy your research!

Posted by
12752 posts

Hi Ada and Patrick!
A warm welcome to the RS forum groupies!

Like some of the others, my husband and I (both 66) have mostly been indy travelers up to this point but others who've done them swear that the RS tours are a great way to get the feet wet abroad but with the comforting reassurance of experienced support. Lots of folks also like the smaller group sizes (versus the big-bus tours) and the ease of having most of the arrangements handled for them, although many like to arrive a few days before their tours and stay a few days after to make the most of their time and $$; airfare can be one of biggest expenses.

Arriving a few days early also helps you get over any jet lag and hit the ground running on Day 1 of the tour. So, if you haven't found the section of this site which lists the tours, where they go and pricing (for 2022 at this point) have a look-see:

Interested in going it on your own? You'll get all sorts of help here once you determine wheres, whats and whens. :O)

Posted by
488 posts

Letizia's idea is pretty good. Once you decide where you want to go you also have 2 options in every location.
1) you can hire a private tour guide
2) You can sign up for one of many single day tours available everywhere.

Have fun!

Posted by
1329 posts

Ada and Patrick, welcome to the forum and congratulations on your retirement. I am not the experienced traveler that many on the forum are so maybe I can offer a slightly different perspective. I've been to Europe three times in 50+ years, the fourth trip is scheduled for next September, followed by a fifth in Spring 2023. 2019 was my first RS tour, I signed up for a tour in 2022 and 2023 is undecided. As you can see, I'm a late-in-life traveler. I'm finding that a combination of a tour (RS or otherwise) and independent travel works well for me. The tour gets me to places I probably wouldn't travel by myself or with a friend due to logistics, sights or the desire to be with others. The independent time lets me/us get over jetlag and see more things I am/we are/she is interested in pre- and post-tour.

You've watched the Rick Steves' tapes. Which places piqued your interest the most? Where do YOU want to go? Everyone has places they like but this is your trip. Go where you want. Have you looked at the tour itineraries to see which tour will visit your villages and castles in the country you are most interested in? Or are you looking for an European overview trip this time so next time you can focus on a specific country? Besides looking at the tours' itineraries, look at the tour scrapbooks. The scrapbooks give a lot of insight into the tours. Also read some of the trip reports from prior to 2020. There is lots of good information there too. Since you'll be retired and don't have to rush back to work, how long are you planning to travel? My last trip was three weeks, the next two will be slightly more.

As you narrow down your choices, ask lots of questions. Everyone helped me so much to learn how to travel and be more confident traveling. I asked some pretty silly questions along the way but sometimes that's the only way you learn or understand. People were patient with my inexperience. I'm still trying to figure things out.


Posted by
545 posts

Buy the Rick Steves book, EUROPE THROUGH THE BACKDOOR - it is an absolute MUST READ - compare the price here vs Amazon. We re-read it every time we go over.

We also LOVE the RS tours - esp for first timers.

''Old School Village and castles'' - have you thought of doing a Xmas Market River Cruise?? It would be perfect - we go almost every year. Tauck is our absolute favorite line as it's ALL INCLUSIVE - the Danube one is our favorite.

Posted by
5 posts

Thank you, everyone. Very much appreciated. Lots of (fun) homework to keep me busy researching!!!
Thank you again,

Posted by
153 posts

You already have lots of great advice here.

Pros--flexibility! You can go to any small village, take any side road, stop at any mildly interesting site, choose your pace, and choose your food. The joy of discovery and the fun of figuring it out if you like that sort of thing. But mostly the flexibility and pace. See the movie Paris Can Wait for inspiration
Cons--You're on your own. People are generally helpful, though. Also, possible lines at attractions. And you might miss something or not have all the information you want. But of course the discovery is more important for some than knowing every detail about a place

Fully guided tours:
Pros--no hassle or thinking about where you are staying or how you get from point A to point B, which is a huge relief for many people. Also, you can meet lots of wonderful people. Generally great for bypassing attraction lines, making sure you hit the highlights
Cons--Want more time here? Sorry, the tour bus is leaving. Tend to stick to bigger sites

Private tours:
Pros--You can customise your experience and get a local to make sure you hit the things you want and to answer all your annoying and weird questions, often great recommendations and even reservations for food, most of the pros of the guided tour depending on level of customisation
Cons--Cost, somewhat isolated from other travellers

Day tours:
Pros--get help navigating that attraction with the long lines or a trip to the place where language is perhaps more of a barrier, meet new people, lots of information
Cons--Less joy of discovery, sometimes limited flexibility

I would say if you are moderately adventurous and of the mindset that glitches in your plans make great stories, go more DIY and throw in the odd day tours. If you are of the mindset that you want it to be hassle free, easy, and don't want to think but just drink it all in, private or package tours are your best bet. Group travel has led to many a special friendship, with people booking trips together for many years, but intimate experiences with a close loved one are also very special. More nervous? Book a tour. Think getting stranded on a rural road and using lots of gestures to communicate in a village sounds like a great story? DIY. Want to make sure you get all the important sites and information without spending time in long lines? Book a tour. Want to stop at that quaint cafe full of locals for a spontaneous beer or lunch? DIY.

Note that tours may sound expensive, but you do get a lot for your money. When you do the math of things like hotels, meals, town-to-town transport, and attractions, you are often paying similar prices to what most people spend on their DIYs. Unless you are particularly savvy or the hardcore backpacker types, you won't save all that much on a DIY. We've done bus tours (with students--we are teachers), and we've found them to be super fun. But when not with students we prefer DIY. One of our favourite stories is finding a dog on a highway in Catalunya and trying to communicate that we were looking for the owners in the nearby village (she was returned home safely). We never would have stopped at that village otherwise, but it was beautiful, and we had some interesting local interactions.

There is no right or wrong. You know your own comfort level, interests, and hopes for this trip. Lots of first timers prefer the security of tours, where your guide will help if you lose your passport or need translations or food recommendations.

Posted by
153 posts

As for dos and don'ts:
Passports should be up to date and have 6 months after return before expiring. Give photocopies to friends in the US and in a separate bag. Keep credit card numbers available for quick cancellation if you get pick pocketed. Tell your bank in advance of your trip. Pack sensibly and lightly.

Keep an open mind and be ready to be surprised.

Pick a few places you'd like to see or a few things you want to do. Make plans, but be open to changing them.

Enjoy the spontaneous. Buy the cheap towel and jump in the water under old town Dubrovnik. Stop and listen or even join in when people on your ferry whip out the guitar and start singing. Try the fermented shark or other weird food. Attend a local football match or church service.

Be prepared to walk.

Take pictures.

Remember that people less capable than you have traveled through Europe. If some of those people can figure it out, you surely can.


Expect things to be like the US. The food will taste different, the service standards are different, and while most people speak some English, don't expect it as a given.

Try to see it all. You can't.

Be rigid. When an airline strike cancels your plans, figure out your next steps. When a storm rolls in, find an indoor option. When something jumps out at you as fun, change the plan.


Eat at McDonald's.

Obsess about the perfect picture or spend your trip behind the lens. Enjoy the moment and buy the postcard.

Be afraid. When things go wrong and you accidentally put unleaded in your diesel rental car, just shrug and remember that you CAN figure this out. People are generally good. Someone will help you.

Oh, and for destinations:
Pastries and baked goods: Germany, France
Food in general: France, Spain
Castles: UK (Wales!), Germany, France
Quaint villages: Everywhere

Posted by
2179 posts

Welcome to both the forum and retirement (recently for us too). I agree with all the advise given above. We would never go in a big bus tour, but we just booked our first Rick Steve’s tour for next year. What appeals to me about his tours are:
Itineraries- small and big cities
Small group
Centrally located hotels
Local guides
Unusual stops, such as village schools or farms
Lots of free time to explore on your own
Some group meals, not every night so you can discover your own restaurants or skip a meal
Ability to sometimes miss a planned activity not to your liking to do something else
His enthusiasm for travel, it rubs off
Whatever you decide, and independent travel is great, you will love it.

Posted by
195 posts

Travelling by train in Europe worked really well for us. We travel independently and do not rent a car. Finding hotels on Trip Advisor and booking through or with free cancellation options makes planning your own trip very manageable. If there are attractions we wish to see we usually buy tickets online ahead of time to avoid the lines, or hire a guide. Planning is part of the fun!

Posted by
251 posts

One other first trip is to visit your “family home” country. Be sure to contact and visit (or hopefully stay with) family and visit acquaintances. We did this in Sweden. My husbands father was an immigrant in the 1920’s. RS suggests looking up strangers with a family surname or friends of friends. Visiting with locals is usually a lasting memory.

My first trip was to Italy, a favorite country after 6 trips. This fits the earlier “one country “ trip. You try to minimize travel time between destinations. All of Europe, with planning, is a DIY trip. The goof ups are some of our favorite memories, usually with kind help from locals.

The 14 or 21 day RS tours is an overall tour of Europe. It can be a gentle introduction to travel logistics with the planning taken care of.

Whatever way you take for this first trip, there will be more travel in the future.

Posted by
1973 posts

I'm excited for you. I'm a European newbie when it comes to many on this forum with 4 trips in the past 7 years; two by cruise, 1 Rick Steves tour and 1 independent trip. I haven't regretted any of the styles of travel and all have advantages and disadvantages. Just remember that research is your best friend; use this forum, get some travel guides, even read some historical fiction to give you a sense of the past.

Posted by
269 posts

My two cents. My first trip to Europe 38 years ago I took a guided tour. I was supposed to go with a friend who backed out at the last minute. I then picked a guided tour. The tour I picked covered Western Germany with a stop in Berlin. Taking the tour acclimated me to how things worked over there. I then spent 5 nights on my own on a driving trip. Since that time I have traveled independently each time I have gone back over the pond. European travel has changed in the last 38 years and it is much easier to have the information you need at your fingertips. Only you know how comfortable you will be navigating an unfamiliar environment. It helps to keep in mind when something isn't going as planned or you seem to be lost that you "are on an adventure". Congratulations on your retirement and your first European trip. Do not try to see everything at once. You will go back. My tips are to learn a few words in whatever language you will be around. 38 years ago for me it was "Ein beir bitte". Please, thank you, do you speak English? When I asked people, "Do you speak English?" when they said no, I would smile and say thank you in their native tongue. Attitude is key. Regarding McDonald's, I agree skip the American fast food places. However, they do have public restrooms and they will be clean. This is an exciting time for you and I wish you the best of travels.

Posted by
1144 posts

Yes..NEVER eat at McDonalds in Europe...we prefer Burger King!

Posted by
153 posts

Now comes the hard part--picking which one!

Super excited for you and glad we could help.

Posted by
23 posts

When we did our first trip (not retired so we had less time) we listed everywhere we wanted to see in Europe. Then ranked them with my wife and I having different rankings.
Then we started putting places on a map and it quickly became obvious 1 trip would not be enough so we picked an area that had some of our very top picks and was close enough to do comfortably in 3 weeks. We built in slack time and started with flights, then hotels in the main places, then as we researched we filled in the details. Basically a week in Paris, then a week driving the Romantic road down the Rhine river, then 4 days in Salzburg with a return to Paris for a last two days before our return flight.

Was it perfect? No. Was it great? Yes! Did we go back again to see more places on our list? Yes, and still planning more.

Posted by
1329 posts

Ada, here's more "homework" for you as you and Patrick narrow down where you want to go and how you want to travel. This will apply mainly to any independent travel you do, but also to free time if you take a tour.

  • Write out your proposed itinerary using nights not days for your planning.
  • Draw it out on a map. I use Google maps app to bookmark places I want to see, recommended hotels and restaurants. It helps to understand local distance. Rome2Rio will give you a rough guideline for longer distances but they are not accurate and don’t book thru them.
  • Make a list of what you want to see in each location.
  • Write out an itinerary by city/village and what you want to see on each day there, including day trips. I'm not computer-wise enough to do a spread sheet, but many people like it. I make a word.doc list.
  • Use your phone's calendar to help manage your time. On my written itinerary for Sept 2022, I had a long list of what I want to do each day. But when I listed everything on the calendar, it showed that my timing would be unmanageable, as in no breaks or meals, rushing from place to another, not allowing from transport time, "drive by" sightseeing instead of time to enjoy museums, etc.

One thing I learned from our 2019 RS tour was that we didn't research our free time and meals as much as we should have. Fortunately others were more prepared than we were. A dear friend who I met on the tour would offer suggestions to us. That lesson is helping me research and plan the next trip more thoroughly. While we enjoyed the trip immensely, we were recently reminiscing and wondering about the "should have dones", but with one exception while on our own, we wouldn't have changed anything. It's all part of the learning curve and a "go-with-the-flow" attitude.

"Homework" and planning are half the fun of taking your trip. Enjoy the journey!

Posted by
3181 posts

I have to disagree with the notion that diy trips end up costing as much as complete tours. In my estimates our diy runs about half the cost of mid-price tours. We stay at fairly nice hotels, the older we’ve gotten, the nicer; but not ritzy. In fact, staying at family run small hotels, inns, and b&bs can be part of the pleasure of the trip. When you decide on an itinerary, you can get z lots of help here with recommendations.
The only times we’ve done tours is to places where the combination of lack of language skills, unfamiliarity with currency, and distaste for driving made independent planning daunting. Those countries were Turkey, Vietnam, and Morocco. Otherwise, we’ve been everywhere from Croatia and Slovenia west. Nowadays, with the ubiquitousness of English, the internet, atms, and some unified currency, diy is pretty easy.

Posted by
1631 posts

Hi Ada & Patrick, congrats on your retirements. Lots of great options here and you probably should explore all of them at some point. For a first trip, I’d recommend a RS tour. I’ve done some bus trips with other (big bus) companies and didn’t enjoy them at all. RS is a completely different class. Small groups, great guides, and sights you would never have seen on your own. I’ve done 9 RS tours and signed up for #10 in 2022.

Consider a river or ocean cruise. I was “anti-cruise” until we did a Viking river cruise in 2014. Loved it. Since then we’ve done 3 Viking ocean cruises and signed up for an expedition cruise next year. Viking isn’t cheap but the price is pretty much all inclusive. No kids, free WiFi, included excursions at every port, no up charges for dining or spa.

Try independent travel in conjunction with a RS tour or cruise. Lots of options! Safe travels!

Posted by
3921 posts

Congratulations on your retirement! We’ve been retired a couple of years, and it’s wonderful!

I’m planning my 12th trip to Europe right now (an on-line tourist map of Ferrara is under this iPad!), so I’m happy to share some experience. My very first experience was right after high school, going to several countries with the 4-H Ambassador program. The next trip was for my 25th wedding anniversary- first time in Europe for my husband. We did the RS Germany, Switzerland, Austria trip - sounds like you would love it! We didn’t want a trip where we were stuck in a large group following an umbrella leader and sitting together for all of our meals. We’re both independent and think it’s fun to explore on our own. Yet, we really just wanted to enjoy this trip without the travel logistics running through our head when we were there. The RS format was perfect for us - excellent use of time, a fun group, experienced guide who made history & culture SO interesting! Half of our dinners and several afternoon/evenings were our own time to enjoy our own exploring. No regrets with this decision! We did arrive in Europe five days early and stayed with the daughter of a host home from my high school trip.

Three years later we took the RS Best of Italy trip. We arrived three days early and explored Verona on our own (went by train). We both loved this tour, also! Since that time, we have returned to several of the locations on our own during other itineraries.

After those two trips, I started planning our itineraries for 3-week trips. I spent A LOT of time during winter months and on weekends to plan our next trip for September. It’s a fun hobby of mine, but it’s definitely time-consuming. We’ve been to many of the European countries now. We travel by train or the occasional bus and lots of local transportation and walking. There’s a steep learning curve, but you have time to research if it’s the route you want to go. Just two examples - for some types of train tickets, if you don’t validate stamp them at the train station, you can be fined. Doing a search on ZTL on this forum will give you lots of postings for people who didn’t know about restricted driving in city centers. My advice is to read every page of whichever Rick Steves guidebook country appeals to you. There’s lots of info that answers questions you might not even be thinking about now. My two cents is that starting with a RS tour will be more expensive than doing an independent tour (I’m a former engineer so have all of my financials for all trips), but you will get much more out of the trip. I say that the tours taught me how to travel in a much more fun manner and with less luggage than I initially thought, and learned so much more from the trip than if I had started traveling initially as independent travel.

We’ve never considered the river cruises. We like to be more active in the locations than that format would allow, plus we want to eat all of our meals in the local restaurants to experience being there. Especially lingering at the restaurants during dinner is very special, and walking around the village squares or piazzas in the evening is wonderful!

Posted by
1556 posts

Congrats on your upcoming retirement. Plenty of excellent advice so far. Most important thing right now is if you do not have a passport, get that process started right now. US State Department is reporting 18 weeks to process routine applications.

Wherever you end up going, pack half as much as you think you'll need, take twice the amount of money and patience, and allow yourself to take breaks when you need them.

Posted by
8623 posts

Please accept my congrats as well!

For myself, what worked out wonderfully for my Retirement blowout, lol, was a combo. I'd retired, done parent care for a couple of years and then had time and the ability to do several tours back to back. I had had my eye on Rick's Classic Europe in 21 days tour which gives you a taste of large cities as well as smaller town with classic sites and gorgeous scenery. I added time ahead in London (took the train to Haarlem for the start of the 21 day tour), added the Best of Paris tour at the end for another week to get a special emphasis on learning how to navigate Paris on my own. Then I spent another week with a friend in Paris and headed off to meet my brother and SIL for the Village Italy tour.

In summation:

  • The RS guides are fabulous and in the big cities will teach you how to manage the transportation in the area so you can be independent. As a person who had never taken public transport in the US (never available where I lived) this was so helpful to me!
  • Your time is used efficiently as you don't have to worry about getting from train to hotel and back, nor how to navigate lines at big busy sites (thinking the Vatican Museums here).
  • I learned so much about European History and culture - that was priceless
  • I also really enjoyed the other folks on the tours! The 21 day tour means a special bond with those folks as you've experienced a lot. I'm still FB friends with a handful of those folks after 7 years.
  • Learned I love back to back tours with a few days off in between.
  • The only downside is that now I have an addiction for Paris and the last 2 years have been awful with not being able to go!

Have a wonderful time choosing your adventure and what will work for you!

Posted by
1973 posts

I'm cutting and pasting below a comment I made to answer a question on a trip report I posted last year. It's a cost comparison on what I spent on a cruise vs RS tour vs doing it on my own;

I just did a quick calculation and the RS tour cost us about $735/day
or $367 per person. This does not include flights but does include
incidentals and food not included during the tour plus 3 extra nights
beyond the tour. The cruise came in at about $430/day or 215 per
person. This included an extra week in Rome post cruise. A ground trip
to London/Bath/Cotswolds 16 months ago was about $330/day or $165 per
person. Definite savings, but from a cultural and educational
standpoint, the RS tour still wins for value for money.

Posted by
5 posts

We can't thank all of you enough for all the kind words, insightful travel tips, and just kindness that we did not expect. We will research, research and research and look forward to not just the adventure, but the planning and dreaming of it as well. Thank you,
and as we narrow down our destinations, we'll keep you all posted. Again, thank you all for your kindness and taking the time to respond with such wonderful advice.

Patrick and Ada

Posted by
12752 posts

Yo! We're here for ya! Don't be shy about asking questions!

Posted by
45 posts

Hey everybody, This is my first post and I want to thank everyone for posting so much great information about traveling. Congratulations on your retirement Ada and Patrick! Lol I can certainly relate to the binge watching/reading on the RS site. I have booked the 21 days in Europe RS tour for next April (fingers crossed) and I’m so excited! My husband and I are recently retired, I have always dreamed of traveling to Europe and after browsing through tons of travel literature I believe that the RS tour will be a wonderful introduction to traveling abroad for us... I just hope that we can keep up. My husband traveled to Europe with his family when he was 16, he learned much about history and also that there is no smoking in the Vatican. I’m so glad to be a part of this forum. Linda

Posted by
12752 posts

A warm welcome to you too, Linda! Hope we 'see' more of you on the forums! 😊

Posted by
138 posts

Worst Big Mac I ever ate was in Wales. But I was in Wales!!