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1st time traveler in Europe - best places to go for short visits

My husband and I are visiting our son in England in May. We plan on taking 2 short trips (3-4 days each) to other European cities. We are reading and watching Rick Steve's materials, but so much looks good. We are young senior citizens. Any ideas?

Posted by
25509 posts

There's no shortage of great possibilities, which can lead to decision-making paralysis.

For places outside the UK, my destinations would be drawn from a list of places I could fly to on non-stop flights. Go to the Wikipedia page of the airport(s) closest to where you're staying and look for the chart showing which cities have direct flights on the various airlines. Make a list of the ones that sound interesting and, ideally, are not too far away. Then go to Skyscanner to check on availability and prices for your anticipated travel dates. With the limited time you have, I would tend to skip Berlin and Barcelona, two cities that really require more time than you can spare. I also wouldn't choose a Swiss destination because you need extra time there in case the weather is iffy when you arrive.

If you will be near London, that makes the Eurostar an option and puts Paris, Amsterdam and Ghent/Bruges on the list of possibilities.

If you tell us what sort of things you're interested in seeing and doing, we may be able to come up with some specific suggestions.

Posted by
1316 posts

I'd take a look at places that are easily accessible by the Eurostar, assuming you'll be near London. So, that means Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Posted by
5 posts

Thank you for responding! Yes, we will be near London, so we could consider taking the train to Paris. It just seems so large. We love to sightsee and my husband likes history. My son might join us on one of the trips and he was looking at Germany. We need to keep the cost under control as well. Your comment about paralysis may be right on.

Posted by
6160 posts

The Eurostar to Paris takes a few hours and puts you in the heart of the city. Easy to spend four days there (or longer) with plenty to do. May is a beautiful time of year to visit.

Eurostar tickets for May will cost more than if you'd bought them awhile ago. You'll need to commit to a specific date and time each way for any savings. I'd get this done as soon as I could. Likewise for Paris accommodations, hotels will be filling up.

Posted by
25509 posts

In terms of costs, buying tickets early can yield really substantial savings. It is no longer really "early" for May tickets (plane or train), so you're sort of at the mercy of purchasing decisions made by the travelers who have already bought tickets. You may see some rather wild price differences for the same destination, depending on date and time of day. I wouldn't be surprised if there's more variation on the Eurostar tickets than on plane tickets, but you won't know until you look. So rather than agonizing over the nearly endless possibilities, destination-wise, how about taking a look at the Eurostar fares for the two time periods you're considering. Look at the three major destinations, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. One or more of those may take themselves out of the running based on price alone. Or not (if you're unlucky!).

Figure out which of the London-area airports will be easiest and cheapest to get to. If you provide the address where you're staying, folks here may know the answer off the tops of their heads. You're trying to reduce travel time and cost, and spending 1-1/2 hours getting to an airport isn't going to help.

I think western Germany could work quite well. You could fly into Frankfurt or one of the smaller airports in that area if it's cheaper. Spend a day seeing part of the Rhine via a combination of train and boat. I remember that folks have said good things about Mainz, a very old city that is extremely close to Frankfurt. There are many other historic towns and cities in that corner of Germany. That's not an area I'm familiar with, but we have some residents of Germany on the forum, plus others who travel there often and can help you figure out an efficient way to spend the time you have.

I think I'd also give serious consideration to taking the Eurostar to Amsterdam; travel within the Netherlands is fast, and there are many beautiful cities.

There's rapid train service up to both York and Edinburgh, by the way, if you haven't already made plans to see them.

If Paris in too-few days seems intimidating (I wouldn't choose such a major destination, either), how about Lyon? It's a bit like a mini-Paris. Very handsome buildings, some interesting museums (including the Museum of the Resistance), excellent food. And I'm sure it must have non-stop flights from the London area.

Don't obsess over figuring out "the best" solution. Who knows what that is? You're looking for two interesting, affordable trips. It's kind of hard to go wrong as long as you minimize your transportation time and keep an eye on the transportation costs. You can have a great time all over Europe. That's why we go there rather than--well, I was going to list a few US states, but I've decided not to do that, for fear of derailing this thread.

Posted by
5 posts

Yes, I agree. We need to decide soon. Not being seasoned travelers, I find it all a bit nerve-racking, but I do find the information in the postings very helpful and encouraging. I will take a look at Lyon as a possibility. The forum also had some posts about the beautiful castles south of Munich. - I enjoy taking scenic travel pictures and love the mountain areas as well. Sounds like I have to do some homework on trains and planes. We are flying into Heathrow airport as will be staying in the Farmborough/Fleet area. Thank you all again.

Posted by
25509 posts

Side-trips from Munich may be viable, but be careful about ground-transportation time. If you want castles, I suspect you may be able to reach some of those in western Germany faster.

There are several websites you can use to get decent estimates of how much extra travel time you'll have from the destination airport on the continent to the places you actually want to see:

ViaMichelin is probably the most accurate for driving times, though it is thought to be somewhat optimistic and definitely does not include any time for stops, getting lost, searching for parking, etc. And of course the time spent picking up and dropping off a rental car for a very brief side-trip eats into your sightseeing time. The accuracy of VM's detailed driving directions has recently been called into question on this forum, but I think for driving times it's better than the alternatives. Skip this one if you don't want to rent a car, unless you're just interested in the mileage by road in order to get a quick feel for whether a bus trip might be remotely reasonable.

Deutsche Bahn: The easiest-to-use website for continental trains, though it generally only shows fares for German trains. Most major airports have train stations, so you can ask for the schedule right from the airport, though in the end it may be better to hop on a bus or some ofther form of transportation to a downtown train station or bus depot if your airport doesn't have frequent train service into the city.

Rome2Rio: This is pretty good at informing you of whether you can get to your destination by plane or train or will instead (or in addition) need a bus. Unfortunately, I have found the travel times and fares wildly off-base and no longer trust those at all. But you can keep clicking through and often find a link to the appropriate bus company's website, where you should be able to get the schedule info you need. Bus fares are usually reasonable enough that you don't really need to worry about them. If Rome2Rio suggests that rail is a good option, use the Deutsche Bahn link above.

Google Maps: I don't use Google Maps much for intercity trips, but it does attempt to provide specifics about public-transportation options (click on the train/tram icon), with varying degrees of success/completeness. It doesn't provide fares. It wouldn't be my first choice as an information source beyond city boundaries.

I'm going to take a wild guess that one castle near Munich that you're thinking of is Neuschwanstein. Rome2Rio suggests that the best public-transportation route is to take (2) trains to Fussen, then a taxi; I wonder whether there's a bus Rome2Rio doesn't know about. Other options are train to downtown Munich then a bus, or multiple buses all the way from the airport to a point fairly near the castle, from which you would have a bit of a walk. I have never been to Neuschwanstein, but I think it's an awfully long trek from the airport (which is pretty much on the opposite side of Munich and maybe 25 miles from the city) when you have only 3 or 4 days to play with. And if the German experts stumble on this thread, they're going to try to convince you that you really don't want to go see Neuschwanstein, anyway. (It's a palace, not a castle; it's not old; you're going all that way for something like a 30-minute tour; and there are much better/more-accessible castles all over Germany. I think that's more or less the idea; it comes up extremely often.)

Posted by
1353 posts

I would say it really depends on what time of year. When we first started traveling to Europe it was to England to visit my sister in law and family. My sister in law sent us on two short trips which really got us a taste of traveling. The first was on the Eurostar to Paris. From there we rented a car and saw Normandy and Mont St. Michel. The 2nd trip was a flight to Salzburg for the weekend. That was really fantastic, but I wouldn't recommend it in summer as it will be too crowded.

Posted by
32101 posts


I haven't read all the previous replies, so hopefully I'm not repeating anything.

As this is your first trip to Europe, I'd suggest reading Europe Through The Back Door prior to your trip, as that will provide a lot of good information on how to travel well there.

In terms of your side trips, there are all kinds of possibilities. I'm assuming your flight home will be from England? A few thoughts.....

  • you could spend the time in the U.K. Spend a few days in York, a few days in Edinburgh and a few days in Bath & area.
  • take the EuroStar to Paris and tour the sights. There's lots to see! While it is a large city, it will probably seem slightly less intimidating if you have the RS Paris guidebook, as that provides information on hotels, how to get around, museum tips, etc.

While you could travel further using the budget airlines, there's not a lot of time to work out the details since you'll be travelling in the near future. Once you've been there, I suspect you'll want to return.

Posted by
996 posts

Second the suggestion to visit Edinburgh. I fell in love with the city in just one day.

Whatever you decide, just know that there is no 'wrong' decision. We all make suggestions, but at the end of the day you're visiting a new place. Read up on it before you go. Maybe consider planning one guided tour or a walking tour - something you WANT to see while you're there.

And then start thinking how you can use all this information now to plan your next trip in advance. ;-)

Hope you have a fabulous time!!

Posted by
6113 posts

The 7th and 28th May are Bank Holidays is the UK, so travel over these weekends will be busier and more costly.

The budget flight operators such as Easyjet tend not to use the expensive Heathrow airport, so look at Gatwick or Southampton for your closest value options. Easyjet's website is easy to use if you put in your departure airport, your travel dates and tick the direct flight option, as you don't want the hassle of changing planes. Ryanair use Luton and Stansted rather than Gatwick. Travelling the more unsociable hours will mean cheaper fares, but ensure that you aren't going to be saddled with an expensive taxi fare if public transport isn't running at that time of day.

The best value flights and Eurostar will both have gone, so you need to book asap before fares rise further. The Eurostar stops at Lille before Paris, which is a charming town if Paris would overwhelm you.

As has already been suggested, Edinburgh would be a good option. Wales has plenty of castles, as has many parts of the UK.

Smaller cities such as Lisbon are suitable for your timescale. Remember that a 2 hour flight actually means c 6 + hours door to door depending on where you are going.

Posted by
25509 posts

I don't know why Lisbon didn't occur to me. It's quite an interesting place, you can see a lot in 3 or 4 days (possible side-trip to Sintra if you want a change of scenery), and it wouldn't be a terribly long flight from London. Would be a nice contrast to Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Lyon or York. Lisbon is one of the more moderately-priced capital cities, and it is more laid back than many. It is, however, fairly hilly. And perhaps "fairly" is a bit of an understatement.

Posted by
3956 posts

Tools: for cheap budget flights. Buy early to save lots of money. Everything about railroads. Lots of strategies for saving money, especially in the UK.

Three nights in Dublin would work for me. Or three nights in Marseille, flying one-way and connecting by train back to the UK. Three nights in Budapest, like Paris on a budget. And so on: Lots of choices, so don't sweat it, just go. But do commit early for both cheap flights and cheap long-distance trains.

Posted by
11294 posts

In addition to the ideas from all the other posts (all good), don't overlook the possibility of other places in the UK. As with flights, the cheap trains require advance purchase and will lock you into a specific train (they are called Advance tickets with a capital A).

I had a great trip to Glasgow, Liverpool, and Manchester; all are very different from London as well as from each other. As a bonus, they're substantially cheaper than London as well. Here's my detailed trip report from September 2016:

Posted by
5 posts

thank you all so much for sharing your travel experiences and knowledge about transportation, etc. After conferring with my son, we will make a decision and post if we have more questions about places to stay, etc.

Posted by
7161 posts

If you only have 6-8 outside of England Paris would be the best choice for one of those trips.

Not sure how long you will be in England and how much you plan to see there, but don't just go to London. Take in the beautiful British countryside.

We did a 28 day drive tour of Wales and England last October and loved it. Here is my detailed review of our trip.
28 days in Britain and Celebrity Eclipse home

Posted by
7879 posts

With Easyjet flying out of Gatwick, they can get you to just about anywhere in Europe in 2/hours for $100 max.
Pick a city.
I especially like Budapest.

Posted by
228 posts

Some excellent suggestions. Paris and Amsterdam are obvious, interesting and easy to reach. I would add Prague, another very interesting city that's easy to get to from the UK. Also consider Dublin, which is a lovely city with its own unique 'feel' and easy access to some beautiful Irish countryside.

Oh, another suggestion that you might not have thought about: the Isle of Man. OK, it's not a city, but it's another destination easy to reach but quite distinct from the rest of the UK. It's a very good destination for foodies and history buffs. No good if you're talking the latter half of May however, when the island becomes enveloped in a cloud of rubber smoke and petrol fumes for the famous TT road races. Even if you're a petrolhead like me and a big fan, it will be hard to get decent, reasonably-priced accommodation. You'd be hard-pressed to find a patch of grass for a two-person tent...... The first half of May should be OK though.