Best way to travel around France and Italy

My husband and I are planning for 19 days in France and Italy. What do you suggest for getting around? Train? Drive? We will be doing Paris-Reims-Colmar-Beaune-Chamonix (ish) and in Italy (not set in stone on the layout please send advice if you know any better!!) Venice-Florence-Cinque Terre-Rome(ish). We would love some feedback from the experienced European traveler on traveling, places to see, things to do. This is our first time and we will be going from late Dec-mid Jan 2011.

Posted by Jennie
Missoula, MT
76 posts

Ed – you are absolutely correct. We have only been relying on one set of guidebooks, I wasn't sure we needed to review more (boy am I an amateur or what?) but if you have super-secret other suggestions please let me know! I was also leaning towards driving in France as well. We will hopefully get our European driving skills ready as we are doing 9 days in Ireland before we come over to the continent. Bob – We are having such a difficult time trying to limit ourselves to a reasonable pace and number of locations and that's why we are seeking input at this point before I get too overzealous. Sasha – We would really like to do Chamonix though because this might be our only chance to ski in the Alps and although we're not avid skiers we are from Montana so I guess that helps! I guess we would just backtrack to fly out of Lyon after Chamonix? . The whole trip from start to finish should be ~30 days with 9 in Ireland first off and 2 in London before we fly back across the pond. We are definitely looking for an overall experience. I appreciate the input, truly, and you seasoned travelers feel free to share with us your opinions. We're still in the planning stages since we have 14+ months to go.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17780 posts

Jennie, I agree with some (but not all) of the replies posted so far. It's great that you've allowed lots of time for planning, as you'll have a very well organized Itinerary when you depart! ¶ As this is your first time in Europe, I'd highly recommend pre-reading the Guidebook "Europe Through The Back Door". That will give you a lot of information on how to travel well in Europe. Once you've narrowed down a list of cities to visit, use the country specific Guidebooks to plan for sightseeing, hotels, etc. You might also have a look at some of Rick's shows on PBS for touring ideas. ¶ I agree that you have too many cities for a time frame of only 19 days. Keep in mind that you'll lose the first day (you'll arrive the day AFTER you depart) and the last day will be spent on the flight home. ¶ I DON'T AGREE that using a rental car is the best method for getting around, especially at that time of year as roads could be in less-than-perfect condition. You'll also have to deal with expensive fuel and tolls in France. Using trains (especially high speed) will be a far more efficient method, and will minimize your travel times between locations. Budget air is good in some situations, but that will depend on your Itinerary and which cities you decide on. ¶ Dec./Jan. is NOT the best time to visit the Cinque Terre. Many of the lodgings close at that time of year, and the trails may or may not be useable (depending on the weather). I'd suggest leaving that for a future trip, when you can hopefully visit during the shoulder seasons. ¶ I was just in Colmar a few months ago, and it's a beautiful city. However not sure what it will be like in the winter? ¶ Is there any possibility you might be able to change this trip to a bit later in the spring? Good luck with your planning!

Posted by Jennie
Missoula, MT
76 posts

Ken - Those 19 days are considering losing a day for travel considering the flights will be into and out of London. And unfortunately we can't really fudge the timeline too much. Winter is not the ideal travel time but we think it'll be good to see the countries when they're not in full-fledged tourism, get the real feel (hopefully).

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7976 posts

With all the tact I can muster, you've probably only read (or been heavlily influenced by) one writer's guidebooks and are trying to connect a lot of dots in a very short time since you're bypassing so many really good areas. But, here's the best way I can think of to do it. Pick up a car as you leave Paris and drive the French route in the order you have it listed. Take the car to Lyon (two to three hours) and catch an Easyjet to Venice (fifty bucks per head plus the extras ?). Use trains in Italy since a car is usless in all the cities you mentioned. You'll probably have to skip the CT since it's a bit harder to get to by public transportation (and a car is a nuisance there as well) and doing so would eat up too much of your very precious time - - and I consider it pretty much third-tier anyway, or at least at the bottom of your Italian heap. When you start working on the number of days you want in each place, you might find that you have to drop something else, it should probably be Colmar since it's off anything that resembles a direct path and you can fit in Beaune in a half day of looking around if you skip the bike rides that seem to fascinate everybody. I've probably stirred up a hornet's nest, but I've been to all of your places several times and, although there are several I don't care for, I don't think I could do the trip justice in three weeks. Good luck hooking it all together and make your fist step figuring out how long you'll need in each place, then work from there.

Posted by Bob
Gettysburg, PA
1364 posts

10 locations in 17 days? Better give some thought to trimming back your list. Your list sounds like 2 trips, not one. Whatever your decision, have a great time!

Posted by Sasha
Bainbridge Island
1590 posts

Totally agree with the suggestion above on using a car in France and then flying to Venice and training from there. But why Chamonix? Are you skiers? It will be mobbed with skiers at that time of year, and won't feel much like "France". Also, Cinque Terre is not at its best in the winter, unless you like empty towns and heaby weather. You need to drop some stops from your itinerary and I suggest it be those two, for starters.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17780 posts

Jennie, I wondered whether your trip was actually 21-days, and whether you'd already adjusted for the travel days. As you're using London for both inbound and outbound flights, you'll also have to allow for time to return from France or Italy to London. You might consider using open-jaw flights on future trips. Cheers!

Posted by Jennie
Missoula, MT
76 posts

Open jaw is still an option. The flight information we have been able to locate thus far actually shows that its cheaper to fly roundtrip. Still have many considerations to take into account. Thanks for the help!

Posted by Roe
Reston, Virginia
398 posts

Jennie: Remember that airline prices this far out are impossible to predict. Whatever you estimate may well be off by hundreds of dollars, so don't get too concerned over an apparent different in price between roundtrip and open jaw. Also, keep in mind that getting back to London from Florence or wherever will run several hundred dollars, money that would be saved on the open jaw. Given that time is a precious commodity for your trip, unless the differential is staggeringly higher than has been the case in the past, I would plan for open jaw. Given the time of year, I agree with the other posters on dropping the CT, and I would also drop Beaune (the vineyards will be inactive) and Venice (which will be rainy and grey). Florence and Rome would be best reached by Easyjet or other discount airline. Really, you could have a more relaxed and satisfying trip IMO by just doing France after Ireland and England. There is plenty to see and do, and I would think the Alps for winter sports people could easily absorb several days.

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
5444 posts

For skiing in the Alps, is there any particular reason you chose Chamonix? Do you have your heart set on that or would you consider other options? If you are traveling to Italy from either Colmar of Beaune, the shortest path takes you close to some very nice ski resorts in Switzerland, both famous (Zermatt) and barely known outside of Switzerland, but wonderful (check out Bettmeralp.ch). . . . You can use the Swiss rail website (www.rail.ch for English) to look at routes and travel times between places. I like to do this before I nail down my itinerary so I don't add in places that are far off a logical path. . . . Put in either Colmar or Beaune as your start point and Milan as you end (Milan is the main gateway into Italy from the north). You'll see routes that go via zurich or via Brig. Brig is very close to the resorts I refer to above (Bettmeralp is a lovely litte car-free village perched on a bench high above the Rhone Valley; to get there you train for 10 minutes from Brig and then take a huge cablecar up thousands of feet to the village.) Zermatt is a bit farther but still no so far off you path as Chamonix, which is famous but also a big city, very different from skiiing in the US. When looking at European ski maps (French or Swiss), keep in mind that the runs are coded blue, red, black instead of our green, blue, black. . . .

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8757 posts

... and if skiing in Europe make sure you have good insurance to deal with any injury and repatriation.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8757 posts

What do you mean by Chamonix (ish) and Rome (ish)?

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17780 posts

Jennie, regarding the price difference between return and open-jaw flights, I also agree with the points mentioned by Roe. Even if the cost is slightly more, open-jaw flights are often a better deal. When comparing prices, you need to also consider the cost, time and "hassle" to return to your starting point. ¶ Even if travelling by budget airline, you'll lose at least half a day (and probably a bit more, depending on the circumstances at the time). That will reduce your touring time and is not really the most efficient travel method. You'll probably also have to book another Hotel room for one night prior to your flight home. ¶ I ALWAYS use open-jaw flights and don't ever foresee using return flights (unless I'm just visiting a few cities in the same country). I always try to get the best prices, but regardless of the cost, I feel it's the best method. Cheers!

Posted by Jennie
Missoula, MT
76 posts

You're right, prices are impossible to predict right now. We were just comparing what they looked like for our timeframe from 2010, both one-way and round-trip. We haven't really spoken with a travel agent (or maybe won't) yet because its still too early. But... is open-jaw different than one way? Do the prices differ?? Lola – Not really a reason for picking Chamonix other than it was a convenient, good place on our trip from Northern France into Italy. Thanks for the note on the colors on the ski runs because that will be important info! Nigel - The (ish) comments were about the legs of the trip. Those were our rough starting out itineraries .

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
5444 posts

Jennie, open-jaw is very different from booking two one-way legs. Prices are comparable to a regular round-trip. You book it as "multicity", one leg out and the other back. I just did a quick check on Kayak, flying open jaws from Minneapolis (not Missoula) to London and then from Rome back to Minneapolis. For travel in late December 2010, returning mid-January 2011, prices are around $800 on Delta or American Airlines. I chose Minneapolis as it is probably the closest major hub to you, offering better prices than, say Seattle.

Posted by Sherry
San Jose, CA
1139 posts

Jennie, first, let me put in a vote for keeping Colmar, despite what an earlier comment said. I did Paris, Reims, and Colmar by train in May (along with some other cities), and Colmar was delightful. Great walking town, and the Unterlinden museum is one of the best small museums I've been to in Europe. Plus the town is very German, which was fun, since I don't anticipate traveling to Germany any time soon. The high-speed train rides are just an hour or two per segment, with direct trains from Paris; and I found watching the scenery to be far more enjoyable than trying to negotiate French highways in a car. Strasburg is on the way to Colmar (30 minutes by train), with an amazing Gothic cathedral (quite different from the Gothic in Paris or Reims... you can really see the German influence on the cathedral). I got a 4-day France rail pass; the folks at the RS office were really helpful in helping me sort rail pass things out. But I agree with the other folks; both countries in 19 days will mean you'll be spending much of your time in transit and trying to find your hotel and way around town. Finally, I was in Rome in January a year ago and it was a great time to be there. It was my 3rd visit, but the most enjoyable, largely because there were no crowds.

Posted by Jennie
Missoula, MT
76 posts

I think we may be starting to lean towards the train in both France and Italy at this point. Looking through the Italy guidebook we are starting to agree that the Cinque Terre probably won't be a good fit for our winter extravaganza. So that "just" leaves Venice, Florence and Rome. But Rick mentions how great Siena is as well. Should we stick to the big 3 or try to sneak in a day trip or somethingt to Siena? I also think we are going to try to keep Colmar in and I liked Sherry's comment about how German it is. We probably won't be making it to Germany any time soon either so the influence will be nice for us. Keep the comments coming!! The open jaw information is such a huge help and I'm so thankful this sounding board is here to learn from the those who have already been. Any thoughts about late Dec in Ireland? We have our itinerary started and think we like it but the weather there might be a little drizzly. AND... New Years in Paris? YES PLEASE! Does anyone have great stories to share?? :)

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
5444 posts

I see I misspoke. It's Ireland you are going to first, not London. So do your test for open-jaw flights on the search engines going into Dublin, not London. From Dublin to Paris you are probably better off using a budget airline like Ryanair, and these won't show up on Kayak. . . Paris for New Year's would be fantastic. As for Ireland in December, it can be rainy/drizzley there anytime. the climate in Ireland is mild (if damp), and it's a nice place to visit anytime. . . . It's still not clear when you are doing this trip. You say "Dec-mid Jan 2011", so taken literally that means you are going in 10 weeks. If so, it is definitely not too soon to book your flight tickets; in fact you should do so soon so you can start firming up your itinerary and making the hotel reservations where they will be necessary, such as your hotels over Christmas and New Year's, as well as your ski trip. . . . And I mentioned this before, but unless you have a personal recommendation for Chamonix or other particular reason for choosing that as your ski area, there may be others that are closer to your main route and a better fit for first-timers in Europe. Chamonix is a good-sized city, and the ski lifts are widely scattered up and down the valley. You could stay close to one, say the Brévent lift in Chamonix itself, but then you would have to shuttle, bus or taxi to any other lift. Others like the Aguille du Midi and the Flégère lift (in the next town of Les Praz) may or may not be well-suited to your skiiing ability. You'd want good advice on which to choose. . . . And for any ski area, you should first check out your dates and make sure there is no big event like a World Cup race in town at that time, as it will be very crowded and hotel prices sky-high.

Posted by Roe
Reston, Virginia
398 posts

Jennie: Paris for New Year's really is wonderful. The city is lit up,as are millions of people, and it is a great party. One cautionary note is that we found it very very tough to get restaurant reservations for New Year's Eve when we arrived in paris on the 26th December. When you make your hotel reservations, you might want to request your hotel make dinner reservations for that night...you can easily give them an email list of places & phone numbers from the Rick Steves book. On the night of the 30th, we ate at one of the restaurants Rick recommends up on Montmartre, and we had a lovely meal. The next night we ate at the only place we could get into (not in Rick's book), and it was overpriced, with lousy food, and a thermostat that must have been set to 110 degrees. Some Paris restaurants have websites (Bofinger, I think, for one) and you could get reservations that way if your hotel is uncooperative. If you will be in the British Isles over Christmas and December 26 (Boxing Day), also give thought to advance planning where you will eat.

Posted by Jennie
Missoula, MT
76 posts

Lola: The statement was actually late Dec – mid Jan but I included a typo because the trip is actually for NEXT yr so it will be late 2011-early 2012. The official plan is ~30 days total for Ireland, France and Italy. And we will need to book hotel rooms, restaurants early for Christmas and NYE but thanks for the reminder (Roe too!)! We don't officially have our hearts set on Chamonix, we'll need to do some more research. One bonus for us is all the great things we've heard about the gondola rides up to Mont Blanc. That kind of sounds like something we don't want to miss. Hopefully the weather cooperates. We didn't really like the sound of the ski lifts being so far apart. Maybe we'll just do a gondola ride at Chamonix and ski in Switzerland. Never been there before either!! The tip on watching out for World Cup is great, I never would've thought about that until we heard about it. What does everyone think of Lyon? A friend from work lived in Belgium for a year and said she loved it there.