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Europe by Train Itinerary help (hopefully next summer, 2022)

I am in the early planning stages of a 5-week trip to Europe with my two sons (who will be 18 and 15). We'll be traveling from May 26-June 30. We plan to stay in family-friendly hostels, pensions, etc., and to use night trains as much as possible. My husband will join us for the France/Spain leg of the trip. For the rest of the trip, it will be me and the boys. We will be flying from Phoenix, Arizona, USA, and we plan to stick to trains, bikes, local buses, ferries, or taxis. My dilemma is that everyone in my family wants to see something different. My husband wants to return to Paris, Spain, and Basque Country, my younger son wants to see Belgium (mostly for the waffles, chocolates and pretzels) and Austria -- he is a serious flutist and wants to go to Vienna and Salzburg. My older son wants to see Paris and Italy. I like to have a mix of art/history/culture and relaxing mountains, lakes, and beach (I try to set things up so that we alternate city activities with walking, hiking, or relaxing activities; the train rides will also help us unwind between activities/locations). Here is what we have right now. Some of it feels like it is spread out enough, other parts--particularly Belgium, Netherlands, Venice and Rome--feel rushed, so I am looking for advice on what to cut so that I can improve these sections of the journey.

Since we are new to most of these places, I am definitely open to suggestions on improving the itinerary with teens (for example, should we eliminate Amsterdam and take the night train from Brussels to Vienna to buy us more time in Belgium and Italy?).

Day 1: International flight to Brussels
Night 1: Airplane
Nights 2-4: Brussels
- Day 2: Arrive Brussels; walking/bike riding
- Day 3: Brussels museums
- Day 4: Day trip to Bruges
Night 5: Amsterdam
- Days 5-6: Train to Amsterdam/Amsterdam sites (Van Gogh Museum,
Rembrandts, tulips, etc.)
Night 6: Night train from Amsterdam to Vienna on Nightjet
Nights 7-9: Vienna
- Days 7-9: Vienna
Nights 10-11: Salzburg
- Day 10: Salzburg (Mozart)
- Day 11: Day trip to nearby lake/town/alps?
- Day 12: Salzburg (Sound of Music)
Night 12: Night train to Florence via Nightjet
Nights 13-16: Florence
- Day 13: Florence
- Day 14: Pisa/Lucca day trip
- Day 15: Florence
- Day 16: Day trip to Cinque Terre
- Day 17: Train from Florence to Rome; arrive Rome midday
Nights 17-19: Rome
- Day 17: Rome
- Day 18: Vatican City
- Day 19: Rome
- Day 20: Train to Venice
Night 20: Venice
- Day 21: Venice
Night 21: Night train from Venice to Paris (this assumes Thello Night Train resumes in 2022 since it was canceled due to COVID)
Nights 22-25: Paris
- Day 22: Paris
- Day 23: Paris
- Day 24: Day trip to either Versailles or Chartes
- Day 25: Paris
- Day 26: Train to French Basque area (Biarritz, Bayonne, Saint Jean de Luz? which is the best home base?)
Nights 26-28: French Basque area (where to stay? Bayonne, Biarritz, Saint Jean de Luz?) Can we use trains to see this area or do we need buses? Kids and I will want mix of beach time and exploration.
- Day 26: Biarritz
- Day 27: Bayonne
- Day 28: Saint Jean de Luz
- Day 29: Train from home base in French Basque to San Sebastian
Nights 29-33: Spanish Basque area
- Day 30: San Sebastian
- Day 31: Bilbao
- Day 32: Beach day in San Sebastian
- Day 33: Train to Barcelona
Nights 33-36: Barcelona
- Day 34: Barcelona
- Day 35: Day trip to Montserrat
- Day 36: Barcelona/beach day
Day 37: Fly home

Posted by
1503 posts

Amsterdam to Vienna- check flights rather than night train
Take day train Salzburg to Venice. then go to Florence and Rome. Fly from Rome to Paris

Posted by
1997 posts

For the Spanish section, you could easily fly direct from San Sebastián to Barcelona, but I would actually recommend you first spend 3 nights in San Sebastián (day trip to Bilbao along the coastal road), then take the early ALSA bus or train to Zaragoza (a beautiful untouristed city) stay the night see the Basílica del Pilar and the Aljafería Moorish Palace, then the next day take the AVE high speed train to Barcelona to spend the rest of your 4 nights.

Posted by
6104 posts

You mention tulips in Amsterdam. The season for them is late April.
In the French Pays Basque, we loved St- Jean de Luz and the Basque villages in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Saré,Ascain,Ainhoa,, Espellette. and more. You would need to car to explore them.

Posted by
7010 posts

Why would you eliminate the night trains and spend time during the day traveling?

Have you checked how many changes/stop you have to make on the longer segments?

Arriving at your destination after what could be a mostly sleepless night does not seem like a good idea to me.

Posted by
13 posts

Will 4 days in French Basque be sufficient to visit the little towns? Where would be the best place to rent a car?

Posted by
346 posts

Night trains can be good but some things to consider. What time does the train leave? Most checkout times are 11:00 am and most night trains leave after 7:00 pm so what to do with your luggage for that time. Same on arrival, most trains arrive in the morning and most check-in times are after 3:00 pm. Most train stations do have some type of left luggage but then you have to pay for it. Hotels might allow you to leave it with them either before or after stay. And you may have to change trains a few times so how much sleep will you really get?

I don't like to back-track so would fly into Rome, Florence, Venice, Salzburg, Vienna, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Spain and leave from Barcelona. Or from Vienna fly to Amsterdam. Flying would be about the same cost as the train and less than 2 hours non-stop. Leave Vienna at 7 am be in Amsterdam by 9 am and enjoy the day. Or enjoy another day in Vienna by flying out later in the day arriving in Amsterdam in time for bed. Or fly from Vienna to Paris then train up to Amsterdam and Brussels.

Seems like a lot to do in 6 weeks so I would try to travel less and for long distances as fast as I could.

Posted by
2746 posts

Why would you eliminate the night trains and spend time during the day
traveling?

There are quite a few of us who have experienced time on night trains. The idea is appealing; the experience can be much less so. The compartments can be less than comfortable. It can be noisy, and sometimes jerky, with intermediate station stops and occasionally cars being shunted during the night. Some trips may require a change of trains or arrival at an ungodly early hour in the morning. All of which can result in a poor night's sleep and being sleep deprived all the next day. Or not. I've had good night trains, and horrible ones. If I can find an early morning or late evening flight instead at a reasonable price, I now opt for that instead.

Posted by
24663 posts

sarah, it sounds like you have been to Europe before?

If so, have used a night train before, in Europe?

Before I tell you the good and the bad, and perhaps others might too, I'd love to know your previous experience with trains in various European countries.

(I have experience with riding and operating trains, night and day, in the US, Canada, the UK, and western and central Europe if that matters)

Posted by
466 posts

seems VERY busy to me - seems you're going to spend as much time traveling as savoring and enJOYing the sites. Don't go to Amsterdam without seeing the Anne Frank House - it's one of the best sites we've seen in all of Europe. Get your tickets online as soon as you know your dates as they sell out super fast and you don't won't get tickets if you expect to get them there. Also, in Florence, we loved WalkAboutFlorence.com for day trips - we did 2 - the BEST OF TUSCANY TOUR and THE CHIANTI WINE & FOOD SAFARI TOUR - we booked on their website. One day per town isn't nearly enough. You have no idea how long it takes to check in & out of hotels and travel between cities. It takes up lots of precious time. We do at least 3-4 nights per town which only gives you 2-3 days. Venice needs at least 3 days, Amsterdam too. Florence needs at least 3 days, plus day trips. We did 24 days just in Venice, Florence, Rome & Sorrento. And we go over to Germany and Austria every other December for the Xmas Markets, so we consider ourselves well traveled. We did 14 days in Spain and barely scratched the surface. Whatever you decide, get the Rick Steves guidebooks and download his walking tours as they are fantastic.

Posted by
1595 posts
  • Day 12: Salzburg (Sound of Music) Night 12: Night train to Florence via Nightjet Nights 13-16: Florence
  • Day 17: Train from Florence to Rome; arrive Rome midday Nights 17-19: Rome
  • Day 20: Train to Venice Night 20: Venice

If I'm not mistaken the night train from Salzburg arrives very early in Florence, so if it was me I'd take it all the way to Rome and make Florence a stop along the way from Rome to Venice instead. Although there is a point in not crossing the Alps by night train, it is (in my opinion) worth taking a day train for the views.

Have you checked how many changes/stop you have to make on the longer
segments?

All night trains mentioned are direct, i.e. zero changes.

Posted by
4364 posts

This is an exhausting pace that may be ok for some people for a fortnight, but not for 37 days. It will be blur, so I would suggest that you cut a few locations as you are short changing many places such as Amsterdam, Venice and Paris. It’s difficult to say what to cut as your family all have several must-sees. Maybe you could ask them to nominate just one place each? Personally, I would drop Belgium and Cinque Terre, but it’s not my trip.

Don’t underestimate how long it will take you to change locations. E.G. Brussels to Amsterdam is just under 3 hours on most trains, but you need to add on time to get to the station from your accommodation, get the tickets, find the right platform, buy a coffee etc and at the other end, get to your accommodation - this is likely to be a door to door journey of 5 hours. You will have so little time in Amsterdam that I question is it worth the hassle of getting there? Ditto Venice.

Night trains- someone said they were appealing. Have you ever used them? Appalling would be the description I would use - no sleep and arriving tired and grumpy so it will take you 2 days to catch up and get reenergised. Fly.

As has already been mentioned, the tulip season will have ended in Holland. You can easily spend a week in Paris.

Posted by
4619 posts

A fair plan, but why skip Venice, it is not to be missed.

I suggest slowing down a bit and concentrating your travel in a more geographically continuous area. Suggest skipping Spain for another trip and spend more time in Amsterdam, Rome and Paris.

Plan to visit Iberia and do Spain and Portugal in 3 weeks. Also, doing Great Britain and Ireland in another trip, then Greece and Istanbul in another.

Posted by
2165 posts

I would skip the day trip to the Cinque Terre and add that day to your time in Vienna.

To take a day trip by train from Florence to the CT, you will be spending more than 5 hours on a train, and the CT needs to be enjoyed leisurely. You have several other beach days in your itinerary.

Posted by
17907 posts

I agree with the general tenor of most of the other comments: Too many widely-scattered locations for the amount of time you have. I'm another traveler who hopes never to take another night train. On the other hand, there's no such thing as getting somewhere by plane in 2 hours. That's the amount of time you'd need to spend at the departure airport in many cases for security purposes. The unattractive options of night train, day-long train ride or annoying mid-trip flight are all things I avoid as much as I can. That's why I'd like to see the geographical extent of your trip reined in. It's not that the places you want to go are not interesting; it's that as you hop from place to place you'll be skipping over equally interesting places where you could spend your time instead, and with much less time dedicated to transportation. A compromise itinerary can produce this kind of routing. Would it not be possible to divide the must-have destinations into two 5-week trips, one of them for 2023?

For the French Basque Country I chose Bayonne (which has a large historic center) as my base and was glad I had, though St-Jean-de-Luz is cute and might give better beach access--if the weather cooperates; it can be cool and overcast or rainy. I do not go to Europe to spend time on a beach so I'm ill-informed on the subject of beaches, but I couldn't help noticing that most of the people in the water at the time of my mid-June visit were wearing wetsuits. Biarritz I found much less congenial just for walking around; it felt less "foreign" than both Bayonne and St-Jean-de-Luz.

Note: There is a chocolate museum in Bayonne with (as of 2018) a very generous tasting room included in the entry fee. This is not the very highest of high-end chocolate; it's not the sort of stuff that costs $50 per pound. However, it was definitely good enough for me to enjoy, and I had to be careful about how much I ate.

I remember taking some buses while on the French side of the border, but I see that rail service is available; I think perhaps there was a rail strike during my visit. Linking the French and Spanish Basque country is definitely possible via public transportation, but you should figure out your options ahead of time. You may need a combination of bus + train, and there may not be very frequent service across the border. I remember some earlier discussions about crossing the border on the forum, but I didn't need to do that, having visited the French and Spanish parts of the area on two separate trips. Although there's a scenic local rail line between San Sebastian and Bilbao, it is a very slow trip. The buses are faster.

In the Basque Country of Spain I much preferred Bilbao to San Sebastian. San Sebastian is vastly more touristy, the historic center being wall-to-wall tapas/pintxo bars. Bilbao's Casco Viejo is larger and mostly peopled by local residents. However, the SS beach is magnificent. Since the weather in that part of Europe is iffy, seize the first decent opportunity for beachgoing that presents itself if it's important to you. If you're unlucky with the weather, there are interesting side-trips to Hondarribia and Zarautz/Zumaia/Getaria--or Guernica, which I didn't have time for.

If I had only 3 days in Barcelona, I wouldn't use much of one of them to go to Montserrat and part of another to go to the beach. To me Barcelona alone needs four days for those interested in the modernista architecture. If that's not a big deal for you, I'd question including the area (and the Basque Country) in this trip since it's such a geographical outlier.

On the other hand, if you've been unlucky and have had to deal with a lot of hot weather earlier in the trip, the time in the Basque Country may offer a very nice break. (The Italian Dolomites could substitute.)

Posted by
13 posts

Would it not be possible to divide the must-have destinations into two 5-week trips, one of them for 2023?
No. This is a graduation trip for my oldest, and I only have this amount of vacation time saved up because we have not been able to vacation in two years due to COVID, so having 5 weeks that I can take off from work is unusual and will take me another two years to have that amount of time again. By then, my son will be well into college and unlikely to be able to dedicate 5 weeks to a family trip.

Suggest skipping Spain for another trip and spend more time in Amsterdam, Rome and Paris.

I can't skip Barcelona or Basque. Those were my husband's specific requests, and that is the part of the trip he will join us on.

I do not go to Europe to spend time on a beach...

The beach time is necessary downtime to relax, especially with my kids.

Has anyone taken the Direct Ferry between Rome and Barcelona?

Posted by
2746 posts

You can find reviews of the ferry online. The ferry itself takes 20 hours. Add a couple more to get to and from the docks. The base fare only gets you a chair. If you want a cabin and bed, expect to pay a lot more. Since you don't want to "waste" part of a day flying, are you sure you'd want to waste all of one on a ship?

Posted by
13 posts

Since you don't want to "waste" part of a day flying, are you sure you'd want to waste all of one on a ship?
The ship sails at night. We would get a 3-person cabin to get a good night's sleep and have a shower. I can't imagine a day relaxing on a ship traveling between Rome and Barcelona would be a "waste," especially compared to hours spent going through security and customs and sitting around an airport/in a cramped budget airplane.

Posted by
11995 posts

Sara, I've done both Brussels and Bruges, and would reverse your plan if wanting to bike and walk: Spend only arrival night in Brussels, and the next two in Bruges. Bruges is, IMHO, much more walk-and-bike friendly, and has wonderful museums as well. Waffles and chocolates? No shortage of those but the stars are the really wonderful architecture, canals and history. Still, two nights will only give you one FULL day so you'll have to use it wisely.

Not sure how to take this out strategically but I'd skip Amsterdam altogether. I'm not seeing mention of love for this one from anyone in your family so I'd let it go. Use those days to relieve "rush" pressure on some other locations, as your itinerary, as published, is exhausting. You also won't see tulips in late May.

Has anyone taken the Direct Ferry between Rome and Barcelona?

See CJ's reply below: it's not a quick trip at all. Rome, BTW, is not on the coast so getting to the port adds time.

The beach time is necessary downtime to relax, especially with my kids

It might be a lot easier to book a hotel here and there with a pool. Getting to a beach can involve transport + cost to rent a space. Having a pool just steps away from your room can be a plus!

In general, I wouldn't nail your itinerary down to the day 'cuz the day you've planned for ___ might be the one many attractions are closed. You're going to need to work around those and/or get advance tickets for the most-visited attractions which ARE open. Very tight itineraries are a recipe for potential pitfalls. Train strike? Case of traveler's tummy?

Before I tell you the good and the bad, and perhaps others might too,
I'd love to know your previous experience with trains in various
European countries.

Based on prior comments from many on this forum, this is a GREAT question from Nigel. Enough people have found it to be challenging to sleep on overnight trains to keep this mode of transport to a minimum, especially if you haven't used it before, and are having to herd two teens, who could end up being tired and cranky, through an aggressive itinerary.

Posted by
13 posts

I have revised itinerary based on comments to narrow things down, which means eliminating Belgium and Amsterdam.
Day 1: Fly to Salzburg (either with a direct flight/layover in Frankfurt, or fly to Frankfurt or Munich and take train to Salzburg from airport; it looks like the layover at Frankfurt airport + flight from Frankfurt to Salzburg will be roughly the same as the train ride).
Night 1: Airplane.
Day 2: Arrive in Salzburg midday
Nights 2-4: Salzburg with day trips/possible overnight in surrounding towns
Day 5: Train to Vienna
Nights 5-6: Vienna
Night 7: Night train to Venice (direct train on Nightjet; will have 3-person deluxe cabin with shower/toilet)
Nights 7-8: Venice
Day 9: Train to Florence
Nights 9-13: Florence/Tuscany (explore Florence, Pisa/Lucca, possibly Cinque Terre if we feel like doing an overnight visit)
Day 14: Train to Rome
Nights 14-17: Rome
Day 18: Rome
Night 18: Ferry to Barcelona
Day 19: Ferry to Barcelona/arrives in evening.
Nights 19-23: Barcelona (possible day trip to Montserrat)
Day 24: Train to San Sebastian.
Nights 24-26: San Sebastian (day trip to Bilbao)
Day 27: Train or bus? to Saint Jean de Luz; rent car to explore French Basque
Nights 27-29: French Basque Country with one home-base hotel
Day 30: Train to Paris
Nights 30-35: Paris (possible day trip to either Versailles or Chartes)
Day 36: Fly home.

Does this seem more do-able?

Posted by
17907 posts

It feels better to me.

I hate to see just one night in Venice. If you all sleep well on the night train, you'll have close to two full days; if you don't, it will be a shame. Venice needs time for casual strolling, away from the Rialto-San Marco mob scene.

I really don't like mid-trip flights, and I've taken a couple of overnight ferries that were basic but perfectly clean and fine (meaning I was able to sleep well), but I don't understand the logic of preferring such a long ferry trip to simply flying from Rome to Barcelona. If you're arriving in Barcelona in the evening, losing virtually a full day of sightseeing time, how is that better than a flight that would take maybe 5 hours altogether, including travel time to and from airports? On the other hand, refundability of the transportation tickets could be a factor. I have no idea what the current rules are for ferry tickets vs. intra-European airline tickets.

Posted by
346 posts

Sure a 2 hours flight could really be 5 hours total. But to me that's better than 8+ hours on a train trying to sleep. And there isn't customs or passport control within the Schengen area. Just security like the TSA but most of the time faster and easier. So get up at 9 am and see a few sights or do some shopping then go to the airport at 4 pm and arrive at your new hotel by 9 pm ready for bed.

If you can I would still fly into Rome and return from Barcelona. I think this would save travel time. As Belgium, Austria, Italy, France and Spain are the must see I would choose just a few places in each country.

Belgium - Brussels +

Austria - Salzburg and Vienna

Italy - Rome (and Vatican City) and either Venice or Florence or maybe Bologna

France - Paris +

Spain - Barcelona +

Some of those cities you could easily spend a week in. They say Rome wasn't built in a day, well it can't really be seen in a day either. Have each family member sit down and plan their own trip. Have them research each place they want to see and why. What is there to see, how long will it take to see, etc. Then sit down as a family and add it all together. Down days can be spend in a city park just as much as at the seaside. And might be less crowded.

Posted by
7010 posts

The boat to Barcelona is really not a bad choice. After 18 high energy days having a day to recharge for the final 2 weeks really makes sense. Even race cars stop for fuel and tires mid-race. The boat ride makes a good 'pit stop'

It would be ideal if the ferry had laundry service.

The revised plan is a great improvement.

My $0.02

Posted by
533 posts

Hi Sarah, you mentioned seeing tulips in the Netherlands. The Keukenhof Gardens will not be open in late May, so the Netherlands would be a good country to drop along with the Cinque Terre since it’s too far from Florence to do as a day trip since it requires a train connection. I would also remove Brussels since you’re short on time and the best time to go is in Aug so you can see the flower carpet that covers the main square.
Following is what I suggest instead:
May 26, Thu – day 1: depart Phoenix / sleep on plane.
May 27, Fri - day 2: arrive in Brussels / take direct train from Brussels airport to Bruges (Brugge) 1h 30m / sleep in Bruges.
May 28, Sat - day 3: sleep in Bruges.
May 29, Sun - day 4: take direct train to Brussels airport (2h 45m) / fly non-stop to Vienna ($63) / sleep in Vienna. Note: at this time there are no direct trains to Vienna.
May 30, Mon – day 5: sleep in Vienna.
May 31, Tue – day 6: sleep in Vienna.
Jun 1, Wed – day 6: take direct train to Salzburg (2h 30m) / sleep in Salzburg.
Jun 2, Thu – day 7: Mozart / sleep in Salzburg.
Jun 3, Fri – day 8: day trip but don’t go to Hallstatt since it takes 3h and requires three train connections. Hallstatt is best by car.
Jun 4, Sat - day 9: Sound of Music tour / it’s possible there could be an overnight train from Salzburg to Venice. However, at this time there isn’t / sleep in Salzburg or sleep on train.
Jun 5, Sun – day 10: if you’re still in Salzburg, take 6h train ride that involves one connection / sleep in Venice.
Jun 6, Mon – day 11: sleep in Venice.
Jun 7, Tue – day 12: sleep in Venice.
Jun 8, Wed – day 13: take a direct train to Florence (2h 15m) / sleep in Florence.
Jun 9, Thu - day 14: sleep in Florence.
Jun 10, Fri – day 15: sleep in Florence.
Jun 11, Sat – day 16: direct train to Pisa (1h) / direct train to Lucca (30m) / direct train to Florence (1h 30m) / sleep in Florence. Or you can skip this day trip from Florence and add an extra day in Vienna.
Jun 12, Sun – day 17: direct train to Rome (1h 45m) / sleep in Rome.
Jun 13, Mon – day 18: sleep in Rome.
Jun 14, Tue – day 19: sleep in Rome.
Jun 15, Wed – day 20: Vatican City / sleep in Rome
Jun 16, Thu – day 21: take an evening non-stop flight to Paris ($35) / sleep in Paris. It’s possible there’ll be a direct overnight train from Rome to Paris too.
Jun 17, Fri – day 22: sleep in Paris.
Jun 18, Sat – day 23: sleep in Paris.
Jun 19, Sun – day 24: sleep in Paris.
Jun 20, Mon – day 25: take a direct RER train to Versailles and rent bikes / sleep in Paris
Jun 21, Tue – day 26: take a direct train to St-Jean-de-Luz (4h 45m) / sleep in St-Jean-de-Luz.
Jun 22, Wed – day 27: sleep in St-Jean-de-Luz.
Jun 23, Thu – day 28: bus to San Sebastian / sleep in San Sebastian.
Jun 24, Fri – day 29: sleep in San Sebastian. Note: Bilbao is too far to do as a day trip from San Sebastian.
Jun 25, Sat – day 30: direct train to Barcelona (5h 45m) / sleep in Barcelona.
Jun 26, Sun – day 31: sleep in Barcelona.
Jun 27, Mon – day 32: sleep in Barcelona.
Jun 28, Tue – day 33: day trip to Montserrat / sleep in Barcelona.
Jun 29, Wed – day 34: beach day / sleep in Barcelona.
Jun 30, Thu – day 35: fly home?

Posted by
533 posts

The small towns I would focus on in Basque are San Sebastián, St-Jean-de-Luz, Pamplona and Bayonne.

Posted by
17907 posts

There's no problem visiting Bilbao from San Sebastian (though I suggest heading over early so you have as much time as possible in Bilbao). There are frequent buses taking 75 minutes each way.

I disagree about Pamplona. It's famous because of Hemingway, but aside from the Running of the Bulls, it's not all that exciting a place. For me Spain has a lot of cities that are more interesting, including Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz, which are both also a bit quicker to reach from San Sebastian.

Posted by
533 posts

Sarah, flying into Salzburg isn’t convenient so I would not begin my journey by flying into Munich and taking an airport train to the city center followed by a 2h train to Salzburg. Frankfurt is even further.
There are no non-stop flights from Phoenix to the places that you’re going in Europe so that’s something to keep in mind. I would make sure I had one connection out of Phoenix and no more. The cities requiring one connection are Brussels, Paris, Vienna and Barcelona. If you cut out another place make it Bruges which I believe that you're considering.

Posted by
533 posts

Also, it takes 20 hours by ferry to get from Rome to Barcelona and you would lose a whole day.

Posted by
13 posts

I've been tweaking the itinerary, and have come up with this:

Day 1: Fly Phoenix to Amsterdam (1 stop)
Night 1: Airplane
Nights 2, 3, 4: Amsterdam
Day 5: Train to Belgium
Nights 5, 6: Bruges
Day 7: Train to Paris
Nights 7, 8, 9, 10: Paris (daytrip to Versailles or Chartres)
Day 11: Train to Bayonne
Nights 11, 12, 13: French Basque, home-based in Bayonne (rent a car?)
Day 14: Travel to San Sebastian (Bus or train?)
Nights 14, 15, 16: San Sebastian (day trip to Bilbao)
Day 17: Train to Barcelona
Nights 17, 18, 19: Barcelona
Day 20: Barcelona
Night 20: Ferry to Rome
Day 21: Ferry to Rome; arrive around 6 p.m.
Nights 21, 22, 23, 24: Rome
Day 25: Train to Florence
Nights 25, 26, 27, 28: Florence (day trip to Pisa/Lucca)
Day 29: Florence/Night 29: Sleeper train Nightjet to Salzburg (private deluxe cabin)
Nights 30, 31, 32, 33: Salzburg and Alps (Hallstatt? or other nearby mountain town?)
Day 34: Train to Vienna
Nights 34, 35: Vienna
Day 36: Fly home

Posted by
3423 posts

I'm totally perplexed by the ferry from Civitavecchia to Barcelona thing. I did a brief look using the Direct Ferries website and it is indeed a 20+ hour trip. Leaves Civitavecchia at about 22:00 the night before and arrives in Barcelona the next evening at about 18:00. You would be on the water the whole time.

The search strategy for a one-way trip with dates in mid-June is here. Note that your 18 year old will be counted as an adult. Click on the red search button to see the results.

Google Flights is currently showing multiple nonstop options during the day on 3 different airlines in mid-June. The flights are about 2 hours each from FCO to BCN. Both flying and ferry options will require upfront time before the actual departure and time to get off the boat or plane after arrival. I haven't taken a long ferry like that to Barcelona, but I have flown from Porto to Barcelona. Getting out of the airport to public transportation is easy.

With all the trains you plan to take, I assume you will all be packing light. You certainly don't want bag wrestling to slow the group down and cause you to miss a train. Keep in mind that you will travel at the pace of the slowest person in the group.

To inform your packing as well as whether or not you need AC in your lodgings, consult timeanddate.com for detailed records of the weather in the places you want to go at the time you plan to be there. I chose Vienna in June 2020 for the link, but you can fool around with locations and dates many years back in time. Some of the places on your itinerary will likely be colder and wetter than you expect, others may be hotter. I don't think any will be drier than here in AZ.

I see little down time in any of your plans to take a break and do the mundane things like get food and sundries or do laundry. And I hope that the males in the group aren't going to expect you to do that stuff while they play, at the beach or anywhere else. 😉

Edited to add: Looks like things changed before I could get this posted. The concepts are still the same. It's good that you're continuing to tweak the trip and that you'll have lots of time to do that as the planning progresses. It's always an iterative process with priorities and plans changing as more is learned about what's realistic, or even possible, and what's not.

Posted by
13 posts

I don't understand why the idea of the ferry is such a big deal on this forum. We will be traveling for 36 days, and at the halfway point, the ferry will give us a relaxed day where we are not doing anything. Hanging out on a boat for a day while we float along the Mediterranean without having to do anything at all but read a book or play a game is a nice, chill way to spend the day and will help us recharge. Airports ramp up anxiety and are not remotely relaxing. We will be getting a private sleeping cabin with beds and a shower/toilet. We'll all be able to have a nice sleep, and chill out for a day. The Grimaldi ferries even have a pool for the kids.

We have been backpack-only packers since the kids were in elementary school, and yes, they do their own laundry. We will be renting accommodations that have a washing machine or we will use hotel laundry options. One backpack also helps limit the temptation to overspend on souvenirs.

Posted by
29 posts

I don't know why the anti-ferry thing either - maybe its people thinking travel is just about the sights rather than the journey? I checked out the ferry - I was going to say you won't have deck chairs and a pool - but apparently it has both! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ve1JVYrWSY I totally get where you are coming from and it sounds like a great holiday from the holiday

Posted by
4364 posts

“I don’t know why the ferry is such a deal on this forum”

I haven’t previously commented on taking ferries, but you have asked for experienced travellers’ views on your schedule, which has been given. Most people wouldn’t take this option. So you don’t like the responses......,

I don’t sleep on night trains or on ferries. You may fare better.

Posted by
1503 posts

I hate to see you skip Venice, but most likely there will be time in future years.

In Salzburg consider a trip to Werfen and the ice cave. Be sure to wear a jacket . Gloves and a cap are useful also. I was cycling on my first visit and was woefully underdressed. I guess the word ICE didn‘t register with me!

Also in Salzburg the salt mines in Hallein are fun. There may still be a combo train,bus,entry ticket available at the Salzburg train station tourist office

Posted by
1595 posts

Day 29: Florence/Night 29: Sleeper train Nightjet to Salzburg (private
deluxe cabin)

As soon as someone mentions a night train on this forum there will be a couple of comments on how horrible they are. That is not my opinion, I think they are great. I usually sleep well on the night trains and it is great to be able to start exploring a new city before the big crowds.

However, you might want to consider a day train to Salzburg, just to have the views of the Alps.

I don't understand why the idea of the ferry is such a big deal on
this forum. We will be traveling for 36 days, and at the halfway
point, the ferry will give us a relaxed day where we are not doing
anything. Hanging out on a boat for a day while we float along the
Mediterranean without having to do anything at all but read a book or
play a game is a nice, chill way to spend the day and will help us
recharge.

Neither do I, especially since there are so many on this forum that seem to enjoy cruises.

However, while the ferry ride would not be my cup of tea it seems like you have done your research. 36 days is a long trip and I can understand the need for a break in the middle, I would need one as well. Otherwise I would not be able to enjoy the trip. So if you feel like the ferry will suit you, go for it!

Posted by
119 posts

I think your newest plan makes sense. And there is still something for everyone and more time at each.

My initial thought on the ferry - - a really boring day - but if it has a pool and some outside space & you have wifi access - take the break. My choice/thought would be to add the day to Barcelona and hit a beach there.

We did your first weeks itinerary (Amsterdam to Barcelona) in '17 (with a few additions & days). It is a great route.

Note - no matter how I tried - I could not get a train from Bayonne to Bilbao (or anyone to understand what I wanted ;-} . So we did end up taking a bus. You will probably find the same from Bayonne to San Sebastian. Had to change busses at the edge of a park (?) to switch lines between FR. & SP.

Enjoy the planning - and the trip!

Posted by
13 posts

Note - no matter how I tried - I could not get a train from Bayonne to Bilbao (or anyone to understand what I wanted ;-} . So we did end up taking a bus. You will probably find the same from Bayonne to San Sebastian. Had to change busses at the edge of a park (?) to switch lines between FR. & SP.

Looking at what we want to do in Basque Country, I am thinking that we should rent a car. Would you stay in two places over the 7 days/6 nights (one on the French side, one on the Spanish side), or stay in one location (Saint Jean du Luz or San Sebastian?) for the week, and just plan on driving around the region?

Posted by
11995 posts

Sarah, as no one here has apparently taken that ferry, I would take some time to cruise reviews via multiple sites? Or ask some questions that will produce some current reviews? I'm seeing enough prior negative reports on Grimaldi Lines in general out there on TripAdvisor, Trust Pilot and Cruise Critic that would have me (personally) jumping a plane instead. It might be fine (not ALL of them are negative) but, well, a bad flight of a couple of hours beats a potentially bad cruise of 20?

Posted by
13 posts

Sarah, as no one here has apparently taken that ferry, I would take some time to cruise reviews via multiple sites? Or ask some questions that will produce some current reviews? I'm seeing enough prior negative reports on Grimaldi Lines in general out there on TripAdvisor, Trust Pilot and Cruise Critic that would have me (personally) jumping a plane instead. It might be fine (not ALL of them are negative) but, well, a bad flight of a couple of hours beats a potentially bad cruise of 20?

I came to that conclusion myself last night after I started to search reviews.

Posted by
2646 posts

Sarah, I love your most recent itinerary. What a bonding trip this will be before your sons are independent adults.

I agree with you fully on the wonderful ferry plans and the night train. Perfect experience for you all. We love ferries and trains. They become part of the vacation versus flying, which just interrupts your vacation. Also, we find we meet interesting and diverse people who we would not meet under normal situations. Go for it. Have a great time! And we sleep fine.

Posted by
17907 posts

My instinct is to say not to try to see both parts of the Basque Country from one base, but I haven't looked at driving times. Those can be checked on ViaMichelin.com. I'm also not sure what sort of costs you'd run into for parking if you stayed in larger places like San Sebastian.

You should definitely do some fake bookings on car-rental websites (including AutoEurope) to see what sort of international drop charge you'd be facing if you didn't take a French car back across the border to return it in France. It could be hundreds of euros.

Posted by
346 posts

I like your latest plans. In looking at the Nightjet from Florence (lv: 10:31 pm) to Salzburg (av: 6:49 am) it is a 8 hr 18 min trip. So I wonder how much sleep will you get? And what are you going to do until 10 pm or from 7 am until check-in time? I understand why you want to take a night train but maybe a day train would be better. Great views along the way! Meet other travelers, read a book, write postcards, take a nap. As of now the train leaves at 12:36 pm and arrives at 9:01 pm (8 hrs 25 min, 2 changes). It's hard to check train travel now as some companies are limiting service but hopefully that will change before next year.

I notice you have only 1 day in Vienna. Maybe take a day or two from somewhere else and have 2-3 days in Vienna? Your son is into music so 1 day just won't do it for him.

As a side note: I enjoy trains. My next planned trip include day trains from Copenhagen to Frankfurt (8.5 hrs), Frankfurt to Bologna (10.5 hrs) then Bologna to Rome (3 hrs). I admit 10.5 hrs is a long day trip but it works for me.

Posted by
1595 posts

Note - no matter how I tried - I could not get a train from Bayonne to
Bilbao (or anyone to understand what I wanted ;-} . So we did end up
taking a bus. You will probably find the same from Bayonne to San
Sebastian.

Taking a train from Bayonne to San Sebastian/Donostia or Bilbao is actually very easy, once you know how to do it. The problem is that you need to change trains at the border. Which is not hard, but you need to be aware of it. First a train from Bayonne to Hendaye, and then change there to a train to San Sebastian/Donostia. They are local trains so there is no need to buy tickets in advance, just buy them at the station before you board the train.

Posted by
533 posts

In my opinion it would be best to sleep in San Sebastián the whole time while you’re in Basque country and take day trips from there. Driving times from San Sebastián to:
Bilbao (1h 15)
St. Jean de Luz center (45m)
Pamplona (1h 15m)
Guernica (1h 15m)
Bayonne (1h)
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (1h 30m)
Biarritz (1h)

Posted by
13 posts

In my opinion it would be best to sleep in San Sebastián the whole time while you’re in Basque country and take day trips from there.

I know that I can rent a car in either San Sebastián or Biarritz, but do you know if I can drive the car across the French/Spanish border (as long as I return it to the same rental place)?

Bilbao (1h 15)
St. Jean de Luz center (45m)
Pamplona (1h 15m)
Guernica (1h 15m)
Bayonne (1h)
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (1h 30m)
Biarritz (1h)

I had Hondarribia on our list as must-see, but not Pamplona or Guernica. Are there towns that we could see without spending an entire day there? I know we'll want a day to relax on the beach, and a full day for Bilbao. It sounds like St. Jean de Luz and Sebastián each have wonderful beaches. After Amsterdam and Paris, we'll be looking to use some of our time in Basque for some mellow recuperation time.

We're planning to rent something through AirBnB so that we can spread out a bit and have easy access to a washing machine, and feel a little bit more at home.

Posted by
13 posts

Great views along the way! Meet other travelers, read a book, write postcards, take a nap. As of now the train leaves at 12:36 pm and arrives at 9:01 pm (8 hrs 25 min, 2 changes).

We were planning to rent an AirBnB instead of a hotel. I will have to see if I can find one with a self check-in so that we can check in that late at night. RE: the overnight train, I liked that we would arrive in time for breakfast and the morning Sound of Music Bike Tour at 9:30 (assuming we store our bags in a locker at the train station).

I notice you have only 1 day in Vienna. Maybe take a day or two from somewhere else and have 2-3 days in Vienna? Your son is into music so 1 day just won't do it for him.

Several of my friends who have been to Vienna and Salzburg recommended focusing on Salzburg, which has more to do nearby during the summer (Salt Mine tours, the Liechtensteinklamm gorge, Hallstatt, Hallein), Sound of Music bike tour, Mozart tour and museum, and a concert at the Palace. I figured 1 1/2 days for Vienna would give us enough time to see a couple of things and go to the Opera before we leave, which will be enough for my youngest son. I also have a friend who has a connection to the Vienna Opera, so we are hoping we might be able to make a connection and get a private tour.

I'm putting together a spreadsheet to identify activities for each day so that I can make sure I don't have too many activities planned for a single day. It's so hard to eliminate bucket-list items to make room for downtime. I have found that we can usually do a pace of one activity in the morning, one in the afternoon, and an evening activity once every few days (the other nights we prefer to return to our rental to relax with a game, book or video game after a day of activities). I try to break up the activities so that there is an active thing (like a walking tour, bike ride, hike, outdoor something) with a museum-type activity. My oldest has ADHD and is autistic, so he can get overwhelmed if I pack a full day of nothing but museums (slowly shuffling through a museum is harder on the body and senses than a vigorous walk).

Posted by
1602 posts

hey hey sarah
my best friend is french basque with family still there. here's a couple sites you can check out:
chezkatina.fr a family owned hotel/restaurant with amenities and a pool/spa. this is where my friends stay. you will need a car, near saint jean pied de port.
frenchduck.com
travelswithmaribel.wordpress.com/ pays basque countryside. she lists the small villages around the french basque area and things to do
bascovivo.com doing a village tour
visitbayonne.com see the market place, chocolate factories, bayonne ham tasting
walk along the beaches
francethisway.com/bayonne
camping-eskualduna.fr mobile homes in a waterpark, bus shuttle, restaurant
just a few things that may interest you and family. enjoy
aloha

Posted by
17907 posts

I'm not aware of any limitation on taking a rental car over the French/Spanish border in either direction. You don't necessarily have to return the car to the same city where you rented it; it's usually only international drop-offs that incur huge fees. However, you should disclose all the countries you plan to visit to the rental-car company in case it affects the insurance.

I like your idea of mixing different types of activities; it makes each day less tiring. If you run into variation in when each of you needs a bit of down time, perhaps you could occasionally split up?

I haven't been to Guernica or St-Jean-de-Luz (both of which sound worthwhile). In terms of the time you might want for the others:

Hondarribia isn't large, but it has both a fishermen's district along the water (where most of the
restaurants seem to be) and a medieval area up the hill. I don't remember paying to go inside any sights, but there's probably something like that. I'd guess if you had a leisurely lunch in Hondarribia, you might want 4 hours or so there if you're up for a good bit of walking around. I don't know whether there's a place to swim.

Biarritz has a casino and a quite good privately-run museum of Asian decorative arts. I'm not sure what's there for the typical tourist; I didn't find it, though in fairness it was raining a lot so I didn't walk around as much as I otherwise would have. I'd skip Biarritz unless you're interested in the museum or find something else intriguing mentioned in your guidebook. I didn't find the town especially interesting architecturally, and it lacks the cuteness factor of St-Jean-de-Luz. I'm sure there's a place to swim, though.

I walked every street of St-Jean-de-Luz's commercial district but didn't stop for a restaurant meal. I probably spent about 3 hours there.

Bayonne's historic area is quite large, stretching across both sides of the Nive River. I'm obsessive about walking every street in that kind of neighborhood, but most tourists would find that overkill. If you aren't interested in the art museum or the Basque Museum, you might be satisfied to walk around for an hour or so and then go to the chocolate museum. The latter could take up to 1-1/2 or maybe even 2 hours if you wanted to read all the posted information and sample in a leisurely fashion. The chocolate museum is outside the center of town. I took a bus and then walked a good distance--I'd guess perhaps 10 or 15 minutes each way.

Bilbao's medieval district is also large and a considerable walk from the Guggenheim. There's public transportation available. There are at least two other art museums, and there's public art to be enjoyed if you choose to walk to the Casco Viejo. I liked the late-19th century architecture in the business district, so I spent a lot of time on my feet. I think Bilbao's a full-day sort of place, but I like art a lot. The transporter bridge north of Bilbao might be of interest.

Guernica's historic area is very, very small. There's a full-size statue of the running of the bulls that I was glad to see.

Other places to research if you're going to have a car include Olite (an out-of-the-way spot with few foreign tourists that has an evocative castle), Laguardia (a medieval hill town in or near Rioja wine country), and two small towns worth a stop (though not major destinations): Puente la Reina and Estella.

There's some very pretty countryside in the Basque Country. If you go to ViaMichelin and zoom way in on its maps, the most scenic roads will be highlighted in green.

If you decide to drive, keep in mind that you will not necessarily be able to find a parking place really near the sights you want to see, so you may need to build in extra time.

Posted by
4169 posts

The Opera season in Vienna concludes in June, so as you will be in Vienna at the end of the month specifically to see an opera, don't be disappointed.

Posted by
13 posts

The Opera season in Vienna concludes in June, so as you will be in Vienna at the end of the month specifically to see an opera, don't be disappointed.

Good to know! I will be sure to book tickets early long before we leave so that we can make sure our itinerary will allow us to see the things we want to see.

Posted by
1595 posts

In my opinion it would be best to sleep in San Sebastián the whole
time while you’re in Basque country and take day trips from there.

No having to relocate too often is usually a good thing. On the other hand, relocating can reduce the amount of travel needed. And when planning more than a few days in the area, having two bases might not be that bad.

I'm not aware of any limitation on taking a rental car over the
French/Spanish border in either direction. You don't necessarily have
to return the car to the same city where you rented it; it's usually
only international drop-offs that incur huge fees. However, you should
disclose all the countries you plan to visit to the rental-car company
in case it affects the insurance.

There are no legal obstacles stopping you from taking a french rental car to Spain and vice versa. But you need to make the rental company allows it. Returing a car to another location than the one you rented it as usually involves an extra fee, but as long as you return it within the same country those fees are usually reasonable.

Using trains and buses can be cheaper and saves you having to find parking.

Posted by
7215 posts

Vienna Opera tickets: you should have your friend get them for you the day they go on sale. After the subscriptions have been filled, they sell out fast.

Posted by
533 posts

In my opinion it would be best to sleep in San Sebastián the whole time while you’re in Basque country and take day trips from there.
I know that I can rent a car in either San Sebastián or Biarritz, but do you know if I can drive the car across the French/Spanish border (as long as I return it to the same rental place)?

According to this URL it depends on the car rental agency: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowTopic-g187497-i44-k9455142-Fee_for_hiring_a_car_in_Spain_and_driving_into_France-Barcelona_Catalonia.html#:~:text=2.-,Re%3A%20Fee%20for%20hiring%20a%20car,Spain%20and%20driving%20into%20France%3F&text=Yes%2C%20this%20will%20be%20correct,neighbouring%20countries%2C%20in%20the%20price.

Posted by
5500 posts

Vienna Opera -- if you can't get tickets and/or a private tour, the daily public tours are well-run and not expensive. If you are in Vienna on a Sunday, many churches have musical presentations in addition to music during regular services.