How Best to travel around Europe

I apologize if these ?'s have already been answered, but not sure where to look at I just signed in to this travel community! Hello! I picked up a couple Rick Steve's books at the library, used all my frequent flyer miles and am booked for one month in europe, in and out of Madrid, late Oct. to lat Nov. A friend of mine is walking the Camino in northern spain, we'll meet in Madrid, and then... I just don't know! I'm looking for any suggestions. Plane? Train? Bus? Rental car? Other than getting over to Italy, (Cinque Terre area), I don't have anything that must be on my list. I favor smaller towns over the mad rush of Rome, would luv to see the Amalfi Coast area but realize that's quite far away. With 2 of us, driving seems to make the most sense, but then I read that most towns don't allow or you don't want to try, to drive in them. Florence would be nice. Genoa. Tuscany. Provence. Fast train to Paris... what to do, what to do... Looking at using airbnb for lodging, traveling w/carry on only. I've been looking online, talking to airlines, car rental agencies, credit card companies, and I need to step away from the laptop for a moment & take a breath. Any insight would be extremely welcome. I certainly don't want to make a list of all the places I must go & exhaust myself a few days into the trip of a lifetime. Thanks in advance.

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
6030 posts

Take a breath Pamela. Some things to think about - you mention the Cinque Terre as a must do. Late October - late November is NOT a good time for the CT and you will find a lot of places closed for the season. If that is the only reason to go to Italy I would suggest you look at other countries instead. If you do want to still go to Italy, there are wonderful small towns to explore. It is not advisable to rent a car if you plan to rent in one country and return it in another. There are large drop off fees to do that. Unless you plan to go to Tuscany, or more rural regions in France (you didn't mention other countries) where a rental car is advisable, the trains are the best way to go. Unless you are going a long distance (Madrid - Italy for example), at which time you will save a lot of time by flying. My suggestion is to get a map of Europe and look at where things are located. The more time you travel around the more time you lose for actual site seeing and the more money you spend. I would also read Europe Through The Backdoor. It will teach you HOW to travel.

Posted by Monte
Genesee, ID
1759 posts

The all-inclusive Europe planning map we use is Rail Map Europe. It has the train lines and will show you the distance relationship between towns, cities, and countries. Amazon sells it.

Posted by Pamela
Eau Claire, WI, US
5 posts

Thanks for the prompt info! I'm laughing as I just got a quote from enterprise for Rome to Madrid and the rate was about $4,000! Yes, drop off rates are just a tad spendy! I'm quite sad to hear about the cinque terre area being basically shut down by then, maybe that is something to get over to as quickly as possible once arriving in Madrid in Oct. Small towns are worth exploring in my opinion & doing the math with plane, train or buses, when you are looking at the costs for 2 people, the car, even with gas & insurance factored in, is coming out a smaller cost overall. Wouldn't it be possible to park the rental car at a train station if we really wanted to take a few days to see Rome or Paris using the fast trains? Thanks again. PJ

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
6030 posts

Driving is not necessarily less expensive when you factor in the cost of toll roads, parking and in Italy the cost of getting a ticket (or tickets) from inadvertently driving into a ZTL. I use cars for areas like Tuscany and Provence, but use the train otherwise.

Posted by Ron
southwest, Missouri, U.S.A.
1620 posts

Hello Pamela. Do not rent a car for every day you will be in Europe. I suggest renting a car for going to the places where you will need a rental car for transportation. The total cost for transportation is not the only factor to consider when choosing what you want to travel in (rental car, or railroad passenger train, or airplane of an airline). For traveling from point A to point B in Europe, at some locations traveling via railroad train is done in a much shorter time than traveling in a car that you drive. And at some locations, riding in a railroad train is much less stressful than driving a car.
If a person will fly to the airport of Madrid in Spain, and be at Europe one month (30 whole days), hmmm, I think I would travel from Spain to Portugal. If you will visit Seville in Spain : a bus goes from Seville to the south coast of Portugal. I did not do that bus ride, I heard from experienced travelers : it is an enjoyable trip. Read what Rick Steves wrote about the south coast of Portugal, in the book "Rick Steves' EUROPE THROUGH THE BACK DOOR". And the first half of that book is on how to prepare for a trip, and how to travel in Europe, and how to enjoy being a tourist in Europe. That book has a chapter on Railroad Train travel in Europe.

Posted by Pamela
Eau Claire, WI, US
5 posts

Thanks all for the great advice, picking up Europe through the Back Door at library tomorrow.

Posted by Roberto
Fremont, CA, USA
6707 posts

You are traveling in and out of Madrid but you want to visit everything except for Spain? I don't understand. Then you should have gotten an open jaw ticket. Anyway since you are set on Madrid and you already have a ticket I suppose, don't change it, because it will cost you at least $100 in change ticket fees. In one month there, I would visit all of Spain, Portugal, a bit of Morocco, and at most southern France. If you do a European tour, you'll have time to visit just a city in each country and you will spend a lot on transportation from country to country. The Iberian peninsula is large enough to keep you busy for your entire time there, and there is a lot to see. If you absolutely must visit also Italy you need to fly from Spain to Italy. I wouldn't attempt to do it in any other way, or too much time will be wasted getting there. Lots of low cost flights connect Madrid or Barcelona (or other cities) to Italian cities. Lots of them. Where you fly to in Italy is up to you and depends on what in Italy you want to visit. The north? the south? the center? All of the above? You could even get an open jaw from Barcelona to Venice, take the train down the Italian peninsula, then fly back to Madrid from Rome.

Posted by David
Florence, AL, USA
3399 posts

When traveling any distance in Europe, you should consider the European budget air carriers. is the budget air carrier of Spain. Check their fares to and from Italy. Travel within Italy is best done by the fast trains (with reservations.) If you want to see the countryside, rent a car for a couple of days.
The best way to see different countries is to fly into one and out of another, which is called flying open jaw. It's actually quite a savings, as backtracking to your original destination can get quite expensive and take up substantial time you could better use elsewhere.

Posted by Nancy
Bloomington, IL, USA
8735 posts

When looking for flights into and out of Europe, though, don't look for two one-way flights. Use the "multi-city" option to fly into one city and out of another.

Posted by Richard
Los Angeles
1000 posts

Don't write off Rome because you have an impression of a big crazy city, it's such an incredible place that knowing what I now know, I would take pity on someone who went to europe and missed it. The same thing goes for Paris. Spend time touring Spain and then fly between paris and rome because it is the fastest most economical way to go. If it is either the CT or one of the big cities, there is no contest. What does your friend want to do?

Posted by Sherry
San Jose, CA
1994 posts

Take a look at the budget airlines; they are often much cheaper than long train trips, and trains from Spain to other countries can be time-consuming. SkyScanner is one website the lists budget airlines. Just remember you need to follow instructions PRECISELY or you'll incur lots of big fees; and pay attention to specific location of the airport (it may be far from the city they name, so factor in time and costs to get to city). I certainly wouldn't do CT at that time of year, given the focus on outdoor activities in CT. However, depending on your interests, a small town being "closed down" for the season may not be that big an issue: I visited Orvieto in late Jan, and although many hotels/restaurants and some shops were closed, I had the cathedral largely to myself and that was my main reason for visiting. So your interests are what matters. Since you're in Spain and want to visit smaller towns, how about meeting your friend at the end of the Camino, instead of Madrid, so you'll see some of the country. Toledo also is beautiful, but I'd recommend staying a night or two; there are lots of day trippers; much nicer in evening. Avila was also a lovely town.

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
5747 posts

You have gotten a lot of good advice. Since you are booked into and out of Madrid and want to save money, it doesn't make sense to go to Italy. Spain (and Portugal) have plenty of small towns, too. However, be aware that while Spain and Portugal each have trains connecting major cities in the country, and a very extensive bus network filling in gaps, connections between Spain and Portugal are not great. You have to research this carefully. If you are taking fast trains in Spain, these are much cheaper booked in advance and much more expensive bought at the last minute. Here's an extensive TripAdvisor tutorial on how to use the official RENFE site (for Spain's national train company): Near the bottom of that TripAdvisor page, they explain that if you can't get RENFE's site to work for you, you can use,, or (the last won't hotlink for some reason). Others here have had mixed results with RENFE, and report success with these other sites in those cases. They are not quite as cheap as RENFE (they're resellers), but still cheaper than waiting until you get to Spain. If you really want to delve into small towns in Spain, you'll need other books in addition to Rick Steves Spain (I still recommend you get this as a starter, but he only includes some parts of the country). I also recommend you brush up on your Spanish, as I found less English in Spain than in any other European country I've been to, and that includes in Barcelona and Madrid. In most small towns, it will be Spanish or nothing.

Posted by Pamela
Eau Claire, WI, US
5 posts

I thank you all for the wonderful advice as I continue with these plans. I can't believe how fast this month is already going! Yes, I may have jumped the gun on booking the flight to/from Madrid, but I didn't want to lose the fairly good number of miles I was able to get it for & it worked out well for leaving, as we both leave on 11/23 within a hr or so of each other. Other than being done on the budget level, my friend currently walking the Camino is pretty open to exploring any region, so unfortunately, he's not a big help with narrowing down the details. I did sit down & check fares between plane/train/bus within Spain & for getting to Rome or Naples. My latest idea is for him to get from Santiago back to Madrid about the time I fly in, stay a nite or 2 in Madrid, fly to Rome or Naples, then work our way from south to north, back to Madrid, which would give us more flexibility to stay in certain places longer if we so desired knowing we were getting closer to Madrid (& the departing flight) as we continued traveling. There are also jazz festivals going on in both Madrid & Barcelona while we will be there.
I know 30 days sounds like forever, I also know it will go very quickly & I don't want to be on some sort of vehicle to move to the next area every couple of days, was thinking of finding someplace that had a good weekly rate, then use that as a home base to travel locally in that area. Does this sound feasible to you seasoned travelers out there? Thanx again. PJ

Posted by Diane
Westford, MA, USA
370 posts

You can use a combination of train-rental car-buses-airplane, or a rail pass with some car rental days. Once you have your itinerary, load them into the rail site and add up the costs. You may consider just Spain & Portugal, or Spain and Southern France, as someone suggested. Anything into Italy will take a long train ride or overnight train experience, or take up a full day of flight travel. You need a full day, and a few trains to get to Paris, too. I just researched Paris as I was considering adding it before my Madrid & Barcelona tour next Spring. A flight from Madrid to Florence just read $250-700 USD on Vueling, and I found the prices can be low to high for Madrid to Paris, too. If you do venture out of Spain you are thinking clearly about going away from it, and then returning to it as your flight home is there. With FF mile ticket how difficult is it to change your ticket to an open jaw itinerary? If you can afford the cost perhaps it's something for you to consider, BUT, only after you have a set itinerary. Happy travels!

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
3553 posts

It sounds to me like your itinerary is not at all set, and it seems unlikely that you will be able to nail everything down in such a short amount of time as to take advantage of cheap rail tickets or a cheap flight to Italy. At this point, if it were me I would simply rent a car and take a road trip and see where it leads you. If there are two of you it will help with the cost, as well as give you the flexibility and spontaneity you might like. Visiting small towns and villages I feel is best done by car. I drove from Spain to Portugal and was really happy to have a car to explore and decide what towns we wanted to stay in once we got there. With a longer term rental you can probably get a good price on a car. Given the time you have I would stick to Spain, and frankly I would go to France instead of Portugal. You could do a couple day trip to Morocco, but if you have not been to southern France I would take that first. I have driven all over Europe and there are very few towns that driving is a real pain (Paris, Rome, London and Florence are a few) but, people drive on vacation in Europe all the time... just not as many here. I love driving because I want to be able to see Europe on my schedule... not the train schedule. I do use trains when it makes sense (big city to big city) and I love the train... it just doesn't always work with my schedule and many times is not cheaper for where I want to travel.

Posted by Pamela
Eau Claire, WI, US
5 posts

Oh boy, just typed a big 'ole response, & it didn't post. Short version...Terry, would luv to hear more info about your car rentals, I pretty much gave up on that idea after reading about thieves, parking, tolls, police, fines, & the red tape/responsibility of any accidents. I did like the idea of having that freedom, but then went back to all the trains & buses available that we just don't have in the states. Also surprised, after reading about people going from rome to venice or paris or london, etc., having people suggest that I stay in Spain/portugal/southern france. I realize any travel will probably take up about a day, but I thought that was one of the main points of getting to Europe, the ease of getting from 1 contry to another, quickly & fairly well priced. Sorry guys, I'm from the give-me-a-beach anyday in the Caribbean kind of mentality when it comes to vacations! Heck, I spent almost a yr planning for 1 wk in Cabo... ;-)
Have a great evening, PJ

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
5747 posts

" I thought that was one of the main points of getting to Europe, the ease of getting from 1 contry to another, quickly & fairly well priced. " That's the lure, but it's much more complicated than that. 1. Some country pairs, like France and Germany, or England and France, have good train links (Paris to Frankfurt is 4 hours, London to Paris is less than 3 hours, both with multiple runs a day). Others don't - Spain and Portugal, and Croatia and Italy, are two pairs that seem "so close" but actually have poor links. 2. More and more trains between countries are adopting "airline pricing" (also called "dynamic pricing"). They are less expensive if purchased in advance as non-refundable, non-exchangeable tickets, and much more expensive if bought closer to travel and/or with flexibility. So, if you decide at the last minute, you pay for it. To see what I mean in a dramatic way, look at the Eurostar between London and Paris for tomorrow, and compare with 90 days out. 3. Budget airlines have always used airline pricing. Some of them used to have last minute deals, but these are now gone. And, many budget flights sell out completely, so last minute travel on budget airlines is not only expensive, it can be impossible. continued..

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
5747 posts

continued.. That doesn't mean you can't improvise - if you stick to one country or region (that's why so many of us have advised you to do that). Trains within a country have less difficulty with last minute purchase, although, as I said above, Spain's (and Italy's) high speed trains do use airline pricing. Regional trains in both countries are not a problem to buy at the last minute. Spain has very good, cheap, and comfortable buses - it's not like Greyhound in the US at all - and these do not need advance booking. And a rental car picked up and returned in the same country needn't break the bank (particularly if you can drive a stick shift). But just showing up at MAD and getting on the next flight to NAP is going to cost you, similar to the way that just showing up at ORD and getting the next flight to LGA will.

Posted by Ed
9110 posts

Throw this into the mix. Madrid, Rome, Paris, Madrid is less than three thousand miles, an average of a hundred miles or an hour and a half a day. There's going to be some days you don't drive at all, and some that you'll knock off three or four hundred. A small car will cost about five hundred bucks for a month. Gas will be another six hundred. Toss in a couple hundred for tolls, and maybe three hundred for parking in major cities. That's sixteen hundred or eight each. You can shave by cutting the distance (Madrid to the CT and back is less than two thousand miles and there's no need for expensive parking), picking up the car later, etc. All you have to do is get the car back into Spain when you get rid of it. See how that compares with your other transportation estimates considering that you're tossing this together a tad late to get the good train and flight bargains. Alternatively, it's not hard to spend a month in just Spain and Portugal - - perhaps making one jaunt to someplace else.

Posted by Dick
Olympia, WA, USA
1625 posts

I agree with Ed and Terry Kathryn. You've got a whole month, which is great. You're probably too late for cheap train and plane tickets, and you don't have a fixed itinerary in mind anyway. So meet your friend in Madrid, explore there a few days, then rent a car and visit other places in Spain, France, and Italy as you choose. Drive back to Madrid in time for your departing flight. In late October-November you shouldn't have trouble finding places to stay along the way if you're flexible. I rent cars through Auto Europe, a US-based broker that gets good rates and can help you with planning, If you have a GPS, try to get a Europe map for it and bring it with you. If not, you can rent one at a high cost, or just buy good maps or road atlases when you get to Europe. I understand that Italy requires an International Driver's Permit, and it's a good idea anywhere as it certifies the validity of your Wisconsin license. You can get one at any AAA office for about $20. If you can, it would be a good idea to base yourself in a few places for several days along the way, so you don't spend a lot of time each day packing, unpacking, finding hotels, etc. Then use the base to explore areas that you like: Tuscany? Provence? A tablet computer and/or a Europe-enabled cell phone would help you plan a day or two ahead, contact places for reservations, etc. See the "Travel Tips" link on this website for a good discussion of cell phone logistics in Europe. Don't overthink it, just have a wonderful time!

Posted by Beth
Boulder, Colorado, USA
215 posts

A month and a car :-) Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona, Montpellier, Marseille , Chamonix I have never done this route but I might someday.
I would exit Geneva, but there are many options for a route back to Madrid. Play with google maps and you can pick endless variations.