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Traveling through Europe

Hello All,
This is my first post here and in fact its the first time I'm planning to travel through Europe. The short story is me and my parents (both above 60) are planning to spend about 20 days all over Europe. I don't want to take the simple option and book through Thomas Cook or Cox and Kings which offer those packaged tours. That takes the fun out of it - the planning part :). But the thing is... I'm not alone.. I'm with Mom n Dad and I want to make it a stress free experience for them. So I'm here...asking for what the best way to do things is. Here are some details:

  • We plan to travel Aug 15 - Sep 12. That's a fixed time frame.
  • I thought 3 weeks translates to around 6 countries at most.
  • The 6 countries I thought of were UK, France, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

I can apply for a visa only on May 15 earliest...so I'm taking the opportunity to learn as much as I can about potential problems.

I'm looking for advice on how I should go about planning things. I mean, I get that I have to book travel and hotels in advance and I'm sure Google will turn up with something and I can look through guide books.

But nothing equals people who have been there and done that. So I ask you all - Considering the age of my parents (otherwise healthy) what things do I keep in mind? How much is too much?

Is language a problem? Can one get by with just English in all those countries?

And are 6 countries reasonable? Do note that this'll probably the only trip they'll make to Europe ever so I want to strike a balance between a relaxed holiday and seeing some nice things, without it being just running from point to point.

Thanks
Arvind

Posted by
31471 posts

arvind,

It would help to have a bit more information, such as where you're travelling from?

Language won't be a problem, although it helps to learn a few of the "polite words" in each of the countries you'll be visiting, such as "please, thank you, good morning", etc.

With a VERY short three weeks, I'd suggest cutting down your list to three or four countries. It's important to allow for travel times between locations also, and I suspect your parents might be more comfortable with a more "relaxed" pace rather than a "blitz" Itinerary (I'm above 60 as well, so I have a good idea how that works). You might make a list of the six countries you mentioned, starting with the country you most want to visit and then in order of priority from there.

Posted by
11613 posts

I think it's great that you are doing this for your parents! A couple of things to consider:

Six countries in three weeks is a lot of travel time, and only about 3.5 days per country. Do your parents want to spend that much time in train stations, and possibly airports?

I am glad that you prefer not using a tour, but keep in mind that a package tour takes care of all the transportation, hotels, and sightseeing choices; it would be very difficult to keep that pace on your own. Tours also do not normally give enough time to important sights, they have to keep a very tight schedule.

The weather during your travel dates will be hot, unless you are in the mountains; heat slows the pace of sightseeing.

If you do visit six countries, you should probably choose one city in each (I don't know how you could choose only one for Italy, France and Germany). The first thing to do would be to make a list of the cities you want to see, and prioritize them. Then plan how many nights (not days) you want to spend in each city. I suggest a minimum of two nights per city to keep packing/daily travel reasonable. I don't think you want your parents (or you) to change hotels every day.

One thing about booking everything in advance: it's not really necessary, using an accommodations service like booking.com, you can reserve rooms in the next city a day ahead, or even the day of travel.

Have fun planning (always have a map to look at), and keep posting questions as your trip planning progresses.

Posted by
921 posts

Rick Steve's "Europe Through the Backdoor" is a great book to give you tips on how to plan travel and on travel skills. I agree that cutting your trip to 3-4 countries would be best. You will still see a lot in 3-4 countries! Although many tours will travel to more countries in that amount of time, it is often very rushed and so much more difficult when planning on your own. Will you have a car? If not, it is helpful to go to websites to find out approximate time it takes to travel by train between destinations. Germany's DB Bahn website can be good for doing that even outside of Germany. I have traveled a couple of time with my mother who is in her 60s and is healthy other than some knee issues. I do plan a few more breaks between activities so that we are not constantly walking, but that is the only difference. The breaks usually consist of stopping for a drink or snack in some nice area, or something like that. Good luck with your planning and have a great trip!

Posted by
4637 posts

I am with others. Three, maximum four countries. Consider that Italy and certain parts of France will be still oppressively hot. Example of itinerary could be: fly to London, visit Bath and York. Then from London by Eurostar (fast train) to Brussells change to Thalys train to Amsterdam, visit Haarlem. From Amsterdam to Switzerland, see Berners Oberland, Luzerne, fly back from Zurich. On the way to Switzerland you can stop in Germany. St. Goar and Bacharach are small towns on one of the prettiest parts of Rhein and they are on your way to Switzerland. England, Netherlands, Switzerland are rarely hot, even in summer.

Posted by
21717 posts

Six countries is kind of vague. Doesn't mean much. Need to identify the cities or even areas that you are most interested in visiting. So far based on very little information from you, I would guess that you are planning to run from point to point. The question about a visa needs an explanation. Assume you are not American or Canadian citizens. And what is the age of your parents that we need to consider. Age is not important if they can easily walk five to eight miles a day and carry a 25 lb load. Only you can judge what is too much for your parents. To make you trip most efficient you should consider an open jaw ticket - into one city, home from another. OR - some type of a circle route if doing a RT from a single city. Lots of basic questions that need to be considered and discussed before moving to the more complex issues.

Posted by
6481 posts

I'm a bit confused - you state your time as 3 weeks but the dates (8/15-9/12) are actually 4 weeks; even including travel days it's 27 days. With that amount of time, 5-6 countries is not unreasonable depending on where you want to go within those countries. A bit more information about what types of places you and your parents want to see (big cities/villages/countrysides), what do you like to do (outdoors/museums/gardens/activities, etc) would help get you some specific ideas.

Posted by
5262 posts

Yes, it's four weeks based on the dates you gave. But I'd still be careful about trying to "do" six countries. Fly open-jaw if you can, as suggested above. Try to stay at least two nights in each place, or 3-5 nights in bigger cities, to reduce the moving-around factor. Consider a guided tour for part of the trip. For instance, the Rick Steves "Best of Europe" tour takes three weeks, starts in Amsterdam, swings through Germany and Italy, and finishes in Paris. If you spend time in the UK or Switzerland before or after that on your own, you could set your own pace for part of your trip and take advantage of tour logistics for the rest. (I use that RS tour only as an example, there are many others to different countries with different companies. But if you do this try for a smaller group, like 20 or fewer, for more enjoyment and mobility.)

For an August-September trip it would be good to move soon on flights, transportation, and hotels (at least in popular destinations). Hope you have a wonderful experience!

Posted by
2081 posts

Welcome Arvind,

im not going to comment on your trip in general since others will do that.

Theres no right/wrong way to travel. Its up to you how you want to do it.

Some people do the "wing it" type travel and just show up and then go from there. Then theres the plan it down to the day or more and then theres all in the middle. Theres no reason you can mix and match how you want to go. Since you know your parents better than anyone here and will know what "stresses" them, i will let your knowledge be the best guide.

different things will "stress" out people differently.

Just saying you want to go to someplace is great. But exactly WHERE do you want to go. Then theres the HOW.

As mentioned, getting a copy of "Europe thru the back door" is a good start. Im not trying to push any books in general, but it has a lot of answers and "how to's" so you can start to make informed decisions. I started just like you a couple years ago so i know what its like to and where you are at now. But after reading that book and some others i was able to plan my first trip without any hitches at all. The first time will take more time, but after the first time, it gets easier. I understand that planning for an extra couple can be more difficult and stressful, but i wouldn't look at it that way. Don't make it anymore difficult than it needs to be. Just think of it as planning for you, plus some others. the thing you will have to consider is what THEY may want to do and if their interests encompasses yours too.

good luck and happy trails.

Posted by
873 posts

With regards to visas: I was not a U.S. citizen last time I visited Europe and had to get visas prior to our trip.

We had originally planned to visit the UK, but ended up backing out of that part of the trip, because the UK visa application process wasn't worth the hassle. For one thing, you have to mail your passport(s) to the consulate/embassy in your region and there is no way to get any sort of status update, processing time, or any other information until your visa is either issued or denied. As you already mentioned, you can only apply so far in advance, and I was not willing to risk having my passport get stuck in the UK visa portal somewhere when I had to also get a Schengen visa for the other countries on my itinerary.

The Schengen visa was a much easier process. You will need to apply either with the country in which you will spend the most time, or the first point of entry (if you are spending equal amounts of time in each country). I had a great and efficient experience with the German consulate in San Francisco. So perhaps you might consider either spending a bit more time in Germany or entering the Schengen zone there :)

Posted by
4125 posts

4 weeks (not 3, right?) is a good long time but I would say its important to vary the pace and the texture of your trip. Consider planning things so that you and your parents can alternate long and short stays, even perhaps one that is an entire week in the same place.

It needs to be a really great place, of course, like Tuscany or Provence, but if you stay for a week you can rent an apartment and a car and see some really fabulous stuff. Make that the 3rd week of your trip and it will let everyone catch their breaths and anchor your whole trip.

Posted by
5618 posts

Different people have different ways to approach lodging. At a minimum, before we leave home we like to have reserved a place to stay when we arrive and a place for the night before we come home. Guidebooks and the Internet can give you options, including Apartments, B&B's, hotels, and more. Some smaller locations with fewer lodging options may need a reservation before you leave home, too. If part of your trip includes an open itinerary, and you don't necessarily plan to be in a certain place on a certain day for every day of your trip, you may be able to find rooms on the go. The local "TI" or "i" office in a town (and some towns have several offices) can often find you a place in that town or for the next town down the road. Again, depending on the location and how relatively crowded it is, waiting until the last moment to get a place to stay could increase your stress level or not, but it could also give you more flexibility about where you're going and when you plan to get there. August is generally high travel season, and things could start winding down a bit the last 2 weeks of your trip, depending on where you are. Sometimes it's nice to have all your lodging established before you leave home, so you can focus on sights and activities.

Many major cities and locations have one or more types of sightseeing and/or travel passes. These often let you skip the entrance ticket line and can save you money compared to buying individual tickets at each sight. Transportation passes can be more convenient than buying individual Metro, bus, or train tickets for each journey. In some cities, you can flag down a taxi on the street, and in others, taxis queue up at specific taxi stands around town. Check out available passes for the places you plan to go -- depending on where you go and what you plan to do and see, passes can make things less stressful and much more convenient (and save money).

As said earlier, using "hello," "thank you," etc. in the local language is helpful, but in general, people in the tourism business in Europe speak English. Start off a conversation asking them, in their language, if they speak English, and go from there. This is a big generalization, but most people under 40 will likely have an understanding of English in the countries you listed. Have fun planning & have a great trip!

Posted by
137 posts

Wow. Thank you so so much all of you for your awesome replies :). This is way way much more than I expected. Sorry for not replying quicker - in the middle of shifting house as well. I'll reply in detail to everyone over the next few days but here are some clarifications.

a) Aug 15 - Sep 12 is the period I am looking to travel. So its 3 weeks inside that, depending on tickets and prices.

b) I work in Boston right now and Mom and Dad are in India :). So plenty of planning to be done there. I understand its a separate visa for UK and a separate one for the rest of Europe - I've started looking into this and think I have things under control.

c) Of the countries I want to visit, I'm reasonably sure Dad wants to go to London and Mom wants to go to Switzerland. Those 2 are non-negotiable. The rest, I'm very flexible on. I will do some more research and post back on the exact cities.

I will buy the Rick Steves book and start reading too.

Once I have Internet at my new place, I will be in touch with all of you more often. Thank You so much for all your help.

Arvind

Posted by
2829 posts

Hi Arvind--- this will be a really nice trip with a minimum of stress and excess travel time if you limit your tripmtomthese four countries: UK, France, Switzerland and Italy. There is a nice direct train path linking these in a logical order.
I suggest you start in London, meeting your parents there. Spend 5-7 nights in the UK, depending on whether you want to see other English cities or towns besides London. Then take the train to Paris and spend 4 nights. Train to Interlaken, Switzerland, and spend 3 nights in beautiful Lauterbrunnen ( take the train up the Jungfrau). Then train to Lucerne and spend 2 nights. From there, take a train to Milan and transfer to a train to Venice. Spend 3 nights in Venice. Options after that depend on how much time you have left ( either 4 or 6 nights, depending how long you spent In the UK). Depending on your interests, you could visit some or all of: Verona, Florence, and Varenna on Lake Como. That would give you a nice mix of art and history, beautiful scenery, and a charming town (Verona) with a chance to see an opera in a Roman arena if you are interested.

Posted by
137 posts

Thank You Sasha. I will consider that route. I think I have frozen on England, France and Switzerland. Its just the 4th country that I am undecided about. It'll either be Netherlands, Germany or Italy. I need to do some more research though.

Posted by
137 posts

So I did a little more thinking and map studying :) and started a rough plan in a Google Spreadsheet -

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AnrLPwp6tHypdDRLeWFsT1VmLU1QMFUxS0RQcWZ0SHc&usp=drive_web#gid=9

The sheet is reasonably self-explanatory but do let me know if something is unclear. The main focus of this sheet is:

  • The countries I want to visit
  • The dates I want to visit them on
  • The maximum approximate amount that I will have to spend

Once these are clear, I'll start drilling down further and map an exact route out.

Do let me know if this looks okay and if there are any other travel options between countries that I have not considered.

Arvind

Posted by
105 posts

I hope you are planning to return some day and go to Italy. I skipped Italy my first 4 times to Europe and then went on my 5th trip. I fell in love with it and now it is my favorite. If not this trip, go some day!

Posted by
105 posts

I hope you are planning to return some day and go to Italy. I skipped Italy my first 4 times to Europe and then went on my 5th trip. I fell in love with it and now it is my favorite. If not this trip, go some day!

Posted by
4125 posts

Arvind,

I think you have generally the right idea about planning and i hope that your spreadsheet helps you to get a good handle on things in a top-down way.

I would add that the next step is bottom up, as you learn more about the specific destinations that interest you and change your master plan accordingly. For instance, you might decide that there is more to see in France and less in Switzerland.

Finally this process is iterative, you run though top to bottom and bottom to top several times.

Posted by
137 posts

So after quite a bit of thought I finalized my itinerary. Instead of 3 weeks I made it 23 days and tweaked my country list. Here is the exact list with dates that I'm thinking about - please look at the Detailed Planner sheet.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AnrLPwp6tHypdDRLeWFsT1VmLU1QMFUxS0RQcWZ0SHc&usp=drive_web&pli=1#gid=9

If you don't want to click the link :) here is my plan in short.
Land in London - Day 1
London - 5 days (Leave on 5th night for Holland)
Holland and Belgium - 4 days (Leave Belgium on 4th night for France)
France - 5 days (leave on 5th night for Switzerland)
Switzerland - 5 days (leave on 5th night for Rome)
Rome - 3 days (Only Rome...we won't be seeing anything else in Italy)
Leave Rome - Last day.

I wasn't going to do Rome...but Dad wanted to do it pretty badly ;) so I just tacked on an extra 3 days at the end.

Largely we'll travel in the nights by bus (Eurolines?) so I can save a bit of cash on the rooms in each country. But all that is kinda flexible - I'll spend the next 2 days thinking of all this. I added this post just to update it and thank everyone who chipped in :). Will keep you guys updated.

Arvind

Posted by
5618 posts

Hey Arvind- So as you originally noted, planning a trip is part of the fun! I've been fortunate to be able to make several trips to Europe, but didn't make it to Rome until just 2 years ago, and it's really a great place, with lots of fascinating museums & ancient Roman sites, which we really enjoyed. Consider a Roma Pass while you're there, which gives you easy access to many popular sites & covers your bus/metro rides, although taxis are sometimes a good way to get around Rome, too.

So much of Europe now uses the Euro that you won't have to get new currency at every turn, but you will be dealing with Pounds Sterling in Britain and Swiss Francs in Switzerland. Use your bank's debit card to withdraw money from an ATM/cash point/bancomat in whatever country you're in at the moment, don't exit the country with a lot of their money you won't be able to spend (unless you want a convenient excuse to go back there again :-), and use money belts to keep that cash safe, along with you passports, I.D., credit/debit cards, etc. Hope you and your folks have a great, low-stress trip!

Posted by
988 posts

Eurolines has a global bus pass, two weeks and four weeks I believe, as well as point to point tickets. They also have connections to budget hostels in each of the cities they serve. My daughter used this pass a couple of summers ago and said she slept well on the night buses.

Posted by
137 posts

Thanks Cyn, Elaine. I will keep those points in mind.

Posted by
2258 posts

Arvind, It is wonderful of you to plan this trip for your parents. I hope you have a wonderful time. I have just a few observations. These come from a 60-year old who is in good health, can walk for miles and loves to travel, so take them for what they are worth. You know your parents and what they would like.

I think our itinerary is pretty good. I would have said to skip Rome because it is so far from your other destinations, but since your father really wants to go there, that is what matters most. I still think your trip could benefit from having fewer stops. Travel time takes up time you could be seeing things and it adds to the cost. You might consider skipping Belgium and Holland. (I say that as someone who loves Belgium and has never been to Holland.) I'm not sure what you are planning those days, but you don't have time for more than skimming the surface of two countries. If you skipped them, you would have four days to add to France (I assume this means Paris, because France is huge). You could do great day trips from Paris or add another city in France that's on the way to your next destination. Another option is to add a day or two to London - there are lots of fantastic day trips from London.

Getting back to travel time - please think carefully about your plan to travel by bus at night. This would break me. Your parents - and you - may find it very difficult to sleep in a bus (trains are the same issue) = and if you are tired the next day, that day could be a waste. It will accumulate over time, possibly leaving your parents too tired to enjoy the trip. I would only do this if you are certain they can handle it.

Posted by
137 posts

Thanks for that thoughtful post Carroll.

I completely understand what you're saying. The bus at night, I think, should be fine - Dad tends to sleep anywhere :) and we're kinda used to in India to sit 24-30 hours on a train bunk, although that's lesser these days with the advent of cheaper flights. But yes... the bus seems so so much cheaper (I'm just writing another post on that) and I save such a lot that it seems like an option I should consider at least.

I also get what you say about fewer countries but here's the thing. Mom wants to see France, Netherlands and Switzerland for sure - she's the type who loves open greenery and lakes and snow and that stuff. Dad wants to see London and Rome for sure - he's more into history and monuments and photos and stuff. Me..well...doesnt matter this trip :). So really...at most I can decide to dump Belgium totally. The rest..I think I will fit things in somehow.

I plan to write a few posts about the exact places I plan to visit too in each country and share the list on this forum. So I somehow..balance things out.

Again... thank you for your kind advice and I'll consider it again before going forward.

By the way, all the advice about changing plans midway after I get a visa is contradictory. Some say I can...some say that if I do and visit a new country..I'll be blacklisted etc etc. So really...I'll rather plan before I go rather than at runtime.

Posted by
2258 posts

Good for you for planning the trip that will mean the most to your parents. And good for you for listening to what everyone has to say. You can't follow everyone's advice, nor should you. But if you consider other people's opinions and experience and adapt it or not based on your parent's situation, you'll end up with the best trip possible. I really hope it's a lot of fun for all of you.

Posted by
137 posts

Thanks Carroll. I will think through all the advice given here.

On another note I finished one preliminary round of identifying transport options between the various places that I plan to visit and have updated the sheet again. Here is the link if anyone wants to look at it in detail - https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AnrLPwp6tHypdDRLeWFsT1VmLU1QMFUxS0RQcWZ0SHc&usp=drive_web&pli=1#gid=11

I'll summarize though:

  • Neither a Eurolines (bus at 355 Euros) or a Eurail (train at 582 Euros) pass make financial sense for me. Point to point tickets work out cheaper for both bus and train.

  • If I travel between all the countries (5 journeys) only by bus it is very cheap at a total of under 600 Euros (All 3 people). Compare this to train (1524 Euros) and the difference is evident.

  • This comes at a cost of effort and time though. Bus journeys seem to be as long as 12 hours at times, which is more than what I was anticipating. If I add in traffic jams etc (which may or may not be there) it could be more.

  • So I looked at Flights as well, and those seem surprisingly cheap between certain steps. If I fly everywhere, except between Amsterdam and Brussels, it works out to around 985 Euros overall - which weirdly is less than train. Ha.

  • So, on hindsight I'm thinking of doing everything except the Netherlands - Brussels route by flight. I'll do Netherlands - Brussels by a bus. The flip side of this, is that I pay a night's hotel rent extra in every country.

  • I'm happy to sacrifice the scenery en route as I'll get extra time in each country to see as much as I want. Also, I'll do enough local train travel everywhere - so I'm not too fussed about never doing a country-to-country train ride.

What do you guys think of this plan? Can you see any obvious flaws in this?

Thanks

Posted by
5618 posts

Competition has offered travelers more and more "cheap" flights around Europe, so you can sometimes save time AND money. Remember, however, that flights usually involve more security screening than trains or buses, and the time necessary to get to the airport, check in, check your luggage if you're not carrying your luggage directly onboard, go through Security, reclaim your luggage, and get from the airport into the city you're visiting will all take time.

Posted by
137 posts

So here is my final schedule - I hope to book tickets in a day or so - do let me know if the choices and prices seem to make sense. I initially was doing London - Amsterdam - Belgium by train, but the train seem to go through Brussels anyway, so I swapped the places around. Bit of a round trip but it isn't too costly.

Even if you have nothing to add, I'd appreciate it if someone can confirm that this looks okay by just saying - "Looks ok". Thank You.

Train
London to Belgium (Eurostar) - 90
Belgium to Netherlands (Thalys) - 29
Netherlands to France (Thalys) - 35
France to Switzerland (TGV-Lyria) - 39

Flight
Geneva to Rome - 50

Posted by
137 posts

Thank You Jeffrey. I was just curious if the fares I put in there seemed correct - I think I'm comfortable with the trains throughout though and just a flight right at the end.