Help With Germany/Belgium Itinerary

We are in the initial stages of planning a land portion of a European trip and trying to decide what makes the most sense. We are strongly considering focusing our land portion on Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.The land portion of our trip will be sandwiched around a 14 night cruise from Copenhagen to the North Cape of Norway. We will have approximately 16 days pre-cruise and three or four days post cruise. We will be flying to and from Amsterdam on the Delta nonstop from Portland, OR. We are thinking that a Eurail Select Four Country Pass for the two of us makes the most sense. We intend to arrive in Copenhagen by rail the day before the cruise and depart by plane to Amsterdam the day we disembark. We spent several days in Copenhagen in 2011 and want to maximize our time elsewhere this visit. Given Amsterdam is our arrival and departure city, I was considering the following rough itinerary and would appreciate comments.

Day 1 - Arrive Amsterdam 8:30 AM, take train to Bruges. Three (or four)nights in Belgium. I am contemplating all nights in Bruges to minimize packing and unpacking, with day trips to the seashore, time for Bruges, and possibly Ghent.
Day 4 - Depart for Brussels. Spend half day in Brussels before catching train for Mosel/Rhine area.
Days 4-7 (or 8) - I am planning three or four nights in this area and would like to stay in one area with day trips to explore the area. I am leaning towards staying in Cochem and concentrating our stay on the Mosel. If we do this is it possible to do a day trip to explore the Rhine between Bingen and Boppard? We could rent a car for that day trip rather than use of a day of our rail pass, and get there more quickly.
Days 8-11 (or 9-12) - Munich/Bavaria/Tirol I would use Munich as a base for day trips, possibly to Bertschesgaden, Oberammergau, definitely to Dachau. The remainder would be spent exploring Munich. An alternative would be to omit this portion of the trip then substitute four days in the Berlin area after Erfurt. We had a short visit to Berlin in 2010 but only scratched the surface. While we did a walking tour which gave us a good overview of the city, we did not see any of the museums or the Reichstag, for example. Any thoughts?
Days 12-14 (or 13-15) Erfurt - After reading about Rothenburg and Erfurt, Erfurt's less touristy nature appealed to me more.
Day 15 (or 16) Hamburg for a quick stopover if coming from Erfurt, then on to Copenhagen the next day - followed by the 14 night cruise.
Days 30-32. Amsterdam/Haarlem with possible side trips, time permitting.
Day 33 - AM flight to Portland.

I have checked train schedules and most travel days are 4-5 hours train time plus getting to and from stations. The first day is about three hours to Bruges or Brussels from Schiphol Airport or Amsterdam Centraal. I have tried to keep travel so there are no night trains required.

I would appreciate any input you might have. We are trying to not overextend ourselves so we are moving constantly. We have been to Paris, Vienna and Prague in recent years and omitted them for that reason, as well as the added distance getting to them would entail.

Thanks.

Bob

It may be possible to extend things a couple of days before the cruise depending on flights.

We will be doing this trip from late May through June 2015.

Posted by cardsfan5
7 posts

Following up on my post, I am wondering :

1) whether Bruges is the best spot to base ourselves in Belgium and whether 4 nights, given the amount of time we have is a better choice than 3;

2) how to divide my time in the Rhine/Mosel area. I have seen neither, except for an overnight in Wiesbaden 40+ years ago in which we did little more than get a meal and sleep. If we based ourselves in the Mosel valley, say Cochem, is a day trip to the Rhine to cruise the river and see the castle at St. Goar doable if attempted by train?;

3) whether it would be better to go straight to Erfurt for a couple nights then on to Berlin, given that we really have not exhausted what there is to see in Berlin, Potsdam and even Dresden as a possible side trip. That itinerary allows for a nonstop train to Copenhagen, possibly allowing for another day in the Berlin area.

4) if we choose Berlin, is Erfurt the best option for a stopover to see a timbered town not overrun with tourists?;

and finally,

5) given the time we have, would we be better off eliminating Belgium altogether and concentrating on seeing more sights in Germany, especially given that Delta's nonstop, which we typically would take, puts us in the Benelux countries every time we come to Europe.

Thanks for any input.

Posted by cardsfan5
7 posts

Thanks. Yes, we have visited Amsterdam, but would still include it at the end of the cruise, along with Haarlem and maybe Delft.

Thanks for your input.

Posted by Russ
Paradise
2325 posts

"I am planning three or four nights in this area and would like to stay in one area with day trips to explore the area. I am leaning towards staying in Cochem and concentrating our stay on the Mosel. If we do this is it possible to do a day trip to explore the Rhine between Bingen and Boppard? We could rent a car for that day trip rather than use of a day of our rail pass..."

It's POSSIBLE to do the cruise as outlined from Cochem but it does take nearly 2 hours to reach Bingen by train - and then you have to train from Boppard back to Cochem (another 1-1.5 hours) after the 2.3 hour cruise. Cochem just isn't centrally located for this outing.

I don't know what OTHER outings you have in mind. But generally, if your outings include Trier, then Cochem might be an OK base town - but I'd consider two bases, one on the Rhine and one in Cochem in that case. If not, you'd be much better off in Boppard on the Rhine, roughly in the middle between Cochem and Bingen and about 15 train minutes south of Koblenz. From Boppard you can be in St. Goar, Oberwesel, and Bacharach, the most commonly visited west bank towns, very quickly; Bingen would take you about 30 minutes, Moselkern (for Burg Eltz) and Cochem would take 1 - 1.5 hours depending on departure time. Braubach (Marksburg Castle) is also pretty easy to reach from Boppard. And guess what? A cruise that ends in Boppard is mighty convenient if you are staying there. Boppard is a fine town itself with a nice river promenade, lots of dining and lodging options, and a cool chairlift ride.

Boppard half-timbered house
Boppard's Gedeonseck terrace near top of chair lift

To avoid using a railpass day, get a local daypass instead. The Rheinland-Pfalz ticket works for the Rhine cruise starting in Bingen; the mini-group ticket might work for you, depending on your other destinations - both very cheap.

Daypasses

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
10640 posts

A four country pass will almost certainly cost you the most amount of unnecessary money. I'll let others describe the regional passes available directly from Deutsche Bahn and the advanced purchase discounts they offer for longer train rides. But for Belgium, at least, don't even think about a third pary rail pass. Tickets are relatively cheap. And, the national rail company NMBS offers it's own 10 domestic trip pass for about €62, last time I checked. The big advantage is that more than one person can use the pass at a time. So, for example, a round trip from Brugge to Brussels for two people would count for 4 of the 10 trips. Finally, the fast train that connects Amsterdam to Belgium, Thalys, limits the number of pass holders who can ride each train and makes you purchase a hefty supplement. If you would take this option, you would do better to simply purchase your tickets in advanced at discount, directly from the rail operator, not a third-party reseller like RailEurope.

Other comments- if you decide to visit the coast of Belgium, I recommend De Haan. It's a very attractive little resort town.

Now, having just visited Erfurt for the first time yesterday (I wrote a summary under the "Trip Reports" section), I'm going to take exception to what Mr. Steves wrote about it as an "untouristy Rothenburg". First off, it is a very attractive town, no doubt. But it looks almost nothing like Rothenburg. Although not engorged with tourists like Rothenburg can be, it isn't devoid of them either. Most of the old center of the city dates from the German Empire period of the late 19th century, with only a sprinkling of older Fachwerk (half-timber) here and there. Also, whereas Rothenburg is a merely a town, Erfurt is a much larger city. I enjoyed it and I'm glad I visited, but if you pick Erfurt, don't expect to see much at all that's similar to Rothenburg. And allow me to let you in on another secret- other than all the trinket shops and the tour buses, Rothenburg isn't nearly as unique as the tourist literature suggests. You can find well-preserved Fachwerk towns all over central and southern Germany (less so in southern Bavaria, though, where different building styles predominate), some of which also maintain their old defensive walls.

I also think one day is enough for Erfurt, unless you include daytrips to places like Eisenach, Coburg, Weimar or Leipzig.

If you want smaller scenic towns filled with Fachwerk between Bavaria and Berlin, look into the Hartz mountain region of Sachsen-Anhalt, particularly the towns Quedlinburg, Goslar and Wernigerode. These towns are absolutely stunning, and although not devoid of tourists either, they aren't over-run by them. I think the state of Sachsen (Saxony) also has a fairly large sprinkling of similar towns, but I don't know them as well.

Posted by Philip
London, United Kingdom
2560 posts

I haven't been to Erfurt but I can second Tom about the quality of Wernigerode and Quedlinberg. I would actually advise staying in one of those two towns instead of Erfurt. They have relatively few international tourists because they aren't very close to any international airport, but they are quite popular with German tourists so there will be tourist infrastructure. There just may not be as much English spoken than in towns and cities with more international visitors.

Posted by Tim
Wyckoff, NJ, USA
1167 posts

I concede that these two are special-interest visits, but the ancient Synagogue and the EGA-Park botanical garden, both in Erfurt, were high points of our three nights in Weimar. I haven't been to Rothernburg so I can't compare them. Quedlinburg is magical.

Worth reading:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erfurt_Treasure
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theft_of_medieval_art_from_Quedlinburg

There are a lot of arguments, here and on other sites about the best base for Brugge-Brussels. Although trains are cheap and frequent along that corridor, and all under an hour, I just don't find Brugge to be the magical, medieval environment that so many posters do. I didn't miss spending the night in Quedlinburg or Mont St. Michel.

I want to spend multiple nights in a place midway between my day-trips, and ideally in a place with so much do do that I can't exhaust it in the evenings after daytrips (that doesn't solve museums that close at 5 or 6, of course.) In that part of Belgium, the answer is Antwerp, second choice Ghent. (Opinion.)

Brugge is a long way from Amsterdam. I would make a connection and fly to Brussels. We recently flew JFK to London with a connection and home from Rome with a connection, in order to get free mileage tickets. It was just fine, and the Lufthansa experience is better than the United experience we're used to. (Partner airline ... )

Please read Rick Steves' voluminous comments about railpasses. Your discussion of the Rhine suggests to me (reading between the lines) that you need to go to the library and read Rick's "Germany". You are working with too little data. For an ambitious, dead-run tour like you're describing, you need to know more details than you can get on the internet. Just one tiny example, do you know which way the Rhine flows, and how that affects boat time?

Posted by cardsfan5
7 posts

Thanks for the helpful comments.

The comments about Erfurt and other alternatives to see typical half timbered German towns was very useful. I will explore the towns suggested in greater detail. Wernigerode and Quedlinberg certainly sound worthwhile for a visit, and if we opt for Berlin over Munich/Bavaria, they would be a good option on the way from the Mosel/Rhine area.

While my preliminary thoughts about Eurail v. point to point tickets led me to think the Eurail would be more economical, I do not intend to make a determination about whether it is in fact the best choice until I have a better sense of itinerary. I previously had reviewed the RS Germany guidebook on rail passes v. point to point tickets and a rough review of his maps suggested that the pass was likely the better choice. The surcharges, such as Thalys charges, could change that equation. As could elimination of a country or two from our travels. We'll see.

I also appreciate the thoughts on how to organize the portion of the trip on the Mosel and/or Rhine but wonder whether three days in the area would be too little to relax and see both and whether it might be better to focus on one. Both seem worthwhile, but the slower pace of the Mosel is enticing, though our son, who traveled to Bacharach and St. Goar this spring, highly recommends them. He enjoyed the 70 minute boat ride upstream on the Rhine from St. Goar south to Bacharach, and thought the 40 minute trip northbound would have been too short. On the other hand, if one is doing the full trip between Boppard and Bingen, the shorter northbound trip might be more our speed. This still leaves the fundamental question unanswered - is three full days too short to consider trying to see both?

If including Belgium is spreading things too thin, would folks recommend limiting our pre-cruise trip to Germany, giving us more time to slow down and see things, possibly even both Berlin/Potsdam/Dresden and Munich/Bavaria?

Again, thanks for your input.

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
10640 posts

."I previously had reviewed the RS Germany guidebook on rail passes v. point to point tickets and a rough review of his maps suggested that the pass was likely the better choice."

Most of us find those maps tend to over-estimate the actual ticket prices. When researching ticket costs, the only source you should use are the websites of the company that actually operates the trains. NMBS for Belgium, Deutsche Bahn for Germany, ÖBB for Austria, NS for the Netherlands, etc. It takes a little more work, because you have to plug the numbers yourself, but this is the ony way to see the full options, both for routes, times and prices. Everyone else are unnecessary middle-men who try to make their services seem indispensible.

Posted by Laura
Rick Steves' Europe
8591 posts

I feel that I already replied on this thread, but don't find that response now. Rather than a 4-country Select pass, I would consider a cheaper, 2-country pass in 2nd class. For instance, the Benelux-Germany pass for 6 travel days costs about $330 per person or the Germany-Denmark pass for 5 travel days costs about $285. If you choose Thalys trains, such as Amsterdam-Brussels or Brussels-Koln, then those have an expensive seat reservation fee with a rail pass, but are not the only train option. You can't buy a rail pass more than 6 months in advance of your first travel date, and quite a few things could change before then. After your itinerary plan is more firm, you can review price comparisons in December or January, when there could also be some rail news and special offers.