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First time going to Europe - Seeking Advice in a couple of areas

I am beyond excited to be going to Europe for my first time this September for 22 days. I plan on traveling solo (I'm a 25 year old guy), and my idea of travel has always been to experience the local flavor and avoid tourist areas.

Here would by my ideal trip: Copenhagen / Malmo > Stockholm > Amsterdam > Cinque Terre > Grimmelwald > Munich > Vienna > Prague.

I personally don't have much interest in seeing art museums, or local churches. Instead I have the most interest in just planting myself in another city / town and 'living' there for a few days, and going on side-trips (such as to Auschwitz from Prague). I want to experience local bars, nightlife, party scene, etc.

I've read the handbook Europe Through The Backdoor, and I have a couple of questions for European travelers.

  1. Wing it and go with no plan, or go with a complete plan? I've talked to a few friends, and they say to travel one day at a time. But in some cases do plan at least a few days in advance in reserving a hotel, such as in Amsterdam on the weekend. Reason is that's how some of the best experiences are made, meet local people, go do something completely different off the beaten path not previously considered, spend a few nights with a new friend. Perhaps meet a friendly European girl on my travels, spend time with her family, etc. Yet in the book, Rick recommends to have a Plan to make it more budget friendly. I personally really like the idea of spontaneity and traveling one day at a time, but would like to hear stories of how this has been a disaster or a life changer.

  2. Fly within Europe, take the train, or Both? I've been comparing prices from my destinations, and I've discovered flying is more economical and faster in most cases. Granted I can't fly to Cinque Terre or Grimmelwald, and would need to take a train (perhaps fly to a nearby city first to save time). Amazingly the Select Pass ($544 for 4 countries) is more expensive than the Eurail Global Pass ($528), Point-To-Point tickets are pretty expensive, so if I'd use a train at all - I may as well get the Global Pass. Assuming I get a Global Pass, how soon in advance would you recommend making a train reservation for my destinations in September (Shoulder Season)? Is a reservation even necessary? What do you like more about taking the train vs flying, or vice versa? I really like the idea of flying from far away places to save time (such as Prague to London), and train in closer cities (such as Munich to Vienna) to experience Europe in another great way. I also like the idea of stopping in train stations off the beaten path and experiencing a local village, perhaps for longer than just an afternoon (where the spontaneity of having no plan would be a big plus)

Thanks for reading my novel.....happy traveling! :)

Posted by
16883 posts

There are a lot of questions here. In addition to the ETBD handbook, I recommend guidebooks specific to your destinations; Best of Europe gives the take-along travel details for most of your list, but not Scandinavia or Munich. Have you bought plane tickets into Copenhagen and out from Prague?

If you plan to stay at youth hostels, you probably won't have a problem to reserve them a day or two ahead as you travel, but a key aspect of being flexible is not always getting your first choice of location, time, or price. It's easier to be flexible when you don't have to cover such long distances.

Planning ahead is the best way to secure the cheap flights. Stockholm to Amsterdam is certainly a route to fly, in preference to 21 hours with an overnight train, as is Amsterdam to Italy (e.g., to Milan or Pisa). Get an overview of train travel time and buy-in-the-station ticket costs on the map at http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/transportation/trains/cost-maps.

You can't talk meaningfully about a railpass until your route plan is more settled. Work more on the destinations and the flights before turning to the train details. Most trains on your list don't require reservations, but reserving a few days ahead from Copenhagen to Stockholm is a good idea. Avoid trains through France if you don't reserve them from home. The Youth Eurail Global price you quoted is for 15 consecutive days at $528, which can work if you spend several days each in Copenhagen and Prague at the two ends of the trip. (21-consecutive days is $681, and 10 travel days spread out within a longer period is $622.)

Posted by
8293 posts

You might get more responses if you post this in General Europe instead of Trip Reports.

Posted by
11288 posts

Just a quick note. Auschwitz is not a side trip from Prague; it's a side trip from Krakow. If you want to see a concentration camp near Prague, that's Terezin, which is quite different from Auschwitz. Auschwitz was an extermination camp, while Terezin was made into a "show camp" to fool international inspectors into believing that camps were humane places where Jews were resettled, put on plays, etc. In actuality, Jews were regularly transported from there to Auschwitz.

Posted by
12040 posts

"has always been to experience the local flavor and avoid tourist areas."

Forgive my bluntness. But do you really mean this, or is it just some kind of blithe catch phrase? Reason is that you've packed your wish list with some of the most heavily-touristed locations on the planet. There certainly are non-touristy districts of Copenhagen, Munich, Prague, etc., but are you really traveling halfway across the globe (I assume your locations is North America) to visit the outer housing districts that were largely built in the 1950s and 60s? The Cinque Terre and Grindewald/Gimmelwald (not sure which one you mean, they are two separate towns) are almost nothing but resorts for tourists.

Some of the destinations on your list are extremely difficult to cheaply and timely link together. Particularly going from Stockholm to Amsterdam to the Cinque Terre to the Berner Oberland to Munich. Unless you want to spend all day and night linking together a series of trains and possibly sleeping in train stations, you would need to add some flights in the middle.

The idea that you need a Global Pass (or any kind of 3rd party pass) for flexibility is a myth perpetuated by those selling the passes. With all the restrictions the national rail carriers place on passholders and the high daily cost of the pass, it's often just cheaper and more convenient to buy tickets on the day of travel. Particularly if you want to "stop (sic) in train stations off the beaten path and experiencing a local village, perhaps for longer than just an afternoon". This would only be possible on regional trains, and if you're using a global pass to travel on a regional train, you may as well just use your money for toilet paper.

"Perhaps meet a friendly European girl on my travels, spend time with her family," I'll be blunt again. This probably isn't going to happen. But... to increase your chances, you need to bring something to the table besides being a friendly traveler. In any of those locations you've mentioned (with the exception perhaps of less-visited Malmö), those girls have probably been hit on by horny frat boys on trips from the US enough times already. You need to know something a little deeper about their culture and country. And when I say "culture", I don't mean the "culture" as defined by Rick Steves to sell tours and guidebooks, which consists almost entirely of out-dated pre-war and pre-industrial clichés (I think "cultural heiritage" would be a better description). I mean the real, living experience of these countries. For example, Denmark over the past several years has produced some of the most popular TV shows on the continent, including the original, vastly superior version of "The Killing", "Borgen" and "The Bridge". Who is Sara Lund, and can you recognize her most iconic wardrobe item? From Sweden, the series "Wallander" is also quite popular in Europe. For Germany, do you know who Helena Fischer is? For politics, do you know what a "liberal" implies in Europe? (hint, it's something completely different from the US) What's the difference between a social democrat and a Christian democract? Is the country you find yourself in a member of the euro currency union? If not, why not? What policies are pursued by the senior party of the ruling coaltion? Who did they elect for the European parliament? What measures has the country taken to meet the EU's emission goals? Are they working or did they create unintentional side effects? What musical festivals (modern, not something every guide book mentions, like the Salzburg festival) did the country host over the summer? These are just a few examples, but this is the kind of stuff that a little prior knowledge of might help distinguish you from just another dude trying to get laid... to be blunt again, but trying to help...

Posted by
12891 posts

Hi,

From Stockholm to Amsterdam.....two suggestions for doing that route: : Take the train to Malmö, then the overnight ferry to Travemünde. Change at Hamburg, stay the night, take the train to Amsterdam, or (more leisurely) if you rather go by way of Oslo, then train to Oslo from Stockholm, stay the night. Then take the ferry from Oslo to Kiel, train to Hamburg, stay the night , then the early train to Amsterdam. I prefer the second suggestion.

Posted by
122 posts

I'm not as blunt as Tom, but I do understand what he's getting at by this "off the beaten path" cliche that folks throw around. Hey, I get it. The first trip to Europe is exciting and filled with lots of day dreams. That's part of what makes us travel! But it's hard to get a real concept of the local life unless you settle down and actually live there. Most of us aren't there for long enough to get the big picture As much pride as I take in my Irish heritage, as much as the motherland called me to visit for years, nothing was made more clear to me on my trip to Ireland that I was American. There's no pretending otherwise (well, sometimes you can pretend you are Canadian). Embrace it (just not in an obnoxious way).

When I go to Vienna this fall I'm renting a room from a woman and her son. She's a nurse at a hospital a few blocks away and he's in school. I'm sure I'll see a bit of their daily life in the mornings and evenings, as well as being around other folks who commute in to the city center. But my days will be spent out doing touristy things like visiting Hapsburg palaces, seeing beautiful old churches, and day trips to other towns and cities. Consider doing something like renting a room for that tiny glimpse of local life. But if you are planning a nonstop party across Europe, perhaps hostels/hotels are your better bet. I think in hostels you have a chance to meet other solo travelers. Hotels won't care when you come or go. (And no judgement, I plan to visit and drink my way across Belgium when I get the chance.)

So as to planning it all out or winging it?
There are a million ways to travel, the only right way is your way. I have a small budget and like to take care of some costs before I go and have a really good idea of my fixed expenses. I also love doing the research. For me, that's half the fun. I don't plan down to the minute, but I scour maps and train timetables to get a sense of how long it takes to get places. I've started sketching out a rough plan for my seven days in Vienna; which days I'll spend in the city due to certain event or location schedules, and which days will be spent on trips to other locations. It's all subject to change as I research, but in a month or two I'll probably lock in some train tickets to get the lowest prices. Again, mostly due to my personal preference of having some things planned and paid for ahead of time.

I do think a little research can go a long way, such as finding cheap flights between far flung cities, not buying some sort of rail pass that you don't need, and making sure that the one or two things you really really want to see will be open...but flexibility, if you have the time and money, sounds lovely too.

Posted by
12040 posts

"But it's hard to get a real concept of the local life unless you settle down and actually live there." Oddly enough, I've offered plenty of people the opportunity to help sort my garbage, sweep the sidewalk in front of my house, compost my garden waste, and help me shop at discount grocery stores (which are basically the only kind there is in Germany), for a real taste of "local German life". But nobody's taken up my offer.

Posted by
122 posts

But nobody's taken up my offer.

I will. If it means a free place to stay!

Posted by
3696 posts

Everyone has a different travel style... and I won't be as blunt as Tom...however after reading his list of questions realize I really do need to 'study up'.... but I do know Sara's favorite ratty looking sweaters :) I tend to wing it on a lot of my trips and have never regretted it, but when I do that I always have a car, so I can travel as spontaneously as I wish and not worry about cheaper train tickets or train schedules... the rental car and gas remain the same regardless of when I drive. I think traveling this way by train poses more problems and would cause me a lot of stress. I have landed in a few places with no car and no reservations and always found a room, but it is not my choice.... so , big cities like where you want to travel it might not be as fun as you think to be wandering around finding a room. If you truly want to stop in small villages off the beaten path, then traveling without a plan might be feasible. If you want to fly within Europe you need to make a plan or those tickets will cost a lot.

There is nothing like that first trip to Europe...

Posted by
12891 posts

Hi,

Winging it as in forget the planning is all right as long as you don't care which particular hostel/hotel you stay at. I have seen in hostels where people, usually in their 20s, come in w/o reservations and are told the hostel is completely full for that night. What are you going to do then? Then they are directed to the next closest hostel. I find going from hostel /hotel or Pension looking for the suitable one as regards to price, location, etc. is a waste of time once you arrive, all the more so, if you arrived by night train prior to 7 am.

To avoid the tourist areas means don't go to those cities, such as Munich, Amsterdam, Vienna. In the tourist areas, their famous sights, there will be tons of tourists. Plus, you're over there in September which the time for the trade fairs in Germany...more crowds. Where do you plan on "experiencing a local village?" Keep in mind that once out of the cities and going into the smaller towns/villages the possibility of language problems increases. It may not happen but it could happen that almost every person you encounter can't speak enough English to communicate.

Posted by
12891 posts

"There is nothing like that first trip to Europe." How true!

Posted by
2353 posts

PJC - Hopefully you are still around after some of the responses you have received here.

We tend to travel by winging it. I'll have a general idea of where we want to go - we arrive and start at it. Sometimes we stick to it most times not! I do make reservations for our first night and our last night but everything in between is done as we go - usually the night before we leave one place to go to the next I will find a hotel and reserve it online for our next destination.

We also tend to use a rail pass - it may or may not be a more expensive, that depends on where & when you travel. We do love the convenience & flexibility of it. No waiting in lines to purchase tickets - just show up, find your platform and get on the train. We have managed to travel all over including France, The Netherlands & Belgium (the three most notorious for being difficult for passholders) with a pass and without making nor needing to make reservations. It sometimes takes a little creativity with train routes & schedules but that usually just opens up more possibilities for us. We prefer the train as it goes from city center to city center. We also have been known to stop in smaller places get off the train and decide to stay.

I've said many times I love travel to learn about other cultures. Not by reading & studying up on them so I sound well informed about it when I get there but to have conversations with people who actually live there and just talk about daily life and how things are. Do you shop at a supermarket or go to neighborhood markets? How is the economy here? Is it expensive to live here? Where I am from the average house will cost XXXX or a 2 bedroom apartment will rent for XX. What kind of music is popular? We hear a lot of American music here - is that just in the tourist areas or is it popular? Do most attend university? et cetera...

I tend to not discuss politics & religion with folks as they can be explosive topics anywhere.

Sorting your garbage, sweeping the sidewalk in front of your house, composting your garden waste and shopping at discount grocery stores are not unique to Germany. I have lived in places where I to do all of the above and more. In one house we couldn't even change the color of our own front door in a house we owned without approval of the town. Nor could we cut down a dead tree in our front yard without approval from the tree warden for the town. All the garbage had to sorted as it was removed from the area by train which was quite expensive so everything that was recyclable had to be separate. Everywhere has some sort of little quirks about living there. They are not secrets that only those who live somewhere can know.

Learning about those things is part of the fun of meeting people who live in an area - chatting and exchanging information about local life.

And meeting a local girl is just what 25 year olds do! Whether it's at home or travelling in their own country or another one. Can't fault ya for that! Going to meet her family - you'll have to work that one out with her!

Which ever way you decide to go I know you'll have a great time!

Posted by
672 posts

"I don't understand the point of going to Europe to hang out in coffee shops/bars/learn to cook French or Italian food/speak the language/go to Eurodisney/etc because I can do those things for less money back in the states."

Really? Those things all sound great to me. I hope you have a wonderful trip!

Posted by
3 posts

Depends on how comfortable you are with spontenaiety! Amsterdam is big and busy..(huge lines for Ann Frank house, by the way!) When purchasing the Global Rail Pass, you still have to pay for "seat reservations" on a lot of the trains. Point to point tickets are usually more expensive if you purchase them before you leave for Europe, although the peace of mind knowing you have them already is worth something. Again...winging it vs planning! You may want to consider local air. When my husband and I were there in May/June this year, it was cheaper to fly from Paris to Amsterdam than to ride the trains. We flew into Paris and rented a car at CDG airport, driving to the Normandy coast. Surprising easy and relaxing. We then road the trains from Normandy to the Netherlands. Europe is expensive, hands down, although if you study up on RS books, he certainly can help with a little of the costs. You will love The Cinque Terre, and Gimmelwald. Beautiful country. Both our boys have traveled in Europe quite a bit, and have both stayed in hostels...they like to "wing it," and they wouldn't have it any other way. If you have specific things you just have to see and do, then probably a good idea to have a plan. You can always make some changes, but if just winging it and running out of time and money prevents you from your dreams, then that would not be so good. Enjoy.......but big items like, Anne Frank, Eieffel Tower, etc. usually have huge lines, taking up valuable time!

Posted by
332 posts

It is great to hear someone so enthusiastic about an upcoming trip. Regarding planning vs winging it, to some extent it depends on how much time you have and how many places you want to make sure you visit. If you wish to establish some friendships, you might want to spend a few nights in the same city for continuity--that might mean whittling down the number of places you visit. You have 22 days(not sure if this includes your arrival/departure days) and at least 8 locations listed. Consider that some of those days will be spent (partially) traveling from place to place so consider that as you plan an itinerary. I know it is hard to choose among so many appealing choices, but IMHO 8 places so far apart in 22 days doesn't give you enough time to get the feel of your location.

I myself plan when/how I will travel from place to place and where I will sleep. If I didn't do that, I fear I would so much like the first 2 places on my itinerary that I would fail to move on to the next place!! Enjoy every minute of your trip.

Posted by
27741 posts

@PJC are you still there? Its hard to have a conversation when one side isn't playing.