Thursday, January 26, 2012

How To Plan A Trip To Europe - Part 1

I get a lot of hits on this blog searching for "Europe vacation planning" or seeking specific details of an European trip. They are probably attracted to my Europe posts. Even though this is a bit earlier in the year, it's never to early to plan your European vacation! Here's some advice I can give to anyone doing a tour of Europe.

Everyone Should Do It
Travelling through Europe via the train and experiencing all the diverse cultures is everything they make it out to be, and much more. It had been one of my life's to-do items, and I wasn't disappointed. And you won't be either. There's no vacation like an Euro-vacation.

Start With a Map
Europe is big!
When we started planning our vacation, I wanted to visit everything! Germany, France, England, Italy, Switzerland, Netherlands, you name it - I wanted to see it! I wanted to visit all the big cities and little places! Soon though, we realized with the limit of our holiday time and cost, we had to prioritize. So my first suggestion would be - get a map of Europe.

That way, you can see how far apart the places are that you want to visit. Some cities are of course a 'must-see' (it depends on you) and some are 'nice-to-visit'. With a little bit of googling for travel times, you can have an idea of what cities you can reasonably visit with the time you have. For me, it meant omitting Germany and Netherlands as they were too far away from the other places I wanted to see.

Early Planner vs. the Impulsive Traveller

While there is some romance in the idea of not knowing your destination and deciding it on the day, I root for being the early planner every time. I travelled to Europe in July, but by March had all my hotels, tickets, etc. booked. While this does have some drawbacks (I wanted to later add Napoli to my trip, but changing the air tickets was not possible) I saved over $1500 by my calculations by booking in March rather than waiting till May. Basically the earlier you book, the cheaper some hotels and rail/air tickets are. I knew exactly what dates I would be travelling from one city to the next and had my route/trip planned to the minute.

Rail Passes vs. Tickets vs. Reservations

Rail travel is the way to go around and see Europe. Unless you have some specific place you want to visit that has no public transit (impossible in most of Europe) or you want the possibilities that a car gives you, rail travel is the way to go in Europe. The network is well connected, super fast and you get to see a lot of the scenery as you travel.

Buying rail passes for Europe can be complicated. You have to know the differences between tickets, passes, and reservations. Here's the primer:

When you buy a tickets from A to B, you can journey from A to B. For example, buying a ticket from Paris to Basel will allow you to travel from Paris to Basel only, on the day and time you bought the ticket for.

When you buy a multi-day pass, you can use one day of the pass to travel on that day on any participating train in any participating country. When you buy the pass, you can choose the number of days, the countries the pass will be valid in, and the class (economy or first class, etc.) and pay accordingly.

However, and this is the big however, some routes ALSO require you to buy a reservation if you are using a pass. So for example to travel from Paris to Basel using one day of the pass, you also have to buy a reservation on that route. Your pass will NOT BE VALID on that route without the reservation. A reservation costs way less than a ticket, but you still need it (for specific routes).

You can visit to get started.

To Be Continued ...


isheeta said...

oh lordy! i cant believe you still have the link to my defunct blog!

'liya said...

Great post Mezba! I'm dying to go to Europe again and thinking of Germany and Switzerland by train and then fly to Greece and do the Greek islands in the summer... I'm excited just thinking about this :D
Vick wants to go to Singapore/Malaysia/Thailand but I feel like I have unfinished business in Europe.

I totally agree, everyone should do Europe at least once (more than once if they can afford!). It's easy enough by train and the art/architecture can't be beat... everyone speaks English, Europe is clean, friendly, the only downfall is the cost, it adds up when you realize you need to eat in addition to everything you want to see *sigh* and of course you need somewhere to sleep.

I like how you guys booked everything months in advance, that's really the best way to save.

White Tulip said...

Since I'm also like you and like to plan/research my trip (leaving open the option of unexpected adventures, such as my "homeless night with rats in Napoli"), I found that getting a travel guide for the place I wanted to visit, was a HUGE help!

I would particularly recommend the "Rick Steves" series of travel guides and he has written about different places in Europe, extensively. It helped me plan my trip to Italy, esp Rome. Also, his guides are written with humour, with insight and are succint, so it makes the guides a lot of fun to simply read. Rick Steves also promotes the idea of travellers going out on their own & discovering new places by public transit, by foot and etc (not riding in big tour buses) & very helpful has money saving tips.

So I used the advice from the books and I'm happy to say I got to see a lot of things on my own; saved money; and had a memorable time. The books are available in most book stores & cheaper versions can be found online or in the public libraries.

Mohammad said...

As someone who had planned his coming April trip to North America by last November i know what you mean by "early planning". At the same time I noticed that with early planning, I tend to change hotels every week as I keep thinking that some other hotel might be better and so on.

I second the tip on travel books, its always good to be able to refer to more than 1 book if you can. Lonely planets are generally quite good but depending on the venue, Fodors, Rough Guides or Frommers may all do a better job.

Another huge asset is Tripadvisor, the hotel ratings, if taken with a pinch of salt, tell you far more than the 2 or 3 lines in a travel book.
Mezba, are you a Tripadvisor contributor by any chance ?

era said...

Can you write up your 2nd part really soon? Like with in a week LOL. I am going to Basel, Switzerland for business trip for 4 days next week. I was hoping to make a trip out of it but have not gotten around to planning. All I have is 5 extra days to do something & I am so lost in what to do.

Must have:
Start: Basel since I have to be there for work
End: UK, have to stop by to say Hi to relatives

Initially I thought of Basel to Paris to UK due to easy route option. But as it is winter, I am falling in love with the idea of Rome. But it is the wrong direction. Paris or Rome? which would you suggest for a single bangali girl on her own

mezba said...

@Isheeta, yes, I have to do some housecleaning regarding my blog. The top image doesn't even show up properly anymore.

@Liya, You have to do Switzerland, but then I am with V, you HAVE HAVE HAVE to do Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand - they are awesome places to visit.

I think I will have to do Europe once more, this time Spain, Germany and Turkey. If only money wasn't limited!!!

@White Tulip, yes, I was going to talk about travel guides - I too used Rick Steves and found it of great help. And I think I spent more time just reading it before travelling as I couldn't wait! It added to the excitement.

Both Rick Steves and Frommers are good, I personally used Rick Steves. I too don't have much fondness for those big tour groups and buses, I will talk about them in Part 2.

mezba said...

@Mohammad, the good thing about booking hotels early is that they let you cancel without any penalty till quite late, so you can book and still look for better deals. The way we booked our hotels - they didn't charge your credit cards until the last date.

No, I am not a Tripadvisor contributor, although I did think I commented a couple of times. I have used them mostly for North American tours, but they were useful for hotel ratings in Europe as well. Although most of the hotels we booked in Europe came recommended by friends - the best source of recommendations.

@era, Basel is a small city, mostly a junction of lines. You can take a look at my Basel post for tips, but we didn't spend much time in the city.

Lucerne on the other hand is pretty scenic and nice, as well as Interlaken.

I would prefer Rome over Paris any time. But then, I am not a girl!

Aeldra Robinson said...

I like your blog so much, it makes me want to go back to Europe even more! Very inspiring to all would-be travelers as well as aspiring bloggers like me! :)

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