Lend your Euroknowledge.
September 17, 2008 2:15 PM   Subscribe

Please give me advice in planning a European adventure.

A good friend and I are looking into taking a trip to Europe next May. We are both females in our early 20s. She speaks Spanish fluently, I know a small amount of French. We are hoping to visit a few countries including Spain, France, Italy, and possibly Greece.
I would really appreciate any and all advice/input on this matter. My trip-planning experience has been pretty limited (USA road trips and such) and I don't want us to be put in a bad way over there!

Some stats:
We are both on a cheap-as-possible budget.
We don't mind staying in hostels or hotel alternatives, as long as they are fairly clean and safe.
We are looking into Eurorail passes for students. Any input?
We are planning on going for about one month.

Sorry to leave this so open-ended, but I know that many people are more traveled than I am, and I'm sure we have some friendly Me-Fites in those parts! Like I said, any and all info will most likely be helpful! Thanks in advance!
posted by gracious floor to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Take a look at Busabout (routes here,) it's super cheap and flexible and a lot of people prefer it to the rail option. They also pick up and drop off right outside hostels so it's super convenient. Other than that I'd highly recommend St Christopher's hostels, especially the one in Paris which has just recently opened.
posted by fire&wings at 3:11 PM on September 17, 2008

For starters, the fewer places you see, the cheaper this is going to be. If you assume that you're going to spend approximately the same amount every day on lodging and food, your big variable cost is transportation. I recommend picking a handful of places you'd like to spend a week or at least five days in rather than two dozen places for a day or two.

Eurail passes are awesome, but can be really expensive, particularly if you get the unlimited travel option. If you do go this route, I recommend getting one where you get a fixed number of days of travel in a 60-day period. This gives you flexibility and doesn't have you paying for a bunch of transportation you aren't going to use. For example, a three country pass, say France, Spain, and Italy, would run you EU$230 for 6 days of travel. That's about EU$40/day.

If you're willing to fly really light, consider RyanAir. They're a budget airline based in Ireland, but they fly all over Europe. For example, you can get from Paris to Madrid for EU$33. The catch is that you're allowed almost no luggage, and the fees for excess are really draconian. They do have notorious customer service issues, but if you bring almost no luggage, i.e. rough it, you should do okay. Getting to Greece is almost certainly going to involve flying, though I don't believe RyanAir goes there, you can probably get a cheap flight from another airline out of Rome.

In terms of getting there, I'd recommend starting and ending your trip in Paris. Why? Because flights to Paris are likely to be cheaper than more southerly destinations in Europe. London and Paris are the two biggest destinations from US airports.
posted by valkyryn at 3:38 PM on September 17, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice! Keep it coming!

Valkyryn- thank you! I have noticed that about flights to/from Paris....
posted by gracious floor at 3:53 PM on September 17, 2008

About Paris: It's !@#$ing expensive. I live here right now, and have lived here before. So here's a few suggestions to make things more manageable:
  • Hotel Paul de Kock (I know, I know; laugh, and then read on): It's a private-owned hotel in Les Lilas, which is just outside the border of Paris proper. This means that you can get rooms for 40€ or so. A bit more if you want a private bathroom. This is astronomically cheaper than most Paris hotels. Also, it's near a convenient highway exit (Porte des Lilas), which is close to the CDG airport. Les Lilas pretty much just extends out from Paris at this point, so you get the same quaint architecture and the same cluster of boulangeries, butchers, restaurants, bars, and so on. Most importantly, it's practically on top of a the subway line #11 (the Mairie des Lilas station), which means that you're about 20-40 minutes from anything in the city by subway.
  • The only downside of Hotel Paul de Kock is that they don't do online reservations. You need to call them directly. They speak good English and sometimes there's someone who can speak Spanish. They're super-friendly and I've stayed there a few times when I was still looking for an apartment, as well as when friends visit and I'm not around to host them.
  • For lunch, go into a bakery (boulangerie) and get the formule, which is usually a baguette sandwich, a drink, and your choice from a range of dessert tarts and pastries. It'll usually run you between 5-8€, which is as cheap as you're going to get for a meal that filling.
  • Eat at Les Trois Marmites one night if you can, and at Chez Denise as well. Both are very reasonably priced and offer HUGE portions of traditional/rustic French food.
  • See this googlemap I made a while ago for these restaurants and some more that I'm fond of.
  • The best macarons in town are either at La Durée (for more classic flavors, several locations, also a tea salon) or Pierre Hermé (for more adventurous flavors). These aren't like North American macaroons; these are little wafers of flavored, soft meringue, turned into little sandwiches with a buttercream filling.
  • Best croissants in town: Patisserie Millet on rue Saint-Dominique in the 6th or 7th arrondissement (near Invalides subway stop). Show up early in the morning, they run out quickly.
  • Best ice cream in town: Berthillion (see my googlemap, above). If the lineup at Berthillon is too long, you can usually find other cafés reselling their icecream and sorbets at similar prices. However, you can't find their stuff anywhere off the isle of St.-Louis.
  • If you're in Le Marais (near the Saint-Paul subway stop on line #1), stop at Boulangerie Matineau on rue Vieille du Temple (near rue de Rivoli) and buy some of their homemade marshmallows (guimauvre). My favorite is the violet-flavored one.
  • Oh, and of course: L'As du Falafel (see again my googlemap). Best Falafel in town, approved by Lenny Kravitz, whose autographed pictures are all over the walls. Shitty / high-pressure service, so get it to go and sit down somewhere to eat.

posted by LMGM at 4:45 PM on September 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I hear that there are some museums in town or some such thing...
posted by LMGM at 4:46 PM on September 17, 2008

And while I'm at it: Berlin is still super-cheap for a major European metropole, so don't miss it. My knowledge of the city is a bit more shallow, since I was only there for 2 months this summer, but what I saw of it I really liked.
  • Don't miss the Tiergarten, which is the huge park extending West from the Brandenburg Gate. There's a biergarten on a small lake near the south-west corner that is great when the weather is nice.
  • On a Tuesday or Friday morning, get off at the Hermannplatz subway station and walk up Kottbusser Damm until you get to the Turkish Market. Well worth it, and you can get lunch while you're there. Get a gözleme stuffed with cheese and spinach to much on.
  • Kastanienallee and the little streets around Häckischer Markt are the hot shopping areas right now.
  • Hotels in East Berlin are still super-cheap, especially if you're willing to stay outside of Mitte.
  • Achtung with Berlin nightclubs. They are the best in the world (in my opinion) and party ridiculously hard (i.e., no-sleep weekends), BUT they also tend to have exclusive door policies. They especially don't like tourists, so don't feel bad if a bouncer turns you away.

posted by LMGM at 4:59 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I asked a related question a couple of months ago. The thread contains good info on Greece and using the Interrail pass, which probably applies well to the Eurail too.
posted by monocot at 5:09 PM on September 17, 2008

go to a weekend music festival. something like this: http://www.southside.de/

soooo much fun.
posted by odf at 6:06 PM on September 17, 2008

Eurail passes are great for countries like Germany and France with fast expensive trains, they may also work in countries like Spain with very long train rides. Eurail is a rip off in Italy, period. France will charge 1-5 euros for a TGV reservation where the per day cost of the Eurail pass is well below one ticket price. Italy will charge 15 euros but the trip will likely cost less than the per day cost of the Eurail pass. Eurail passes may be used "up to the border", i.e. you buy the rest of the ticket. So I recommend never buying more than a 2 country pass. A France-Germany pass seems like the best deal if you want to see Germany, France, Belgium, etc. I hate busses with a passion, ymmv.

You can find good deals on airplanes within Europe by looking on skyscanner, and maybe whichbudget.com, you'll need these for Greece. Such airlines are great for travel because they are 1-way prices, but remember they charge extra for baggage. Do not just search RyanAir directly, they may not have the best rates!!! Oh, bookingbudy.com is the best "normal" flight search tool, click the Kayak search first. You can find inexpensive ferry boats from Barcelona to Rome, only 20 euros way off season 2 years ago.

I don't know what LMGM is smoking, but I've definitely stayed in Paris hotels near Place d'Italy for 40 euro per night. Imho, tourists should avoid the ghetto north of Paris. But honestly why would you even consider a hotel? Hotels are for sleep. Hostels are for fun. You may need sleep some nights, but you'll need hostel buddies if you want to a fun night out in Paris, and hotels are cheaper in other cities.

I recommend Oops for a "chill" Paris hostel, but you can get a party place if you like. If you change your mind, there are cheap ass hotels all around the neighborhood. Stay here in Lyon. You are going to Lyon right? Trust me, Nice & Cannes are crap unless you rent a car, try Lyon.

Italy is for people who like being tourists, so meh. I'd choose Croatia over Italy if I wanted a vacation involving relaxation, scenery, or Italian sea food. I've liked some non-touristic places in Italy too, like say the lakes, but you won't visit those. But, if go to Italy, you'll want to stay here in Venice. It's quite clean, some other places have bed bugs. Btw, I'd say never use any hostel site besides hostelz.com because no other site will let you contact the hostel directly (url, phone, email, etc.).

I'm distinctly not impressed by Barcelona, but it's maybe worth seeing. San Sebastian was great fun. Berlin is the coolest city in the world right now. As they have no jobs for yuppies, all is cheap and artsy.

If you learn your way around, you might consider staying one place for an extended period of time, say renting an apartment for two months and taking language classes.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:22 PM on September 17, 2008

I also strongly advice seeing a Vigneron Independant in France---3 euros lets try expensive wine form all over France for a day.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:28 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are you the outdoorsy type? Do you need showers? If yes & no, then you should consider seeing more rural areas and camping. Some people even follow these crazy Catholic pilgrimage routes where you get practically free food & logging so long as you walk the whole way.

If you wanted stay longer to improve your French, I must highly recommend Alliance Française de Lyon. La Sorbonne's French classes in Paris sound more romantic, but are incredibly expensive.

Sleeper trains are great but (1) note funky Eurail pass reservation prices for beds and locking doors, (2) always have a lockable door outside of Germany (every traveller that I've met who took a sleeper couch without doors in Italy was robbed).
posted by jeffburdges at 6:51 PM on September 17, 2008

Flying's cheaper than buses or trains. Use skyscanner. The earlier you buy your flights, the cheaper they are.
posted by signal at 6:57 PM on September 17, 2008

Well, the important points for planning are skyscanner.net, which lets you creatively search fairs, and hostelz.com, which doesn't hide the hostels contact info. By creative searching, I mean "list all possible destination countries by price for all of november" or "graph the price vs. day for october" cheap. Ain't nothing else as effective.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:05 PM on September 17, 2008

Odd, skyscanner's new layout has broken their map feature that lets you explore what airports are near your possible destination. :(
posted by jeffburdges at 7:07 PM on September 17, 2008

Eurail pass is also not likely to be worth getting for Spain - trains are pretty cheap there.

In one month, I would fly into Paris, spend a few days there, fly to Madrid, then meander back along the coast by train - Valencia, Barcelona, Montpellier, Avignon,Lyon, Milan, Venice, Rome, flight to Greece (I don't know anything about Greece). May is a good season - the weather should be good, but not everybody will be on holidays yet. You may want to book trains in advance anyway, for long trips - I'm not sure how full they will get, and they are certainly cheaper at least a couple weeks in advance. Flying can be cheaper, but also more annoying - trains arrive in the centre of most cities, planes on the outskirts.

Spain: renfe
France: sncf
Italy: Trenitalia

German train site that is a super guide to timetables and connections anywhere on the continent: DeutscheBahn
posted by jacalata at 6:40 AM on September 18, 2008

You mention France, so if you plan on staying in Paris, may I suggest the Hotel Boissiere

Only 20 Euro a night, very clean and quiet. Helpful at the front desk, close to the subway, and they even serve a cheap 5 Euro breakfast.
posted by Windigo at 7:48 AM on September 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

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