Help me see some of Europe!
September 29, 2008 11:07 AM   Subscribe

I need advice for planning a trip to Europe next summer.

The wife and I are looking to see some of Europe next summer. Neither of us have ever gone. She wants to see Prague and I want to drink beer in Brussels. So, here's what I think is the best plan, but I don't know. This is where I need advice.

Fly into Prague and spend a few days there. Take the train through Germany, spending a night in some of the cities the train goes through. (Berlin, maybe Koln?) Then continue on to Brussels for a few days there. Then, if time permits maybe continue on to France.

So, as I've never planned a trip like this ever, I have a few questions.

Is it easier to fly in and out of the same city or can I land in one city and depart from another? Would it be significantly cheaper to do it one way vs the other?

Should I book train tickets in advance or when we're there? I've seen the site so I know the Eurail pass isn't always the best bet, but maybe it will be for us.

Is it worth renting a car in Belgium? I want to see more than just Brussels. I'd LOOOOOVE to see some of the abbeys and some of the smaller breweries there. And getting up to the coast would be nice too.

How early should I be looking at booking this? And would a travel agent be any help to me? I've used a travel agent twice and I find them somewhat helpful, but not sure if it would be worth it for a trip like this.

Any other advice is welcome. Thanks in advance.
posted by bDiddy to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Some advice...

- Check for flights from Prague to Brussels (or nearby). It could end up being cheaper than the train and you won't waste a couple of days traveling by train

- I've found train fares much cheaper when purchased inside Europe. If you are traveling through Germany though, the site is the best in Europe and may allow e-tickets, which most of the others don't. You shouldn't have a problem booking the train when you get to Prague, unless you really want first class (it might be booked up).

- An open-jaw ticket (land it one place, fly out of another) is usually cheaper than trying to get back to where you came in. Consider leaving from a larger hub like Paris or Amsterdam.

- You will probably enjoy the beer in Prague as well and at about 1/4 the cost.
posted by dripdripdrop at 11:45 AM on September 29, 2008

Oh, and is great for finding local discount airlines and loads other info.
posted by dripdripdrop at 11:46 AM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

As this is your first trip I have to say - really, really don't skip Paris, even if it means spending less time in Brussels. Most of my friends who live in Paris who have visited Brussels have been disappointed, to be honest. There's just not a ton to see there. Prague is really quite touristy. But Paris - well, it's iconic for a reason. Seriously, you have got to see Paris!

It's almost always cheaper to fly into and out of the same city for an international flight. But you could get a one-way ticket on one of the low cost airlines in Europe such as Ryanair or Easyjet to get from your final destination city back to where you started from. Just be sure to leave tons of time for your stopover before your international return flight - such as an overnight stay - as you'll lose your return flight if you don't make it back on time (obviously!).

Get flight insurance. A couple of pretty big airlines have been failing in Europe lately.
posted by hazyjane at 11:53 AM on September 29, 2008

I second the open jaw option. Booking that way is usually priced as the sum of half the round trip fares to each city, and is almost always cheaper than trying to bet back to your arrival city if you plan on traveling far.

That said, picking your cities can make a huge difference. Brussels and Paris are both often good for prices. Spend a while plugging different options into a site like Orbitz to get a feel of where the lower prices are. Keep in mind that some of the best savings are in not having to travel far out of your way to get to the airport. Those costs are easy to miss in planning.

I highly suggest finding some good rail maps online and checking out day trip rides (an hour each way or less) from stops along your route. See if those things are within easy reach without a car. I found the rail system to be very good, and all the little towns I stopped in to see were walkable.
posted by Nothing at 12:01 PM on September 29, 2008

Bruge is nicer than Brussels and just a train ride away.
posted by smackfu at 12:14 PM on September 29, 2008

Best answer: Random points, in no particular order:
* @hazyjane is right - don't go to Europe and skip Paris. Rick Steves publishes a great siteseeing itinerary at the bottom of this page.
* One nice thing about the Eurail pass is that you don't have to worry about buying tickets in every location. Note that long train routes in France require advance reservations. See information here. You can also make reservations while you're in Europe - before you leave the train station in a city where you know you'll need reservations on the way out.
* Just fly open jaw. Some of the European discount airlines don't fly into the major airports, so in trying to get back to your original city to fly back to the US, you may end up having to trek across the city back to the major airport. Spend your vacation time seeing Europe, not wasting a day trying to save a few bucks.
* I think you'd be better off riding the train through and staying in the Rhine River valley while seeing the castles and classic German small towns than flying from Prague to Brussels.
* Rick Steves has a great European trip planning area here. I also highly, highly recommend his Best of Europe book.
* Take as many days as you possibly can. Don't shorten your trip because you think you'll "need to get back" for some reason or your job can't live without you. I find that 14 days of travel (not including the day spent flying there and back) is about right.
* Given what you've said you want, I'd go Prague --> Munich --> Rhine River valley --> Brussels --> Paris
* We didn't use or need a travel agent when we went to Europe, but we also spent a ridiculous amount of time planning the trip. We did buy our Eurail passes and made our train reservations through these folks via Rick Steves.
posted by cnc at 12:28 PM on September 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

One more thing - and yes, I'm a total tool for Rick Steves, but his hotel recommendations were uniformly excellent. They were always clean, friendly, relatively inexpensive places in the center of cities. Book directly with hotels in Europe, not through Expedia or Travelocity. Also, many of the hotels are rated on TripAdvisor, so that's a great resource for determining what the hotel will be like.
posted by cnc at 12:31 PM on September 29, 2008

Best answer: Night trains. Seriously. Night trains in Europe are awesome. For the price of a nice hotel room, you can get a pretty nice cabin, minimise (conscious) travelling time and wake up fresh and new in a new city in the morning. I've heard very good things about the Paris > Barcelona trains, and personally took the night train from Krakow to Prague, which was ace.

As you noted, Seat61 is a great resource for planning this kind of thing. Don't underestimate the value of arriving smack in the middle of the city you're visiting, skipping security lines and everything else. You might 'save' fifty dollars on getting a Ryanair flight or something, but you'll lose entire half days of your holiday getting to and from airports, need to pay for shuttles, buses or taxis and generally add administrative overhead and time to your travelling. Properly budgeted for, train travel is an absolute joy in mainland Europe.

But seriously, night trains are ace. And don't be scared of 'wasting' a day or two travelling by train during the day either. A train journey through Austria with a good book is not a day wasted.

Personally, here's what I'd do. Fly into Prague, spend 3 or 4 days there. Night train to Berlin. Spend a day or two there. Night train to Brussels, 3 or 4 days there, then a night train to Paris (or a day train if you want to see some scenery) and a last two or three days there.

There's a massive tendency for people to just compare the ticket prices on these things, but once you've factored in transport and time to and from airports, overnight hotel stays and everything else, night trains are usually about equal or only slightly more, for an infinitely more intimate and enjoyable experience. What I'd urge you to do is budget out the costs and experiment by moving chunks of cash across from your 'accomodation' column into your 'travel' column. For a 14 day holiday with three or four night trains, that's 3 or 4 nights of accomodation you don't need to pay for. I bet you dollars to doughnuts it works out cheaper, or if it's more expensive it'll be max 5-10% more expensive for an exponential increase in comfort and fun.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:32 PM on September 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Is it easier to fly in and out of the same city or can I land in one city and depart from another? Would it be significantly cheaper to do it one way vs the other?

Arriving one place and departing another is trivial and about the same price. Also, Schengen border-crossings are teh rawk! Nothing to worry about here.
posted by cmiller at 12:54 PM on September 29, 2008

Response by poster: @Happy Dave: I really like the idea of taking a night train and avoiding a night in a hotel. Especially since we'd have to take the train anyway. Good idea there.

@dripdripdrop: I'm not looking to skip through Germany. I want to see it so I'd be stopping on my way through. Besides, taking a train through Europe sounds waaaay cooler than flying across it. Big points with my wife too.

@cnc: I'm going to take a look at Rick Steves. I've been checking out Lonely Planet almost exclusively, but I'll look at his stuff too. Thanks.

@Everyone else: Thanks for the advice! I want to see Bruges and Antwerp and Brussels. I just heard that Brussels is a bit cheaper in the summer because the politicians aren't there so rates are lower. Also, it seems like a nice place.

Keep the advice coming. This is great stuff!
posted by bDiddy at 12:57 PM on September 29, 2008

My wife and I are planning a trip to Europe in the spring, and one thing I've discovered thus far is that if you want to use the really cheap airlines (Ryanair, etc), be sure to note the baggage fees. Sure, your airfare between cities might be $25 total, but the extra fees (especially the per-kilo baggage fees) can easily add up to hundreds of dollars. It still might be the best option for you, but caveat emptor.
posted by arco at 1:14 PM on September 29, 2008

Best answer: I live in Brussels, and I think it's an awesome city to live in, but I kind of understand why people think it's not that great to visit, since the Center, with the Grand Place and other tourist attractions is small and very crowded and, in my opinion anyway, not that interesting. (Except for the Museum of Musical Instruments, which is awesome.) The good stuff -- great beer bars, most interesting neighborhoods, best restaurants are all outside of the Center, and so most tourists probably don't make the trip. Brussels is nice in the summer, since many people go on vacation and the city is less busy than during the year. On the other hand, this means that some really cool places are either closed or have limited hours. This isn't the case with the big tourist spots, but good bars and restaurants and shops outside of the tourist district may or may not be open.

Since it doesn't directly address your question, I'll refrain from writing six paragraphs on what I like about this city, but feel free to email/MeMail if you have some specific questions I might be able to help answer.

On the question of if it's worthwhile to rent a car here in Belgium. It's not totally crazy, but you can certainly get around very easily, quickly, and cheaply on the train (check out Inside of the Brussels metro region, traffic is a real nightmare, and public transportation is great ( -- you won't want to have to deal with driving and, worse, parking if you can avoid it. So if you do rent a car, you might want to ditch it before visiting Brussels.

You should know that driving in Belgium is, um, interesting. There are no stop signs -- or, anyway, almost none -- so intersections not controlled by a traffic light are governed by either complicated yield signs, markers painted on the road, or, in most cases, an understanding that, most of the time, traffic entering on the right has the right-of-way. Even if it's a tiny road entering/crossing a major thoroughfare. Needless to say, there are a lot of accidents. People new to Belgium find the whole system to be fairly overwhelming, especially driving in Brussels and other cities. So there's some incentive to take the train when you can. On the other hand, there are definitely a few cool places that you can't go (easily, anyway) without a car.

Also, can you drive a manual? Pretty much every rental car I've ever encountered here is a manual, unless you want to pay like €300 a day for it. Depending on your answer, this may or may not be more incentive to use public transportation.
posted by dseaton at 2:27 PM on September 29, 2008

Don't go in the summer. Go in either May/June or September/October. The weather will be nicer, it'll be less crowded, and flights and hotels may be cheaper.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:39 PM on September 29, 2008

You might consider going to Bruges. It's very pretty and they have really good beer.

I'd recommend against getting a car. You can take trains everywhere, the stations are in the city centers, and European cities have excellent public transportation.

Munich and the Rhine River would be about a zillion times better than Berlin. Berlin is very interesting but not especially pretty, and the history is depressing.

I found the ...For Dummies books to be surprisingly good.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:47 PM on September 29, 2008

Re: arco's comment about the baggage restrictions on Ryanair and Easyjet: weigh your luggage before you leave, and make sure it's in kilograms, not pounds. I took an Easyjet flight in July from Berlin to Paris, I was paranoid about getting massacred with fees, and then my huge bag full of books didn't even come close to the maximum.


Prague may have gotten more touristy, but believe me, your wallet will still thank you for hanging out in the former Eastern Bloc.

On that note, Berlin is great, and not to be missed.

I'd have to second the meh attitude about Brussels. If you like falafel then that main square is for you.

On the other hand, the scariness of driving in Belgium notwithstanding, I'd recommend renting a car and driving through the Ardennes (near the French border). Beautiful rolling hills.

Paris...well, sure, it's Paris, but if you're on a budget, it will murder you where you stand and then defile your carcass with $15 beers. I have to say I enjoyed Rouen and Rennes much more when I was there.
posted by Beardman at 2:56 PM on September 29, 2008

Hey, Hamburg is a cool city. It is situated between Copenhagen, Berlin and Amsterdam. And, more importantly, it is close to Lüneburg, an old medieval salt-mining/trading town that was never bombed or burned to the ground. Because of this, there are all kinds of old and carefully restored buildings built in the typical Hanseatic style with elaborate brickwork and beautiful gables. It is not that stereotypical lederhosen and yodeling crap that you will find "down south".

And if you come, we can have the first Hamburg/Lüneburg meetup.

If you don't, a puppy will die. I might be kidding about the puppy, but you don't want to find out the hard way, do you?
posted by chillmost at 4:00 PM on September 29, 2008

A couple of years ago we went to Belgium for 3 days (2 days in Brussels, 1 in Bruges). Bruges was lovely, Brussels not so much. Nothing wrong with it, it's just a bit boring! For beer drinking, Berlin will suit you just fine. Nthing the suggestions to visit Paris - and why not pop over to London for a couple of days too? Budapest is also amazing and not a million miles away from Prague.
posted by hibbersk at 1:34 AM on September 30, 2008

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