I just ordered my passport.
July 28, 2011 2:02 PM   Subscribe

I want to travel to Europe (France, Germany, Austria, and maybe Poland) this fall. I have never left the United States. I have absolutely no idea how to plan this. Many details inside.

I'm sorry to clutter AskMe with another set of European travel questions, but after culling through the ones previously posted I still don't really know where to begin. I would appreciate any insight you can offer me. Some detrails:

- I am in my late 20's, male, and will be traveling alone. I know one person in Europe (in Graz, Austria) who I will be using as a sort of home base. I plan on this trip lasting about two weeks.

- I have no command of any language other than English. Am I screwed? I plan to try and learn French and German somewhat before I go. What would you recommend to help accomplish this?

- The places I'm most interested in seeing are not generally tourist spots (mostly battlefields.) I have no problem taking trains and buses to the big cities but I was wondering if renting a car was a worthwhile option for seeing the smaller towns. Have you rented a car in Europe? What can you tell me about that?

- I want to spend (including airfare) about $3000.

- Am I out of my mind for thinking this is doable? Please share your afraid-to-travel-but-did-it-and-it-was-awesome stories, too!

I have many, many more questions but I think this is enough for now. Many thanks in advance, Metafilter!
posted by Hey Dean Yeager! to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You will be fine, even if you don't learn any other language.

When the question is travel-related and includes "I still don't really know where to begin.", you need a good, comprehensive guidebook. Lonely Planet is the best known for a reason. Get a copy of "Europe on a Shoestring," (an edition from a few years ago will be fine initially) and read the introductory material and scan the sections for the countries you are interested in visited. That will answer most of your questions and then you can buy more specific country guides and then ask more specific questions here (or on travel-specific boards).
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:09 PM on July 28, 2011

It's far from impossible to get by speaking only English in Europe, but learning a few phrases in other languages will make a world of difference.

I myself have never rented a car in Europe, but you will almost certainly end up with a manual transmission if you go this route. Gas prices are also high compared to what you're used to in the US. You don't need an international drivers permit (IDP), but it also can't hurt to have one. In essence, it's basically a translation of your license, allowing police officers and such to read it. This is not, however, a legal requirement; your license on its own is fine.

Your budget will depend heavily on the duration of your trip, where you stay, and what you eat. Are you open to staying in hostels and eating local food? This will make the trip much more affordable. Shop around for flights. Personally, I book flights using Kayak, but others might have better ideas.

You are not out of your mind. You'll have a blast.

Since you've never been abroad, a few tips. Inform your bank and credit card companies that you'll be in another country. Your passport is your most important item; try not to let anything happen to it.
posted by reductiondesign at 2:13 PM on July 28, 2011

Seconding guidebooks. When I first started planning vacations to weird places I knew nothing about, I went to the library and requested every travel book they had about that place. After you know which ones are best, go buy copies of them so you can take them along - those little one-page city maps in particular are very, very helpful. It's also helpful to have a list of a few basic words (either in your head or on paper) for the purpose of ordering food and drink and asking for the restroom. You will be fine, though. I went to Tunisia few years ago as my first non-US trip in a decade, and hardly anyone there spoke any English at all. After the initial shock wore off, I found it pretty easy to navigate.
posted by something something at 2:15 PM on July 28, 2011

I rented a car in Germany and drove around to different cities, it was fine. Very much like renting a car in the U.S. with a few exceptions: I could only get a stick-shift, the Autobahn is nuts in a crappy rental car, and gas in Europe can be as much as 3x as expensive in the U.S.

I handled all the paperwork ahead of time over the internet so all I had to do was show up, show my U.S. state drivers license, and roll out. If you have any specific questions, I'm happy to answer.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:15 PM on July 28, 2011

I have no command of any language other than English. Am I screwed? I plan to try and learn French and German somewhat before I go. What would you recommend to help accomplish this?

You are not screwed. You should get language guidebooks for French, German, Austrian and Polish. Make sure to learn essential phrases in each language - hello, thank you, I'm sorry but I don't speak German, etc. - and you will be just fine. You could probably get by not even doing this, but then you will be one of those Americans you hear Europeans complaining about. A small effort goes a long way. I think learning even more French and German is a great idea, but it's not necessary.

Also, in Germany I found that nearly everyone was fluent in English and perfectly happy to speak it, though I was only in Berlin, so YMMV.

The places I'm most interested in seeing are not generally tourist spots (mostly battlefields.) I have no problem taking trains and buses to the big cities but I was wondering if renting a car was a worthwhile option for seeing the smaller towns. Have you rented a car in Europe? What can you tell me about that?

Do you know how to drive a manual transmission? If you don't, you can't rent a car in Europe unless you are willing to pay several hundred dollars per day (literally). Even manual rentals run more expensive than the U.S., I think, though I could be wrong about that. Also, gas is a lot more expensive.

Public transport is much, much better in Europe all-around, though, so I think you can see a fair bit of countryside without a car. A car would certainly help in that regard, but you can do it without one.

I want to spend (including airfare) about $3000.

I did two weeks in Europe a couple of years ago and that's about what I spent, maybe slightly more. It's perfectly doable if you stay in hostels and don't go out every single night - it's a budget, but not that tight of a budget, so you can still have fun.

As for airfare, I found a super-cheap round-trip flight to Rome earlier this year using the method outlined in this article.

You are by no means out of your mind to do this. Traveling alone is great, Europe is awesome, and your budget seem pretty reasonable for what you want to do.
posted by breakin' the law at 2:25 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

As far as learning languages, my basic bare minimum rule that I travel by is to learn to say "please," "thank you," "hello," "goodbye," and know your numbers 1-10 in the native language of the country you're visiting. This will cover a good amount of your travelling needs and is especially helpful when you're travelling through Europe and can encounter different languages faster than you can reasonably learn them.

Travel rule Number One, is, of course, Just Go!
posted by shornco at 2:25 PM on July 28, 2011

Regarding the international drivers permit: it depends on the country, and you may not be able to rent the car without it. Best to check. But it is true -- it's not an actual license or legal document, it's in essence a translation of your existing license.
posted by polexa at 2:26 PM on July 28, 2011

Oh, and someone already mentioned this, but get the Lonely Planet guides. Seriously, at this point, I don't even bother with the other guidebooks.
posted by breakin' the law at 2:26 PM on July 28, 2011

...and in Austria they speak German! D'oh! I did know that...
posted by breakin' the law at 2:27 PM on July 28, 2011

get a phrasebook for french and german, and maybe download some basic french and german podcasts. I've been to France, Germany and Austria, and most places I went to people spoke at least a bit of English. Learning basic phrases, pointing and smiling gets you pretty far.

Hostels are a good place to stay, esepcially if they have a shared kitchen space you can buy food & save more money that way. You can find ones that offer private rooms too.

Photocopy your passport, keep a copy with you and a copy with someone at home, in case you lose it or it gets stolen. Don't exhange money at the airport, you'll get screwed. I got the best exchange rates but taking money out of the ATM once I was abroad, but I don't know if that's always the case.

I don't know anything about traveling by car, but I've taken the TGV in France and the rail in Austria and it's an awesome way to travel! Easy to navigate and efficient.
posted by inertia at 2:27 PM on July 28, 2011

OP, particularly if this is your first time abroad, I'd strongly encourage you not to do four countries in two weeks. I'd honestly be loath to do four cities in two weeks.

I think you'll enjoy yourself much, much more if you take it slow. If you're always hustling from hotel to train to plane to tram to hotel to museum, you really won't enjoy it. Reasonable minds may differ, but I think 90% of the fun of traveling is getting to know a city/town/neighborhood/street. So say Graz--you'll be out and about, find a Konditterei to get a pastry for breakfast, then a nice park to eat it in. A nice coffee shop after you go to a museum, then a bar near your friend's place. A store looks cool, but it's closed--come back tomorrow! It's endless fun. When everything is always new because your schedule doesn't let you see the place open itself up to you, it's not as nice; travel becomes a job, because you have to see this gallery and eat at this restaurant before catching the 6:10 to Vienna. Blerg.

I've only rented cars in France, and it's OK. Not too much worse than in the US, but it feels like a hassle. Probably easier to go with a US based company. Make sure you get an automatic if you can't drift stick.

Many Europeans speak some English; I always recommend you return the favor by learning some of the local languages.

You might be pushing it at $3000 for the whole trip, once you factor in airfare, hotels (other than Graz), food, rental cars, and transport between locations. I was in Holland recently, and spent about $1200 on airfare, $1000 on a hotel for a week, and maybe $400-500 on food (plus some more on souvenirs). So, one week, $2600--and I stayed in just two cities. I always tell people to go to supermarkets and eat bread and cheese for lunch (and dinner, if you're inclined).

You WILL have fun though. Good luck!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:31 PM on July 28, 2011

European car rental: check out your options online in advance. If you're renting from a relatively large city and/or popular airport, you shouldn't have a problem getting an automatic, but you will pay more for it. Smaller locations and agencies might not have as many options.

If you want to see stuff in the countryside and it's not a very obvious tourist magnet, then yes, you'll need a car for at least some of your trip.

Although it may seem like from a distance that European sites are closer to each other, driving from place to place can still eat up valuable time that you could otherwise be spending soaking up the air at a historic location, enjoying local food, shopping, etc. Being a driver is slightly less friendly to sightseeing than being a passenger. And, it can limit your alcohol consumption a bit (local beer! local wine! homemade liqueurs!) when you remember you'll need to drive back to the hotel after dinner. Planning things so that you're driving part of the time, taking trains or hanging out in a particular city for part of the time may be worthwhile.
posted by gimonca at 2:32 PM on July 28, 2011

1) The plan to use your friend's as a "base" is not necessarily a good one. It makes little sense to keep returning to the same point if you want to reach all of these destinations in two weeks. I mean, I get that you're going to France to see the Somme or whatever, but as long as you're there, don't you want to see Paris? You actually have a lot of territory to cover!

2) You do not need to speak any languages. Seriously. It's fine. Please and thank you are niceties but you'll be fine.

3) I think renting a car is a really bad idea. I don't think you can afford it. Petrol is around $6.93 a gallon. It would help if you gave us examples or at least the era of the battlefields, but there is basically NO destination of any import that some tiny town isn't entirely set up to serve if that battle happened in the last, say, 200 years. There will be a bus or something.

Basically I would plan to arrive in France or Germany, map out a route that covers all your destinations and returns you to your origin, stay in hostels with a backpack, visit your friend, and have a great time.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:35 PM on July 28, 2011

For comparison, I just checked out options from Toulouse/Blagnac at a major firm (since I know the code and it's quick for me). Two-day rental, 3 months from now. Cheapest car overall: €117. Cheapest automatic: €186. That's before taxes, insurance, other add-ons of course.
posted by gimonca at 2:42 PM on July 28, 2011

Sounds totally doable, but don't plan your itinerary too rigidly - two weeks is not that long but as long as you've got the beginning and end bits covered you can be flexible with the inbetweens. Give yourself a couple of days at the start to hang with your friend and just appricate the sheer novelty of being outside the States.

Short-haul flights are easy to come by but airports can be a pain to get to and from, depending where your ultimate destinations are. Trains are excellent, and pretty cheap in Germany/France/Austria (never been to Poland so no comment) - this rail map will be a big help - also trains will get you closer to places you can actually stay than planes will.

For stop-offs buy a guide book and check whether there is accommodation close to any of your spots - you can often book a room the day before (or even on the day) but if these aren't tourist hotspots it's good to know in advance if they'll be anywhere suitable. Famous battlefields will probably have associated local historians or groups who may speak some English, try googling them beforehand to get in touch - you may find a willing host or two!

Also, solo travel is one of those things you learn by doing. Seriously, rocking up with a ticket, a change of clothes, passport, cash and the willingness to work it out is pretty much all you need at first, you learn the rest by experiencing it. You'll have such a great time - go for it!
posted by freya_lamb at 2:44 PM on July 28, 2011

P.s. I agree with DarlingBri - I'd excercise caution on the car hire friont, it'll be very expensive and driving in Europe is different to driving in the states - you have to negotiate convoluted road systems, manage pick ups and drop-offs, and find fuel and parking in places that were built way before cars came on the scene.

Besides, you'll experience so much more of the country/culture/scenery by using public transport, and it'll be a big confidence boost.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:52 PM on July 28, 2011

Do not pass go, do not collect $200 before checking out Seat61's awesome awesome awesome info on the European train system.

Also: which battlefields are you interested in seeing? Many, many battlefields may have been "countryside" in their day but are now connected in to local bus/train networks as well as any other rural places in Europe, which overall isn't nearly as dire as it would be in America. B-Rail (that's Belgium!) even has a page on visiting Ypres.
posted by mdonley at 3:09 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

$3000 is plenty doable, I think, but you will probably spend nearly all of it.

I guess this is my opportunity for plugging Mission Europe for languages (French, German and Polish). I admit that I can't swear to the effectiveness. The novelty of learning Polish wasn't great enough for me to make it through the Polish podcasts, I speak German and my lousy French was still too much French for it not to be boring. It is possible to find people who don't speak English or not enough English to be useful, but you're unlikely to encounter a transaction or something that can't happen because of a language barrier. (This is true in France and Germany, anyway. Presumably the same for Poland. Everyone I know who's been to Poland has had a language other than English.)

I'm another person in the don't-rent-a-car camp, unless there's somewhere you're desperate to go to that you work out is truly inaccessible otherwise. (I remember my mother laughing at the bloke trying to rent an automatic at the Manchester Airport. It relieved some of the frustration of being in line behind him.) I've been on a train in Germany that had a stop in the middle of a field, so... Battlefields should be in a good guidebook, which will tell you if there's a bus or train that goes there. The worst that's likely to happen is you'll spend an hour or two waiting for a bus back afterwards. (Which is anxious-making, but it does work out.)

Investigate your rail pass options. This will likely save money and give you flexibility. (There are endless configurations of rail pass. 'Youth' is usually defined as 26 and under, so that's something to keep in mind, depending on what you mean by 'late 20s'.)

Step one is probably to book a ticket to somewhere central. (Or at least decide what that place will be.) Then work out where you want to go and consult the train schedules and a map to figure out the order. (Going in some sort of loop is presumably a good idea.) Check somewhere like Hostelworld for places to stay (perhaps only good for cities). Cut places from the itinerary as budget requires. Figure out the rail pass situation. Book tickets and places to stay. (My rail pass experience is that you don't have to book tickets in far advance (or at all), but some trains (ICE? IC?) do require reservations, which you can make at the station (Deutsche Bahn has machines that have English has a language, so you don't even have to brave the ticket window) or probably online.)
posted by hoyland at 3:18 PM on July 28, 2011

I think four countries in two weeks is doable, but pretty ambitious. You can cover a lot a ground in two weeks, but if you do you won't get a whole lot of time to really explore and see the places you're visiting. Maybe try sticking with two countries for this trip, say Germany and Austria?

As for the language thing, you'll be fine. Just pick up a phrasebook and try to learn some of the key phrases before you go (hello, please, thank you, where is __?, etc). I've also had pretty good luck with language podcasts - might be worth checking out.

FWIW, my first solo overseas trip was two years ago to Japan and I had some of the same concerns as you. However it ended up being awesome, far more of an adventure than I expected! I have since traveled back to Asia twice and will be making my first trip to Europe (Hungary & Austria) in a month - can't wait :)
posted by photo guy at 3:27 PM on July 28, 2011

Did anyone mention Tripadvisor yet? I like the reviews on there. Good information can be found.

Also, look at couchsurfing or airbnb for cheaper places to stay (cheaper than hotels). I'm heading on a trip soon and found a place with a kitchen so I can save some money on food.
posted by anya32 at 3:36 PM on July 28, 2011

Oh and a benefit of airbnb and couchsurfing is that you can end up staying with cool folks who can show you around.
posted by anya32 at 3:36 PM on July 28, 2011

I think you'll have more fun if you cut down to 2 or max 3 countries.

Figuring out trains and buses is part of the fun.

Definitely try couchsurfing. It makes traveling alone more interesting and less lonely, and lets you experience a place in a very different way.

For languages, I SO highly recommend the Pimsleur materials. It'll give you a nice comfort level and base.

Ok, first pick your dates and decide where you want to fly in and out of, and get your ticket. Now you're committed!

Then start writing for couchsurfing hosts and researching the places you want to go, and how to get there. The couchsurfing forums are great for getting help on that.

Get some Pimsleur audio materials and do them on your commute.

Then look up the luggage restrictions, especially if you end up using a discount European airline to get from one place to another. They're pretty tight.

Make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months past your return date.

Pack light.

Have fun!
posted by Salamandrous at 4:03 PM on July 28, 2011

1. There's no need or reason at all to consider hiring a car. Not only will it be much more expensive and hard work but it will probably also be slower and you'll get a far less rich experience of the countries.

2. Your very rough itinerary needs at least twice as long as you've budgeted - consider extending your stay if possible.

3. $3000 is a significant amount for 2 weeks - you could easily make it stretch to a month even in the more expensive places.

4. Lonely Planet are not the be all and end all. They are good in a few countries (I don't know about Europe) but often Rough Guides are superior if only because everyone else doesn't have one in their bag.
posted by turkeyphant at 5:25 PM on July 28, 2011

For areas with a strong tourist presence, then you should be fine. People will speak some English, and services will exist to help you. However, when you are going further off the beaten track, then things will be more difficult.

I have gone on a trips that involved hiring a car in Europe and driving around tiny (non-tourist) towns in England, France and Poland. It's my least favourite way to travel, though you do see some really cool things. In Poland particularly, it will be hard work without knowing any of the language, especially by yourself. I did the first ten episodes of Pimsleur (brilliant, brilliant course) in Polish, and spoke fairly decent German (we were along the german border, so the hotel owners spoke German, but no English), but it was complicated to do things like organise breakfast or order food or ask advice.

The travelling you do in Austria will be the easiest, as you have a friend to help you. I would focus on this area, as you have someone to translate and help with logistics.

Gut feeling, $3000 will not be enough, unless you spend essentially nothing on accomodation or limit your car hiring. The Fodor forums can be useful, though can be very critical of over ambitious travel plans by new travellers.

But, please, please do go. It will be awesome, promise, I'm just trying to offset the "it'll be fine" that's prominent in this thread.

How to plan: (there may be other ways, but this is how we've always done it).

1. Pick where you probably want to go. Generally allow at least three days for every city/region. So you can probably manage 4 places.

2. Work out how you're going to get between them. If you're looking at tiny towns/regions, then you start by working out where to hire a car from. Look for regional transport hubs and airports. I strongly advise not to hire a car from the central railway station of a major city, as getting out of the city will be hell. Then work out the longer stretches. Generally, if the train trip is less than 4 hours, I will take the train. Longer than that and I start looking at planes, but remember that getting to and from airports costs money and takes time. Also, I like trains:) Seat 61 and Deutsche Bahn are the go to sites for trains. Sleeper trains sound awesome, but I find them exhausting and stressful when I'm by myself. They can be a good option, if they go where you want to go, and you're willing to pay for first class/can sleep anywhere/don't mind not being able to see the countryside. There's one that goes across the Alps from Austria towards Switzerland, and a few that go from Austria to Germany. Air travel is less logical, and you may end up with a really strange itinery because that's where the planes go. I found flying to Austria suprisingly difficult to arrange, so flew to Berlin instead. At this point you may need to significantly rethink your plans, because the transport options are non-existant/too expensive/take too long/aren't worth the hassle.

3. Start locking down dates and the the cities you're going to fly in and out of. Pay particular attention to any national holidays and Sundays, as things might not be open. Talk to your friend and check he's around. Check availability of trains, internal flights and accomodation on the internet to make sure that there isn't a major festival you had no idea about. Book flights.

4. Book long distance trains tickets and car hire. It didn't used to be like this, but now you can save significant amounts of money by booking trains ahead of time. It makes you significantly less flexible (grar), but is lots cheaper. Consider Eurail passes, but they are rarely worth it unless you value flexibility.

5. Look into accomodation. Tripadvisor is good. If you've got non-flexible flights and train tickets, you may as well book where you're going to stay. This can drive you insane, trying to juggle cost with proximity to transport and authenticity with comfort. Given this is your first trip, I would go for a range of options. Try a youth hostel, a pension, a chain hotel and couchsurfing, for example. Go for comfort and proximity after long days of travelling though.

6. Learn about where your going! Languages, history, culture, films. I find the more context I have for a place, the more I appreciate it.

tl;dr - Yes it'll be worth it, but that sort of trip will take some serious planning and could be very stressful.
posted by kjs4 at 9:47 PM on July 28, 2011

Oh, and I know nothing about battlefields, but it would be worth seeing if you can't track down any local history nuts who speak English. They might even be willing to show you around, but bare minimum they can give you directions and suggestions on what to see.

For the languages - Pimsleur is awesome. Put more effort into the languages you will need when exploring the tiny non-tourist towns by yourself. Particularly Polish.
posted by kjs4 at 10:10 PM on July 28, 2011

Nthing couchsurfing. It's easily the best, cheapest way to see a place. Also you'll get an interior look at a culture in a way you never would have otherwise--by which I mean you'll be brushing your teeth with a local, a wonderfully intimate thing if you've never tried it.
posted by vecchio at 10:50 PM on July 28, 2011

Cars: I highly recommend getting a car to do battlefield tours. In France (where I know best) many of them are not served by trains, the public buses are highly inconvenient or nonexistent, and only some are served by tour companies (also expensive).

You can buy European GPS cards in the US at Best Buy or on Amazon. Make sure you can drive a stick or have double-triple-checked with the rental agency that they have an automatic for you.

How to plan: Frankly in 2 weeks for lots of non-capital-city destinations, I think you may be ambitious and could do well to cut one or even two countries from your planning. Second, that if you are not a person who NEEDS to have your itinerary fixed in stone, consider coming with plans for the first couple days and then doing the rest "on the fly," as you find out how interested you are in each place and how long it really will take you.

If you plan everything, buy your train tickets very early (2-3 months), or consider the Eurail pass, which must be bought from the US. Because of the places you visit, I recommend Austria -> Germany -> France ----budget airline---> Austria, or get your international ticket as US->AT and FR->US.

Language: In small towns, you will have more adventures, but you will find someone. Get a phrase book, or better yet one of the any-language phrasebooks with pictures for various situations. This is the one I have seen most often, and will give you an idea what I mean.
posted by whatzit at 3:17 AM on July 29, 2011

Just so you know, if you have an Android device and a wireless access point you can use the Google Translate app with Google Voice at the same time.

Yes, that means you can use your Android device as a universal translator. It's still pretty heavily in Beta, but it works amazingly well on a vast number of languages. Not saying you're going to want to be holding your phone to your mouth (or the mouths of others you're trying to talk to) but it can at least get you on the right track if your pronunciation is atrocious (or you're in a country with non-Roman characters).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:12 AM on July 29, 2011

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