How do I travel?
February 23, 2013 9:34 PM   Subscribe

Travel veterans of MetaFilter, please help a foreign travel noob figure out how foreign travel works.

I have decided that I want to take a month off around July, and go solo across Europe. Looking at getting a Eurail pass and hitting multiple locations for a few days to a week at a time. My previous travel experience is limited to domestic US flights and weekend road trips. What things should I know, what do I take with me, where to stay (couchsurfing? airbnb? hostels? camping?), recommendations on things to do/see, and overall advice would be much appreciated. I have been devouring info at for the past week, and I want more more more!

Some possibly relevant snow-flakey details:
- late-20s passport-holding USian male
- foreign languages currently limited to (extremely rusty) Spanish
- would like to keep budget around $5000-$7500

I have not decided on exact waypoints yet. I'm thinking of starting in Dublin and zig-zagging east to finish in Istanbul.
posted by jraenar to Travel & Transportation (31 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Some miscellaneous tips.

- It's a lot easier than you'd think. Sometimes I think people make international travel more complicated on purpose, because we assume it's supposed to be complicated or you're not "really" traveling. Just buy a ticket to wherever you want to go. Make sure you have a passport and enough money to do what you want to do there. You just booked your first trip abroad.

- Seriously, passport. You mention you already have one. Do you know where it is? When does it expire? Keep in mind that it can be hard to enter a country with a passport that is approaching its expiry date.

- You do not have enough time to go from Dublin to Istanbul and do any of it justice. If I were you I'd pick a region of Europe you're most interested in and concentrate on that. Don't necessarily limit it to the obvious regions, either. I recently traveled to Italy and discovered that, because of the part of Italy I wanted to visit, Slovenia would be a short bus ride away. You'd never think of Italy and former Yugoslavia/the Balkans as the same part of the world, but hey, why not? Choosing a few countries that are relatively close together will also make a Eurail pass worthwhile, if you're really set on that mode of travel.

- On your budget the sky is pretty much the limit. You should definitely opt for whatever most interests you and don't get blindsided by what's cheap, or what's the hot destination this year, or whatever. I mean, some of that is good, but if I had $7500 for a month in Europe, I know exactly what I'd do, and it wouldn't be CouchSurfing through the Ukraine.

- Do you have to travel in July? That's the most touristy month in pretty much all of Western Europe. If it were me, and I had plenty of cash but had to travel in July, I'd probably head for Scandinavia, the Baltic States, or Russia. But like I said, with that kind of money you should go wherever you most want to go and don't worry about the annoying calculus of Where To Travel.

- Everything can be done online and/or via smartphone now. There's no need to, for example, look in your guidebook for lodging ideas. You can book on hostelbookers or airbnb, from your phone, while using the free wireless in the train station. Similarly, most museums now allow you to buy advance tickets online -- do this, especially if you're going in July.

- Speaking of, if you have even a vague sense that you'd like to visit heavily touristed places like Paris or Rome, think about what you'd like to see and do. You may need to book things a lot further in advance than you'd think. For example, if you want to see the Last Supper in Milan, you're going to want to buy your tickets now. Also think if there's some kind of event or experience you want to take part in, or a special tour you want to book.

- In my opinion, guidebooks are great for figuring out where you want to go and what you want to do there, as well as whetting your appetite for the trip and giving you some cultural and historical background. Nowadays they are pretty obsolete for things like where to sleep and eat.

- Unless you plan to get very far off the beaten track, I wouldn't worry too much about the language barrier. I've traveled pretty widely in Europe, often in countries where I don't speak a word of the language, and it's always been fine. There've been awkward moments, but that's what travel is all about. I actually had more trouble in South America trying to get by in a language I studied for years than I did in Slovenia or Turkey. You'll be fine. You may want to listen to language podcasts or Pimsleur CDs before you go, but I wouldn't worry about being up shit creek without a dialectical paddle. A lot of people in Europe speak English (especially people involved with the tourist infrastructure), and you can bridge a lot of gaps with a few stock phrases, creative gestures, and a smile.
posted by Sara C. at 10:15 PM on February 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

Personally I like longer at fewer destinations. Presume you will have another opportunity to go back to Europe and don't have do to everything at once (alternatively, some people do like the quick trip to check it all out and then return another time to the places they really liked). So I like to pick one or two things or places that I would like to do, and then work out what logically can fit in with that. I think Dublin to Istanbul is waaaay too much - a lot of distance. You will need some quieter time in a month of travel. I also don't like peak tourist seasons and have found travelling in shoulder or off season to be fabulous, so would be inclined to skip July unless I had to go then.

Don't take too much with you. I travel with a bag that is small enough to be carry-on for all my trips (business trips, long trips in Europe, short trips in Asia). You don't need to wear hiking shoes and cargo pants in European cities, any more than you do at home - in case you were thinking of buying a lot of 'travel wear'. I wear my usual jeans and boots and jackets etc.

Sounds like you could spend whatever you like on accommodation. I love renting apartments and pretending to be a local (shop at the market, hang out in the coffee shop), but for just a few days, a well-located hotel is good too. I haven't had much luck with hostels - haven't met that many people and have found them uncomfortable (noisy). I like meeting other people through things like a little walking tour (you can often find them in different themes to fit your interests - food, history, art, design). Couch surfing, with a back up option, could be a good way to meet people.

I have only done a long day trip on Eurail (Venice -> Vienna) and loved it! While night trains will save you a night of accommodation, on a month's trip, a rest day on a train could be quite nice and I loved the scenery. You might find that you don't need a Eurail pass, just book the tickets that you need. Your budget is such that you might also find hiring a car useful at times, if you are getting away from the big cities.

You should be able to buy an open jaw air ticket that will let you fly into one city and fly out of another - it depends on routes, but this can save backtracking at the end of your trip.
posted by AnnaRat at 10:28 PM on February 23, 2013

- To begin with, Wikitravel should not be your primary source of inspiration. It's a great guidebook substitute, but is rather dry. Check out the travel sections of major newspapers such as the New York Times (Frugal Traveler blog in particular), the Guardian, and also the National Geographic.

- This is why Dublin to Istanbul might be a bad idea: if you spend two weeks in Dublin, then hop on a flight to Istanbul and spend two weeks there, that would be perfectly reasonable. You could even take the train, although it would take three days and not be very pleasant. However, that's not what you're doing-- you want to break up all that travel into tiny little pieces so you can see as much as possible. Even though you'd be traveling the same distance, it would take much, much longer.

When you're backpacking, "travel time" includes much more than the time spent in transit: you have to find Internet access to check timetables, make a hostel reservation, pack all your belongings into an impossibly tiny bag, locate and walk to the train station, buy the ticket, wait for the train, take the train, change your money, get lost ten times before you finally find your hostel, grab dinner at McDonalds because you're too exhausted to do anything else, and repeat the next day. Travel is very tiring, especially if it's your first time and you're alone. You don't want to be that guy who spends all day in the hostel sleeping.

- Get an card that doesn't charge a fee for international ATMs. This will save you so much money it's not even funny.

- In addition to the major sights, take time to explore your interests and hobbies. It will make the trip more memorable!
posted by acidic at 11:04 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

In terms of how long to spend in any one place, everyone is different of course (and on a month long trip you'll discover your own rhythm). I prefer 3-4 sleeps per destination on average, though some one nighters are fun, and I also enjoy a longer stay in places that I fall in love with.

There've been towns I've rolled into and been like "get me outta here!" and other places where I never wanted to leave. With a month and pretty much anywhere in Europe at your disposal, you should have the flexibility to see what works for you. You don't have to plan a month nearly as intensively as you plan a week.
posted by Sara C. at 11:12 PM on February 23, 2013

Get or borrow the Lonely Planet Guide to Western Europe and use that to get a sense of what you'd like to see. A month is enough for a country or a region; not for the continent. You could do "Spain" or "British Isles" or "Paris, Amsterdam and vicinity" or "North Italy and Austria" or "Italy including Sicily" or "Rome, Naples, Athens, Istanbul"... some cluster like that.

I never used a Eurail pass when traveling in Europe; YMMV. I was mostly in one country at a time so it didn't make sense.

Hostels are fun when traveling alone even if you don't need to be budget conscious, because they are a great way to make the trip social. I would plan on at least some hostel stays. Maybe stay in hotels in cities where you are only going to be for a night or something like that.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:25 PM on February 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Echoing what a few have already said here:

Fewer destinations, longer stays, shorter itinerary (distance-wise) is a good way to go. People on whirlwind tours tend to blur all the sights into one smear of cobblestones cafes museums cathedrals. At least a couple days per stop - 3-4 is better - lets you get a real feel for each place.

Beyond that, random notes:

If you're Eurailing, overnight sleepers allow you to cover a bunch of distance and save a night's accommodations. Plus train travel in Europe is the very best train travel there is. You've got the budget for a bit of high-speed rail -- German ICEs, French TGVs, Spanish AVEs -- and they are a sight in themselves.

In July, many of the package-tour destinations -- Paris, Rome, Florence, Amsterdam -- will be absolute zoos of tourists. Strong motivation to leave the beaten track. If rural Hans Christian Andersen idylls are your speed, Denmark's got some charming-as-hell small islands (e.g. Samso, Aero). Berlin's got enough fascinating neighbourhoods (Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, others I'm sure I'm not hip enough to know about) that are far from the tour-bus crowds. Plus Berlin's just a great city to be young and footloose in.

Spain, if you want to chip the rust off your Spanish, has never been anything less than awesome in my experience, though parts of it will be ferociously hot in July. The Costa Brava north of Barcelona's another somewhat-less-beaten-track possibility.

Düsseldorf's one of the world's great beer-drinking party towns. Altbier from brewpubs in thin 200ml glasses that keep coming till you physically cover your lid to say nicht mehr.

Freiburg's a great university town, with a fascinating old city, some great old Gasthausen and beer gardens, and the world's greenest suburb, Vauban.

There is no better way to spend a day in a European city than exploring Copenhagen by bike. (These guys will set you up with wheels.)

Bring as little as possible. It's Europe -- they can supply you with anything that suddenly seems essential.

That said, if you're going to be spending most of your time in European cities and you want to try to blend in, bring your smartest wrinkle-proof casual clothes. There's some stylish folks on the avenues out there.

Eat where the locals eat and what they eat. Mostly cheaper and always better than the tourist traps. But also splurge on a great meal or two when/if you can. Wine's often cheaper than bottled water, and in places where it isn't, beer is.

Don't sweat the language barriers. The further north you get, the better the English gets, for the most part, until you hit Scandinavia where everyone's English is better than yours. Europeans from every walk of life are in any case well used to muddling through with people who don't speak their language. Learn to say please and thank you and I'm sorry I don't speak ______ in the local language in every country you're in. It's just good manners, and it endears you, and sad to say it distinguishes you from the vast majority of your fellow tourists.

Make an itinerary if you want, and plan ahead as much as you need, but if you can maintain certain amount of flexibility in case City X turns out to be exactly your speed, that's a good thing.

You will not see Europe. You will not see most of Europe. So don't try. My parents lived in Germany for five years and I worked two summers there and I've been somewhere in Europe on work trips or extended-working-holiday at least every other year for the past 10, and I still couldn't tell you where to go in Budapest or what to eat in Naples. It's a vacation, an experience, not a list of chores to complete.

So have a hell of a lot of fun and bon voyage!

(And if you want really specific info on Germany or Denmark, MeMail me -- I've spent a particularly large amount of time in both of those countries somewhat recently.)
posted by gompa at 12:42 AM on February 24, 2013 [11 favorites]

Oh, and drop a rest day into your itinerary every 10 days or so. You'll need to do laundry, run errands, just sit still and absorb some of what you've seen and done. Even the grimiest little industrial towns usually have a pleasant square with a cafe where you can sit and read and write a few postcards or whatever.
posted by gompa at 12:47 AM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

A camera or mobile device can be a great aid - take pictures of schedules, maps, signs, words that might be useful along the way. Tiny LED headlamps with a retractable cord are really handy. Good shoes.

Personally, I'd cover as much ground as possible. It is more exhausting physically and mentally, but has its own rewards (more akin to a band on tour or an extended roadtrip). If you don't like it or you find a place you don't want to leave, you can just stop.

One of the best ways off the beaten path is to let yourself get carried away by the seemingly trivial things that come up. On a whim, I spent a day trying to find a sports bar with a satellite feed of some NFC Conference game. I saw a cross section of the place I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Can't even remember who won the game.
posted by lowest east side at 1:37 AM on February 24, 2013

I think the most common mistakes first time "foreign" travellers make are 1) over packing 2) over planning 2b) trying to see ALL THE THINGS.

As an example, the Prado is an amazing museum. It's also not going anywhere. If you don't go to Madrid or do go to Madrid but don't go to the Prado, you have not failed to see Europe or even Madrid. I spent a perfectly lovely long weekend in Prague walking around my hotel's local neighbourhood and ducking into shops, cafes, one museum and several libraries I'd never heard of. In Rome I intentionally got lost every day and ended up seeing an amazing set of churches, including several smaller than my living room, that don't appear in any guidebooks because Rome's churches are so numerous and basically all amazing.

But then, there is no part of me that wants to cover as much ground as possible in a given location. I prefer three days here, two days there, three days at some random stop on the way to somewhere else. Your preferences may vary significantly. You should plan accordingly.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:11 AM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know it is unfashionable, but about a decade ago my husband and I did two trips of 6 and then 8 weeks back-packing through Europe including a bit of 'it's Thursday it must be Brussels' type of thing - spending only a few nights in each place (e.g. 3 nights in Venice, 5 nights in Rome) and having a blast. We were young, we were as much in it for the 'travel' as 'experiencing different culture and really living like the locals' and didn't mind being tourists now and then. That said, we walked A LOT, only ever took one organised tour and that was with this expat giving an 'alternative view of Granada' which was brilliant, and we loved wandering around foreign supermarkets organising cheap meals. We didn't see much of the tourist spots in Venice, but I am sure to this day I can find you the best supermarket all the locals in that certain neighbourhood go to ...

We didn't know about couchsurfing then, but we do now and use it to this day. If you want to meet locals (and save on costs) it is brilliant. If you don't want to interact with strangers, you should avoid it. If you stay at hostels (which are not as cheap as you think these days) you also tend to meet some pretty interesting characters, who can often give you some great info on other places to stay. We were a couple, so there was less chance of getting lonely (and even now, I am the type who is happy to travel on her own) but if you are the sort who is prone to needing a bit of interaction with others now and then, couchsurfing or staying at a hostel, mixed with some time in hotels or B&Bs so you have your own space, may be the way to go.

As others have already pointed out, if you have not done a lot of travel what might surprise you is how much time the actual 'travel' bit takes - the waiting around, the late trains, the missed connections, the getting lost.

Last bit of advice - avoid the long distance bus travel, use the trains instead. And have fun - don't let it stress you out when things are not working out exactly as you hoped. Remember you are choosing to do this for fun!
posted by Megami at 2:36 AM on February 24, 2013

Theme your trip!

Don't just go places because they're the places that everybody goes. Find something that interests you: a political movement, a type of art, a period in history, a group of writers or whatever and then plan your itinerary like you were doing research for a book on the subject. 

So if you were really into Byron, I'dd suggest you start your trip in Scotland where he was raised, then go south to England and see Cambridge where he studied, then go to Lomdon and see the memorial to him in Westminster or visit The British Museum and see the marbles that inspired The Curse Of Minerva.

From the UK, I'd suggest you head for Portugal and make a trip to Sintra, the hilltop town full of little taverns and picturesque ruins that Byron called "the most beautiful in the world". After Portugal, you could go to Italy and see Pisa, where he wrote much of Don Juan and Portovenere where there's a cave named after him on the coastline that inspired him. 

Then make your way along the Mediterranean to Kefalonia and Missolonghi where he fought in the war of Greek independence and died, to see the cenotaph that contains his heart.

That's just an example, but I think giving a multi-country vacation a theme helps prevent your memories from being the mad blur of interchangeable cobblestones that gompa mentioned above. Work out what you want from a vacation, whether that's photographs of awesome landscapes or haunted houses and build your itinerary around that.
posted by the latin mouse at 2:42 AM on February 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

If I had one month and rusty Spanish, i would hit Spain, and maybe a little bit of France. Take your time. The best time thing about long term solo travelling is the chance to really get to know a place, and freedom to move around and do anything with anyone. Just buy a ticket to Madrid or Barcelona, book a room at a nice hostel, and then figure out the rest of your trip when you get there. Get to know some people, tag along on tours, etc. Spend a weekend in Ibiza, or something. A Dublin to Istanbul trip is like a 6 month trip. You can do it faster, but you'll be spending all your time on trains and you'll be a slave to your travel schedule.
posted by empath at 4:00 AM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with others that a month is not enough time to really "do" everything between Dublin and Istanbul. But you're still going to have a really amazing trip! This is what I'd recommend:
  • Read Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door (1) (2). It's pretty much perfect for you: designed for the new international traveler from the US who wants to go to Europe. I think you will not only be a lot more comfortable with the idea of travel, you should also have a better idea of where you want to go and how you want to travel (i.e. slow/fast, hostels/b&bs/hotels, trains/short flights/buses, independent/tour group). I read it before my first solo trip to Europe and it gave me so many really useful tools, both for planning the trip and for actually being there.
  • Narrow it down. What do you really want to do? When you picture yourself In Europe, what do you dream about? What are the two or three things, experiences, challenges or places that you have to go to for it to be a successful trip? A region, a couple of countries, three cities, rural pubs of the British Isles, long distance walking routes, French cafe culture, art museums, World War II history, southern Italian cooking classes. It doesn't really matter how you narrow it down, but try to think of one or three things that you really want to do. For me right now, this would be Italy for three weeks - food, churches, trains, beaches - and then a week of walking through Northern Wales. I've previously done a trip of "Northern France for 2 weeks, Belgium for 1 week". Or, "Two week driving tour of Ireland," "Camp in the Czech Republic for 2 months" or "Barcelona, Amsterdam, London, Dublin for 3 nights each". But really I think that after reading Europe Through the Back Door and really thinking about the two or three experiences that you dream about when you think of yourself in Europe, I think you'll have a good idea what you want to do.
  • Think about possibly doing an organised tour for a bit. If you're a little unsure or this if your first time traveling by yourself and you're worried about getting lonely, this can be a great way to start off, get a taste of some things, get some skills under your belt and meet some other people traveling around. I'm thinking something with younger folks like Contiki or Busabout. For example, there's England and France in 9 days, Italy in 12 days, Croatia to Istanbul in 9 days, Spain and Portugal in 7 days. I don't recommend doing tours the whole time, but doing one at the beginning of your holiday for a week or so could be a nice way to settle in. When you've finished, you'll be more confident traveling on your own plus you may have met some interesting travel companions.
Best of luck, I think you'll have an awesome time.

posted by mosessis at 4:12 AM on February 24, 2013

I understand people who like to dwell in fewer places on vacation, but I don't get why people are telling you to do this. You say you want to spend a few days to a week at a time per place. I am not sure what the problem is with this. You don't sound like you think you're going to be seeing 'all' of Europe.

I have yet to go somewhere and think I needed more than a few days there. That's what works for me, usually, because I'm with my wife and we don't go to many museums. We walk the hell out of a city, see the sights, and usually have time for a day trip or two without feeling like we missed much. We're not 'meet the locals' types, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Different strokes.

You asked for recommendations. If I were doing what you want to do, and hadn't already been to the following places, my itinerary might look like this:

2 days Dublin
3 days London
2 days Amsterdam
1 day Brussels
3 days Paris
2 days Barcelona
3 days Rome
2 days Venice
1 day Salzburg
2 days Vienna
3 days Prague
3 days Istanbul

That's aggressive, and leaves out some pretty great places I haven't yet been. It leaves a few days aggregate for travel time, which, by the way, doesn't all have to be on trains. There are a number of low-cost airlines in Europe, and flying can be cheaper while alleviating people's concerns about how much time train travel can take; you might get up early in Barcelona and fly to Rome and be in the city that morning. If you know you'll be back to Europe frequently, feel free to slow it down, but I know I'm lucky to get there more than once a year, so I pack my trips. We flew to Prague on Turkish Air and got two daylong layovers in Istanbul and we obviously missed some cool stuff for not staying there longer, but we saw and did a lot of cool stuff too. If we were big on museums and 'local' neighborhoods, we'd have done it differently. is my go-to for airfare, although I've been enjoying the way displays flight options. is my main source for hotel and restaurant recommendations, and also is good for attractions, although I like it more for people's reviews of lesser known stuff and things like Segway tours than I do to tell me whether I should go to the Louvre. For that, I like guidebooks, in my case the Rough Guides. Those are also good for day trip ideas, in case you decide all the big cities are starting to overwhelm you; you can flip through and be presented with some different options/experiences. Pick a city you are thinking of going to and go to your library and find the guides for it, and you'll see if any of them appeal to you.

I agree that there are better months than July. I'm partial to May and September myself. will give you monthly average temps. But flights will be cheaper the further away from summer you get, and places like Venice will be a little less packed.
posted by troywestfield at 6:39 AM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Everyone else has great advice so far. I just wanted to say that my favorite thing about traveling in foreign locations is visiting places that aren't the Big Famous Cities. My best times traveling have been wandering around smaller towns you don't hear about so much, happening upon local cafes and staying in B&Bs. I know it's tempting to want to see all the big tourist sites, but I really think you get a much better feel for what a country is like by seeing its real people and places. Plus, I always need a quiet break after spending a few days in a big city, and am usually ready to move on after a couple of days or so, even if there is more to see there that I haven't gotten around to yet. Get off the train in places you've never heard of, at least a few times, and see what you run across.
posted by something something at 7:26 AM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here to give a shoutout to Couchsurfing -- it's not just about saving money - you will also be staying with someone who lives in the city you're visiting, and many hosts really enjoy hosting -- taking you to their favorite local spots, telling you which touristy places are worth it and which you can skip, lending you a bike, etc.

Nthing packing light and planning to do laundry while there.

The cheapest way to get euros is usually just withdrawing from an ATM with your US debit card (depending on your account's associated fees). Since you have some planning time, consider setting up a Capital One 360 online checking account and/or getting a credit card like Chase Sapphire or Capital One Venture, which have no foreign transaction fees (annual fee waived for first year).

Avoid RyanAir; Easyjet is usually ok. Fly between long distances, use trains for closer destinations (read: less than 10hr train ride).

As a foodie, I like my trips to mainly be food and walking. I love just walking the streets of whatever city/town I'm in, and eating frequent small meals so I can "taste" as much of the area as possible -- sure I'll pass some famous places, or duck into a museum, but I'm not going to waste 2 hours in line just to walk through the Uffizi.

Everything will be busy in July, so just expect that.

Some specific areas I'd recommend: Basque Country/San Sebastian, Florence, and Mykonos.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:30 AM on February 24, 2013

Everyone here has already given excellent advice. I agree with troywestfield - if you want to hit up a ton of cities in Europe, it's possible, but you will have little rest. It all depends on your visiting style.

Also, you have a good budget but beware - depending on your lifestyle and choices, the money could go pretty fast. I once blew through 2K+ USD during two weeks in London back in 2000, although I was eating out a lot, going to concerts, etc.

Also, +1 for Couchsurfing - it's a great way to meet locals (who may even turn out to become friends) and, of course, it's cheap. Other cheap lodging options include camping and Accor/Ibis/F1 hotels.

As others have pointed out, July is kinda a crappy month but at least it's not August. All of Europe is basically on vacation during those two months.

Beware Eurail- in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, you will have to reserve your seat and pay for it (apparently a 'nominal fee', I was recently quoted an extra 9EUR per person for the month of April, but apparently it all depends on the route, time of the year and how many seats are left on the train).

It's fine if you don't speak another language but do try to learn basic phrases in the local language. Also, I can't comment much on Northern Europe but for Southern Europe, French is probably the handiest language to have (besides English).

Also, everything is smaller here. Forget the North American supersized world. Sounds like a funny thing to point out but you'll see what I mean when you get here.

Have a ball!
posted by faraasha at 8:47 AM on February 24, 2013

a bit of 'it's Thursday it must be Brussels' type of thing - spending only a few nights in each place (e.g. 3 nights in Venice, 5 nights in Rome)

I think if this is your approach to the "whirlwind" trip, you'd be fine. three to five days is enough to get a good sense of all but the biggest European cities. The stuff I'm leery of is the stuff troywestfield mentions:

2 days Dublin
3 days London
2 days Amsterdam
1 day Brussels
3 days Paris
2 days Barcelona
3 days Rome
2 days Venice
1 day Salzburg
2 days Vienna
3 days Prague
3 days Istanbul

That's 27 days of tourism, all in cities, and doesn't allow for even the slightest delay or change of plans or feeling a little slow or needing to take care of personal errand.

You'd depart Wherever, USA on day 1. Depending where Wherever is, you may have an entire day of travel just to get to Dublin. There are direct flights from a few East Coast cities, but anywhere west of the Mississippi you'll have to change planes. I noticed in your profile that you're in the SF bay area, so yeah, it's going to be a long and tiring day of travel.

So now it's day 2, and you're getting off a plane in Dublin. You are jetlagged all to hell and lose one of your days either being completely fucked with exhaustion or catching up on sleep. So now you have one day to see Dublin. And you've got to get on a plane to London tonight! So much for visiting Dublin... it was really more of a day trip.

But hey, it's day 4, and you've made it to London! Three whole days sounds like a treat compared to the exhausting five days that preceded it. You rush around trying to cram in as much London as you possibly can.

By the time you hit day 7, you're exhausted again, and it's time to fly to Amsterdam. Since you only have two days in Amsterdam, you can count on losing one of them to either sheer exhaustion or needing to take care of errands, not to mention the travel time needed to reach your next destination. Wow, what an amazing jam-packed day trip you had in Amsterdam! Think of all the stories you'll tell back home! Wait, no you won't. You were there for barely 48 hours, several of which were spent trying to find wifi to book AirBnB in Paris.

It's day 10! This must be Brussels! You wouldn't know, since you're only here for six hours and you're a hungover post-Amsterdam mess.

Whew, good thing you've got a luxurious three days in Paris to rest up a bit. Oh, wait. It's Paris. You're back in that same dilemma from London. You spend the whole three days rushing around Paris trying to scratch the surface of the major sights in your guidebook that people will assume you visited, like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. You wanted to squeeze in a day trip to Versailles, but the only Paris-Barcelona train you could get was at 2pm, so there goes that idea.

Day 14 finds you halfway through the trip in Barcelona. You visit that one Gaudi cathedral, kinda sorta don't really get it, and collapse in an exhausted heap at your hotel. It's a good thing, too, because if you hadn't, you'd probably have been pickpocketed. Ain't nobody got time to get pickpocketed, you've got to be in Rome tomorrow!

Days 16 through 20 are OK, now that you've rested up a bit in Spain. Whoops, you missed all of Spain sleeping off the other countries you visited. Which were what, again? You resolve to do better going forward and really take the time to get a feel for the places ahead on the itinerary. Too bad your three days in Rome and two days in Venice don't allow you to spend any time visiting sights that are out in the countryside, like Pompeii. You booked an overnight train between the two cities, which saved you a hotel room but cost you the opportunity to see what Italy looks like outside of the cities. You'll be sleeping under the Tuscan moon, which is not nearly picturesque enough to turn into a book title.

You wake up on the morning of day 21 in Salzburg. Finally, a simple small town to explore without worrying that you have to SEE ALL THE THINGS. Oh, except you're really just here for lunch and a quick trip to Mozart's house or whatever the fuck there is to do in Salzburg. Are you even interested in Mozart? Eh, you've got a train to Vienna at 3pm so whatever.

Days 22 and 23 in Vienna could work, though by now you're starting to wonder who you even are anymore and end up blowing another day catching up on sleep, laundry, and facebook. Wow, another short day trip to a major world city you could easily have spent a week in.

But soon it's day 24. You're in Prague, and starting to feel sad that your trip is almost done. You spend your three days in Prague enjoying yourself at a sane pace, for the first time in more than three weeks of travel. You board a train to Istanbul, and it's a bittersweet feeling.

The sweetness doesn't last long, though because you've got two days in Istanbul to somehow make sense of the place. It's hot, packed with tourists, and touts follow you everywhere trying to get you to hire them to take you on a tour of the Blue Mosque. You get lost for hours in the winding streets around the Grand Bazaar trying to find something to eat that isn't either sardines or sheep intestines. On the last night, you accidentally brush your teeth with tap water. You have a miserable flight back home and spend your first three days back home in the bathroom.

Wow, what an incredibly fun month in Europe you just had! You decide never to take an international trip again and go around telling everyone about how overrated Europe is.

TL;DR: just because you can physically travel overland from Dublin to Istanbul in a month doesn't mean you should.
posted by Sara C. at 10:05 AM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Dublin to Istanbul in 1 month? That doesn't really sound like that much fun. I once spend 3 weeks driving around France - and that seemed too rushed really.

I would pick just 4 - 5 cities and visit those for about a week each and try and get out of the city as well while there out into the countryside.

Ad i'd probably skip Dublin unless you know people there - I found I pretty dull. If its your first trip i'd focus on some of the classics - just Rome, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul say.
posted by mary8nne at 10:57 AM on February 24, 2013

Double the money, half the packing.

(That's pretty much been my go-to for international travel. Your budget does seem pretty large, granted, but Europe can be pretty expensive even for the basics.)
posted by divabat at 11:38 AM on February 24, 2013

How much time you want to spend in each place really depends on your personality - personally, I love doing the whirlwind trips where I spend only a few days at most in each place, sometimes just sleeping on the overnight bus from town to town in lieu of a hotel. But that's because I'm the kind of person who gets bored after an hour at a place the book suggests you spend the whole day at. And when I'm traveling, I usually wake up early and see as much stuff as I possibly can until late at night. I've never felt like my trips have been too rushed, or that I didn't "really" experience some place. Sure it's tiring, but I have my everyday life to lie about on the couch!

I suggest just making a rough outline of cities you want to see, allocate time to each, and just make a note of which places you must be by some certain date, e.g. if you've pre-booked flight tickets. Then when you're actually on the ground, you can change things around and spend some extra time someplace if you really need it, or just head to the next city if you find the current one boring.

Of course, with this travel style you will inevitably miss out on some sights because the timing doesn't work out, or end up getting stuck in the middle of nowhere because you went too late and everything's closed, but I've always felt the misadventures are all part of the fun.
posted by pravit at 2:29 PM on February 24, 2013

The following is gleaned from a couple trips within a more limited geographic range than you're proposing.

A possibly surprising thing that was essential to know about Europe before I did the backpacking/hostel thing for a month:
-They use chip and pin cards so the only ATMs I could use with my normal U.S. Mastercard were International ATMS (clearly labeled), which worked out okay because there was one in nearly every larger/central train station so I didn't need to carry too much cash.

Possibly surprising things that were merely nice to know:
-Many of the metro systems I encountered used ticket validation rather than turnstiles so know how that works.
-Don't walk in the bike lanes, this is harder to keep track of than it sounds when you're wandering around.
-Definitely don't bring a sleeping bag, and in fact don't even bring a sleep sheet (I did and I only used it once).
-Packing light (a carry-on sized bag) is awesome. Use some kind of packing cubes or subdivision system.
-In summer, it's hot and hard to carry enough water, and it's much cheaper to buy in any kind of supermarket than in any shop that serves mostly tourists

Surprising Euro-centric and just international travel things that would have been nice to know:
-Relying on ATMs for cash and doing lots of weird travel things means you will come up short on small bills at awkward times if you don't plan to break large bills somehow.
-I showed up all early for my first train ride thinking there would be security or, I dunno, boarding or something? No, you just walk in, get on the train, pick out a seat, and they'll check during the ride. I only had to present my ticket at the door on one weird train.
-Many train stations had lockers for luggage that took coins, even in small towns.
-It would have been nice to get one of the neat ticket/paperwork plastic sleeve things that I saw everyone using because my stuff tended to get crumpled or disorganized.
-Flying back home, some of the airports have security screening or passport control right at the gates which is great at times and terrible at others.
-The "time left" display on the washing machine is often dynamic so don't bank on whatever it says.
-Contact lens solution is exactly as hard to find (in Germany at least) as the travel guide suggested, I only found it at the optician.
-Even in July I didn't encounter any trouble finding a place to sleep by just showing up or extending my stay; if I had believed that it was really no big deal at the beginning of my trip I could have avoided a dull day or two in some places and stayed longer in others.
-Take with a grain of salt a lot of weird travel advice that acts like Europeans never wear or will point and laugh at jeans or tennis shoes, or suggests you need some odd equipment or new behavior that has no other use beyond this trip, etc. This point probably even applies to at least a few things on this list.
posted by zizania at 3:36 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

My one bit of advice: if you go the hostel route- which I would- google 'Hostel Name + bedbugs'. Trust me on this one.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 4:58 PM on February 24, 2013

In the fall of 2011 I spent about 17 days going to London, Paris, Mosel River Valley in Germany, and Amsterdam. I walked my feet off and was often too exhausted to do much in the evenings. Of course, I'm about 10 years older, so you probably have youth on your side. Still, my advice would be to keep things slow and smell the roses a bit. Realize you are not going to see everything there is to see, so prioritize.

Zizania mentioned just showing up for trains, this will be true everywhere but on the Eurostar going from London to Paris. That one you need to show up about a half an hour before departure. I got extremely lucky when I was there (ran late thanks to pre-Olympics construction delays on the Underground) and managed to get on my train, but I know others have not been so fortunate.

If you plan on staying in hostels, check out user reviews on sites like Besides the bedbug issue, they can tell you if the hostel is geared more towards the party crowd if that's what you're into or help in finding the more quiet places if you are not.

I didn't go with multi-day organized tours, but short, guided tour such as London Walks or Fat Tire Bike Tours can be a change of pace from touring on your own and a lot of fun.
posted by weathergal at 8:45 PM on February 24, 2013

Excellent answers all around, thanks! Marked a few that stood out. After this feedback, I think I will try going a bit earlier, around May.

The Dublin-to-Istanbul zig-zagging seems to have struck as a more concrete idea than it really is. It's more of, "hey, I think seeing Dublin would be awesome," and a, "I remember seeing a few AskMes about food in Istanbul and that sounds AMAZING." Then throw in three flexible stops along the way.
posted by jraenar at 10:18 PM on February 24, 2013

If you want to see both Ireland and a more Mediterranean part of the world, you might look into flying into Dublin, staying a few days, then continuing on to Rome or Athens, from which you could start your overland travel towards Istanbul. Istanbul is one of my favorite cities, the food is wonderful, and I didn't mean to smear it or anything in my How Not To Travel reply. It's just not a great place to tack on two or three days at the end of a long exhausting trip.

You might look at something like:

3 days Dublin
Fly to Rome
3 or 4 days Rome
2 or 3 days Florence
2 or 3 days Venice
(optional week or so in Croatia?)
2 or 3 days Athens
(maybe a Greek island? Crete would be ideal.)
A week to 10 days in Turkey, including plenty of time in Istanbul and side trips to some of the amazing archeological sites in Western Turkey like Bergama and Ephesus.

Even that is quite a bit to squeeze into a month, but it's a lot more realistic than Dublin, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, etc.
posted by Sara C. at 11:08 PM on February 24, 2013

One more thing travel books are good for: telling you which things you might want to visit are closed on certain days. Granted, sometimes the guide is a couple of years old, so I'll confirm online anything I really want to visit, but the guide will tip you that something isn't open 7 days a week. If not for my Rough Guide, we would have gone to the spice market on our first day in Istanbul and then, on our second, to the Grand Bazaar -- only to learn it's closed on Sundays.
posted by troywestfield at 7:28 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's another good reason not to be too rushed or too married to a long, complicated overland route. What happens when you get to Amsterdam and it turns out the Anne Frank House is closed the one day you set aside to do that?
posted by Sara C. at 8:18 AM on February 25, 2013

Then throw in three flexible stops along the way.

Honestly: fly. I know the eurorail pass is the ingrained idea of how to do it, but shorthaul flights are faster and often cheaper and certainly abundant. If you want to do a train journey (I love trains) be specific about choosing the route: London to Paris, or Paris to somewhere.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:32 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Check the man in seat 61 for train advice. You may well do better buying individual train tickets rather than a eurail pass. Those passes are only good value if you travel a lot within a short period, and you may still need to book for some trains.
posted by danohu at 9:42 AM on February 25, 2013

I would recommend making the beginning and the ending of your trip more planned-out and travel-lite. The first couple of days (even the first four or five days, really) you're going to be jetlagged, possibly quite miserably so. So it's nice to take it easy, have easy things to do, know where you're going to eat and sleep and how you're going to get there the first couple of days. (Also, perhaps counterintuitively, for me at least the first couple of days can be a good time to take long bus/train/ferry journeys, because I can sleep and travel at the same time.) In the middle of the trip I'm very flexible, but I like to be more relaxed at the edges.

Also, by the end of the trip, whether it's two weeks or a month or longer, I find myself shifting into "TRIP OVER" mode a few days before I really need to, so it's nice to have a really fun-but-easy longer stop planned at the end of the trip. Like, plan to fly out of a fun place, and plan to spend four or five days in that place, maybe taking day trips to nearby fun places.

And nthing those who say to use shorthaul flights. Trains can be nice, but flights are FAST! And often cheaper. The Eurail thing is probably more practical if you are going to be in one country or region (with a good rail system). I had a great time traveling around Switzerland by rail, but, you know, it's Switzerland. Pretty compact, with an amazing rail system.
posted by mskyle at 12:08 PM on February 25, 2013

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