Where, and how best to travel in Europe
January 4, 2015 12:15 PM   Subscribe

My fiance and I are trying to plan our honeymoon. We really want to plan a European trip, but are not satisfied with one destination. Once you are in Europe, what is the best way to travel? Eurail? Air? Not to mention, where are the best places to go?

We have a few places in mind that we would really like to go. From what we have read online most people suggest sticking to a specific region, but the only issue being that some of the places we would really like to go are not in line with that thinking. We are trying to plan a 10 or 12 day trip, so I am thinking we will probably only want to do 4 places max. Maybe even less. We both like places with history, and places with good places to eat. We're both big foodies.

Prague is one of the places that I am almost dead set on going to. I am one-fourth Czech so I think it would be neat to see a little of my heritage. Not to mention that anyone that I know that has lived in Europe has said that Prague is the most amazing, magical city in the world. We'd also like to go to Spain, as it is kind of a food mecca at this point in time (at least according to Anthony Bourdain), but those two places don't really work with the whole regional idea. Paris is also another place we wouldn't mind going to, strictly for the Louvre if anything.

Has anyone else had experience planning trips like this? How did you travel? How to choose which places make the cut? How many places should we limit ourselves to in order to really enjoy our time. Neither of us have ever even been outside of the country, so we are definitely new to this.
posted by Quincy to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'd go to no more than three in 10 or 12 days - remember that you'll lose a day in travel time each time you move cities. I think whether you stay in one region or hop all over the place depends mostly on if you think you're likely to come back to Europe again. If this is your one-and-only chance, then see what you really want to see. If this is the first of multiple expected trips over the years, I'd pick a general region (eg France and Spain but not Czech Rep) to reduce the time you spend travelling.

Train travel in Europe is a lot of fun, and you get to see more of the countryside along the way than if you fly. Prague to anywhere is Spain is probably too far, but somewhere in Spain to Paris would get you some really nice views. Check out The Man in Seat 61 for train advice - that's the link for his 'Intro to European train travel' page but there are detailed pages on each country as well.

For longer routes, airlines are probably the way to go - I use Skyscanner to get a sense of which airlines go where and approximate prices.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 12:29 PM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

In general I've found that travel by train (Eurail) is much better than planes. The trains tend to go into the major cities you want to be in and so you don't need to travel afterwards to get anywhere, but travel by plane (especially the low cost airlines) leaves you a ways outside of the city they "go to".
posted by katers890 at 12:32 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you want to go to Prague, Paris and Spain, then do it. 10-12 days is do-able for those three places.

Ordinarily, if you want to go to several places not too far from each other, I'd suggest driving. Get a rental car and enjoy the scenery, making small stops along the way.

For places farther apart, you might want to fly. There's cheap airlines within Europe such as Easyjet which you can use to just fly from place to place, ending up at the place you want to take your outbound flight back to the US.

Spain is a big country and if you are into Food, you probably mean Barcelona and the surrounding Catalonia region. So you can do US->Prague->Paris->Barcelona->US.

On Preview: I wouldn't take trains for those destinations. Those are long trips and likely to be disrupted by strikes/other chaos.
posted by vacapinta at 12:34 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also, remember there's a huge amount to see within each country - you could easily spend the whole trip just in Spain and have plenty to do. 3 days in each of Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville, with perhaps also Valencia or Salamanca added, would be a great trip. You could do the same in France or Czech Rep.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 12:37 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Given that time frame, and given that you haven't travelled abroad, I would suggest going to two countries max and renting a short stay apartment (AirBnB is one option) for each half of the trip. If you travel to three, you'll end up with something like two and half or three and a half days per place, given travel time/jetlag, and you might find yourself annoyed at spending so much time in airports on trains. You can also plot out day trips to other cities/towns easily if you want to explore more, since the stress of taking an hour train with zero luggage is much less than trying to move very quickly with all of your bags! The trains are usually the best option for shorter distances and day trips. There are however many regional airlines and small low budget airlines* that could get you easily from Prague to Spain, and planes are a better choice for longer distances (do not spend ten hours on a train, unless you really like trains.) If you do want to do three countries in twelve days, just try to minimize the hassle of transferring-- we did three countries in seventeen days on our honeymoon and in retrospect I would have paid much more to get direct flights instead of wasting time during layovers. Paris is a pretty fun and easy trip from London (take the Eurostar) and by plane from just about anywhere and you could easily do it as an overnight/two day visit, but Paris might deserve more time than that.

Anecdotally, we spent four days in Barcelona and it was really lovely; the museums were wonderful, the city was easy to get around in, and basically everything we ate from stalls in the market to three hour tapas meals was great. I had all these big plans to take the train out to a Roman site and we ended up sleeping in and seeing more of Barcelona instead, something I don't regret at all. When you've narrowed down your final countries/cities more, maybe have another AskMe for specific recommendations?

General recommendations: the TripAdvisor app for each city was so useful; download some phrase books as well but have a print one as backup. Pack lightly. Have a wonderful time.

*Admittedly I hate Ryanair. The other trick with these is that the airports are often much further out, so you have to bank on more time getting to/from the airport to your final destination, and the luggage weight restrictions are more prohibitive than on international flights, so the total cost can increase.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:43 PM on January 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

Almost all of my international trips are 12-16 days, and in general I find that seeing 3-4 places is about as many as I'd want to squeeze into my itinerary. Going for more places, you're never settling in and hardly getting to know any of the destinations that you're visiting. What's more, you're also opening yourself up to more possibilities of delays or missed connections that could screw up your plans.

As per une_heure_pleine's advice, always consider any day where you're traveling from one city to another as a "travel day" and just let your plans be "Travelling from Prague to Vienna". Set aside your plans for "must do" restaurants or other event reservations outside of those travel days. Certainly, make plans for what to do in Vienna if you arrive on time, but always be ready for delays or surprises that may otherwise result in a missed appointment.

I also agree that Paris, Prague, Spain is not crazy as an itinerary combo. My last big European Sojourn was Edinburgh, Berlin, Paris; and it was fine.

Be kind to yourself on your first couple days as you adjust from jet lag. You should include your spouse in the destination decisions, ie. you pick Prague and select 3-5 other cities. Let your spouse pick their favorite, and maybe 3-5 other cities. Let your #3 and #4 be from any common picks on that list. Rank the cities in order of preference and let your #2 or #3 city be the first city that you see. Reserve your top picks for the middle of the trip, when you're adjusted to jet lag and have a good head for handling Euro's and are fully in the swing of your trip.

It's fine to be a foodie, but realize that ALL of Europe has excellent and longlived food traditions. Yes, Spain has a bunch of h0tt moleculars and Michelin 3-stars going on, and if you want to spend 3 days in San Sebastian, then by all means ... but you don't have to do that to have good food. Hunt for cassoulet in Toulouse, be in Berlin during asparagus season, savor a Barolo in the Piedmont, savor the rich nose-to-tail meat traditions of England ... all of that stuff is great. It's not necessarily a matter of going to the current new hotness in foodie circles, but being able to go to a given country and discovering the magic that exists in that culture.
posted by bl1nk at 12:47 PM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're interested in traveling by rail, I can't recommend the people at Budget European Travel Service; I've purchased tickets through them numerous times and have been very happy with the results. You can call their toll-free number for a free consultation: just describe your plans and they can advise you. (A Eurail pass is an option but there may well be better, country or region-specific tickets, too.)

I liked Prague a lot, although I wouldn't describe it in the words your friends have; I'd hope it feels so amazing and magical to you but having such high expectations might make it a bit of a let-down, too. Were you to combine it with others places, I also recommend Vienna, Austria, and/or Budapest, Hungary. (Bratislava is cute and worth a visit but kinda underwhelming compared the magnitude of Prague.) I'm a big fan of Germany and Munich isn't THAT far but you didn't mention it so I'd stick to your other options. I think you'll find great food wherever go you: once you set the dates and locations, you can look up a lot online as well as see what you find when you arrive.

Based on what you wrote, I'd recommend spending half your time in Prague (and making some daytrips to nearby towns or cities) and half your time in Spain, like Madrid or Barcelona if you don't already have a specific place in mind. You could add Paris to the mix but that's also a different region. These places aren't geographically far but far in other ways; still, you totally could do three cities in three regions. If so, I'd look into budget airlines such as Ryanair. They have some caveats, such as having to print your tickets at home (difficult when traveling) and having pay a lot for checked luggage (and hand luggage must be light, too.) I love train travel but, if you decide to go for the three cities, I'd probably stick to air travel for the sake of time.

I recently flew Lufthansa and had such a great experience; United was OK. Turkish Airlines has a lot of deals and Icelandair doesn't charge you extra to fly in and out of different cities (no free meals on the flights though?!) I recommend Momondo as the best flight aggregator.

I wish you both luck and a very happy honeymoon! Wherever you go and whatever you do, I think you'll have a good and memorable trip.
posted by smorgasbord at 1:04 PM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Prague is one of the places that I am almost dead set on going to. [...] We'd also like to go to Spain

There's a few low-cost airlines that link Prague and Madrid or Barcelona, although as I remember when I went to Prague some years ago I flew from Barcelona - El Prat to Prague in Czech Airlines.

I also use Skyscanner as it has been suggested above. It's great for finding good deals.

Once in Spain, train between Madrid - Atocha and Barcelona - Sants (both centric train stations) is some 4 hours by AVE (high speed train).

As for food recommendations, why don't you visit scenic Segovia and eat a cochinillo? :P
posted by sukeban at 1:09 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

We recently went to Prague and it was lovely. We took an overnight train from Budapest to Prague, and the sleeper car was one of the most exciting parts of our trip. I would recommend a sleeper car from Prague to Paris. They're discontinuing sleeper cars in Europe, so this trip may be your last chance!
posted by rednikki at 1:41 PM on January 4, 2015

If you have never left the US before, something like this book read in the planning stages will really help you with all of these entry level questions about travelling in Europe, especially when you are feeling overwhelmed with options. It is not so much a guidebook as a "travel skills handbook".
posted by bimbam at 1:47 PM on January 4, 2015

Not that there's only one way to travel, or to honeymoon for that matter, but from experience: both multi-city itineraries and weddings are exhausting. Are you going right after the wedding? My wife and I had a split itinerary for our honeymoon (half beach, half city) and though neither of us is a beach person (fair skin, indoorsy types) we actually wished we'd had more time to do nothing on Vieques and less time in Old San Juan.

To answer the questions asked: for close city pairs the train is a great way to travel, but between Prague and anywhere in Spain, I'd fly. I would be hesitant to try to see Prague, Paris, and (parts of) Spain in one short trip, but I'd think about seeing only two and flying between them in order to lose less time to the travel itself.

My wife and I just took trains from Budapest to Vienna and then to Prague. High speed service should now be active between Vienna and Prague but it wasn't when we arranged our trip, so that ride was a little slow. All three cities are close enough that one trip didn't seem too frantic, but we did wish we'd had more time in Budapest.
posted by fedward at 2:01 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Disclaimer: I really like trains.

I went from London to Prague (it is wonderful) by train on my last European train-based holiday. That was about 10 days and went London - Paris - Strasbourg (1 night hotel) - (sleeper train) Vienna - Prague (2 nights) - Berlin - Copenhagen (3 nights) - Berlin (1 night hotel) - (sleeper train) Brussels - London. Which was fun and awesome, but far too many cities to actually much of a sense of any of them. I would limit your trip to 3 or 4 max. For my own honeymoon the first time round we did Stockholm - Gothenburg - Oslo - Bergen by train, with 2 or 3 nights in each place, and that was a much better pacing.

If you can fly into (say) Prague and out of Paris or something you can do a one-way continental journey and your scope for travel is greater. I recommend Berlin for a stop - it is absolutely one of the most fascinating cities in Europe for recent history. As for food, I bet you can get great recommendations here for anywhere you choose to go.

It is, sadly, probably cheaper and faster to fly most of the time, but trains are FUN, and make for much better stories, and for me are much more satisfying experience of travel. Especially sleeper trains - I love drifting off and waking up somewhere completely new, or finding myself stopped at a station somewhere alien in the middle of the night. If you decide to do trains, you need to get yourself a copy of the most recent European Rail Timetable, and if the idea of getting this and poring over it seeing where all the trains go and where you could get to doesn't fill you with glee, in all honesty you might be better off flying.
posted by corvine at 2:03 PM on January 4, 2015

I found the rome2rio website really helpful for deciding transport options in Europe.

Plug in your starting point and destination and it shows how to get there via train, plane, uber-equivalent, taxi, and combinations thereof and approximate price, departure times, and travel times as well as a map showing the route.

Train tickets are much cheaper if you can buy in advance but you sacrifice spontaneity.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:30 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I suspect you'll get vastly divergent advice on this. Everyone has their own preferences and priorities when it comes to travel. I lived in Europe for a while and did a lot of weekend travel within Western Europe, so here's my 2-cents as a single, 20-something, 3-star-hotel-minimum kinda girl.

In 12 days stick to no more than three destinations, unless one of them is a quick stopover and you have a specific thing you want to see (e.g. fly into Amsterdam, spend the day seeing Ann Frank and Rijksmuseum before taking the high speed train to Paris the following morning)

Trains are great; trains are often not that much cheaper than flying and can take a lot longer. Flying within the EU (Schengen countries) is easy with no customs or passport control.

If set on a train ride, I would advise against a sleeper car: unless you want to pay lots of money for a private room--in which case, flying is almost certainly cheaper--it's the transportation equivalent of a hostel. You have no idea who you are sleeping with and conditions (noise, temperature, smell) are unpredictable. I woke up every twenty minutes fearing either A. my luggage was stolen or B. I had slept through my transfer.

In summary, don't rule out flying.

I always recommend Paris (and not just because Audrey Hepburn said so). It's a major destination, so planning flights will be easy, and it's accessible to tourism without feeling like a tourist trap. You can spend one day or two weeks in Paris and never feel rushed or run out of things to do. And LOTS of people go there, so you'll have something to talk about that other people can relate to when you get back, if that's important to you.

This won't be a popular opinion, but I found Prague to be overrated. I say this not to discourage but to caution that I think the word is out, so to speak, and it's easy to fall into tourist traps. Not to say you can't have a great time, and particularly if you're looking to reconnect with your Czech heritage, I would recommend to do your research (TripAdvisor works fine for this) and plan your itinerary with those interests in mind. The cathedral is exemplary and views from there are phenomenal. For a day trip to the countryside, check out the Ossuary in Kutna Ora.

Based on what you said about Prague, I would also recommend checking out Budapest. Unpretentious, good food, relaxation for days at the baths, very cool and active nightlife, beautiful and varied architecture, and a fascinating history that involves having been occupied by like, every major empire in Europe. It's also accessible from Prague.

Spain is fabulous and indeed a "food mecca"--particularly for the Michelin-star foodie community (El Bulli, etc)--but keep in mind you'll find great restaurants in many major cities incl. Paris. I think Spain is varied enough to be the subject of its own trip. Five year anniversary maybe?

If I were you I would do: fly into Amsterdam - high speed train to Paris (or fly directly into Paris and skip AMS) - fly to Prague - train to Budapest - home from there.

Two more general pieces of advice:
- Pack lightly. Backpacks aren't necessary (wheels can be nice) but make sure your bags are light enough to schlep up and down narrow staircases, esp if you are thinking about Air-BnB.
- Wherever you go, ALWAYS leave something un-done. It gives you a reason to come back someday, and thinking of it this way saves you a LOT of stress vs. trying to cram every last highlight into your itinerary.

Have a lovely time!
posted by ista at 3:29 PM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd call 3 cities in 12 days a max for a honeymoon where you want time to relax with each other!

I definitely would not recommend trains with this little time unless you're super attached to train travel itself; it's definitely slower for those distances (if Paris, Prague and say Madrid are your cities) and likely to be consistently more expensive than flying.

flylc.com and whichbudget.com are the best sites for centralized research re. which budget airlines link which cities.

I'd recommend an open-jaw loop here so you don't have to retrace any steps (for example: US-Paris-Prague-Madrid-US). But just entering that 5-city itinerary into price checkers would show you astronomical fares. What I mean is buying three flights:

1) the international one, an open jaw from [your US city to Euro city A] and [Euro City C to your US city];
then using the budget fare checkers above to get separate, cheap flights, probably on 2 different airlines, from
2 [Euro City A] to [Euro City B]
3 [Euro City B] to [Euro City C].
posted by kalapierson at 3:39 PM on January 4, 2015

Post your question on the slowtrav.com general forum. After you review the Mefi and slowtrav responses, then visit the particular slowtrav boards for the countries you choose. You'll find out the best places to stay, eat, and visit.

I'll be the nag I always am when first timers ask what's doable in a couple weeks in Europe. What's doable and what's pleasurable are two different things. Every destination requires a travel day of packing the night before, getting up early, checking out, getting to the airport/train station, getting to the next hotel, then unpacking, familiarizing yourself with a new country all whilst dealing with jet lag, foreign language, and different customs. For three destinations in twelve days, you will need three such travel days. The European trains are so fast, you can barely see a cow out the window. On those three travel days you will not be sitting in cafes, strolling, going to museums, window shopping, riding lovely boats, snuggling with your new husband in the morning--the activities that make up a beautiful travel experience.

I recommend that you go to Prague and Barcelona, flying between the two. You can take a couple day trips out of those cities if you want to taste a little more. Have a lovely honeymoon, and don't forget to write!
posted by Elsie at 4:07 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Many train lines require reservations with an additional ticket and fee as well as the train pass.
posted by brujita at 4:33 PM on January 4, 2015

I love Paris, but make it a separate trip next time. The smattering you'll get will only whet your appetite and it's kind of a bear to get from the airport to the city, etc. It's also very expensive.

You will spend less money and have a less stressful trip if you stick to a couple of locations. Fly into Germany, take the train from there to Vienna, then Prague, leaving for home from Prague.

Better yet, do a tour. Before you cry EW! Hear me out. Monograms puts it together, but you do it on your own. We did London with them and it was great. We did the whole thing, including airfare with them, and it was very easy and carefree. Airport transfers, luggage, transport, breakfast and sightseeing. I rolled my eyes at the sightseeing tour but it turned out to be fantastic. Half-day, the little old dude who gave it was charming and I learned a ton! We had someone to check in with at our hotel, like a concierge, but she worked for Monograms. She gave us great advice, told us what days things were cheaper, and pointed us to some really neat exhibits.

Our hotel was in a fun neighborhood, and the room was super comfortable especially good after touring all day and watching plays at night. The breakfast was huge and we made it the meal of the day, which saved us money.

Monograms has Budapest, Vienna & Prague. Those countries are similar in feel, loaded with cool stuff to look at, and the foodies in you should be able to gorge on yummy things.

I like Spain as much as the next Bunny but Prague to Spain is going to be expensive and lots of your time will be tied up in transit.

All the countries of Europe will still be there when you're ready to visit them. The last thing you'll want to do after the hoo-ha of a wedding is juggle a complex itinerary with three countries across a very wide continent.

Mazel-Tov and have a blast!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:59 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is going to make me sound like an old lady, but we took a cruise on our honeymoon and loved it. We didn't go to Europe (Alaska FTW!) but it was awesome just having to unpack once and wake up every day in a new city. I would have never in a million years expected we'd like cruising, but we ended up loving it and it's a great way to see a whole bunch of cities without a lot of extra planning. You could do a Spain and Portrugal cruise and then travel to Paris or Prague at the end for a few days.
posted by notjustthefish at 5:11 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've been to the main cities listed in here several times. Personally think Prague is disappointingly over-rated, full of tourist traps, and prey to groups of drunk Englishmen on stag nights (more the wearying as I'm English myself). The pretty parts are also not that many in number. Also, the Czech Republic doesn't use the Euro, so conversion and cost hassles.

Paris has more pretty places, but also can be hostile to English-speaking tourists. American friends have had mixed to negative experiences in restaurants, in terms of property safety, accommodation and getting around. As capitals go, I don't recommend it for n00b or novice European travelers.

As you've got 12 days, one area of Europe only with good public transport seems best and you have it in Spain and Portugal. Relatively cheap, the food - yeah! - and the culture. Warmth, dinners that start in the late evening and last several hours. Recommend spending the whole 12 days in Spain and neighboring Portugal. Both countries use the Euro. Portugal is lesser well-known but arguably better; Lisbon is overflowing with culture and also great food, and the cutest tram and streetcar system you'll see. You will have sun. And you can move about Spain/Portugal easily on trains. From Madrid, several cities including Seville and Barcelona are less than 3 hours by train. Toledo is only 30 minutes(!). And you can go to Portugal also by train, taking in Lisbon and Porto.

Trying to do two or more areas of Europe in 12 days is going to mean a significant amount of time spent in un-scenic transit and hanging around. Stick to one area.
posted by Wordshore at 5:26 PM on January 4, 2015

What time of year are you planning to go? Because that would make a big difference.
As stated above, Barcelona, Paris, Prague is easy with air travel, and you will certainly have a great holiday.
For a more regional approach, I'd suggest Prague, Vienna, Ljubljana, (Trieste), Venice. You can do this by car or rail - I'm guessing the price will be about the same, and you don't need the car in Venice, so you can hand it in there.

Prague is lovely, even if it has become somewhat a cliché. The tourists are there for a reason. One of my colleagues goes there often, and I can ask him about restaurants etc if you go. Still, it is not a main destination in Europe and you can cover it during a couple of days.

Vienna is more lovely than you can imagine and it is one of the great cities of Europe. There is history, culture, nature, art, music, food - all in abandon. I follow Bourdain, and enjoy his show, but he totally missed out on Vienna - there is so much to experience there.

Ljubljana is on the route here, and a lovely stopover, if not a main destination. There is very sweet, gentle atmosphere, and good eating by the river.

Venice is again a major city. You need to stay there for several days in order to experience the magic. The tourist attractions are really amazing, but the real life of Venice is something else, and finding the Venetian culture, including the great food, is a bit of an adventure because the Venetians like to keep it for themselves. Not that you are snubbed when you eventually get there - these are friendly and warm people. They just really don't want to spend time on people who are asking for burgers when they have just brought in fresh sea-food.
Venice is one of the most magical cities in the world, and it is perfect for a honeymoon.
posted by mumimor at 5:27 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been to Prague, Paris and several places in Spain, but I would lean toward staying in Spain the whole time. Prague Castle was great - but Granada has the Alhambra and Cordoba the Mezquita. Instead of the Louvre - check out the Prado. It is in the middle of Madrid and has lots of famous art. There are certainly more really-famous pieces at the Louvre, but the Prado has lots of big names and pieces that are still famous. Spain has enough art to rival the scene in Paris and keep your travel to a minimum. You could split your hotel nights between Madrid and one other city and you could day trip to many others.

A great place for train planning is Seat61.
posted by soelo at 9:50 AM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

This American loves the parts of France to where she's been.

What's helped are knowing the French for hello, goodbye, please, thank you,excuse me, I would like and the knowledge that customers are expected to say bon jour and au revoir when they come into and leave shops...even if they don't buy anything.
posted by brujita at 3:38 PM on January 5, 2015

Chiming in to say that Prague is indeed magical. I was just there in September and am already making plans to go back in 2015, it's my favorite city that I've been to. But definitely follow the advice of sticking to one region in Europe, my recent trip was 18 days and even then I stuck to Central Europe.
posted by signondiego at 7:50 PM on January 5, 2015

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