Summer vacation in Portugal, Spain and Italy
March 1, 2017 10:31 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning a trip this June/July to Portugal, Spain, Italy (and maybe France) for 14-16 days. Any advice?

Flying from Boston. 5 people (myself, wife, and 3 kids 15-19). Budgeting $12-15K. Vegetarians.

I'm looking for tips on:

* Top cities, towns to visit,
* things to see/do in each country/city
* How to get around locally
* Advice on EuRail travel between major destinations
* EuRail sleeper cars for overnight travel tips
* Where to stay? AirBnB/hotel/hostel options?
* How to dress?
* Cultural considerations?
* What should we avoid? Concerns?

Any other advice?

Thank you very much!
posted by GernBlandston to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
With all due respect, with that schedule you will spend most of your time getting over jet lag, checking in and out of your accommodations, waking up your teenagers at ungodly hours, getting oriented, traveling to and from locations, and seeing more of airport or railroad stations than sites. It will be like doing New York, Boston, DC, Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco in two weeks all while dealing with a foreign language and currency.

Go to the Italy board to ask your questions. The experienced travelers there will help you plan a wonderful itinerary for your family. Italy alone would be wonderful--Rome, Venice, and something along the coast that includes Pompeii or Herculaneum. Or Madrid, Barcelona, Seville.
posted by Elsie at 11:03 AM on March 1, 2017 [11 favorites]

There are plenty of trains besides EuRail and the absolute best place to learn about trains is Seat61. He covers the world but is based in the UK so his European info is very detailed. 4 countries in 16 days is too much. Pick 3-4 cities at most.
posted by soelo at 11:16 AM on March 1, 2017

Have you booked yet? Because I agree with Elsie that that itinerary is madness.

I would pick two, maybe three cities at most. Given that you are vegetarians, Paris and Rome would be my top choices, as someone who lived in Europe as a (mostly) vegetarian. Mostly because I spent a lot of time traveling to places like Spain and Portugal. :D
posted by Tamanna at 11:18 AM on March 1, 2017

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'm going to agree with everything said above. When I first started reading your question, I thought - wow, two months might be enough time to do all three countries. Then I read your "10-14 days" and - just nope.
For everyone's sake, slow down and focus your trip on one country, and 2-3 locations. Spend a few days (more or less) in each. You won't have to pack/unpack as much, you can get a bit familiar with your surroundings in each place (being oriented can be a huge factor in how much you enjoy a place), and your travel won't cost as much (those rail tickets are not cheap!).
Your children will thank you. Your wallet will thank you. You will thank you later, when you have un-harried memories.
posted by dbmcd at 11:31 AM on March 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would pick either (1) Spain & Portugal or (2) Italy, both with possible jumps over the border into France (or others for the Italy option) but not necessarily.

Portugal: Lisbon obviously but Porto and Evora are also worth visiting. I would go by car for this. If you go for Porto then maybe go up the Douro valley but not sure it would be very exciting for the kids. If you are driving there are lots of great beaches pretty much anywhere along the coast from Porto to Lisbon. We thought Monsaraz was a great trip from Evora. I would not want to find food for a veggie child in Portugal, if that's an issue.
posted by biffa at 11:31 AM on March 1, 2017

If you're doing EuRail with a pass, your best best best option is to reserve all of your train tickets as soon as you can. I mean, it's good practice nonetheless and otherwise, to get the least expensive rates, but keep in mind there are limited spaces on trains afforded to passholders . . . which is something I had to learn the hard way. If they run out of spots, your options are basically these: fork over the full-fare price, or book ahead and wait another day or two until there's spots available for your pass. That being said, it often did work out, and went wonderfully. I remember a long-distance from Florence to Munich that was utterly first-rate. Overnight trains are a little stressful and tiring to my tastes, as I really haven't found I sleep well on them, but YMMV.

You're probably going to want to budget no less than three full nights per city you go to. Any less and you kind of run the risk of not feeling like you have enough time to do everything that's on your list. I adored Florence and Annecy in France. Haven't been to Spain or Portugal, but those are my go-to places for the next trip. With that number of people, I think you'll prefer AirBnB, as it's my intuition that the costs will tend to even out if you're renting five beds in a hostel vs. two larger AirBnB beds & couch/cot. Any extra cost might be worth the privacy, security, and peace of mind that comes from being able to return to your own place.

I've found Rick Steves' online guides to be one of the best options when it comes to where to go, what to see, and 'how to do.'
posted by a good beginning at 11:38 AM on March 1, 2017

Pedantically, there are NO EuRail trains.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:42 AM on March 1, 2017

It probably seems to you that everyone is piling on and telling you that your ideas are wrong-headed, but you will be a happier family if you stick to just two, maximum three cities (not countries!) and spend more time in each. Europe is exciting! There's so much to see! But you are setting yourself up for spending a much higher percentage of your trip in transit as opposed to enjoying the places you're visiting.

It's probably a good idea to skip the EuRail pass. With two weeks, you aren't going to use the pass enough to make it substantially cheaper than just buying whatever train tickets you need, and being able to reserve seats and sit together (and know that you'll be able to get on the train!) is worth any marginal savings the pass might give you.

And wherever your itinerary takes you, I also highly recommend getting airbnb apartments instead of putting everyone in a hostel. It doesn't have to be that much more than a hotel/hostel and in fact you can save money by eating some meals in, especially breakfast. I find that visiting supermarkets wherever I travel is a fun experience and you can stock up on some snacks and drinks to take with you each day as opposed to spending more on eating out every meal.

Finally, if you stick to one country then you can get pay-as-you-go sims for your phones and use the internet on the fly to find restaurants, places of interest, use maps, etc. (instead of getting new sims in each country).
posted by tractorfeed at 12:00 PM on March 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Agree that you should decide between Spain/Portugal, or Italy. I've done two trips to Italy, both around 2 weeks and both I felt very rushed to experience just the main attractions that everyone does. I can't imagine trying to throw in Spain, Portugal and France as well.

If you go with Italy, there's two typical trips that people do (and also that I've done). The first is something like Venice/Florence/Rome with some side stops in the small Tuscany towns if there's time. The second trip is Rome/Pompeii/Sorrento/Amalfi Coastline. Both trips are amazing and both will take about 2 weeks to do properly (depending on what your interests are of course). If you want additional details if you decide Italy, feel free to memail me and I can chat more about my trips.

Regarding cultural considerations - for Italy (I have no experience in your other stated countries), I would say basically just try to avoid being the stereotypical pain in the ass American tourist. Most everyone was super nice to us, and appreciated us attempting to speak Italian. Some other members of my group were very stereotypical American jerks being loud and disrespectful in public and demanding everyone speak English and they were not treated well.

My only concern/issue on both trips to Italy were that in the larger cities, we kept running into scam artists and people trying to pickpocket, so just be alert.
posted by FireFountain at 12:36 PM on March 1, 2017

We did a pretty cool Segway tour in Porto, run by a company called Blue Dragon. I think it was $60 per person for two or three hours. They showed us how to ride the things and the tour guide had studied history and maybe also politics and was pretty entertaining as well. The Segways were fun to ride (once I got the hang of it) and were a perfect speed to get around the city reasonably quickly but still be able to see things. I imagine there are similar in other cities.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 5:43 PM on March 1, 2017

GernBlandston, you may have lots of reasons for wanting to see all those countries in one fell swoop. I get that. Personally, I get bored in a city for more than three nights, and I've had many fantastic trips of multiple cities and countries, 1-3 nights per city, and I have no regrets.

So, with that in mind, to answer your question, here are some "must sees" in Italy and Spain:

-Rome, Rome, Rome! This is a place that deserves at least three nights.
-Lake Como
-Anywhere in Tuscany (Montepulciano is particularly nice)
-Amalfi Coast

-Anywhere on the coast between the France border and Barcelona

However, given your time-frame, plus Portugal, I think you'd have to scrap some of the more remote parts of Italy (Lake Como and the Amalfi Coast are going to be a bit out of the way from each other). So, you could do a Rome-->Spain/Portugal trip with an open jaw from BOS-FCO then returning home LIS-BOS doing something like the following:

-Rome (spend 3 nights in Rome)
-Rent a car and drive (or take a train) to Tuscany (spend 2-3 nights in Tuscany)
[Note: the drivers in Italy can be on the aggressive side--less so in Tuscany compared to the Amalfi Coast--but a train will surely be less stressful than driving in any case]
-Fly from Florence or Bologna to Madrid (spend 3 nights in Madrid)
-Fly from Madrid to Lisbon (spend 3 nights in Lisbon)

That is 11-12 nights, leaving you more nights to explore the coast from Lisbon to Porto, or also to consider a train from Tuscany to Barcelona if you want to spend more time in smaller, coastal, and beautiful towns (including in South of France) and less time in Madrid (and probably scrapping Portugal).

Sounds like a fantastic trip because you really can't go wrong visiting any of those countries. Have a great time!
posted by juliagulia at 6:28 PM on March 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:30 PM on March 1, 2017

Favorite city in Spain: Seville. Stay in the old center. Lots of teeny tiny streets, some no wider than arm's length. It's beautiful and charming.

Favorite cities in Italy: Florence & Rome. Don't bother with Pisa.

Use google maps to find hotels in a given area (so you don't waste time getting to the good stuff) then read the reviews. There are plenty of lovely small hotels with impressive breakfasts included.

+1 on picking less stops. I've made that mistake before. It's just not worth it. In two weeks' time, aim for 2-3 cities. If 2, take Day-trips elsewhere. Even if it's just two, you won't spend a full week in each. Transit from one place to another eats up a lot of your time. And don't forget the lines. I've recently visited Spain, France, and Italy all on the down season, but they were ALWAYS jam packed with tourists, with prohibitively long lines at many attractions.
posted by Neekee at 11:15 AM on March 3, 2017

My wife and I went on our honeymoon in Spain and did five cities in two weeks. San Sebastian, Barcelona, Madrid, Granada and Seville. Nthing everybody else, but it's really a lot of travel even within a country. We probably should have only done three cities.

One thing I wanted to mention is the weather. Northern Spain is moderate temperature in June but southern Spain is really hot. We moved north to south and the combination of temperature and fatigue meant we didn't get a lot out of our last destination.

The other thing is that on such a whirlwind tour, we really just ran out of our capacity for awe. We took in San Sebastian first to make it more like relaxing beach time, but after trying to take in as many sights as we could in Barcelona (and missing some big ones even with 4 days), we only took in one museum of the big three in Madrid. Granada for a day just to see the Alhambra (awesome, but you have to take the tour to appreciate it fully, so glad we did), but in Seville we were just beat and barely managed the palace and the major cathedral. In hindsight, we probably would have put some of the beach time in the middle to recharge.

The high point of the trip for me was La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I'm not even religious but it moved me to tears. So many of the other cathedrals just show off ornate gold on top of ornate gold but Gaudi's vision was just so different, elegant and so reverential I was blown away. We're planning on going back when it's finished in 14 years or so.

I've also been to Italy and was really impressed by the Duomo in Florence. A "must climb."

Another random comment. When in the major cities in Italy, EVERYONE spoke English. We don't speak Italian and had no issues whatsoever (though our friends who went biking in the country ran into communication troubles in smaller towns). When we were in Spain, NOBODY spoke English and we ran into trouble communicating several times. It didn't really impede our trip, but it's something to be aware of.
posted by cali59 at 6:54 PM on March 3, 2017

« Older Cannabinoid Hyperemesis vs Cyclical Vomiting   |   PDF Viewer and Mover Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.