Travelfilter: What's the best way to plan a Europe trip?
August 30, 2006 6:27 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to travel through Europe for the first time?

I'm a 23 single Canadian female and will be traveling alone. I'm looking to travel next May or June, My friend and I will be flying to London and while he visits family I want to go explore different countries in Europe.

Since it's my first time traveling overseas I thought that doing a Contiki tour might be my best bet, BUT I don't want to feel super rushed and like I didn't get a chance to enjoy my time in each country. Money will be tight, Contiki is reasonbly priced but I'm curious if anyone here has suggestions as to how to plan a trip myself.

I'm looking to travel through Europe for about 2 weeks, for a first time traveler such as myself would you recommend I sign up for a tour, or with a little effort and research could I successfully plan my own trip and have it be as fun and safe as a tour would be? Any advice would be appreciated! I really have not traveled to many places so I'm getting excited about this potential trip!
posted by bluehermit to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Well, a lot of people your age will be over there doing the Eurail thing over the summer and staying in youth hostels. I did it all by myself when I was 21 after I graduated from college - although I did make some stops where I was visiting friends. And I met a TON of people to keep me company in the places where I didn't. However, I had already travelled overseas pretty extensively so I was fine being on my own, you might not feel so comfortable. Have FUN though -- that trek through Europe is totally a rite of passage...
posted by echo0720 at 6:39 PM on August 30, 2006

I am traveling Germany and the Netherlands for 3 weeks, a month from now. Got me a Eurail pass (good for any 6 days within a 2 month period) specifically for Germany+BeNeLux. Planning to just find hostels along the way. Not female unlike the poster, but I am curious as well to first time euro-traveler suggestions.

My plan is to avoid tours. I'm making some of it up as I go, and just picking the places that interest me most. I was going to go alone, but now a friend is joining. I think it can work either way.
posted by umlaut at 6:43 PM on August 30, 2006

When I was in Europe I had only a short time to see the continent, so I did the Contiki thing and loved it. For 2 weeks I would think this was your best option. I wanted to see as much as I could in a short amount of time, so the rushing here and there didn't bother me.

It also allowed me to find places I didnt think I would like. Before the trip was really looking forward to Paris and Venice - but looking back - my favourite spot was Munich! (Do the bicycle tour and check out the Hofbrauhaus when you're there!)

But if you have a little more time, and are a little better organised than I was, then going around on your own steam (My friends just did the Eurail thing and loved it) would be excellent too. IMHO though, unless there are a few definite spots you want to see, 2 weeks might be a little too short for this.

Bon voyage!
posted by TheOtherGuy at 6:53 PM on August 30, 2006

Contiki is certainly the easiest. Your only responsibility is to wake up in the morning. Everything is taken care of for you. A few years ago, I did their tour of Spain, and I didn't even pick up a travel guide until I got to the airport. I liked that since I tend to obsess over planning details, and it's not relaxing/enjoyable to me. But other people hate that lack of freedom. Different strokes...

You also should consider that you're going during school break. Contiki is going to be full of college kids who will be amazed they can drink legally and will take full advantage of it. They tell you when to wake up, not when to go to sleep. Depending on your personality, that will make you feel young and free, or old and cranky. It's pretty much a party for two weeks.

If you do choose a tour, I would not suggest one of Contiki's 14 countries in 12 days trips. They drive way too much and you get too little time in each place. Rather, I would pick a single country trip that has two night stays in places. When you don't have to pack/unpack at the start/end of the day, it's much better.
posted by smackfu at 7:08 PM on August 30, 2006

What is the best way to travel through Europe for the first time?

By travelling in, not through Europe. Pick a cluster of countries, grab a rail pass, and remember that the rest of Europe should still be around next time. Otherwise your abiding memories will be of motorways, service stations and having to leave just as the fun starts.
posted by holgate at 7:11 PM on August 30, 2006

I strongly recommend this dude's books.
posted by rbs at 7:11 PM on August 30, 2006

The latest edition of the book I mean. (Get the 2007, if you can).
posted by rbs at 7:14 PM on August 30, 2006

don't be afraid to go by yourself if you want to, it's easy enough, will let you set your own itinerary (which could be especially important for a short trip so that you get to see at least a few places you really care about) and will stretch your money further so that you might even be able to stay longer if you wanted to. you might want to look into short flights within europe with companies like ryan air, bmi baby, or easy jet-- some of them are incredibly cheap and could take a lot less time than a train or bus. train passes can be a good deal too, but mostly only if you do a long leg of travelling on each day that your pass allows (otherwise you could be better off buying the trips individually)

personally, i'd think the main advantage of a group tour would be getting to know the people a bit. before i travelled by myself, everyone told me i would meet tons of people, and if i were the type of person who was good at meeting tons of people, i'm sure i would have. but since i'm not i think about tours occasionally, because being thrown together with people over a period of weeks while experiencing the ups and downs of travelling could be really fun too.
posted by lgyre at 7:53 PM on August 30, 2006

When I first went to Europe, I was nine, and with my family. We started in Paris and went southeast, through Germany, A tiny bit of Switzerland, and then into Austria. The last time I was there I was studying in Florence with outward treks to other places on the weekends with my friends (which included a European History expert. I've spent a lot of time there in between and I can tell you...

You ain't gonna get it done in two weeks.

If possible, you should start a few days before your friend, and catch a flight out to Reykjavik, which will probably be cheaper than flying into London anyway. after a day or two there, puddle-jump to Dublin for a day or two before meeting up with your friend in London. From there, it's all about what your scene is. Check out Amsterdam if you like the freedoms that Amsterdam has to offer. Check out Paris and Nice if you want to feeling of the Romantic European Experience. Head for Interlaken for absurd natural beauty, a mellow vibe, and a chance to go base-jumping or paragliding or, really, whatever extreme sport you want in a laid-back, decidedly non-extreme enviroment (everybody else there is Canadian as well, or at least claim to be.)

My best advice to you, though, is to get as many friends as possible involved in this. Whenever one of my friends is planning a trip abroad, they always tell the rest of us months beforehand to get as many people as possible on board. If you can do that, then your plan should be:

1) Get into London.
2) Get a Eurail pass and take the TGV into France.
3) Go wherever seems coolest on the train-schedule board.
4) Grab a hotel when you get there (when travelling with a large group this can often be cheaper, and avoids the north-american-summer-camp feel of the hostels)
5) Go wild wherever you landed.
6) Repeat from #3.

Truly, if you've got friends with you, which shouldn't be that difficult to wrangle, especially considering how cheap flights into Iceland are, then your best bet is to improvise the whole way. You'll never feel rushed, and you'll experience Europe in entirely your own unique way.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:54 PM on August 30, 2006

Heed holgate's advice. I made the mistake of trying to see all the capitols of Europe on this whirlwind tour. I was exhausted by the time I hit London and really don't count it as actually being there.

Remember you don't have to see the whole continent while you're there. You'll go back.

I'm not one for touristy tour things and would go the Rick Steves route. A few off the beaten path places. I just like the vacations where I explore and the only thing scheduled is the plane ticket home.
posted by birdherder at 7:59 PM on August 30, 2006

A tour won't automatically suck, just be realistic about your expectations as they can be cloying. I lived in Sweden as an exchange student in high school, and so felt pretty comfortable getting around on my own, but went on a tour with some friends after college because they weren't comfortable doing their own thing. There's something to be said for those tours, as they will often get you places you might not have gone on your own (bicycling around Holland, for example, was something I wouldn't have done alone that I really enjoyed, and we did some sightseeing in Italy that I might not have bothered organizing alone - this was all in the very early days of the internet, though, and now I would not be nearly as concerned about my arrangements). It's a decent overview for when you travel on your own the next time.

I still do a couple of day tours when I travel, which I find to be good enough. That's always an option for you, as well as walking tours, audio tours, short bus tours, and interesting adventure tours. If you don't want every minute of every day scheduled for you, that's a viable option these days. The tried-and-true method of landing at a hostel and finding people to hang out with, or recommendations from people, will still hold as long as you're willing to be outgoing.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:13 PM on August 30, 2006

I just got back from my first trip to Europe a couple of months ago. I think if you want the "real" Europe experience, you should try to plan it yourself. When you're on your own schedule, you can stay in places you like a lot, and pass through places that you don't like so much. If you think you need a tour at a specific place (like the Sistine Chapel or something), you can just get small day tours as you see fit.

I think you experience a lot more when you're off the beaten path and getting lost in some random European city. Just buy yourself a good guidebook, do a bit of research before you leave, and then just go wherever you feel like! Travelling by the seat of your pants isn't nearly as intimidating as it may seem. Just find a site or city that interests you and catch the soonest train. I found that tourist offices were almost always within a few blocks of train and bus stations, and city maps were easy to come by.

I did the Eurail pass, and it worked pretty well. What we didn't realize was how often we needed to pay a small supplement in addition to our ticket to ensure a spot on the trains.

I am a 21 year old male so YMMV, but I don't think travelling alone will be much of a problem as long as you use common sense. If you do the youth hostel thing (which I would highly recommend) you will be meeting so many people that you won't have a problem feeling like you're all alone anywhere. If you're ever confused or don't know what sites to see, the hostel staff are always full of good ideas and tend to know good local spots.
posted by Paul KC at 9:31 PM on August 30, 2006

What's the best way to plan a Europe trip?

  • It's better to have one full-course meal than a dozen appetizers. That advice alone can be applied to every aspect of your travel experience.
  • Guides are just that: merely suggestions. Plans should be quickly made and just as quickly ignored any time the feeling to stay or go overwhelms.
  • Learn at least a couple of common phrases in the native tongue (hello, please, thank you, excuse me) and use them as often as you can.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, eat at multinational fastfood chains.
  • Bread and cheese to get you through the day, then with the money saved, a nice meal for dinner.
  • Pack light. Lighter than that. No, no! Lighter than that! That's better. If you can fit everything into a single school-sized backpack, you'll be OK.
  • Garbage bags are probably the single most useful thing you'd never think to bring. They can be used as impromptu rain-gear, you can store extra stuff in them, you can put your dirty clothes in them and stick it in with the clean clothes without worry, and they take up practically no space.
Finally, two weeks is not long enough. You only just start to get your travel legs about you at the two-week mark. A month would be much better. Keep this in mind: you will never have a better time to do this. Soon enough you'll have a full-time job that you can't leave for more than a week at a time. Responsibilities are looming just around the corner, threatening to sap whatever wanderlust you have inside of you. You're 23 now. You won't ever be again. See if you can extend the trip somehow.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:25 PM on August 30, 2006

Think about what you want to do. Do you want to really get into a place or a culture, or do you have a list of highlights you really must see? I'm always a 'really get into a place' person, but then I live in Europe so I get six weeks' vacation a year, and everything's on my doorstep. On the rare occasions I get over to the States, I'm much more in 'highlights' mode.

If you do want to get into a place, pick a country or two and just concentrate on that. If you're in London, you could pick the UK & Ireland, but if you fancy a very different culture, you could try France.

My list for a 'get into' tour of the UK and Ireland would be London for a week (with day trips to places like Cambridge or Oxford, Brighton and Canterbury), and a day or two each (as you please) in Manchester or Liverpool, Glasgow or Edinburgh, Dublin, and somewhere more rural like Moreton-in-Marsh, Lacock, Appleby-in-Westmoreland, Co. Clare, or the Highlands of Scotland.

Everywhere is trainable, except the island of Ireland.
posted by athenian at 11:38 PM on August 30, 2006

Everywhere is trainable, except the island of Ireland.

It used to be possible to buy a through train ticket to Dun Laoghaire from Euston via Holyhead and a 2hr ferry. I don't know if the through ticket is still there, but you can definitely get to Dublin via train and ferry. Likewise Holland -- you can take a train to Harwich and a ferry to the Hook of Holland.
posted by randomination at 1:49 AM on August 31, 2006

I was 23 when I first interrailed (like eurail for European residents) around Europe. did it on my own and was very nervous before I went but had fantastic time once I was on the way. I'd say go with hostels, you get more control over where you want to be and there's plenty of opportunity to meet people, it's very easy to fall into conversation and then just go ahead and see the city with them. More crowded hostels are actually better places to stay. if you can get longer than 2 weeks then do so, it will fly by even if you have 4.
posted by biffa at 2:22 AM on August 31, 2006

It used to be possible to buy a through train ticket to Dun Laoghaire from Euston via Holyhead and a 2hr ferry. I don't know if the through ticket is still there, but you can definitely get to Dublin via train and ferry.

Surely it still is. I did it a few years ago the other direction: 90 minutes on the Stena HSS to Holyhead, then straight onto a train for the 4-hour journey to Heuston. It's not the most exciting trip, though; the only highlight for me was passing through Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

But I think what athenian meant was that railway coverage in Ireland isn't as thorough as elsewhere -- only the east, south-east, south and some parts of the west have a reasonable service, but no matter where you go it's still slow, you're rarely guaranteed a seat, and it's unbelievably expensive.
posted by macdara at 2:51 AM on August 31, 2006

That should be Euston, not Heuston. The latter is in Dublin, of course.
posted by macdara at 2:52 AM on August 31, 2006

One option to consider as well, at least if you go to the big cities (Rome, Paris, London, Dublin even) is to get a hop-on, hop-off bus tour when you get to the city. They usually run around 20-30 euro for a 1-2 hour bus trip, but it's a VERY convenient way to see the biggest sites, and get a good guided tour of the city. In Amsterdam, you can do a Canal tour which is basically the same. Over the last year I've been to Rome, Amsterdam, Paris, and London (well, Dublin too but I'm living here now) and I've done one in each city, all of them worthwhile IMO. Plus, you can hop off if you get to a site that you want to see, then just hop onto the next bus that arrives.

2 weeks is a short time, but should give you enough time to spend 2-3 days in a few gorgeous cities.

Oh! Another suggestion: rather than training everywhere, consider flying. I found that with the budget airlines (and use WhichBudget to find out which airlines fly where) you can very often get from city to city MUCH cheaper and faster than you could by train, if you plan it properly. Although I would avoid RyanAir - they're cheap, but they usually dump you someplace 3 hours outside of the city you want to visit. Last week I had a week vacation, starting in Prague and moving on to Venice. Flying SmartWings, it cost 23 euro, taxes included to get to Venice from Prague. The train was MUCH more, and it was something like 12 hours to get there too!
posted by antifuse at 4:31 AM on August 31, 2006

I suggest you go it alone, not only to save money, but also to stay relaxed and really enjoy the places you see.

If you do the Contiki thing and it turns out to be exhausting, or if it turns out that a bunch of people who already knew each other end up on the same tour, would you still enjoy yourself? Doing it yourself keeps your pace sane (five nights in Rome? sure!) and doesn't mean you have to squeeze the Vatican into a two-hour span. Hostels are friend factories - I've never met so many cool people from all over in one place before (well, except college).

I think there are two choices if you go it alone:

1. Stick to one "axis" and travel by local trains to save money and see smaller places in between - Paris-Amsterdam? Rome-Venice? Barcelona-Lisbon? London-Edinburgh-Dublin? Lots to see/do/experience along those routes, and lots of little(r) places to cool your jets and enjoy the Greatest Cappucino/Sunset/Whatever of Your Life.

2. Ryanair/various budget airlines to hit a few "nodes" that interest you.

Caveat: sometimes the "major" airlines undercut the budget airlines. Aer Lingus is absurdly cheap on UK-Ireland flights. Do shop around online.

Here's my suggested budget-airline hitlist (for two weeks, really, flying is the only way to see the place):

a) London-Krakow/Dubrovnik/Riga/Brno/somewhere awesome in eastern Europe that you wouldn't have gone except for the $20 flight on the budget airline (and note to antifuse: often Ryanair's airport locations in eastern Europe are more central because those cities only have one airport)
b) [that place]-Paris/Rome/other well-known cultural heavy-hitter
c) [that place]-London

I know that three cities must seem like a tiny, tiny fraction of what you want to do, but Europe will be there when you get back. Perhaps the cost of your trip seems huge now, but in a few years, what's to prevent you from moving over there, or saving up for a few months and doing this trip again?


Train info from someone not trying to sell you a Eurail pass (which might turn out to be more expensive than just buying point-to-point tickets online): Seat 61
Every schedule ever for those trains: Die Bahn
One-bag packing advice: OneBag
posted by mdonley at 6:07 AM on August 31, 2006 [3 favorites]

Stay in hostels! If you don't mind sharing a room and sharing a bathroom, these are the best places to meet other travelers. Every time I've stayed at a hostel, I've ended up meeting someone to walk around the city with, or getting inspired by hearing about someone else's trip to New Zealand/South America/Eastern Europe, or learning about the culture in someone else's country when they talk about back home, or meeting some absolutely CRAZY mofo that I can tell everyone about when I get back.

Plus, many hostels I've been to can help you book tourist activities like day trips and tours and offer you advice for places to go. And some organize their own group activities like outings to clubs or movie nights.
posted by cadge at 6:39 AM on August 31, 2006

I did a Trafalgar 7 countries in 10 days tour a few years ago, and basicallly it sucked. The only really useful thing you might get out of it is a chance to get glimpses of a ton of different places if you plan to travel to Europe more extensively in the future and you want to get an idea of what you want to focus on then (whatever you were most frustrated at having only been allowed to see for 3 minutes on your tour, most likely). If you're a really nervous traveller, and don't want to have to take responsibility for your own safety and planning (and that's not an unreasonable position), then the tours are probably a godsend, as well.

Here's some things to think about with those kinds of tours:

They may not be as cheap as they look. A lot of the activities on our tour were 'optional excursions' at $50-150 per person for half day activities. That adds a hell of a pile of money to the price of the trip as a whole.

Optional excursions aren't all that optional. Often, if you didn't choose to go on the optional excursions, you were basically stranded in the middle of nowhere with no way to do anything real on your own. Two cases in point:

One of our optional tours was a tram ride up a mountain and then a boat ride to the next city we were staying in. Those who chose not to take the optional tour didn't get bused straight to the city so they could look around or relax at the hotel. They had to stay with the bus while the driver took it to be washed and refueled. Bet that's what they flew to Europe from Singapore to see.

While in Paris, the optional tour almost everyone agreed on was a really expensive dinner cabaret (the primary selling point was booze included, but since our tour group consisted of an alcoholic, someone with an alcohol allergy, a 17 year old, and a person who drinks the occasional beer, that wasn't much of a selling point to us). Because we weren't taking the tour, we had to fend for ourself from our hotel - conveniently located only a few hundred meters from the Metro. And if those few hundred meters hadn't contained a 10 lane freeway with no overpass anywhere nearby, we might have been able to leave the hotel that night. So my parents' wedding anniversary in Paris was spent at the hotel restaurant.

Also, a lot of the things you're going to see, you'll barely get to see. Did you know that the Louvre built an entirely separate entrance for tour groups near the Mona Lisa? That's so that the tour groups don't get bogged down looking at any of that pesky art stuff they have in the Louvre and can get away again once their 40 minutes are up. Our tour of the Uffizi consisted largely of 'Here's the David. Here's the Venus. Here's the Gift Shop (admittedly, the gift shop of the Uffizi is pretty cool, some great trompe l'oiel painting). Let's go or we'll be late for our next stop.'

Tour guides make a lot of money in kickbacks. That glass blowing shop you're seeing in Murano? Paid to have you come through. The leather shop in Florence? Wonder what 45 captivate customers cost them? You're not necessarily seeing the best or most interesting things in any given place, just the ones that coughed up the most money to have you there. We spent more time at a leather store in Florence than in the Uffizi.

They also make a fair bit on commission on the Optionals. And while every city offers 5 or 6 optional tours in the brochure, your tour is only going to offer at most 1 or 2 of them. And while in theory, everyone on the tour helps decide which they're going to be, in practice, they mysteriously seemed to be from amongst the priciest available in every city.

You're at the mercy of 45 people's stupidity and problems. Our whole bus nearly got turned away on the way into Switzerland because one idiot got out and started taking pictures of the border after specifically being told not to. One family on the bus ended up getting sent back to the last city because they didn't have the appropriate visa - something that the border guards wouldn't even have checked for on a bus full of 45 people if it hadn't been for camera putz. We also spent half the tour stopping at airports to see if we could pick up a lost bag that was chasing one family around Europe (not their fault, but not ours, either).

You're also at the mercy of 45 people's just general 45 peopleness. Any idea how long it takes to get 45 people back on a bus after a 15 minute photo stop? About 15 minutes. A lot of time on these trips is wasted just sitting around waiting for the last person who had to run to the bathroom, or the person who needs to get that perfect shot so walked up the highway out of earshot and didn't realize we were leaving so soon.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:24 AM on August 31, 2006

Oh! Another suggestion: rather than training everywhere, consider flying. I found that with the budget airlines (and use WhichBudget to find out which airlines fly where) you can very often get from city to city MUCH cheaper and faster than you could by train, if you plan it properly

The planning is the important bit, though. RyanAir and EasyJet can be a little, um, broad in their description of airport locations, while train stations are usually pretty central. But for places like Riga or Dubrovnik or the Scandinavian countries? Absolutely.

I love the idea of travelling along a rough axis and taking side-trips. The alternative is to pick an easily accessible hub city and travel from there, since you're always likely to have a route back if things go sour.
posted by holgate at 12:59 PM on August 31, 2006

Personally, I would always take the train, but that's at least in part because (not trying to preach) I think short-haul flying is immoral. Less personal-philosophy reasons for the train are that you get to appreciate the changing landscapes and feel of the places you're passing through, there's less hassle and stress (particularly just now), and you end up right in the centre of the city almost always. The experience of arriving in Venice by train, for instance (Venezia S. Lucia being right on the Grand Canal) is several million times better than arriving somewhere 50km away on Ryanair.
posted by athenian at 2:54 PM on August 31, 2006

That's true enough athenian... but I flew Prague->Venice via SmartWings, and arrived right in Marco Polo airport, from where I got to take an awesome water bus right into St Mark's Square. It was pretty damn cool. And it cost me 23 euro. A crazy long train ride, in a cramped 2nd class cabin, for over double the price? Not worth it to me. And Aer Lingus flies VERY cheap to many destinations now, without suffering from RyanAir's silly "dump you at an airport within the same province" mentality. :)
posted by antifuse at 6:34 AM on September 1, 2006

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