How to Book Your Own Grand European Tour
An epic tour of the Continent is the time-tested way to see Europe—if you've got a month or three and a pile of cash. Until you win the lotto, we'll help you hit the grandest sites on your wish list.
What exactly is a Grand Tour?
It started in the 17th century as an extended—make that a very extended—European vacation for travelers with time and money to burn. Any trip worthy of the name would last more than a month and include stops in at least England, France, and Italy. (When Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt got married in 1905, they spent three months shopping and eating their way from London to Rome.) The floodgates opened to the riffraff (a.k.a. you and me) after World War II, when transatlantic flights became more common and certain guidebook authors shared their tricks on how to vacation on the cheap. The "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" incarnation of the Grand Tour—which whipped travelers through a dizzying number of countries in a week or two—passed the baton to the popular DIY version undertaken by recent college grads: the rail pass/hostel/Let's Go-type adventure.
How can I pull off a trip like that today?
Your best bet is to go guided. A good outfitter can eliminate many of the headaches you can get from hopping across the Continent: blindly choosing hotels and restaurants, navigating the maze of trains and planes, and orienting yourself in an unknown city. "Guests come back from our trips overjoyed that they actually got to look up from their guidebooks," says Steve Born, the vice president of marketing for Globus family of brands, an international organization that runs more than 3,500 trips to Europe annually. "They also love that when things are prebooked with a package, there's no waiting on line for admissions." Globus's most popular cross-Continent tour is the 11-day Essential Europe itinerary, which starts in Rome and loops through Paris on its way to London (from $1,999 per person). Outfitted trips can also provide some authentic experiences that you could never stumble across on your own. Trafalgar Tours' Be My Guest dining option organizes small-group meals at wineries, farms, and private homes in 11 European countries. The stop in Belgium, for instance, takes place in an 18th-century farmstead owned by the same family for five generations.
That sounds great, but I could never spend that much time sitting on a bus.
The truth is, more and more outfitters have ditched the standard tour-bus and travel-by-number experience of the past. The newest itineraries from California-based Intrepid Travel are a good example: Their 15-day Barcelona to Rome tours (from $2,740 per person) link stays at inns and B&Bs with jaunts on public transportation and include plenty of unscheduled time. Cruises are an increasingly grand option, too. Ships now sail the Mediterranean and Baltic year-round; over the past 10 years the number of passengers touring these seas by ship has grown 163 percent. That's not the only way to sail here, either. Since 2004, the number of North Americans taking river cruises has jumped 60 percent, with the vast majority touring European rivers such as the Seine and Danube. With all these options, it's no wonder that packaged trips to Europe have started to draw a somewhat younger crowd. The average age of Globus's customers has dropped steadily over the years and now stands at 55 (60 percent female, 70 percent married couples, and 20 percent families traveling with children). The outfitter Contiki, which offers 100 itineraries in Europe, actually markets its trips exclusively to the 18-to-35 age bracket.
There's no way I can take a monthlong vacation. Any suggestions?
You're not alone there. "Nobody I know can devote the month off that a 'grand trip' to Europe would entail," says Max Hartshorne, the editor of travel website gonomad.com. "Nowadays, you're looking at more like a week or 10 days at the most, so people are no longer trying to do the whole Continent on a single trip." At the same time, flights to Europe have become even more plentiful, so there's less incentive to save up money (and vacation days) for an epic journey when you can easily manage a weekend jaunt to London or Rome. "Some travelers still feel the pressure to see and do it all, like they're on a mission," Born says. "But more and more, travelers want to slow down and experience places in depth." Outfitters have started offering a lot of itineraries with this in mind. In the past two years, for instance, the most popular tour offered by Intrepid Travel has been its 15-day Best of Italy trip (from $2,545 per person), followed closely by the eight-day Russia Highlights (from $1,735 per person) and 15-day Best of Spain (from $2,420). See our sidebar, "Big Adventures on a Smaller Scale," below, for more regionally concentrated trip ideas.