Planning Your European Vacation
From itineraries to passports to packing and more
Except in winter, when tourists tend to visit one European city for a week (like London, or Paris, or Rome), most Americans go to multiple locations when they travel trans-Atlantic in spring, summer and fall. The vacation is more far more active than most. Though some travelers limit their stay to a single European country, they go to at least two or three cities in that country.
Planning the itinerary is therefore a key part of preparing for your European trip. And the right kind of itinerary--a sensible one, that doesn't exhaust or impoverish you--can have a major impact on your enjoyment. How extensive should the trip be? Three cities, four, five? Or should it be a vast, sweeping, circular itinerary of Europe, the "Grand Tour?
The "Grand Tour"
In the mid-1950's, when I first wrote "Europe on $5 a Day," nearly every trans-Atlantic trip was a "Grand Tour." We travel-starved Americans all but ran across the continent, dashing in and out of multiple cities, as if this chance to view the Old World was the only one we would ever have. We were like drunken sailors, exulting in the liberties that earlier conditions--in this case, World War II, and the slow recovery of bomb-damaged Europe--had denied us.
Vacations then were three to four weeks long. A widely-available "multi-stopover" plan permitted you to fly to as many as a dozen cities on a single trans-Atlantic airfare. The best-selling guidebooks by the three "F's"--Fielding, Fodor and Frommer--dealt with all twenty-some-odd European countries in a single volume, and were meant to be read and used almost in full on one trip.
Because your relatives rarely knew where you would be on any given date, you instructed them to send letters "c/o American Express" to the cities you vaguely expected to reach at some point in time. And part of the day of your arrival in a city was spent standing in line for your mail. You joked with the people in front of you, compared notes, asked them whether they had preferred Scandinavia to Spain, England to Italy. You had been to all of them in a single trip.
But although the journey covered as much territory as an 18th century "Grand Tour," it otherwise bore no resemblance to Lord Byron's. It was of a breathtaking and (as viewed today) embarrassing superficiality. Except for London or Paris, you rarely stayed in a single city for more than two days, seldom got to know any Europeans, developed no real ability to use their language, never got under the surface of things. You engaged, instead, in a sort of sensual orgy, experiencing all the kaleidoscopic variety of that richly-varied continent. You moved overnight from cuisine to cuisine, language to language, from one style of architecture and outlook to another.
When, as a young G.I. stationed in Germany, I had my first two-week leave, I flung myself onto the rail system of Europe, slept sitting up as the train moved overnight from country to country, stopped in perhaps eight different nations in the space of 14 days. It was the most exhilarating time of my life until then, and formed the basis for a lifelong interest in Europe. But it resulted in no real understanding or growth.
Alternatives to the "Grand Tour"
We do it better today. Except for the backpackers with an entire summer at their disposal, hardly anyone any longer attempts to do all of Europe in one trip. Even the people on those "If It's Tuesday It Must be Belgium" motorcoach tours, usually confine themselves to a handful of countries (London to Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, and back through France to London, is a typical itinerary), and only a few try to pack in more.
For the vast majority of trans-Atlantic tourists, Europe has become regionalized; they focus on one area at a time, and save the rest for a later trip; they go only to Spain, or only to Britain, or only to Italy. The average trip is two weeks or less, and rarely (except by students) for a month and more. And the great majority of such trips are made by persons on their second, third and fourth visits to Europe; the percentage of first-time travelers, measured against the whole, is steadily dwindling (which worries the European travel interests).
Is it, nevertheless, wrong for a first-time traveler to Europe to dream of a "Grand Tour?" Is there anything foolish about wanting to enjoy the same, thrilling alternation of sights and cultures that formed the appeal of "Europe on $5 a Day?" Of course not. But because the trip is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime splurge, as it used to be regarded, the smart first-time traveler will plan for a more reasonable, limited version of it. Three adjoining countries in two weeks is a sensible choice; four countries in three weeks is equally wise. Travelers who persist in flinging themselves from one end of the continent to another, are simply courting exhaustion--and suffering visual overload--for no good reason.