Planning Your European Vacation
From itineraries to passports to packing and more
The best such trips, in my view, are made by train, (or by Europe's new "upstart airlines such as Easyjet, Ryannair or Go) and in easy stages, involving no more than four or five hours at a time en route. You go from Paris to Brussels (less than three hours), not from Paris to Madrid (sixteen hours). You go from Frankfurt to Munich (three hours), not from Frankfurt to Rome (eighteen hours). Choosing to travel in short hops, between cities no more than four to six hours apart, you eliminate both fatigue--and the anxiety of arriving at the station on time for the few trains that make the longer trips. Between closely-located cities, departures are almost hourly, and you simply show up at the station, without advance reservations, and board the next train.
The best such itinerary I know, for a first-time trip to Europe, on a scaled-down version of the "Grand Tour," is London-Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam. The airfare to London and between Amsterdam and London is low; the opening of the "Chunnel" cuts the train distance between London and Paris to three hours; and from Paris to Brussels, and from Brussels to Amsterdam, the train time is about three hours apiece. You spend five days in London, four days in Paris, which is reasonable for a first-time visit, and then two days or so in each of Brussels and Amsterdam. You have gone to four distinctive countries and cultures in two weeks, yet over a reasonable distance in easy train hops, without exhaustion or great expense. In the section below, I've outlined four other possible itineraries for a sensible "Grand Tour."
The important thing, as always, is to make the decision to go; Europe, for an American, is an indispensable visit, to be neglected at the peril of not enjoying a fully-realized life. Some indication of its impact on the mind of a young American who made his own "Grand Tour" there as a soldier, some forty years ago, is found on nearly every page of the first edition of "Europe on $5 a Day." Fresh from an ugly army barracks, and recent graduation as a rather-conventional lawyer, I found myself in a state of unaccustomed rapture: "Try to arrive at night," I wrote, in my chapter on Venice, "when the wonders of the city can steal upon you, piecemeal and slow. At the foot of the Venice Railway Station is a landing from which a city launch embarks for the trip up the Grand Canal. As you glide along, little clusters of candy-striped mooring poles emerge from the dark; a gondola approaches with a lighted lantern hung from its prow; the reflection of a slate-grey church, bathed in a blue spotlight, shimmers in the water as you pass by...."
Four more "pared down" Grand Tours
For a two-week stay in Europe, you'll want to consider the following alternatives to our preferred itinerary of London-Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam:
Spain/France/Italy: Start in Madrid, spend three nights there (seeing the Prado, Toledo, and a bullfight), then drive or take the train to Barcelona (seven hours) for a two-night stay, and then head straight across the French Riviera in a car or train ride of five hours, stopping in your choice of resorts in either Cannes or Nice for three nights. Proceed next across the top of Italy, and south a bit, to Florence (seven hours by train from Nice) for a three-night stay, and then to Venice (3 and 1/2 hours) for three nights. Double back to Milan for a homeward-bound flight. That makes five cities in two weeks, but with short distances between them.
Austria/Hungary/Czech Republic: A less ambitious mini-tour, well suited to the stately, slow lifestyles of Central Europe. Four nights in Prague allows ample time for day excursions to the renowned spa cities of Bohemia; five nights in Vienna includes a day for excursions to nearby Alpine sights and villages; four nights in Budapest includes a day for visiting resorts on Lake Balaton. Vienna is less than four hours from Prague, where you've begun your trip; Budapest is less than three hours from Vienna. You've enjoyed great variety in culture and history, without fatiguing, long-distance travel.
Holland/Germany/Denmark: Start your trip in Amsterdam, to which there are usually low trans-Atlantic fares, spend three days there, then take the train (the only eight-hour trip we recommend) to exciting Berlin for a three-day stay. From there, you go by rail in six hours to Hamburg (one night), and from there, Copenhagen-- happiest capital of Scandinavia--is only four hours by train or car. A sensible itinerary, encompassing four cities in three countries.
France/Switzerland/Italy: On an efficient, straight-line route for most of the trip, involving short hops of four-to-six hours between cities, you travel from Paris (where you've stayed for four nights) for six hours to Zurich (staying two nights), then for six further hours to Venice (two nights), and four hours more to Florence (two nights) and then to Rome (four nights), from which you fly back to the U.S. But this five-city, three-country trip is for fast-moving tourists.