Planning Your European Vacation
From itineraries to passports to packing and more
Note that most of these inter-city trips are four hours in duration, and only a few approach six or more hours in length. Such short hops are the key to an enjoyable, but still colorful, European trip, including multiple countries and cultures in the space of just two weeks.
Completing a 15-item checklist
For any trip, to anywhere, advance preparation is a valuable step, a useful precaution. To Europe, it's more than that--it's crucial, indispensable, of make-or-break importance! With 23 nations, a dozen languages, almost as many differing customs, policies and attitudes, Western Europe is a complex continent that requires advance study and planning, as well as early decision-making, if you're to realize the most from your trip. Here's a "check-list" of 15 vital items that must be considered long before you leave:
1. Procure your passport--now
Every European nation requires a valid passport of its American visitors. And with millions of Americans planning an overseas trip each ear, and new security precautions in post-9/11 America, the U.S. Passport Agency experiences frequent delays--it's never been more important that you apply as far ahead as possible to obtain a passport or the extension of one earlier issued. For instructions on applying for a passport, click on our Passports and Visas section [please link] in this section on advance preparations for travel.
2. Make immediate plans for your trans-Atlantic crossing
Those millions of American travelers place a heavy burden on international flights and crossings, and the best departure dates in summer will be sold out long in advance. This is especially the case with advantageous charter flights departing on desirable weekends to the most heavily-visited European cities; as many as 20% of all Americans going to Europe may use such cost-saving charters at some point in the future. For winter and off-season travel, you are more likely to find a bargain last-minute. Plan out your ideal trip, know what the going rate should be, and be ready pounce when an airline sale undercuts its competitors.
3. Decide, in advance of departure, whether to travel by car or train (or airline--see bottom of paragraph)
Most visitors to Europe, for reasons of both convenience and cost, travel either by self-drive car or the train. And both forms of transport cost considerably less when purchased in North America prior to departure. Therefore, decide now on which method is the one for you.
The reason why you must decide now--and not simply put off the decision until after arriving in Europe--has to do with the considerable financial savings for people who purchase their rail or car transportation before departing on their trip. All the rail "passes" for Europe--the various Eurailpasses, the various country passes like the Britrail pass--have to be purchased in advance, and cannot be purchased once you have arrived in Europe or in that particular country. As for international car rentals, they always cost far less if they are purchased in your own home city, many days in advance of your actual trip; and this is a rule that applies to domestic auto rentals as well. The American who puts off making the arrangements for a car rental in Britain, say, is stunned to learn how high is the price of such a rental when ordered at an auto rental counter at Heathrow Airport in London. The difference is major.
So you must decide. Which is the better mode of transportation for Europe?
Consider, first, the train. The life of Europe when viewed from a train window is unique and human, and the camaraderie among the occupants of a European train compartment--for most long-distance European trains are divided into 6-passenger or 8-passenger compartments--is a marvelous dividend of rail travel. European trains are also fast, punctual, convenient and comfortable, just as American trains of the 1950s and 1960s were, before the advent of inexpensive jet air transportation, which destroyed our train system. Rail travel is a perfect means for viewing the countryside of Europe, enabling you also to travel vast distances in a short time.
The self-drive car in Europe? Travel by self-drive car brings you even "closer up" to the life of Europe, and also gives you the maximum of flexibility. You are not bound by schedules. You perform most of your daily sightseeing in the car that brought you to a particular area. You are also able to stay at countryside lodgings, with a car, not limited to cities.
As to the cost of traveling by car, you spend a bit more than you would have for train tickets, if you are only two people traveling together. And that's not because of the high cost of car rentals--they aren't terribly expensive if reserved from the United States--but because of the cost of gas. Those fuel prices are considerably higher than here, reaching $3 and more per gallon, and you are constantly refilling tanks for $30 and more on the average car trip (a reason for renting the smallest size of car). The situation changes when you are three or more using the car, for then a definite cost advantage over train travel begins to emerge.