Chapter 2: Best Itineraries for European Travel
When putting your travel itinerary together, try to remain calm and realistic. If possible, give yourself a minimum of two nights at every stop in order to minimize travel expenses and keep everyone happy.
Note: This is Chapter Two in our Ultimate Budget Travel Guide to Europe.
The trip planning experience can be exhilarating. You know that you have a set number of days (or weeks!) to travel, and you look at a map with all the lip-smacking excitement of a kid in a candy store. Where do you want to visit? Where don’t you want to visit?
Imagine that you’re putting together an itinerary for a 10-day trip. You could start in Paris, head to Amsterdam, then take a train to Salzburg, Venice and Rome? Wait, maybe start in Madrid instead, then drive up to Barcelona, Nice, Milan, Munich and then Amsterdam? But hold on. What about Prague?!?!
If you’re only traveling for 10 days, either of those options is certain to cost you dearly (in transportation costs alone) and, without question, lead to grumpy and exhausted travelers.
My epic misadventure
I know, because I’ve been there. In a state of unabashed enthusiasm, I once rented a car for about 10 days and drove with friends from Berlin to Paris, then to Madrid, Lisbon, Seville, Barcelona, Aix-en-Provence, Nice, Locarno, Tubingen and back to Berlin.
Sounds great, right? It certainly started out with a blast–and ended with silence, as nobody talked in the car for the last day.
I had made a classic mistake: I’d overbooked us. When I had mapped it all out beforehand at my kitchen table it all seemed like so much fun. It worked, technically. But in practice, it meant that we spent far too much time sitting in a car (or, in my case, driving the car), and not nearly enough time exploring the cities we slept in or the tiny towns we raced by.
We ended up resenting that we had to keep on driving past places we wanted to visit. And if we did stop to check out the scene, we’d end up arriving late at whatever hotel I’d booked (months beforehand). We’d have time for a late dinner, then wake up and start over. There was never any time that wasn’t in motion–we could never actually relax.
A note to first-time American travelers to Europe
I grew up in the great state of Ohio and spent many wonderful summer breaks cruising from state to state in the family van. We took in a lot of territory during our one- and two-week family jaunts, often spending much of day taking in the scene from the air conditioned comfort of the big old Ford. Sure, we’d stop for meals, photo ops and major tourist sights (Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, a day at Disneyland), but much of the adventure was the drive itself.
Many travelers from the US approach their European travel planning with a similar mindset. Why not jump from town to town every day, taking in the landscape, driving through cities and finding fun spots for dinner along the way?
Add to our inherent “road trip” instinct the fact that we get the fewest days of vacation each year of any industrialized country, and the high cost of flights to Europe in the first place, and you’ve got a situation where American travelers understandably want to pack in as many experiences as possible during their European trips.
Nobody’s going to stop you from doing this, of course, and you might have a grand time. However, you’d be missing out on a lot. Many of the cities that you’ll be passing through have histories that go back more than a millennium. A region that you could speed through in an hour probably has its own cuisine worth sampling, wine worth tasting, and dessert worth gobbling. It’s worth slowing down to experience it.
Why should you slow down?
Aside from your sanity and the happiness of your travel companions, slowing down can also lead to real savings. Read on…
Gas is expensive.
If my last point didn’t convince you, it’s worth noting that slowing down means less gas. Gasoline in Europe is far more expensive than in North America. If you’re planning to rent a car and drive like crazy, you’re in for a real shock at the pump.
Don’t believe me? As I writer this, the average cost of gas in the US is just over $3. As you can see on this European gas tracker, it’s currently $6.59 in France — and higher in Italy.
Slowing down means fewer train tickets.
Zipping from city to city on Europe’s high-speed rail network is an experience in itself and is highly recommended. You can speed from Florence to Rome in 90 minutes on the high-speed train (and for as little as €20 off-peak if you book directly in advance!).
However, those seats (and those on France’s TGV, Germany’s ICE, and Spain’s Renfe) can be expensive in high season. Save on transportation costs by scaling back your itinerary. Not to mention that if you speed from one city to the next day after day, most of your trip memories will be of train stations and cafe cars.
Tips for putting your itinerary together
Now, let’s start putting the itinerary together. How many stops? How many nights in each stop? Here are some thoughts:
Minimize the one-night stands.
Try this: When building out your itinerary, don’t allow yourself any one-night stops. Unless you’re really on a mission to get somewhere, give yourself at least two nights in every hotel you book.
This little tip will force you to slow down and take in your surroundings a bit. But on a more practical note, it will relieve the hassle of schlepping your bags from hotel to hotel, packing and unpacking, checking in and checking out. All of that busy work can be a time-waster and add stress to your trip.
I recently helped a friend plan a trip to Normandy from Paris. His instinct was to drive up from Paris to a small B&B near the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, spend the night, and then head back to Paris the next day.
What was the problem with this plan? It didn’t leave any time to actually visit the beaches, cemetery, or surrounding towns. He might have been able to see a few things, but not take the time to really take it in. Fortunately, he booked two nights, and he greatly enjoyed exploring not only the beaches and cemetery, but the surrounding villages. He later told me about an unforgettable experience he had going to mass in a small village church–something that certainly would have fallen off an over-packed itinerary.
Use your two-day stops as bases for exploration.
If you do take my advice and give yourself at least two-day stops along your trip, use those stops as bases for exploration. This way you can wake up, not have to pack things up, head off to explore, and feel relaxed that you can come back to your “home base” whenever you please.
You also have the added bonus of exploring a territory that your hotel owner will be very familiar with. He or she will be able to offer all kinds of inside advice for activities not to miss, restaurants to try out, and views to take in.
A few years ago my partner and I were married in France. For our honeymoon we headed to the Greek island of Crete. During the planning stages, we were both so excited about experiencing the island that, in typical fashion, we planned to move from town to town each day, making our way around the island over the course of the week. There were so many things to see on the east coast, and amazing villages in the west, and great beaches along the south… and the ancient Minoan ruins in the north!
And then something happened. We remembered that this wasn’t a race: It was our honeymoon. At the last moment, we booked one amazing mountainside hotel in the southeastern part of the island, and used this as our home base. We checked in and unpacked for the week. Although we had brought along a travel guidebook, some of the best advice we received was from the friendly hotel manager.
From here, each morning, we took off to explore the beaches, the ruins, the villages, and the amazing restaurants. And every night, we came home, relaxed, and happy that we didn’t have to pack up in the morning.
This is an extreme example (it’s a honeymoon, after all), but I bring it up as it’s one trip where I forced myself to overcome my instinctive “go, go, go” trip mentality. And, in the end, the trip was more relaxed and full of surprises.
Prefer one night stops? Cut back on travel time.
I know that the (minimum) two-day stop isn’t going to work for everyone and for every trip. Sometimes you’re on a mission — you’re just trying to get from Venice to Paris by car, an 11-hour drive. Some will be tempted to just do the whole thing in one epic day on the road.
Do a search on Google maps for the route and you’ll see several halfway marks that would be perfect for an overnight. (I would recommend either Lyon or Geneva.) If you’re on a mission, I probably won’t be able to convince you to spend two nights in either city. (Even though either would be amazing. You could explore the vineyards of the Cotes-du-Rhone during your day off in Lyon, or search for the perfect cheesy raclette in the mountain villages surrounding Geneva!)
However, I would at least recommend an overnight in one of these towns, or at countless smaller villages along the way. The point is to break that 11-hour trip up into smaller, manageable trips. For this example, I think at least two overnights would be better. Three or four hours of driving every day will still give you time to explore the territory.
You don’t always need to drive in circles.
When you’re checking around for flights to Europe for your trip, remember to check “open jaw” flights that allow you to fly into one city and home from another. (For example, a flight from Boston to London, and then a return flight from Amsterdam to Boston.)
Increasingly, these flights cost about the same amount as flights into and out of the same city. “Open jaw” flights can have a big impact on your itinerary, as they can free you to plot your trip in a straight line, avoiding that end-of-trip requirement to circle back to your city of arrival.
For example, say that you’re flying from Chicago to London, then heading by train to Paris, and then down to Nice before heading home. Check flights from Chicago to London, but with a return from Nice to Chicago. There’s no need to make the mad dash from Nice all the way back up to London. So many travelers do this, and it can add unnecessary stress and expense to the final days of your trip. (Wouldn’t you rather be hanging out on the beach for another day than hustling back to London?)
One caveat: These “open jaw” flights might not work for you if you’re renting a car. (You’re in luck if you’re moving around Europe by train or by one-way flights inside Europe.) Renting a car in one European country and dropping it off in another can be quite expensive, as the company usually tacks on a fee to go fetch the car and bring it back home.
Your trip itinerary
Now, back to your drawing board (or kitchen table). Try plotting out your destinations, giving consideration to all the stops along the way. Play around with your itinerary and see what it looks like if you trim a couple of stops, and double up the nights on others.
And remember, by building more time into each step of your trip, you’re giving yourself more time for surprises and serendipity. You don’t need to know what you’re going to do on your day off in southern Spain. You’ll find something tasty, we promise you!
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