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My Soapbox: Traveling to Europe

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In the past few years, I have been asked questions regarding traveling to Europe. I have been blessed enough to take a few trips there, so the following is my best advice based on my experiences.

Before you even start planning your trip, sit down with your group and discuss what each person expects to get from the trip. Friend of the blog and veteran traveler Paul writes,

“whenever you’re with a group of people for an extended period of time, tension will [develop], but if it’s talked about beforehand, it can take the edge off and hopefully avoid alienating some members of the group.”

Even if you have relatively close relationships with those you are traveling with, it is still very important. The different situation of extended travel may be enough to give rise to issues and tension not present state-side.

Plan early. This is very important, because reservations are less expensive early for international and regional airfare, as well as with most hotels/hostels. Make sure your group knows the general dates in which they will travel so they can make initial travel plans. It is easiest to have the same entry and exit port for your travel to the continent. For example, depart the United States from Detroit and fly into London’s Gatwick airport, and return along the same route. You can find the time periods with the lowest fairs at Farecast (via Lifehacker). Because travel can be stressful,  I value the familiarity with the airport when I return. It is one less thing I have to deal with.

Once in Europe, you can fly easily on discount airlines or catch trains. Listings for these can be found at:

  • skyscanner.net–a meta search of available airlines, including discount carrier, and
  • raileurope.com–access to european rail system booking in dollars-based English

There is a chance you will be delayed–especially on your flight to Europe. In order to make sure you don’t miss your flight/train to your trip’s first destination, I recommend you look at FlightStats or Delaycast for information on probable–and often normal–delays.

Most people are comfortable with having a general itinerary before they leave. This is the other reason you plan early. Plan out where you will be and how the transportation time table work between locations. Trains are recommended unless you are traveling cross continent. Itineraries that work in one direction and work cross continent, or in a circle work best. The following are a few examples:

East to West, fly into Prague and then travel west to:

  • Munich
  • Zürich
  • Lucerne
  • Paris
  • Amsterdam
  • London (via the EuroStar in Brussels)

Circle the continent (my last trip), starting in Nice, France:

  • Rome
  • Venice
  • Milan
  • Florence
  • Lucerne
  • Munich
  • Prague
  • Berlin
  • Amsterdam
  • Brussels
  • Paris
  • London

The great thing is that with a little research, you can find the perfect itinerary for anyone. With my trip (itinerary above), we were able to relax on the beach in Nice after a long travel day. We had other locations with more relaxing activities as well, such as the beer gardens in Munich. In truth, there is plenty for every group to fill an itinerary with.

Information on destinations can be found in guidebooks and online. A quick Wikipedia search will yield the big atrractions. Lonely Planet’s Europe on a Shoestring is a great book. If you like the quirky Rick Steves (he has a show on PBS), his books are very good as well.

Trains have some intricacies you should know about before you go. Most of the western continent is connected by a rail network with which you can buy certain passes. The EU Rail pass is the best way to go if you are visiting a bunch of countries. This allows you to get on any train (except a night train), but does not guarantee you a seat. Night trains and busy routes require a “reservation,” which isn’t covered by your rail pass. You can also buy these early, if need be, just like your rail pass from raileurope.com. Other passes are required for countries not on the network, such as the Czech Republic. If you are not visiting many countries, there are flex passes and regular tickets, also available for purchase.

In Europe, discount carriers are the way to go for flying. Because of the European Union, many of the laws regulating flights within the zone have been eliminated in the interest of increased competition. Two of the most popular carriers are easyJet and Ryanair. Others include (not an exhaustive list) flybe, Thomsonfly, bmi, and Air Berlin. I recommend paying a little more for easyJet’s cleanliness and service to more major airports (but you’ll pay for it in cost). Ryanair is a company that Southwest has modeled much of its business behind. A basis of this is a very striped-down service. Friends of mine that have flown it did not like the inconvenience of some of their airports or their cattle car-like service.

Some people associate hostels in Europe with those in the movies. In reality, most of them are quite nice. The difference between a hotel and a hostel is usually that you’ll be in a room of 4, 6 or more beds at a hostel. This may be uncomfortable for some, but it is a neat way to meet people and travel on the cheap. Reviews can be found on countless websites through a simple Google search. Hotels will have more amenities familiar to American hotels. As usual, those that are further from the city center and tourist attractions are less expensive.

Finally, many cities in Europe have multiple airports. Those of us from America’s “fly-over” country might find this hard to believe (Chicago, firmly in “fly-over” country has two, however). London has five (Gatwick, Heathrow, Stanstead, Luton, and City). Other than City, they are at least 20 minutes outside of downtown.

If there are any questions I’ve missed, leave them in the comments and I’ll cover them in a future section.

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