One of the most pleasant ways to visit parts of Europe is by boat. For most tourists, the ideas of Mediterranean or Norwegian fjord cruises come to mind; others think of sailboat charters to the Greek Isles. But there are navigable waterways throughout Europe that provide opportunities to see beautiful parts of the continent from the deck of a boat. You can travel as part of a group or captain your own boat. Whatever way you choose, sailing the waters of Europe will be a most memorable experience.
The benefits of an organized cruise are similar to the benefits of a tour...the chance to meet other English-speaking tourists and to conveniently travel from one destination to another, without a worry about lodging or connections. Additionally, most cruises include meals and snacks so that when you pay for your tickets, you've paid for almost all of your expenses for the trip. And, once you've settled into your cabin, you are there for the rest of the trip...no need to worry about repacking or moving luggage until the ship reaches its final destination.
The drawbacks are of an organized cruise also similar to that of a tour....you're on someone else's schedule, you're travelling in some level of luxury that is more expensive than what you would spend if you were travelling by car and staying in economy hotels, and when you visit tourist attractions, it's as part of a large group. Additionally, if you are taking a Mediterranean or Norwegian Cruise, you will do most of your travelling in open water and see less of the continent as you go.
Still, some European destinations are best reached by ship/boat. Sailing past the castles and monuments of the Rhine is unforgettable. Barge cruises through France and the Netherlands give you a unique impression of local life. And your first glance of St. Marks and the Grand Canal in Venice should be from a boat, whether it is gondola, vaporetto or cruiseliner.
If you don't want to take a cruise, you can make arrangements to rent a boat in many locations. Even inexperienced landlubbers can navigate most of the rivers and canals; cruising the open seas of Europe and the lagoon of Venice require more experience. There are a variety of options available and standard trips can be as short as a weekend or as long as 2 weeks. There are so many beautiful lakes and rivers in Western Europe that we are planning to use a boat for some part of our next journey.
Good friends who had visited Europe twice encouraged us to do the trip by car and to camp along the way. They suggested that our money would go much farther and that our experience would be unbelievable. Others warned us to stay in the right lane and beware of the lead-footed Europeans who would pass us on the major highways. After research on the cost of Eurail passes and auto leasing, it was clear that even with high gas prices, a car would save us money and give us much more freedom to visit rural attractions we wanted to see. The cost savings worked for us as a couple travelling for an extended period of time; as the size of your group goes up, the cost savings become very substantial. If you are traveling with a few friends or children, appropriate rental of a car will definitely save you money, keeping in mind that you will pay tolls on some of the major roads of Europe.
When we finally contacted a travel agent to book the car, he was able to save us even more money. If you have a credit card that provides insurance (collision damage) coverage when you rent a car, you do not need to buy it from the rental agencies which is a significant savings. But under current rules, credit card companies only provide this coverage on rentals of 30 days or less. Typically, travellers who are going to be gone for more than 30 days are advised to lease rather than rent because the car and insurance end up being less expensive. Our travel agent reached a better solution for us--we rented the car for the journey from Paris to Marseille with one credit card; then we returned the car, rented it again and used a different credit card to pay for the rest. This arrangement saved us about $300 over the cost of lease.
We explored the option of purchasing a car in Europe and then shipping it back. Volvo had a program that included free airfare--we could make all the arrangements through our local Volvo dealer and the car would be ready for us when we reached Europe. These programs are great for travellers who would normally drive a Volvo or similar car in the $30,000+ price range. We, on the other hand, drive very basic vehicles that maximize mileage and minimize expense. The Volvo was about $18,000 above our price limit and even two free tickets weren't enough to close the deal.
Consider how much gear you will carry and try to get the smallest car that will suit your needs. Fuel efficient cars will help you save money despite high gas prices; a diesel vehicle may bring you additional savings which you should consider if you think you'll be driving many kilometers per day. Also, you'll get lots of reminders that vehicles in tourist areas are often prey to thieves; you'll have a bit more security if you are driving a sedan and can lock your luggage in the trunk. If you think that you will be moving frequently on your agenda, you may want to check into a camper van or even a motor home but remember that when you get into towns, you'll often be travelling on medieval streets that are crowded with tourists. At some points, even a small sedan is intimidating; vans or motorhomes are for those who have both patience and confidence or plan to walk from the outskirts of town to the sights.
You may hear lots of stories about European drivers whisking past you on highways and through narrow city streets, with their thumbs firmly planted on their horns. Don't let them frighten you. If you have survived cruising the streets and freeways of LA, San Francisco, New York, Boston or DC, you'll be comfortable with the roads of Europe. I bounced more on the potholes of Chicago in one weekend than I did in 37 days of driving on the continent over cobblestone and generally felt the drivers were more considerate and cooperative than those I encounter in the states. Understand that they take driving seriously, especially in France, Italy and Germany, so that you need to be alert and attentive. Also, you will often be travelling on country roads with one lane moving in each direction. Use caution when you pass, watch out for the other guy and don't let a horn or flashing lights pressure you to do something that isn't safe.