There are dozens of guidebooks to help you decide where you want to travel, so my goal is to share information with you that will help you rough out your itinerary and make the most of the fleeting time you spend travelling through Europe. We relied on Rick Steeves but soon found that he was so popular that when we chose a restaurant he recommended, the "locals" were often from New York or California. But watch his shows, and other travel programs on PBS, head to the library for books and magazines, and reflect on what matters to you. Then get a bargain book about Europe or the countries you are considering and a map so you can start filling in the details. I am currently poring over maps of France and Belgium as I put together a long trip along the rivers of those countries.
You should consider whether this is the trip of a lifetime or if there is a reasonable chance you'll get back. We planned our first trip like it would be our only trip and crammed our days from sunrise to sunset, putting the most famous tourist attractions on our itinerary. If you don't think you'll get back, a busy schedule that gets you to Paris, Venice and London will eat up your vacation dollars but give you a collection of photographs and memories you'll cherish.
You'll be surprised by the places that are most affordable and the places that we found relatively expensive. If you stay in basic but clean hotels or camp through Europe, you find the cost of sleep is reasonable in France and Italy and extremely affordable in Germany, Belgium and Austria. We stayed in pleasant properties throughout Greece for under $100 per room per night in Greece, though Athens was a bit more expensive. We actually found the cost of travel in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia to be more expensive than in western Europe. So if you are planning your first trip, you may want to consider the tried and true destinations because the air fares may be lower and the cost of a good night's sleep may be more affordable.
Great travel is not a race or a contest. It is time to savor new tastes, see the history we've only known in books and experience life at a different pace. You will remember the sights, but you'll really treasure the moments you interacted with the people of the area. So balance you desire to see as much as you can with the flexibility to spend a whole evening drinking with the locals or wandering the streets of a beautiful town.
We spent 42 days on our first trip to the continent, getting out early and exploring long after the sun set. Still, it seemed like we barely sampled the best that Europe had to offer and just started to appreciate the pace of life that made it so fun to be a guest in these countries.
Our first journey took us to the central nations: Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The countries that surround them have their own fantastic sites and unique cultural flavor to enjoy. So the first decision you need to make is how much time you have, and how you want to experience the countries you visit.
We allocated 24 days to France, 10 days to Italy and then raced through the other countries getting just the slightest taste of what they had to offer...we were in the other countries just long enough to say we had been there and realize what we were going to miss. As we passed through the Alps and along the Rhein, it was clear that we wanted to come back.
While it is small relative to the size of the continental United States, things are not as compact as most Americans anticipate. Our 6-week journey covered over 5,000 miles and some legs of the trip were more than 300 miles. Even at 90 miles per hour (150 kph), it takes awhile to get from city to city. If you are camping, you need to add time to set up the tent, do laundry and cook dinner, so overly ambitious travel plans are very difficult to complete. We had intended to get to the Czech Republic and eastern Germany but, as time started to dwindle, realized that the added driving would shorten or eliminate our time in Normandy and Brittany. We made hard choices, reorganized our travel plans and still seemed to rush through the last part of our trip.
The next time we spent about 21 days and made it from Paris to Venice to Rome back to Paris, traveling as a group of three by car. We partially retraced the route of the first trip....it was just as wonderful and though some of the places were the same, the experience was still fresh and memorable.
We took a trip to Prague from Stuttgart, Germany, then on to Budapest via Vienna, down to Slovenia, Croatia and Venice and back to Stuttgart in 24 days. We did it, with enough time to sample Prague and Budapest, and get to see the best of Slovenia, but as we raced along the Austrian Danube and reduced our time on the Adriatic, we realized that we'd only sampled some of the most spectacular parts of Europe.
With my brother and his wife, taking their first trip to Europe, we slowed down the pace a bit with slower starts and less travel. We started in Paris once again, but this time ended in Venice, paying a bit more for the car we rented and perhaps more for our airfares. In 16 days, we made it to Mont St. Michel, Luxembourg, Moselle River wineries, the medieval town of Rothenburg and Lauterbrunnen Falls in Switzerland on the way. We added an additional week to take a ferry to Rovinj, Croatia, and drive from there to Dubrovnik. The first 16 days felt busy; the pace of Croatia in a week felt just about right.
Our most recent trips have been more focused: 3 weeks in Britain, 3 weeks in Greece, and 7 weeks, primarily in France, with a detour to the Swiss shores of Lake Geneva. At a slower place, we visited places that most travelers don't reach as well as seeing the most famous attractions. We really enjoyed the relaxed pace in France and Greece, but found the British trip, that included Wales and the famous golf course of Saint Andrews in Scotland, was a too short, especially since we were trying to play golf along the way.
We are your classic "get up and go" travelers, knowing that in the early hours of the morning, you'll have many spectacular sights all to yourself or to share with the locals preparing for another morning. Our goal was to cram as much into every day of travel as we could and figured we catch up on missed sleep when we got back home. If you don't have weeks to recover when you get back home, you may want to give yourself a more rational schedule. Generally, you'll enjoy the places where you linger more than the places you just drive through or spend a night. Get a variety of opinions about various places you think you'd like to visit and start by building a rough calendar.
Also, take your age into consideration. As we get older, we find the sunrises are harder to greet, especially if we played late into the night. We've also realized that it is harder string long days of walking together. You can get to all the main attractions in Paris, Rome or Vienna in just a day, but you won't get the feeling of the city unless you slow down and sample its food and drink and spend some time just wandering the neighborhoods, so adjust your city stays accordingly.
I personally find it very convenient to set up a spreadsheet that allows me to set a number of days and then start evaluating the best way to allocate our travel time.
As you plan your agenda, think about what you like to do when you are playing and vacationing at home. If you aren't visiting museums in the US, it probably means daily doses of art galleries and museums will get dull across the Atlantic too. If, on the other hand, you are a shopper by nature, there are markets in many towns, big and small, and most of the tourist centers have great clothing, book and souvenier stores. Outdoor enthusiasts will get a different view of the mountains and rivers when they find a castle, monastery or Roman ruin around every turn. And those who enjoy the caverns of the Ozarks, Oregon or Kentucky, will be awed by the beauty of the prehistoric art on the walls of the caves in Spain and southern France or the spectacular caves of Slovenia. So do some personal soul-searching and do the European version of the things you love most. Include time in museums and cathedrals, visit historic sites, but be sure to make time for swimming, boating and shopping if that is how you'd be spending an American vacation.
History casts a long shadow across all of Europe. Those with particular interests in royalty and war will have a chance to stand where the legends of time committed their memorable or infamous deeds and visualize those events once again. But the amount of history is often overwhelming and not as familiar to Americans as the stories of the Boston Tea Party or the Civil War. If you have the time, find some books or movies about particular periods that you find interesting and focus your travel around those places and personalities. A brief outline of the major historical figures in each country helps you understand who is related to whom and how the duke who built this castle is related to the king who built that chateau, etc.
Also, understand that while the cities have preserved their history, they are still vibrant communities whose citizens work and play where historic legends once lived and died, and that many modern citizens make their livings helping tourists connect with history...if Michelangelo, Leonardo di Vinci or crazy Ludwig passed through the town, it is likely there will be some tourist attraction commemorating the moment. Savor the memory of being in the place where history happened, but don't expect that every site will be heartstopping...some will just be interesting.
Fortunately, the scenic beauty of the hills, farmland, castles and cathedrals speaks for itself without needing crib notes to appreciate what you are viewing. You can appreciate the beauty of Notre Dame or the Duomo in Florence without understanding the architectural techniques used to build them. You will be awed by the beauty of the stained glass at Chartres even if you don't uncover the meaning of every panel. Across every horizon you will scan places of history whose timeless elegance needs no words and all you have to do is enjoy them.
For those of you who love sports, there are many places to pursue the activities you love. Head to the Alps of France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria or Germany for some of the most pleasant skiing on the planet. Windsurfing is a popular sport along the Mediterranean and Adriatic Coasts and in the lakes of Italy, and rivers across the continent are used for rafting and kayaking. Golf is popular in the U.K. and Ireland and more courses are being built on the continent. Still, bicycling may be the sport that fits most naturally into a schedule of sightseeing.