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Revised April 19, 2011

If you are visiting Europe the first time, you should start with a trip to the library or local books store to start making your plans. A good travel book is like a holiday catalog, telling you all the great things there are to do and see.


If your first trip to Europe is just going to be a single city visit, you might want to get a basic map to plan your itinerary. You can find them online or at your local bookstore. But if you are going to do any driving, you'll want a good map to plan your itinerary and perhaps a more detailed map in the car.

We started our travel planning with a large map of Europe. Clear some space on a table and start identifying the cities you'd like to visit and then gauge how far you want to drive.

To help put things in perspective....It is about a three-day drive from Paris to Rome if you don't make any sightseeing stops. Then note that if you take the most direct route from Paris to Rome you will go by many great places to stop including the cities of Provence, the tiny principality of Monaco and the towns of Tuscany.

As Americans from the western United States, we were used to making 450-mile drives in a day and planned for some long driving days. But we quickly realized that there were marvelous things to see around almost every turn, making it difficult to cover 150 miles in a day without feeling like we were racing past too many great places. If you are doing a driving vacation, give yourself lots of time to stop for pictues and picnics.../.don't plan to cover more than 250 miles in a day and don't do to many of those will feel like you spent your vacation in a car, not in Europe.

Rough out your itinerary on the road atlas. Then start reading the guidebooks to determine how much time you want to spend in each city. This will give you an idea of how many towns you can comfortably visit. We found that our initial itinerary was much too demanding. We started spending extra days in beautiful places which meant eliminating other places we'd hoped to visit. Remember that your itinerary is just a guideline (unless you have specific places you have to be on specific dates), make adjustments as your mood and energy dictates. Too many tourists create a checklists of "must-sees" and their vacation becomes a mad dash to see all of the places on their list. You'll miss the beauty of Europe, which is in its comfortable pace and the kindness of citizens, if your trip is only for seeing the famous sights.


Guide Books

There are dozens of great guide books for Europe and most countries have their own guidebooks that add greater detail about the destination. Because most good companies update their books every year or so, you can often find the older editions on sale, in closeout bins or at used book stores. The old books may not have the latest information on hotels and museum hours but if you are just trying to identify the main sights in a city or country, a guide book that is a year or two old is just fine.

It is best to have a general idea of your itinerary before you buy guide books. Then start thinking about how you are going to travel and how many places you are really going to visit. Do you want to lug an additional 5 or 10 pounds in guide books? Think about what you really need to have at hand, which books present the information to you in the most appealing manner and then judiciously make your purchases.

If you are doing a very long tour involving multiple books, you might want to cut up the book and leave unnecessary books at home (or at least in the trunk of the car if you are driving through Europe). You'll find that books are among the heaviest part of your gear, so the fewer pages you take, the easier your load will be. On the trips where we visited five or six countries, we found that guide books that covered all of Europe had lots of material on countries we weren't going to see and didn't go into the same depth as country- or region-specific books. But a good book of Germany may be more than you need if you are only venturing into Bavaria and Franconia. My husband took our books, removed the sections we needed and then bound them in different colors of hard card stock cover (a big stapler which you can borrow at Kinko's or Staples will hold them together). We left sections we weren't going to use at home and then only carried the materials up three or four flights of stairs to our room when we started planning the next day's journey.

Even though the internet provides a wealth of information on sites to see and places to stay, I'd still encourage you to sit down with a few guide books and pack the relevant parts of one guide book with you. Even if you have access to the Internet from your cellphone, a book makes it easy to finalize your day's plans over a cup of coffee and a croissant.

Recommended Guide Books

We started with a variety of books including Rick Steeves, Frommers, Let's Go, the Rough Guide and The Lonely Planet. Oddly, it was from an old copy of the PanAm World Guide, which is no longer in print, that we made the initial selections of places to visit. I've tried to mention the historic spots in Europe that were covered in the book...the caves of the Dordogne, the castles in Salzburg. You'll find some of those spots in the section about where to go in this website and by clicking to the specific countries. I describe many of the places that are popular with tourists but you'll really enjoy Europe more if you make some time to get away from the crowds and into the places that take a bit of effort to reach.

Overall, we liked Rick Steeves' description of places to see and enjoyed the pace of travel he recommended. As a tribute to his popularity, we found a small group of people waiting to see the evening feeding of the foxhounds at Giverny in the Loire Valley of France. The crowd had assembled by 4:45 pm anticipating the flurry of fur that would occur as the twenty plus hounds received their chow precisely at the stroke of 5. Minutes ticked away, 5:00 p.m. came and went and the only thing the dogs had to chew on were some stones. As more time passed wth no food for the dogs, I asked a tourist standing next to me if she had read about the hound feeding in Rick Steeves guide book. Her affirmative response included a comment that her parents had been on a tour run by the well-known guide and had really enjoyed themselves. Other tourists added that they had read Rick's book. By 5:30, we gave can only watch so much dog chasing stone before you get bored....realizing that even the best written guide books can't always be accurate. In general, however, Steeves provides good advice on food and lodging. Some of the bargain hotels he recommended needed to pay a bit more attention to issue of cleanliness but his book guided us to great hotels in Arles and Bellagio and delightful meals in Paris and Rome. His advice and assessment on travel through Eastern Europe was also valuable, though the best travel may take you beyond the cities he recommends.

But, as I mentioned earlier, many American travelers read Steeves, so the cozy little neighborhood bar can morf into a popular meeting spots for Americans abroad, losing its local charm. We followed his hand-drawn map to a restaurant near the Pantheon in Rome, finally identified which restaurant he was recommending and sat down in a delightful square to a delicious meal. Along came a group of Americans from Pennsylvania following the same directions who figured they'd found the place when they spotted our book on the table. By the time our entree was served there were nine tables filled with Americans toting the Steeves guide book which had lured us in with the promise that we'd "feel right at home with the locals." We clearly felt at home and had amusing conversations with the other diners, but none had been in Rome long enough to consider themselves "the locals." Understand that his popularity as a guide will often draw lots of Americans to the places he recommends in well-touristed locations but believe him when he says that the best way to see the Pont du Gard is floating on your back in the water under the famous Roman bridge.

On the other hand, Steeves says you should only go to the second tier of the Eiffel Tower.....that is one he has all wrong.....grab a botlle of champagne and some plastic glasses and buy a ticket all the way to the top. Stop at the second tier, circle its platform and enjoy the view. Then take the advice of two travellers who are deathly afraid of heights and go to the are very secure and safe at the top (if there isn't a lightning storm) and the view is indescribable.

Let's Go tries to guide the independent traveler toward a great time at a great price. Their books are crammed wth information about things to see and affordable places to stay. If you plan to stay in hostels, it is the book you need. It also tries to stay current on places to eat and provides updated information about hours of operations of museums and other local attractions. Let's Go also has good regional maps and basic maps for major cities. You'll still need a real road map if you are planning to drive, but the guide book maps really help you plan an itinerary and can help you make lodging reservations.

Rough Guides are very similar to Let's Go books, covering a great deal of informaiton about tourist attractions, restaurants and lodging. Again, you will find very helpful city maps and great advice for the independent traveler. You may ultimately make your choice based on which font size you prefer. It's a bit easier for my aging, bi-focaled eyes to skim the layout in Let's Go but I found the Rough Guide information to helpful and accurate and we own copies of both.

Frommers also had lots of good information but the advice was directed at a more mainstream traveller than we were. Prices at recommended hotels and restaurants were, in general, more than we budgeted. Still, the Frommer City guides can be really helpful in designing a destination.

If you are planning to camp, two helpful items are the Michelin Guide for camping in Europe and, if you are camping in France, the Les Castels magazine about their properties.

Use as many books as you can afford (or can check out from a local library or borrow from friends) to do your travel planning. But don't lug them all to Europe. Carefully sift through the books you've purchased and decide which one or two you want to have wth you. A suggestion from a friend was to rip the books into sections and only take the sections that covered place you are going.

To help you feel more comfortable about leaving some of the books at home, remember that you can almost always pop into an internet cafe and look up information about places in Europe. When you are in cities like Paris, Rome or Amsterdam, there are plenty of resources for tourists, including city maps which are often free. Most small towns have information centers where you can get detailed information about local sights and events. Use the information centers even if you have guide books that you enjoy. The information centers will direct you toward events that may not make the guidebooks.