You can get all the travel advice you need from books and websites. That’s what we did. But I thought I would pass along some of the things we learned as first-timers. We had never planned or experienced a trip like the one we took to Europe in 2014. We knew we were bound to make mistakes and that some things wouldn’t turn out as we planned. And as it turned out, we learned a few lessons that will help us the next time we plan an international trip, long or short.
So here are some of the things worth passing along to others that might be in that situation of planning a trip to Europe without a lot of prior (or any) experience. Much of it will only apply if you want to travel in a mode similar to ours: Long, light, and cheap.
If you really want to travel, you can do it. It has become increasingly cheaper and safer, and is not as much the luxury as many still consider it. If you can save, you can afford to travel, especially if you are willing to travel like we did: light, in hostels, and keeping shopping and expensive meals to a minimum. Buy a used car instead of a new one. Pocket your eating-out money for a year or two. One way of looking at it is to learn how cheap a round trip ticket can be, and that after that, every $100 you can save will pay for the lodging, food and admissions for an average day. Of course, if you can’t afford to save, you are going without many things other than travel.
Our planning fell into two major divisions: itinerary and arrangements, by which I mean tickets, passes, reservations and rentals – at least the ones that you can and should arrange ahead of time. In our case, we split the two between us. I created the itinerary and Laura made the arrangements. They were both large tasks, and we began a full year before our trip. Sometimes it is wise or necessary to confirm reservations on the phone, especially with independent hostels.
We both made considerable use of Rick Steves’ guides. In one or two instances his information was not spot-on (for example, the difficulty and duration of the Schlern hike), but he is mostly very reliable and makes good recommendations. In a few instances, there are places worth visiting that are not found among his recommendations. In England, the whole last leg of our trip was in the southeast – Dover, Canterbury, and Battle – which he does not include in any of his itineraries. I added it, as I did with many stops, because of my own history-geek (or art/architecture/scenery) interests.
How did we travel on the cheap?
First, by planning ahead. Making it up as you go is expensive, and you miss things you’d wish you hadn’t. Finding the deals takes research, and research takes time. If you want to save money, you have to invest time well ahead of your trip.
Second, we traveled light. Everything we brought fit in our backpacks. They could easily be stowed for the day at out hostel or in a locker somewhere. It meant we could grab a train, bus, Metro, cab, or even walk to a destination, as needed. Things we collected along the way we shipped home when we were in Spain.
Third, we mostly ate cheaply, and only shelled out for a few more expensive meals. If you are a big foodie, you must budget a considerable amount of money and time for eating. We shopped in stores or open-air markets for food we could fix at our hostels, or take on the road with us. We ate at a lot of kebab joints, the fast food of Europe.
Fourth, we stayed in hostels. If you have some tolerance for lack of privacy, discomfort and unpredictability, hostels will save you money. You meet people from all over the world, and by world I mean the US and Russia. Yes, if you come late you may end up on the top of a three-tier bunk bed. Yes, the food is not always the best (but sometimes it’s great). Yes, there are co-ed dorms, bathrooms and even shower rooms in some of these places, but we never had any problems. They are safe and usually clean. Some of the hostels turned out to actually be hotels. (They were registered as hostels for tax purposes, we think.) Some of them were in old castles, monasteries, mansions, or villas. Sometimes we had our own room. And $30-$60 a night can’t be beat. We also used Airbnb in Paris and in Edinburgh.
In Italy we traveled mostly by train and a few times by bus. I would not have wanted to drive in Italy: banditi, crazy city drivers and riders, the fact that we were in and out of cities the whole time, and that we covered many hundreds of miles over three weeks there.
In Spain, from Barcelona we drove a rental car until we flew out of Madrid about ten days later. For us, this was absolutely the the thing to do. It was not terribly expensive. They drive on the correct side of the road. And it gave us the freedom to stay or leave when we wanted, and to pull over to take a picture, eat, or explore unexpected discoveries. As we drove toward Seville, we spotted a castle that rose out of vast sunflower fields, and were able to pull over and check it out. Can’t do that on a bus or a train. Another thing you can’t do on a bus or a train is take pictures. That’s why I don’t have many good pictures of Tuscan landscapes.
In the south of France and in Paris, it was back to trains and buses, because our stays were A) in the city, and/or B) very short.
In England, again, after London we drove the rest of the way through England, Scotland and then England again. Yes, they do drive on the wrong side of the road. Yes, it was terrifying at first, for the first few hours. But we were in the country, with light traffic, and we got the hang of it. I would not have done it any other way. Being able to explore and stop when we pleased was absolutely the only way for us.
One of the biggest mistakes we made was to not get a GPS with our car in Spain. We spent probably 6-8 hours lost, driving through Barcelona, Alicante, Seville, and Toledo because hostels and hotels refused to give us directions, and would only give us their GPS codes. On many streets you cannot see the street names, and they change as you go. Get the GPS!
We did not make that mistake in England, and the voice of Hugh Grant guided us faithfully to our destinations, most of the time. Get the GPS.
Another mistake was shorting ourselves of time in a few places that that were worthy of more. Mainly I’m thinking of Florence and Paris and the Prado. Don’t do it.
People often ask us what our favorite place or places were. Just about everywhere we went was worth the trouble and expense of visiting. But I can put my finger on some cities I would recommend to anyone going to these countries. In Italy, Florence. In Spain, Granada (here and here). In France, Paris – of course (here and here). In the UK, our favorite city was probably Edinburgh (here and here).
We also loved the countryside we traveled to, and the places that we had to go out of our way to visit.The Dolomites and Ravenna in Italy; Central Spain, including Cordoba and Toledo; Carcassonne in France; The Cotwolds and the Lake District in England (here and here and here); and Oban and the Inner Hebrides in Scotland – all the rural driving there was gorgeous.
I leave the best travel surprise for last. I marveled at how seldom places were very crowded or overrun with tourists: the obvious ones, like the Roman Forum, the Vatican, the Alhambra. We couldn’t believe how many places we had virtually to ourselves, or shared with just a few other quiet and respectful visitors. It was a constant source of wonder at the height of the tourist season.