I’ve never been on an organized tour in Europe. And I honestly do not understand people who go on these tours. Well, some people at least. If you’re in your 50’s and enjoy wearing name tags, then its the right thing for you. Or if you’re a Chinese or a Russian and don’t speak a word in another language, then I totally get why booking a bus tour is the way to go. I even understand why Americans who only have 10 days off a year would think that swooshing through 17 countries in a week is a good idea (it’s not – Best of Europe in 21 days? Best of Europe’s highways and tourist traps, perhaps). But there are so many young people out there with lots of time and little money on their hands who nevertheless pay a premium price for something like this:
From Amsterdam to Rome to Paris, you won’t want to miss a thing. In fact, sleep will probably be the last thing on your mind!
Sleep will probably be the only thing on your mind as you are dragged to a new town every day, and spend an average of at least 4 hours on the bus daily. More than 100 Euro per day and drinks are not even included! What I understand least is that it’s the same crowd that rents a motorcycle and crosses the back-roads of Laos for weeks, hitchhikes across Africa, stays in an Indian ashram for half a year, but when in the most civilized, tame continent they suddenly feel the need to be taken by the hand and fast-forwarded as if chased by ghosts. I honestly can’t think of a more exhausting and unsatisfying way to spend your vacation. The only explanation I can come up with is that people who book these tours want to get drunk in as many cities as possible. But surely there are cheaper ways to achieve this noble goal?
The rushing is not limited to organized tours though. So many travellers, young and old, wreck themselves with travel schedules from hell. 15 countries in 30 days, 10 countries in 12, 5 cities in 3 days – there’s no limit to the self-inflicted travel misery. Sure, I am a fortunate person. Blessed with a sufficient amount of paid leave and living within easy reach of Europe’s best. But its a lifestyle choice most of all things. I see my vacations as an opportunity to relax. Spending endless hours in transit (and traffic), checking in- and out of hotels every day or two, queueing up to see the endless must-sees is just not my idea of relaxing. When on holiday (and in daily life) I try to choose quality over quantity. And so can you – here’s how to enjoy your (European) vacation
- Set up base camp
Even if your next destination is only a 100 km away, packing, checking out, dragging your belongings, checking in and unpacking still eats a whole day off your vacation. In most of Europe distances are (relatively) small, trains are fast and border controls non-existent. Setting up a strategically located base camp will enable you to explore a whole country, if not several countries, just by doing day-trips. Of course, I’ve done the ultimate move and set my base camp in The Netherlands for the past 12 years already, but that’s an extreme case.
- Think of your goals
It’s so trivial but true nevertheless. If your goal is, indeed, to get plastered in as many destinations as possible – go with it! But don’t try to combine it with cultural aspirations (well, getting plastered is a part of most cultures, but you know what I mean). Think of the things you really want to do and tailor your trip to suit those aspirations. If you’re on a tight budget – go to the Balkans rather than Scandinavia. Yes, you can enjoy Scandinavia on a tight budget, too. But it probably will require a lot of camping and not everyone’s up to it.
- Choose the right transport
For you and for your trip. I can’t stand long bus rides so I try to avoid those. But there’s more than personal favourites to it. So, if you are hopping between major destinations, a flight is a good budget option in Europe. If you don’t mind the trip taking a bit longer, and being perhaps a bit more expensive, the train is a good alternative. And if you’re in a party of 3, driving a rented car is probably cheapest. But it’s not all there’s to it. Driving takes an effort, and high-speed trains take you there in a whisker. For example, going from Madrid to Barcelona takes more than 6 hours of driving, but less than 3 hours by train. Can you drive this bit? Yes, you can! But it makes little sense to do so unless you plan to stop along the way.
- Limit your destinations
This can not be stressed enough. An excellent recommendation is a minimum of 3.5 days per destination. But that’s a minimum. If you go to bigger cities, and plan day-trips to other places and/or the country side, I would suggest 5 days at least. As an example, if you intend to spend 5 days in Paris, you can probably fill your schedule completely just with the city. But even if you’re fed up with Paris after a couple of days, you can still take a day to visit Fontainebleau, and a day for another city (Dijon is just 1.5 hours away!). Better still, rent an apartment in Paris for a week, and don’t let that stop you from going to the Loire for two days, spending the night in a Chambres d’hôtes along the way, before going back to the city. The total will be probably cheaper and surely more efficient than separate bookings.
- Keep things optional
I always try to remind myself that there are no must-sees. So what if I haven’t seen whatever that is that’s on “everyone’s” list? Its my vacation and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to… Sorry, I got distracted. I’m not going on vacation to tick off a bucket list, but to enjoy myself. And to me that involves more leisure time and less obligations. I do my research, but view the resulting wish-list as “options” rather than “musts”.
- Optimize you trip
In retail marketing they call it “cherry-pickers”. The term refers to customers who are coming in, buying the items on most attractive sale and leave, not tempted by the overpriced trash presented at the check-out. Be a “cherry-picker”. With open borders and short distances, Europe is an excellent place to optimize. No need to think in terms of “countries” – if an activity or a landscape is better/cheaper elsewhere – go there! Let the example of Cousin Avi be your shining light:
Doug the Head: [referring to England] We’ve got sandy beaches…
Avi: So? Who the fuck wants to see ’em?
See what I mean? There are many reasons to go to England, but why would you stick around for the beaches when Ibiza is only a two-hour flight away?
- Try to be flexible
Booking ahead your entire trip makes sense if you have only one or two weeks. But if you have a month to spend in Europe it’s rather unnecessary. What if you hear of a place you really want to see? Or if you would like to stay longer where you already are? Can’t do, because you’ve already booked elsewhere. By setting your beginning and end points and perhaps booking one or two nights there, you’ll be free to choose your next destination as you go. And no, it’s not difficult or expensive. You’ll just have to be flexible about it.
I’ve written a series of posts about the different regions of Europe, and listed what I think a region is best for, when is the best time to go, how to get around, why you shouldn’t go there and where to go if you only want to spend one week in the area. Perhaps this summary can help you choose and plan your next European destination:
- Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and Finland
Best for – relaxation and reflection
Best time to go – autumn
Getting around – bus
Reason to avoid – it’s a pretty slow-paced place, not for the thrill-seekers
One week – small enough to tackle in a week
- Central Europe – Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungaria, Austria and Germany
Best for – city trips
Best time to go – winter
Getting around – train
Reason to avoid – not really exotic
One week – Slovakia
- Caucasus – Russian Caucasus, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaija
Best for – the adventurous traveller
Best time to go – right now
Getting around – hitchhiking
Reason to avoid – it’s a conflict-ridden region
One week – Georgia
- Balkan – former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece
Best for – collecting passport stamps
Best time to go – summer
Getting around – bus
Reason to avoid – difficult connections
One week – Montenegro
- Russian Empire – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova
Best for – those who like BIG things
Best time to go – September
Getting around – (night) train
Reason to avoid – language barrier
One week – Kiev (yes, even now)
- Scandinavia – Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden
Best for – survivalists and hikers
Best time to go – July-August
Getting around – car
Reason to avoid – expensive
One week – Iceland
- The British Isles – UK and Ireland (and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland)
Best for – laughs
Best time to go – July-August/May-June
Getting around – budget flights
Reason to avoid – the weather
One week – London
- The Alps – Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia, and Switzerland
Best for – adrenaline
Best time to go – year round
Getting around – train
Reason to avoid – pricey!
One week – Switzerland
- Pyrenees – France, Spain and Andorra
Best for – romantic getaway
Best time to go – June or September
Getting around – car
Reason to avoid – absolutely none!
One week – Catalonia
- BeNeLux – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg
Best for – travelling with children
Best time to go – April-May
Getting around – train
Reason to avoid – prices
One week – Limburg
And if you have comments on how you optimize your vacations, I’d love to know.