Tag Archives: Tips and tricks

Unorganized Europe – tips on how to enjoy Europe on your own terms

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:

This mad schedule offered by Contiki will take you to 8 countries in 12 days!

European Discovery
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

  1. Set up base camp

    No, you don't always have to go to 4000 meters for a free place to sleep in Europe

    Not all base camps must look like this

    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.

  2. 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.
  3. Choose the right transport

    During Chrismas vacation bicycles get stuck not only in traffic

    Obviously the wrong choice of transport here

    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.

  4. 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.
  5. Keep things optional

    The Narrenturm was probably not the happiest place to be in

    Is a former madhouse in Vienna a “must-see”? I sure enjoyed the visit

    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”.

  6. 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?
  7. 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:

And if you have comments on how you optimize your vacations, I’d love to know.

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Filed under cycling, Europe by region, Tips and tricks, Travel, Work

Be James Bond, take the train

On short commutes I prefer the bicycle. And when going to a place far-far away flying is often the only option. But on the short distances between and inside small European countries train is my favourite mode of transport be it for a weekend getaway or on business travel. European trains get their fair share of bad publicity, especially in winter times. While this criticism is often justified, I would like to take a moment and focus on the positive sides of train travel when compared to car or plane.

Train or plane?

Flight view - more of the same

Flight view – more of the same

Let’s start with train vs plane. Unlike on a plane, in a train you have Space. There’s space for your legs, space for your luggage, space in the toilet and space to walk around and stretch your legs. On many trains there’s even a special place to go to for lunch, dinner or a drink. And in that space, called restaurant car, they give you an actual meal on real plates with proper knives and forks, a meal that doesn’t taste like cardboard (low pressure and dry air in pressurized planes makes everything taste like cardboard). Further on the train’s plus side – when you take the train you don’t have to show up 2 hours in advance, and you don’t have to take off your shoes before boarding. On a train you can take all your drinks or camping gas tanks and pocket knives with you (for a hiker like myself its a real issue!). Also, when you take the train, you actually arrive directly at your destination. At least, I do, because my destinations tend to be in city centres rather than in airports. When you’re flying, on the contrary, you arrive at the airport and (ironically) have to take a train into the city, a train that is often more expensive and takes longer than the flight. Finally, there’s the view. The view from a plane sucks. In Europe, most of the time the view is just clouds. Even when there are no clouds, after a couple of flights all tiny villages below look the same. And you have to bend your neck in a weird angle to try and catch a glimpse of the tiny villages and clouds through that damp small window 3 seat rows away, because window seats cost extra. I, on the other hand, am at this very moment sitting next to a window bigger than the one in my living room, passing the Dom of Cologne and castles above the Rhine. I see new people coming and going as the train goes from city to city, I wave to those staying behind at the stations, in other words, I am travelling. On a plane, I’m just bored. Enough on the plane though, you get the point by now, let’s talk about the car.

Drive or rail?

New Zealand, where parking is still fun

New Zealand, where parking is still fun

In some aspects, the car offers the same advantages as the train when compared to the plane – the view, the luggage, the space (unless you have a small European car, like mine). The car has a couple of nasty drawbacks though. The car is your responsibility. It’s an asset as much as it is a liability. You are the person who actually has to drive it. Which means that you can’t spend the time you’re on the road reading, writing, sleeping or watching a movie – all of which you can do on the train. Or have a few beers while travelling. Well, OK, you can, but please don’t. The real problem with the car, though, starts when you arrive. Yes, the car, like the train, can take you to the city centre.

It's probably the most beautiful parking spot in the world

Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island – it’s probably the most beautiful parking spot in the world

While the train takes care of itself, the car doesn’t – it has to be parked. Perhaps not a problem in a big country like Australia or Canada, but rather a big issue in European cities. Space, hence parking, is scarce and expensive. And once parked, your car, especially if it’s a rental or has foreign license plates, is a thief magnet. Bummer. I could drive all the way to Vienna or Milan. I’d much rather take the night train ,dine with a couple of wine glasses, sleep on board in a bed (not a plane chair),have my morning coffee with croissant and step out fresh and crispy onto the platform and into the morning sun.

James Bond 1

Rail away! Wild Balkan scenery on the Belgrado-Bar route

Speaking of night trains – here comes the bombshell. The biggest advantage of a train over a plane or a car is sex. Sure, you can squeeze into the tiny toilet on a plane to join the mile high club, or have some back seat action (again, not if you have a small European car), but that’s not really classy, is it? On the other hand, on an increasing number of European train destination just a minor upgrade will get you a private coupe all for yourself and your darling, so that you can feel like James Bond (or Daniela Bianci) on the Oriental Express. Just don’t forget to order the breakfast in bed for a complete experience and I dare you to show me the car or plane that can beat that!

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Filed under cycling, Europe, Small European things, Tips and tricks, Travel