Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

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Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Mon Mar 18, 2013 8:52 pm

I'm planning my first trip to Europe this May and I was hoping to pick everyone's collective brain for tips and advice on how to make this as memorable a trip as I'm hoping that it will be. Here's my scenario.

I'm 33 years old, married with two young kids. Wife and I have stable jobs. I've never been out of the country. My best friend from childhood is not married and he also has a stable job with a good income. My friend is a bit of a world traveler. His older sister used to play professional basketball in Europe, so he's been there at least 6 or 8 times anyway. Last year he went to Pamplona by himself for the running of the bulls. He really enjoyed it but wished that he would have went with someone he knew. We got to talking about how great it would be for me and him to go somewhere like that. I'm not into having bulls chase me down a street, so that's out. However, I've always wanted to go somewhere in Europe. I've never been there, so I'm not super picky about where we end up.

Being that I've got kids and a mortgage (and since I'm a fan of this website, I'm somewhat frugal as well :D ), I don't have a huge budget. However, I have scrimped and saved about $1900 so far between working overtime and selling off some possessions I don't really need. Initially, I figured I would be able to find a great deal and save big time on airfare. I've since come to the realization that flying roundtrip to Europe out of Chicago is going to cost about $900. With that being said, that would leave around $1000 for all other expenses. My friend and I aren't big into fancy dining or posh hotels, so it's quite possible that we'd spend at least a night or two in a hostel. We kind of decided that we'd get a hotel if we spent more than one night in the same place.

Even though I said I'm not super picky about where we go, I've kind of got my heart set on seeing the Swiss Alps. From what I've been able to determine, Switzerland is not exactly one of the cheaper places to go when heading to Europe. With that being said, I'd still like to go there if it's even reasonably possible with my budget in mind. I've also wondered if the weather in Switzerland would be warm enough for a vacation (relatively) in mid-May.

As for itinerary, I was thinking about flying into Zurich and taking a train eastward. We talked about going to the Eagle's Nest in Germany and maybe hitting up Salzburg before turning around and going back to Zurich for the return flight. The original idea was that this would be an 8 day trip (which would effectively leave 6 days for the actual trip). It's possible that we could stretch this out for another day, possibly two.

Based on what I've shared, is this scenario even remotely possible or should we start looking elsewhere? Any thoughts at all would be greatly appreciated.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby livesoft » Mon Mar 18, 2013 8:55 pm

You could I suppose sleep on the train while travelling overnight and thus avoid hotels. I've done that several times. You will need reservations.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby crowd79 » Mon Mar 18, 2013 9:02 pm

I've been to Europe twice in the last 5 years, Berlin to Budapest and Italy/Greece/Turkey. Both trips were 8-10 days and I spent well north of $3000 on each trip, and that was staying in cheap hostels and eating at mostly fast food joints. Simply put, unless you plan to stay in hostels and live off of street food, you will spend way more than $1900. Europe is very, very expensive.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Mon Mar 18, 2013 9:31 pm

crowd79 wrote:I've been to Europe twice in the last 5 years, Berlin to Budapest and Italy/Greece/Turkey. Both trips were 8-10 days and I spent well north of $3000 on each trip, and that was staying in cheap hostels and eating at mostly fast food joints. Simply put, unless you plan to stay in hostels and live off of street food, you will spend way more than $1900. Europe is very, very expensive.


Thanks for the input. My other thought was to fly to Istanbul. Roundtrip flights seem to be cheaper than mainland Europe. My mother went there a few years back and loved it. It wasn't my first thought, but as I previously stated, I've never been anywhere so it's all going to be a new experience to me. Even then, it sounds like I might be needing to stretch my budget a bit.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby livesoft » Mon Mar 18, 2013 9:41 pm

Why not defer to what your friend thinks you all should do?
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby nj123 » Mon Mar 18, 2013 10:10 pm

Try using Priceline name your own price for hotels in Europe. Last year in April we got hotels for $75/Amsterdam and $90/Brussels. This year we just back from $67/Madrid. These were all 4* hotels, but not in the summer.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby Watty » Mon Mar 18, 2013 10:44 pm

The Rick Steve's books and web site have lots of good information but for hotels he tends to recommend places that might be out of your price range. The Lonely Planet books are more geared for younger travelers on a budget so you might check them out.

I have gone to Europe several times and I travel on a budget so that I can take longer trips. In parts of southern Europe when you are not in a large city or a popular tourist destination a couple can often find acceptable places to stay for $70 a night or even less during the shoulder season or off season. Hotel rooms in Europe often have twin beds so that traveline sharing a room with your friend should be very doable.

Two places I've been to that were relatively inexpensive in the shoulder season were;

1) Ireland. I was traveling with my wife and son in June and we stayed in the hostels there and had a great time. We had a car so we didn't have to stay at the ones closest to the public transportation which helped. We were able to be get private rooms all except for one night when we were in a tiny hostel that didn't have private rooms. They have kitchens that you can use which really helps save on food costs when you don't want to eat out. We were there in June before the local schools let out so we were able to book our rooms by calling in the morning or the day before. For hostels you need to read the reviews since they vary so much and the urban ones tend to be a bit "iffy" so you need to research them a bit more.

Shannon is often one of the least expensive airports to fly into so you might check into that but I think that if you were careful you could fit Ireland into your budget even with a rental car for part of the time you are there.

2) We went to the Greek Islands in September about four years ago before the problems started there. By mostly staying on the less well known islands (Like Naxos and Paros) we were able to get very nice mid-range rooms for about $60 or so a night. I just checked Expedia for rooms on Naxos for a random day in mid-May and there were a lot of places for less than $50 a night. In Athens we were able to find a very nice hotel on Hotwire for a reasonable price but saying in any large city in Europe is not inexpensive.

Except for airfare going to the Greek Islands in the shoulder season was a lot less expensive than it would have been to have taken a similar trip to Florida since many of the inexpensive hotels are withing walking distance of a beach are very nice. The weather in September was still wonderful. I don't know how your wife would feel about you going there with your bull running single friend since the Greek Islands have a bit a of a reputation for being a bit wild at times. That might be a better place to go with your wife someday.

I was in Italy last May and that is the high season there because the weather gets so hot in the summer, but outside of Venice we were still we were usually able to find places to stay for less than $100 a night so it is doable if you are careful.

Do try to stretch out your stay, once you are there it really doesn't cost much to stay in the less expensive places a few extra days.
Last edited by Watty on Mon Mar 18, 2013 11:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby Watty » Mon Mar 18, 2013 10:52 pm

As for itinerary, I was thinking about flying into Zurich and taking a train eastward. We talked about going to the Eagle's Nest in Germany and maybe hitting up Salzburg before turning around and going back to Zurich for the return flight.


I just reread your post. Going back to Zurich would not make any sense. If you were in Salzburg you would most likely want to fly out of Munich. "Open jaw" tickets like this don't cost anything extra.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby German Expat » Mon Mar 18, 2013 11:05 pm

Going from Zurich to Salzburg does not bring you into the Swiss Alps. The Swiss Alps are more south of Zurich and Salzburg is east. You could go to Zermatt (Matterhorn) for the most well known swiss moutain. But Switzerland is extremely expensive in everything you do. Austria and Germany tend to be cheaper. Why do you like to see the Eagles Nest (Obersalzberg) ? Historic reasons or just for the hiking and views ? Having said that Berchtesgaden is a very nice area in Germany and you would enjoy it. Weather in Switzerland, Southern Germany and Austria middle of the May can be hit and miss. It can be very nice or still cold especially if you like the mountains.

You should specify a little more what you like to see, it seems to be mountains based on the area and flights you picked. Also I really do like Zurich so you should plan one day there even if hotels won't be that cheap. On the other hand you can split the costs into 1/2 with 2 people travelling and even in Switzerland you can eat less expensive if you go to Supermarkets or eat at street vendors.

Another issue you will face even with public transportation being very efficient and easily available that you should still consider a rental car because you don't have this much time and don't want to spend too much time just in trains or buses.

I think you can do it with 1000$ assuming your friend also has 1000$. Even with 150$ per night and hotel this is on 7 nights still only 1/2 of your combined budget and you will find less expensive places if you are willing to downgrade. Also Germany and Austria are substantially cheaper then Switzerland.

I use the following web site for hotels:

http://www.hrs.de/

(just change the language to English)

Also for rental cars using european sites (e.g. avis.de or avis.ch) you tend to have CDW included in the rates and in total it is less expensive then using the US sites and adding insurance (avis.com etc.). You can also save money by renting off airport (take the train into town) and drop the rental at the airport.

Also don't underestimate the rail prices if you don't have any special discounts available. A train ticket from Zurich to Salzburg and return is already 165$ per person.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Mon Mar 18, 2013 11:20 pm

livesoft wrote:Why not defer to what your friend thinks you all should do?


He's a wonderful friend, but frankly he's no good at planning. His answer to everything is 'works for me.'
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby livesoft » Mon Mar 18, 2013 11:25 pm

Perfect then! Don't plan anything except the airfare. This will make the whole trip more exciting.

My spouse just tonight booked a round-trip ticket for May into Milan and out of Istanbul. How she gets from Milan to Istanbul is anybody's guess. :) But we used to live in Europe and she has already been to Milan and Istanbul and places in-between. I'm sure it will all work out.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Mon Mar 18, 2013 11:33 pm

nj123 wrote:Try using Priceline name your own price for hotels in Europe. Last year in April we got hotels for $75/Amsterdam and $90/Brussels. This year we just back from $67/Madrid. These were all 4* hotels, but not in the summer.


Thanks for the idea. It shows you how little I know....I didn't even think of these American websites for hotels in Europe.

And, as another very helpful poster stated, basically my friend and I will be splitting all costs 50/50 for hotels and such, so I'm hoping that this will help stretch the budget a bit.

And frankly, I'm more of a street vendor food type person anyway. Maybe one or two nice sit down dinners during the week, but nothing extravagant by any means.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Mon Mar 18, 2013 11:37 pm

Watty wrote:
As for itinerary, I was thinking about flying into Zurich and taking a train eastward. We talked about going to the Eagle's Nest in Germany and maybe hitting up Salzburg before turning around and going back to Zurich for the return flight.


I just reread your post. Going back to Zurich would not make any sense. If you were in Salzburg you would most likely want to fly out of Munich. "Open jaw" tickets like this don't cost anything extra.


I agree. The more I began thinking about this trip, the less I wanted to double back on where we'd already been just to get back to the same airport to fly home. However, I wasn't very successful in finding decently priced airfare that wasn't round trip. I've never hear the term 'open jaw' before, but it sounds like exactly what I want to do. I'll definitely have to look into this further. Thanks much!
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Mon Mar 18, 2013 11:46 pm

Watty wrote:The Rick Steve's books and web site have lots of good information but for hotels he tends to recommend places that might be out of your price range. The Lonely Planet books are more geared for younger travelers on a budget so you might check them out.

I have gone to Europe several times and I travel on a budget so that I can take longer trips. In parts of southern Europe when you are not in a large city or a popular tourist destination a couple can often find acceptable places to stay for $70 a night or even less during the shoulder season or off season. Hotel rooms in Europe often have twin beds so that traveline sharing a room with your friend should be very doable.

Two places I've been to that were relatively inexpensive in the shoulder season were;

1) Ireland. I was traveling with my wife and son in June and we stayed in the hostels there and had a great time. We had a car so we didn't have to stay at the ones closest to the public transportation which helped. We were able to be get private rooms all except for one night when we were in a tiny hostel that didn't have private rooms. They have kitchens that you can use which really helps save on food costs when you don't want to eat out. We were there in June before the local schools let out so we were able to book our rooms by calling in the morning or the day before. For hostels you need to read the reviews since they vary so much and the urban ones tend to be a bit "iffy" so you need to research them a bit more.

Shannon is often one of the least expensive airports to fly into so you might check into that but I think that if you were careful you could fit Ireland into your budget even with a rental car for part of the time you are there.

2) We went to the Greek Islands in September about four years ago before the problems started there. By mostly staying on the less well known islands (Like Naxos and Paros) we were able to get very nice mid-range rooms for about $60 or so a night. I just checked Expedia for rooms on Naxos for a random day in mid-May and there were a lot of places for less than $50 a night. In Athens we were able to find a very nice hotel on Hotwire for a reasonable price but saying in any large city in Europe is not inexpensive.

Except for airfare going to the Greek Islands in the shoulder season was a lot less expensive than it would have been to have taken a similar trip to Florida since many of the inexpensive hotels are withing walking distance of a beach are very nice. The weather in September was still wonderful. I don't know how your wife would feel about you going there with your bull running single friend since the Greek Islands have a bit a of a reputation for being a bit wild at times. That might be a better place to go with your wife someday.

I was in Italy last May and that is the high season there because the weather gets so hot in the summer, but outside of Venice we were still we were usually able to find places to stay for less than $100 a night so it is doable if you are careful.

Do try to stretch out your stay, once you are there it really doesn't cost much to stay in the less expensive places a few extra days.


Rick Steves is one of the reasons I wanted to go Switzerland in the first place. I've never heard of Lonely Planet, but I just found their website so it looks like I have some reading to do!

I assume the 'shoulder season' refers to spring (and possibly fall?). I'm hoping that this will be a good time to travel, as it hopefully misses the peak vacation season for Europeans. Not that I wouldn't mind rubbing shoulders with people from all over the continent, but I suspect that it would drive up the cost of hotels.

Ireland was on the list, but I think for my first trip I'd like to go somewhere else instead. Not that I'm all that big on ancestry, but my family is of German heritage.

Greece was a thought as well. I wonder what the recent economic upheaval in the country has done to the tourist industry (if anything)? We kicked around the idea of flying to Istanbul and taking some kind of a ferry to one of the Greek islands.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Mon Mar 18, 2013 11:57 pm

German Expat wrote:Going from Zurich to Salzburg does not bring you into the Swiss Alps. The Swiss Alps are more south of Zurich and Salzburg is east. You could go to Zermatt (Matterhorn) for the most well known swiss moutain. But Switzerland is extremely expensive in everything you do. Austria and Germany tend to be cheaper. Why do you like to see the Eagles Nest (Obersalzberg) ? Historic reasons or just for the hiking and views ? Having said that Berchtesgaden is a very nice area in Germany and you would enjoy it. Weather in Switzerland, Southern Germany and Austria middle of the May can be hit and miss. It can be very nice or still cold especially if you like the mountains.

You should specify a little more what you like to see, it seems to be mountains based on the area and flights you picked. Also I really do like Zurich so you should plan one day there even if hotels won't be that cheap. On the other hand you can split the costs into 1/2 with 2 people travelling and even in Switzerland you can eat less expensive if you go to Supermarkets or eat at street vendors.

Another issue you will face even with public transportation being very efficient and easily available that you should still consider a rental car because you don't have this much time and don't want to spend too much time just in trains or buses.

I think you can do it with 1000$ assuming your friend also has 1000$. Even with 150$ per night and hotel this is on 7 nights still only 1/2 of your combined budget and you will find less expensive places if you are willing to downgrade. Also Germany and Austria are substantially cheaper then Switzerland.

I use the following web site for hotels:

http://www.hrs.de/

(just change the language to English)

Also for rental cars using european sites (e.g. avis.de or avis.ch) you tend to have CDW included in the rates and in total it is less expensive then using the US sites and adding insurance (avis.com etc.). You can also save money by renting off airport (take the train into town) and drop the rental at the airport.

Also don't underestimate the rail prices if you don't have any special discounts available. A train ticket from Zurich to Salzburg and return is already 165$ per person.


I suppose I should have looked closer at the map! I do see what you are saying now.

The eagles nest caught our attention for both historic and topographic reasons. History and beauty rolled into one. As far as what I would like to see, I am interested in the natural beauty that seems be quite abundant in that part of the world. I hail from central Illinois, so it's flat fields of corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see. I've never been interested much in the night life, so I could do without the disco's and such. I'd be much more interested in finding a local pub for a couple of beers every night.

Car rental is tempting, but frankly I'd like to experience some of that world class public transportation that Europe seems to be known for. A train ride through Switzerland (or Germany, or Austria) sounds quite appealing to me.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby beachplum » Tue Mar 19, 2013 12:35 am

[ My friend and I aren't big into fancy dining or posh hotels, so it's quite possible that we'd spend at least a night or two in a hostel. We kind of decided that we'd get a hotel if we spent more than one night in the same place.
[/quote]

You should probably rethink only spending a night or two in a hostel if your on a tight budget. I would also recommend some of the eastern european countries that have lower overall costs. My daughter went to budapest last summer, and a popular lake region outside the city and loved it, and it was reasonable. The last few trips I went overseas I saved some money by shopping for breakfast and lunch food at local grocery stores. If you stay at hostels you can often get breakfast included, and sometimes dinner. They have kitchens where you can also cook your own dinner.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Tue Mar 19, 2013 12:45 am

beachplum wrote: You should probably rethink only spending a night or two in a hostel if your on a tight budget. I would also recommend some of the eastern european countries that have lower overall costs. My daughter went to budapest last summer, and a popular lake region outside the city and loved it, and it was reasonable. The last few trips I went overseas I saved some money by shopping for breakfast and lunch food at local grocery stores. If you stay at hostels you can often get breakfast included, and sometimes dinner. They have kitchens where you can also cook your own dinner.


I just spent some time on that Lonely Planet website looking at the hostels in Switzerland. My only experience staying in a hostel was when I went to Washington D.C. on spring break with a friend in college. It was fine. I am surprised to see that many of those in Switzerland have semi-private two person rooms. If that's the case, I don't see why we wouldn't stay there all the time. I suppose the big difference is that you don't get your own private bathroom (no big deal to me). And you are correct, some of them did provide breakfast. What a deal!

I'm guessing two thirty something guys wouldn't stand out too much amongst all the youths.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby German Expat » Tue Mar 19, 2013 8:45 am

You can always take the train for part of the trip and I would for sure not get a rental car in Zurich because of parking issues. Distances in the areas you picked are not that far away and going to Zermatt (Matterhorn) is better with a train ride (Zermatt is car free). Breakfast will usually be included at most hotels and tends to be continental breakfast including cold cuts and cheese. Priceline will work in the larger cities but tends to work only at the higher end places (you can get excellent deals though but the American hotel chains like Hilton usually don't have breakfast included). In the smaller towns you can find guest houses or small family owned hotels also for not too much more money but you need to read the reviews because their quality can be hit or miss. For the really popular places I would book the hotels ahead of time.

Here is the swiss railway company (english available on top) :

http://www.sbb.ch/home.html

You can buy tickets ahead of time online or just on site e.g. at the Zurich Airport.

German railway is here:

http://www.deutschebahn.com/en/start.html
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby SRenaeP » Tue Mar 19, 2013 9:03 am

thewizzer wrote:I'm planning my first trip to Europe this May and I was hoping to pick everyone's collective brain for tips and advice on how to make this as memorable a trip as I'm hoping that it will be. Here's my scenario.

I'm 33 years old, married with two young kids. Wife and I have stable jobs. I've never been out of the country. My best friend from childhood is not married and he also has a stable job with a good income. My friend is a bit of a world traveler. His older sister used to play professional basketball in Europe, so he's been there at least 6 or 8 times anyway. Last year he went to Pamplona by himself for the running of the bulls. He really enjoyed it but wished that he would have went with someone he knew. We got to talking about how great it would be for me and him to go somewhere like that. I'm not into having bulls chase me down a street, so that's out. However, I've always wanted to go somewhere in Europe. I've never been there, so I'm not super picky about where we end up.

Being that I've got kids and a mortgage (and since I'm a fan of this website, I'm somewhat frugal as well :D ), I don't have a huge budget. However, I have scrimped and saved about $1900 so far between working overtime and selling off some possessions I don't really need. Initially, I figured I would be able to find a great deal and save big time on airfare. I've since come to the realization that flying roundtrip to Europe out of Chicago is going to cost about $900. With that being said, that would leave around $1000 for all other expenses. My friend and I aren't big into fancy dining or posh hotels, so it's quite possible that we'd spend at least a night or two in a hostel. We kind of decided that we'd get a hotel if we spent more than one night in the same place.

Even though I said I'm not super picky about where we go, I've kind of got my heart set on seeing the Swiss Alps. From what I've been able to determine, Switzerland is not exactly one of the cheaper places to go when heading to Europe. With that being said, I'd still like to go there if it's even reasonably possible with my budget in mind. I've also wondered if the weather in Switzerland would be warm enough for a vacation (relatively) in mid-May.

As for itinerary, I was thinking about flying into Zurich and taking a train eastward. We talked about going to the Eagle's Nest in Germany and maybe hitting up Salzburg before turning around and going back to Zurich for the return flight. The original idea was that this would be an 8 day trip (which would effectively leave 6 days for the actual trip). It's possible that we could stretch this out for another day, possibly two.

Based on what I've shared, is this scenario even remotely possible or should we start looking elsewhere? Any thoughts at all would be greatly appreciated.


Your budget is a bit on the low end for 8 days in Europe. You should start 'travel hacking'. For example, AmEx Premier Gold is currently running a promo for 50k points (which can be transferred into airline miles) for meeting $1000 spend in the first three months.

Also, what is it you want to DO in Europe? Are you interested in cultural sights, nightlife, food? That will help determine where you go, what to do.

-Steph
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby coalcracker » Tue Mar 19, 2013 9:13 am

We visited Switzerland in September 2011 as part of a southern Germany trip, and stayed in the Lauterbrunnen valley near Interlaken, an area called the Bernese Oberland. It was quite stunning. We stayed in Lauterbrunnen, but the villages of Murren and Gimmewald higher up in the valley also have guest houses and are only accessible by gondola (or hiking).

The high peaks in the area are the Eiger, Jungfrau, and Monch, and they have a train you can actually take all the way to the top, but man it was expensive (almost $200). The surrounding area have many great hikes. During a morning job in the valley I saw people base jumping off the cliffs that ring the valley, quite a sight. Apparently it's a popular area for that, as well as other adventure sports.

Swizterland is expensive. Expect to spend $10 on a CHEAP lunch.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby rocket » Tue Mar 19, 2013 9:24 am

Eagle's Nest and Salzberg were the highlights of my last trip. Rome and Florence were disappointing. Italy has lots of theives. Tour group gets you high value, low cost.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby JupiterJones » Tue Mar 19, 2013 10:06 am

Try this experiment:

Do a Google image search for Swiss Alps. Scroll down and check all those great pictures out. Pretty, isn't it?

Now do a Google image search for Slovenian Alps and/or Julian Alps. Not bad, eh?

I've been to the Swiss alps (twice), and I agree that's it's beautiful. But I've also been to Slovenia, and what they call "the sunny side of the Alps" is mighty dang pretty too! Cheaper and less touristy as well. Something to think about.

Another potentially cheap alpine option for adventurous travelers is "hut to hut" hiking. Rick Steves covers this in at least one of his shows, I believe. Google turns up several interesting articles, and you should check out the Swiss Alpine Club's site as well.

JJ
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby Rupert » Tue Mar 19, 2013 10:24 am

Switzerland is too expensive for your budget. Germany, Austria and even some places in northern Italy also have Alps and are much cheaper. I wouldn't count on finding much cheap "street food" in that part of Europe. You're going to be eating in restaurants mostly. You might find an occasional hot dog/sausage stand in touristy areas, but those aren't terribly cheap (because they're in touristy areas). That being said, I've been to Eagle's Nest and the Bavarian Alps and loved it. To see those areas, you should fly into Munich, not Zurich. Salzburg is pretty and worth a trip. But I also recommend spending a day in Passau in Germany near the Austrian border, about an hour's drive from Salzburg. Another idea might be to fly into Frankfurt, which will likely be cheaper than flying into Munich, and catching a train east to the Czech Republic and Prague.
Last edited by Rupert on Tue Mar 19, 2013 10:35 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby jodydavis » Tue Mar 19, 2013 10:29 am

If cost is an issue, you might think seriously about Eastern Europe, since it is less expensive but still very beautiful and "europe-like." If you want to also see mountains, you could fly into Austria, as the Alps there are quite beautiful (i.e near Salzburg). You could then check out Prague, Budapest, Slovenia, or Croatia. Or you could even cross over to Germany, since it's all right there. Have a great time!
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby jeffyscott » Tue Mar 19, 2013 7:04 pm

thewizzer wrote:Car rental is tempting, but frankly I'd like to experience some of that world class public transportation that Europe seems to be known for. A train ride through Switzerland (or Germany, or Austria) sounds quite appealing to me.


That was our plan too, until I estimated the cost of some of the trains and then found I could reserve a rental car for about 160 euros for 8 days for a trip in July. We are going without a car in Munich and Salzburg for the first 6 days of our 2 week trip.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby jeffyscott » Tue Mar 19, 2013 9:08 pm

thewizzer wrote:I just spent some time on that Lonely Planet website looking at the hostels in Switzerland. My only experience staying in a hostel was when I went to Washington D.C. on spring break with a friend in college. It was fine. I am surprised to see that many of those in Switzerland have semi-private two person rooms. If that's the case, I don't see why we wouldn't stay there all the time. I suppose the big difference is that you don't get your own private bathroom (no big deal to me). And you are correct, some of them did provide breakfast. What a deal!

I'm guessing two thirty something guys wouldn't stand out too much amongst all the youths.


It's Austria,, not Switzerland, but, FWIW, for the 4 nights we are spending (NOT in hostels) in the Alps our reserved accommodations are 24 and 25 euros per person per night including breakfast and private bathroom. There seemed to be plenty of pensions/guesthouses/rooms in that price range in Austria and if you are willing to do without a private bathroom then there should be more options and/or lower prices.

Here's a site I happened across in my searching, looks like it covers all types of accommodations in both Switzerland and Austria, as well as S. Germany and N. Italy: http://www.tiscover.com/en

We are flying open-jaw to Munich and home from Frankfurt. This was done via United, but flights to and from O'hare to Germany are on Lufthansa. We did this using miles not $ and it seemed to make no difference in the "price", but that may not be the case when you are paying in dollars.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby Watty » Tue Mar 19, 2013 10:34 pm

I'm guessing two thirty something guys wouldn't stand out too much amongst all the youths.


Actually since the high schools and colleges will not be out then you may be some of the younger people in the hostels.

Most of the hostels dropped the youth limitations years ago and I have run into people in their 80's in "youth hostels". I hope that I am still up to that when I am that age.

Have a great trip.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby dewey » Tue Mar 19, 2013 11:48 pm

An axiom I was offered many decades ago when I first went to Europe was, "Pack half as much clothing as you planned but bring twice as much money as you planned." I've been to Europe many times since and this axiom has always applied. No matter how cheaply you believe you can travel, you'll likely need more $. And no matter how much clothing you think you'll need, you likely can do with less.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Wed Mar 20, 2013 8:48 pm

Thank you to everyone who has posted so far. There's far too much feedback to respond to everyone directly, but I want to express that I am taking all this advice into consideration. Thanks again, everyone :mrgreen:
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby Carls » Wed Mar 20, 2013 10:42 pm

There's a book "First time Europe" put out by Rough Guides. At first look it seemed to cover most of what you might be asking for.

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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby MN Finance » Wed Mar 20, 2013 11:02 pm

My 2 cents

I would see what you can do to build up your budget a bit. Obviously you don't travel a lot, and maybe it's 2 decades before you take another trip, so despite being frugal, drop the 2013 Roth contribution down a $1000 and spend it on the trip (I know, god forbid). That said, you can certainly do it as cheap as you want. My longest trip to Europe was 5 months and even though that trip was before the euro / collapse of the dollar, I think I spent $5k total. Sitting on a beach with a $2 bottle of vino a baguette and some cheese doesn't cost much.

As said, hostels are a good option. The last time I stayed in a hostel in Europe I was nicknamed "the old man" (I was 25). I traveled in the summer, so it was packed full of college kids, but there's certainly a certain atmosphere in hostels. Not saying it's bad, one of my good friends to this day was a kid from naples I met backpacking, but if I did it today (at 38) I'd be in hotels. Some will have the private 1 or 2 bed suites, which I would do if you can. The only issue is that you need to be there early and/or make a reservation (if they do that). You can't show up in a city at 6pm and get the room you want. You can also find rooms to rent for a week. Though the more private the room, the fewer people you'll meet.

8 days is a short time considering you'll spend the first 24 hours just getting there and settled. I would visit fewer places and spend more time there; IMO, you'll enjoy it a lot more because you may get to know a few people and get a much much better sense of the culture. If you try to see too many places, you'll come back with great photos of the trains and not much else. Plus traveling gets more expensive. I would find a great city (like Florence, Munich, Barcelona, etc) that you would be happy to spend the entire week in and then take some day trips. Or possibly visit 2 cities in those 8 days and throw in a day trip or two. I also echo the idea of not planning too much (which is easier if you don't visit too many places). My favorite memory of my last trip was sitting in the munich train station and flipping a coin to decide which train to board.

On one trip I had a buddy join me for a week and his only goal was to see the alps. I picked him up in zurich (I think he had a deal from ORD) and took a train to Interlaken. We stayed there for a night and then went up the mountain to a couple small towns (someone else mentioned above) for a few days to hike, etc. He still talks about how great it was (though I'd rather be in other places). SWI is definitely a bit more expensive and culturally closer to the US than say eastern Europe or southern countries, so it depends what you're looking for.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby WHL » Thu Mar 21, 2013 6:34 pm

If you have any expenses you can put on credit cards in the next few months to meet initial bonus spend requirements, DO IT!

You should be able to get the Chase United card done easily, 30k miles for $1000 spend. Follow that up with the Chase Sapphire Preferred which will give you 40k points for a 3k spend. You can then transfer the Chase points to your United account and you should easily have enough miles for a round trip flight. I just looked, US to Europe should run you 55k miles if you can find availability.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby jeffyscott » Thu Mar 21, 2013 7:17 pm

I think the credit card gambit is not likely to work in time for a trip that is planned for May. But you can get a round trip for 60,000 miles, if you plan ahead. We used 120,000 miles and $225 in fees to get our tickets for July, but we got them in early October.

If you have some miles in a United frequent flyer account (one way to get some miles is via transfer from Sapphire) you may see an offer for 50,000 after spending $1000 and 5000 more for adding an authorized user. This is what we did, first Sapphire when it was a 50,000 point bonus, transferred those to United, then United with 55,000, just these bonuses totaled 210,000 miles. With some additional shenanigans we will get a second, nearly free, round trip for 2 next year or in 2015.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby winglessangel31 » Thu Mar 21, 2013 10:49 pm

livesoft wrote:Perfect then! Don't plan anything except the airfare. This will make the whole trip more exciting.

My spouse just tonight booked a round-trip ticket for May into Milan and out of Istanbul. How she gets from Milan to Istanbul is anybody's guess. :) But we used to live in Europe and she has already been to Milan and Istanbul and places in-between. I'm sure it will all work out.


Agreed. OP, I'm inferring from your post that you traveling with your friend, an no one else. :P Planning little is good advice for adventurous souls without kids, not so much for families. :P

I did a first-time-in-Europe Couchsurfing expedition in December/January starting from Munich, Germany [technically flew into Frankfurt and immediately trained to Munich], and ending up in London, UK, via Switzerland and France. All by myself, picking up little bits of German and French on the way, with a 3-country Eurail pass in hand. My entire expenditure, minus flights and my Eurail pass, was around US$1400 for 21 days. Couchsurfing meant that I spend $0 on lodging, and made a few friends here and there. The locals' advice for me was that winter is the low season - an excellent time to travel through Europe if you want to avoid crowds, and that summer is the high season - an excellent time to travel through Europe if you want to see the sights in good weather and don't mind crowds everywhere.

From my own experience, I would highly discourage looping back to a city just to fly out of it. I would also highly suggest budgeting at least 3 days per city, and not to underestimate how much time it takes to travel between cities. Not all train routes run an overnight trip, and you might end up wasting half a day each time you move from one city to another. With that said, 8 days feels far too short for a multi-city itinerary. I would attempt at most two cities with that time frame. Maybe squeeze in a day trip to a city midway between the two, as you transfer trains. There are large lockers in the train stations that will be useful for that.

Now for specific cities. I'm curious why Zurich is on your list. I know it's famous, but it will likely feel just like Manhattan or some other financial powerhouse. Bern is much cheaper, even though it is, what, an hour further away. :P Zermatt is where you'd go to see the Matterhorn, and it is expensive there. I made it a day trip. Assuming you'll leave from Zurich and want to get to Eagle's Nest (Kehlsteinhaus), Salzburg (the closest big city) is ~5.5 hours away by train (source: my Eurail pass train timetable). First train departs 0840h arrives 1358h, last train departs 1640h arrives 2159h (definitely plan to spend the day on the train; also, therefore you will not want to take the train back to Zurich because you'd be burning two days effectively on the train... I usually plan to burn the arrival and departure days as well, so that's 4 days in my books). I don't know whether trains run from Salzburg to Berchtesgaden or Obersalzberg (where you must begin your trip on a private bus line), but you can find that out. :P

If you speak German, you will have a much easier time than me in Switzerland and Germany. Not that I had any trouble...
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby reisner » Fri Mar 22, 2013 12:14 am

I am a world traveler, a travel writer for major publications, and a real snob, and I think very few of us can do better than to follow the advice of Rick Steves.

But one personal recommendation, in London go to the Borough St Market.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby halfnine » Fri Mar 22, 2013 6:56 am

reisner wrote:I am a world traveler, a travel writer for major publications, and a real snob, and I think very few of us can do better than to follow the advice of Rick Steves.


There is definitely a lot of truth in that. Like him or hate him when it comes to travel in Europe for Americans, he definitely has an eye for what most people would enjoy doing over a specified time frame. At least, I certainly can't think of anyone else who can give better overall travel advice for the region.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Sat Mar 23, 2013 9:16 pm

Again, thanks for all the wonderful advice. I'm trying to soak it all in.

Here's where I'm becoming extremely frustrated. I would love to fly 'open-jaw' to keep from essentially having to double back around to fly back home from the same city I flew into. However, comparing one way to round trip flights, there's a huge discrepancy in pricing. For example, when checking Lufthansa's website for round trip flights, there are a couple dozen to choose from under $900 total cost. Simple math and logic would dictate that based on those prices, a one way flight could be found somewhere for around $450. However, the same exact site shows only 1 one-way flight to Europe under $900 (and it's $700 to Dublin). Is there something I'm doing wrong?
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby nedsaid » Sat Mar 23, 2013 9:29 pm

Europe is indeed expensive even if you economize on food and hotels.

If you have limited funds either do a short trip of eight days in Europe. To further economize, you could focus your trip on one area. A multi-destination trip means time waiting in train stations and/or airports. Another way to go would be Central Europe rather than Western Europe. Central Europe is less expensive from what I understand. If you have friends or family over there, staying with them saves big on hotel bills.

I have been twice. First time on an introductory trip with a tour company. Second time was a London, Paris, Rome trip that I planned myself. On the second trip, despite my efforts to economize it was expensive.

You might want to focus on one city like Paris. Try to see and do things that you can't replicate in the United States. Otherwise, what is the point of traveling that far and spending all that money? For example, if you go to see Disneyland Paris, you might as well save the extra travel cost and see the Disneyland in the US. There is only one Louvre and there is only one Eiffel Tower. The US really doesn't have the big Cathedrals like they have in Europe. Or something with historical significance to your ethnic heritage. Stuff you can't replicate in the US.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby Wolkenspiel » Sat Mar 23, 2013 9:36 pm

thewizzer wrote:Again, thanks for all the wonderful advice. I'm trying to soak it all in.

Here's where I'm becoming extremely frustrated. I would love to fly 'open-jaw' to keep from essentially having to double back around to fly back home from the same city I flew into. However, comparing one way to round trip flights, there's a huge discrepancy in pricing. For example, when checking Lufthansa's website for round trip flights, there are a couple dozen to choose from under $900 total cost. Simple math and logic would dictate that based on those prices, a one way flight could be found somewhere for around $450. However, the same exact site shows only 1 one-way flight to Europe under $900 (and it's $700 to Dublin). Is there something I'm doing wrong?


You need to look at "multi-city" tickets, not a combination of one-way tickets.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby winglessangel31 » Sat Mar 23, 2013 9:41 pm

Wolkenspiel wrote:
thewizzer wrote:Again, thanks for all the wonderful advice. I'm trying to soak it all in.

Here's where I'm becoming extremely frustrated. I would love to fly 'open-jaw' to keep from essentially having to double back around to fly back home from the same city I flew into. However, comparing one way to round trip flights, there's a huge discrepancy in pricing. For example, when checking Lufthansa's website for round trip flights, there are a couple dozen to choose from under $900 total cost. Simple math and logic would dictate that based on those prices, a one way flight could be found somewhere for around $450. However, the same exact site shows only 1 one-way flight to Europe under $900 (and it's $700 to Dublin). Is there something I'm doing wrong?


You need to look at "multi-city" tickets, not a combination of one-way tickets.

I would get someone on the phone :)
And actually, nope, one-way tickets are rarely half of the round-trip cost. If it does end up to be different, go back to yourself (and your friend) and figure out how much is "one extra day in Europe" worth to you, since that will be how much you will burn if you end up having to take a train back to where you started.
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Relax

Postby davebarnes » Sat Mar 23, 2013 10:02 pm

Relax
I was scared when I made my first trip at age 40 on business.
Just relax.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby Wolkenspiel » Sat Mar 23, 2013 10:04 pm

German Expat wrote:Also for rental cars using european sites (e.g. avis.de or avis.ch) you tend to have CDW included in the rates and in total it is less expensive then using the US sites and adding insurance (avis.com etc.). You can also save money by renting off airport (take the train into town) and drop the rental at the airport.


To expand a little bit on the above: The cheapest of the car rental rates at European airports (in particular in Germany) found on Orbitz, Kayak etc do not include CDWs, and those companies will not rent the car to you without you buying their outrageously expensive insurance. This is true even if you have e.g. the premium AMEX insurance or even if you prepaid car-insurance on the travel site. Please check any company/airport combo you are considering on Google before making any final decisions.

Most of the time, you will find car rentals in Germany cheaper than in Switzerland (although then you will need to add the Swiss highway "vignette"). Gas (but not diesel) is one of the few things that is marginally cheaper in Switzerland than in Germany.

Switzerland is probably one of the last countries I would consider for "budget" travel, but if your heart is set on the Swiss Alps there's not much one can do.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Sat Mar 23, 2013 10:27 pm

Wolkenspiel wrote:Switzerland is probably one of the last countries I would consider for "budget" travel, but if your heart is set on the Swiss Alps there's not much one can do.


I'm coming to that realization as well. While I don't think Europe is going to become a yearly vacation, I do think that this will (hopefully) be the first of at least a few trips in my life. Maybe it would be better to wait and experience Switzerland with my wife when we are a bit older. As for now, I'll be happy with wherever we end up.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Sat Mar 23, 2013 10:40 pm

Wolkenspiel wrote: You need to look at "multi-city" tickets, not a combination of one-way tickets.


Ahhh....Thank you very much
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby jeffyscott » Sun Mar 24, 2013 11:18 am

Wolkenspiel wrote:To expand a little bit on the above: The cheapest of the car rental rates at European airports (in particular in Germany) found on Orbitz, Kayak etc do not include CDWs, and those companies will not rent the car to you without you buying their outrageously expensive insurance. This is true even if you have e.g. the premium AMEX insurance or even if you prepaid car-insurance on the travel site. Please check any company/airport combo you are considering on Google before making any final decisions.


What companies are you referring to? Do you mean only if you go through the travel site and get a rental with mystery company X?

I have a rental reservation directly with Hertz in Germany (picking up off-airport, returning at airport) and plan to use credit card insurance coverage.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby K-SawDude » Thu Mar 28, 2013 3:30 am

Switzerland is definitely pricey, but from there consider going down into Italy for cheaper housing and transit options. Lake Como has some wonderful sights, and you won't be far from a number of major cities in the Northern part of Italy.

For cheap housing options in Europe, explore this site as a first step, at least a month before you travel: http://www.eurocheapo.com/
After getting a feel for the options there, then also check this site: http://www.booking.com/

Before booking anything, make sure to read the reviews carefully. I'd advise looking up a hotel/hostel on TripAdvisor as well, just to get a feel for the spots before you reserve a room. Whenever possible, go ahead and book any places that are labeled "free reservation" or "no deposit required" if it fits your itinerary. You're likely to lock in better deals if you book early, but you want to give yourself the flexibility to cancel and change the schedule as you get closer to the actual travel date.

Again, about well ahead of time (preferably a couple of months), consider booking train and/or plane tickets. This site is REALLY helpful for explaining how to purchase European train tickets to and from different locations for as cheaply as possible: http://www.seat61.com/ (Check out the Switzerland material there, too.)

It's also worth pricing plane trips within Europe on a budget airline against train travel options, as often a flight will be cheaper and quicker than point-to-point train travel. Easyjet is a good one to check out (though note carefully their restrictions on baggage weight): http://www.easyjet.com/en

I've saved a ton of money booking transit options early. In some cases, I've gotten a ticket on a high-speed train between Italian cities for as low as 9 euro (where it typically costs 39-49 euro if bought the day before or day of travel). A lot of countries like Italy and Spain offer a set of discounted tickets, 60-70% off of full price, but limited to the very first purchasers. As far as air travel goes, I've gotten a flight between Barcelona and Milan for as cheap as 20 euro, all fees included. But you have to be willing to give up flexibility to lock in these prices, as you have to plan pretty early.

Good luck in your travel planning! Even if you're travelling this May, you've got time to put this trip together with some more budget-minded options. You'll just need to do some intense research over the next week or so.

Last thought: If you're genuinely open to going anywhere in Europe, and you want to keep this as cheap as possible, confine yourself to Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy) and Central Europe (e.g. Hungary). Your money will go MUCH further there. It may make sense to fly into Rome as your base, and use trains and/or easyjet flights from Rome to other destinations.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Thu Mar 28, 2013 8:26 pm

Again, thanks for all the wonderful advice.

Can someone tell me if this idea is practical.

I love the idea of flying 'open-jaw,' but I've found that actually searching for flights like this is cumbersome, to say the least. And, as previously noted, I'm having a hard time matching the price of round trip tickets. I just searched for flights from Chicago to Budapest round trip and found several for around $720, which so far seems like a pretty good deal (the unfortunate problem is that these dates are a month earlier than we will be able to leave, but for sake of argument I'll continue anyway).

This particular flight has a layover in Munich enroute to Budapest. Is there anything wrong (ethically, morally, legally) with just never getting on the second flight from Munich to Budapest. Then we would take the next 8 days or so to travel from Munich to Budapest in order to get on to our return flight home. Does missing any leg of the flight void the return? I wouldn't think so, but I'm not an avid flyer. Any thoughts?
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby livesoft » Thu Mar 28, 2013 8:30 pm

If you miss a flight, they (the proverbial "they") will cancel the rest of your flights.
It's all about short-term opportunistic rebalancing due to a short-term change in one's asset allocation, uh, I mean opportunistic rebalancing, uh I mean rebalancing, uh I mean market timing.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby thewizzer » Thu Mar 28, 2013 8:44 pm

livesoft wrote:If you miss a flight, they (the proverbial "they") will cancel the rest of your flights.


Hmm....

I can understand that they would cancel the rest of the flights on that same outbound trip, but I wonder why they would cancel the return flight scheduled for 8 days later? That seems odd to me. I believe you, but it just seems odd.

So much for that idea.
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Re: Traveling to Europe for the first time...need help!

Postby FireProof » Thu Mar 28, 2013 9:01 pm

Using Booking.com, I never paid more than $20/night for a room ($40/night for two people) in Spain, the south of France and Portugal. Obviously if you go to Paris or Zurich (or San Sebastian), higher costs will be unavoidable. And obviously your taste for luxury may vary, but these were perfectly nice places, with one exception (a terrible hotel in Lisbon, with no food allowed in the rooms, paper thin walls, and a maniac live-in owner). Look at the rating more than the number of stars, and if it's also a hostel, take the ratings with a grain of salt - people maybe be rating it based on the hostel experience, which often has opposing goals.

I spent a month in Europe for less than $1900, but I also crashed/ate/did free things with friends there. Much of Europe is NOT expensive - lodging, food, alcohol is often cheaper, and intra-European flights (on Easyjet and RyanAir) definitely are.
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