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Traveling Around Europe for the First Time?


2012-10-24

I was recently asked an extremely open-ended question about traveling around Europe (or ‘travelling’, depending on where you’re from) by a friend:

I haven’t really traveled Europe before, and just have my major flights booked so far. Any advice on taking trains or staying in hostels, etc?

As I said, pretty open-ended…

I’m pretty well-traveled, but coming up with off-the-cuff advice isn’t that easy. However, here is some of the advice that I gave him and I would love to hear other people’s comments on this subject. I love to travel and as I have friends in so many countries now (after studying in Europe for a few years), I tend to take word-of-mouth advice over that of most websites now. However, having a starting point is definitely super helpful.

How to get around:

For intra-city transport in Europe, there are lots of options. The choices usually come down to sacrificing time for money, or vice-versa.

Rental Cars: I don’t have much experience with these in Europe. Between driving on different sides of the roads, to varying driving standards in each country, to rental fees/insurance/gas, to only visiting major cities…  Car rentals have never been high on my list of transportation methods.

Buses: Usually quite cheap, especially booked in advance or when there are deals, however they generally take a LOOOOONG time. http://www.eurolines.com/ http://www.megabus.com/ http://www.europebus.co.uk/

Trains: There are a few types of trains traveling around Europe.

  • High speed trains - TGV in France, Eurostar, ICE in some other countries. They run on special tracks and usually cover higher traffic routes (i.e. major cities). They can be a bit more expensive and often require reservations.
  • Regional trains - Usually reasonably priced, travel often, more city options, don’t usually require reservations, a bit slower (due to speed and number of stops).
  • Night trains - I’ve never taken these, but have heard good things. Trains can sometimes take a long time, so for longer routes, trains with sleeping compartments  can be handy so that you don’t ‘lose’ as much time traveling.
  • Scenic trains - They traverse routes with really nice scenery. Never appealed to me too much. They can be pricier and take longer.

If you’re planning on seeing a lot of European cities, it might be worth it to invest in a InterRail Pass (for people living in European countries for over 6 months) or Eurail pass (for visitors to Europe). http://www.raileurope.com http://www.eurail.com/ http://www.interrailnet.com/

Planes: Taking airplanes around Europe is pretty convenient. Also, compared with North America, flights are much cheaper. There are generally two tiers of planes, which are the regular carriers and the low-cost carriers that everyone has heard about.

I’ve noticed that the line between those two tiers of planes is starting to blur more and more, but I think most people would agree with the list of low-cost carriers that Wikipedia has listed.

As for my personal experience, I prefer EasyJet… Actually, I love these guys as I’ve never had a single problem with them. On the flip side, I’ve never taken RyanAir and I refuse to. All I’ve ever read about them and all of what my friends have told me about them leads me to think they have terrible planes, cost cutting to the extreme (possibly more so than other airlines), last-minute fees, airports in the middle of nowhere, etc… Given that there are other quality airlines out there, I’m fine with my bias.

If you fly with a budget carrier, make sure you note the location of where the airport is and how much is costs to get to the city centre from there. You’ll find that some carriers fly you to airports outside of the closest major city and it can cost 25-35 euros just to get into the city (making the ‘budget’ airline much more expensive).

http://www.skyscanner.net/ is my go-to airfare comparison site. It’s really good everywhere in the world, but I found it to be exceptional in Europe. http://www.kayak.com/ is a good sanity check. They seem to be able to find or match the best prices that I’ve found anywhere. http://www.hipmunk.com/ shows super-slick results and has very handy options (e.g. picking how many days before/after your dates you’re interested in, filter by ‘agony’, etc…).

That’s all for now. In my next post, I’ll discuss where to stay and what to do while traveling.