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1st timers- escorted, semi escorted, tour, independent? Clueless!

1st timers- escorted, semi escorted, tour, independent? Clueless!

May 16th, 2005, 05:34 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 90,966
I didn't make it to Europe before the trip that celebrated my 40th birthday! And even then was only because I have a friend who moved to Switzerland.

With 4 people and 2 weeks, I would probably stick to only 1 country and do it at a slower pace, maybe seeing 2-3 cities with a week in the countryside.

If you like the idea of self-planning, you can certainly do it, anyone can.

BUT if the thought intimidates you and over-shadows the joy of traveling, by all means consider some type of tour. No shame in that. Yes there are semi-escorted and slower paced offerings. I have several dear friends who would NEVER consider self-planning to go overseas.

suze is offline  
May 16th, 2005, 05:39 PM
Join Date: Sep 2003
Posts: 1,099
I was 36 before my DH and I went to Europe for the first time (his 4th or 5th, but hey, we won't go there).

Generally, you need to give yourself a good 3-4 nights in the major cities, and at least 1 in a smaller town along the way.

I STRONGLY recommend getting Rick Steves Europe Through The Back Door 2005 -- it will give you all the basic planning tools you'll need, and lots of info on what you can see in a couple of weeks. He also has videos you can rent from your Public Library, and go to ricksteves.com for more info.

My husband and I went from London to Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome, Athens, Izmir Turkey and Istanbul in 3 weeks 3 days last year, so if you're willing to power tour, you can see way more than 2 countries in 2 weeks.

That said, we also realizedd that there are some cities that deserved way more time, so we are going back to London for a couple of days and Paris for a week this year.

Our trip back includes meeting both our parents in Paris -- and there is some limitations on who can do what. Keep your friends in the planning with you, and plan for lots of time separate so you don't have to feel like you're trying to make 4 people happy. Communicate, communicate communicate.

Good luck and HAVE FUN.

jules4je7 is offline  
May 16th, 2005, 05:52 PM
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 57,890
It doesn;t sound as if you would enjoy an escorted tour.

So your choice is a package (air, hotels and train or car between cities) or do it yourself. This type of package does not include a guide. You will get tickets for everything in advance, including a half day city tour - and perhaps a phone number to call - not a personal guide - the cost would be prohibitve.

The advantages of the former are obvious, the potential disadvantage is that the hotels provided can be located at the end of hell and gone (and at not grerat rates) - unless you go for the most expensive options. The "disadvantage" of do it yourself is you have to do all the research (although I enjoy this almost as much as the trip - and then you go knowing exactly what you want to devote time to). the advantage is the freedom it gives you - and the option to get central hotels at fairly reasonable prices.

For two weeks I would reco either one country or two contiguous but diverse countries - for instance Italy and Switzerland. You would have the time to see only a couple of places in each - but would get a taste of distinctly different cultures without spending a ton of time in travel. (I love both Italy and Spain - but would not do them together in one trip. We try to balance latin vs germanic or slavic or british to get different flavors in each trip.)

As a first step determine:

Exactly how many days you have

What your budget is (keeping in mnd european hotel costs are more or less on a par with NYC at least)

Decide on country (or countries) and cities within each. In two weeks I would do no more than 4 cities.

Train or car can wait until you fix your itinerary. If you want to do any counryside car is more convenient. If you're only going city to city train can be a good option.

When we start we typically gather a bunch of travel brochures and start looking at the pictures (I know this sounds silly) but it helps us pick out several must sees - and then we build a trip around them. (Perhaps you must see St Peter;s, or the Coliseo or the canals of Venice or the Alps or the wooden bridge in Lucerne or ???). Also - suggest you read the sections indestinations above on those you have a seriuos interest in.

Once you have make a couple of these basic decisions perople here can provide much more info.
nytraveler is offline  
May 16th, 2005, 06:20 PM
Join Date: Jan 2004
Posts: 1,079
I am off to Europe for the 9th trip in 9 years. Like everyone, I have my favorites, and unlike some people, I decided long ago that I cannot see it all.

My first trip back after a long absence was focused on one destination: the Alps of Switzerland. That was my preference because it was my dream to go there.

Since then we have gone other places.

My view on canned, escorted tours is mixed. We took a big bus tour of Ireland and hated most of it. I felt confined, and there was too little time at the places I wanted to see most. I enjoyed it more after we freelanced for a few days. Yes there were moments of wondering how we would do things, like in Sligo we could not find a cab at the train station and I ended up standing on the street waving. But in all, once out of the bus, I was also out of the artificial environment of the tour itself which influenced everything.

On the plus side, some tours are fine. Last summer, we took a short tour of south Wales with Backroads Touring Inc.
It was a small group, just 6 of us in all, and we truly saw the backroads and the wonderful sights around Cardiff.

This summer we are going back for north Wales with the same outfit. I think my tolerance for leaving and going on someone else's schedue, however, is just about 4 days, which was the length of our tours of Wales.

On where you go, I would like to offer something of a contrarian view. I would go first to England, particularly London.

Yes, London is high priced, but you have the opportunity to travel in Europe with a familiar language. England, Wales and Scotland give you the opportunity to get some experience in your own language.

Moreover, there is more in London to see than I will ever have time to see.

Second choice: Paris. This is a city that has a lot to offer. We got around ok with very limited French. The key: research and learning the bus and metro routes.

While there we took one day tour to Vaux le Vicomte and Fontainebleau that provided the key ingredients: a good guide, good transportation, and good access. When I tried to freelance those two, the schedule by rail and taxi was expensive and not so convenient.

Third, take you pick. My preference: Vienna and Austria, particularly the countryside.

My own personal favorite is Switzerland, because I am a mountain addict. Not every one is, so I don't throw it out as a general option. It just depends on what you like. I have found it very easy to get around Switzerland and view some wonderful scenery.

Others say Italy is a prime target for a visit. They have their own set of reasons, which are all valid.

My big caution is don't try to see too much all at once. At age 28, I hope you don't take a one and done attitude. There is an infinite variety to chose from, and I think you will find ways to enjoy life that are totally new to you.

And there is one way to get over being clueless: Go do it. You will learn very quickly how to manage your travel.

brookwood is offline  
May 16th, 2005, 06:37 PM
Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 1,298
I recommend independent travel. There's no reason you can't do it yourself with a little research and planning. That's half the fun!

The very, very first thing you should do is read Rick Steves' "Europe through the back door" cover to cover. It has all kinds of great advice for the novice traveler: itinerary planning, finding hotels, budgeting, packing, how to figure out the train system and a city's subway, and more.
Edward2005 is offline  
May 16th, 2005, 06:42 PM
Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 1,298
FYI, I was 26 on my first trip. Nothing wrong with 28. Two other bits of itinerary advice.

1. Build in a couple of slack days in the middle of the trip. Days where the only thing on the agenda is sleep in, read a trashy novel, and get some sun. It will recharge your tourism batteries.

2. Since another couple is going with you, every one should agree before hand not to get offended if you want to split up for a day or two.
Edward2005 is offline  
May 16th, 2005, 07:11 PM
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 302
I would definitely vote for doing your own trip...We went to Europe (Spain to be exact) for the first time two years ago, and are in our forties. I think alot of whether one is "well traveled" early in life or not has to do, not only with resources, but maybe more so with whether or not travel is modeled as a family value. For example, my husband and my parents' generation's idea of travel mostly consisted of car trips to visit relatives. I think it's fairly recent that middle class people think of foreign travel as an option. Anyway, our son (turning 26) has been to Europe (after a medical service project in Africa!), Thailand, and Japan. Travel is just a huge priority for him, and he works hard to go whenever he can. Now that we have the time and budget to travel, by the way, we are somewhat resentful of the lifestyle to which he's become accustomed so early on!

ANYway, I digress...sorry! We found both Spain and Italy to be much more easily negotiated than we had anticipated, despite traveling in areas where few if any people spoke English. Do alot of research beforehand, and pick up the foreign language immersion CD's at Costco a few weeks beforehand, and you'll be fine! Both of our Europe trips have been 2+ weeks, and we are glad we opted to do only one country at a time. (By the way, for Spain info, check out www.madridman.com. Have fun!
NatalieM is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 06:43 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Nov 2004
Posts: 112
Thanks everyone. You really are giving me lots of confidence that I may be able to plan this myself. Italy and Spain are at the top of my list for the reasons that my family on each side is from each of these countries and I'd like to go see my "roots". All of us in our group speak fluent Spanish, and I speak some limited Italian. We figure as 1t timers this might help. Definitely 14 days is all the time we can get off from our jobs. About our budget. Well, we're not really into super bdget accommodations, but we also don't need top of the line. I guess, something in between. We prefer a private bath, comfortable bedding, and clean. Maybe mid-range or a little better. We'd like to mix it up with our meals. Sandwich lunches/dinners at cafes some days, maybe one nice dinner in each city. I hear Europe is quite expensive, but I honestly don't even know how much money to budget for this. Like I said, we'd like comfotable, private, clean accommodations. Mid range is fine. Some casual less expensive meals, and some nicer dinners here and there. None of us are really shoppers. Can you suggest a good time to go? How is May for example? What sort of budget is realistic? Be honest. I was thinking Rome, Venice, Florence, Barcelona, and Madrid. Is this too much? If it is, maybe we should stick to just one country? I know there is cheap airfare from Italy to Spain. Maybe I should just do one Spanish city on the way back? Thanks again for your suggestions! I'm sure I'll be back often as I continue my planning.
mosey10 is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 06:51 AM
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 42
Just back from tours from Madrid to Portugal and Morocco, 14days escorted tour.Contact Alfa Viajes which is a travel agent in Torremolinos. They are good. I edon't even know them. Just book via e-mail and paid by credit card. Everything confirmed and I am very happy about this trip.\\Have fun in Europe.
Mylene is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 07:18 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 74,118
Hi mosey,

I think that the easiest way for first timers to get used to planning European travel is

Fly into London (1 week), take the Eurostar to Paris (1 week), fly home from Paris.

I use http://airtravelcenter.com/onetrav.htm
for discount open-jaw tickets, although some folks have posted less-than-pleasant experiences with them.

The cheapest prices on the Eurostar are the one-day RT fares.

See www.eurostar.com

In Paris, we always stay at the Hotel Bonaparte, 61 Rue Bonaparte in the 6th. About 124E dbl w/bkfst

Hotel Bonaparte
Tel 33 1 43 26 97 37
FAX 33 1 46 33 57 67

For more info, enter "Hotel Bonaparte" in the "search this forum" box.
Photos are at http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=...&x=0&y=-l95uyr

Have a nice visit.

ira is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 07:26 AM
Join Date: Aug 2004
Posts: 4,276
Package deals (hotel and air sold together) generally give you a much better deal than booking hotels independently from the airfare. I'm NOT talking about tours - just hotel and air together.

there was a comment that the hotels booked through packages are far out of town - this is not how it works from my vast experience doing it this way. Generally, you have a vast choice of hotels from which to choose.

For example, if i travel to paris from my home in london for a long weekend, i would never dream of booking the eurostar and hotel separately. i just got back from asia and booked the whole thing as a package...airfare alone would have been more than i paid for the air/hotel package. i had complete flexibility with the hotels and the itinerary.

one downside is that the package deals tend to favour larger hotels but you often can choose a smaller place.

i'm not sure of your budget situation but if you book night-by-night, on the fly as one poster suggested, you will eat up your budget very fast - especially if you don't know what you are doing. "Rack" rates are usually very high and of course you can negotiate deals but who wants to go around doing this each time you need a room - especially a first timer who does not know what he/she *should* be paying for a room, may not have a good grasp of the language and may feel uncomfortable negotiating.

the one exception to this is when i book a house or flat instead of a hotel. i do this often and it is generally better and cheaper than hotels (but could be more hassle and stress...especially for the first-timer).
walkinaround is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 08:02 AM
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 421
Hi Mosey,

You picked a wonderful place to begin planning . . . I have always found Fodorites so very knowledgeable and helpful! You'll love it here. Actually, you may become addicted!

In addition to slowtrav.com which is a great resource, a couple of other helpful websites are:

venere.com - useful in researching all types of accommodations options. Includes customer reviews for many of the properties.

tripadvisor.com - hotel and some B&B reviews.

When using the "search this forum" function to find previously posted pearls of wisdom, try not to get frustrated - it is plagued by spelling variations. (Siena/Sienna, Locanda/Locando, etc.)

Let the planning begin . . .
Rookie is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 08:24 AM
Join Date: Nov 2004
Posts: 828
Hello Mosey - What fun you have ahead of you! And that's just the planning!

What sort of travelling do you enjoy at home? If you are capable, independent travelers on your home turf, then you can transfer those skills to a European jaunt - just don't let yourself get daunted by the idea. And, you have a leg up if you are already comfortable in the language of your destination.

(B/t/w, I was 42 before I hopped the pond for the first time...and felt like I was the very last one to make it! Not so - it's never too early or too late for your first trip!)

So glad someone popped in with the Untours suggestion...I was racking my brain trying to come up with the name. Have never done a trip with them, but have always wanted to and they sound like a really good solution for the kind of trip that you're after.

I just want to second (and 3d and 4th!) Edward's suggestion:

Author: Edward2005 ([email protected])
1. Build in a couple of slack days in the middle of the trip. Days where the only thing on the agenda is sleep in, read a trashy novel, and get some sun. It will recharge your tourism batteries.

Especially on your first trip overseas, the temptation is to go-go-go, to see and do just as much as you can. But try to resist that and bear in mind that you WILL get back again (and again and again). On a 14 day trip, you may not be able to spare "a couple of...days" of downtime, but do keep it in mind - along with this about travel that I love...from Erica Jong...That the greatest pleasure lies in doing familiar things in unfamiliar places (probably a sloppy paraphrase, but you get the idea.) Happy planning!

tuckerdc is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 09:00 AM
Join Date: Nov 2003
Posts: 991
Mosey, your idea of Rome, Florence, Venice, Madrid and Barcelona is definitely do-able (can I come along?).

If you have 14 clear travelling days, with your flight days to and from Europe in addition, that would give you 3 nights in 4 of the cities, 2 nights in the 5th. If you booked your inter-city travel towards late afternoon or early evening, that would free up that day's touring a bit.

The only thing missing is a taste of each country's rural areas, but you could plan that for your next trip.

It is definitely an ambitious itinerary but you can still enjoy wine or coffee breaks in each city to wind down a tad.

If this helps... my two trips travelling with girl friends to Europe cost me about CAD $4,500 for 17 days (including 2.5 non-touring days of travel to and from) and with relatively expensive flights from Vancouver to London. We used discount European airlines, trains and car rentals for travelling about, stayed at 2-star accommodation, always had several coffee/wine breaks a day (extremely important to us!), did a little shopping but lots of museum/site viewing...

I've never been on a tour but I've really enjoyed planning our independent trips - half the fun!

Cheers, Linda
BowenLinda is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 09:53 AM
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 302
Our recent trip to Italy was under $2500 per person, with $800 of that being airfare. This included all lodging, train trips, and rental car for a week; some meals. Note, we are not big "food people"...generally ate breakfast at our apartment; main meal of the day a late lunch at a nice restaurant; light dinner at bar or deli. For reasonable lodging with two couples, I would definitely check out apartments...Much cheaper than hotels, more privacy, and a fun experience. Check out www.vrbo.com (vacation rentals by owner) as a place to start. I have a trip report posted with details on a fantastic place we stayed in Rome. In comparing notes with friends who've taken the tour option, I've concluded that you may not save alot by planning your own trip, but you can get more "bang for your buck."
NatalieM is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 11:58 AM
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 57,890
Well - I understand the desire for Spain and Italy. And you can combine the two - but would need to fly between them - and won;t have very much time in any one place - just a taste of each.

My personal preference is to avoid Madrid. IMHO it is the least Spanish place I have been there (more like Chicago than anything else - lots of 20's and newer skyscrapers, hot, loud, dirty and not a lot to do unless you're into heavy duty clubbing til - literally - dawn.)

Barcelona is much more Spanish - a mix of unique old and very modern. As is Andalucia - which I adore - and is a mix of beach city, country, small towns - with roman, arab and historical spanish influences as well as some of the most incredible sights/atmosphere in the world.

I would start with a rough itinerary and then in-put some budget numbers (with two couples you need to be sure your budgets/desires are aligned). Food should not be an issue - you can be quite inexpensive/casuale whenever you like. Hotels are a little more dicey if you are used only to the US - most here will be old rather than modern, have very small rooms - and even fairly simple ones may be a budget shock - depending on where you're from.

Suggest you do some searching above on plane and hotel costs - as well reading desinations above - as a first step.
nytraveler is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 01:01 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 90,966
mosey10, one good insider tip is to consider an "open jaw" airline ticket. Often these are the same price as a same city round trip. This means you fly into one city and out of another one so avoid backtracking on the ground (i.e., into Venice and out or Rome or whatever).

Personally I would suggest only one country. It will be less expensive and easier to plan. It will be less hectic with more time for sight-seeing and less in trains, planes, taxis, busses, etc.
suze is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 02:17 PM
Join Date: Jul 2003
Posts: 207
If you do decide to do the multi city/country route, I would definitely recommend Ryan Air. It worked great for us and I preferred it to the trains we took.
mdmomof7 is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 05:58 PM
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 5,579
To anyone who says "planning is half the fun", I'm always tempted to say "plan two trips, stay home and save money" but that wouldn't be nice. As if I'd care.

My wife and I have been numerous times to Europe(at least a dozen for me, two dozen for her) and have done it all ways: escorted tours, packaged (air, hotel, inter-city transportation, maybe car, maybe airport transport) and with nothing but a plane ticket when we flew Boston to Bergen, Oslo, Copenhagen, London, Glasgow and back to Boston. Every trip was enjoyable for us for different reasons.

The three escorted tours were very efficient and we had very knowledgeable guides. I'm sure I'd have missed the Appian Way if I'd been driving from Rome to Naples. Would I still be driving around looking for parking in Beaune? Would I have liked more time at Vigelandsparken in Oslo?
We don't have enough funds to satisfy all our desires so we have to compromise. An article in Business Week, page 109 May 9, just told me that a 65 year old couple retiring today should have $190,000 socked away just to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses. Am I glad I've gone past that age.

We have used the airline packages and have chosen hotels that were well situated: in London Bayswater Road, Kensington, Notting Hill; Paris 1st Arr (though we now stay in the 14th); Dam Square in Amsterdam. A little effort with a map can do wonders.

One of our more enjoyable trips started with 3 nights in London for the Chelsea flower show, joining an escorted tour in Paris for a ten day tour of France, followed by 5 nights when we returned to Paris. Wonderful combination of flexibility in the cities and effeciency in the country.

Anyway, have fun whichever decision you make.
jsmith is offline  
May 17th, 2005, 07:47 PM
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 3,590
My, what a ton of good advice! Yes, there are some arguments in favor of escorted tours (and as older travelers we have done a number). Among these are airline package tours. Instead of planning which hotel each night you can concentrate on the sights and experiences. At your age, though, you might well consider independent travel using a travel agent, guide books, and exploring with Fodors, etc.

I would add my plug for Backroads Touring which is like independent travel...a minivan with driver-guide and only half a dozen passengers. We toured Britain with BRT and I know they have trips in several countries. Lodging/food in really neat country inns and pubs. I'm sure brookwood or myself can send further info.
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Ozarksbill is offline  

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