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Planning a 4 week student backpacking trip in Europe, previous travel experience LIMITED

Planning a 4 week student backpacking trip in Europe, previous travel experience LIMITED

Jan 17th, 2007, 12:54 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2007
Posts: 69

We have not elected to use any intereuropean flights for 2 reasons:
1) We do not want to have to pay for transportation (taxi, namely) to and from airports, which can be costly sometimes.
2)If the price of getting to and from the airports is not an issue, then the issue is time: we only have one train on our trip that is over 3:30 hours, and that is the overnight train to Nice. We like to overnight option because it saves us time, and i assume money, no matter how cheap the flight might be, since it saves on on lodging, too. Plus, it is convenient to exit one city and enter another door to door without the whole airport ordeal.
3) One of us loves to travel but it is a big sacrifice for us to get on the plane since we fear flying... (not me, by the way, haha)

Alas, it sounds like seeing the provencal towns without a car is a tough task... any thoughts on the feasibility of a 2 days or so biking trip out of Avignon to see the Gordes/Rousillon region?

We were thinking of each having an ATM card tied to our own bank accounts.. that way, if we lose the card, it is useless without a password, and we can access money pretty easily.
Credit cards were going to be a back up plan, in a sense... but we will be sure to look at different rates for different cards.
Anyone have any thoughts on the merits of traveler's checks? More/less convenient than the ATM system?

1) wally34949, your packing advice is noted. But there is one specific problem we do not have a solution for: How do we make our formal clothes (slacks, belt, dress shoes, dress shirt or polo) for churches, such as St. Peters at the Vatican, take up as little space and weight as possible. We think that shorts are not allowed into the church... w are thinking of ditching the dress shoes and just looking like bums with slacks, polos and sneakers... any thoughts on how to pack lightly but make sure we are respectable enough to get in anywhere we would want to go?

Again, a tremendous thanks to everyone providing such helpful feedback! You're really forcing us to critically evaluate our decisions while also giving us the advice and information we need in order to prioritize our trip....

which reminds me, I never followed up on prhirsch's advice to create our "must sees" list:

Siena (Palio tickets)

The rest of our schedule is all about the best combination of layovers that are easily accessible by train fall along our general path of travel, and either provide and exemplary view of the countryside or offer some great cultural or artistic history. We will stop for anything that is along our way and is truly a unique experience, too.
UNCBB113 is offline  
Jan 17th, 2007, 01:26 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 33,503
oh, there have been lots of threads on here about the money thing. Yeah, your ATM card is the best idea. Travelers checks aren't as easy to cash as they used to be and you'll get a worse rate on them than straight from an ATM, anyway. I always take some as backup money, though, as I get them free from AAA and my bank, either one. I take them in USD, though, so if I don't use them I can use them elsewhere (at home or in the world). I would advise you do that also if you do take any. If you can get them free also (or maybe your parents at AAA or somewhere), you might take some as backup.

I actually forgot my ATM card the last time I left the country for a long weekend, which I've never done before. That's because I usually change purses when I travel, boy was I mad at myself. I used my TCs the entire trip, which worked out fine and I sure was glad I had them. That was Mexico, though, and they like them there and take them as easily as cash. They are fairly easy to cash in Paris and some other French towns, but I don't think they are in Italy so much, though. I didn't need to but tried just to find out last summer and never could cash any in Poland, even in banks. I finally found one exchange bureau that would cash them but the commission was about 10-12 pct, much worse than using an ATM.

So, maybe your credit card for cash as a backup would be okay, except you are going for a pretty long time and you really have to be careful with the fees for cash advances on credit cards.
Christina is offline  
Jan 17th, 2007, 02:14 PM
Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 148
Dear UNC,

You guys are doing such a great job in what makes travelling so much fun, the planning. In this forum, it is rare to interact with such young and inexperienced travelers that have done so much reading and research on europe. It would be so interesting to read your trip report.

I can't help myself, I'm a mother and feel the need to offer advice. I'm a bit worried that if your trip is so planned, you may miss out on the lesser talked about aspects of travel. Namely EXPERIENCING the culture. for example, dinner. In late June it will be light really late into the evening. Dinner is served late and leisurely, and is long and enjoyable. It's great to budget some time just to sit in a cafe in the late afternoon or early evening with a coffee to watch the local scene or engage in some conversation.

At any rate. You will have a great time. It's hard to screw up europe.

Many happy travels!!!!
prhirsch is offline  
Jan 17th, 2007, 02:21 PM
Join Date: May 2006
Posts: 865
You and your friends may be interested in this thread. You can get some valuable information from a poster about your same age who backpacked last summer.


He also includes a link to his travelog and lists his email address.

A word of caution: his site can be addicting. I found it fascinating and fun!
lucy_d is offline  
Jan 17th, 2007, 02:53 PM
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lucy_d: thanks for the link, we'll definitely be checking out Tyler's log, site, and thread extensively. We may even contact him, seems like he would be a very useful source of information.

I understand the concern that we might be overplanning, but here is how I am thinking of it: All of this planning (the inflexible planning with a list of specific sites to see on which days) is all simply an exercise to give ourselves enough time in each city. If we create a model of schedule of what we would see IF we feel like it when we get there, we will have the time to see our entire list. If we feel like skipping a few things, no harm done, we can simply spend the extra time enjoying the city and taking in the culture. Since we have the luxury of adding a few days to this trip, I would rather err by allotting a bit of extra time, not too little time. Basically, all these loose attraction itineraries are just a way I try to figure out just about how much time, or at least a minimum amount of time, I would want to spend in one place.

Once we figure out how much time we want to spend at each place, we will set flight dates, and the whole schedule goes back to being flexible and open to whatever changes we see fit as we go. This is just the best way we could think of to figure out how long we would need, and what our general travel arc would be.
UNCBB113 is offline  
Jan 17th, 2007, 04:23 PM
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Posts: 69
Noncomformist: I somehow missed your post earlier. Thanks for the advice. I've been doing some research on my own since I asked, and I came to the same conclusion - those trips seem to be something worthwhile if you have a specific interest. Thanks for the opinion.
UNCBB113 is offline  
Jan 17th, 2007, 04:46 PM
Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 148

So sorry for misinterpreting your schedule. It sounds more like you've set your self up for a great trip, no matter which way the wind blows....happy travels
prhirsch is offline  
Jan 19th, 2007, 02:06 AM
Join Date: Jul 2003
Posts: 1,466
Maybe I missed it, but nothing shouts tourist as a backpacker. You should read the tips on safety and pickpockets in this formum. There are lots of them and give you good advice.
GBelle is offline  
Jan 20th, 2007, 04:18 PM
Join Date: Jul 2006
Posts: 38

your itinerary sounds pretty solid. i just have some general/budgey tips for you.

(1) as prhirsch suggested, staying in hostels would be a great way to both save money and meet other travelers. It makes for a richer expereince. In Italy, you may find staying in convents is a good option. For venice, I stayed here: http://www.domuscivica.com/

I beleive with student ID, it is 21 euros for a triple. 24 euros for a single. shared bathrooms. but very clean. ANd, the "hostel" is very easily acessible from the train station.

**Note, I was up 'early' in Venice, about 9am and the rialto markets were not yet open, except for maybe a few stalls. The shops on the bridge weren't open, but to be quite honest, the markets are largely full of touristy trinkets. Though, they are good for souvenirs.

(2) christieCA advised getting the Eurail Select Pass. I agree. Also, to save money, opt for a 5-6 day pass, then for the shorter journeys in Italy, book directly with trenitalia.it THe site offers lots of affordable specials. See "Smart Price" section.

(3) Amsterdam: the Van Gogh museum was well worth the trip to the city. If you decide to add Amsterdam, perhaps rethink the french countryside portion of your trip.

(4) In Nice, you can rent an apt usually if you stay for 4 days or so. As a group, this will help save money. Personally, I found Nice and Monaco to be boring. The beach can be very relaxing for a few days, but gets tedious after a while. This is also a more pricey area.

Otherwise, you guys will have an amazing time!
cali123 is offline  
Jan 20th, 2007, 08:28 PM
Join Date: Aug 2005
Posts: 3,604

I did a foreign exchange and did some backpacking while in Europe, although not such a long stint at once. My biggest piece of advice is to get a backpack that fits well.


We went to Italy last year and many people were not wearing dress shoes in St. Peter's. You do need long pants, not shorts, but they don't need to be dressy. Get some khakis or casual pants you can wear other days. Shirts should not be tank tops, and no bare midriffs or mini-skirts for your friend.

With your interest in Vatican history, try A Catholic's Guide to Rome: A Guide to the Eternal City by Frank Korn. Excellent discussion of the Vatican buildings, gardens, and the many churches in Rome, more the history than the artistic merit.

Consider San Clemente, which has three levels of churches and a Mithraic altar. Should be in your guidebooks.

Also, if you have the time, Ostia Antica is about an hour from Rome on metro area trains, and some feel is nearly or as great as Pompeii. No official guides; the Rick Steves Rome book was far more helpful than our other books.

Look on this forum for any posts by Walter (ParadiseLost) regarding ancient Rome or Ostia.

We loved both the Medici Chapel (primarily Michaelangelo sculpture) and the San Marco Monastery, with its Fra Angelicos in each of the monks' cells.

You can order reservations forthe key Florence museums. Lines are very long. If you don't have them, do what I did at the Uffizi, get up at dawn, bring your journal to write in and wait. It was fun waiting before it opened, other people came and it was kind of festive. When I went there was a cafe on the rooftop of the Uffizi, great views of the Duomo. Don't know if the cafe is still there.

Paris --
Years ago, some of the cafeterias of the Sorbonne were open to the public. I did not speak French but even so met some other college students there. Let's Go might have details.

Have a great trip!

5alive is online now  
Jan 23rd, 2007, 12:27 PM
Join Date: Jan 2007
Posts: 1
I lived in France my junior year in college (many years ago) and did extensive traveling throughout Europe, with emphasis on France and Northern Italy.
Check out possible hostels before you go (see http://www.hostelworld.com). Some have strict curfews (as early as 10 pm), and you may not want that. Also, hostels vary greatly on the quality of accommodations and extras.
There was an overnight train that left from Bordeaux at 10 pm and got into Paris at 6 am. Things may have changed, tho. But a few overnights on the train help save money.
Definitely get a Student Eurail pass. It's nice to know you can hop any train and go virtually anywhere in Europe.
Paris is a different kind of France, compared to the countryside. I thought the people there must have been sick and tired of tourists, the way I was treated at times (they didn't know I actually lived in France). HOWEVER - do not miss out on all that Paris has to offer! Also, I noticed that you had no day trips from Paris, such as to the beautiful, amazing cathedrals at Rheims and Rouen. Worth the trip.
I agree with the person who said, don't commit yourself to a "have-to" schedule. Believe me, some places will just grab you and some will be so-so.
Here's a neat sidetrip - Carcassone, France. It's a walled, fortified medieval city that people still live in. Check out this cool pic - http://goeurope.about.com/od/carcass...rcassonne1.htm. I've never seen a city like this, outside of medieval computer games. It's located in southern France (look at a map) and has hostels I think.
Take some language travel guides. People really appreciate you trying to speak their language.
I also recommend more time in Venice. This is such a cool city.
Amsterdam is unusual and fun. Worth a trip.
No trip to London? You might want to consider that.
Shoot, you might want to consider 6 weeks.
Take pictures! This is a trip of a lifetime you are going to make!
Take some basic first aid stuff from the US - at least you can read the packaging label. Immodium is good for trouble with the drinking water, etc.A couple of BandAids, some neosporin antibiotic cream... it doesn't take up much room in your pack, and you'll be glad you have it.
I have so much to say, but I will have to end this for now. Contact me at [email protected] if you have questions or want more comments from me.
Happy traveling!

skeca is offline  
Jan 23rd, 2007, 03:54 PM
Join Date: Jan 2004
Posts: 2,357
Sounds like a fabulous 4 weeks!

I did some great backbacking/Eurail trips at your age and on, and I am impressed with your planning! I have to say I never planned things that much at your age, but nothing wrong with being organized. I have to agree with those who recommend loosening it up even just a bit, however. You never know who you are going to meet or what places you are going to love & want to stay at longer.

Re: Nice
Since you mention all of your art interests, I wouldn't necessarily think of Nice as just a beach spot (the beach is actually stones there, by the way). There is the excellent Musee Matisse in Nice itself and in the hilltown of St Paul de Vence (sp?) the fabulous Maeght foundation museum with modern pieces by Calder, Braque,Chagall, Miro and I don't remember who else, but it is wonderful! Also in St Paul is a famous (expensive) restaurant, le Colombe d'or, filled with interesting art (good story behind this). And the Russian Orthodox church in Nice is a gorgeous building.

I agree with not overnighting in Monaco. Maybe two nights in Nice, a city I quite like -- it makes a good base to go into the hills and see those towns, to see some of the other coastal cities if you are interested, to wander the old town and hang out along the waterfront.
annabelle2 is online now  
Feb 6th, 2007, 06:48 AM
Join Date: Feb 2007
Posts: 2
Hi Guys,

Great itinery. Just a thought, but why Nice and the Cote d'azur? I'm from London, my grandparents live in France and I have been fortunate enough to travel around the country many times and IMHO the Cote D'Azur area of France is the most boring. It is not 'French' at all and you have the feeling there that you could be anywhere. If you like the idea of Provence have you thought of Nimes or Arles? Or if looking for a French beach resort Biarritz or the Il D'oleron?
carrie100 is offline  
Feb 6th, 2007, 07:54 AM
Join Date: Dec 2005
Posts: 594
I think when Wally mentioned shorts, he meant undershorts. You wash the socks and underwear you wore that day in the sink every night. After squeezing out by hand all the water you can, roll them up in the small towel and squeeze again. If they are still a bit damp in the morning, you'll still have a dry set to wear. Don't try to get by with just one set of socks/underwear.

Think about what you plan on wearing when sleeping at night.

For one of your pairs of pants, I'd recommend cargo/safari pants that have the zip-off lower legs converting them into shorts, and made from nylon or some other lightweight, quick-drying type material. My husband and I have worn ours on several trips and back here at home, and the flexibility they give is wonderful. We've had ours for about five years now and I think they will never wear out! If you choose the sage (darker) color you'll minimize the number of times you need to wash them. We've also found that when we've gotten into mud, we can just hand-wash the zip-off lower legs and they dry in a flash.
evecolorado is offline  
Apr 2nd, 2007, 09:06 PM
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Posts: 69
Thanks for the additional input, everyone. To answer a few specifics and give an update (itinerary has changed some since the last time I posted):

"Just a thought, but why Nice and the Cote d'azur?...If you like the idea of Provence have you thought of Nimes or Arles?"
We travel with the expectation that there will be many more trips to Europe to come, so we feel as though we don't have to see everything in one trip (though that temptation can be strong at times). As students with limited funds, we feel like every time our trip from major city to major city passes close to some other place we are interested in, its a great cost effective opportunity to see that place. For example - provence is right between venice and paris, and since we have the luxury of time and want to see more of France in particular in this trip since we all study french, it seemed like a logical and cost effective time in our traveling careers to stop in provence. Though Nice may not be at the top of of overall "TO visit" list for europe, we are interested enough to seize a relatively convenient opportunity to see it. Does this line of logic seem fair for someone who expects to visit europe many more times in the future (I am only 18)?

As for your question regarding seeing Arles and Nimes: We have extended the stay in Nice to see a few more museums, include day trips to St. Tropez, Monaco, Eze, etc. to 4 days, and we also extended our stay in Avignon to 5 days. That may sound like a lot of time, but hear me out. We are there during the festival, so we figure we will spend half our nights enjoying that experience, and we also find Avignon could be an excellent day trip base for the rest of provence (or the parts we can access without or own car). We are planning to see Orange, Nimes, Arles, and maybe even the hill towns east of th city if can afford a driver or bus tour while in avignon.

Thank you to everyone for the solid packing advice - small things that will make my trip so much more convenient that I would have never thought of. Particular thanks goes to Wally and evecolorado on that info.

skeca: thank you for your opinion, an we are definitely taking your advice on the day trip to see the cathedrals, particularly rheims. Great suggestion!

cali123: we are looking at the place in Venice you suggested and took your advice on getting an apartment in Nice - you were right, we paid just about the same amount as a 12 person dorm hostel. Great call on your part.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed information. As a group, we are in fullforce planning mode at the moment and will probably have many questions for all of you soon. For anyone who wantes a quick recap of where our schedule it now, here it is (extended a bit since last time, I believe):

Rome: (5)
Siena: (2)
Tuscan countryside: (4)
Florence: (3)
Venice: (3)
Nice: (3)
Cassis: (1)
Aix en Provence (1)
Avignon: (4)
Macon (1) - the obligatory "youre in the area and your relatives will disown and/or curse you if you dont drop in to say hello" stop
Paris: (5)
UNCBB113 is offline  
Apr 2nd, 2007, 10:02 PM
Join Date: Aug 2005
Posts: 3,604
UNC -- What I like about your itinerary is that you are going to really get to know two countries well, rather than do a half-dozen countries poorly. My only caveat is I remember when I was a student how hard it was to tour around outside of the cities, without a car.

I don't know your budget but if you get any cash gifts from anyone for this venture, I would hunt for guided daytrip type opportunities for at least part of your countryside excursion days.

Otherwise, you will spend 2-4 hours of your morning getting a local bus to the site in question. Then you will have about an hour to see the site before it closes for lunch. In Italy that will be 2-3 hours.

Another possibility would be to rent bikes, or to consider a bike tour.

But I would probably put a day more with either Rome or Florence and again with Paris over the countryside. Remember there are some great daytrips by local train or bus from these centers. (Chartres from Paris, for example.)

Good luck,

5alive is online now  
Apr 3rd, 2007, 10:33 PM
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Join Date: Jan 2007
Posts: 69
5alive: Thanks for the solid suggestions. We will try to see if we can add a day in Florence and Rome if we can, though we are coming close to pushing the threshold of how long we can afford to be gone this summer.

The only reason we are not looking to add more time to Paris is all three of us have been there within th past two years for some period of time between 4-7 days, so while we can't pass up the chance to see on of Europe's best cities again, we are perhaps a bit more interested in seeing new places, even if they be in the countryside.

Great suggestion on trying to seek out daily guides. I think that might be the kind of thing I might be able to get friends and family to underwrite for me.
We are decent bikes as well, so we were thinking that maybe that would be a good way to see some of Provence east of Avignon, but as fun as that'd be I think it'd be nice to be able to cover a little more ground with a car or a bus. Maybe we can fit in both?

As for exploring the countryside in Italy: thankfully we will have personal contacts who will (perhaps somewhat unwisely) entrust us with a car to explore Tuscany.

And your suggestion to see Chartres is noted, we will add that to the list along with Rheims.
UNCBB113 is offline  
Apr 4th, 2007, 01:55 PM
Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 148
Well done with the planning. Now, relax and let it unfold. You all sound so curious and knowledgeable that you will certainly be people magnets. Please let us know how your trip went. We older people love to give advice, let us know how out of touch we really are. Have a wonderful trip!
prhirsch is offline  

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