CHARLOTTE, NC: Let’s face it, when it comes to the world of travel, the options are countless and often overwhelming. Frequently the best chance for a successful life-altering adventure is based upon choosing the method of travel that most comfortably suits your range of experience combined with your individual lifestyle. Savvy travel veterans also know that despite their respective years of knowledge, lifestyles do change with age, means of mobility, travel background and any number of other variables. Particularly when you start to travel Europe.
Using those basic concepts as a starting point, here are some things to consider when planning your trip of a lifetime.
Trip and Day Tours vs Independent Travel:
The trick here is knowing and understanding your own comfort level. Many first-time travelers to foreign countries have fears of language barriers, currency conversions, food choices and any number of other demons, either real or imagined, that might prevent them from expanding their horizons to bold new worlds just waiting to be explored.
For people with these apprehensions, packaged tours could be an ideal way to go.
To begin with, almost all of the guesswork is eliminated when you purchase a tour. Choose the itinerary you want, pay for the trip and the tour operator handles the rest from providing an English speaking guide to holding your hand. And everything in between.
Regardless of age, for many people, tours are the best way to tiptoe into that great unknown world beyond.
There are drawbacks, however.
First, there is no way to avoid the herd mentality inherent in group travel. In this case, bigger is not better. For example, if one person in a group of 50 needs to take a bathroom break, you can count on an unscheduled stop to take 45 minutes instead of the ten minutes your guide calls for.
Which means that when you get to your destination, you’ve lost 35 minutes of sightseeing time in a schedule that already allows for limited opportunities. Whether a trip tour or a day tour, check for the size of the group and multiply any possible issues by the number on the tour.
Also, check to make sure it is a private tour if you want to see something. Ask about personal discovery time. Ask if you can take pictures. What are the tour guides bonafide? A historian or local person with insider knowledge?
Another factor is an outing to watch local “artisans” at work. Such excursions may include glass blowing demonstrations, woodcarving, making pewter or any number of other arts and crafts exhibitions. Be warned in advance however, the final stop will end through the gift shop, and chances are your guide is getting a nice kickback from any purchases that are made.
In recent years, tour operators have taken a page out of the cruise industry playbook when it comes to accommodations. Back in the day, the “if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium” grand tour of Europe was the preferred way to go.
Many travelers bought into the idea that their trip was a one-time adventure and they needed to see everything in one fell swoop. The dirty little secret is that if you go to Europe once or a hundred times or a thousand, you are still never going to see it all.
In those “grand tour” days, travelers spent most of their time on buses, checking into hotels and packing and unpacking.
Luggage had to be outside your room by 6:30 or 7:00 while you rushed to get ready to gulp down your breakfast with a few hundred others so you could board the bus in time to get to your next included lunch after taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower from your motorcoach window.
Today, tour operators have adapted their programs to spending multiple nights in a single hotel, allowing for more specialized sightseeing and shopping. But buyer beware, that “herd” form of travel is still very much a part of organized tours.
More experienced travelers often prefer to plan their own itineraries which allow for more flexibility but which can also come with a different set of “Murpheyisms.”
Depending upon a traveler’s skill and expertise at adapting to unforeseen problems, individual travelers can sometimes run into unplanned disruptions such as local holidays, strikes or inclement weather to mention a few.
Unless the independent traveler has booked his travel through a knowledgeable travel agent, rather than trying to save money using online discount services, there is very often no source to rely upon to resolve last-minute problems.
Travelers who are smart enough to alter their itineraries, usually fare better than those who are unable to adapt or who have prepaid for a certain excursion on a specific day.
True, the independence of customized personal travel is there, but wary travelers should be prepared well in advance with the knowledge that no journey, no matter how well organized, ever works precisely as it is scheduled to work.
Rail Travel vs Car Rentals:
Americans, in particular, have a rental car mentality when it comes to taking off through the European countryside. There are a couple of primary reasons for this which are the convenience and independence of driving in the U.S. combined with our inadequate and limited, at best, rail services.
Thus, many travelers, veterans and otherwise, believe the best way to see the nooks and crannies of Europe is by car.
Consider that while train systems may vary throughout the Continent, they all operate basically the same, which means access, frequency of service, comfort, convenience, and value.
Most larger countries in Europe have high-speed trains. Those trains can get travelers from city-center-to-city-center faster than an automobile or flying.
Consider that a train station can be your home away from home offering both rail and tourist information, ATMs and currency exchange, lockers, restrooms, ample food services, English speaking personnel, newsstands, shopping and a host of other services including hotel recommendations and reservations and, even, showers in some terminals.
Trains operate multiple times throughout the day to certain destinations and they are, more often than not, on-time with arrivals and departures.
By contrast, renting a car in Europe means comes with its own frustrations. This can include interpreting foreign signs, the cost of fuel, and foreign rules of the road. Most GPS systems will work as well in Europe as your home. They can help with the stress of navigating your way to your destination.
Call your carrier to ask about the cost of using your phone for foreign travel. For example, AT&T offers a $10 per day international travel option. If navigating on your own, extremely reasonable. However, make sure you ask about every country you are visiting or even passing through.
Walk off the plane in Dubai, if your phone connects to local cell towers, the fee can easily be $100. If you make a call or not.
The charm of wanderlust
True, there is something to be said for discovering a charming country road to nowhere in a car and “getting lost” as it were to create that wonderful story to tell friends back home. But you can do that by using local transportation in your final destination or renting a car for one day to do to individual exploration.
In the meantime, on a train, you can sleep, read a book, have a snack or a full meal on a long trip and even have access to restroom facilities whenever you want them without having to stop.
Best of all you arrive relaxed and ready to do what you spent your hard-earned money to do. Experience something niew. A little extra energy to see as much as you can in a limited amount of time.
One other thing to note, rail pass users also have many money-saving bonuses. These can include passes to ferries, museum entrance fees, local transportation and the like.
These are just a couple of things to consider when planning a holiday in Europe. We’ll have more comparisons in the future. In the meantime, the best thing to remember, as Socrates once said, “Know thyself”…and then plan ahead.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
Editors Note: Support Bob’s GoFundMe to give him a hand up
Lead Image: Monet’s Garden by Jacquie Kubin – Day Tour via Paris Vision Tours of Monet’s Garden, the Palace at Versailles. Includes lunch.