After my recently concluded trip (my third one in as many years) to Europe, I thought of helping others in planning a trip to this lovely continent without burning a huge hole in their pocket.
Picking an Airline: Every trip has a fixed cost component and a variable cost component. Assuming that you are not a business passenger, the first BIG spend is the Airline ticket. However, Europe ticket prices keep changing with season. The cheapest tickets are in the late winter (Feb-Mar) but it won’t be a nice time to go and freeze in the near-zero temperature there. Best bet would be to get Late August- Early September tickets – that’s when the Tourist Season ends – the airline, hotels start giving their discounted fares from there on. Direct flights are more expensive. European Carriers are more expensive than the Middle East ones. I have traveled in Etihad, Jet and Turkish Airlines and all three are great! Put search alerts on kayak.com, cleartrip.com, expedia.com. Spend at least a few weeks before you finally book the tickets. The cheapest tickets are those which are booked 8 weeks in advance. Too early and too late both are penalized by higher prices.
Which European Cities to Visit: The best part of Europe is that you can never go wrong in this selection. But you must be sure of what you would like to see. Your choice of place would vary if you are in the mood to tear apart a city or you want to gaze at natural beauty or you only have “party” in your mind. For example,if you like historic cities then Rome (along with Pisa, Florence), Athens, Vienna should top your list. If it is architecture and city-scapes, Paris, London, Budapest, Prague would be great. For natural beauty again it would depend whether you like sea beach (Italian coast, Croatia, Spain) or iced-caped mountains(Switzerland, Austria) or rocky mountains with ragged sea shore(Scotland, Norway). You get the idea I hope. The best way to explore Europe is to go to the city of your dreams (It can be any city!) and then visit a few more places which are close to that city. My first trip was London-Scotland (history+ natural beauty). Second was Paris-Rome-Pisa-Florence-Venice-Interlaken(Romance, history and natural beauty). Third one was Istanbul-Budapest-Vienna-Prague-Berlin-Krakow (History, city-scape, culture).
Staying in a City: Every new place needs 3 days to be explored well. Small cities or cities with fewer “Must See” places can be done in 2 days (e.g Krakow, Poland). Staying in a european touristy destination is usually easy. There are hotels and hostels. The hostels are as good as (or better than) the Indian 3 star hotels. You can check hostels through hostelbookers.com, hostelworld.com. You can also book the chosen hostels through these websites or go to the hostel website directly (which can be cheaper sometimes). Hostel reviews are given in TripAdvisor.com website. The chief criteria while booking a hostel are these: Location (from city centre) – closer to centre, the better because you save on daily commute. Price per person per night – Breakfast may or may not be included. Sometimes it makes a huge difference. Specially if the city is expensive! Hostel rooms can be male or female only rooms or mixed dorms. The bathrooms can be attached to room or can be a shared one (with another dorm room). They may or may not have ACs. Most hostels have wifi – but check if they have access from the rooms too. Hostels are great places to know other travellers and the best stories I have heard during a trip are from other roommates in such hostels. Safety of expensive items (phone, wallets, passport) is upto you – you must lock your bags/use hostel lockers if required. We never had a bad incident so far but we have always been careful with our stuff. If you are travelling in a group of 4, then apartments (check airbnb.com) are also great options. Even hostels have few apartment options. We have spent 10-25 Euros per person per night for the hostels. If hostels are not your cup of tea, then the cheaper hotels start from 40 euros and can easily go upto 100 euros(2 persons per night).
Inter-City and Intra-City Travel Planning: Many cities now offer a bundle card (e.g Roma Card, Vienna Card, Budapest Card) which offers 24/48/72 hrs of unlimited travel within city and discounts at various museums and restaurants. You can also buy a daily pass that gives you unlimited travel only (no museum discounts). These cards are usually the most hassle free way of seeing the city without worrying about flouting any public transport ticket rules (which can sometimes be very tricky and lead to several euros of penalty) and also get a cheaper entry ticket to the most visited musuems and halls in the city. However, before buying these Cards, check what you are getting in return. Also read their reviews online to see if there are any obvious red flags (e.g. The Prague Card does NOT cover public transport and they don’t give discounts to the best museums of Prague, The Berlin Card gives a flat 25% discount on all museums except the most important ones. So buying these will be a bad decision unless you are a museum freak!). If you are doing a short trip to a city you have to be very sure what you want to see in that city. A list of your desirables will help you point them in a city map and then cover them in 2-3 days time. Without this wish-list you may end up wasting a lot of time (and money too!) looking for things and getting to see few. Most tourist locations open at 10am and close at 6pm (or 5pm). They are also closed on at least one day of the week. So plan ahead! Also, in this 10-5pm slot you cannot see more than 3 museums/historic sites. So space it well. After 5pm, you can still enjoy the views of the city or relax on the river/sea-side/town centre/Opera/Play/Symphony/Shows and enjoy the vibes. Most intra-city transport remains open till 10.30pm or 12 midnight but it can get deserted after dark.
Inter-city travel can be done by air, train or bus. The airfare in Low Cost Carriers can be quite cheap if booked early. However, remember that they don’t take you to the main airport so connecting buses/cabs can be difficult. Also, they charge you extra for your luggage. So if you are carrying several pieces of heavy stuff, avoid cheap flight options unless the distance is too much to cover by a train. Between trains and buses, we usually prefer trains due to their super connectivity across Europe. You can choose to buy a Eurail pass or buy tickets online from various country railway website. The hi-speed trains take you at a speed of 250kmph while the slower ones average around 60-90kmph. The charges of inter-country trains can be high if bought at the last moment. Buses are also great option specially where you want to enjoy the scenery along the way. They are cheaper and sometimes take less time than trains (if there are too many train changes that need to be done).
Input (Food and Water) and Output (Waterworks!) : Anything that needs “service” becomes expensive in Europe. Restaurants that serve food on the table are more expensive than the “self-order” ones like KFC/Vapiano. What we usually do is to read up on the local delicacies and try that in one of the fancy places of the city. All other meals are done in “Self-Order” stores. Many Convenient stores keep cold sandwiches that can be packed off for your breakfast/afternoon meal. If you are hell bent on Indian food then you will find plenty all across Europe. Just point them Water is expensive in Europe. Certainly more expensive than a bottle of beer! Drinkable water in most countries is tap water. So have bottles handy which you can fill up in your hostel/apartment before leaving for the day. If it is cold you need 1 liter of water. On a bright sunny day, you would need much more. Most restaurants don’t mind if you fill up your bottle from their restrooms. Coming to toilets in Europe, most public toilets and some “Self-Order” restaurants (including McD) charge you for using their restrooms. It was a surprise for me to find coin slots gates in railway stations and public places in front of the WC (thats what they call toilets in Europe). And they can charge you upto 1 euro. Museums have free toilets of course (once they have charged 10-12 euros for entry, they didn’t have the heart to charge you again for the toilet).
Luggage and Clothing : The toughest part for any Indian traveller is to decide what needs to go in the rucksack/luggage. The weight of your backpack should not be more than 10% of your bodyweight. Some parts of Europe can have dramatically different weather in the same day so carry a jacket which can keep you warm as well as save you from rains. Shorts/Jeans and t-shirts don’t get dirty here so bring less clothes! Bring enough socks and underwears coz you will be walking all day and the last thing you want is a sweaty inner garments that needs to be worn again n again! Always bring adaptors, flashlight and hooks (to hang your shoes in case you do too much shopping) and extra plastic bags (in case you need to keep wet clothes or extra shopping items). Keep Passport and cash with you all the time. Don’t keep them in bags or leave them in hostel. Bring enough memory sticks in your camera to last the entire trip and DO NOT bring your laptop. It will be an unnecessary burden and can kill your back! A smartphone/tablet with wifi capabilities will definitely be of great help though. All the city maps can be downloaded for free from Google App store.