Planning the perfect European trip

Paul and his wife are off on the trip of a lifetime to Europe but with so much on offer, he’s not sure where to start. Kay O’Sullivan takes him through the careful planning to make the most of his trip.

Q. Paul
I have managed to save quite a bit for the trip of a lifetime for my wife and I. We want to see Europe – as much as we can – but are truly confused about the best way to do it. Should we cruise, or take a series of guided tours? Are we better off booking flights and doing it ourselves? We have about five or six weeks to spend travelling and are fairly competent travellers, so not keen on paying a premium for services we don’t really need. Can you advise please?

A. You ask about the best way to see Europe: Should you cruise, take a guided holiday, jump on a train or fly? I’d suggest all of the above and maybe even hire a car.

On your other query about the booking and organising, you can do the arranging yourself, but everything in life benefits from the help of an expert, so find yourself a good travel agent.

You won’t end up paying more; in fact you might save money as the big agencies have enormous buying power.

This is your trip of a lifetime so you need to decide what you want to see before you see a travel agent. So go surfing, come up with a wish list, and then the travel agent will be able to fill in the gaps, make suggestions and tell you what is possible and what’s not, such as not leaving enough time to get from one place to another. Or that you won’t find a room in Barcelona on 3 April 3 2016 because Barca is playing Real Madrid in The Clasico (Spanish soccer’s grand derby) on that day i.e. travel agents are fantastic at finding bargains and telling you things that you wouldn’t otherwise know and could cost you money.

Travel can sometimes feel like hard work rather than a holiday, so I would definitely add in a cruise, as cruising is a real holiday. Also, many places in Europe are best seen from the sea – the Mediterranean countries and the islands of the Aegean for example. A need-to-know is that size does matter when it comes to cruising in Europe and the smaller ships can take you to places and ports the mega-liners can’t.

Tip: Have a look at Azamara Club Cruises. Two smallish ships but, crucially, the cruises are structured to allow you as much time as possible in the destination. I was on the Azamara Journey seven-day Tuscany to Provence cruise and we docked in Monte Carlo at dawn – truly a spectacular sight – and didn’t leave until next morning, which meant we had breakfast lunch and dinner in that fairytale city. That is not the case with a lot of other cruise lines that have you are in an out of the port in a matter of hours. Particularly unsatisfactory if you are on a big ship and it takes hours to get everyone off and on.

I’d heartily recommend a river cruise as well. There are many reasons why river cruising is booming and we Australians love it. But first and foremost it’s the easiest way to get to the heart of a country. Europe grew up and around its rivers and on a river cruise you will find yourself docked right in the middle of many cities.

I did the Castles along the Rhine itinerary on the Uniworld’s glamorous SS Antoinette and on one day we berthed in the shadow of Cologne’s great cathedral and on another we were within walking distance of Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Don’t discount guided holidays either. They are great value, and much changed in this century. Here I’d say stick to the bigger companies because they have enormous buying power. Insight Vacations, for instance, delivers, four-star hotels in central locations in the big cities, guided excursions, most meals and baggage handling for $220 a day. You can’t even get a hotel in Rome in the high season for that. 

Also, be reassured that the days of sitting on a coach simply staring at sites are long gone. Experiential is the word that best describes today’s passenger says Gavin Tollman, chief executive officer of Trafalgar, one of the world’s largest guided tour companies. Today’s passengers want knowledge and experiences, he says. And the tour companies are complying. So when you take a guided tour you might find yourself being shown around a 15th century olive grove in Tuscany by the count who owns it. Or perhaps travelling on the TGV to Provence in France, like most Parisians do.

Kay O’Sullivan is no accidental tourist. More than a decade ago, she decided to combine two of her favourite things – journalism and travel – and become a travel writer. Since then, she has written about travel for numerous papers, magazines and on the internet, both here and internationally.

Written by kayo