The summer of 2013 we went to Europe. A family of five, 3.5 weeks, six countries. Ambitious perhaps, but we had an extraordinary time. Before the trip there was, of course, tons of planning. You can plan as little or as much as you want, but planning enabled me to construct a trip that suited us, and saved me a ton of money. Our 3.5 week trip for 5 people cost $12,000 total including everything but food. To compare, a similar Rick Steves tour is ~$5200 per person NOT including airfare. So how did we do it? Here is a very basic and rather boring overview.
The first thing I did was figure out where we were going to go. I checked out a huge stack of travel guides from the library and spent months casually looking through them, making my lists. The list grew and shrunk and changed until it had most of what I wanted to see and was somewhat practical. I also figured out early on that renting our own car would be cheaper for 5 people than train tickets, and would enable us to have more flexibility. So here is our travel map. The last two legs into Italy were actually trains.
Renting a car
I realized that renting a car was much cheaper for 5 people than train tickets all over Europe, so that’s what we did. I also quickly learned that returning a car in a different country than where you rented it has insane return fees – like $500 or more. So I modified our trip so we could return the car in Innsbruck, Austria after beginning in Vienna. The car cost $800 for 13 days, and gas about $500. We had to get international drivers’ licenses, easy at our local AAA.
We really enjoyed driving across Europe. We never drove in major cities, and all the small towns we spontaneously stopped in are some of our favorite stops. Figuring out how to pay tolls at foreign toll booths and how to get gas in France were part of the local adventure! Driving on the Autobahn was fun. With GPS, figuring out where we were and where we were going wasn’t too hard. Yes, sometimes we got turned around. Yes, we had to do a 72 point turn to get out of a narrow alley in Salzburg. Yes, Michael drove the wrong way down a one way street in Germany. (Oh…that’s what einbahn means!) Yes, we drove around a barricade in the Mosul Valley and squeezed past road repairs. But honestly those are some of our favorite memories! The only bad experience we had was Paris. Knowing that we would never drive in a big city, I had arranged for us to park the car at a carpark on the outer ring road around Paris. According to Wikipedia, the Boulevard Peripherique is one of the busiest roads in Europe. Well, I guess I didn’t read that before we went. Still trying to block that drive into Paris out of our memories.
So in retrospect, driving across Europe was very enjoyable, totally doable, flexible and cost effective. Just don’t go anywhere near Paris. I learned a ton on various websites regarding driving in Europe, but no single reference was as useful as the forums on Fodors.com. I could not have planned this trip so well without it.
The other way I saved money, and another very enjoyable choice, was to rent apartments. We averaged only $140 per night for lodging for 22 nights = $3080. That’s pretty cheap for 5 people. I used homeaway.com, vrbo.com, and booking.com. And the best thing I did was to book EARLY. I had all our places booked 6-8 months before we went. I know its hard to plan that early, but the good cheap apartments go fast. Some places like Paris and Venice were expensive, while others like Vienna and Rome where cheap. Our apt in Rome had 7 rooms and was literally across the street from the Colosseum for only $100 a night.
By staying in apartments, we were able to stay in real neighborhoods with local character. We avoided the touristy feel of hotels, and with our own kitchen saved money by eating many meals in the apartment. Stopping by the local market on our way home most nights became an enjoyable and non touristy experience.
Of course the most expensive item was the airfare. Flying into Vienna and out of Rome worked for us, but I know there are cities even cheaper to fly in and out of. Our tickets were $1400 each = $7000 but I redeemed credit card miles for $1900, so $5100 total. Still a lot of money. Which is why we went for 3.5 weeks!
We had to buy metro tickets in Vienna, Paris & Rome and a couple bus tickets in Salzburg = $500. (In Paris buy metro tickets in books of ten called carnets to save money; in Vienna the 8-day climate ticket can be shared between 4 people and saved us money.) Buying Entrance tickets to museums and castles = $1000. I researched and crunched numbers to figure out when it was cheaper to buy a museum pass (in Paris it’s a must!) or just buy admission to individual museums/castles. Our two trains from Innsbruck to Venice, and Venice to Rome = $250.
What would I have changed if I were to do this trip again? What did we learn? It was a taste of Europe trip, a little of everything. That’s how I planned it. The biggest tip is to never stay in one place for only one night, and limit two night stays. The time spent packing/unpacking/checking in/ finding the apt or hotel driving into and out of a new town all takes up time. And that is not time well spent. Plus, you are too hurried to enjoy the new spot, figuring out where there is a cafe you like or a market, learning the local metro etc. if you are only there 1 or 2 nights.
I suppose I could have cut Paris out and added a day to each of our other stops. Paris is it’s own world…you could spend weeks there. We spent 4 nights there and only saw a little of it. Other than that, the trip was near perfect. We intentionally planned only a couple things a day and didn’t rush. We did drive on 7 different days, but only for ~ 4 hours each time. And the driving was enjoyable – through the Alps, across the countryside, stopping in no name villages and cafes.
I did have everyone pack LIGHT. We each took only a backpack. Yes, one backpack for each of us. And then we had one small rolling suitcase with electronics, shoes, detergent, toiletries and a couple coats. We took maybe a weeks worth of clothing each and washed a couple times (easy since most apts had washers). Mostly non cotton since I had read there are few apts with dryers! Packing light made the frequent subway trips with all our luggage so much easier, and there are a lot of stairs and cobblestone streets in Europe which would not have been easy with luggage. Not to mention Venice! Here is a picture of everything the five of us took to Europe for 3.5 weeks (minus one backpack).