Travels in Europe: Starting Out

We visited a number of cities in Europe this spring.  It was great fun although planning a trip for 5 has its own logistical challenges, let alone planning for the interests and stamina of all participants.  Our family does not take cruise line or beach-oriented vacations.  A typical holiday for us will include substantial sight-seeing, if not outright travel from one place to the next.  We are that typical North American family that does Europe, moving swiftly from place to place as if we had a checklist and were crossing each culture or city or attraction off a list.

In fact, the goal was just to have fun being a part of other cultures and getting a flavor for – and diminishing some of the fear of – travelling in foreign places.  The spread of our children’s ages – 6 to 12 – meant that we didn’t bother with museums full of paintings and statues but focused on experiences that they might appreciate or remember because of their own current interests.

Our trip spanned 10 days in March 2012, leaving Canada for Munich, Germany.  We travelled from Munich to Vienna, Austria, then to Bern, Switzerland, and finally to Paris, France.  We flew back to Canada from Paris, foot-sore but full of adventures, photos, and stories.

I’ve set out our travels on pages related to each leg – Munich, Vienna, Bern, France – but I thought I would also talk about the logistics of this sort of trip.  It was surprisingly easy in most respects, and was done almost entirely over the Internet.

Flying to Europe

The initial assumption we made was that we should fly in and out of the same city in Europe.  When we started planning, we highlighted four or five cities to use as gateways.  Air fare was the most expensive part of the trip – roughly 50% of the entire cost – and we decided to select our trip based on the least expensive destination.  Kayak has a great tool for monitoring multiple cities and flagging potentially cheap tickets.  Choose My dates are flexible when doing your search and select Flex Month.  The results list will give you a nice table of prices by date.  If you save the search as an alert, it will e-mail you on a periodic basis.  I activated this feature about 4 months ahead of when we wanted to travel, and it showed that two distinct time periods were significantly less expensive.

I also spoke to a travel agent but the pricing was consistent with what I was already seeing online.  It was then that I started to try mismatched start and end points.  In the end, it was cheaper for us to fly to Munich via Paris, and return from Paris, then it was to fly into and out of Paris.

Getting Around

We knew we wanted to use the extensive European train system.  Not only are trains a great method of transportation, but it was the equivalent to an amusement park to our youngest.  We used a Eurail family pass for four of us and added the third child to it.  The downside is that the family pass is first class and you may be able to save more by using individual second class passes.  Second class is quite nice and, in some cases, the only class available on a train.  The upside was that, when we were able to ride first class, it was quite a nice experience.

The train was a no-brainer.  Anyone who has brought home a train book from the library, like the DK or Eyewitness books, will appreciate that riding on the TGV and ICE as well as numerous subways, suburban rail, and intercity rail catches a young boy’s imagination.

What about places away from the train?  We considered travelling more widely and looked into rental cars.  Hiring a car has the defect that, to be economical, you have to return it to the place from which you started.  I am confident driving in other countries but decided that driving the entire trip would increase my stress and decrease my ability to enjoy just looking around.  We ended up hiring a car for a single day to enable us to get out to the Normandy beaches in France, from Caen, but geared the rest of our trip to rail.

Where to Stay

Parents with three children who have traveled in North America may not appreciate how difficult it is to find accommodations in Europe for 5.  As with the plane and the rail pass, I had hoped to use the Internet to find lodging.  Many European hotels limit the number of people to a room at 4.  You can get two rooms but it means that lodging becomes an exorbitant cost.

I came across the Sleeps 5 site that gave me some hope of finding places to stay.  It doesn’t cover everywhere but it led us to a hotels in Vienna and Paris.  We decided to stay at youth hostels in Munich and Bern, both of which also offered family friendly rooms (essentially a private 6 bed room).  The hotels identified by Sleeps 5 were online and we were able to book our stays using e-mail and the Web.  The youth hostel sites are also online, giving you pictures of the building and what a typical room looks like, and booking was even easier with them than it was with the hotels.

The youth hostels were an unknown.  Some youth hostel associations had barred families the last time I was in Europe (20 years ago) and they were not consistent in quality and cleanliness.  The Munich and Bern hostels that we stayed at were run like hotels, with the exception that you made your own bed and dropped off your bed linen when you were finished.  Gone is the requirement that everyone do a chore in the morning.  The other residents tended to be much younger than us, but there was never a noise problem.

The hostels also offered a healthy breakfast and were substantially cheaper than a hotel.  You are required to be a youth hostel member but you can either be a member of your home country’s association or you can just buy a day membership.  We ended up doing the latter since we were only staying at 2 hostels, but if you were to stay longer or for more nights, you may find that memberships make sense.

We also wanted to maximize our time in cities, so we took overnight trains between Munich and Vienna and Vienna and Bern.  The trains we selected have couchettes – which require an additional reservation surcharge over the Eurail pass – but allowed us to leave one city and wake up in the next.  They are also cheaper than staying in hotels.

What to Do

This is always the trickiest part of planning a trip.  We wanted to find things that were meaningful to see – not random paintings or statues or what not – but also things that represented the culture or city we were visiting.  Our basic guidelines were:

  • Museum rule number 1:  no museums that were entirely statues and / or paintings.  So no Louvre, Gare d’Orsay, etc.;
  • Museum rule number 2:  the collection had to be local, about the country or culture we were visiting, rather than things that we could probably see at home;
  • “things I recognize” was what our eldest requested, so we tried for that.

Our family holidays seem to always have a military history orientation, which reflects my own interests as much as anything.  But the benefit of a trip to a city or country that is not focused on a resort or beach activity is that you can really choose almost any interest and find something to do.

Next:  Getting to Europe

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