This summer we took our first European family vacation ever. A couple of us had been to Europe before — me for business, and our daughter had been living in Holland for the last year. But this was our first trip as a family (mom, dad and two adult kids).
20 years ago doing such a trip would have required a travel agent. But today — thanks to the power of the web — you can do everything yourself. Research, plan, book. But it can be overwhelming. There are many details to think about and vast oceans of information and opinion to wade through.
As often is the case when learning about things, it often helps to start with an example. So that’s why I’m doing this posting. I’m going to present our European Trip Itinerary as an example of a European trip. I’m not saying it’s a perfect (or even great). But I think it’s helpful to provide an example and then expand on some of the details and things we learned. Hopefully you find it useful.
Our first decision was how long. One week seemed too short. Three weeks too long. So we decided on two weeks.
As to when: that was pretty much a given for us. We decided to meet up with our daughter at the end of her one year of work as an au pair (in Holland) and bring her back home with us. That meant the last week of July and first week of August. If you research the best time to visit Europe you will quickly find that the middle of summer is not it! It’s hot. It’s crowded. It’s high season. But we decided to go then anyway. And, BTW, it was hot and crowded, but it was OK.
Where to Go
We settled on Holland, Florence, Rome and London. Holland was a given since our daughter was living there. Florence and Rome because none of us had been to Italy and it’s my home country. And London because we’ve always wanted to visit. Turns out that’s a lot to see in two weeks, and the London diversion was expensive. But at least we can now say we’ve been to London!
OK, here it is. It’s presented in outline form including all of our transportation, hotels, flights, etc. It is then followed with additional details, tips, lessons learned, etc.
Day 1: Sat 26 July: London
- 7:20am Arrive London Heathrow. LHR-T3
- Hotel: The Windermere Hotel, 142-144 Warwick Way, London
- Walk by Buckingham Palace and get glimpse of changing of the guards through the mass of humanity
- Noon: Pick up London Pass: 11a Charing Cross Road
- Churchill War Rooms
Day 2: Sun 27 July: London
Day 3: Mon 28 July: London/Florence
- Walk by Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament
- 10:00am London Eye
- 6:25pm LGW-TN to FLR: VY 6205 – Vueling Airlines (9:25pm, +1)
- 9:25pm Taxi (EUR 30) Florence Peretola airport to hotel
- Hotel: Hotel Panorama, Via Cavour, 60 Florence FI 50129
- 11pm Meet daughter on Via Nazionale!
Day 4: Tue 29 July: Florence
Day 5: Wed 30 July: Florence
- 9:30 Accademia di Firenze, 58–60 via Ricasoli
- Mercato San Lorenzo (shopping, leather)
- Santa Maria Novella
- Evening walk, symphony concert at Piazza Della Signoria
Day 6: Thu 31 July: Florence/Rome
- 9:30am Santa Croce (Michaelangelo and Galileo tombs)
- Oldest Gelato Bar in Florence
- 2:30pm Walk hotel to train station
- 4:04pm Train Florence S. M. Novella To Rome Termini (Trenitalia)
- 5:35pm: Arrive Rome Termini. Metro: Termini to Lepanto (A Line Battistini)
- Walk Lepanto station to Hotel
- Hotel: Isa Design Hotel, Via Cicerone 39, Roma
Day 7: Fri 01 August: Rome
- Morning: Sleep in. Walk around Castle D. Santo, buy groceries
- Metro to Piazza Barberini
- 3:00pm Piazza Barberini: Small group driving tour
Day 8: Sat 02 August: Rome
Day 9: Sun 03 August: Rome
Day 10: Mon, 04 August Rome/Amsterdam
- Taxi: hotel to Rome Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci airport FCO-T3)
- Flight: 2:00pm FCO-T3 to AMS-T3: VU 6294 – Vueling Airlines (4:25pm)
- Car Rental: Enterprise (in terminal). Reservations made in advance.
- Self drive Schiphol (AMS) to Doorn
- Hotel: RCN Het Gote Bos, Doorn, Utrecht
Day 11: Tue 05 August: Driebergen
- Rent bikes, ride to Train station
- Train to Utrecht
Day 12: Wed 06 August: Driebergen
Day 13: Thu 07 August: Driebergen/Amsterdam
- 05:00pm Drive to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, drop off rental car
- Hotel: Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, Schiphol Boulevard 701, Schiphol, 1118 BN
Day 14: Fri 08 August: Amsterdam
- 9:00am Train from Schiphol to Amsterdam
Day 15: Sat, 09 August Amsterdam
- 9:50am AMS to SFO: KL 605 – KLM Royal Dutch (11:45am, -9)
Tips and Details
Lots of resources on the web about packing for a trip to Europe. They all recommend the same thing: pack light. You’ll notice in the itinerary a lot of walking in Transport
entries. To and from bus, train and metro stations. The less and lighter the luggage the better. A a couple good quotes from Rick Steve’s (Packing Smart
“You can’t travel heavy, happy, and cheap. Pick two.”
“Don’t pack for the worst-case scenario. Pack for the best-case scenario and simply buy yourself out of any jams. “
One of the niggling details of planning a trip like this are the minor transportation issues. How to get to and from the hotel and airport. How to get around town. I’ve tried to capture some of this in the itinerary and here are some details from our experiences. You’ll notice this all involves walking and schlepping luggage. Pack light!
- National Express Bus from Heathrow to London
- This was great and cheap. We purchased the tickets in advance and paid an extra 5 pounds for the flexible ticket (plus or minus 12 hours). We arrived in Heathrow, went through immigration, picked up our luggage, walked to the Central Bus Station, checked in with National Express, walked out to where the buses arrive and waited for a bus that said London / Victoria Station. Driver loaded our luggage and we relaxed during the 1 hour drive to the Victoria Station Coach station which was an easy walk to our hotel.
- Gatwick Express from Victoria Train Station to Gatwick Airport.
- For our hopper flight to Florence we needed to get to Gatwick Airport. The Gatwick Express is an express train from Victoria Station to Gatwick. We bought the tickets in advance (print at home option) which gave us a redemption code. In the train station they have lines on the floor that guide you to the Gatwick express platform and there are redemption kiosks where you get your tickets. You need the redemption code and the credit card you used to make the purchase to claim your tickets. There is then clear signage and you just walk onto the correct platform. Each train car has a luggage rack for you to stow your luggage and then you relax for the 30 minute trip. Trains departed every 15 minutes or so and you can catch any one. It was fast and convenient.
- Trenitalia from Florence to Rome
- This was our first experience riding a bullet train and it was fantastic! We purchased tickets in advance and opted for First Class (it may have been called business class). The cost to upgrade wasn’t much and it was well worth it. You have a little more luggage room and more room in general. The train ride was fast, quiet and very comfortable. Better than flying in every way!
- Rome metro from Termini train station to Hotel
- We road the metro from Rome Termini (the train station) to our hotel. It was no problem. You buy tickets at ticket machines. We typically just bought the BIT ticket, which is one way and good for a set period of time. The Rome metro has only two lines (A and B). Just know which line you want and which direction (usually indicated by the final stop on that line). Our hotel was in walking distance of the Lepano station on the A line, and we road the metro a few times in Rome.
As you can see, we did a fair amount of walking to and from train and metro stations with our luggage. It’s no big deal as long as you have your roller and a small carry on. And, unlike many cities here in the states, there are lots of people walking around with their luggage!
First a couple definitions:
- Swipe and signature: The kind of credit card we’ve been using in the USA forever. You swipe the card in a reader which reads the magnetic strip, then you sign something to verify your identity
- Chip and Signature: Like swipe and signature except the card also has an internal chip with metal contacts visible on the outside of the card. Instead of swiping you insert the card into the reader, and then sign. Many newer cards in the USA are coming with chips and support chip and signature. These cards also have swipe strips, so they can be used as normal swipe and signature too.
- Chip and PIN: Like chip and signature except you enter a pin number instead of signing. The pin number comes with the card and is not changeable. As of this writing almost no USA credit cards support Chip and PIN. It is very common in Europe. These cards also have a magnetic strip, so they can be used as a swipe and signature too.
Before we left we applied for the Andrews Federal Credit Union GlobeTrek Rewards card (now replaced by their standard Visa Platinum Rewards card which comes with Chip and PIN). It has no annual fee, no foreign transaction fee and is one of the only USA cards to support Chip and PIN. To get the card we had to open an AFCU account and fill out a loan application. A bit of a hassle.
Why would you want chip and PIN? In Europe most unattended kiosks (train tickets, gas stations, etc) require chip and pin cards. If you don’t have one you need to find an alternative (cash or find an attendant).
Is it worth the hassle to get one? For us, it was. None of our cards had a chip, and they all had foreign transaction fees. So we decided to go Full Monty and get the chip and PIN. If you already have a chip card with no transaction fees then it’s probably not worth the hassle of getting the Andrews card. Here are some details of our experiences with credit cards in the cities we visited (remember, this was in summer 2014 — things do change!):
- London, Florence, Rome
- This is prime tourist country, so all merchants we encountered accepted swipe and signature.
- We used our chip and PIN card, but were always prompted for a signature (turns out the Andrews card defaults to signature).
- All the card readers we saw also had swipe slots, and they are use to American tourists. So we really didn’t need a chip card in these cities.
- The Netherlands
- None of the merchants we encountered accepted swipe. All the terminals had the swipe slots blocked out, so you had to have a chip card.
- Some merchants (grocery stores) only accepted debit cards (like Maestro). In those cases we used cash.
- Most merchants that accepted credit cards processed ours as chip and signature
- The exceptions were at two self service kiosks where we were prompted for our PIN: a self service McDonald’s kiosk (Big Mac attack!) and an unattended Shell gas station. It was a relief that the card worked at the gas station since there wasn’t an attendant in sight!
So in summary, you want a credit card that:
- Has no foreign transaction fees
- Has a chip
As of our visit chip and PIN is not necessary, but it can come in handy. I would have had to scramble to find an attended gas station to fill up our rental car in Holland if I hadn’t had the chip and PIN card. Also, this landscape is changing. The large credit card breaches at Target, Home Depot and other merchants have accelerated the issuing of chip cards here in the states, and there is even talk of moving to chip and PIN. And other countries may starting joining the Netherlands in no longer accepting swipe cards. So you might want to do some research before you go.
Some tips about cash:
- You don’t need to bring euros (or pounds) with you. Just hit an ATM at the airport when you arrive.
- The ATM card from our credit union worked fine in most ATMs.
- Do not use the currency exchange counters in the airport unless you are just converting a few dollars (bad exchange rates).
- Always do transactions in local currency. Never accept an offer by a merchant to convert to dollars for you. You’ll get a poor exchange rate plus they may charge you a fee for the privilege. We made this mistake in a Nike store in London where we were rushed and let our guard down.
- That goes for ATMs too. If the ATM offers to convert the transactions to dollars for you say no. Do the transaction in the local currency and let your bank do the currency conversion.
- We Americans tend to view change as a nuisance since our pockets fill with pennies and nickles. But euro coins are valuable! Remember, there is no one euro note. It’s a coin — and there is a two euro coin. And many countries round to the nearest five cents. So that pocket of change adds up to real money fast. Spend it!
Eating On a Budget
I tend to look at food as an inconvenient necessity when traveling. I want to do and see things. Sitting for two hours and emptying my wallet in a nice restaurant is not high on my priority list. That said, I do enjoy good food and good cocktails. And I made sure to treat myself to a Negroni
once in a while.
Eating in Europe is expensive, but there are some things you can do to keep the cost down. Note, if you love dining then by all means enjoy yourself! But if you want to save some cash here are some things that worked for us:
- Stay at a hotel that includes breakfast
- All of our hotels (except for in Holland where we had a kitchen or were staying at the airport) included breakfast and they all were excellent. This not only avoids you having to buy breakfast, but you can pile on the calories in the morning which means you can have a lighter or later lunch. Do not leave your hotel hungry!
- Buy groceries
- Ask your hotel desk where the nearest grocery is. In Rome we had a couple Carrefours near the hotel. In Florence we went to the market at Mercato San Lorenzo and a local deli. In Holland we went to Lidl and Albert Heijn.
- Bread, salami, cheese, apples, sparkling water and vino makes for a great inexpensive lunch that you can eat when relaxing at your hotel or in a park.
- Order off the Primo menu it Italy
- The traditional Italian restaurant has 4 courses. Antipasti, Primo, Secondo, Dolce. If you always ate all courses you’d be broke and rotund.
- We almost always ordered Primo pasta courses plus a couple of salads and some drinks. It was plenty of food and saved a bundle over ordering entrees off the Secondo course.
- Walk up counters cost less than table service
- Watch your tipping
- Almost all of our table service bills also included a service charge (so no tipping then).
- Even if you don’t have a service charge, tipping in Europe is more modest than in the states. There are lots of articles about this on the web so do a little research before you go.
- If you don’t want the bread decline it. In Italy it is usually not free.
- Refill your water bottles at those public mini fountains
- In Florence and Rome you’ll see water flowing from open spigots all over. The water is cool, clean and free! We kept our plastic water bottles and refilled them. Never had any problems. It always seemed strange that in a city where water is flowing freely in the streets they charge for water in the restaurants.
We heard some horror stories about the gypsies in Rome, but we had no problems. Just use common sense. My wife carried one of those travel purses that snapped shut and had a cable running through the strap. I used a money belt under my shirt. My backpack had the zipper fobs clipped together with an S clip from REI. And we were observant. No problems and never felt unsafe.
Tours and Tickets
We are planners and like to have all details taken care of in advance. That means we pretty much bought all tickets — both transportation and attractions — beforehand. For London we got the London Pass which we broke even on (even with our short stay) and it let us line hop at the Tower of London (and the line there was huge). Benefits to purchasing tickets in advance:
- Can (sometimes) save money
- Avoid lines
- Avoid disappointment of things being sold out
- Peace of mind
On the other hand, there is a downside. Many tickets — whether transportation or entrance to something — are for a specific time. Sometimes you can buy a little flexibility but not always. That means if you have a significant change of plans (illness, flight problems) your tickets might become worthless.
In our case things worked out great. We pre-bought almost everything, and we only had one hiccup that was not that costly of a mistake.
In London and Florence we arranged and toured on our own. But my wife convinced me that for Rome we really wanted some organized tours. There is a lot to see in Rome, and we knew it was going to be very hot and very crowded (and it was). So we booked the 3 Small Group Tour Combo from The Roman Guy. We were sooo thankful we did. The company was fantastic to deal with, and the tour guides were terrific: friendly, knowledgeable and entertaining. It was a splurge — but well worth it.
For our hotels we tried to get decent bang for the buck. We also did our best to avoid getting two rooms for the four of us. To summarize:
- The Windermere Hotel, 142-144 Warwick Way, London
- Terrific little hotel in the Westminster area. Walking distance from Victoria Station and many sites, good WiFi, great A/C, excellent free breakfast. The breakfast was a continental breakfast plus sit down order off a menu. I had a poached egg, beans and fried tomato each morning. It was great! In London it was three of us so we had a room with two doubles. Clean, comfortable. We liked it a lot.
- Hotel Panorama, Via Cavour, 60 Florence FI 50129
- Good bang for the buck. Clean and comfortable, plus we were able to get a quad room (a queen plus two single beds). This is an older hotel with character. It’s not luxurious. And some things were in a little disrepair. WiFi was flaky, A/C not so great. But the breakfast was an excellent little buffet with fantastic views from an enclosed terrace, and the staff was helpful and friendly. And the price was reasonable. Location is right near the Accademia which was great.
- Isa Design Hotel, Via Cicerone 39, Roma
- This was a splurge hotel. We had booked a family room (quad) but was given two adjacent rooms instead. Works for us! More luxurious than our other hotels. A/C was fantastic. WiFi was flaky. Breakfast was stupendous on a fabulous terrace with a view of St. Peters. Location was near the Vatican and an easy walk to the Lepanto Metro stop. A little pricey but not outrageous.
- RCN Het Gote Bos, Doorn, Utrecht, +31 (0)343 513 644
- This is a large developed campground (think giant KOA) that also has cottages. We stayed in a caravan cottage. It was reasonable and it was nice having our own kitchen and we are able to do laundry but it was an adjustment after staying at the Isa Design in Rome! On the plus side we were able to rent bikes there and the location was very good for us (it was near my daughter’s host family). But it was a bit more primitive than the hotels we had been staying at — so it was a change of pace. Some of the family liked it, others not so much!
- Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, Schiphol Boulevard 701, Schiphol, 1118 BN
- This was booked for convenience because it was at the airport and we had a morning flight. But it worked out great, and was clean and comfortable like you would expect from a Hilton. But no free WiFi and no free breakfast.
We booked our hotels in London and Italy using Expedia and it worked out AOK. We prepaid for the ones in Italy, but not London. Both ways worked fine.
Tour Books and Maps
- We got the Streetwise maps for London, Florence and Rome…and did not use them. We actually preferred the tourist maps we got at the various hotel front desks. They were clearer, you could write on them, they folded up and fit in a shirt pocket.
- For tour books we had Fodor’s 25 Best for Florence and Rome and Fodor’s See It for London. The 25 Best books were OK for quick info, but the “See It” book was more comprehensive and I would recommend that series of books over the 25 Best. They both had pretty good maps — another reason not to bother with Streetwise
- My brother recommended some iPad apps for Rome and Florence. He was a big fan. We didn’t use them.
iPhones and iPads
- Unlock any phones you can before you leave. For example, my son’s iPhone with AT&T qualified to be unlocked so he did that before we left. This gave us the flexibility of using a European sim in it if we chose to (and we did).
- Turn off roaming to avoid accidental charges.
- Turn on roaming for making an occasional important call. We did that once when meeting up with our daughter in Florence.
- Data only sims are available. I hear you can get cheap ones at tobacco shops in Italy. We didn’t, but we did get a data sim in Holland at some small wireless shop. Cost us 20 euro and it worked in my son’s unlocked iPhone and my wife’s iPad.
Italian was the main concern for us, but it really wasn’t a problem. In high tourist areas English is understood by many (and certainly by anybody who deals with tourist on a regular basis). When it isn’t, a pleasant attitude and gestures usually works well enough. That said we noticed being polite and pleasant goes a long way with the locals so if you go to Italy do learn at least these phrases:
- Buon giorno (good morning and day)
- Buona sera (good evening (after 4pm or so))
- Grazie (thank you)
- Per favore (please)
- Scusi (excuse me — to get somebodies attention)
- Arrivederci (goodbye)
- Ciao (Hi/By informal)
- Quanto (how much)
So a typical interaction with a shop owner is simple, you walk in:
You (smiling): Buon giorno!
They: Buon giorno
You look around and conduct business and go to leave…
You: Grazie. Arrivederci!
They: Arrivederci! Ciao!
We noticed the shop keepers seemed to appreciate the effort.
OK, so that’s it. We had a great time. It was exhausting at times, but a fantastic experience. Make sure to give yourself some down time most days. In Rome we had a couple days where we slept in a bit. In Florence we had one afternoon where we crashed at the hotel for a siesta and then went out at night for a beautiful walk and late dinner (like the locals!).
Another tip from my daughter. When the family starts to get “hangry” (hungry plus angry usually combined with tired) notice it, acknowledge it, and take a break.
And most importantly relax, pace yourself, and try your best to have a sense of humor when things don’t go exactly as planned!