Deciding to plan a trip can be a stressful, especially if it’s your first time. And figuring out the best ways to travel around Europe can be even more complicated because you’re dealing with several countries and languages, possibly several currencies, and certainly a number of transportation methods.
As a long-time French resident and graduate of many a Europe trip, I’m going to try to untangle things for you and help you figure out how to deal with your travel plan and take off for your Europe holidays with a light heart.
Surprisingly, on a continent that’s known for being expensive, flying is often one of the cheapest ways to travel. Here’s how to make it manageable.
Regular airlines - the British Airways and Air Frances of the world - often have impressive sales and specials that undercut everyone else, even the no-frills airlines.
Usually deals are released once a week so check their websites regularly to be the first one in - the number of low-cost seats is often limited. You can also subscribe to their newsletters and be the first to grab those seats once they’re advertised. (Here are a few more resources for cheap flights in Europe and beyond.)
Sites like Secret Flying and Flynous specialize in cheap flights and error fares (what the name implies: mistakes, although when you buy them the tickets are the same as any other ticket). These are special sites that scrape fares mistakenly published by airlines, which don’t stay on the market for very long. It may be an error fare, but a ticket is a ticket and the one you’ll get will be the same as any ticket you buy online.
Many countries have charter airlines managed by tour companies. The dates of travel are usually rigid but prices can be very low. These are especially useful if you're heading to a resort destination, say a beach on the Mediterranean. Combined with a package deal, you can end up paying less for your entire vacation than for your flight.
These are perhaps the best flight deals in Europe, the EasyJets, the Ryanairs and the Vuelings of Europe. You can actually buy a ticket for $1 and travel across Europe for two hours for that unbelievably low fare. Of course most tickets are more expensive but still, you’ll easily be able to get on flight to pretty much anywhere on the continent for under $50 (as long as you book well ahead of time, of course). These are no-frills airlines and you may have to pay for such things as carry-on bags or hold luggage, but you’ll still be paying very little.
While flying is often the cheapest way to travel around Europe, taking the train is often a lot more fun. Trains have plenty of advantages:
Unfortunately in some countries (Switzerland and the UK are two good examples), taking a train can be far more expensive than flying so if you're a train enthusiast and want to visit one of the more expensive countries for train travel, consider buying a rail pass if you plan to spend any amount of time on the train. (Click here for an in-depth explanation of Eurail passes and how they work.)
If you have the time or the inclination the bus is probably the cheapest way to travel in Europe over long distances. It's not quite as comfortable as the train, nor is it as fast (most times)
The best place to check the various European bus schedules and timetables is on Omio.
For an overview of information and resources on bus travel, have a look at my travel by bus page.
A wonderful way to travel Europe is by renting a car, which can cost a lot less than you think. This type of travel gives you tremendous freedom to explore the continent, its smaller roads and rural corners.
Do watch out for a few things, though:
One of the great things about travel is novelty - trying new things, experiencing different approaches to life, and, why not, new modes of transportation.
There's more to travel than getting from A to B and for many of you, the journey is as important as the destination.
Sometimes, just for fun, why not try something utterly different, offbeat, crazy even? Perhaps for an hour or two, or days on end - turn your transportation method into the actual trip.
This would never have occurred to me had I not come across a woman with a donkey in my own town. Across central France and northern Spain it's not wholly uncommon to see people on a pilgrimage to Santiago pulling their donkey along, and I happen to live on one of the French branches of the Camino. They tend to carry your packs, not you, so don't get your hopes up.
Europe's amazing network of rivers makes it a wonderful place to kayak - just slip in, push away and start paddling. Even near my own home in Eastern France, I'm on the shores of the Rhone River. All I have to do is put my kayak into the water and I could reach the Mediterranean. The only hassle is getting a kayak back to its starting point, or carrying it because they can be heavy. For ease of travel, you could use an inflatable kayak and get rid of the weight problem altogether - and just enjoy the winding rivers of Europe.
Long a favorite in France or the Netherlands, a barge is more for short-term travel simply because it has limitations - it can't go everywhere. But like a kayak, a barge is an ideal way to travel across Europe slowly, taking your time and relaxing. Have a look at Le Boat if you want to explore this further.
Cycling long-distance doesn't really qualify as unusual travel, certainly not in Europe, where pedaling up rugged mountains is a common sight. Jumping on a bike and heading clear across Europe isn't anything unusual and on some roads you'll find more bicycles than you will cars. For a closer look at cycling on the continent, Europe Bicycle Touring has plenty of information.
If sitting for hours on a bicycle isn't your idea of fun, a recumbent bike might be: you get to pedal, but you get to do it semi-lying down with your legs stretched out. Not quite like a nap but an intriguing form of unusual transport, which you can occasionally see on European roads. I've never tried one but they're said to be both faster and more comfy than a regular ride, unless you're climbing. Imagine they're great conversation-starters, too.
Europe has a stunning variety of roads - from gentle curves to terrifying zig-zags. Any Sunday, you'll see (and especially hear) bikes roaring up Europe's roads. If you're wondering where to start, the HUBB motorcycle forum is the most frequented online. Adventure Motorcycle Travel is good for information on European motorcycling, and for something more woman-specific, there's Coyote Trips.
If you were backpacking in the sixties and seventies (and some of us were), you'll remember the ubiquitous Volkswagen vans dotting the Hippie Trail across several continents. They were usually furnished with a foam mattress and little else, as thousands of young people searching for something headed East. Europe is ideal for campervans - you can either use a campground or, in many countries, simply find a pleasant spot to park, and enjoy.
Armed with your knowledge of how to travel Europe, your next step will be deciding where to go.
Of course you’ll have your favorites and they should be at the top of your list, but what about other places to travel in Europe?
If you're into urban travel, here are some great city overviews to inspire your Europe trip itinerary:
These country guides are perfect for solo female travelers:
And finally, if you’d like to travel with a theme, try one of these:
And get ready for an extraordinary trip!