Photos: A European tour

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  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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By Charles Leocha Travel columnist
updated 7/21/2008 7:57:40 PM ET 2008-07-21T23:57:40

Most of my European travels take place between September and May. I rarely fight the high-season summer tourist crowds. But I just sent my niece across to Europe with a Eurailpass to backpack across the continent like I once did.

My, how times have changed.

The old days of hopping on trains at will, arriving in town, searching for a spot in the hostel and visiting museums on a whim are past. Europe today may have places where that is possible, but the hot cities and popular towns are packed, hostels are booked in advance through the Web, trains need reservations, buses are limited and some of the best museums require advanced booking.

Almost every museum, train, bus, hostel or ferry that requires a reservation makes it easy. Just use the Internet and use it about a week in advance. Travelers can make reservations before leaving for their trip if they feel the need to plan ahead or they can chance a reservation around three days in advance if they want more of a loosey goosey approach. But make reservations and plan ahead.

If any of you have read about Americans deciding that travel in Europe is too expensive for their blood, please note that the rest of the world has more than taken up the slack. The continent is packed.

The lesson I just took away from my recent time in Italy, Germany and Spain and making plans together with my niece to visit southern France and Italy was the need to plan ahead. Before the planning phase, make sure that basics, we take for granted are clearly understood — basics like telling time in Europe.

Learn to tell time
I was in the military, so looking at a scheduled departure time of 20:15 tells me that the train is leaving at 8:15 p.m. Unfortunately, many of our teenagers have no concept of what time 20:15 actual is. More than once I have seen teary travelers sitting on the tracks crying because they missed their 20:15 train by arriving at 10:15 p.m. I know it sounds silly, but make sure whenever sending teenagers or college grads for that European adventure that they know how to tell time.

Have a plan
This is a new concept for me. In marketing campaigns, military attacks, weddings and other complex operations, planning ahead is a given. It never was, when I was wandering across Europe in the ’70s and ’80s. I would wake up in the morning and decide what I wanted to see and where I wanted to go and then either head to the museums or get back on the train heading to the next town. Now, during the European crowded summer, plan ahead.

Taking the train? You might need a reservation
Even with a Eurailpass, every train is not available for jumping on and off at will. The superfast trains in Germany, France, Spain and Italy need reservations. Many night trains need reservations. Couchettes and sleeping berths need reservations. Lunch in the dining cars needs reservations. Sitting in the train looking confused and innocent doesn’t help when the conductor passes through checking tickets. The on-board surcharges are stiff. Even many of the regional trains limit passengers to the number of seats on the train. The days of standing on crowded trains is dying in many countries.

Plan ahead if you’re taking the bus
Here in the USA we look at traveling by bus as a Greyhound affair. Movies show passengers getting on and off the buses at will with nary a full bus. In Europe, it is a different story. Buses are relatively luxurious with video entertainment systems and TVs and refreshments. And they are crowded. Make sure to make reservations at least a day in advance to get on the bus you want. If attending any festivals where the normal population is swelled by attendees, plan further ahead.

Warning: ferries fill up fast
Where the land ends and the water starts transport shifts to ferries. These must be booked at least a week ahead of time to insure space. Whether talking about the Genova to Barcelona boat, the Italy to Greece ferry from Brindisi or the ferries across the English Channel, the space is limited and numbers of travelers and cars seem to be growing. Don’t expect to drive to the port and roll your car or rollaboard onto the boat without planning ahead.

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And so do the top museums
Michelangelo’s David, the Uffizi, Villa Borghese, the Alhambra are four of the top sights in Europe that now require advanced reservations. I know there are more. Check ahead of time to see if reservations are required. Especially for the important ones noted above.

Last year when arriving in Florence, the hotel informed me that there were no reservations available for David or the Uffizi for a week. When visiting the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, the palace grounds were sold out for six days. And though there are times that waiting may allow one to get into the museums, it seems a total waste of time to stand in line for half a day when making a reservations a few days earlier would have solved the problem.

Hostels: reservations required
Once upon a time, student travelers got off the trains and wandered over to the nearest youth hostel. There, they waited in line to see if they could get a room. Those who did not find space would find a slightly more expensive room in nearby pensions or small hotels. Travelers who learned the system of arriving early got the rooms and the others had to scramble.

Today the hostel reservation system has met the Internet. Now it is the traveler that plans ahead and makes an early reservation that gets the best hostel spaces. The popular cities like Venice, Nice, Barcelona, Stockholm and Copenhagen get booked up weeks in advance. Some of those who don’t plan are left waiting for no-shows.

Where once it seemed that only Michelin three-star restaurants needed advanced planning to secure a table, Europe today needs reservations far more often than before. As we send our children, nieces and nephews off for their European adventures, make sure to let them know that planning ahead will make all the difference in their travel experience.

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