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.
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.