Euro Trip 2019 Planning
Euro Trip 2019 Planning: Where to go?
This is the time of year as I plan travels in the coming months that my thoughts turn toward Europe and strolls along the Seine or dining at a sidewalk café in a charming Italian town. Thanks to points and miles (and a good day job!), my wife and I have been blessed to take an annual trip to Europe, something we plan to continue in 2019. I have written previously about my approach to travel planning, but this year’s trip is different in a few ways which makes the planning process different as well. In fact, I encountered challenges I did not expect. In the previous article in this series, I wrote about having a blank slate for this year’s journey and selecting our transatlantic flights. Today’s installment focuses on where we should go once in Europe.
Ensuring that we have a rich experience
When in Europe (and, to a certain degree, anywhere), I prefer to visit locales that are geographically or culturally close or that are linked by a common theme. If the regions are far apart or very unalike, a trip starts to trade depth in these regions for breadth in the number of destinations. I have learned that this reduces the quality of my travel experience. That is not to say that I want to spend two weeks in a single city - I visit Europe too infrequently to justify that much depth - but I do not want to merely “blitz” through a region. Doing so not only limits the time in a town but also requires a greater portion of the trip be devoted to airports, airplanes and trains (regardless of how much I love traveling on European trains!).
My previous trips to Europe have lasted approximately two weeks, This time we will be going for just over a week. You would think planning a weeklong journey would be easier. One week naturally limits the number of destinations which helps tamp down my urge to “blitz”. What I did not expect, however, was that the number of possible destinations actually increased.
Europe features many good one-week itineraries
The groupings of cities that provide depth and that can be visited in one week are more numerous than the combinations that can fill two weeks. This initially seemed counterintuitive but, when I stopped to think about it, the logic soon became apparent. At the outset of my planning, my expectation was less nuanced: “I only have to plan eight days rather than fourteen. This is going to quicker and easier.” In fact, given the number of one-week alternatives, I felt overwhelmed by the travel outline to sketch on my blank canvas. This turned out to be far more challenging than filling in that sketch with specific trains or hotels.
There were a large number of one-week options in play. I struggle when faced with a broad array of choices - I prefer to choose from a smaller set. I think some of that stems from my desire to optimize any choice I make; that requires assessing many alternatives.
The conversation with myself went something like this:
Me 1: I would love to see Prague, Vienna and Budapest. I think that could work in a week!
Me 2: But…I would hate to miss a chance to finally go to Switzerland.
Me 3: But…for the dates we are traveling, maybe something a little warmer would be a good choice. Southern Spain or Portugal, perhaps?
Me 1: Those are all great ideas! I wish we had two weeks!
Fortunately, I did have a few parameters that served to narrow the pool of possibilities.
First, I knew we needed to be able to get from our gateway airport - Brussels - to our first port of call without much difficulty. Next, I wanted a different experience from last year’s trip which included four days in Norway; that eliminated anywhere in Scandinavia. Finally, I was hoping to take in a few Christmas markets, so cities that had at least a good, if not great, market were given more weight.
I didn’t prepare detailed daily itineraries at this stage, but I did take a peak at train and airline schedules to confirm trip ideas were logistically reasonable. Also, because I wanted to get as many hotel nights on points as possible, I did a cursory search for hotel award availability.
After a fair amount of effort I arrived at a shortlist of five itineraries:
Prague, Czech Republic/Vienna, Austria/Budapest, Hungary
Milan, Italy/Zurich & Lucerne, Switzerland/Colmar & Strasbourg, France
Seville, Spain/Córdoba, Spain/Faro, Portugal/Lisbon, Portugal
Brussels & Bruges, Belgium/The Netherlands: Amsterdam & and other cities
With this list in hand, I could scrutinize the details of each of these itineraries.
Last summer, Rick Steves posted several vlogs from Vienna while researching his eponymous guidebook. Seeing him relaxing in a Viennese coffee shop vaulted the city to the top of my “See Next” list.
Prague has long fascinated me as a classic Central European city formerly behind the Iron Curtain, and my sister offered a good review of Budapest after her visit a few years ago. All together, these considerations initially made a Prague/Vienna/Budapest combo my first choice. Travel times via rail between Prague and Vienna and onto Budapest were reasonable. Unfortunately, the availability of intra-European flights from Brussels to either Prague or Budapest (starting in Vienna, which is geographically the middle of the three cities, made no sense) was a problem.
I had two options for Brussels-Prague flights. We will be arriving in Brussels around 8:30 AM, so I had the choice between a very tight 40-minute connection, or a seven-plus hour layover. Flying to Budapest had similar options. None of these were attractive.
The afternoon flight would provide enough time for a quick visit to the Brussels city center. However, having taken the same ATL-BRU flight the last two years, taking a day out of a shorter trip to again explore central Brussels did not appeal to me nor would make up for losing a precious day of exploring in Prague or Budapest. While I did not immediately eliminate Prague/Vienna/Budapest, the flight situation made this trip decidedly less likely.
Milan, Italy/Zurich & Lucerne, Switzerland/Colmar & Strasbourg, France
Also high on my “Places to Visit” list is Switzerland. For four years, I have tried to work the country into trips but other options always pushed to the fore for one reason or another. Part of the country’s appeal to me is my love of trains. A YouTube video of a scenic rail trip to St. Moritz left me knowing I must have a similar experience someday!
Referring to Rick Steves’s suggested itinerary I quickly realized that I could not do my dream Swiss trip in only a week: that would require one of those two-week journeys. Though there were numerous scenic rail options, all had logistical issues. Furthermore, there were just too many interesting cities and towns in the country. As I studied the map, I wondered if I could do a single region - and include at least one train adventure - without resorting to “blitzing.” After some basic research on the train routes, I soon realized that the Bernina Express would tick off a lot of boxes. It follows much of the route in the above video, including a landmark I desperately want to see: the Landwasser Viaduct. Also, this would not have to be a "trip to nowhere.” The Bernina Express could be a legitimate, though indirect, link between Zurich and Milan, Italy. It would take a full day, but given that the day would be more about panoramic scenery than basic transportation, I was pretty sure my wife, whose passion for riding the rails is non-existent, would enjoy the trip. I became excited because I felt I was onto something!
Milan could be a realistic - and very appealing - starting point for our travels. The northern Italian city did not make the itinerary for our Italian Adventure vacation in 2017, though the city has a lot to offer. Two days in Milan, a day on the Bernina Express, two days in Zurich with a few hours in Lucerne…this was starting to take shape. Learning that a short train ride from Zurich would have us in Strasbourg, France added to my buzz. There we could visit the acclaimed Strasbourg Cathedral and experience one of the best Christmas markets in Europe. After two days in Strasbourg and nearby Colmar, another recommendation from my sister, we could be in Paris in a few hours via a TGV high speed train. Since we are flying home from Paris, this would avoid a second intra-European flight - a big plus. Furthermore, as they say, “Paris is always a good idea!” It would especially be a good idea since I want to see how the city decorates for Christmas. The itinerary packs in a lot, featuring experiences that are really exciting and very doable in just over a week. All of a sudden an Italian-Swiss-Franco Adventure jumped to the top of the heap!
Spain & Portugal
Due to close proximity and overlapping destinations, I will discuss the two Iberian trips together. The biggest difference between the two is that one starts in Madrid and ends in the south of Spain, while the other starts in the south of Spain and ends in Portugal. Both would include Seville and Córdoba.
Spain made the list for a few reasons. First, we enjoyed our visit there in 2016, especially Segovia, and we are eager to visit more smaller Spanish cities, especially in the south. Also, given the time of year when we would be visiting, Spain promises a little more warmth than countries further north. Higher temps were not a must because I do want to experience Europe in cold (or at least very cool) weather. In addition, a former work colleague visited Portugal a few years and it sounds like a wonderful place to visit.
As I considered these destinations, a thought keep bouncing around in my head that splitting the Iberian peninsula into two one-week trips is less “efficient.” than splitting Switzerland. Obviously, Switzerland is very centrally located, surrounded by Italy, France, Germany, and Austria. A week there could easily be paired with a week in a neighboring country. Spain and Portugal, in the southwest corner of Europe, pair well only mainly with…each other. To split the country into two trips would mean either another one-week vacation in the future - not ideal - or pairing a second week in Spain with a tip to an unrelated part of the continent which is undesirable. I suppose I could follow the lead of my former colleague and visit Morocco but I suspect (update: confirmed!) that possibility would be a tough sell to my wife, and, to be honest, northwest Africa is not high on my list either.
Another difficulty would be travel logistics. Toledo is the city we most want to visit, using Madrid as our arrival gateway. While Madrid is a perfectly charming city, we felt we had a fairly complete experience there in 2016. I was hesitant to devote another day to the Spanish capital given our short timeframe. Also, the high speed train routes to Toledo appear to require backtracking through Madrid rather than continuing south to Andalucía. This would translate to more time devoted to getting around rather than experiencing the country.
If we did start in Seville, there were no non-stop flights there from Brussels which would mean a long day of connecting flights. For a vacation in southern Spain, flying directly to Madrid from the U.S., as we did in 2016, is a better choice, especially in Iberia’s excellent business class. All together and given the very attractive Italian-Swiss alternative, I concluded that visiting Spain this year would be trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
Belgium & Netherlands
To be honest, Belgium and the Netherlands was a fallback option. It’s not that I do not want to visit those countries - I definitely do, but I did not get a big charge of excitement when I added them to the list. Some of that is because I am less familiar with the region than other parts of Europe. Off the top of my head I can list more things to experience in France, Spain or Italy than I realistically could even if I had an entire month in Europe. For the Benelux nations, aside from Brussels - been there, done that - and Amsterdam, I do not start with well-formed idea of what to do. Even in Amsterdam, I can only dimly think of a major art museum - the Rijksmuseum, and I had to look up the name! - along scenic canals. I am sure there are plenty of other things Belgium and the Netherlands have to offer outside of the two capital cities. All that being said, the only research I did for this possible trip was, leveraging the Rick Steves suggested itinerary, develop a rough daily schedule of cities easily connected by rail. After all, at that point, I think I had enough information to realize that one of the other more exciting options would be our final choice.
Final decision: Italy, Switzerland and France!
If you have not already guessed, our final decision was Italy, Switzerland and France! Yes, Italy and France are countries we have already visited, but, aside from Paris (which I have managed to hit, at least for a night, on every trip to Europe so far!) we will be breaking new ground. Even since the initial decision was made, further discussions with my wife about places we may see have revealed a level of excitement in her that confirms that we made the right decision.
We will fly into Milan after arriving in Brussels from Atlanta.
After our arrival day and a second day, we will board the Bernina Express for a scenic rail journey to Zurich. Two days there may also include Lucerne and, perhaps, Bern. Next, we will have two days in Strasbourg and Colmar in the Alsace region of France. We will conclude our trip with two nights in the always magical city of lights, Paris. From there, we will fly home in United Airlines Polaris business class.
While I was not thrilled when we decided to limit this year’s European vacation to two weeks, I must admit that I may be more excited about this trip than most I have taken. While it was frustrating at first, having a blank canvas in retrospect brought a thrilling sense of exploration. Now, with a rough outline sketched, the next step was to start coloring in the lines by making the various reservations that will make up the bones of our vacation. I will talk about those initial efforts in the next installment of this series.