You’ve finally saved enough to go on a 2-week trip to Europe — yay!!!
You don’t want to go on one of those big bus tours where you’re herded around like cattle with 40-60 other tourists.
You could get a travel agency to put together a trip for you but you know it will cost you a pretty penny.
What you really want is to DIY your trip: customize your itinerary to make sure it suits your tastes AND at the same time covers all the must-sees.
But You Just. Don’t. Have. The Time.
Well, you’re in luck. 🙂
In this article, we’re going to teach you the basics of putting together an 11-day European itinerary that will give you the best bang for your buck. We also share tips and other things we learned — sometimes the hard way — on our previous trips to Europe.
And if you want to skip all that and just get a really detailed itinerary — one that you can actually submit to the Embassy when you apply for a Schengen visa — we can give you that too. We’ve put together an 11-day itinerary (14 days in all, including transit) that has flight times, train times, daily schedules, tips, and links to where you can book everything you need to book. If that’s what you want, click HERE.
We break down an $850 11-day tour of France, Switzerland, and Italy — its real costs, pros and cons — and discuss the questions you have to ask before signing up for any tour.
Yesterday, a friend asked me to take a look at a tour he was considering going on later this year. I’m hardly a tour expert but, from experience, I think there are basic questions we need to ask before we decide to take a tour or not.
First, a few points:
On the road, I’ve met people who proudly say they “never do tours” and I think that’s a shame. There are good tours and bad tours, and even good tours have their pros and cons. The trick is to figure out whether a tour’s pros outweigh its cons far enough to make its price worth it. *
I usually go DIY because I have to stick to a certain budget and because when it comes to itineraries, I’m often fiercely independent to a fault. That said, I have loved many of the tours I’ve joined; there is a lot to be gained by listening to a local or an expert. A few favorites come to mind:
The tour with an archaeologist at the Colosseum in Rome — fascinating, plus signing up for a tour gets you through the mile-long lines much more quickly *
The Louvre tour with an art historian a/k/a how the French feel when people go to their museum only to see an Italian work of art 😀 *
The tips-basis walking tour we joined in Munich, learning about the Beer Hall Putsch and the Kristallnacht and standing in a square where Hitler had marshalled his army *
Our Highlands tour with Andrew MacDonald which brought up a lot of surprising parallels between Scotland and the Philippines and touched on a lot of the things that I personally value very much, like freedom and loyalty and family *
* Now back to the topic. 🙂
How to dissect a tour
Below are the basic questions that will help you decide whether a tour is good value or not:
What does the tour include? What doesn’t it include? *
How much does the tour really cost when you add the “hidden” charges? *
What are the tour’s stops? How much time do you spend in each stop? Is the time per stop consistent with your goals for the trip? *
What are the tour’s advantages and disadvantages? *
Given all of the above, is the tour worth it for you? If you don’t take the tour, do you have the time or resources to come up with an alternative itinerary?
What do you do if you’ve got 18 days in Europe and want to see a little bit of everything?
See a little bit of everything!
7 countries, 9 cities in 18 days. (Well, it’s actually 5 countries, 1 city-state, and 1 principality, but the latter two are technically countries, and “7 countries” somehow makes it a bit easier to justify the price of the plane ticket.)
Specifically, this itinerary will take you to France (Paris and Nice), Italy (Rome and Venice), Germany (Munich), the Netherlands (Amsterdam), and Belgium (Brussels, but only for a few hours), plus the Vatican City and Monaco (also only a couple of hours). It definitely won’t let you live like a local — for that, you should spend all 18 days in only 1 or 2 places. Instead, this itinerary is more like taking the tourist bus on your first day in a new place: it lets you get a glimpse of each place of interest, and from those initial glimpses, you can decide where you would like to spend more time next time.
Here’s the 18-day itinerary I followed back in 2014:
General audiences with the Pope are held every Wednesday at St. Peter’s Square.
The January 8 audience, earlier this year, was probably the thing I looked forward to the most during our trip. Not because Pope Francis is one of the most popular men to ascend to the throne of St. Peter; certainly not because I “idolize” him, although I admit I’m a fan. Pope Francis himself is averse to that “mythology” of the Pope and said, quoting Freud, “In every idealization there is an aggression.” Truth be told, I worry that underneath this fascination the world has with the Pope, there is also a bit of watchful waiting — for him to fail. And he will fail in many ways; he’s human, so let’s just get that out of the way. I looked forward to seeing the Pope in person because there are just people who, by virtue of their own character and joyful demeanor, make you want to be a better person. I have friends like that (for which I am thankful); Pope Francis is the same. His presence simply inspires.
But I digress.
To get tickets to the general audience, you can contact the Prefecture of the Papal Household directly, or you can go through the Church of Santa Susanna. The tickets are free.
When obtaining tickets from the Prefecture of the Papal Household, there is a form that you need to fill up and fax. The tickets can be picked up at the Bronze Door (St. Peter’s Square) either on Tuesday (3 PM – 9 PM) or on Wednesday itself (7 AM – 10 AM). This seems to be the most direct, no-frills route but you’ll need access to a fax machine. Instructions | Request Form (PDF) | Request Form (Word) | Update (2/2017): How to Send a Fax Online *
The website of the Church of Santa Susanna contains general information, instructions, and a request form that you can fill up directly online. The tickets are distributed on the Tuesday before the audience at the church office. The ticket is free, and the online request form is very convenient, but you’ll be asked for a donation (any amount) when you pick up the ticket. (You can decline, of course, but it’s a little difficult to do that when you’ve just chatted up the priest and asked him for directions and tips; at any rate, it’s for a good cause.)
Other helpful links:
General Information – http://www.papalaudience.org/
Arrive early if you want to get good seats. For most of us, attending a papal audience will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so there’s no reason not to sacrifice a few hours of sleep in order to arrive at St. Peter’s by 7 AM.
Get seats near the aisles if you can’t get ones in the first few rows. Before the audience starts, the Pope will make his way through the audience and aisle seats will get you as close as you can be.
Lines to get inside St. Peter’s Square from the direction of the Metro can get pretty long pretty fast. If you see that this is the case when you arrive, you can probably get in much quicker by going around to the other side of St. Peter’s Square and joining the shorter queues there.
Anticipation and excitement throbbed through the morning air as we waited for the audience to start. More than that, there was an atmosphere of palpable joy, a sense of kinship and belonging. Strangers exchanged greetings and smiled at each other. An elderly man two seats away literally giggled every minute or so. A young man in glasses and colorful costume stood attentively near the center aisle; with his cherubic face and polite smile, he looked more like a member of a boys’ choir somewhere and not what he actually was: a massively lethal Swiss guard. A cheer rose from the crowd, and then — there he was! Pope Francis! He smiled at everyone and raised his hand in blessing, over and over, over and over. Standing in the sunshine, caught up in the moment, it was hard not to feel happy and humbled and blessed.