The Footloose Traveler - Planning your travel route if you're going by car
If you're a diehard planner with a rental car, there's a good way to find explicit route directions from town to town, as well as accommodations and restaurants along the way. It's called Via Michelin --you enter your starting point and your destination and it'll print out a detailed travel itinerary.
But what does the Footloose traveler do? The footloose traveler finds a way to add variability to the route. I like to go out on "quests." Once, in Italy, we went on one of my typical quests for "the best Sunday lunch outside of the town of Cuneo." We drove a long way; most restaurants we came across were closed or offered a ho-hum menu. We started thinking my quest wasn't likely to pay off. Finally we came across a busy little town in the foothills of the Alps we'd never heard of and were studying a menu at a seafood restaurant when a stranger approached us and mentioned that the restaurant had excellent fish, despite its landlocked location. He also invited us to the bar next door for a drink afterwards. After a fine meal we skipped coffee and went next door--astonished to find a completely authentic Irish bar in this tiny Italian town. It turned out that the man we'd talked to had visited Ireland and had come away fascinated with the typical Irish bar. It was enough of an infatuation that he bought an Italian bar and furnished it with a dazzling array of Irish knickknacks, bar furniture and Irish memorabilia--and he liked talking to English speakers to brush up on his language skills. After waving off the charges as we tried to pay, he mentioned a local mountain music festival up in the hills--so off we headed to spend much of the afternoon listening and dancing to local music. But the deliciously unplanned day wasn't over. After the festival we stopped for a coffee in the same town--which turned out to be the birthplace of the artist who illustrated Pinocchio--and spent the early evening walking around, looking at the Pinocchio illustrations painted on many of the houses.
You never know what's going to happen when you just get in the car and drive.
Planning your travel route - traveling by train
The extensive European train network offers the flexible traveler many options. Still, it's amazing to me how many people struggle to try various means of reserving every leg of their journey in Europe well before they get there. Except for reserving seats on the Chunnel Train that would take me from my London airport to my starting point in Paris, I never have reserved a train from the US. (And even then, it turns out, had I not reserved I could have bought tickets on a far more desirable earlier train.) Despite an increasing number of trains that require seat reservations, I've always been able to get where I wanted to go by just walking up to the train station and making reservations.
The advantages of waiting until you're in Europe to make your train reservations are:
- You'll see all the trains, all the times and all the stops listed on the schedules (internet listings can be incomplete). You can decide to stop over at an interesting sounding place, or change your destination completely when you've found a place better suited to your travel goals.
- You can stay as long as you wish at your current destination , and when you've sampled that particular city's charms you can move on.
- You can take advantage of special fares that aren't offered online. For example, this summer we took a train from Nuremberg to Munich on a special fare of $22 that would have allowed up to five people and a dog (!) to travel on the same ticket. The normal fare for two people on a slightly faster train would have been $76.
Hints for easier train travel:
- If you need help with planning a complicated route, or have a question about fares, go to the train information window. Don't hold up other travelers by asking your questions at the ticket window at large stations where an information window exists--you'll save yourself plenty of hassles and the commuters in line won't have to cuss at you in their language for holding them up.
- When you get into a station, find the departing train schedules (see the slide show of pictures on the upper right) and plan the next leg of your trip, making reservations if you're only planning to stay only a night or so.
- On local routes, many tickets are valid for a long period of time until used. You must remember to validate these tickets before you board the train, using a machine you'll find near the tracks.
For more European Train Tips--see Top Ten Tips for Traveling Europe by Train.
I hope I've given you enough information so that you can feel confident about getting around Europe with a reasonably flexible travel plan. Being ready for any unexpected diversion has plenty of merits.