Fast Facts: Western Europe

WHAT WE DID:

  • Traveled for 39 days around Western Europe.
  • Stayed primarily in rooms (self-contained unit) booked through AirBnB. In Munich, we stayed with our generous friends who we met traveling several years ago.
  • Our basic itinerary:
    • Transit – bus (DB) from Ljubljana, Slovenia to Munich, Germany
    • Munich (5 nights)
    • Transit – bus (Flixbus) from Munich to Bolzano, Italy; local bus from Bolzano to Ortiesi (Val Gardena, Dolomiti National Park)
    • Ortiesi (4 nights)
    • Transit – local bus from Ortiesi to Bolzano; bus (Flixbus) from Bolzano to Florence
    • Florence (2 nights)
    • Transit – carpooled with the family from Florence to Tuscany (Chiusure)
    • Tuscany (6 nights)
    • Transit – train (Trenitalia) from Asciano (Tuscany) to Rome
    • Rome (5 nights)
    • Transit – train (Italo) from Rome to Milan
    • Milan (1 night)
    • Transit – train (SBB) from Milan to Brig, Switzerland; train (Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn) from Brig to Zermatt, Switzerland
    • Zermatt (5 nights)
    • Transit – train (Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn) from Zermatt to Visp, Switzerland; train (SBB) from Visp to Lausanne; train (TGV Lyria) from Lausanne to Paris, France
    • Paris (5 nights)
    • Transit – bus (Flixbus) from Paris to Ghent, Belgium
    • Ghent (4 nights)
    • Transit – train (SNCB) from Ghent to Brussels; bus (Flixbus) from Brussels to Amsterdam, Netherlands
    • Amsterdam (4 nights)
    • Transit – bus (Flixbus) from Amsterdam to Brussels, Belgium
    • Brussels (4 nights)
    • Transit – train (Eurostar, Channel Tunnel) from Brussels to London

 

WHAT WE LIKED:

  • Italy’s fast trains are just wonderful! To save money, we’d primarily bussed around all of Europe and Asia, occasionally taking much slower trains. Our first high-speed express train in Italy made us feel like a couple of millionaires – beautiful, comfortable, spotless trains, complimentary snacks and beverages akin to airline service, and electrical outlets so we could work on photos. Not to mention blazing through the countryside at 300 km/hr (190 miles/hr)… quite the upgrade from the Mekong River slow boat from northern Thailand to north-central Laos. Three-hour ground transit from Rome to Milan kicks ass.
  • Amendment to above bullet point: all of Europe’s high-speed trains are great. Definitely a luxury compared to our previous travel. It is worth noting, though, the busses are often still significantly cheaper than trains in Europe (and really quite comfortable); thus, we continued to do quite a bit of bus travel to save money.
  • The pici pasta in Tuscany is out of this world. Made with only flour and water, I found the traditional Tuscan preparation to be far superior to Italy’s more typical pasta (prepared with eggs, flour, and water).
  • The Paris Metro is fantastic! I think the most we waited at any station was 5 minutes (and we used six or seven of the lines). The longest potential wait seemed to be 8 minutes at a few stations, but at most stations the train ran every 1 to 3 minutes. Tip: If you know you’ll be frequenting the metro, buy a bulk pack of tickets in advance. The price per trip is 1.90 € if purchasing a single ticket, while a pack of 10 tickets is 14.50 €, shaving nearly half a Euro off every trip. We saved around $5-7 USD each over the course of the week this way.

 

WHAT WE’D CHANGE:

  • We adored both Rome and Zermatt! If we had more days in the Schengen Area (we were running severely low at this point), we would have stayed significantly longer in both places. We definitely hope to return to both cities someday!

 

WHAT WE LEARNED:

  • Italy enforces a ‘tourist tax’ which costs 2.50 € per day per person (be prepared when you see the amount tacked on to the bill for your accommodations).
  • Florence = wicked expensive. Most of the tourist attractions came with a pretty hefty price tag – 15 € for the Duomo (combo ticket), 23 € for the Uffizi Museum (includes a 6.50 € service charge), 13.75 € for the Boboli Gardens (again, probably not too bad if you’re on a week-long holiday, but prohibitive for long-term travelers). The combo ticket for the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, & the Forum in Rome seemed like a comparative steal for 12 € per person.
  • Buy tickets in advance for museums and other attractions in Italy. The lines for purchasing tickets in person and unreal, and they are so easy to order online. Our only gripe with the advance tickets was with the Duomo in Florence. A printed ticket is required to obtain a specific reservation time. If you have no access to a printer, you’re forced to queue at each part of the church even if you have a ticket – which can easily be a 1–2 hour wait. Pointless, totally pointless – they don’t even collect the paper tickets; they just glance at them as they would a smartphone (inefficient AND a huge waste of trees). All the other sights we visited, though, accepted a copy of the tickets on a smartphone.
  • Most major cities in Europe offer some type of comprehensive sightseeing ticket (e.g. the ‘Roma Pass,’ the ‘London Pass’) that is valid for 1–10 days (depending on the city/ticket). If you intend to see most of the key monuments and museums, it could save you money. Check what sights the ticket covers, and do the math first, though. If you are visiting only a few sights, it’s typically cheaper to purchase each ticket individually.
  • Public transportation in Rome is not great. In fact, I’d say it was probably the least efficient of any large city we’ve visited. The options are largely bus or tram, with buses covering the largest area. While the prices are reasonable, the buses seem to run extremely infrequently. Thus, we found ourselves with annoyingly-long wait times (sometimes 20–30 minutes) and, consequently, ridiculously-crowded vehicles. There are a couple of short metro lines, but the underground system is severely limited. Our hosts in Tuscany warned us of this while we were there, and also informed us that the metro can’t be expanded because of the millennia of archaeological history buried beneath the city. I’d never even considered that 2,000 years of undiscovered past would preclude tearing apart the earth, but it suddenly seemed so obvious when Francesca mentioned it. Regardless of the inability to build a sufficient subway network, I think the city could add a few buses to the rotation.
  • While there are a fair number of tourists in Rome, we found it really easy to escape the crowds. Much like Africa has its ‘Big Five,’ the large animals coveted by those on safari (lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, wildebeest, and rhino), Rome seems to have an equivalent – the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Forum, and Parthenon (I suppose six if you count St. Peter’s, but that’s technically in the Vatican). Visit these early in the morning and spend the rest of your day exploring the less crowded parts of the city. We went to the Trevi Fountain and 8 a.m. and were practically the only ones there for a solid hour. We sat on one of the stone benches listening to the cascades and enjoying unobstructed views of the Baroque masterpiece until the tour group hoards began arriving. The only downside to visiting the fountain at that hour (at least in October) – there’s no sunlight on the façade. If you want a sun-drenched photo, midday is the best option, when the sun is high enough to clear the surrounding buildings. All of that said, we found some of the smaller (and less popular) neighborhoods, hills, and churches in Rome to be just as wonderful as the more popular sights. We can’t recommend enough spending some time away from the city’s ‘Big Five’ and finding other hidden treasures – there is just so much to enjoy!
  • The use of tripods in Rome is not (technically) allowed without a special permit. Apparently if you have a tripod, you are no longer considered an ‘amateur’ photographer (although, interestingly, the rule does not apply to monopods). It seems pretty incredible to me. I mean, I use a rolling pin, but am orders of magnitude from achieving ‘professional’ pie maker status… but, such it is. Advice: be discreet in your tripod use.
  • Zermatt is incredibly expensive. From lifts to the hiking areas and tickets for scenic railways, most of the trips cost around 90 Franc (Fr) per person round-trip (the funicular was a comparative bargain at 24 Fr per person round-trip)! I thought I may have to be airlifted out due to sticker shock. All the transportation is top-notch… but holy cow is it ever pricey.
  • Again, building on the aforementioned statement, I supposed it’s also worth mentioning that restaurants in Zermatt are also, expectedly, wicked expensive. A standard entrée on most menus we glanced at averaged around 30 Fr ($30 USD). A couple menus offered a small, personal-sized pizza or pasta for $18-23/plate. We rented an apartment with a kitchen, and bought food in Milan (Zermatt coop – also predictably pricey), however, so this saved us a ton of money (probably more so than anywhere else we’ve stayed). This was one of the few places where we never even ate a single meal out.
  • Zermatt is a car-free zone, so don’t consider hiring a rental to get around. All cars must be parked in a lot about 5 kilometers (3 miles) outside the town center. The typical means of entry into Zermatt town is via the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, a gorgeous little train that runs from Visp and Brig (and other small alpine villages) to Zermatt’s center. While tickets are, again, fairly pricey given the distance traveled, the trains are quite new, impeccably maintained, and run very frequently into and out of Zermatt. The glass windows even partially cover the ceiling, provide spectacular views of the surrounding peaks for the entire train ride.
  • If you’re spending a chunk of time in Switzerland, you may want to consider the Swiss Half Fare Card (some locals refer to it as the ‘Swiss Pass’). The card itself costs 120 Fr, and once you’ve purchased the card, most transportation is offered to you at half price (including local buses, trains, scenic railways, and some cable cars). Additionally, the card is valid for one full month. For our short stay, the card ended up not being a savings, and we bought individual tickets for everything. However, for those moving around the country a bit more (especially for several weeks), it could easily be worth it.
  • There’s just something about those Alps. Whether Slovenia’s less-visited Julian Alps, the craggy Dolomites of northern Italy, or the famed Swiss Alps… it was always difficult to leave. I think it was the combination of our adorable accommodations, the astonishingly beautiful scenery, and the incredible hiking that repeatedly left me with a tear in my eye when it was time to say goodbye.
  • Thoughts on going up the Eiffel Tower:
    • There are two routes to the top – (1) a lift from the ground all the way to the top, or (2) 704 stairs up the southern pylon to the second floor, followed by a lift from the second floor to the top.
    • Advance tickets are available online for 15 € for the lift from ground-level.
    • There is no advance ticket purchase if you wish to take the stairs halfway, followed by the shorter lift.
    • The price for the stairs to the second level is 7 €. If you wish to continue to the top via the lift, it is an additional 6 € (total price = 13 €).
    • If you do the stairs/lift combo, you have to wait in line (at ground level), as there’s no advance purchase. This line is usually pretty short, though – typically about 30 minutes. One downside to this approach is that you then have to wait in a second line on the second floor, as tickets for the summit lift are only available upon arrival to level 2. Again, when we went up, we waited about 30 minutes here.
    • Something else to consider if you’d like to climb the stairs – they are only open until 6 p.m.
    • We ultimately opted for the stairs/lift combo, as we just found it to be more fun to go up ourselves (as far as they allow, anyway). The pros and cons were, respectively, that while we saved 2 € per ticket, we were forced to stand in line… twice.
    • Lastly, we began our climb around 4 p.m. (mid-October), and there was beautiful light on the city, as well as the shadow cast from the tower on the buildings and river below (we’d definitely recommend a late-afternoon ascent for the nice light).
  • Amsterdam’s Olympic Park (from the 1928 Summer Games) is actually open for public use. The complex houses a bunch of offices, as well as a fitness center, and the track and field arena is also open for various public events. We thought this was just great, as it prevents the complex from simply sitting vacant and falling into disrepair, as so many of the costly investments in other cities seem to do.
  • Amsterdam public transit – If visiting for a week or less, consider buying the unlimited-use card (offered for 24 hours up to 7 days) instead of single trips or the rechargeable card. For us, the 96-hour card ended up being a huge savings (about 14 € per person). It allowed unlimited use for our 4 days, during which time we amassed 14 trips. Try to calculate in advance how many trips you think you’ll take, and the likely cost for the distances you’ll be traveling (2.00 € is a rough average of the per-trip cost with the rechargeable card). Whichever option is best for you, there is potential to save a good chunk of change. Price breakdowns for our 14 trips:
Ticket type Price per ticket Total cost Cost (14 trips)
Individual transit tickets 2.90 € 40.60 €
Rechargeable card* 2.00 € 35.50 €
96-hour card Unlimited use 21.50 € 21.50 €
*includes a one-time fee of 7.50 € for purchasing the card
  • Channel Tunnel (Chunnel) tickets by train: if you are traveling from France or Belgium to London via train, buy your tickets early if possible. Eurostar is the sole operator of the high-speed train, and prices fluctuate similar to airline tickets. If you wait, the price will almost assuredly skyrocket. Also similar to the airline industry, tickets for weekends (Friday through Sunday) are heavily inflated relative to midweek (Tuesday/Wednesday). We found that Eurostar regularly ran advance deals for about 40 € per ticket (one-way) on select days (note: this fare was standard class, from Brussels to London). Conversely, one-way ticket prices just a couple weeks before the date of departure were running about 180–225 € (weekend) and 110–180 € (weekday).
  • Unlike most trains throughout Europe, where the station announces the platform 15 minutes in advance you can hastily hop on freely at the last minute, the Channel Tunnel Eurostar train is more tightly controlled. Security for the Chunnel is similar to an airport – you have to check in with ID, then your bag is screened and you are ushered through a metal detector. For this reason, it’s prudent to arrive at the station early. We inquired with a Eurostar representative the day before our trip, who advised us to arrive 30–45 minutes before departure. We showed up about 40 minutes prior on a busy Saturday morning, and that seemed to be just about perfect.

 

WEIGHTS & MEASURES:

 AVERAGE PETROL COST:

Country Cost per liter
(local currency)
Cost per liter
(USD)
Germany 1.30 € $1.46
Italy 1.32 € $1.45
Switzerland
France 1.35 € $1.48
Belgium 1.36 € $1.49
Netherlands 1.60 € $1.76

AVERAGE EXCHANGE RATE:

Country $1 USD equivalent
Germany 0.89 €
Italy 0.91 €
Switzerland 0.99 Swiss Franc (Fr)
France 0.91 €
Belgium 0.91 €
Netherlands 0.91 €

 

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