Many people are intimidated by the thought of planning a European vacation – and even more intimidated by the thought of having to pay for it. But what if you could just plagiarize my trip and do it almost-free? Suddenly it becomes a little easier, doesn’t it.
Here’s the deal, I don’t believe in proprietary trip itineraries – if I draw one up, I hope and pray other people will use it too, and even better, they can cut out my small mistakes and make it even better, that’s why I’m just going to place my last itinerary right here on “world wide web” for everyone else to see and copy.
And, as you know if you’ve been visiting our blog for a while, doing these kinds of trips in “almost-free” fashion by using frequent flyer miles and points is just how we roll. We did this entire trip for a little more than $2000 per couple – and we didn’t cut any corners. I’ll be happy to show you how.
First off, I booked our flights with 40k American Airlines miles and a little more than $100 per person.
If we had paid cash for these flights, we’d have spent almost $3000 before we even set foot on the European continent.
[Note: The deal I used to get the 50k points on AA is gone and they’ve gotten more stringent on date availability. I think the best opportunity out there to get enough miles to go to Europe right now is the 60k Delta Skymiles Platinum card – you have to spend $2k in the first three months and pay a $195 annual fee, but 60k Skymiles should get you to Europe in shoulder seasons with some flexibility on dates.]
In keeping with my philosophy of shoulder-season travel, we did this trip in April of 2016. It could just as easily be done in summer, fall, or magical winter. I wouldn’t be scared to take on this itinerary any time of year, so don’t let that inhibit you. We basically spent one day traveling to and from, for a total of 11 days away and 9 days and nights in Europe.
Having kids and other obligations, we were a little short – a full two weeks would have been better, and there are lots of ways to button on a few more days and stretch it out a bit, but I’ll just pitch it to you as we did it.
Here were my guiding principles in making these plans:
- Try to stay 2 consecutive nights in each location to reduce costs and minimize mobilization, but not get stale.
- Start non-mobilizing days early, and mobilizing days a little later.
- Keep a good mix of activities – some indoors – castles, cathedrals, and museums, and some outdoors – waterfalls, mountains, town strolls, and hikes.
- Try not to have to drive more than 4 hours in a given day.
- Eat meals in 4 different countries.
My favorite trip planning resource is other travel blogs – bloggers genuinely have the best interests of their readers in mind, and tell stories and share experiences so memorably – Rick Steves is great, but so many great ideas come from other bloggers. There’s a reason the travel blogger industry is booming.
This itinerary took us through 5 countries and several small towns, but only one major city.
Day 1: Paris
Arrive at Paris 9am – Uber to hotel and leave bags there, then go hit the town.
Sites to visit: Louvre, Palais Royale, Arc De Triomphe, Notre Dame, St. Chappelle, Eiffel Tower
Day 2: Paris
Using Uber, we split rides in fancy Mercedes vans all over the city usually paying 15-40 euros.
Sites to visit: Montmarte, Sacre Coeur Basilica, the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, the Army Museum, Napoleon’s Tomb.
Day 3: Paris to Beaune
We got up early and took an Uber ride to Orly airport where we picked up a 9-passenger van from Sixt for ~$1000/week. We drove first to Fontainebleau, then to Guedelon – a twelfth century castle in the making
Overnight: This is the one part of the trip I should have changed. I didn’t want to drive too much, so we planned a stop in Beaune – a nice city, but nothing spectacular. We should have gone onto Colmar and spent 3 nights there.
Day 4: Colmar, France
Colmar itself is a gem – blending French and German culture, food, and history – all of the villages along the Alsace wine route are incredible.
Our favorite little village was Eguisheim – just absolutely idyllic in every way. Being there in the shoulder season, we could actually enjoy some empty cobblestone streets at the expense of not having flowers on balconies in full bloom.
Overnight: We rented an amazing place called Aux2Cigognes right on the little canal in Colmar. It was perfect in every way – affordable and unique, exactly what you hope for in a vacation rental.
Day 5: Black Forest, Germany
We started this day very early – heading to the 170 year old Roman Irish Baths in Baden Baden. It’s quite the experience. Then we made our way down through the windy roads of the black forest – stumbling onto mummelsee – a perfect Black Forest experience, strolling around a foggy lake.
Between there and Triberg, there’s an awesome Black Forest open air museum where you can take in centuries of history in the area – unique architecture and farm life – just a treat.
We went on into Triberg – cuckoo clock central and home to some beautiful waterfalls.
It made for a late night getting back into colmar, but totally worth it.
Overnight: Again at Aux2Cigognes.
Day 6: Colmar to Grindelwald, Switzerland
The sun greeted us warmly as we crossed the border into Switzerland. We drove along the shore of Lake Thun, stopping first at a lakeside castle, then at the trailhead to St Beatus Caves. We brought a delicious array of meats, breads, and cheeses to the overlook at the caves and took in the most magnificent viewing combo of the spring waterfalls, mountains, and Lake Thun.
We arrived in Grindelwald with plenty of time to settle in and take in the Swiss Alps.
Overnight: We rented an adorable swiss chalet on Homeaway.com with this jaw-dropping view. In our fridge there was cheese, made freshly from the cows right there on the farm. This place was spectacular, and also worked out to be the least expensive place we stayed in the most expensive country.
Day 7: Lauterbrunnen Valley
This was our most leisurely day – with very little travel. We spent most of it in the Lauterbrunnen valley, took a tram up to gimmelwald, hiked through fog with glimpses of grandeur to Murren and had the most delicious hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted.
For dinner we indulged in a spread of fondue.
Overnight: At the same adorable swiss chalet.
Day 8: Grindelwald to Garmisch
We covered a lot of ground this day – stopping to shop at clothing stores in Lucerne, an antique shop in Lichtenstein, and a chocolate factory in Austria. Despite the travel, the scenery was amazing all along the way.
Overnight: The last two nights we stayed at another Homeaway.com property – this beautiful home in Grainau, just outside Garmisch Partenkirchen.
Day 9: Bavaria, Germany
We started the day by traversing the world’s longest suspension walkbridge – Highline 179. It straddles a verdant valley which is overwatched by the ruins of an ancient castle – a marvel to visit and part of the $8 entrance to the bridge – a pittance.
Then we went on to Neuschwanstein castle – a wonder unto itself. The bridge where visitors normally take pictures was closed, so we had to hop some fences and clamber up a slope to capture the castle from this angle – one that did not disappoint.
Making our way back to Grainau, clouds hung like lingerie atop the Zugspitze.
The meals in this area were superb – who knew it would be the German food, not the French food, which was unforgettable.
Overnight: Again at the home in Grainau.
The next morning we drove 1.5 hours to the Munich airport where we departed.
It was a quicker trip than we’d like to have planned, but with kids and obligations at home, it was sucking the marrow out of life for as many days as we could muster.
There’s almost nothing I would change about the trip – it was a masterful combination of everything we wanted – truly an experience to remember – precisely why we travel.
Traveling with friends sure makes things less expensive – by the time we split up our total lodging and transportation costs, we were under $1100/couple. Even eating like kings, our total cost on the trip was not much more than $2000. This is why you cannot afford to not travel the almost-free way.
So, I hope you’ll copy my trip.