Exploring Europe behind the Wheel
By Leo Barrameda
‘Speedo turismo’ doesn’t appeal to me. It’s exhausting, very limiting, and quite expensive.
If you have travel buddies that you can bring along, planning a self-drive tour across Europe is a good choice. This option is much cheaper. Needless to say, it’s also exciting, and most of all it’s an absolutely bespoke travel program for you and your crazy friends. To be lost and wander around a foreign city is the norm. Structured tour packages are good, but to be independent tourists open you to a completely different experience.
Together with Bobbie Carella, one of my travel buddies, I’ve embraced the spontaneity of a self-drive tour across Europe last November. For 15 days, we passed through towns and cities across 6 countries – Amsterdam, The Hague, Roermond, Düsseldorf, Köln, Stuttgart, Innsbruck, Mittenwald, Florence, San Giminiano, Volterra, Siena, Parma, Lucern, Basel, Bonn, and Copenhagen.
Europe, why not?
Countries in Europe are tourist-friendly; going beyond boundaries is as easy as crossing bridges. The culture and tourism offers of neighboring EU countries are worth exploring. The selection of amazing landscapes and diverse activities enable discerning tourists to mix and match to concoct the perfect holiday experience.
You’ll find everything in Europe, from culture, to fabulous history, to outstanding nightlife, mouthwatering food, picturesque villages, and the endlessly charming atmosphere.
Traditional Tour Packages or Self Drive?
For first-timers lone travelers and those with strict schedules, booking a tour packages is ideal. There are options for flights, visa, transfers, accommodations, and other add-ons. The detailed guided programs and assistance, however convenient, are of course, synonymous to a high price.
On the other hand, doing away with the guided tours to be independent explorers instead entails a lot of planning and research. You need to have a clear idea of where you want to go, when, how, and what to do during the trip. The bonus is that there are a lot of opportunities to discover something new, different, and extraordinary.
A self-guided tour is all about flexibility and independence. Every decision is yours – where to go, when to stop, what to eat, and where to stay the night. Forget about long bus drives and forcing yourself to adjust to the other tourists – i.e. the late, the diva, and the boring.
Planning is everything to make self-drive tour as hassle free as possible. Depending on your nationality, check whether visa application is required to enter any of the EU countries. For Filipinos, a tourist visa is needed, relative to the first country of arrival. In Dubai, visit the VFS Dubai website to know the requirements, book a schedule, and to understand the application terms and condition. You should get your visa application result within 15 days of submission.
Settle accommodation arrangements as soon as visa and flights are ready. If budget is tight, Airbnb is the best option – giving you a choice between room sharing, private rooms, or even renting an entire apartment. The local hosts are also friendly and can give you tips on where to go and what to expect in the city.
Alternatively, booking a hotel still remains the classic choice. Booking.com or lastminute.com provide good options from 3-star establishments to high-end, with flexible cancellation policies. Hotel rates are fluctuating. The earlier you book, the better. Before confirming you accommodation, determine if the location is accessible, near city-center or countryside.
Europe boasts amazing roads connecting cities and countries. Driving in Europe is a good choice to make the most out of your trip. Before leaving, apply for an international driving license. In Dubai, application can be done at RTA offices and select driving schools. The permit is usually valid for a year.
Pre-book a car rental via their website or you can visit their stands at the airport or major train stations. Popular options are Sixt, Europcar, Avis, and Hertz. Compare rates and deals to stay on budget. To guarantee the rental, the driver needs to have a valid credit card. Choose a car that matches your trip. If budget is limited, request a diesel and/or manual car options. The most important consideration for the road trip is the wheels that will carry you from point A to B, and beyond.
For self-drive tours, a car with a GPS is a big must. GPS is your new best friend. Most car rental companies provide this as an add-on. To use a pre-downloaded map application in smartphone might not be the best option.
Make sure that your phone’s roaming service is activated. Contact or visit your line provider. Anticipate making calls for last minute changes on your accommodation and for SOS.
Euro is the currency that is widely accepted among EU countries. You can prepay your accommodation, transfer, and car rental. ATM facilities and debit/credit cards are widely accepted. It is encouraged not to carry a big amount of cash. Have enough money for cabs, transportation, tipping and any shopping you’ll do. Be sure to inform your bank regarding your itinerary so that they won’t consider your overseas spending as fraud.
Packing for the Trip
Depending on your luggage allowance, smart packing for a week-long trip to Europe is the name of the game. You can’t go wrong if you go for classic neutrals – think white, black, denim, and every muted colors in between. Eliminate the neons, sparkles, pastels, and the wild and crazy patterns. They only limit your mixing and matching opportunities. Follow the neutral rule and your outfits will seem limitless. Yes, don’t forget to add some accents depending on the season. Make sure to allot extra space for shopping. A travelling adaptor is also a must-have. You don’t want to miss ‘selfie moments’ just because your battery is dead.
En Route to Wanderland
After you plot your schedule, the next thing to do is to find interesting things to do in the cities you will be visiting. www.tripadvisor.com is a good resource for this. Furthermore, key European cities have Tourist Info Centers that can be your first pit stop. They have amazing packages and options for tourists. You can book tours onsite, and they are usually affordable.
Driving across Europe is an amazing experience, as long as you know how to read road signs and signals. The price of gasoline is a major setback, though. Bring along two to three friends to split the cost. After all, the more the merrier.
Alternatively, you can also try exploring nearby towns and cities via rails. For many tourists, the pleasure of traveling via Europe’s well-organized rail system is as good as the destination itself. There are no lengthy check-in procedures for train travel and there is no need to go through any security screening. You can simply show up a few minutes before the train leaves, buy a ticket and hop on the train.
Tourists will never go hungry during the trip. One of the best aspects of traveling in Europe is the food. With you behind the wheel, there are a lot of great restaurants, cafés and kiosks to choose from.
A self-drive tour is not for everyone. If you are not confident to drive, don’t. If you are traveling alone and on strict schedule, it’s better to book a package. If you are not a patient and adventure-seeker, don’t choose this as an option.
My best memories from our trip are when we went off on mountains roads to remote towns and villages and got to see places that I’ve never heard about. Europe is full of surprises, quirks and overlooked spots if you take the chance to explore the beyond the usual tourist haunts.
Some people like to wander at will, discovering new places every day. Some enjoy trips without worrying about strict itineraries. And then other people like a trip where they do not need to drive. It is all a matter of choice.
Lastly, be prepared to fall in love with travelling. Keep exploring and happy driving!
Find more Filipino Traveler articles on Illustrado Life.