If you follow me on Instagram you have probably already seen a flood of images and stories from our European vacation throughout Germany, Austria, Switzerland and The Czech Republic. Dan and I started planning this trip about two years ago. We originally planned to go last summer and a few unexpected house projects forced us to push the trip back a year – isn’t adulting and home ownership fun? Ha! During the planning phase we knew this trip would possibly serve as an anniversary/babymoon trip as well, seeing as how we always knew we wanted to do another big trip before starting a family. I learned so much throughout this planning and traveling process, including how much actually goes into planning an international trip with visits to nine different cities! Although there is so much I could share about our time, I am here to share only some of the highlights (and lowlights) of our two weeks in Europe. I apologize in advance for the length of this post! I have tried to break it up so you can read only the parts you are most interested in (or all of it, if it catches your attention). Click through for tips and a travel guide of sorts…
W H E R E W E W E N T
Our first step was to decide where we actually wanted to go in Europe. We both had only been to Europe once – both to Rome, Italy and on separate trips. Europe is a place I am so intrigued and inspired by, so I have a long list of places I want to visit over there (I seriously regret not studying abroad in college)! Dan was really interested in Germany, Austria and Switzerland so we quickly chose those countries as our desired destinations. When it came to selecting cities we used a variety of resources. Dan’s parents had taken a similar regional trip last summer so we used some of their notes and took advice from what they felt was most memorable and worth their time. I also read books (such as The New York Times: 36 Hours, 125 Weekends in Europe) and read blogs of those who had been to the destinations and made a list of locations that stuck out to me from their travels.
Narrowing down cities was hard – there is SO much to see and only so much time (and money to be spent…ha). After some deliberation we landed on nine cities over a time span of two weeks – we knew we were going to be on the move a lot! We spent one day in some of the smaller cities and 2-3 days in the larger cities. The smaller cities we visited were Rothenburg (Germany), Fussen (Germany), Salzburg (Austria) and Hallstatt (Austria). The larger cities we visited were Zurich (Switzerland), Lucerne (Switzerland), Munich (Germany), Vienna (Austria), and Prague (Czech Republic). Although Prague was not in one of the original countries we planned on visiting we had heard so many good things about it we decided to tack it on at the end of the trip – plus, traveling within countries is so easy over there, so how could we not?
H O W W E B U D G E T E D
I know this is one of the more personal parts of traveling, but I think it’s important to share for those of you interested in taking a trip like this someday. All in all, we knew this trip was going to be expensive. Like I said, we planned and saved for this trip for almost two years. I know for some of you it may not take that long, but for us it was our reality if we wanted to make this trip happen. We started by setting a daily budget, then accounting for how many days we wanted to be gone. The number we came up with was $400 a day (including lodging, food, transportation and entertainment such as excursions, sight-seeing, etc.). Keep in mind, this did not include our roundtrip flights. Could you do this trip on a tighter budget? Probably. Could you also do this trip more expensively? Absolutely. We made a personal decision when setting this amount based on the type of trip we wanted to take.
About nine months before the trip we decided to open a credit card with our bank that had really strong travel rewards and benefits. We switched to only using that card for our daily expenses and paid it off monthly (like we usually do). From the points we earned and cash back we received, we were able to get one of our roundtrip tickets completely paid for (about a $1200 value), which played a huge factor in our savings for the trip! In the end, we came in almost $1,000 under budget which definitely made us happy.
H O W W E G O T A R O U N D
The big debate we had before our trip was whether to rent a car or use trains. Like I mentioned above, once you are in Europe traveling between countries is so easy and cheap! After being over there and seeing how effective and reliable their transportation systems are, it makes me wish we had something like that in the states. We decided we were going to rent a car for our first two days since we planned on driving the Romantic Road throughout Germany from Frankfurt to Rothenburg to Fussen. We wanted to be able to drive ourselves from the airport and make stops along the way if we wanted. Plus, Dan really wanted to drive on the autobahn and had a blast doing so! The rest of the time we used rail systems. Before we went I had visions of us taking the wrong train and ending up in a strange city, stranded overnight. Luckily, we only had one mishap like this on our first day using the trains and we did not get stranded overnight (it was like a scene from a movie though). After that we got pretty accustomed to how the train system worked and it was smooth sailing from there. We had a flexi Eurail pass which allowed us to travel within the four countries we were visiting during our time there. We also used the Eurail Rail Planner App to help us figure out routes between cities. Once we were in the cities we used a variety of transportation such as boats, buses, bikes, and Ubers. We did not reserve seats on the trains ahead of time and we were fine, but depending on where you are traveling in Europe it may be more of a requirement. The Eurail passes we purchased automatically assigned us to first class seats, which was an added perk for traveling (less crowded, more leg room, wider seats, some AC and charging ports for cell phones). For more information on Eurail passes, we loved using Rick Steve’s website for help along the way!
W H E R E W E S T A Y E D
This was one of my favorite parts of the trip to plan! When we travel I love finding hotels and airbnbs that are unique – I pay close attention to detail and design. However, I also had to keep in mind that we were on a budget and we wanted to stick to that (or even come in under budget, if possible). Like always, I did lots of research online and narrowed down options that were within our budget (we tried to stay under $200 a night for lodging). We ended up staying in a mix of hotels, airbnbs and bed & breakfasts. Airbnbs are a great way to travel when you’re on a tight budget! We saved money on some of these rentals, which allowed us to spend a little more on hotels in bigger, more expensive cities (such as Zurich and Munich). We were very happy with all of the places we stayed on this trip, so I am including a comprehensive list below. I would recommend them all! *Side note: We booked all accommodations about six months in advance.
- Rothenburg (Germany) – Hotel Gotisches Haus
- Zurich (Switzerland) – Marktgasse Hotel
- Lucerne (Switzerland) – Airbnb/Bed & Breakfast
- Munich (Germany) – Cortiina Hotel
- Salzburg (Austria) – Arthotel Blaue Gans
- Hallstatt (Austria) – Heritage Hotel Hallstatt
- Vienna (Austria) – Airbnb
- Prague (Czech Republic) – Airbnb
W H E R E W E A T E
In comparison to lodging, the food was my least favorite part to plan! I did the majority of food planning during my first trimester of pregnancy which could have played a part in that. Ha! I will also start by saying that food was one of the things we both struggled with the most. I am somewhat of a picky eater and I usually don’t eat very much (if any) red meat or pork. A lot of the food was very heavy and we had a hard time finding a variety of foods to try (I ate lots and lots of “brezel”, aka pretzels). I usually try to research restaurants ahead of time and have a list to choose from once we are in a new city. Sometimes I even make reservations ahead of time to avoid long waits, but in Europe I knew that would not be necessary. On the other hand, I also love the idea of stumbling upon a cute cafe and trying it out on a whim (which we also did in Europe). Sometimes the best places are found unexpectedly. Anyways…back to the planning. I used a lot of suggestions from Rick Steves’ books and did the rest of my research online. Although I am not going to bore you with all of the restaurants we ate at, I will include a few of our favorites. However, keep in mind that there are so many places to eat with incredible views and ambiance over there it is hard to choose just a few!
- Wirtschaft Neumarkt (Zurich) – Eat outdoors here in the upper section of the garden. I also suggest making a reservation for this one ahead of time. We ate here on our anniversary and loved it!
- Conditorei Schober (Zurich) – Cafe with coffee and chocolates. Best hot chocolate I’ve ever had!
- Buffet Kull Bar (Munich) – Dinner spot with nice ambiance and the nicest owners/staff. They sat and talked to each of their customers and wanted to get to know them. Very personable!
- Demel (Vienna) – Chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate. I mean, people eat cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner here. We brought some of this chocolate home for our families it was that good!
- The Tavern (Prague) – Quaint burger bar with yummy french fries (yes…American food in Europe). It feels slightly embarrassing that this was one of our favorites from the whole trip. It was like finding a gold mine at the end of our two weeks. Ha!
- Bakeshop Praha (Prague) – Bread, pastries and bagels. More American food in Prague!
Needless to say, Prague had the most Americanized food out of all of the cities we visited and was one of our favorites because of it.
W H A T W E S A W & D I D
A lot of what we did was just walk around and explore the new cities we were in – which is one of our favorite things to do! We did so much walking/running while we were there. In fact, we kept a daily log of how many miles we walked and by the end of the two weeks we had each walked 100 miles! To help us navigate the cities and see some of the important landmarks, we used Rick Steves’ walking tours in his books. Most of them were about 1-2 hours (without stops along the way). When I am planning a trip, I also like to come up with an itinerary so our days are pretty much planned out and we know what we are going to do ahead of time. Even though I have done this plenty of times before, I have never done it for such a big trip with so many different cities, which was challenging and time consuming.
Here are a few of the highlights from our trip: We visited the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, which was quite breathtaking. Zurich and Lucerne both sat on lakes so we did a boat cruise in both of those cities. This allowed us to get off of land and onto the water to see a side of the city we would have missed otherwise. Also in Lucerne, we took a Cabrio cable car ride up Mt. Stanserhorn for incredible views of the Swiss Alps. Although the mixture of heights and an open cable car made me nervous on the way up, the view once we were up there was well worth it. One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen! In Munich we visited with old friends and biked through the Englischer Garden one day (had a Central Park feel to it). In Salzburg we visited Hitler’s hideout, The Eagle’s Nest. Although I am not much of a history buff, it is another experience we will never forget. In Vienna the highlight was definitely visiting the Schonbrunn Palace, former summer residence of the Habsburgs. The home has so many incredible architectural details inside and beautiful garden for exploring outside. We could have probably spent an entire day here. We also visited Naschmarkt in Vienna which is the biggest open air market in the city filled with restaurants and vendors and even a flea market! I was bummed I could not bring more treasures home in my suitcase. Last but not least, Prague. We climbed up Petrin Hill for a view of the city (and it’s rooftops), explored Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral (so many beautiful, old churches over there), and walked across Charles Bridge at sunset.
W H A T W E L E A R N E D A L O N G T H E W A Y
The only real regret we had from the trip was not spending enough time in Salzburg. When I was planning the trip, I was told that Salzburg could probably be done in one day so that’s how I planned our time. I did not take into account that a visit to The Eagle’s nest would take up most (if not all) of that day. We ended up getting into Salzburg later than we expected which cut our only night in the city down by a few hours. In the end, we were in Salzburg for less than 24 hours and really didn’t even get to explore the city. If we could do it again we would have spent two, maybe three days here because from what we saw in our short time there we both thought we would have really enjoyed the city. Hopefully someday we will have a chance to go back and give Salzburg a fair try.
Although we didn’t mind travel on the trains, if you choose this as your mode of transportation throughout Europe you are limited to the timing and scheduling of the trains. There were a few instances where we had to cut our time in a city short so we could catch the last train to our next destination (sometimes this meant starting as early at 3 PM). If we would have rented a car we could have been on our own schedule and kept our bags in the car versus having hotels hold them for us in a closet. However, it is nice to get on a train and rest up and take in scenic views between stops, whereas if we were driving one of us would have had to be navigating and the other paying attention to the road at all times. No one wants to get lost in a foreign country! Since we were traveling between so many different countries I think we made the right decision by getting a rail pass. But, if we ever went back and were only doing one or two countries we may think twice about getting a car.
If you have the option – I highly suggest traveling during the fall or spring during non-peak season. When you’re a teacher full-time you don’t have that luxury…you really only have two months to do your traveling. Not only do you save money on travel, but you avoid a lot of the crowds that arrive during peak season and shops potentially shutting down (many places in Europe close down during the months of July and August for holiday).
Finally, because I know I may get this question…cell phones. I called our cell phone carrier before going over there to learn more about their plans and they were ridiculously expensive and had high risks of overage fees. We decided to purchase SIM cards once we were there instead. I think we paid about $30 each for 1 GB of data, 100 messages and 100 calling minutes. The ones we purchased worked everywhere but Switzerland so we just had to get creative and use the wifi at our accommodations or find places with free wifi if we needed to look something up on our phones. You also have the option to “top up” if you find yourself running out of data which I did once (I purchased an additional GB of data for about $15). This was much more affordable than paying almost $100 for 100 MG of data (basically nothing) and pricey overage fees to our provider back in the US.
Overall, we had the time of our lives on this trip! Dan and I love going on adventures and sharing new experiences together. There really was not a better time do to this, seeing as how we both know our lives will be changed forever in a few short months. I’m not going to say traveling with a baby or kids is impossible because we still hope to continue traveling once we have a family of our own. However, a trip like this would have been hard with little ones. I would love to hear your advice on traveling with children and how you manage it. Also, if you have been to these places I would love to know some of your highlights. Thanks so much for reading this extremely long post and feel free to share in the comments below!