Lessons from the Road: Planning a Family European Road Trip
I recently told you about our 15-day European road trip itinerary through Germany, Switzerland, and Alsace (France). I love the flexibility and excitement of all the possibilities that come with road trips. We traveled with our 2 kids (ages 6 and 16), and – if the stops are chosen carefully, I believe that road tripping is easier to manage with kids than taking trains or flying between multiple destinations in Europe.
I happen to love planning the trip as much as the trip itself – and before I get too immersed into planning a new itinerary, I would like to share the planning lessons from THIS road trip. They might be useful as you are planning your own road trip in Europe for one of these summers.
WHERE TO START
Think of a place (a country, a city, a region) that calls for you in Europe (we all have them!) and start there. Look at the maps to see what other places “nearby” could be added and “google map” the distances and travel times. Consider how many travel days you have for your trip and research the cheapest and/or most convenient flight connections from your city to the nearest airport near your starting point. You will be changing your route many times at this initial stage, but you have to start somewhere!
For me, a dreamy spa town of Baden-Baden, Germany (straight from the 19-century Russian novel) was a trip inspiration (with Frankfurt, Germany, being a convenient air travel hub within 1.5 hour of driving.) I “noticed” that Alsace wine region of France was less than an hour drive away and HAD to include it too. Looking a bit further, Switzerland was another 2-hour drive, so it quickly made it onto the itinerary. Bavarian portion of the trip just logically finished the perfect road “CIRCLE”. I did not know much about Bavaria before our trip, so I used many research tools (I included them below) to plan our stops.
PLANNING THE ROUTE
We all travel at different pace (which changes, of course, many times in our lives) and you should definitely follow your family’s own pace when planning your trip. Our travel pace du jour is very FAST- we like to “SAMPLE” many new places on our trips instead of devoting our trip time to 1-2 places, and a ROAD TRIP suits this style perfectly. (If your style is to spend longer time in one place, especially if it is a big city with good public transportation and connections, road tripping may not be for you). I imagine that we may come back for longer stays in some of the places that we have “sampled” on this trip.
WHAT WORKED FOR US ON THIS TRIP
Researching all the Sights and Attractions Beforehand. If I leave you with one lesson about planning this trip, it is that a several months-long effort of researching every stop (and side trips) on our journey was well worth it- both my husband and would not change a single destination on our trip, and both kids had things they enjoyed in most towns.
Short Driving Distances (1-3 Hours) Between Overnight Stops. It is not difficult to find points of interest within a couple of hours’ drive from each other in Central Europe and our Germany-Switzerland-France itinerary is a perfect example. Our shortest driving distance between overnight stops was a 40-minute drive between Zurich and Lucerne, and longest – 3.5 hour-drive between Ettal, Germany and Zurich. These short and flat drives (with only occasional road winding near higher Alpine lakes) left us with a lot of time for sightseeing and relaxing.
Combining City Breaks With Mountain Vistas. Our itinerary offered us a perfect balance of big city bustle (Munich, Zurich), medieval town fairy tales (Rothenberg, Lucerne), and the serenity of the Alpine lakes and mountain tops. This variety allowed us to slow down and actually relax despite the intensely packed 15-day itinerary of 8 overnight stops and numerous day trips.
Day Tripping From Base Towns. We chose several 3-day bases (Munich and Ettal in Germany and Alsace in France) that allowed us easy day-trips to points of our interest within 20-40 minutes of driving away (A day trip from Munich to Salzburg was an exception with close to 2 hours of driving but we really longed to include a taste of Austria on this trip. We also broke up that day trip by stopping on Lake Chiemsee for half a day to explore its islands).
Stopping At VIA Points Between Destinations. On the days when we were driving to our new overnight “bases”, we built-in several VIA points that allowed us an opportunity to spend several hours in the cities of our interest without adding driving time to our trip. Our 6-hour stop in Strasbourg, France on our way from Ribeauville, France to Baden-Baden, Germany, made perfect sense and so did our 2-hour stop at Memorium Nuremberg Trials on our way from Rothenburg ob der Tauber to Munich, and a dip on lake Walchensee on our way from Munich to Ettal.
Building in Relaxation Time. With all the sightseeing that we have planned, this was our VACATION from work and school, so it was important to include physical (and mental) relaxation time. We swam in the lakes or visited a pool/spa practically every day on this journey and loved every minute of it. (On some days we swam in the lake during the day and then visited a spa in the evening as many stay open very late). I would also suggest easing the pace towards the end of the journey, before returning home. We had our Baden-Baden spa mini-vacation at the end of our trip.
Varying Activities for Family Members. It is important to include activities that different family members would love, while giving others a choice of opting out. My husband Vit went on a 3-hour tour of the BMW Factory and Museum in Munich, he and I went on a couple of dates to spas and art museums (thanks to our teenage son!) and Vit and Den went on a journey to Zugspitze Mountain while my daughter Vi and I spent some mommy-daughter time wondering the streets of historical German town of Partenkirchen nearby which included a little shopping. Try to include an activity that an entire family (including a proverbial “hard to please” teenager) would enjoy. Not too many teens love art museums but most have interests that you can incorporate into your trip. For us, a trip to Mount Pilatus in Lucerne was such all-favorite family activity, (not the spas which our teen did not quite enjoy as much as the other 3 family members). Speaking of teen travel,
Letting Teens Enjoy the Company of Other Teens cannot be overestimated (be it in real time or on-line). In Munich, our son Den stayed with his friend’s family and enjoyed time with other teens. If I learned one lesson about travelling with teens is that they need the company of other teens for your trip to be successful. (I hope you learn it from me before you learn it the hard way). If it is not feasible to travel with another teen’s family (or meet a friend in the city where you are travelling to – here is another consideration for choosing a destination!) allow for lots of wifi time for them to stay connected with friends back home. And just celebrate all the moments of together time you do have on the trip.
THIS IS WHAT WE WOULD TRY TO CHANGE NEXT TIME
Avoiding One-Night Stays. Ideally, I would select at least 3-night stays that allow for interesting side trips. Occasionally, “one-night stays” are unavoidable because of the time constraints (or other travel considerations), or, like in the case of Switzerland, it simply may be all you can afford in a particular place (hence we put our 24 hours in Zurich to a great use). I would do everything in my “planning power” to have at minimum 2-night stays in each place during our next road trip. It is just too tiring for me to pack, drive, unpack and sightsee all within 24-hours.
Allowing for Slow Travel Days. I don’t recommend scheduling sightseeing activities on the check-out and check-in days (schedule being the key word here). It is fine to explore the new city by wondering around but it was “just a bit” stressful to drive for 3.5 hours to Zurich to join a scheduled city tour at 2 pm. Between packing and carrying your luggage then driving to a new place and unpacking, you may want to take it easy on travel days.
Familiarizing Ourselves with the Language. I always take an effort to make myself familiar with the language of the country I am travelling to- via as much as a language instruction course or as little as a CD for a car. I didn’t take any effort with German and I regretted not understanding the menus (mostly found them in German) or even simple words like Bahnhofstrasse – a street leading to a (but of course!) Bahnhof (train station).
HERE IS THE LIST OF OUR PLANNING “TOOLS”
To get everyone inspired, we had a cork board in the kitchen and pinned the maps and destination pictures to it.
Pinterest was another Board I used (Road Tripping Germany and Alsace) to collect blog posts from other travel bloggers with interesting ideas about the points of interests on our trip.
Rick Steve’s free downloadable Germany videos and his Germany book, as well as Alsace Michelin Guide.
TomTom App: Vit (designated driver) used it to find and save (to his phone) all points of interests on our itinerary before leaving home to save time and stress of gps “cannot find” crisis on the road.
Hard copy “real” paper maps: we bought the Michelin paper maps for all regions we travelled through (we did not really need it as our GPS worked great, but it was fun “finding” where we were on the map).
Travel Forums (e.g. TripAdvisor, Fodor) to ask all the detailed questions about planning the points on our journey. (It was especially helpful in planning our Rhine river cruise during the last couple of hours on our trip).
Do you have your own favorite planning tips or tools you could share?
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