European Extravaganza – Paris, Switzerland and Italy

We visited Europe for 2 weeks during Sep-Oct of 2015 covering Paris, Switzerland and most parts of Italy. Europe is a pretty big continent with lots of beautiful places to see. Considering we had 2 weeks of time, we decided to choose Paris, Switzerland and Italy for our first visit to the continent. The sheer amount of time you need to invest to plan the trip makes most people choose the package tours. But if you can do plan one on your own, there is nothing like it. You will come back with a much richer experience and lot more cash left in your pocket.

Overall cost of this trip: Rs. 2,90,000 for 2 people(including flights).

Early homework

These are the things you need to worry about much before your date of travel:

  1. Rough tinerary
  2. Flight tickets
  3. Train tickets within Europe
  4. Accommodation
  5. Visa
  6. Car rental booking (if you plan to drive)
  7. Forex

1. Rough itinerary

After finalising the list of countries to visit, few things you need to consider to build your itinerary are: no of days you want to spend at each place, must visit places, port of entry and departure. At a high level, our itinerary looked something likes this. Detail ones are presented later in the blog.

Day 1: Reach Paris in the evening. Stay at Paris.
Day 2: Paris sightseeing. Stay at Paris.
Day 3: Paris sightseeing. Stay at Paris.
Day 4: Paris sightseeing. Stay at Paris.
Day 5: Paris to Zurich by early morning train. Take a rental car from Zurich and drive down to your stay in Switzerland (choose somewhere near Lungern). Stay in Switzerland.
Day 6: Switzerland sightseeing. Stay in Switzerland.
Day 7: Switzerland sightseeing. Return rental car in Zurich. Stay at Zurich.
Day 8: Zurich to Chur by early morning train. Take the Bernina Express to Tirano. From there, take a train to Lecco. Lecco sightseeing in the evening. Stay at Lecco.
Day 9: Early morning train from Lecco to Venice train (through Milan). Venice sightseeing. Stay in Venice.
Day 10: Venice to RioMaggiore by morning train (through Florence). Explore CinqueTerre region. Stay at RioMaggiore.
Day 11: Morning train to Pisa station. See Leaning tower of Pisa. Take the train to Florence. Florence sightseeing. Stay at Florence.
Day 12: Florence sightseeing. Stay at Florence.
Day 13: Florence to Rome by morning train. Rome sightseeing. Stay at Rome.
Day 14: Rome sightseeing. Stay at Rome.
Day 15: Rome sightseeing. Fly back to Bangalore.

We chose to start from Paris since its much easier to get the visa from French consulate.

2. Flight tickets

You can get cheaper tickets if you manage to book well in advance. We booked ours about 4 months before the travel, cost us 36,000 Rs. for the round trip.

3. Train tickets

Train tickets are another area of investment where you can save money if you manage to book in advance. Most train tickets in Europe open for booking 4 months in advance. They follow airline pricing model with few cheap tickets up for grabs upfront meaning the sooner you book, the better rates you get. We managed to grab a few of them (as cheap as 9 Euros for Florence to Rome second class ticket). We did consider the Euro pass, but decided against buying one since it was turning out too expensive for our itinerary. Understanding the train system in Europe is a daunting task in itself, so I am going to be little more detailed in this section to help you with things. For further information, refer to Seat61.

3.1 Our advance train bookings:

Train Date From To Class Cost per person
TGV 23/09/2015 Paris Gare Lyon [07:23] Zurich HB [11:26] 2nd 29 Euros
Bernina Express 26/09/2015 Zurich HB [07:07] Chur [08:22] 2nd 29 + 14 CHF
26/09/2015 Chur [08:32] Tirano [12:45] 2nd  (included in above)
Trenitalia 27/09/2015 Milano Centrale [07:05] Venezia S. Lucia [09:40] 2nd 9 Euros
Trenitalia 28/09/2015 Venezia S. Lucia [09:25] Firenze S.M.Novella [11:30] 1st 36.5 Euros
Trenitalia 1/10/2015 Firenze S.M.Novella [05:50] Roma Termini [08:26] 2nd 9 Euros

3.2 Italian trains – Regional vs Intercity

Italy operates 2 types of trains – Regional and Intercity. Regional trains don’t need advance booking. They have fixed cost, but you can’t reserve seats in that. Intercity trains are usually faster than regional ones, follow the variable pricing model for tickets and come with seat reservations. They also have better space for keeping luggages. Regional trains are usually not full and you can buy tickets at any ticketing machine within Italy. It can be used upto 2 months from the date of purchase, but need to be validated at certain machines at the station before boarding the train. The validation holds good for 6 hours from the time of stamping. We did not book any regional trains in advance.

3.3 Our regional train journeys:

Date From To Cost per person
26/09/2015 Tirano Lecco 10 CHF
27/09/2015 Lecco Milan  5 Euros
28/09/2015 Florence RioMaggiore  15 Euros
29/09/2015 RioMaggiore Pisa  12 Euros
29/09/2015 Pisa Florence 9 Euros

3.4 Italo train – Alternative to Trenitalia in Italy

NTV (Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori) is a private company which runs trains on certain routes in Italy in competition to state run Trenitalia. Do check on their website for the price on your route before booking at Trenitalia. Though, they might not operate from the same set of stations that Trenitalia does, so connections can be a problem.

3.5 1st class vs 2nd class travel

Unlike in India, there is not much difference between the 1st and 2nd class travel on trains, atleast not proportional to the price difference. For most people on budget, 2nd class should be the preferred choice to book unless it is sold out. Though, 1st class has slightly wider seats, more isle and leg space and provide food/snacks.

3.6 Cheap tickets on Bernina Express

Bernina express is one of the most scenic train rides in the world. Swiss trains are costly and a 2nd class ticket from Zurich to Tirano costs around 90 CHF. They don’t offer advance booking discount on this route. But there is a trick to booking it for 29 Euros.

German Railways (Deutsche Bahn) offer cheap advance-purchase tickets between any station in Germany and any station in Switzerland starting from €29.  Freiburg (Breisgau) is the last major stop before the Swiss border, and it’s perfectly possible and legitimate to buy a €29 ticket from Freiburg to Tirano and simply not use the Freiburg to Zurich part. Booking usually opens 90 days before departure. More information on that here.

On top of the ticket cost, you also need to reserve the seats for train journey from Chur to Tirano, costing about 14 CHF per person. Choose the seats on the right side to get the best view.

3.7 Miscellaneous information

Most trains in Europe maintain their timings, especially true in Switzerland. The stations usually have bakeries where you can pick up muffins, croissants etc. for the journey. Those are your best option for food on the go. If the train has an upper deck, choose the seats on the upper deck as they offer better view.

4. Accomodation

Choose apartments over hotels, since they turn out cheaper and will provide provisions for cooking food if you choose to. We booked most of our stay on Airbnb and only one night hotel accommodation at Zurich. There are other vacation home rentals available like Housetrip or Homeaway, but I would suggest sticking to Airbnb. The prices of the apartments don’t vary with time, so you will not incur additional cost if you book late (for apartments). The only risk is your preferred ones may get booked by others if you leave it for too long. Our bookings across places with cost as below:

Place No of Nights Airbnb/Hotel link Total cost (4 ppl)
Paris  4  https://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/4814986  367
 Brienzwiler  2  https://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/4134509  386
 Zurich  1  http://www.25hours-hotels.com/de/zurich-west/home/home.html  192
 Lecco  1  https://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/3778541  125
 Venice  1  https://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/5675653  182
 Riomaggiore  1  https://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/2974293  157
 Florence  2  https://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/2809738  213
 Rome  2  https://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/5928926  220

Some of the tips before booking your accommodation:

  1. Look at the rating of the apartment, read all the reviews.
  2. Look at the list of inclusions and exclusions. If you are in doubt of anything, drop an email to the host to clarify things (like availability of washing machine etc.).
  3. Look at the cancellation policy. There are 3 types on Airbnb – Flexible, Moderate and Strict.
  4. Make use of referral to save some extra money.
  5. Airbnb runs promotions from time to time giving out 2o-25% off on first bookings. Make sure to search for any promotional offer before booking (Note: The promotion could be for different countries site, in which case you can use vpn to switch to that country and book to avail the offer).

5. Schengen Visa

Technically, you need to apply for visa from a consulate of country in which you are spending maximum number of days. French consulate is in Bangalore, Italy and Switzerland have theirs in Mumbai. Since the visa application might require you to attend an interview and since we are from Bangalore, we chose to apply from French consulate. This meant we had to fake our itinerary to include the days we planned to spend in Switzerland as stay in Paris. We also booked a fake accommodation in Paris for 4 nights on Booking.com which has free cancellations.

Details of the process, documents, cost and agent as below:
Travel agent: Orion
Cost: 7k per person
Processing time: 3-5 days from the date of application submission, 2 weeks overall
Necessary documents:
1. Passport
2. Visa forms filled and signed (the agent filled the form for us)
3. 2 Photos – 3.5 cm X 4.5 cm – white/light background
4. Covering letter (We need to prepare this, giving brief details of our itinerary and requesting entry to Europe)
5. Leave letter from the company
6. Accommodation reservations/details
7. ITR of past 3 years
8. Bank statement for 3 months
9. Payslip for 3 months
10. Travel insurance with medical evacuation clause
11. Flight tickets
12. Marriage certificate (if you are applying together as a couple)
13. Tickets for travel between countries (The travel agent booked one and cancelled virtually creating a fake ticket. No need to show the internal travel train tickets)

6. Car rental

Even though Switzerland has well connected train system, it is quite expensive. Since we were 4 of us, we decided to rent a car. We also had plans to rent a car from Florence to cover some of the places on our list on western Italy (CinqueTerre, Sienna), but decided against it at the last minute considering all the complications with the ZTL(Traffic Limited zones) in Italy. Though, I will still list the bookings we made in Italy just for reference.

Switzerland

Dates: Sep 23, 2015 – Sep 25, 2015
Company: Dollar (which is run by Hertz)
Website: www.expedia.com
Car category: Midsize SUV
Pick up location: Morgartenstrasse 5, Zurich
Cost: $158 (additional driver is 14 CHF extra per day)

Italy

Dates: Sep 28, 2015 – Oct 1, 2015
Company: Avis
Website: www.avisworld.com/visa (using the visa signature 30% discount offer)
Car category: Group E ( e.g. SEAT Leon Station Wagon)
Pick up location: Florence, Via Borgo Ognissanti 128
Cost: 126 Euros (includes additional driver and insurance)

Few things to consider before making the reservation:
1. Most car rental bookings come with free cancellations until the last minute. Don’t hesitate to make multiple bookings to cover for price/travel plan variations.
2. Most cars in Europe have manual transmission. Going for automatic will cost you a lot more.
3. You need to pay a premium for pick up from airport locations. There is also additional cost if your pick up and drop locations are different (extravagantly high if it is a different country).
4. Know the timings of your store before choosing the time for pick up.
5. Dropping off the car at non-operational hours is possible (at your own risk).
6. Make sure you book a car with enough luggage space.
7. International Drivers Permit is necessary to drive in Italy, not needed for Switzerland.

7. Forex

We bought the forex from www.buyforex.inThe rates are live and with very less or no commission. They also provide free home delivery. Choose travel card as they provide better rates compared to notes and also come with free ATM withdrawal.

One week before boarding

Travel apps

There are several useful travel apps. Make sure to install them on your phone before departing:

Sygic offline navigation
Make sure to download the relevant maps.

City Maps 2Go
Provides offline maps for cities also showing popular tourist attractions etc.

Uber
Make sure you have added a credit card to it.

Rick Steves Audio Europe
Free audio guides for popular attractions in Europe.

Paris Metro Map and Planner
Search for stations, routes etc., in Paris.

Check with Airbnb hosts

Make sure to reach out to your Airbnb hosts to confirm your travel. Some things to check for:
– Check in and check out time
– Meeting time and place
– Number to contact them on
– How to reach the house if requested to directly arrive at the apartment
– Any code to enter the building

GPS

If you can get hold of a GPS navigation device for the car like Garmin, please do. Also make sure to load their latest maps for that country (City Navigator NT).

Travel Experience

There is a lot to love about the parts of Europe we travelled – the historic landmarks, beautiful sceneries, lovely food. The experience varied between different countries we visited, but here are a few which stayed consistent:

  1. Make sure to tip at restaurants. They also don’t provide free water and expect you to order a drink or bottled water.
  2. Uber works well in Europe and is a cheaper option compared to traditional taxis to commute within the city.
  3. Having a sim helps. Sim cards which operate across countries are expensive. Best way to save money on sim is to buy a local sim as per your needs on data and voice calls.

Paris

The first thing you will notice about this city of love or lights is the sheer amount of tourists it attracts from all around the world. The city plays host to a number of world class landmarks, all of them well connected by metro. You will end up walking a lot to cover places and expect long queues at almost all of the popular attractions.

You need to give atleast 4 days to give yourself a chance to fall in love with this city. The magnificence of Eiffel tower especially in the night, the sheer magnitude of Louvre museum, the lovely walk through the Champs Elysee, the beautiful gardens of Luxembourg, fine restaurants at Montmarte, mouthwatering Macaroons and Croissants are some of the things to die for.

Our Itinerary in Paris

Day 1: Reach Paris in the evening. Take a taxi to the apartment.
Day 2: In the morning, visit Luxemborg palace and gardens, Arc De Triomphe, Champs Elysees and Trocadero gardens (for a view of the Eiffel tower). Later in the evening, climb up to the top level of Eiffel to enjoy the beautiful sunset over the city. Climb down and go back to Trocadero gardens to see Eiffel sparkle in the night.
Day 3: In the day, visit Notre Dame cathedral, Saint Chapelle, Pont Neuf bridge and Pont Des Arts. After lunch, visit Louvre museum.
Day 4: Visit the Palace of Versailles in the first half of the day. Later in the evening, visit Sacra Couer Basilica and walk through the streets of Montmarte.
Day 5: Take the morning train from Paris to Zurich.

Notes from Paris

  1. Taxi from Airport to apartment cost us 65 Euros. Train would have cost us 9 Euros per person, but luggage might become a problem in metros.
  2. A single journey ticket on Paris metro costs 1.8 Euros. Alternatively, you could buy a bunch of 10 tickets for 14.1 Euros. There is also the metro pass (weekly only) but little pricey. We took the bunch most times and shared tickets between us.
  3. We took the 2 day museum pass for 48 Euros from our first Museum entry (at St. Chapelle). This will save you some time at more crowded attractions like Louvre.
  4. Expect long queues at Eiffel for elevator. If you want to save some time (and money), buy tickets to the 2nd level for the stairs. It is around 750 steps climb. From there, you can buy tickets for elevator to reach the top.
  5. Best view of Eiffel is from Trocadero gardens. Reach there for both day and night shots of Eiffel.
  6. Eiffel gets lit at the strike of every hour for 5 minutes after sunset. It is called the sparkle.
  7. Enter Louvre from the side entrance (Porte des Lions) to avoid queues and to reach the Mona Lisa soon. From there, see whatever interests you and exit at the Pyramid.
  8. Louvre is closed on Tuesday. Other museums and Palace of Versailles are closed on Mondays. Expect more queues on Monday because of this at Louvre and on Tuesday at Palace of Versailles.
  9. Croissant is famous in Paris (and pretty much most of Europe). Make sure to try a few from a local bakery.
  10. Must buy souvenirs: Eiffel tower

Paris in Pics

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Switzerland

Switzerland is a landlocked European nation known for its engaging urban areas and untainted mountain landscape.It is renowned for its natural beauty with gigantic lakes surrounded by towering mountains. It has strong influences of Italian, German and French societies yet at the same time exhibits character unique to itself. Driving around in a car is a very good way to experience this beauty, you can stop wherever you feel like, connect to remote parts of the country etc. Trains are expensive in this country and driving a car saves you money, especially for 4 people.

Our itinerary in Switzerland

Day 5: Reach Zurich by the morning train from Paris. Pick up the rental car and drive to Brienzwiler. Check-in to the apartment. Later in the evening, visit Lake Brienz and the town of Interlaken.
Day 6: Day excursion to Mount Titlis. (Drive to Engelberg and then take the cable cars to the top). Visit the town of Lucerne on the drive back to the apartment.
Day 7: In the morning, drive to Rhine falls. After lunch, drive to Zurich and check-in to hotel. Return the car and spend the rest of the day at leisure.
Day 8: Take an early morning train to Chur and then onto the Bernina expess to Tirano.

Notes from Switzerland

  1. We bought a Sunrise Sim from Coop supermarket in Zurich (Cost 10 francs with 10 franc credit and 1.2 deducted from the existing credit for unlimited data everyday).
  2. Restaurant on top of Mt Titlis was pretty good and not too expensive. Worth a try.
  3. Souvenirs to buy: Cowbells, cuckoo clock (expensive).
  4. Swiss chocolates are cheaper to buy in US than in Switzerland.
  5. There are other regional trains which cover the same route as Bernina. But only Bernina has panaromic windows and goes a little slow to let you enjoy the beautiful landscapes.

Driving guide for Switzerland

  1. You drive on the right in Switzerland, but the speeds are displayed in km/hour.
  2. The highest speed limit is 120 kmph on Motorways and reduces gradually upto 30/20 on residential zones.
  3. You will not find policemen manning the roads. There are automated cameras though to catch you if you are breaking rules.
  4. Headlights are mandatory to use at all times.
  5. You will encounter lots of tunnels in Switzerland, some of them stretching as long as 6 kms.
  6. Roads on the mountainous regions are pretty narrow. Make sure to let faster vehicles overtake when opportunity arises.
  7. You need a special sticker on your car for driving on tolled roads. Its valid for a year and so, most rental cars would have purchased them. Make sure to double check when you pick up the car.

Switzerland in Pics

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Italy

Italy is an extraordinary feast of soul-stirring art, food and landscapes rivalled by few. Its capital, Rome, is home to the Vatican as well as landmark art and ancient ruins. The beautiful city of Florence is known for its Renaissance treasures such as Michelangelo’s “David” and its leather. The grand canals of Venice, the dramatic coastal scenaries at Cinque Terre and Amalfi coast, the international fashion at Milan, the wonderful wines, some finger licking food in gelatos, pizzas and pastas all make for a wonderful travel experience. To top it all, the cost of living in Italy is much lesser than most European countries.

Our itinerary in Italy

Day 8: Reach Lecco by afternoon and check-in to the apartment. After lunch, explore the quaint little lakeside town of Lecco. Stay at Lecco.
Day 9: Take early morning train via Milan to reach Venice. After lunch, walk through the lanes of Venice to visit St Marks Basilica, St Marks square, Rialto bridge. At sunset, take a gondola ride across the Grand Canal. Stay at Venice.
Day 10: Take a train to Florence and then onto RioMaggiore. After lunch, explore the village of RioMaggiore. At sunset, take a boat ride around the 5 beautiful CinqueTerre villages. Stay at RioMaggiore.
Day 11: Visit Pisa on the way to Florence. In the evening, just walk around Florence. Stay at Florence.
Day 12: Visit the Duomo, San Lorenzo market, Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza Della Signoria in the morning. After late lunch, walk to Piazza Michelangelo for beautiful views of Florence. Stay at Florence.
Day 13: Take a train to Rome. After lunch, visit Vatican city. Visit Trastavere for dinner. Stay at Rome.
Day 14: Visit Colosseum, Palatine hill, Roman forum, Arch of Constantine. Stay at Rome.
Day 15: Visit Trevi fountain, Spanish steps and Pantheon. Flight back to Bangalore.

Notes from Italy

  1. Tiramisu has its origin from Venice. Don’t forget to try some if you happen to visit Venice.
  2. Italy is also famous for its cheap and excellent Gelatos. You can find lots of stores everywhere.
  3. Many restaurants in Italy put cover charges on top of cost of the food itself (not so much in Rome).
  4. Best way to see the coastal scenary at Cinque Terre is through a boat ride across the 5 villages. We hired a boat for 120 Euros around the time of sunset.
  5. Souvenirs to buy: Venetian masks, Murano glass art from Venice; Street art from Florence.
  6. We bought a TIM sim for 20 Euros with around 2 GB high speed data valid for a month
  7. There is a cloak room in Pisa train terminal where you can drop your bags and visit the leaning tower. Cost 4 Euros per bag per day.
  8.  Best view of Florence city is from Piazza Michaelangelo.
  9. San Lorenzo market in Florence is good for street shopping.
  10. Dress code for churches in Italy – Women: Cover shoulders and knees. Men: Wear full pants and sleeved shirts.
  11. Bus tickets in Rome are sold at stationary stores outside the bus stops. Buy them before getting onto the bus. Fixed cost per journey of 1.5 Euros.
  12. Inside Vatican, take right immediately after the main entrance to see the spiral stairs. Else, you will miss it completely and can’t come back.
  13. Inside Vatican, after seeing the Sistine Chapel, there is a direct exit to reach the Basilica (basically meant for groups only, just tag along with some group to save time).
  14. Trastevere in Rome is a good area for dining and has a good collection of restaurants and pubs.
  15. Rome – The tickets for Colosseum is a combined ticket with Palatine hill and Roman Forum. To avoid queues, start with Palatine hill and buy your tickets there.
  16. Rome – Try the dessert bar called Pompi.
  17. We used the cloak room in Rome train station since we had lots of time left after checkout from apartment before our flight. Cost: 6 euros for first 5 hours and 1 Euro per hour thereafter. They have strict weight restrictions per bag.
  18. We took the bus to Airport from train station. Cost: 4 Euros per person.

Italy in Pics

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Conclusion

You probably don’t need much of research to travel within Asia. US is also somewhat of an open book. But a 15 day travel to Europe is truly a daunting challenge in terms of planning and preparation it needs. There were lots of hits and few misses on this wonderful trip of ours, but overall a very successful one indeed. I hope some of the information in this blog goes a long way in helping many of you to get inspired or prepare for your upcoming travel to Europe.

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