Getting Around Europe With a Family
European family travel requires lots of planning. From figuring out the money and purchasing a universal adapter and converter to booking tours and lodging, you may feel like you're going to need a vacation from your vacation when all is said and done. So, make your planning easier with these simple tips and comprehensive options for getting around Europe with a family.
This post, part eight in a series on how to plan the perfect European family vacation, shares recommendations on getting around Europe with a family. From trains, planes, automobiles, and more, we've got you covered. Check out the other posts in this series for information including a packing list, lodging recommendations, car rental benefits and the top 10 things to know before renting a car, enjoying your family vacation on a budget, creating the perfect travel itinerary based on a mix of Europe tours, identifying what to do with your dog when you travel, and up next? A series on must see places in a variety of European locations.
Getting Around Europe With a Family: Our Transportation Choices
We recently spent 3 1/2 weeks in Europe and quickly learned that not all countries and not all itineraries demand the same type of transportation when getting around Europe with a family. Eurail makes sense in some places and for some people, backpackers especially. But for others, rental cars, planes, or ferries make much more sense. And when in a city or even in the countryside, walking, biking, and hiking are great ways to see the sights without breaking the bank.
Getting Around Europe With a Family: Transportation Options for Your European Vacation
When thinking about the variety of options for getting around Europe with a family, check out these benefits and potential downsides:
Getting to and from Europe is the first step in planning your European family vacation. But once you have that figured out, you need to identify ways to get from country to country. European budget airlines like Ryanair and Easy Jet are great choices to consider for longer distances.
- It saves time. Traveling via air can often be the quickest route from point A to point B. For example, we flew our family of four on Ryanair from Barcelona, Spain to Rome, Italy. The flight took 2 hours whereas driving or taking a train would have taken far longer.
- It is cost effective. Flying can often save you money. We flew Easy Jet from Rome, Italy to Amsterdam, Holland and again, the price was only $600, including all fees. It cost our family more money to fly an equal distance in the US, so when time and cost was a priority, we found traveling via airplanes the best choice.
In my opinion, the only downside of getting around Europe with a family via airplanes:
- You miss the scenic byways. Flying prohibits you from seeing the countryside, which driving affords.
Tip! Keep in mind that budget European airfare can have a lot of hidden fees. Read through all of the fees up front and book your flight accordingly. One area where people often get dinged is on luggage. Air fare is based on what you will be taking with you. Know the size of your luggage before you go and include the weight when you book your flight. If you anticipate buying lots of souvenirs before hopping on the flight, include that in your luggage weight estimate. It is better to pay for a conservative estimate than to show up and get an astronomical charge for oversized luggage at the airport when your budget is already set.
Getting around in a car in Europe is an awesome way to see the continent. If you can drive for even a portion of your vacation, I highly recommend it. While there are various options for obtaining a car in Europe—renting, leasing, buying and selling later—renting is the option that we are familiar with. We rented twice—from AVIS in Madrid, dropping off in Barcelona; and in Amsterdam.
The benefits of getting around Europe with a family via automobile include:
- You see more of the countryside. In my opinion, there is no better way for getting around Europe with a family than in a car. Driving gives you the opportunity to stop and take in the city, country, beach, or mountain views.
- You can go off the beaten path. Some of our favorite moments on our European family vacation were exploring abandoned castles we saw off in the distance, meandering through small towns along highways, and happening upon places we otherwise would never have gone to—places not touted in the travel guides.
Read more about the benefits of renting a car on your European vacation and also, 10 things you need to know before renting a car in Europe.
In my opinion, the possible downsides of getting around Europe with a family via automobile include:
- It can cost you time. If you are crunched for time or are visiting countries far apart, driving may not be your best option.
- It may not save you money. The rental car fees (including insurance), parking, and toll fare can add up. We spent quite a bit of money in Spain and Portugal on toll fees. Since we were traveling during off-peak season, we didn't have a lot of traffic to contend with. So, we opted to take non-toll roads whenever possible. But, those roads definitely take longer and sometimes, aren't even an option.
- Road tripping may not suit your family. If you are a family that does not do well in a car together for long periods of time, I do not recommend choosing driving as your primary way for getting around Europe with a family. A train or airplane may be a better choice for you.
We did not take public busses in Europe to get from place to place within a city. But, we did use bus transportation as part of our tours within different cities.
European bus tours vary based on the type of tour. On our trip, we went on two bus tours—a mini bus for getting from place to place on our group tour in Morocco and a Hop On, Hop Off double-decker bus tour in Barcelona. If your family is into big group tours, you will most likely take a large bus that can seat 50 or so people.
Check out the various types of tours to consider when taking a family trip to Europe.
The benefits of getting around Europe with a family via bus tours:
- You do not have to figure out transportation on your own. This, to me, is the biggest benefit. Sometimes, finding your way around in a foreign country or city can zap all of your time and money. And if you get lost, it can also lead to mental exhaustion. Including bus tours in your trip, especially in cities most foreign to you, is a safe way for getting around Europe with a family.
- With Hop On, Hop Off Type Tours, They Make It Simple for You to See All the Famous Sights. In large cities like Barcelona or Paris, cities that have lots of sight seeing opportunities and are spread out, bus tours with established routes and the option to get off and on at any stop are worth their weight in gold. Some travelers snub their nose at these tours, thinking they are too touristy. But, if you are looking to really see the sights in a short amount of time without having to figure out transportation, I highly recommend spending the money to invest in one of these tours. In smaller or more condensed cities like Rome, I suggest a Vespa tour, walking tour, or self-guided tours over this option.
In my opinion, the possible downsides of getting around Europe with a family via bus tours:
- You are with a larger group of people. Traveling in a group simply takes more time. You also are at the mercy of your tour guide and the other people in the group. It's up to you to decide whether your family deals better finding your way around Europe and exploring on your own or having someone else guide you. If the former, bus tours may not be the best option for you.
- They can be pricy. Going on an organized tour is going to cost you more than getting a subway card and figuring out how to get from place to place on your own. The benefit, aside from the awesome routes and hop on, hop off option, is the audio guides. Listening to the history of a city while you look out at the various attractions is a great way to not only get the lay of the land, but to also understand the art, culture, history, people, and religious aspects of the places you're visiting.
While you can certainly fly to most places in Europe, some spots are so close that they merit taking a ferry. For us, getting around Europe with a family, especially when one family member's goal was to set foot in Africa, meant finding cost-effective ways to make dreams a reality. And ferries were that transportation option for us when it came to getting from Spain, to Morocco, and back.
The ferry was a short 10-minute walk from our apartment in Tarifa, Spain and only a 45-minute ride to Tangier. Once in Tangier, we immediately met up with our tour, which consisted of one other couple, a tour guide, and a mini bus. You could consider ferries for other European destinations such as from London to Paris, Amsterdam, or Brussels; from London to Dublin; etc.
The benefits of getting around Europe with a family via ferries:
- Ferries are often the fastest form of transportation between two cities. Choosing the shortest routes can save you time in travel, giving you more time to see other places.
- They can be very cost effective. I compare the cost of a ferry to taking public transportation in a city. It just makes sense from a cost perspective.
- You are typically allowed to bring your car on the boat with you should you need it. When crossing country borders, make sure to read the terms from your rental car company. For example, we were not allowed to take our rental car from Spain into Morocco.
In my opinion, the possible downsides of getting around Europe with a family via ferries:
- A flight may be faster. I'm grasping at straws here, because I can't really think of many downsides to taking a ferry. A flight may be faster if you're, say, going from Paris to Dublin. Two ferry rides may take a long time. But, if you want to take your car or are meeting up with a tour group, a ferry is a great way to go.
Taking light rail, subways, and city busses are a great way for getting around Europe with a family. Most major cities' public transportation systems are very advanced.
The biggest benefit of getting around Europe with a family via public transportation is that it is cost effective, especially if you are traveling on a budget. If you are adventurous, accustomed to taking public transportation, are familiar with or are OK not speaking the language when you travel, public transportation is for you!
In my opinion, the main downside of getting around Europe with a family via public transportation is that mastering each city's public transportation system can be difficult. If you don't speak the language, aren't used to taking public transportation, or are nervous about getting lost, public transportation can add an element of stress to your trip that you may want to do without.
We opted not to take Eurail on our European family travel. For the places we were visiting, we found the cost extremely prohibitive for staying on a budget. Also, we found fewer options for night trains than we preferred, which would have required us to travel by train during the day, costing us a lot of time. And finally, because we love forging our own path, we simply didn't want to be cooped up in a train unable to stop at scenic overlooks, see the countryside, and explore on our own.
All that said, we did take an express train from Rome to Naples so we could see Pompeii and it was absolutely the best option for getting there quickly and doing a day trip along the Amalfi Coast. If you're simply trying to get from point A to point B in a hurry, trains, especially express trains, can be a great and cost-effective option.
Walking, Hiking, Biking, or Scooting
Other viable ways for getting around Europe with a family include walking, hiking, biking, or traveling via scooter. While these forms of travel won't get you from country to country, they can be a fabulous way to see a city, the countryside, or specific sights.
Walking: Regardless of how you get to a city or a specific sight, I always recommend getting off the train, out of the public transportation system, parking the car, and walking. Walking in towns like Toledo, Sintra, Tangier, and Rome allow you to get a great feel for what life is really like. We walked to explore, but we also walked to do our grocery shopping and to familiarize ourselves with the neighborhoods we were staying in.
Hiking: If your family loves to hike, purchase a travel guide before heading to Europe that details the best hikes in the areas you'll be visiting. We happened upon some great ones, like alongside the river outside of Toledo. Taking time to get out and hike can especially be nice if you are road tripping as it lets everyone stretch their legs.
Biking: Some countries, like Holland, are especially bike friendly. In fact, visiting Holland and not renting a bike almost seems like you'd miss out on one of the key parts of the culture. When we were there, we went to the tulip festival and rented bikes to go on established bike paths around the tulip fields. Bike rental companies, along with your bikes, will give you a map of the area, detailing the bike paths. The maps indicate how long, round trip, each path is so you can choose the path that is best for your family's endurance or time frame.
Scooting: When we were in Rome, we took a half-day Vespa tour with Scooter Roma Tours. Weaving in and out of traffic, up hills, and through tight alleys behind professional drivers and tour guides gave was one of our most favorite parts of our European family adventure.
As you can see, getting around Europe with a family requires you to choose one of many options: airplanes, automobiles, bus tours, ferries, public transportation, and trains. All of them have their up and downsides. At the end of the day, what is most important is choosing transportation options that work best with your budget, that you feel comfortable and safe with, and that gets you where you need to go in a way that best meets your family's travel needs.
What is your preferred way to travel when considering the various options for getting around Europe with a family?