Planning The planning of our trip started about 2 months before we actually got on the plane. The starting point of the trip is determined by Tim's Europe performing tour. We wanted to meet him at his last show in Boblingen, Germany on July 7th, 2010. Boblingen is between two big cities, Frankfurt and Munich. The flights between Chicago and Frankfurt turn out to be more frequent and economic. So we decided to book a round trip flights from Chicago to Frankfurt and back.
Rent a Car
The 2nd major decision is to make choice between renting a car or riding on trains. The train systems in Europe are fully developed and inter-connected across countries and cities. After research on train schedules and fees we decided for 5 of us going as family having a car would make more sense. That decision turned out to be the best choice. The car provided us great flexibilities and freedom to go and stay any where at any time we wanted. It simplified the rest of the planning.
Another merit of renting a car is the driving experience in Europe. First of all the car we rented from Frankfurt airport is a nice German car (not a luxury type) with power, speed and sensible controls. The GPS is a a must and the one we had is superior - it speaks out ahead of every turn and half turn in the circular streets of European cities. The highways are of much better quality in Europe than in the States, especially in Germany. We could easily drive 100-120 miles per hour and there is no traffic cops giving speeding tickets. What a smart way to live! The only city we had to put our car away is Paris. Fortunately the hotel we stayed in Paris has indoor garage and we did use our car for the day tour in Versailles from Paris.
After the transportation is decided the real fun part of the planning begins - find out where to go and what to do in each place.
The internet certainly is the best place to do the research and you can easily spend days and weeks in reading other people's experiences. The two resources I found most useful to me is the following.
1. Risk Steve's Europe Tours
This guy has produced a large amount of books and video tours. You can easily check them out from your local library. I watched a bunch of his DVDs with my family. He has super natural style, good sense of humor and insights to the local culture and history.
2. Viator Tours
This site provides short excursions from major cities in Europe. It offers city tours and different kinds of tourist events. All the tours are organized by regions and cities so you can easily find out what to do if you have a target city/place in mind. The tours are very well described and the site provides substantial user reviews and ratings.
3. Itineraries from Travel Companies
These are good resources to research classical group tours in Europe. You can get pretty good ideas of various travel routs and packages.
Hotel reservation can be a daunting task after all. I made most of my reservations through booking.com
The site is faster and better organized than Hotels.com. It has higher quality hotels, a lot of information on the hotels and well organized customer ratings and reviews. I gave a lot of weights to customer reviews. You can also book family run B&B on this site.
My two favorite hotels on this trip are Le Chat Noir in Paris (http://hotel-chatnoir-paris.com/) and andel's Hotel in Berlin (http://www.andelsberlin.com/en/home/). The breakfast in Andel's is simply the best on Earth.
Fly in Europe
Don't be shy away from the flights when travel in Europe. The local airlines have very reasonable fairs and flying can actually save you time and money. Our round trip ticket between Frankfurt and Berlin was about $50. You can take small carry-on with no charge. Any check-in bags will cost you $30. The airports have storage box that you can rent which is very cheap to store your extra bags for a few days and pick them up on your way back.
The sites I used to book local flights are the following:
The AirDB, www.theairdb.com, provides information about airports, airlines, and connections worldwide, with lots of useful information about Europe.
FlyCheapo.com, www.flycheapo.com, is a cheap flight finder for Europe using a low-cost airline route database.
SkyScanner, www.skyscanner.net, is a low-cost flight search engine, focusing mostly on cheap flights in Europe.
If you ever want to take rails for your Europe tour here are the sites to start.
Vacation By Rail
Making Reservation of Rails
Europe Car Rentals
We rented our car from Frankfurt airport and returned it into a different airport in Frankfurt.
Good luck on your trip to Europe! Please share your experience so we can all have better and exciting trips after all.