Europe Travel for First Timers





By Gordon Duff STAFF WRITER/Senior Editor

Traveling to Europe with the exception of often disappointing package tours can be intimidating.  However, travel can be managed and even enjoyed, moreover it can also be affordable, if some simple preparations are made.  As a wine importer, searching the back roads and byways of Europe for that perfect Riesling or that ‘not so perfect’ $2 dollar plonk, I have made every wrong turn imaginable and then some.

Let me share some very real insider tips.

 It is possible to fly into Europe, rent a car and visit several countries without total disaster befalling you, even if you don’t speak a word of Hungarian or know how to drive on the wrong side of the road through a “roundabout.” The first question is, of course, why go at all? What is really there and what can be expected? How will I be treated? Let’s do this, plot out a typical trip, one that gives a lot of options.

Air fare deals are always available online. Others can explain the “ins and outs” of this better than me but the best deals are Frankfurt, London and Paris for entry points. Each has their charms and downfalls. The airport you choose to enter Europe through sets your schedule. You will have to loop back there, turn in your car and fly out again. Let’s look at Frankfurt first. Pack light, very light and make sure one of your carryon bags is a flexible cooler. You will thank me profusely for this should you survive and return home.


Frankfurt is, of course, in Germany, about an hour from the Rhine. Do not stay in Frankfurt. You pick up your car, with navigation device please, and set your destination. A word about rental cars. Stick to prime companies, Hertz, Avis or Sixt. If you are staying more than 2 weeks buy a car from Peugeot Open Europe. Always get a diesel when you can. A small CDI/TDI vehicle with stick shift gets the mileage of a hybrid and even the smallest, let’s say, the Peugeot 207, will hold two people, luggage and still hold an easy 100 mph on the Autobahn all day long.

 A minor warning, Britain, France and Italy have clearly posted speed limits. Follow them. Britain and Germany are loaded with traffic cameras. Drive accordingly! Now we are ready to leave Frankfurt: You go two directions, West or South. South: Germany has good roads, no tolls, you can drive pretty fast. There are no “exits” or as they call them “ausfarts” like in the US. You get off the Autobahn and you are, well, off the Autobahn, not at an exit filled with hotels and shopping malls. Stay on the road unless there is a destination close by.

Use the pay toilets, the free ones in Germany are deplorable and filthy. Keep coins with you, expect to pay half a Euro to use a bathroom, even if you just bought 80 Euros of fuel. Don’t let this get you angry. Food at the Autobahn stops is generally good and affordable. If it wasn’t, you have no other choice anyway. Welcome to that world. Learn enough German to give your pump number when you buy fuel and to say thanks, “dankashane” in the north and “grussgott” in the south. Don’t mix the two up, whatever you do. OK, try it and see what happens.

Though there are many official tourist sights in this region of Germany, I have favored putting the pedal to the metal and running for Bavaria. This splits off two directions, straight into Austria through Fussen or down to Munich and into Garmisch, the FernPass and Austria again. Munich has much to see and very expensive hotels. It has much traffic. North of Munich is Dachau, which will, with traffic and walking, take most of a day. You decide about that.

Bavaria is beautiful, almost beyond measure. Garmisch is a good day-trip center, fast roads, a few good restaurants and hotels you can book online. For military and retirees, the Edelweiss is available. Even when you are there, you can always give them a call and look for openings due to cancellations. The military has a dozen or more inns across Germany which can be researched through “military temporary housing.”

Standard tourist sites like castles are often disappointing. Get a map, drive around, park your car, take hikes, eat at the Alms Hutte’s that dot the hillsides. Try the Thai restaurant in Garmisch, right off the river, about 200 meters from the church. You can spend a lifetime in Bavaria or do it in 3 well planned days and set your navigation system for Venice. This will run you through the Brenner Pass into Italy.

Oddly, getting from Germany to Italy is so fast, you won’t even know you were in Austria. A warning. Austria is fanatical about seat belts and headlights. It is very easy to do a hard left and head to Salzburg and down to Vienna.

 Salzburg is a short visit, I recommend two hours (they will hate me for this) but Vienna is worth a day or more. Vienna has limited nightlife but great hotels and food. You have to be a bit of an “art and music” person to appreciate Vienna. Austria requires a window sticker to use their highways. They are affordable and I recommend you get one. Switzerland does the same, should you accidentally turn “hard left.” Switzerland is pricey and requires a bit of study to visit.

Make sure you have a full cooler and food bag before entering Switzerland, that or an empty Visa card. Getting this straight, you are going to enter Austria from Germany, either around Fussen or Reute, hit their short motorway system and take a turn south to Brennero. This is the drive of a lifetime, though an incredible mountain pass for several hours, perfect roads, incredible views into Northern Italy. Read up on the history so you will know about the castles and fortresses you pass. Study a bit of World War I and some of Austria-Hungary. This will explain why things look the way they do.

Italy is toll roads but cheaper than they used to be. For military travelers, advance reservations at Aviano or Ederle are advised. Getting around Italy is extremely fast. You can plant yourself in a bargain hotel around Vicenza or Verona and day trip into Venice. They have a parking structure (expensive but unavoidable) or you can stay in Maestre, much closer, and take the bus. I did this and found it fun. Venice is “A List” visit but can be seen in 4 hours. Venice at night is its own world, very different and quite spooky. You might just love that too, even in winter.

My favorite town to return to after a day trip is Verona. Hotels are “average,” food is cheap and you can walk for hours. Traffic is acceptable. You can get in and out of Verona and Vicenza and the are right off the east/west Autostrada to Venice. This part of Italy is “Shakespeare” country, Romeo and Juliet and Merchant of Venice, etc.

A short way south if Florence (Firenza). Traffic is unpleasant and the town is a combination of incredible sights and shopping mall. Do not plan a trip around visiting Florence. Go there if you must.


You can easily get to Greece from Italy with little or no advance planning. Set your navigation device for Ancona. Consider booking in advance online but you can also book in town and even negotiate a better price. This carries risks. This is an overnight ferry to Greece which requires a stateroom. Don’t book without a stateroom but, if you are brave, wait on the ship until everyone is loaded and head for the main desk. With good bargaining skills and luck, you may end up with a huge suite for as little as 150 Euros.

There are two places to get off the boat in Greece, Ignomista or Patras. Ignomista is near the Albanian border, not far from Corfu. If heading into Greece, this lets you visit the hilltop monasteries at Meteora (two hours) and head down to Delphi, which is an “A list” destination.

Driving down to Athens or the Peloponnesus from there is unpleasant and long. Patras is only a couple of hours from Athens. From there, you can begin any standard itinerary of Greece or pick up another ferry in Piraeus, the port of Athens and head to Crete or other islands in the Aegean Sea. Military travelers will find Crete extremely affordable through the AFVC (ask your MWR officer). Greek ferries are neither fun nor friendly. I think their personnel are trained by either airlines or the TSA. However, Greece may have the finest highway system in the world.


Tuscany is the heart of “tourist” Italy. The ultimate day trip center is Lucca, a walled city near Pisa. Stay in Lucca or Siena and drive elsewhere. You want a town to walk around in at night, Lucca is perfect. It has great food and seven miles of city walls to walk. You can stay inside the walls or out, there are huge free city parking lots just outside the walls. Always book online.

A tour book is vital, I generally recommend Rick Steves although some of his recommendations are incredible and others make me wonder. Be very prepared for your time in Tuscany, traffic can be difficult, driving not so much fun but it is an amazing place. “Two laning” across Italy is NOT recommended. Get on and off the Autostrada but do not try to cover distances on small roads no matter how much you may want to, unless you have all the time in the world. Do not speed on two lane roads, ever.

Driving around Tuscany, visiting the small Etruscan hilltop towns and getting “misplaced” may be the adventure of a lifetime. Build in time for this and also expect traffic delays getting back to your hotel.

Getting down to Rome is easy, a couple of hours, but, as soon as you enter Rome, expect a driving experience. Book a hotel in advance and discuss parking with them. I have a favorite hotel in the old Jewish region near the Tiber with a secret parking place. Waterboarding me for a month wouldn’t get the location. Their latte and baked goods are to die for. If it is summer, consider discussing air conditioning. Consider it seriously. Rome is very warm in summer but there are curious water fountains every block, a holdover from the Roman era. They are a lifesaver. Rome, even with extreme heat is survivable and a great visit.

Rome is also affordable, half of the price of Chicago. Study public transportation before going. Be prepared to walk endlessly. Rome is a great city for nightlife. I have a favorite restaurant on Via Arenula, short way across the Tiber. Head past Dante’s house, past McDonalds, it will be on the left. You sit at picnic tables. I recommend ordering a pizza and their sausage and bean dish and, of course, litres of their awful unaged local wine. Price in winter is next to nothing, in summer it is dirt cheap. Eat where locals eat, take your time, spend hours. This may well be the best part of your entire trip.

The worst visit of Rome is the Colosseum. The TV tours are better than the real thing. However, the rest of Rome is very much worth it, a town of considerable complexity and charm. You cannot drive around Rome. Once your car is parked, the next time you see it, you will dust it off.

If you are going to Pompeii, book a tour from Rome. Never try to “two lane” south of Rome, never, ever! Take the train or bus, use a guide, thank me later. Naples (Napoli) is a challenging city for experienced travelers only who know exactly what they are getting into. You can’t “day trip” from Rome. Visiting Ostia Antica, the Italian port now near the mouth of the Tiber, is a ‘to die for’ day trip, however. You can drive this and expect a very long walk. This is a serious collection of Roman ruins.

It is possible to head north from there, along the coast, and return to Tuscany. Roads are good, move well but the scenery is fairly uneventful. The Army has a facility at Camp Darby, not far from Pisa, friendly but “low rent.” If you camp and are “tough as nails,” you can stay at Darby, one of the best positioned American bases for touristing. Many of you may look into renting a motor home and doing exactly that. (Watch out for speed traps outside Camp Darby.)


Thus far, you flew into Germany but only saw Bavaria. The rationale for Frankfurt is price and airline flexibility. Today those are dominant factors in travel. But, as of now, you are in or around Rome and checking how much your Visa card can handle and when you have to be back. A straight run back to Frankfurt is nightmarish, though you can get from Rome back to Bavaria, Garmisch or similar, in a single day of dedicated driving. I have done it with kids in the car and a side trip to Orvieto (good visit) with ease. OK, I am lying, nobody travels with two kids in the back seat with “ease.”

The nav device is going to get you back to Germany as soon as possible. Frankly, if you are going most other places, best head back toward Frankfurt, even if visiting Britain, you still go through Germany. Topography and roads decide how you get around. You can, however, take the turnoff while heading north on the Autostrada toward Lucca and Genova (Genoa). This takes you into France for several days of “A list” sites and then a mad rush up the Rhone basin and back into Germany.

From Genova westward, you are on toll roads that enter France with dozens of tunnels. While you pile on the miles with great efficiency, much of it in the dark, you miss driving the incredible coast from Italy to France, Monaco and into Nice. I did the coastal road once. Nice is the best overnight stop. Book a hotel online, driving inside Nice requires patience and a navigation device. Nice has security issues, pickpockets and such but is worth an evening of walking around.

Driving north into Southern France from any place along the entire Mediterranean is a joy. France is easy to travel in, extremely friendly and very easy to find hotels in, easier than the US actually. Prices are good. Large grocery stores, “Hypermarts” are great for shopping and prices are lower than in the US with a selection of food and wine beyond any place on earth. These are very “no hassle” as is much of France, far easier than traveling in Germany or Italy. Any sensible person would live in Southern France, that becomes obvious rather quickly.

Providing you aren’t heading to Spain, a drive I do all the time, you head north around Avignon. This is one of the best overnight destinations but hotels are spotty there, something normally unusual in France. Normal guidebook stuff works well but do not miss going to Pont du Garde. This is a Roman viaduct/aqueduct combination very much worth the short drive and small fee. This may be the finest ruin of any kind anywhere on earth.

You probably saw another way north, through Turin and up to Geneva. I covered this in an earlier article on travel to Padua. Scenery and hotels on this route, tunnels under Mt. Blanc, is worthwhile but it eats much time and tunnel tolls are scary. In the end, you end up in Geneva, Switzerland. I bought a hot dog there at a Woolworths for $11 once. They cost more now.

 I recommend taking the A7 north, getting off at Orange and visiting the incredible Roman theatre there, (2 hours) and doing an overnight at Beaune. This is a long run past country where you could spend a lifetime looking around. You could have just come here in the first place but it is on the way to no place else so missed by most Americans. You could easily kill a week here in the middle of one of France’s finest wine regions. This is the finest “two lane” driving or motorcycling regions in the world.

From there, I recommend taking the A 36 east toward Mulhouse, north of Basel and picking up the A 37 north toward Colmar and Strasbourg. Colmar is another good overnight, Strasbourg is better. Hotels are cheap, food is good and the region, the Alsace, is beautiful. You might want to take some time reading about the Alscace. You could spend weeks here and enjoy every moment. From Strausbourg, north, you are within reach of the Frankfurt airport.

For Americans who served in Europe in the armed forces, the territory north will be very familiar. This is very much “American Germany.” If time allows, while staying within reach of Frankfurt, the Mosel Region offers the best of Germany. From Trier to Koblenz, the Mosel is lined with vineyards and small hotels. Trier has a wonderful cathedral and significant Roman ruins. You can always simply go there and say you were in Italy. This is one of the top 10 drives in the world. Prices are good, food inexpensive and wines are available here that can be gotten no other place on earth. Unless you have tasted TBA (Trockenbeerenausles), Eiswein or the fine sweet or dry Rieslings from the Mosel, you have missed much of your wine education.

Camping out at the Hotel Romischer Kaiser in Bernkastel would be my choice. Tilo also owns the Rathaus, a restaurant on the town square. Wine can only be purchased from Weingut Adam Lauer on the square or Weingut Hansenlauer on Burgstrasse. (free plugs for friends..also good advice)

From Bernkastel, you are 4 hours from Calais and the UK, an easy run there, to London and beyond? Sound crazy? You can run to Paris just as easy. Mostly, you are two hours from a plane in Frankfurt. In reality, this is where the turn west would have gone, the the Rheinland/Pfalz in Germany, the Roman city of Trier or Belgium, the Netherlands or into Northern France and Paris. This is the possibilities for Frankfurt only and only some of them.

Time, cash and issues of health and mental toughness are the limitations. In the end, the best trips script themselves.


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Gordon Duff posted articles on VT from 2008 to 2022. He is a Marine combat veteran of the Vietnam War. A disabled veteran, he worked on veterans and POW issues for decades. Gordon is an accredited diplomat and is generally accepted as one of the top global intelligence specialists. He manages the world's largest private intelligence organization and regularly consults with governments challenged by security issues. Duff has traveled extensively, is published around the world, and is a regular guest on TV and radio in more than "several" countries. He is also a trained chef, wine enthusiast, avid motorcyclist, and gunsmith specializing in historical weapons and restoration. Business experience and interests are in energy and defense technology.

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