European Vacation Planning on the World Wide Web

By James E. Lancaster, Ph.D.


During the summer of 1997 my wife Sharon and I made a 25-day trip to Great Britain and four European countries. Virtually the entire trip was planned using internet resources.

The impetus for the trip was 60,000 miles worth of Northwest Airlines frequent flyer Fly-Write tickets that were about to expire. Under Northwest's original World Perks program the 60,000 miles were enough for two free US to Europe coach class round trips.

Our initial plan was to visit parts of England, Scotland, France and Germany, with Switzerland and Austria as possibilities. We planned to either drive or use the train to travel between countries. We picked late June of 1997 as our departure date in order to beat the deadline for using the Fly-Write tickets.

In late August 1996 (300 days ahead of departure) I used Northwest Airlines' web page to find trans-Atlantic flights that had seats available for frequent flyer travelers. We finally decided on flying from Orange County to London via Detroit and returning from Frankfurt. I then called Northwest and made the reservations.

I wanted to organize the trip myself and had intended to start the detailed planning early in 1997. Work and other activities pushed that back to late April. By then it was too late to do much corresponding by mail so I began to see what I could do on the World Wide Web using my Macintosh PowerPC, Netscape and the AltaVista search engine (http://www.altavista.com). [Note: Today I would use the Google search engine (http://www.google.com) rather than AltaVista.]

First we laid out a tentative itinerary -- London, York, Edinburgh, Paris, Interlaken, St. Moritz, Vienna, Rothenburg and Frankfurt. Except for St. Moritz and Frankfurt, these were all places where we wanted to spend some time. St. Moritz was on the list because it is the eastern terminus of the Glacier Express, a train I wanted to ride, and Frankfurt was the departure point for our flight home.

I then used AltaVista to search for web pages on British and European rail passes, train schedules, and travel guides for several of the cities we wanted to visit.

Along the way Prague was added to the tentative itinerary. However, it soon became apparent that going to Vienna and Prague would add too many days of just train riding so we began to look for some alternatives. My wife suggested the Cotswolds in England. We had only heard a little about the area so I searched the web for information on it (http://www.visit-glos.org.uk) as well the nearby city of Bath. The Cotswolds sounded so charming they convinced us to rethink our itinerary. The Cotswolds were in; Vienna and Prague would have to wait for another trip.

The final itinerary ended up as follows -- London (4 nights), the Cotswolds (2 nights), York (1 night), Edinburgh (4 nights), Paris (4 nights), Interlaken (4 nights), Sargans (a small Swiss city; 1 night between trains), Oberammergau (1 night), Rothenburg (1 night) and Frankfurt (1 night). Also included were stops in Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Kempten (Germany) to pick up or drop off rental cars. Maps of the UK, northern France, Switzerland and southern Germany show our route of travel. The heavy red line indicates travel by train and the heavy blue line travel by rental car.

I knew nothing about Kempten except that it was on one of the main rail routes from Switzerland to Germany and had the closest Hertz agency to Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle -- a must see stop for us. Kempten was located solely by web searches before ever consulting a conventional paper map. The same goes for Sargans. It replaced St. Moritz as an overnight stop and allowed us to depart from Interlaken in the morning, make a three hour stop in Lucerne for lunch, and still have time to ride a good portion of the route of the Glacier Express -- all in one day.

Once the itinerary was fairly firm I began to search for accommodations with a goal of keeping the average cost around $100 per night. I found hotels in London and Frankfurt through the Quality Inns web page (http://www.hotelchoice.com/) and in Rothenburg through the Best Western web page (http://www.bestwestern.com/main.html). I searched for a small hotel in the Opera section of Paris and came up with the Hotel Marsollier Opera -- at one time the residence of Oscar Wilde (http://www.123france.com/europe/france/paris/hotels/holistus.htm). Making the reservation via the internet resulted in a significant discount off the published rate. For the Cotswolds, York, Edinburgh, Interlaken, Sargans, and Oberammergau I searched for B&Bs or small hotels. One of the Oberammergau guest houses, the Gasthof Zur Rose, looked familiar (http://www.oberammergau.de). It turned out to be one where we had stayed in 1990 when we were in Oberammergau for the Passion Play. We stayed there again in 1997.

I was able to make all of the reservations directly over the internet or by e-mail for every place but Edinburgh and Sargans, where a B&B and a small hotel were found through web pages but I had to telephone to make the actual reservations -- neither had e-mail or a fax machine.

With the accommodations mostly set I used the Eurail pass and Britrail pass web pages to find the best combination of rail and rail/drive passes (http://www.railpass.com). For the UK the most economical combination was a 6-day Britrail Pass plus Hertz car for myself (3 car days + 3 train days over two months) and an eight consecutive day Britrail Pass for my wife. I used the Hertz web page (http://www.hertz.com) to verify the availability of cars in Bath (for the Cotswolds) and Edinburgh. For the continent I bought two 5-day Europasses. I also bought two discounted Eurostar tickets for a trip through the chunnel from London to Paris.

I ordered the rail passes by telephone from Rail Pass Express then called Hertz to reserve the cars in Bath and Edinburgh. The Hertz car that we picked up in Kempten and dropped off in Frankfurt was reserved entirely through the Hertz web page.

Next I used internet railroad timetables for England (http://www.railtrack.co.uk/travel), Scotland (http://www.scotrail.co.uk), Switzerland (http://www.rail.ch) and Germany (http://bahn.hafas.de) to plan the details of our train schedules. The Swiss and German internet timetables were especially helpful because they also cover neighboring countries such as France and Austria. You enter the origin city, destination city, date, desired departure time, and intermediate cities (if you want to indicate a specific route) and the timetable comes back with several options around the input departure time.

Finally, I used AltaVista to search for tourist type information for each city, town or area where we were stopping. I found much more than I can describe. One example was Giverny which we visited on a day trip from Paris by train. The Giverny web page (http://www.giverny.com) provided schedules, costs and a complete description of Claude Monet's house and garden, the latter the setting for many of his impressionistic paintings. When I wanted to find out what we should do while in Interlaken, I searched for everything I could find on the Bernese Oberland-Jungfrau Region -- sightseeing trams to mountaintop viewpoints, narrow gauge trains, day hikes, lake steamers, etc. One web page called "Traveling with Ed and Julie" (http://www.TWEnj.net/~enj/bovisit.htm) led to a wealth of information and was extremely helpful in planning our three days in that area. I even found a page with 'LiveAudio' sounds of yodeling, Swiss cowbells and Alpine horns (http://www.wengen.com/sights.html).

I ended up bookmarking the URLs (the internet addresses) for almost 140 different web pages. (By bookmarking them in Netscape I could easily go back to them.) Probably half of the web pages were found directly from searches with AltaVista and the other half by 'hot links' from related web pages. Considering that many of the 140 web pages were actually multiple pages, I probably looked at somewhere between 200 and 300 pages -- plus all those that had nothing useful.

In the end almost everything went exactly as planned. Every hotel and car reservation was waiting for us. We ended up on almost every train I planned to ride, only deviating in two or three instances. Only one train schedule from the internet had an error and that was easily corrected. Using mostly printed train schedules from the web pages we never missed a train -- and we rode 37 in all, some with connections as short as five minutes (see Train List).

The hotels and B&Bs were all good or better (see Itinerary/Lodging List). And I think only London and Rothenburg were over my $100/per night guideline. Most of the B&Bs were in the $70-$80/night range. If there was a negative aspect to any of our accommodations it was the lack of space in a few. But it didn't really bother us since we usually left our room by 9:00 AM and often didn't get back until after 10:00 PM. The summer days were long -- particularly in Scotland where the sun set after 9:30 PM.

The planning took a lot of time -- most of my evenings for about a month. Along the way there were some frustrating periods when I couldn't easily find what I was looking for. But in the end there was a certain amount of satisfaction seeing it all come together. It was a great trip! Read about it.

Slide Shows
The author has given slide shows about this trip to the Friends of the Anaheim Public Library (1998), the California State University-Long Beach Senior University (1999, 2000) and the Fullerton Senior Center (1999, 2000). The next scheduled slide show is on England and Scotland at the California State University-Fullerton Continuing Learning Experience on November 4, 2003.

P.S. You can find a plethora of additional information on planning a European vacation by visiting the web site Traveling with Ed and Julie.


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Created 12/22/97

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