|Subject: Re: New to list - lots of questions|
Also apologizing if I duplicate what others have written ... I would forego the Eurail pass as I've found that, personally, training it about for a week doesn't really seem like much of a vacation and you don't see as much.
You'll always be rushed trying to catch a train, get a seat, find food, go to the bathroom, etc. In addition a Eurail ticket doesn't guarantee you a seat on a train; just the ability to grab one before someone else does (of course this depends on the exact type of tickets you buy, but in general this is true.) My wife and I (aged 23 &31) also don't always like the bathroom quality and have noticed that train stations can be a big source of confusion:
Spoor A, Quai C? What's that?!!? Hurry! We've only got ten minutes! Where's the phrase book? ... What did he say? Is that our train? Quick, run! Do we have all of our bags?? etc.
Although this can be adventuresome it can also be stressful. You can run into various train strikes as they can happen unplanned at anytime. We have been stuck twice this way. Also with trains, if you're staying in a smaller town you can't count on a taxi to be available for you or the driver to know where he's going. We once had to wander for 2 miles after dark though Belgium (near Gent) due to an unscrupulous taxi driver and an absence of pay phones. We finally found an open restaurant and the Hotel owner had to come and get us. This was fun in retrospect, but I wouldn't do it again!
We usually go to Europe about twice a year and have traveled with various family members and found that the best travel method for between cities is a car. Just make sure you don't try to drive inner-city!! With a car you can pick it up at the Airport, take your time, stop when you want to, carry more luggage w/o concern or burden and count on it being there for you if you need to get someplace. Most cities have car parks near the outlying train stops where you can store it while you visit the city via public transport. Be prepared for substantially higher gas prices (approx. $4-$5/gallon) and figure them into your travel budget. I've found that our most enjoyable trips have been the ones that we've driven. These were also the times we met the most people as you'll find an infinite amount of quaint places to stop, stay and eat. We've frequently been surrounded by locals answering their questions and asking more until the wee hours. It may cost a bit more, but for us it's always worth it for peace of mind and ease of travel.
Overall I would suggest:
If your town is in Northern Italy: rent a car and drive through Tuscany. It's very easy and you can see the leaning tower of Pisa, go to Florence (park on the outskirts and taxi in!), and go to Venice (there is a nice parking garage there, then take the vaporetti). For me that would be nice, but there is also Portofino, the cinque terra(<-must see!), and the rest of the Italian Riviera or the lakes region to see. If you must see other countries then I would drive to Switzerland as you could also get to Austria and Germany this way. Bavaria, Munich, the castle region, or Innsbruck would be options. But this would be ALOT of driving. I would just stay in Italy and concentrate on either Florence and Venice or the Italian Riviera.
If your town is in Southern Italy: don't leave Italy! Just see Rome, Naples, Sicily, etc and enjoy the diving or sightseeing.
While I don't want to discourage you from train travel, extended trips for big distances are only for a certain type of person in my opinion. That person can travel with only a backpack, doesn't mind missing a shower, and can easily sleep anywhere. They don't mind cigarette smoke, body odor, or unclean bathrooms and they can easily take care of themselves if a confrontation should arise. If that is not you then I would suggest only using the train for point-to-point trips of a few hours or less and making hotel reservations in advance. If you are training it, first-class is always nice and the high speed trains are great! Very clean and very nice.
For us the best trips are stress free ones and they've required a lot of up front planning and research. For car rental contact AutoEurope (http://www.autoeurope.com) and for train travel go to http://www.raileurope.com. For hotels in Italy (and Beyond) a great chain is The Charming Hotels (http://www.thecharminghotels.com); each is unique (unchain like) and all are wonderful! We discovered these on a trip where our original hotel turned out to be not so great. Not only did they send someone to pick us up, they had food waiting and later arranged a hotel in London with a complimentary upgrade (way up!). They are not cheap, but I've never had better service and all are worth the splurge. The Helvetia-Bristol in Florence and the Londra Palace in Venice are particular highlights. Although they are in the Luxury category we've found them all to be very down-to-earth and each one had employees that went out of their way to make sure we had a great trip.
If you plan to drive buy *GOOD* maps in advance (go to the maps section in Barnes &Noble), get an international drivers license (from AAA, $10 and passport photo) and research your cities, where to park, and how to reach your hotels. For guide books I like Frommers over Fodors and have found that Rick Steve's are ok, but with the occasional gem you won't find elsewhere. Also when buying books look for the regional ones rather than the country ones. Not only do they give you a more in-depth discussion, but they help you stay focused.
Good luck and happy travels!