If you’d believe it, this trip was simultaneously slightly spontaneous and totally planned out. To explain… mentally, I’d dreamt out this type of trip for a long, long while; tracing an imaginary line on Google maps and thinking up mini-itineraries, but I never thought I’d have the time or the guts to complete a complex multi-destination trip like that.
We always take our ‘main’ holiday in September / October, in the shoulder season; in the UK kids are back at school, prices dip and the summer sun still lingers on the continent (if we’re lucky!) and last autumn we spent ten fantastic days in the Baltics, ticking off Mostar, Dubrovnik and Kotor, scooting about with our tiny hire car. I think it was the success of that, that injected us with confidence; perhaps we could take on something a bit bigger? It wasn’t actually until August this year, and we realised we still hadn’t booked any flights. We had toyed around with a few destinations but nothing became a concreate plan. I threw around in idea of a west Europe road trip, half expecting it to be way outside of any reasonable budget, and it was. I researched camper vans and hire cars and we hit dead ends from every angle. Camper van costs were absolutely insane and hire cars were so restrictive on maximum miles, and which countries you could drive to, in fact most companies didn’t want you take it outside of the UK – we’d hit a wall, until we figured out the most obvious solution; we could take our own car. Looking at hotel costs, nothing seemed out of reach, and then sorting out potential routes, well, that all seemed do-able. The beginning of September was fast approaching, so we panicked and dropped £200 on a return Eurotunnel crossing and figured the details will fall into place. Cue a manic couple of weeks of comparing hotel prices, estimating food and drink budgets, getting our head around the Swiss vignettes, planning routes to avoid toll roads and researching car parks and we finally had a European road trip to speak of!
Day One: Eurotunnel to Europe & an Evening in Antwerp
First stop was always going to be Belgium. Any excuse to run off to Belgium, you know I’m there for it. Having been to Brussels earlier on in the year, and recently visited the likes of Bruges, Ghent and Mechelen, we were super keen to go somewhere new so we planned in two nights in the capital of Flanders; Antwerp. After catching a midday Eurotunnel over to Calais, we drove the few hours to Antwerp, parked up in a P&R on the outskirts of the city and took a tram to the hotel. We wanted to get the most out of our time in Antwerp so we picked up a couple of the Antwerp City Cards which gave us free public transport, and free or discounted entry to Antwerp’s many museums and attractions. The other thing on the agenda, was of course, Belgium beer.
We spent our first evening celebrating the start of our road trip; mooching around the streets of Antwerp and toasting to adventure with a couple of Belgian beers at Bier Central!
Day Two: Full Day Exploring the Sights in Antwerp
We only planned an extended stay in two of the locations on the trip and past-me deserves a big high-five for making sure that one of those cities was Antwerp. Having only just scratched the surface of all the things to do, eat and drink in Antwerp, we had a full day of exploring on day two of our trip. First things first; orientating ourselves with a free walking tour and then hitting the museums – a highlight being the newly opened DIVA museum with more sparkle than my eyes could cope with, to discover more about why Antwerp is the Diamond capital of the world. As evening set in, it was again time to retreat into some of Antwerp’s best Belgian Beer cafe’s; Paters Vaetje for a glass of the local brew ‘De Koninck’, sampling international craft beer at Billie’s Bier Kafetaria and ending the night in De Kulminator, a back-street gem with hundreds of hard-to-find beers.
Day Three: Lunch in Maastricht and a boozy night out in Cologne
Antwerp to Cologne was a two-and-a-bit hour drive, so lunch at Maastricht at the half way point was a welcome stop. Even with such a short amount of time, a couple of hours walking around sunny Maastricht; strolling down the river front and through the narrow Dutch streets, we were able to get a good feel for the town. Rocking down the Autobahn to Cologne, we parked up around dinner time and took the train into Köln Hauptbahnhof. We stayed around the old town area, took a punt with Brauhaus Sion and had our first Kölsch experience! Thinking of German beer, I used to default to an image of an Oktoberfest style ‘Stein’, but at the other end of the scale to the Bavarian Maß, is Cologne’s 0.2 litre Kölsch glasses. It’s a whole difference experience; the beer is served to you at your table and a tally is marked on a beer mat. The Kölsch will literally keep coming at you until you place a beer mat over the top of your glass, to signal that you’ve reached peak-Kölsch. Head onto the next brew house and repeat until you’re suitably sloshed.
Day Four: A Leisurely Day in Heidelberg
There are always a few places you visit that capture you instantly, and for both of us it was Heidelberg. This University centric town in south Germany is uber-touristy due to the draw of it’s historic old town, romantic castle and panoramic views on the Necker river, but it still managed to feel laid back. We spent one day in the city exploring the streets in the Altstadt district, pub hopping around the brew houses and scoring the best meal of the whole trip; pork knuckle and spätzle with unfiltered German beer from Palmbräu Gasse. We even had time to take the Heidelberger Bergbahnen, the two-section funicular railway up to the castle to roam around in the castle gardens, and then take the second section up to the hills where we had a beer over 500 metres up, at the café at Königstuhl.
Day Five: An Afternoon in Munich
A four hours drive made all the more enjoyable as we cruised down the Autobahns towards our next location; Munich. Oktoberfest is pure solid-gold bucket list territory for me, and even though we’d be a few weeks early for this beer-centric celebration, I was still keen to spend the next couple of days brewhaus hopping, in a serious attempt to try as much as Munich’s famous beer as possible. First impressions; Munich struck me as being much more of modern destination than I thought it would be – less lederhosen clad Bavarians, more high-street fashion stores – still, it had more breweries and pubs I could possibly handle so it was all I dreamed of, as the beer capital of Europe!
By way of an introduction to the city, we started off in the Englische Garten, one of the largest urban parks in the world, for a stein in the beer garden and then headed into the main tourist area and straight into the epic beer-palace that is Hofbräuhaus, with the rest of the Bavarian-wannabees.
Day Six: A Full Day in Munich
Day two in Munich. Won’t lie, it was pretty heavy on the beer again, but we also took the morning out to join a free walking tour with Sandemans so we could understand more about the history of the city, the origins of Oktoberfest, the Mad King, where you can find the devils footprint, the city surfers and why a back street in Munich is paved with golden cobblestones. With the culture box ticked, it was back to beer tasting and pretzel eating (though, arguably that could be deemed a cultural experience in it’s own right!). We tried most of the ‘big six’ Oktoberfest beers and settled on our favourite, which is also, so say, the locals favourite too – Augustiner – Munich’s oldest independent brewery.
Day Seven: A Drive-by to Neuschwanstein Castle, Ice Creams in Liechtenstein, Wild Swimming in Switzerland and an evening in Zurich
Probably the most full-on day of the trip; starting in Germany, driving through Liechtenstein, dipping into Austria and finally ending our day in the capital of Switzerland, Zurich. Four countries in one day… Phew.
We checked-out of our hotel in Munich early to drive through the Bavarian countryside towards Neuschwanstein Castle. As idyllic as it was (Neuschwanstein Schloss is supposedly the muse behind Disney’s Magic Kingdom castle), our stop was cut short; the bus up to castle wasn’t dog-friendly for our pooch and it was too hot to walk the forty-minute uphill climb to the Marienbrücke look-out point. We made do with the stunning views from the village of Hohenschwangau and moved on towards Liechtenstein.
Vaduz is the smallest city you’ll probably ever go to; set your expectations at ‘tiny’ and still be surprised at size of the pocket-sized capital city. Yet for such a tiny, quiet toy-town, it’s worth the stop to wander down through the shopping area of the city, spot the quirky sculptures (say ‘hello’ to a giant pair of strappy heels and a small woman with three people peering up her dress!), look upwards to Vaduz Castle, admire the cleanness, the peacefulness, and the funky black registration plates on the Liechtenstein cars.
Hopping back into the car we punched in the address for our Zurich hotel, with intentions of heading straight there, but it was such a warm evening so we detoured off to the tiniest village called Murg on Walensee to find a public beach for a swim. The backdrop to Murg was this absolutely stunning mountain range and it was random detours that bring upon moments like that, which is why you just can’t beat road trips.
Zurich shunted us roughly to the other end of the scale; moving from the serene lake-side to miles of angry three-lane grid-lock traffic. After a considerable set-back, we managed to check-in to our motel, catch a tram to the city centre and we rolled into Zurich Hauptbahnhof just as the sun set and the city started to buzz. We quickly realised that Zurich wasn’t just expensive – the prices were frankly terrifying. We changed our plans and punted for a mock-German brewhaus for dinner; the cheapest decent grub we could find, and then went on the hunt for a bar with a mission to make a round last as long as possible. Despite haemorrhaging Swiss francs with not a lot to show for it, our evening in Zurich was an experience, and there was no denying this Swiss city is something special.
Day Eight: Breakfast in Basel, Spontaneous stop-off in Strasbourg and our final evening in Luxembourg City
Having gone as far South as we were going on this trip, we had another long jaunt ahead of us, starting with breakfast in Basel. This stop wasn’t planned into the original itinerary but I wasn’t fussed about heading back into Zurich on the tram, and Basel was only a short drive away. Sunday morning in Basel was really quiet, and there were only a few other tourists milling about, but we pretty much had free rein to sightsee around the old town and to wander down the bank of the Rhine. In all honesty, in was tick-box kind of stop; Switzerland was utterly show stopping in the scenery department but the country had me feeling poor and we wanted to move onto somewhere equally as gorgeous yet kinder on our budget!
So, Bonjour Strasbourg. We dipped into France for lunch as it was a handy half-way point between Switzerland and our bed for the evening in Luxembourg. Strasbourg was all I needed it to be; a postcard perfect town that was just as fairy-tale like in reality as it is in all those ‘grams on your Insta feed. It was all blue skies, sunny terraces, flower boxes and tiny canals; it was France, sugar coated and perfectly presented, wrapped in a bow. The obsession with this town is completely understandable.
Back in the car we ended our day in Luxembourg. This country slips under the radar for most, but this was our second trip in a year to this part of the world, which says a lot about how much we loved our time in Luxembourg City! We did absolutely nothing new, and chose to visit old favourites; dinner in our favourite restaurant, drinks at our favourite pub and an evening walk up to the Chemin de la Corniche. Perfect!
Day Nine: Detour via Leuven and home to the UK
Thank god we had the good sense to check our Eurotunnel confirmation before we left Luxembourg; I was convinced we had a train booked for midday when it was actually late evening, uhhh! This error meant we had time for a spontaneous detour somewhere in Belgium. My first thought was taking a trip to Ghent, but then we figured out we could head slightly off our planned route and spend a couple of hours in Leuven; somewhere we’d both not been before. Win!
As Jamie was driving and it was such a short stop, he couldn’t drink anything, which felt unnatural – Belgium without Belgian beer!? But hey, Leuven was such a stunning city; from the ornate town hall to the streets of the Groot Begijnhof, Leuven’s beguinage. And… as I forgot to have a Belgian waffle in Antwerp, I finally could relieve my cravings.
Starting in Belgium and ending in Belgium, we drove the rest of the way to the Calais terminal to board our Eurotunnel, mentally preparing ourselves for the return to the day-job the next day.
The holiday-blues hit hard after this one!
The Nitty Gritty: How Much Does A European Road Trip Cost?
I won’t lie, this one didn’t come up cheap on the books; petrol and parking costs rack up the price a fair bit. However, I’ll let you judge for yourself if my trip came out as good value.
So, I visited eleven cities across seven countries. It was £232 for the Eurotunnel crossing, however that did include the £36 pet fee for our dog. As a side note, as much as I sometimes get irritated and the delays and problems on the Eurotunnel line, it’s an absolute blessing to have this easy dog-friendly way to travel to Europe!
Our hotels around Europe varied as we travelled South towards the slightly less wallet-friendly Switzerland! Our first hotel was an Ibis Budget near the train station in Antwerp that cost £95 for two nights, then it was £91 for one night in the Ibis Budget in Cologne, £75 for one night in our B&B Hotel in Heidelberg, £155 for two nights in the Motel One in Munich (we upgraded on the standard of accommodation for our anniversary!), £79 on a (ever-so slightly grim) hotel on the outskirts of Zurich and £43 on a lovely Airbnb near Grund in Luxembourg City; all hotels had to consider parking options and be dog-friendly. That’s a total of £538 for eight nights for two people (plus a dog!), averaging at £67 per night or just over £33 per person per night.
Parking and Public Transport
Parking was free almost everywhere apart from in Munich where we parked at the hotel for £21 for two nights. In Antwerp we parked for £2 in a park and ride on the outskirts, and took the tram to the city. In Heidelberg, Cologne, Zurich and Luxembourg we parked for free at the hotel or property, which saved us a good chunk of money! Of course, we took public transport such as trams and metro trains to get around the locations, I won’t break it down city by city because the cost was similar at each place, but in total we spent £66, or £33 per person.
Food and Drink
Not surprisingly food and drink costs were over our original estimates, since we were travelling through countries that tempted us with world-class beer, waffles, frites, pork knuckle and spätzle! We spent £715 on feeding our faces and drinking the pubs dry… yup. That’s £357 per person, or around £40 per person per day, which doesn’t sound too bad when you figure it out like that.
Petrol and Tolls
£250 went on petrol and almost £40 went on tolls; the Swiss and Austrian vignette to gain us access to their motorways.
So, let’s tot up the costs; the actual trip cost £1149. That’s travel, petrol, tolls, accommodation, parking and public transport costs. Split that between two, that’s £574 per person as we travelled as a couple. Add in food and drink costs, the entire trip cost £1864 (£932 per person), or a budget of £103 per person per day for a nine day European road trip.
So, how did I do?