Far Horizons

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 58 of the March 2017 issue.
On a headland in Biarritz, France, in June 2015, Randy Keck (right) chatted with the Dutchman Gysbert Haaksman, who was on a 2,500-kilometer pilgrimage from the Netherlands to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, pulling a 30-pound backpack apparatus that had a single wheel.

Europe travel bucket-list considerations and mentoring

In my January 2017 column, in which I wrote about developing a bucket list for travel, I excluded Europe from the discussion, choosing to treat that region separately. This month, I am covering Europe. 

This article is also intended to be used as a primer by any of ITN’s well-traveled readers who are in a position to influence and advise newer travelers. Please digest the following information with that idea in mind.

So where does the new traveler start when considering visiting Europe? Since European travel options are virtually endless, I will focus more on approach than on the specifics of particular destinations.

A valuable educational exercise is studying a good-size map of Europe in order to get a feel for the geographical sizes of the nations there as well as for their proximity to each other and the distances to be covered. This is particularly valuable when assisting younger travelers, since world geography seems to be largely ignored in many of our public schools today.

Europe single-destination travel

We all understand that a great many European countries each justify being visited on a single-destination basis. This also applies to particular regions within a single country. 

Some new travelers may simply decide they prefer this single-country-at-a-time approach, especially if they’re anticipating repeat visits to Europe. Great! On this topic, there are no right or wrong approaches, only those that best satisfy the needs of the individual traveler. 

I know a few people who travel to Italy every year with no desire to venture elsewhere in Europe. For them, however, it was an evolution of choice, based on having previously visited much of the rest of the Continent.

Multicountry travel

Once, more than two decades ago, I decided to join a 2-week, 10-country, whirlwind budget tour of Europe. It was precisely one of those trips that you hear the old jokes about, and, yes, we found ourselves in Belgium on a Tuesday, all 49 passengers on the 49-seat coach. 

I undertook the trip as an exercise in investigative journalism, since that type of travel was alien to my core as well as to many of ITN’s readers. The bottom line is that, for most of the passengers, the tour was a highly efficient and affordable first European travel experience. 

It featured an extensive array of Western European highlights and served as a great foundation from which to plan future explorations. Passengers on that English-speaking-only tour were from all over the globe, including the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Eastern Europe, adding an extra international dimension to the journey. 

Europe combinations to ponder

Certain areas within Europe, such as England, Wales and Scotland within the UK as well as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland within Scandinavia, lend themselves to easily visiting multiple countries in one journey, whether traveling on a group tour or independently. 

In Europe, travel distances are often short, and transportation options not only are abundant but tend to be relatively user-friendly and inexpensive.

For the moment, I’m going to “shotgun” a few suggestions for Europe-travel combinations. In some cases, these combinations will apply to the regions in bordering countries that are the most accessible. This is especially the case with larger nations such as Spain, France and Italy.

Facilitating one pairing, the famous English Channel Tunnel makes travel between England and France a breeze compared to the transportation options available in times past. A visit focusing on either country can easily include areas of the other. 

Portugal can easily be paired with Spain. And Spain, especially its northern regions, can be combined with neighboring France, with the trip’s primary emphasis on either. My wife and I did this pairing recently, crossing into Spain to visit San Sebastián during a self-drive exploration of southwestern France.

Visits to Belgium and the Netherlands can easily be combined with either or both of their German or French neighbors, with tiny Luxembourg thrown in as a bonus.

Austria is a logical pairing with Germany, and Switzerland can be easily included with any of its four boundary neighbors: France, Italy, Germany and Austria.

Poland excursions can include any of its seven bordering nations

Prague is often included with visits to one or more of the Czech Republic’s five neighboring nations

The Baltic neighbors of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are typically packaged together on group tours, at times with St. Petersburg, Russia, as an optional extension. 

Some parts of Eastern Europe today continue to be not overly user-friendly for independent travelers, especially those traveling on a self-drive basis. One great way to get a sampling of the region is to do an Eastern Europe Danube River cruise. Typically, such cruises visit Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, with shore excursions at each stop along the way. (Having done such a cruise during the month of October, I recommend going between May and September to have a greater likelihood of good weather.)

A few years ago I joined a fascinating small-group, 3-week Adriatic adventure tour that included Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and Slovenia plus visits to Trieste and Venice in the northeastern corner of Italy. The primary attraction was experiencing four Eastern European countries in one journey. 

Mysterious Iceland, despite its far-north location, functions as a European connection destination.

Many travelers take advantage of the (typically) aggressively priced flights from the USA to many mainland-Europe destinations on Icelandair because that carrier allows each passenger to make a stopover of up to seven days in Iceland at no extra charge. When I was returning home from an Iceland tour in summer 2016, the international airport in Reykjavik was overflowing with transferring passengers.

Travel Bucket List Mentoring 101

Because international travel requires investments of both time and money, the wisest travel choices usually result from selecting trips after doing research and planning. This is particularly the case when travel will be on a self-guided basis.

Access to a travel mentor can be a valuable part of a fledgling traveler’s planning process. Please do reach out and be a source of encouragement to new and potentially new travelers of all ages, especially when a novice’s travel-bucket-list planning is in its formative stages.

Encourage pre-travel research online and with quality guidebooks and, of course, back issues of ITN. ITN is also available online, and you can use the Search bar to find articles on destinations and more. 

Keep in mind that, in terms of approach and philosophy, what you share may be of equal or greater importance than knowledge about specific destinations.

The key to providing the most helpful, relevant advisories is asking good questions. Any advice proffered should be based on their interests, not yours. Focus on being sensitive to the listener’s attention span, avoiding telling detailed stories of your past travel experiences unless you’re specifically asked to share them. 

Good communication does not allow for monologues. Remember, the end goal is to inspire interest, not induce slumber.

You may reach Randy at 80 America Way, Jamestown, RI 02835; 401/560-0350, randykeck@yahoo.com.