Planning an international holiday across multiple non-English speaking countries is always a challenge. The tradeoff is between Experience, Cost and Flexibility. This was the first challenge I faced while planning a European Holiday to Vienna – Prague – Budapest – Amsterdam.
Do we stick to group tours or do we plan it on our own?
Initially I was not confident if I could do it on my own and explored the standard packages from SOTC, Make My trip, Cox & King and other established players. None of them worked out. They were rushed 7 – 8 days trips with no flexibility, most departures were Ex Mumbai / Delhi, the cheapest flights at unearthly hours and a lot of travel by Bus at night. A holiday with a bus full of noisy Indians and Indian food was not something to look forward to. Add to this it was not working out to be cheap. A 7 Night package costs ~ 1.5 Lacs/ person with the above limitations.
We worked out a Via media solution. We took the help of Marwell Travels for booking Tickets and Visa Documentation/Appointment but the rest of the stuff we did by ourselves and it worked out pretty well. We covered 4 Countries, 4 Cities in a 12-night 13-day Trip for almost the same cost as what the large Travel companies were charging for a 7-day trip. We covered all the important sights and more, had the flexibility of spending more time at places we liked, enjoyed local cuisine, and had a great holiday.
As I went about the exercise I could not find a lot of information and this Blog should help you plan your trip if you decide to visit these Countries.
What is a good time to Travel to these countries?
Winter in these countries lasts till March/ April and is harsh with subzero temperature. Summer starts from June. So, the best time to travel is from June – August. We visited between May 15th and 28th. It was cold by Indian standards 10 – 15 Degrees and were lucky to get sunny clear days almost all thru the trip. Since schools in Bangalore tend to open by early June this is the best window you can get. You don’t need thermals but do arm yourselves with pullovers, sweaters, jackets and warm caps. No shorts & half sleeves.
How easy is to get a Schengen Visa?
There is paperwork involved. But if you follow the instructions it’s easy to get an appointment and Visa. Remember you need to apply to the country which is your first point of entry. For E.g. we did Vienna – Prague – Budapest – Amsterdam, so we applied for an Austrian Visa as Vienna was the first point of entry. The cost of a Schengen Visa is 60 Euros or ~ Rs 5000/-. While applying for a Visa in addition to Bank Statements and Tax papers you also need tickets, Hotel confirmations and Itinerary – It helps to have a Travel Agency aid you with these. Marwell Travels helped us with ( +91 9810078093, +91 11 24619259).
What is the best route plan to cover these countries?
Budapest is at the Southernmost tip and Amsterdam is at the Northern end. Since Train Travel is the most efficient way between these cities you must start your trip from Amsterdam or Budapest.
If you start your trip with Amsterdam you may just be able to catch the last few days of the Tulip season which normally lasts thru April – Mid May. Our route was Vienna – Prague – Budapest – Amsterdam. This was not ideal because Vienna is located between Prague & Budapest and the train time is ~ 3 Hrs from Vienna to both these places. Our Vienna – Prague train journey was 3 hrs. but the Prague – Budapest journey was nearly 6 hrs. And Budapest to Amsterdam was a flight. This is a learning so please optimize your travel.
Prague – Vienna – Budapest forms a nice East Europe Trip; do we really need to include Amsterdam in this itinerary?
Amsterdam is closer to London & Paris and is part of the W Europe tour. Most Indians start their Europe Holidays with London / Paris / Switzerland / Italy / Amsterdam……. So why did we include Amsterdam? I was fascinated by the city when I visited a few years back and wanted the family to see it. Also, at the time of booking in Jan 2019, Jet Airways had a direct Bangalore – Amsterdam flight and that was a big plus since all other flights was with a stopover in Dubai. If you want to stick to an E Europe itinerary I would suggest you skip Amsterdam and add Krakow or Bratislava to your plan. Both these are accessible over a short train ride from Prague.
How much time should we spend in each of these places?
The place with the most to see is Vienna. Budget a minimum of 4 full days here. You need 2 full days for Vienna and there are a few day trips to Salzburg, Hallstat and Obertraun that you could cover from here. We had 4 nights at Vienna but since we landed at 9 PM and left for Prague by the 9 AM train we effectively had only 3 full days. On hindsight we should have had a day more. Prague you can cover comfortably in 2 ½ days and Budapest in 2 days. So, budget 3 nights in each place. Amsterdam budget a minimum of 3 nights and if you do Krakow instead of Amsterdam you need 2 nights.
How to choose the right Hotels, expensive are hotels in these cities? Where did we stay.
Stay in a Hotel that is centrally located. You need clean rooms, breakfast and Wi-Fi. A centrally located Hotel or B&B is the best option. Most expensive to Least would be Amsterdam – Vienna – Prague – Budapest. Cost in Budapest is comparable to India. For a family of 4 booking two hotel rooms can be expensive. We did all our reservations from Booking.com – we booked family rooms that could comfortably accommodate 4 in the heart of the city. These were clean, efficient B&B – don’t expect room service and porters to carry your luggage. Almost all days we left in the morning at 8 AM after breakfast and were back at 9 PM after dinner. When you reserve thru booking.com you don’t need to pay, you pay at the hotel and can cancel till 1 week before with no liability.
Vienna – Pension Blackman. Small family owned property with 15 – 20 rooms in a Central locality of Vienna. It’s a 20 min drive from the airport. And a 25 min walk to the Opera House – Central point of Vienna. The Railway station is a few kilometers away. The tram station a few minutes away. The room and bathroom were small but well designed with just about enough space for 4 (1 Double, 2 Single) and lots of storage space for suitcases and closets. Room cost was 11K/ Night. Added advantage – Tulsi a lovely Indian restaurant is a 10 min walk and Angelo an authentic Italian restaurant is right across. The front office is open till 9 PM so if you are reaching after 9 PM send them a mail and they will tell you how to collect the keys from a password protected Lockbox and access the room. We reached at 10.30 PM and were a little worried – but it worked beautifully. (http://www.hotelbleckmann.at/en/)
Prague – AXA Hotel. An excellent hotel located in the heart of Prague. We had a suite with two rooms – very spacious rooms and bathroom. Breakfast was a lavish spread. A few kilometers from the main station. Rooms were economical – 357 Euros for 3 nights or ~ 9K INR / Night. (http://www.axa-hotel.cz/en/)
Budapest Bed & Breakfast – This was an apartment with 3 rooms in a heritage building in PEST near the University. Very close to the National Museum and Jewish Synagogue and 100 meters from the arterial road. It’s a 5 min drive from the Nyugati Station. Again, a great location. We had a large room for 4. Newly renovated, facilities. Budapest Bed & Breakfast is run by 2 friends and between them they operate two facilities with a total of 8 rooms. Cost / night was 8 K.
Amsterdam – Prins Hendrik. This hotel is on a 450-year-old heritage property right opposite Amsterdam central. Dam Square is a 5 min walk. You can’t find a more central place than this in Amsterdam. Our room was very spacious and accommodated 4 very comdortably. The view from the room is excellent overlooking the river and Central station. Cost was 22 K / Night. (http://prins-hendrik.hoteleamsterdam.net/en/)
All the hotel rates included Continental Breakfast. Nothing is hot cooked – so you can get boiled eggs but no omlettes. Vegetarians can manage easily with Cereal, Bread, Bakery Products, Fruits, Juices, Milk etc. (If your kids need Boost carry a pack with you). Rates also include free unlimited multiple access to Wi Fi. Internet speeds are fast here.
Although not planned all the 4 hotels ended up being close to Indian restaurants which was a bonus. At Vienna we had Tulsi – a 10 min walk from our hotel. At Prague we were surprised to find Beas Dhaba a Sattvik Veg Buffet run by localities 2 min walk from the AXA Hotel. And at Budapest Curry House was our neighbor. Their sister property Rajkot Place located 15 min walk from our accommodation was an outstanding place. And at Amsterdam, Gandhi was 200 m from our accommodation.
How far were these properties from the Station / Airport?
We took a cab at all locations. With a lot of Luggage and being new to a city we did not want to experiment with local transport. At Vienna the cab from the airport cost us 25 Euros and a drop to the Station was 12 Euro. At Prague & Budapest it was about 10 Euros from the station to the hotel. Cabs are available in plenty at Vienna and can be booked with Uber. Schiphol at Amsterdam is 25 Km from the city and the Cab fare here is 50 – 60 Euros
Is the currency Euro everywhere?
In Amsterdam & Vienna it is Euro but in Prague & Budapest it is different. Florint in Hungary and Koruna in Czech Republic. 1 USD = 293 Florint and 1 USD = 23.2 Czech Koruna.
How about food – can Vegetarians manage?
We are vegetarians and managed very easily. Almost every second restaurant is Italian serving Pizza & Pasta. A meal for 4 in an Italian restaurant will cost you about 30 Euros. There is no dearth of Indians Restaurants – takes more time and is more expensive – a meal for 4 can be Euro 60. (Both rates without drinks). We had decided to minimise eating in Indian restaurants and ended up visiting only once in 2 days. Here is a link to the best Indian restaurants in Budapest – https://expat-press.com/indian-restaurant-guide-budapest/
High-speed data SIM is a must have
These are DIY Countries. You need to hunt out everything on your own. Locals are indifferent and not very helpful. Ensure that you have a good data Plan on your phone. You get High Speed Wi Fi everywhere – Hotel, station, airport , restaurants, bus, train, museums…. The only place where Wi Fi is missing is on the road. To use Google Maps, Uber and hunt for places while on the road you need a good data Plan.
How do you go about sight-seeing in these cities?
The best way is to buy a Pass. All the cities have Travel passes with different benefits. These provide you free access to almost all the attractions. They also include free access to the Hop On – Hop Off bus / Boat. Some passes include access to the Local Transport. While others also include day trips to surrounding areas.
The Vienna Pass is the best of the lot. It gives you free access to almost all the attractions and access to the Hop on – Hop Off Bus. Day Trips to Salzburg and other nearby locations booked thru the same company entitles you to a discount. You can book this online and collect the pass from their office near Opera House (It’s in the subway opposite to the Opera House) We got a 2-day Vienna Pass and also booked the Salzburg trip through them. (2-day Pass Cost for Adults – 95 Euros, Children – 47.5 Euro. If you book online in advance you get a 10% discount). https://www.viennapass.com
I suggest that you don’t buy the Prague & Budapest pass. You can cover Prague on foot easily. Walk past the heritage Old Town and cross the Charles Bridge to the Castle on the other side. There is no need for Hop on Hop off bus at Prague. You can book your outstation trip from the hotel. We did a day trip to UNESCO Heritage Town of Kutna Hora.
At Budapest just book the Hop on Hop off Bus for 2 days. You can do that after landing at Budapest. You will find signages all over the place. Even the Hop on – Hop Off Bus has two companies; City sightseeing seems to be the the more popular one and operates in multiple countries. (Please note that in Vienna & Amsterdam the day pass will include the Hop on Hop Off Bus)
At Amsterdam you must book the day pass. Like Vienna it’s an excellent pass that gives you access to all the major sights and also includes the Hop on Hop off bus and Boat.
While the Vienna pass has no competition at Amsterdam you can choose between Amsterdam Pass or the I Amsterdam City Card. Check out the pros and cons of both. (https://freetoursbyfoot.com/amsterdam-city-passes/).
We had Amsterdam Pass – it’s a relatively new company and the frequency of the bus was less compared to the other company.
Important – Even with a day pass you need to get physical tickets for the attractions, but in most places, there is a VIP Q for pass holders. They scan the pass and issue tickets – no cost is charged.
Be prepared to walk 10 – 15 Km / day. So, get good walking shoes and with so much walking small kids may slow you down, so it’s best to plan this Holiday when your children are 10 +
Using Trams/ Cycles/ Scooters etc
There is no dearth of local transport options. All these 4 cities had Tram Lines, Buses, Metros, Cycles, Scooters and many more options to move around the city. We saw them everywhere. All of them are App based. If you are spending a longer time you must explore these options to travel around the city. It can minimise your walking.
What are the main sites in these cities
Vienna is all about Palaces, Museums & Churches. Don’t miss a live Opera show at the Hofburg Palace or the Opera house. Tickets at 45 – 50 Euro / person are expensive – but it’s worth the experience. Do a day trip to Salzburg its 7 AM – 8 PM. It’s a beautiful town where the movie Sound of Music was shot. Hallstat and Obertraun are other beautiful locations for day trips.
There are two Palaces – the Schonbrunn palace and the Hofburn palace complexes. Both are massive. Vienna also has the world’s oldest Zoo – very well maintained. The Heritage Tram ride will give a nice overview of the city in 30 Minutes. All of these are covered by the Vienna Pass. Hero Square is a nice central square in the middle of the summer palace complex.
Prague old town is a beautiful place dotted with ancient churches and quaint stores. Prague is famous for Crystals and Garnet. You cross the historic Charles Bridge to reach the Prague Castle. One of the largest castle complexes in Europe. The Jewish Town is also a nice area to walk by. All of this can be comfortably covered in 1 ½ days leaving you with a day for an out-station trip. We went to the UNESCO heritage town of Kutna Hora. Also taste the unique dish at Prague called Trdelnik – Its like a barrel shaped sweet donut with chocolate coating inside.
Budapest is two cities – Buda & Pest. Most of the places to see are in PEST. Buda is across the river and houses the castle. Buda is green and less commercial but has almost no veg restaurants. The Museum, Jewish Synagogue (The largest in Europe), the Giant Wheel, Michelangelo Museum, a beautiful basilica are other places to visit. Budapest also has a Hero Square right next to the Michelangelo museum. And do spend a few hours at the Thermal Baths – Budapest is famous for them. By the time you reach Budapest there would be some fatigue of seeing too many castles and churches.
And Finally, Amsterdam. The pass which includes the Hop on Hop Off is the best way to explore the city. It includes the Bus and Boat and covers all the attractions. The RIKS Museum and Van Gogh Museum are world famous and a must visit. But in the same locality is another new museum called the Moco Museum – do visit this also. The Maritime Museum is outstanding – so budget a few hrs for this. Close to this is the Dapper street market and a Science Museum for Children. Take the free ferry from behind the station and visit “I am Holland” and Adam Towers. The 45 Min “I am Holland” show is a 5D show that gives you a nice coverage on the history and sights of Netherlands. Outstation Tour Buses also start from here. We took a ½ day Trip (9 AM – 2.30) to Volendam & Zanse Schans. The tour takes you to the beautiful countryside and some rustic idyllic villages.
We visited the Windmills, A cheese Factory, and some rustic Fishing Villages. Normally priced at 60 Euros this was part of the 2-day pass. (But you need to go online book the tour a day in advance). Do visit Rembrandt’s house and right next to it is Gassan Diamonds. Close to the central station is the area called DAM which is the largest central square of Amsterdam. The place is full of shops and the bye lanes sell Marijuana Cakes – the smell is all over the area and can give you a headache. Amsterdam’s famous Red-light area is also a short walk from here.
Budapest & Amsterdam also have large Zoo’s but if you have seen one in Vienna then you can skip these.
Card Vs Currency
Credit cards are widely accepted in Vienna and Amsterdam. Most places in Budapest & Prague prefer Cash in local currency. If you are withdrawing cash from your debit card lookout for Bank ATM’s
How to Book Train Tickets and how expensive are they?
Trains are efficient and fast in Europe. They travel at 125 km / hr and the 350 Km distance from Vienna to Prague can be covered in 3 – 3 ½ hrs. The cost for Vienna Prague Ticket was 30 Euros on a Private train called Rail Jet. Our Prague – Budapest Train journey which was almost 6 Hrs also cost us 30 Euros. This was operated by the Czech Railways. Booking tickets in advance helps get great deals. We booked 4 months in advance.
You may be confused with many options when you try booking tickets. Remember you don’t need Euro Rail. All the Trains that connect cities in different countries in Europe come under the umbrella of Euro city Trains. They include both private and Govt Trains.
And once you enter the 1st Port after showing your Visa you can travel thru the entire Schengen region like domestic travel, there is no immigration or Passport / Visa checks when you travel by Train or Flight from one city to another.
Children fares are half, students also get discounted rates. Take a printout of your tickets as the Ticket Checkers scan them onboard.
We booked our Vienna – Prague Tickets from a Portal called tickets.oebb.at. And the Prague to Budapest Tickets from https://czech-transport.com/.
Trains come to the platform 10 – 15 Min before departure time and even the platform number is indicated only 30 minutes before boarding. Some trains are free seating. You can carry your big suitcases on train comfortably.
The main station at Vienna is Wien HBF and at Prague it is Prague HLN. The Budapest main terminal for outstation trains is Nyugati. If you take a train to Amsterdam its Amsterdam central.
We did not take night trains as hotel check in time is after 12 noon so reaching at 6 AM in the morning would have been futile. We were also not sure if it was safe to take a night train.
How reliable are Cabs
The cabs at Vienna were very reliable and accepted credit cards. Uber also works in Vienna. But at Prague and Budapest the cab drivers at the station tried to con us by charging double the rates. At Budapest our Hotel was 2 km from the station and the cabbie wanted 30 Euros. We had to call the hotel and the kind owner booked a taxi which dropped us at the hotel for 7 Euro’s. Even at Amsterdam the driver took us for a ride. He charged us 75 Euros for a 20 Km ride to the city – which we later found should not have been more than 50 Euro’s. (In Amsterdam – if you stay at the hotel we stayed take the Train to Amsterdam central). Cars are big and the boot can comfortably accommodate 3 large suitcases and 1 strolley. This is cool since the London cabs can’t accommodate so many luggage. You will be driven around in Merc’s and BMW’s. At Amsterdam we had a brand-new Tesla pick us up.
Tipping is expected even if the service is bad. At places in Vienna and Prague where the food and service was not great the waiter insisted on Tip’s – 10% is the norm
Few more useful points
- Carry your folding umbrellas as it may start raining suddenly. Light drizzle like in London.
- Carry water bottles – tap water is safe. At the restaurant water bottles are more expensive than Beer and most restaurants don’t serve tap water – so it helps if you carry your own water
- Carry salty snacks – most food you get here is sweet
- Keep coins – most restrooms and lockers are coin operated
Europe was devastated during the second world war. Its wonderful to see how they have rebuilt their cities back in the last 70 years. Life here is organised and simple and appears stress free at least for the tourist. These are safe places and you can drink tap water. The air is fresh and there is no pollution. There is so much to see, lot of history and culture and you could easily spend a week in Vienna and still not cover all the sights. East Europe is affordable and if planned well in advance you can have a great holiday at a reasonable budget. (We made most of our bookings in Jan for a trip in May)
We just completed our trip today (May 29th – 2019) so the information is fresh in my mind. If you need any additional information please feel free to drop me a mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.