An extended family holiday can be a great budget option when travelling in Europe. We enjoyed a four week European Family Road Trip through Germany, France and Switzerland with a family group aged from 15 to 55.
With careful planning and research, we were able to create an itinerary which combined physical activity for two teenage boys, with relaxation and cultural activities for the over 50’s.
Our four week itinerary started in Munich, taking us through the Bavarian Black Forest, Burgundy wine region in France and the Jungfrau region of the Swiss Alps.
Planning our European Road Trip itinerary.
A huge benefit of an extended family holiday is that you are able to split the costs of accommodation and transport, making a more economical trip for everyone. As more experienced travellers, my sister and her husband did much of the research. The planning phase was almost as much fun as the trip itself. Browsing websites to compare destinations, accommodation and planning activities.
The defining factor in our itinerary was going to be the flights. Sites such as Trip.com and Budget Air really helped to compare flights and routes to find not only the cheapest, but most suitable flights and airlines. We were then able to get out the maps and work out a rough itinerary. Route Planner is a really helpful website, which gives you realistic information on routes, travel times and even accommodation suggestions. It is possible to book through them. We chose to book directly once we had researched more thoroughly.
Once we had decided on a rough itinerary, we found sites such as Tripadvisor were invaluable for comparing accommodation options and finding the major attractions in each area. Visiting the local tourism websites were also a fairly trustworthy source of information. When booking accommodation anywhere, particularly overseas, you don’t want to arrive at your destination to find you’ve been scammed by a disreputable operator. The tourism websites also give you ideas of what you want to see, so how much time you will need to spend in each destination.
What sort of accommodation do you want?
Your travel style will also largely determine your itinerary. For example if you only want to stay in five star hotels, you will be limited to staying in the larger towns and cities.
We chose more rural destinations, staying mostly in B & B’s and holiday homes. This was not only cheaper, it provided us with a richer cultural experience. It enabled us to spend up to a week in one place, experiencing daily life in that community. Interacting with the locals gave us an authentic insight into their local cultures.
We saw “more of less” without spending long days on the road to make a fleeting visit to each destination.
What attractions do you want to see?
Once again, researching sites such as Tripadvisor and tourism websites can give you a good idea of what attractions you want to see when planning your itinerary. You don’t want to spend a day in Dresden on Monday, for example only to find that is the day all the museums are closed.
Don’t pack your itinerary full, however. You want to have time to stop and explore the surprising things you discover along the way.
Throughout our trip my sister was our tour-guide extraordinaire, leading us not only to the famous, “must see” attractions, but also little-known gems which enriched our holiday. Some were planned, others were pleasant discoveries.
Driving in Europe
My brother in law meanwhile did an extraordinary job of navigating a nine seater minibus along the “wrong side” of foreign roads. Our GPS “Heidi” unfortunately had a habit of directing us the wrong way up narrow one way lanes. A larger vehicle gave us all plenty of room to travel comfortably and enough luggage room for six people. The downside was that it could be difficult to park.
We found the benefit of a self drive tour, as opposed to an organised tour, was the flexibility. A quick refreshment break in a little village could turn into a couple of hours browsing through cobblestone lanes. Meanwhile if a planned stop wasn’t interesting, we could simply move on.
Researching vehicle hire
Before you book your vehicle, you also need to do your research into vehicle hire. There are many reputable hire companies available. Sites such as Skyscanner can help to compare prices and features across a range of companies. However do be aware that the cheapest isn’t always the best. Some questions you need to ask include
- What sort of vehicle do you really need? A smaller vehicle is going to be a lot cheaper to run, but may not suit your needs.
- What are the local requirements to drive – is your license acceptable.
- Does the cost include insurance? Check with your travel insurer, as the car excess may already be included in your travel insurance, so you won’t need to pay an additional excess?
- Does it include 24 hour road service.
- Are you making a round trip? It can often be significantly more expensive to hire a vehicle in one city (or country) and return it to another.
- What are the fuel arrangements? Does it come with a full tank, returned with a full tank?
- Don’t forget, once you finally collect your vehicle, do a thorough check inside and out and take photos of any dents, scratches or other damage and notify your provider. You certainly don’t want to end up paying for someone else’s mishaps.
- Does it include GPS and locally mandatory equipment such as breathalyzers, hi-viz gear and toll tags?
Learn a little local culture
Part of the fun off planning any overseas trip is learning a little of the local culture. It’s polite to know a few words of the local language, even if it is only hello, please and thank-you.
Unlike the major cities, English was not widely spoken in the regions we visited. However with some basic French and German and the help of Google translate, we got by with a few amusing interludes.
Reading travel blogs on other people’s trips will also prepare you for things such as the French custom of everything closing from noon until 2pm.
Loading the minibus to start our trip
Before we knew it, June was here and it was time to meet at Munich airport to load the minibus and head off on our adventure. Hopefully the brief outline of the itinerary we chose will give you some inspiration when planning your trip.
Our European Road Trip itinerary
Munich to Freiburg
Driving time: 4 hours 30 minutes
How long we stayed: 2 nights
Highlight: Visiting Freiburg old town
What we would do differently next time: Plan to visit Freiburg Monday to Saturday. Everything is closed on Sunday
The first leg of our trip took us on a four hour drive from Munich through Bavaria into the Black Forest to a spa resort hotel outside Freiburg. Here we spent two days walking through the cool pine forests, exploring the medieval city of Freiburg, eating ice cream in the town squares and hiking up the hill to Schlossberg.
Freiburg to Dijon
Driving time: 3 hours
How long we stayed: 3 nights
Highlight: Visiting the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy
What we would do differently next time: Download the “Owl Trail App” through Dijon
Leaving the Black Forest behind us, we drove from Germany to France and the Burgundy region , There was great excitement as the road signs announced the fact that we were finally “En Francais”.
Our three hour journey took us through Mulhouse with a stop at a large car museum,. Here our nephew attempted to photograph every vehicle in the building, from horse drawn carriages to modern race cars.
It was here that we enjoyed our first real French pate at the cafeteria. Though by French standards I imagine it was like equating fish n chips with grilled Barramundi.
Our home for the next four nights was an amazing B & B seven miles out of Dijon in the quaint village of Ruffey-Les-Echilrey .
Staying in a French B & B
Ame de la Terre is owned by a French local and his German wife. Phillipe and Simone have successfully extended their historic 19th century villa into a sleek modern B&B. They offered comfortable rooms, amazing breakfasts and outstanding hospitality.
After a challenging day driving on the wrong side of the road, the last thing Philip needed was to drive us back into Dijon for dinner. So we took up our hostesses kind offer to put together a platter for us. What a spread it was! Local cheeses, pate, terrine, garden salad and fresh French bread all washed down with a local white wine.
From here we spent three days exploring the wineries, chateaux and museums of the Burgundy region. We explored many cobblestone villages and the larger cities of Dijon and Beaune.
We strolled through village markets, sampling the wares of charcuteries, fromageries and patisseries along the way. This was a great excuse to stock up on local produce from the Burgundy wineries to sustain us on our journeys.
Visiting French Chateaux
Many of the chateaux we visited had survived countless wars, rebellions and revolutions over the centuries. A number had been in the same family for 1000 years. Each was unique in its own way, Many were still lived in and were open to the public to assist with the massive upkeep. Others had been restored as museums or interactive displays.
The only drawback was that many of the smaller chateaux did not have an English guide. So we were limited to the printed English leaflets to read through the tour. Unfortunately we missed a lot of interesting commentary.
Relaxing in the cool of our B & B courtyard after a hot day’s sightseeing we could hear the village church bells chime the hour. Villagers went about their business, celebrating the summer equinox with their local folk music echoing through the still summer’s night
Dijon to Auxerre
Driving time: One hour 30 minutes
How long we stayed: 3 nights
Highlights: A day trip to Vezelay and Chablis
What we would do differently next time: Take more time to visit the town of Auxerre itself.
The next leg of our adventure took us north to the Chablis region and the village of Auxerre. Our home for the next four days was once again a B & B, this time in the converted outbuildings of an old chateau.
The rooms at Chateau de Ribourdin were decorated to in keeping with the original main building, which remains the home of our hosts and their family.
Each morning we enjoyed a continental breakfast in the gardens to start our day. Our hosts were ready with helpful advice to plan our day’s activities.
Set in rolling countryside, the chateau was our base to explore the wineries, chateaux and attractions of the Chablis region.
We quickly adapted to the French custom of closing for lunch in the middle of the day. By noon everything was shut until around 3pm. Then it was time to find a restaurant or cafe to shelter under an umbrella or awning from the scorching heat. We took the time to sample the local delicacies and of course local wines, before resuming our day’s travels.
We spent our three days in the region exploring many quaint French villages. Near Auxerre we discovered the historic 12th century fortress of Vezelay. This was the starting point for two of the Crusades and is the final resting place of the relics of St Mary Magdalene.
One of the highlights of the trip was the natural limestone caves at D’Arcy Grotto. Not only were there limestone formations carved by the river Cure, but also prehistoric artwork dating back 28,000 years.
By evening we enjoyed a picnic dinner, sourced from the local charcuteries and boulangeries. The adults as we sipped local wine in the garden of our chateau, while the teenagers took a refreshing dip in the heated pool.
Auxerre to Talloires
Driving time: 4 hours 14 minutes
How long we stayed: 7 nights
Highlight: Exploring the medieval canals of Annecy
What we would do differently next time: Stay closer to Annecy itself, as we spent most of our time there.
The minibus packed not only with our suitcases, but many cases of wine from the local vineyards, we began the five hour drive towards Talloires, on Lake Annecy at the foot of the French Alps.
The spectacular views and pristine clear waters of the lake make this area a popular local tourist destination.
Our home for the week was a chalet set high on the hills above Talloires Here we would relax on the deck with our family, watching the afternoon light play with the French Alps. Parasailers glided overhead as we sipped a glass of French wine. C’est la Vie.
Our days were spent visiting the museums and chateaux in the area, and of course strolling along the canals of the medieval town of Annecy, This is also a foodie’s paradise. The aromas of the meats and cheeses in the market stalls waft along the alleyways. The home made “glace” is an Annecy specialty. The most delectable ice cream like you will ever taste. Canal side restaurants provide shady awnings to enjoy authentic local cuisine. The mussels in white wine sauce was my personal favourite.
It is possible to walk or cycle some 47 kilometres around the lake. We however chose to join the throngs of holidaymakers swimming, paddle boating and relaxing in the sun beside the aquamarine waters.
As Australians, the concept of paying 30 Euro to go to the beach at Talloires was somewhat foreign to us. So we contented ourselves with walking along the waterside past the old Abbey. The beaches in Annecy around five minutes drive away, were free.
By night we enjoyed our lake and mountain views from the deck of our chalet. Even the teenagers took turns to cook dinner with local produce sourced from the markets.
Annecy to Grindelwald
Driving time: 3 hours 10 minutes
How long we stayed: 7 nights
Highlight: A day trip to Schilthorn
What we would do differently next time: Purchasing a Swiss Pass would have saved money on cable cars and some entry into attractions
A relatively short trip across the Swiss border, through spectacular alpine scenery brought us to our home for the next week. A ski chalet in the fairytale alpine village of Grindelwald.
Chalet Verbrennhausen, provided a very comfortable home for our family of six for the week.
We had spectacular views of the iconic Eiger north face and lush green alpine pastures, where the sound of cowbells echoed along the valley
Fields of wildflowers and vibrantly coloured geraniums sprouting from window boxes heralded spring.
Hiking in the Swiss Alps
The extensive cable car system and the free local bus service offered to tourists made exploring the surrounding alps easy.
We joined the many summer tourists hiking along hundreds of kilometres of alpine walking trails. We discovered spectacular snow capped mountains, alpine lakes and enjoyed our fill of schnitzel, apfelstruessel, raclette and Swiss chocolate.
By night we once again prepared our dinner with local produce. As we sat on the verandah sipping wine from our stash we also drank in the awe inspiring scenery of the Eiger mountain and glacier.
Grindelwald to Lucerne
Driving time: One hour 30 minutes
How long we stayed: 2 nights
Highlight: Exploring the medieval village
What we would do differently next time: Allowed another night – there is so much to see.
All too soon our adventures were coming to an end as we began our journey to Lucerne, Here we checked into our fairytale castle on the hill high above the glittering lake for our final two nights.
Our first day in Lucerne was spent exploring the historic town, the famous chapel bridge, ancient fortress and magnificent churches. We browsed through the crowded market place taking in the now familiar aromas for one last time. In near 40 degree heat, the locals surfed the rapids of the river.
Here we also found the massive transport museum and adjacent Lindt chocolate museum. The perfect place to spend a rainy morning on our final day in Switzerland.
Lucerne to Munich
Driving time: 4 hours 30 minutes
How long we stayed: one night pre-flight
Highlight: Munich museum of flight
What we would do differently next time: Allow one day to visit Lake Constance
All too soon our trip was over and we were back at Munich airport. Waiting in the departure lounge awaiting our flight home, Ian and I relived our amazing trip.
We captured thousands of photos on our trusty Iphones,. But many memories simply could not be captured.
The sounds of the church bells in French country towns. The smell of freshly made bread and the mouthwatering patisserie treats. The sound of cowbells in the brisk Swiss air. The aroma of the markets as fromageries, boulangeries, and charcuteries ply their wares. The taste of real French wine, of Swiss cheese, of German bread. The laughter of a family on holiday.
Read also : Travel to Europe on a Budget
European Family Road Trip Itinerary
Germany – things to know before you visit
France, things to know before you visit
Switzerland, things to know before you visit