There are many benefits to planning your trip on the fly

We are prone to poke fun at travelers who head for Europe equipped with a spreadsheet itinerary that accounts for every 15-minute segment of their vacation. At the other extreme are those who have no plan whatsoever. They arrive at a European airport, pick up a rental car and head into the unknown. Most of us fall somewhere in between. For example, it is prudent before leaving North America to reserve hotels in the most popular destinations and for the first and last nights of the trip. In addition, even those who don't make advance hotel arrangements will probably be more comfortable with at least a rough plan of which regions they think they might visit.

But for those pliable souls who can deal with the occasional disappointment, making up the itinerary on the fly offers many rewards. (Perhaps we should mention that traveling in this footloose fashion, though possible via rail, is tailor-made for the automobile.)

As relaxed and free as itinerary-less travel is, three questions must still be answered almost daily:

  • How do I get where I'm going?
  • What will I see?
  • How do I find a place to stay?

For many, this is the most important question of the trip and there are several useful resources.

Tourist Offices

A simple and effective way to locate hotel rooms on short notice to go directly to the local tourist office upon arrival in town. They'll offer a wide choice of available accommodations and often can make bookings. Sometimes they even offer special discounted deals.

Michelin's Red Guides

In the U.K, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Benelux countries, Germany, and Switzerland, these books are essential for the independent auto traveler. Perhaps a better, more contemporary title for the Germany book would be "10,000 Good Places to Eat and Sleep in Germany." That's right, about 10,000 hotels and restaurants; all listed and rated, with prices, phone and fax numbers, email addresses, plus extensive information communicated via symbols on each establishment's facilities and features. The symbols are explained in several languages, including English. The Switzerland guide is smaller but no less comprehensive. These books have many useful features, here are a few:

City Maps

The Germany guide, for example, has city maps for about 150 of the larger towns and the Switzerland guide contains maps of about 40 cities. Spotted on them are the hotels and restaurants listed in the guides, and in a major city like Munich that can be 200 or more. (By comparison, Frommer's Germany contains fewer than 100 Munich hotel and restaurant listings. And, of course, Michelin rates establishments in hundreds of small towns and villages that aren't even mentioned by Frommer or Fodor or any of the other well-known, all-purpose guidebooks.)

You can imagine how handy it is to have a map of a city you're driving into for the first time, with the location of your hotel marked on it.

Distance tables: These are in kilometers and show the distance between major cities within individual countries and throughout Europe. In addition to the tables, the Red Guide listing for each town, even the smallest, shows the distance to three or four important cities in the region. Using these in combination with the tables, one can come fairly close to figuring the distance between any two cities in the country and in Europe.

Locator maps for best places: These are overall maps showing towns where Michelin finds notable hotels and restaurants. An auto traveler can quickly determine which of these special places is within an easy drive. It is then a simple matter to look up hotel and restaurant phone numbers under the town listings and call for reservations.

Restaurant finder: While Michelin is famous for its ratings of expensive restaurants, of even greater value to the ordinary traveler is the notation of simpler, cheaper places serving good food. In the listings, the word "Menu" in red type indicates "moderately priced establishments that offer good value for money and serve carefully prepared meals, often of regional cooking." Other restaurants, which "serve simple meals for less than 25 DM" ($11) are marked with a tire symbol.

City information: In Germany, our example guide, Michelin covers about 2500 cities, towns and villages and supplies a wealth of information for each: postal code, telephone area code, altitude, population, number of chair and ski lifts, location plus phone and fax numbers for the tourist office, availability of recreational activities such as golf courses and a listing of the major sites are just some of the notations for each town.

How do I get where I'm going?

GPS devices are great in Europe and we recommend you have one in Europe. But they don't totally replace good maps. And don't think that nice map the tourist office sent you for free is in any way suitable to guide you in your backroads travels. Most European countries have a complex network of roads making detailed maps essential. A scale of 1:200,000 (one centimeter equals two kilometers) or 1:150,000 (1 cm=1.5 km) is best. A scale of 1:400,000 will do in a pinch but forget anything above that. Use the free map only to get an overall perspective of the country and understand that at a 1:200,000 scale it takes several maps to cover a single country.

Various map publishers, such as Mairs and ADAC, the German Auto Club, sell meticulously detailed maps. One product we especially recommend is the 1:150,000, spiral-bound Maxi-Atlas for Germany published by Falk and ADAC (doesn't matter which company's atlas you get, they are exactly the same). The advantage is you carry one book that covers the entire country rather than the 24 individual maps it takes to encompass Germany at this scale. The Maxi-Atlas is a kind of travel guide in itself—one that can direct you over Germany's most beautiful backroads to pretty, historic towns that aren't even mentioned in guidebooks.

Similar atlases are available for other European countries. Purchase them in Europe or at Travel Essentials.

These detailed maps and atlases are fundamental to the wandering traveler with no set itinerary. They display all roads, from Autobahns to footpaths. Here are some of their key features:

  • Scenic roads are edged in green and panoramic views along the way are marked with a red or purple rosette. A wine route is marked "Weinstraße." Roads shown in yellow or gray are usually the quietest and least traveled.
  • The names of picturesque towns are enclosed in a red box.
  • Places of interest are underlined or marked with stars; the more stars, the better.
  • There are many other symbols used to mark such things as golf courses, chair lifts, rack railways, youth hostels, waterfalls, churches, cemeteries, toll roads, tunnels, bridges and so on.
  • Make sure the map you purchase shows its legend in English as well as German. Most do.

What will I see?

When you're cruising through the countryside you need a good guidebook to provide background on the charming town you've just rolled into, or the significance of that monastery on the hill.

In my opinion, the best references for European sights, history and culture are found in Michelin's Green Guide series (also available at Travel Essentials). The series includes more than 40 books and covers most of Europe's countries and major cities. Leading towns and sights are starred according to importance: three stars is "worth a journey," two stars "worth a detour" and one star "interesting." There are suggested walking and driving tours with descriptions and ratings of the sights along the way, maps of the most important cities, and a few pictures.

The guides are updated at three to four year intervals after three years of research and travel. First drafts are done by several top free-lance travel writers, each of whom is familiar with the assigned region. Each book's overall editor visits every sight covered in the book. A chief editor oversees the book's editor who, in turn, oversees the free-lancers. Cartographers and editors decide on maps for selected towns. Finally, fact-checkers confirm such details as hours of operation and prices. When compared with guides like Fodor and Frommer it is the pros vs. the amateurs.

With the proper maps, enough reference materials to help locate your style of accommodation and a willingness to fly just a little bit blind, winging it on the backroads of Europe can be a rewarding and relaxing travel experience.