Ask Lonely Planet: Whistle-stop tour of European highlights

Venice is a must-see destination. Photo / Jim Eagles
Venice is a must-see destination. Photo / Jim Eagles

For my 50th birthday in October 2011 my husband and I want to go to Europe. We are allowing 5-6 weeks. Can you suggest an itinerary that would work for that timeframe allowing for air flights, car hire, etc. We have no idea where to go. We were thinking maybe a short cruise around the Greek Islands ending in Barcelona. Any ideas would be appreciated. Rosemary Goldstone

Five or six weeks is a good length of time to explore Europe. The continent is densely packed with things to see and is best tackled slowly. Even with this time, accept now that you won't get to everywhere. October is a good time to be in Europe. The summer crowds have departed but the weather should still be good in Mediterranean destinations. If you want to tick off plenty of classics and have a reasonably stress-free time, a combination of trains and budget flights will get you around the continent. Seat61 is the best place to plan a European rail trip, with step-by-step instructions, fares and options on how and when to purchase.

For budget flights, you can see what's available at skyscanner.net. Book early to get the best deals and watch out for extras. Given when you're going I'd stick to dry land rather than take a cruise. Britain can take up as much as two weeks and you'll leave frustrated at what you haven't seen. Try to get beyond London, Bath, Oxford, Stratford, York and Edinburgh. Lincoln, Glasgow, Manchester and the Lake District are compelling places for different reasons.

The fast Eurostar train is the best way to get from London to the continent, and Paris is the logical next place to stop. From here you can easily connect with the excellent Italian or Spanish rail networks. I'd go for Madrid, Cordoba and Barcelona in Spain, then taking a flight to Rome and moving north to Venice via Florence.

Another flight will take you to Athens but it's worth questioning if this is worthwhile. The Greek Islands are not at their best at this time of year so my suggestion would be to save them for another trip. Instead, head up to Vienna or Berlin to finish what is a full-on, but fantastic adventure.

Mad on Madagascar

I'm in the early stages of planning a two- or three-week trip to Madagascar and have heard the logistics of travelling around the island can be a bit of a headache. What's the best way to see the highlights of this country's unique landscape and wildlife without spending a fortune? Sebastian van der Zwan

Many visitors choose to stick to the main highway (RN7) and make detours into parks along the way, such as the spectacular Parc National de l'Isalo. The drawback to staying on this primary route is that you'll miss many major highlights, such as the vanilla fields and rainforests of the north and east, and the limestone tsingy and spectacular coastline of the north and west. I suggest picking two faraway regions, and flying between them aboard the local carrier, Air Madagascar. But avoid coming during rainy season (November to April), when many roads become impassible.

Cineroutes, rents 4x4 Renaults, ideal vehicles for Madagascar's rutted-out, pot-holed roads. Rates run from $115 a day; add a driver for another $60. They also rent beat-up two-wheel drive Renault 4s for about $68, which may be your best bet. The Dutch-born owner Coen meets you at the airport in Antananarivo (aka Tana) and helps plan your route. (Note: the website is in Dutch, but Coen speaks good English; his wife, Hary, is Malagasy, and between them they know the island inside and out.) You can also book Europcar and Hertz, but they require you book a driver, which really isn't such a bad thing, given how confusing it can be to navigate Madagascar's roads.

If your budget is very tight and your timing flexible, travel with locals via taxi brousse. Between major destinations, most taxis brousse are 24-passenger vans, packed way beyond capacity, with luggage tied to the roof. However, what you save in cash, you'll lose in time. Rides can be excruciatingly long and you may find yourself sandwiched between women carrying chickens to market in their handbaskets. Taxis brousse fill up fast, and if you don't arrive at the departure point early enough to secure a seat, you may have to wait until the next day to catch a ride. The ideal way to travel between the island's distant points is by air, as this allows you to see more on your short visit. You can spend the first day exploring Tana, then hop on an hour-long flight north to Diego Suarez, an otherwise 24-hour car ride. Next fly to Tulear (Toliare) on the southwest coast, then ride in a combination of taxis brousse and rented 4x4s, following the main highway back to Tana, stopping to explore parks and villages off the beaten path.

Travel is hard in Madagascar, but the pay-off huge - extraordinary species, colorful landscapes, ancient ways of life. Just don't expect to see everything on your first visit. And start practising your French; English is almost useless.

WIN A LONELY PLANET GUIDE BOOK

Get the information you need to make your big trip a success. Email your travel questions to travel.info@lonelyplanet.com and they'll be answered by Lonely Planet's experts. In addition the best question each week will earn a Lonely Planet guide book. To give yourself a chance to win add your postal address and the guide book you'd like to receive. You can find out about Lonely Planet books at LonelyPlanet.com. Not all questions are necessarily answered and Lonely Planet cannot correspond directly with readers, or give advice outside the column.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf01 at 19 Dec 2014 04:29:06 Processing Time: 742ms