Planning a Research Vacation to Europe

You’ve always wanted to go tour amazing museums and see historical sites in person instead of in photographs. But how do you plan your own customized research tour? Here are some tips and tricks from my various research trips to Europe over the years. 

A view of old town Nuremberg

Get a Passport

The first step in taking a trip overseas is to get a passport. In the United States, you should plan for this process to take 4-6 weeks after you submit your application. However, you may need to order documents for the application before you can submit it, so read the requirements carefully and give yourself PLENTY of time. Yes, you can pay the extra fee and expedite the processing to 2-3 weeks (or shorter if you go in person to an office), but give yourself extra time to receive the passport so you aren’t an anxious ball of nerves two days before your trip when you still don’t have a passport. 

Where do you want to go?

Now that you have the passport process started, where do you want to go? You probably already know the answer to this, but make a list of important museums that you simply MUST go see. I have several lists of important “must see” museums, broken down by country, on Google Docs. Check and see if there are any important exhibitions that may sway your decision to one country or another, you may change your mind when you see a once in a lifetime exhibit happening in a museum that was #2 on your idea list. Anna’s Textiles page is a great place to see all the amazing exhibitions in Europe, here is the 2019 list. You also don’t have to stay in one single country during your visit, there are inexpensive airfares between countries, so you may be able to check more than one off of your list during your visit.

Entry/Exit Requirements

Check the countries you want to visit on your trip at the US State Department website for specific entry/exit requirements and how long you can stay on a tourist visa. The Schengen Borders Agreement allows US citizens up to 90 days of travel in a 180 day period in any of the countries that are part of the agreement. Once the 90 days of travel are up, you have to leave and cannot re-enter for another 90 days. You may be asked to provide a detailed travel itinerary at Immigration as well as proof of a return airplane ticket, so be sure and print one out.

Most countries in the Europeon Union, as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Leichtenstein are part of the Schengen Borders Agreement. Bulgaria, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom are not part of the Schengen Agreement. 

If you are not from the United States, you should check with your State Department for visa and other requirements for the country you are going to visit.

How long and when?

Now that you know where you want to go, how long can you visit and when are you going?  90 days is the typical maximum length for a tourist visa, but unless you are staying with friends or family for free or an extremely reduced rate, the cost of staying that long is going to be very high! Quite honestly, I find 2-3 weeks to be the maximum comfortable length for an intensive research trip, anything past that and my eyes start glazing over at another painting.

Fall or Spring are probably the best times to visit Europe due to the lower number of tourists and cheaper airfare. Winter can be a bit icy and cold, unless you are visiting Spain, Portugal and Italy, but be sure and see when the museums you want to see are open; some close for the Winter season and don’t open again until May.

Make a list of the Musts, Likes, and Maybes

For my first big German research trip in 2013, I started my trip planning with making a spreadsheet with a list of the things I just HAD to see. Once I had a basic list created, I looked up the town, opening hours and websites, and organized them on a spreadsheet with one tab for each town. This allowed me to get an idea of how much time I would need to spend in each place to see all the things I wanted to see. Was the town a day trip? An overnight? Several days?

If I only had one museum that I wanted to see in a town, I looked to see if there were other museums there that would interest me. Most towns have websites with lists of museums, so use Google wisely and hunt down some possibilities. Looking a town or region up on Wikipedia is another great way of finding good churches and museums, often there are photos of the insides of churches so you can see if it is from an era you are interested in. Searching for “[Insert country name] textile collections” or any other type of collection you are interested in is a good way to find the little known museum with the amazing collection. But don’t let a poor website deter you from going to the museum, there were two tiny museums who just had single page websites which ended up being amazing in person, so don’t pre-judge a museum by its crummy or non-existant webpage.

For example, several years ago I was shown a photo of a linen gollar (partlet) and the friend thought it was from Schwaebische Hall’s Hällisch-Fränkisches Museum, but they couldn’t remember because they had seen so many small museums on their trip. The museum website certainly didn’t have anything on this piece, and listed the Renaissance section as closed. The museum didn’t return emails asking them if they had a piece like this, and so I decided to take a gamble. At the worst, I would only get to see the town’s churches (which are splendid btw). After an adventure on the trains, I finally found the town and hiked up to the museum. The linen gollar was in a small glass case, tucked in a corner and was one of the highlights of my trip! I had to take off my shoes to get good photos of it, and I got some odd looks from the docent who probably wondered what my fascination was with an old tattered piece of linen!

Linen Gollar from Schwabische Hall, photo by M.McNealy

To plan my travel and time in each place, I created a spreadsheet with a rough day plan and started filling it in with various plans. I knew that Berlin had so many must-see museums that it needed at least two or three active museum days, then there were friends that I wanted to see at a re-enactment event in Iphofen, so that went on the schedule. Then I used a combination of Google Maps and DBahn’s rail trip planner to get a good idea of how far apart each place was that I wanted to see. Cologne and Frankfurt had some very interesting museums, but were so far apart from the rest of my “must sees” that I had to save them for another trip.

My basic schedule was to see museums in the morning and then travel by train to my next destination in the late afternoon when my feet were killing me and I was in art overload. On this trip, I realized that although I can look at art online for six hours without problems; paintings and sculptures in museums have an overpowering effect after three or four hours, so I had to limit the number of museums I saw per day to two.

This is my actual schedule: 

  ScheduleWhere to SleepTrain travelMuseum PlanTrain Pass
4/13/2013SaturdayLeave States    
4/14/2013SundayArrive Munich – morning, travel to BerlinBerlin Apartment1 hour flight to Berlin, 6 hour train journeyRest1
4/15/2013MondayBerlinBerlin Apartment Morning – Pergamon, Gemaldegalerie Afternoon German Historical Museum Late Afternoon – Lipperheide 
4/16/2013TuesdayBerlinBerlin Apartment Morning and Afternoon – Lipperheide 
4/17/2013WednesdayBerlinDresden HotelBerlin to Wittemberg 1.5 hours, Dresden 2.5-3 hrsMorning – Travel to Wittemberg Afternoon- Wittemberg museums and Travel to Dresden2
4/18/2013ThursdayDresden/Würzburg HotelDresden – Wurzberg 4 hoursMorning – Dresden Museums, Afternoon: Travel to Wurzberg3
4/19/2013FridayWürzburgEvent in IphofenRe-enactment eventMorning – Wurzberg Castle, Evening – Iphofen event 
4/20/2013SaturdayEventEvent in IphofenRe-enactment eventEvent 
4/21/2013SundayEvent / RestFriends by BambergRestMorning – Event Afternoon- Rest 
4/22/2013MondayRestFriends by BambergRestRest 
4/23/2013TuesdayKronach/CoburgFriends in FürthMeet friend in Kronach for tourKronach and Coberg4
4/24/2013WednesdaySchwäbisch Hall-HessentalFriends in FürthDay trip to Schwabisch HallSchwabische Hall5
4/25/2013ThursdayNuremburgNuremburg ApartmentPick up sister in MunichRoman museums in Munich6
4/26/2013FridayNuremburgNuremburg Apartment Toy Museum, Castle, City Market, Churches 
4/27/2013SaturdayLanshutLandshut HotelNuremberg to LandshutGerman National Museum, ChurchesLanderticket
4/28/2013SundayReturn Home Bus to airport  

Rest Days

While it is tempting to plan a museum visit or travel day for each and every day of your trip, I recommend that you plan one rest day per week into your itinerary, you’ll need them!  A good day to rest and do laundry is the one day a week when the museums are usually closed. In Germany most museums are closed on Mondays, although there are a few in Berlin that are open on Mondays. In France they are closed either Monday or Tuesday, depending on whether they are local or a national museum. In Italy, most museums are closed on Mondays, as well as most shops too. Take this time to rest up for more sightseeing and enjoy being in another country.

This church in Wuerzberg was a pleasant surprise, lots of nice effigies.
This church in Würzburg was a nice surprise. It had lots of great effigies!

Set a Budget

Now for the difficult part, a budget. You need to be able to cover the necessities of getting there, travelling  around, having a place to stay and eating. Money for museum admissions and books is important too, remember it’s the reason you are taking this trip!

Before you commit to the trip, you need to price airfares, housing and transportation to see just how far your money will stretch. Make a budget spreadsheet and include airfare, transportation, housing, food and museum admissions. Be sure to include extra funds for books and souvenirs!

Once you have a basic number, then figure out how long it will take you to save up for the trip. For a reference point, here is what my costs ended up being for a two week trip to Germany in April in 2013. 

Airfare: $1000

Railpass: $250

Housing: $560 (with 4 nights free with friends)

Food, drink, metro fares, museum admissions, books, etc.: $1040

Total: $2850

Looking back on it, I could have saved some money on food and housing – but I’m not a broke college student and this was a once in a decade kind of trip, so I decided to splurge on some areas and skimp on others. You will make your own decisions about what is important to you and where the best places to spend your money are.

Airfares

Which city to fly in and out of? Start by taking the list of the “Must See” museum cities, and searching for airfares from your city or nearest big airport to several of those museum hub cities. I like to use Fare Compare to compare airfares between cities, AirFareWatchDog.com is another site that has a good multi-site airfare search tool.

When you buy the ticket is as important to getting the best deal as when you fly, studies have shown that Tuesday is the best day to buy your ticket and Wednesday is the cheapest day to fly on. If money is tight, and your schedule is flexible, see if you can fly on a Wednesday.

Remember, you can into fly into one city and fly out of another, so you are not restricted to having to return to the same place you flew into.

The airfare is most likely to be your biggest expense on your trip, and while getting a cheap flight is important, be sure that you don’t end up with huge layovers and incredible inconveniences in your flight schedule.  

Transportation

Depending on where you want to go, it may be best to rent a car, or get a rail pass so you can have full freedom to travel whenever you want.  

Cars are great for seeing the out of the way museums, but can be troublesome in cities with trying to find parking or navigating around car-free pedestrian zones. If you do rent a gar, a GPS is a must have, as well as lots of gas money!

When I travel in Europe, I skip the car and take the trains and buses. There are several companies that offer European railpasses, Rail Europe and EuRail, but since I was only traveling in Germany, I purchased my 6 day rail pass directly from Deutsche Bahn. Be sure and order the pass three to four weeks in advance of your trip, so it has time to arrive from Europe via the mail.

Luggage

If you are travelling by train, you will need to limit the amount of luggage you bring to what you can easily carry and move yourself. Most train stations in Europe have stairs and more stairs, Paris is particularly notorious for its never-ending Metro stairs! You need to be able to pickup and carry your luggage up and down several flights of stairs easily. Take a small suitcase and pack light, your arms will thank you later! For my trip, I took a very small suitcase, a medium sized cloth bag that zipped and a purse.

All of my luggage for a 2 week train trip in Germany
All the luggage I took for a two week trip to Germany, half of it was clothes for a re-enactment event.

Housing

Flights from the US typically land in Europe during the morning, which will be middle of the night body time. You will be probably be exhausted, stinky and want a bath, hot food and a place to sleep. Although using a homeopathic remedy for jetlag such as No-Jet-Lag does help reduce the jetlag fatigue and disorientation, I’ve found it best to spend the first day in the country in the same town I flew into. I try to find a hotel I can check into early, take a shower and get a short nap in before taking a walk in the afternoon. Plan no sightseeing for this first day, it’s pretty much a lost day as you really won’t remember anything you see in a museum that day.

I used TripAdvisor as the starting point for finding lodging, looking at both hotels and vacation rentals. Vacation rentals are apartments or houses you can stay in for a few days at a time and typically have a kitchen and sometimes laundry facilities you can use as well. Sometimes you are renting part of a house, so if you are uncomfortable having roommates, be sure you read the fine print and ask the landlord if you will be sharing the place or not.

How much you spend for each night will really depend on the town you are staying in. $100 a night doesn’t go far at all in Munich, but is a luxury suite in a much smaller town. If you are priced out of the town you want to stay in, see if there is a smaller town on the outskirts with cheaper prices and easy access to transportation. 

Food

How much you will spend on food is a personal decision. If you have a vacation rental with a kitchen, you have the option of cooking your own breakfast and dinner, lunch will probably be eaten out. If you are staying in a hotel, you won’t have a kitchen and eating out is the only way you’ll get hot food. Purchasing food at a grocery store is always a great option., I usually pick up some bread, meat or cheese to eat for lunch. Most hotels do not have refrigerators, so only purchase what you can eat before it spoils. Nuts and dried fruits are great travelling foods and can be eaten when you get into town late at night and don’t feel like finding dinner. 

When I travel, I need to eat one large hot meal per day, usually dinner but it can be lunch, and then two light meals. Typically I’ll have a snackbar, like a Larabar, with a piece of fruit for breakfast, a large hot lunch at the museum café and a sandwich for dinner. How much you need to eat and when you eat are up to you, but please remember that you need to eat! It can be so tempting to skip meals so you can get one more museum in, and then you wonder why you feel faint, or start to get sick.

Language

Unless you are going to England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland, you need to learn at least a little bit of the local language before you go. Some people do well learning via Rosetta Stone but I’ve found that taking a short three or four month language class through a community learning center or co-operative extension to be the best way to pick up basic pronunciation and grammar. Duolingo is also another great way to pick up the language in just a few short minutes a day.

Technology and Cameras

These days, most places to stay have wireless internet, so bring along a small internet device (phone or tablet) to be able to check museum times, train schedules, download maps and let family and friends know you are having a wonderful trip. Pre-paid SIM cards are easy to purchase, and a great deal for travelers. You can usually purchase these at the airports, major train stations or any phone company store in the town centers.


In 2013, before I had a smart phone, I used a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7inch tablet on my trip, and it worked perfectly. I specifically chose this particular tablet as it had a hub with SD Card reader and USB hub that my camera could plug into, so I could backup photos from the camera onto a USB stick. Today, I’d just bring along my smart phone, and get a card reader attachment for it.

The tablet, hub and camera that I brought with me. This all fit nicely in my purse.
The tablet, hub and camera that I brought with me in 2013. This all fit nicely in my purse.

However the GPS on the tablet proved invaluable after I purchased Maps with Me Pro and downloaded the maps for the German states I was travelling in. I have this on my smart phone now, it’s very nice to be able to navigate through a town without using my mobile data. This app was also helpful in finding museums that I otherwise would not have found. One day in Munich, I had an hour between trains, so instead of waiting at the train station, I searched for museums close to my location and found two Greek and Roman museums that were two blocks away from the station, and that I had never heard of before. They ended up being AMAZING and a great way to spend the hour!  
I was able to download the subway maps for each of the city I visited and the train schedules for each of my train trips from the DBahn trip planning app. With the Kindle app for reading, I was set for the long airplane and train rides.

Purchase a good camera so you can take great photos in all kinds of different lighting, from dark conservation lighting to bright sunlight outside. I brought along a Canon Rebel T3 camera on this trip, and it was awesome at taking super low light photos in museums without using a flash. I had a standard lens on the camera, nothing fancy, and it was small enough to fit into my purse, so I could carry it without having TOURIST stamped on my forehead.

I have since switched using just a smart phone and a lighter weight camera, a Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless Digitial Camera (I get a commission if you make a purchase through this link). It’s a small, lightweight DSLR, it fits great in a purse or large pocket, and most importantly it takes great photos in low light situations such as museum textile galleries. Get a comfortable camera strap as well, your neck will thank you after a long day of photography!

Heading Home

When the trip is over, all you’ll have left are the memories, photos and probably some blisters on your feet from all the walking you did. I had a wonderful time planning this trip over several months and can’t wait to go back and see more museums in Europe!

2 Comments

  1. Internet connection : yes , need it for any kind of on site info ! And of course pictures . Charging : Before leaving order an universal adapter via internet(has variuos sets in one cube) because electrical outlets differ from US. The Voltage does not hurt our devices.
    My last visit (2018) was for 5 weeks , many German towns from before 1600…history, museums , castles churches. I bought the Probe BahnKarte several weeks before leaving , so I would receive the small plastic card via snail mail in time. It is good for 3 months, needs to be cancelled in time or it continues( I cancelled via email from the trip ), gives discounts on most DB tickets, many busses…very useful!
    Ialso made a detailed itinerary before….worked around I wanted to see and where medieval ( english country )dancing was scheduled…many such groups in Germany !! I got in 7 mundane and 2 balls, (same lightweight , non wrinkle garb for both) …and meeting sometimes same people …
    Also before leaving , all overnights were confirmed. Airbnb as well as Pensions ( small inns), staying at minimum 2 nights , max 6 nights, but taking traintrips outwards….limiting my lugging of luggage( setup like pictured above) and providing restful time in the evenings.
    Writing a diary is important ! What when where will easily flow together in memory, even after a few busy days ! In that I also kept exact track of my spending. Back home final accounting …incl flight and all prior expenses these 5 gloriuos weeks cost me $ 5600 ….
    Can’ t wait to go again …but have to wait a few years…

  2. If you use a mirrorless camera inside, with artificial lighting, make sure that you do NOT turn off the shutter noise (silent shutter mode). If you do, the camera will use an electronic shutter instead of the mechanical one, and you will get light-dark stripes on your image from interference. I found this out the hard way with my Sony alpha6500 after a research trip to Spain, when I wanted to be as quiet as possible during a collections tour and then left my camera in that mode the rest of the trip.

    This is copied from an article by SansMirro.com: “Frequency-based lighting stripes — Occurs when shooting under frequency-based lighting in the electronic shutter mode, which does not capture the entire scene instantly, but rather in pieces. Frequency-based lighting has always been an issue for photographers….With the all-electronic shutter cameras the issue is that you see broad underexposed stripes typically across the long axis in your image. Solution: Same as always: shoot at the frequency of the lights. For US, that would be 1/30, 1/60, or 1/125 shutter speeds.”

    Or leave the shutter sound on!

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