There’s nothing like fall for road-tripping a beautiful area and enjoying the scenery as the leaves change their colors. And while the U.S. has some incredible areas for leaf-peeping, there are so many reasons to consider driving through Europe this time of year, too!
As temperatures drop and the air gets crisper, crowds thin and hotel prices come down. As long as you don’t mind packing a light jacket, fall is the perfect season to plot out your route, grab a rental car and hit the road. Below, I’m breaking down a road trip I took last fall, what I would change about the itinerary, and some suggested hotels (that you can stay in for free!).
DRIVING THROUGH EUROPE:
2-WEEK FALL ROAD TRIP ITINERARY
With no apartment and nowhere to be in early October, 2018, I set off on a 10-day expedition with my sister. We started and ended in Munich, where I had a work trip later in the month, and hit Austria, Slovenia, Croatia before returning to Germany. One of my favorite parts? We booked nearly all of our hotels using points, and we picked some insanely beautiful properties.
While the trip was an incredible one, there are a few things I’d tweak before recommending our route. Read on to see what we did and what I’d do differently if I were planning it again!
THE DRIVING THROUGH EUROPE STOPS
After spotting a photo of this quaint Alpine town, I couldn’t get it out of my head. While I don’t ski, I love the charm of mountain villages, and Kitzbuhel was no exception. I had an amazing stay at the Hotel Kitzhof watching the sun set over the Alps, sitting outside to enjoy the mountain air and trying the local wines.
This was the only stay of the driving through Europe trip where I couldn’t earn or use points; I couldn’t even find the hotel on the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, which is rare! At the time, I didn’t know there was a Hilton option in town, but I definitely would have gone with that one if I had. See the “What I’d change” section below for more on that! Luckily, this room only set me back €111.60.
Ljubljana is a city I’d visited once before on a family trip but hadn’t had much time to explore. Its pretty pastel buildings, cobblestone streets and riverside seating called me back, and I had such a good time sampling its bistros, wandering its corridors, checking out the nearby Vintgar Gorge and chatting with locals at wine bar Movia.
I spent two nights in Ljubljana on this trip, one on the way down to Croatia and one on the way back up to Germany as a jumping-off point for Lake Bled. For the first, I stayed at Vander Urbani Resort, which is a member of Design Hotels (as is the Hotel Kitzhof!). While I try to earn and use hotel points as much as possible when it comes to accommodations—saving my transferable points for flights—Design Hotels is my weakness. I redeemed 12,422 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for a night at the hotel, saving the $186.33 I would have had to pay in cash.
For the second night, we stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton Ljubljana Mons, which might have been the biggest surprise of the trip lodging-wise. It was so much nicer than any Four Points property I’ve ever seen in the U.S. and the hotel upgraded us to a gigantic one-bedroom suite. To boot, the stay was just 12,500 Marriott points.
After visiting in 2011, I remembered Lake Bled as one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. I was eager to return (with a real camera!) to see it again, this time in the fall. I’m happy to report that it was just as stunning the second time around, and thanks to a little hiking, we got to see some new vantage points I missed on the first time around. We didn’t stay overnight, deciding instead to drive in in the morning, spend the day and then continue onto Ljubljana, which has more lodging options.
PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK
This Croatian paradise of blue-green lakes and waterfalls was actually the first destination we picked out for this trip, and we structured the rest of the route around reaching it. Fall colors made the scenery all the more stunning, and crowds were nothing like the horror stories I’d heard from people who visited in summer.
It’s pretty tough to day-trip Plitvice Lakes no matter where you’re coming from, but within the context of our trip, it would have been totally impossible. We opted to stay in the town nearby the night before so that we could get an early start and beat the crowds, and then again afterward so we didn’t have to drive too much in the dark. Guest houses are the name of the game in this area, so I turned to hotels.com, which is my go-to for non-points stays because of their rewards program (stay 10 nights, get one free). We spent two nights at Rustic Lodge Plitvice for a total of €120.00.
I discovered this area while planning the driving through Europe trip and using my favorite road-trip-planning tool, AwardMapper, to scope out hotels along my route, and as soon as I did, I knew I had to make room in our itinerary for a stop. The reason? Schloss Fuschl, a hotel in Austria’s Salzkammergut lakes district that’s set in a castle from the year 1450.
Between its palatial feel, gorgeous lake setting and wooded surroundings, our stay at Schloss Fuschl is one we won’t forget anytime soon. Rates in points were high—today, Schloss Fuschl is a Marriott Category 8 property, meaning a one-night stay costs 80,000 Bonvoy points—but because we were saving so much money on our other hotel nights, my sister and I split a reasonable one-night stay for a combined €327.88 in cash.
Is there anywhere more picturesque than Hallstat? This ultra-charming village perched perfectly on an Austrian lake provides views as postcard-worthy as they come. We planned to visit Hallstat for the day between Schloss Fuschl and Salzburg, but we loved Schloss Fuschl so much that we skipped it to spend as much time there as possible before our 4 p.m. late checkout.
Salzburg is another city I visited several years ago and wanted to see again. It’s a gorgeous city, and as the birthplace of Mozart, it seems to have music around every corner. Its quaint streets and surrounding natural splendor are the icing on the cake.
We planned an overnight there, hoping to stay at Hotel Goldener Hirsch which, like Schloss Fuschl, is part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection. But because it was undergoing renovations, we settled for the Sheraton Grand Salzburg at €244.91 for the night.
Berchtesgaden National Park was another stop between overnights for us, and it was a stunner. It encompasses the Alps in southeastern Germany right along the border with Austria, and its mountain backdrop is jaw-dropping. We took a boat tour around Königssee, one of the prettiest lakes I’ve ever seen. There’s so much more to see in Berchtesgaden and we barely scratched the surface!
My other great AwardMapper find for this trip was the Hotel Bachmair Weissach. The grounds were some of the prettiest I have seen at any property, and the spa was really impressive, too. At the time, I was able to book it with Marriott points, but unfortunately, it’s left Marriott’s portfolio. That doesn’t mean you can’t book it for free, but you’ll need to go through a portal—such as the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal—or use a card that lets you erase purchases from your statement after you make them.
This 19th-century castle in southern Bavaria provided the inspiration for the castle in Disneyland, and from its perch atop a rugged hill, it could scarcely be more picturesque. It’s an easy day trip by train if you’re staying in Munich. But we planned to drive from and return to Bachmair Weissach to eke out an extra night there.
Ultimately, though, like Hallstat, we ended up scratching Neuchwanstein from our itinerary at the eleventh hour. Because of our trip’s fast pace, we were both sick of driving by the time the day came, and the idea of a full day uninterrupted at the Hotel Bachmair Weissach was too good to pass up.
We ended the trip back in Munich, where I stayed for several days for work at Roomers Hotel Munich. Munich has so much history and old-world charm, and it’s a great place to spend a couple days if you’ve never been. As part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, Roomers Hotel is bookable with Bonvoy points.
WHAT I’D CHANGE
First thing’s first: I would definitely lengthen this driving through Europe itinerary to two weeks. We had limited time because of obligations before and after the trip, which meant rushing things a bit. By the last few days, all we wanted to do was relax and enjoy the scenery at our hotels, meaning we ended up cutting out Hallstat and Neuchwanstein. It wasn’t a huge deal since we’d been to both before, but with more time, keeping those stops in would have been much more doable!
If you’re not specifically drawn by Plitvice Lakes (or if you’d rather do it as part of a separate Balkans trip through Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro), you could even cut that part out in favor of a slower pace.
If you’re looking to earn or use points, I would also consider staying at the Grand Tirolia Hotel Kitzbuhel instead of the Hotel Kitzhof. Once I discovered Kitzhof, I ran with it and never looked back, so I didn’t find out about the Grand Tirolia until later. And while I loved my stay at Kitzhof, the Grand Tirolia is a member of Hilton’s Curio Collection, and it looks just as nice.
WHEN TO GO
If you’re looking to catch Oktoberfest in Munich, keep in mind when driving through Europe that it actually begins in late September. It’s completely over by early October, so if you want to attend and still be able to see fall colors elsewhere, I recommend putting Munich on the front end of your trip. Doing so will also give you some time to adjust to the time change before you begin driving.
The one timing snafu we had was at Berchtesgaden, where we discovered seasonal boats had stopped running to some of the places we wanted to see (specifically Obersee). Definitely check out the calendar if you have specific points of interest within the park!
THE PERFECT DRIVING THROUGH EUROPE: 2-WEEK ITINERARY
With all of these things in mind, here’s an edited version of my itinerary. If you wind up visiting any of these destinations, please let me know!
Friday, Day 12 – Salzburg to Berchtesgaden to Tegernsee
Hope this post gave you some good Europe road trip itinerary ideas! Have you road tripped in Europe? Let me know in the comments! >>
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