How to plan a trip to Europe – Part I

As I’ve probably mentioned before, travel is where Adam and I spent the bulk of our disposable income, and we save all year in order to afford it. Generally, once a year, we take two weeks off and head to Europe. In 2013, we spent a month in Italy while we were both between jobs. In 2014, we visited Iceland, London, Paris, and Normandy. For 2015, rather than receiving a Christmas gift from my parents, we’re heading with them to Germany and Belgium this September.

I’ve spoken to so many people who treat trip planning as the worst part about vacation, but for me, it’s one of the most exciting. It helps that I am almost too Type-A to function (name that movie), and that I read travel guides like some people read mystery novels. When a friend’s trip to Japan had to be postponed due to family issues, she and her husband decided to switch their plans and travel through Europe for 2 weeks instead. I practically begged her to let me plan their trip. Dazed and confused, she agreed, wondering why anyone would want to do all that work for a trip they weren’t taking. But for me, trip planning isn’t work, it’s fun. (I know, it’s a problem, send help.) It seems overwhelming at first, but it helps to break it down into multiple steps.

My strategy is to start with the big picture, and work down into the details, similar to starting with an outline for an essay and filling in the specifics later. I also start trip planning months in advance. This gives you lots of time to delve into it slowly and to adjust as the situation changes. I have been planning our Germany/Belgium trip for the fall of 2015 since Christmas of 2014. That’s not to say that a trip can’t be planned in less time – my point here is that it’s never too early to start. With that said, let’s get going!

Trip Planning – Part I

The initial phase of trip planning should be very, very vague, and is actually the most difficult. Ideally, this phase happens at least 4 months before your trip, though up to a year is not uncommon for me (see above). Just keep in mind that plans change, and remember to be flexible. This is your vacation – not an obligation – and it should be fun!

1. First things first – who, when, how long, how much? Determine your trip length, timing, rough budget, and number of travelers, before you even start considering destinations. Two travelers have significantly more flexibility than a group of eight. Only have a week? Maybe you want to go somewhere with a shorter flight time – like London or Dublin. Tight budget? Travel during the off-season and avoid more expensive countries (England, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries). Keep in mind that Adam and I spent the same amount of money ($6,000) to travel to Italy for a month (that’s our total cost, including airfare, hotels, meals, etc., for both of us) in the winter as we did to travel to Iceland, London, and Paris for two weeks during the fall. I do my best to avoid Europe during the summer, as it’s generally more hot, more crowded, and more expensive, but if summer is the only time you can fit in a trip to Europe, it’s still doable. Just consider that planning will be more important that it would be for traveling during the off-season, as hotels, flights, etc. are going to book up more quickly.

Sunset in Assisi, Italy. January 2013.

Sunset in Assisi, Italy. January 2013.

2. Generally, where do you want to go? Consider the items discussed in 1, above, and keep in mind that this should be an extremely vague region or country – not a list of cities. (Patience, young grasshopper – we’ll get to that part!) I find it helpful to pull up a map of Europe so I have a better understanding of the layout. Due to geographical configuration, some countries may work better as their own destination (Italy), while others could be combined (Belgium/The Netherlands). For our upcoming trip, my husband knew he wanted to travel to Germany, so we used that as our starting point and worked from there. If you’re open to a variety of countries, check out Google Flights and do an open-ended search to Europe to compare flight prices to all sorts of destinations. Or visit your favorite airline’s website to see if they’re offering any deals. Lufthansa regularly has good deals during the off-season, and is by far my favorite international carrier.

London, England. October 2014

London, England. October 2014

3. What kind of traveler are you? Spend some time reflecting on the travel style and likes/dislikes of the individuals going on the trip. Are you traveling with kids, older adults, or a large group? Consider establishing a “home base” for most or all of the time and taking day trips from there. Is this your first time to Europe or abroad, or are you a group of fairly experienced travelers? For newbies, maybe it’s best to start somewhere familiar (London) and gradually work east as everyone becomes more comfortable.

For the upcoming trip, our group’s “travel profile” looks something like this: 4 able-bodied adults, experienced travelers, selective cultural highlights (not too many museums or churches), prefer a mix of big cities and small towns, need plenty of time to drink beer. 

My husband, the carnivore. Bolzano, Italy. January 2013

My husband, the carnivore. Bolzano, Italy. January 2013

4. Investigate logistics. Once you have a general idea of where you want to go, do some research to make sure it’s feasible for your group. Can you find flights within your budget? Are there any conferences or festivals that are going to make certain cities more crowded/expensive on certain dates (i.e. Oktoberfest)? (I find the Rick Steves website helpful for this purpose – from the homepage, click on Explore Europe, then your country of choice, then Plan. For each country, you can see a listing of upcoming holidays and festivals.) Remember that airline prices can change drastically from one day to the next, so I like to check several times over the course of a month to and from various destinations to get a general idea of flight costs. Once I’m mostly sure that flight prices are going to be reasonable, I move on to the next step.

5. Do some research! For me, this translates to – buy a guidebook! This is, far and away my favorite part (if you couldn’t already tell from the double exclamation marks). Of course, you could use all the wonderful free resources that are available, from the internet, your local library, and friends, coworkers, and acquaintences. But for me, buying a new guidebook is like getting an early Christmas present. Once I’m reasonably certain about our travel destination, I like to skim through the guidebook to make sure I’m not missing anything. Maybe I thought I wanted to visit Frankfurt but once I read more about it, I decide that it’s skippable. Either way, I’ll need my own guidebook eventually. I’m almost embarrassed to share this with the internet, but this is what my books look like when I’m done with them.

Guidebooks

Yes, those are color-coded sticky tabs and yes I did make my husband appropriate them from work. Just be glad you can’t see the inside pages which are full of highlights, underlines, and hand-written notes.

Now that you have a rough outline of the trip, the next stage is to fill in the details! Stay tuned for Part II of the series on how I work through the rest of the trip to come up with a detailed daily itinerary.

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7 thoughts on “How to plan a trip to Europe – Part I

  1. Trent Lewin

    The trip we just went to over to the UK was planned down to the day, hotels booked, car booked, most of the activities planned… never had planned anything to that extent before (but with three kids in tow, kind of made sense). I have to say that it was the best vacation ever. Little to no stress, knew what we were doing. I feel like such a nerd, but organization is a wonderful thing.

    Looking forward to your details.

    Reply
    1. Erin E. Post author

      It really makes a difference! Planning in advance is way less stressful for me than getting over there and being worried we might waste time or money or miss something altogether.

      What ages are your kids, if you don’t mind me asking? Hubs and I are getting to the stage where we’re staaaaaarrrting to mayyyybe think about procreating, and I would love to know if/when we’d ever be able to travel again.

      Reply
      1. Trent Lewin

        All right so that’s a great question. I have three kids (8, 5, 3). Took the first one travelling when he was 6 months old. Worked because he’s not very mobile. Waited until the littlest was 3 to do the big trip – 3 is somewhat a self-sufficient age, and also an age where they retain images and experiences to some degree. It’s worthwhile. Other important factor is airfare. 2 and under, you pay reduced fare, but you know, I’m not sure that matters all that much in the grand scheme of things. So in summary… go with a newborn, nothing wrong with it. And then wait until all kids are minimum 3. That means there’s a travel-lull in there depending on how many kids you have. I seriously don’t recommend more than three. Seriously. This is the best advice I can give.

      2. Erin E. Post author

        Hahaha my husband was an only child and I’m one of two, so we’re pretty firmly in the two-child-max camp (especially when we see families traveling with 4 – 5 kids…omg whyyyyy). It’s comforting to know that travel with a newborn is feasible. I always though it would be impossible, which shows you how much I know about parenting (hint: not a damn thing).

    1. Erin E. Post author

      Well, we’re (possibly) about to buy a house, so I have a feeling that’s going to eat up a huge chunk. I’m hoping we’ll still be able to travel, just scaled back a bit.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: How to plan a trip to Europe – Part II | Slightly North of Home

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