Tag Archives: trip planning

How to plan a trip to Europe – Part II

I interrupted this series to share our big news (we bought a house!), but now I’m back with Part II of How to Plan a Trip to Europe.

The first part of this series was all about getting together a vague outline, and we determined, generally, the who, where, when of the trip. This part is all about drilling down to specifics to end up with a moderately detailed daily itinerary.

Luxembourg garden, Paris.

Luxembourg garden, Paris.

Although first, I suppose I should convince you of why you need to go through all this effort in the first place? Couldn’t you just buy plane tickets, make some hotel reservations, show up, and figure it out once you get there? Well, sure. It’s your vacation, so you do you.

But consider this. In Florence, there are five sites that are widely considered “must-see” (the Duomo, its bell tower, and Baptistery; the Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David; the Uffizi Gallery, which displays countless Italian masterpieces, including works by Simone Martini, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, and the like; the Palazzo Vecchio; and the Ponte Vecchio bridge). Then you have the other blockbusters (the churches of Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, and San Marco, the Bargello museum, and Piazzale Michelangelo and nearby San Miniato church), and even more amazing museums, churches, markets, bridges, and shopping districts. Then consider that lines for the blockbuster sites can be hours long, even during the off-season, and that certain sites are open early, some stay open late, and they all close on various days of the week. How in the world would you keep that all straight? And wouldn’t it be a shame to spend all that money on a trip to Florence and not be able to enjoy as many of its amazing sites as reasonably possible?

Lines at major European sites can be hours long. Don’t waste precious time during your vacation standing in line behind a bunch of sweaty, smelly tourists. You’re better than that! (Image source here.)

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your- trust me. A little planning before your trip will make your vacation so. much. better.

Trip Planning – Part II

(Remember, steps 1 – 5 were covered in the Trip Planning – Part I post.)

6. Finalize travel dates, make a list of cities, and buy flights. Now that you’ve decided on a general destination, confirm travel dates with everyone in the group (plus or minus a few days to allow for savings on airfare). Make a list of cities that sound interesting, then do some more research, considering where you could fly into or out of. Go through and prioritize the cities you’ve written down – which deserve more time, which can be done as day trips, which can be cut? Keep in mind airfare costs, distance between cities, balancing busy cities with relaxed towns, and practicality of transportation. Booking airfare is my least favorite part, but it’s worthwhile to investigate several different options on multiple carriers and websites. Remember that it’s usually better to fly “open-jaw”, into and out of different cities; not only do you get to see more without having to return to a city you’ve already visited, it’s usually cheaper. I prefer to visit fewer cities for longer periods of time to cut down on moving between hotels; for a two week trip, I would do no more than 7 overnight cities, and even less than that if we were a larger group.  For our two week trip to Germany and Belgium this fall, here’s our plan:

Munich – 3 nights

Staufen – 2 nights

Baden-Baden – 1 night

Bacharach – 2 nights

Bruges – 3 nights

Brussels – 3 nights

Italian Monastery, Assisi.

Italian Monastery.

7. Lock down hotel reservations (maybe). If you’re traveling during a large festival or during peak season, make sure to book rooms as early as possible. For travel during the off-season, you can leave this step until later or even book as you go, depending on how comfortable you are with spontaneity. When it was just Adam and I traveling through Italy in the winter, we emailed hotels a few days in advance or our arrival and never had an issue. We were also able to save quite a bit of money. However, for our trip to Germany in September, I’ve already booked all hotel rooms for the entire trip, since we’ll be traveling during shoulder season and will need two rooms (one for us, one for my parents) in each hotel.

8. Sketch a daily itinerary, but remember to be flexible. A daily itinerary is much more important for big cities with major sites (London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin) than it is for small towns. For each city on your list, determine which attractions you’d like to see, then go through and prioritize (sense a theme?). You likely won’t be able to see everything, so don’t even try. Tell yourself you will return. I’ve been to London, Paris, and Rome multiple times and haven’t even come close to crossing everything off on my list. Take advantage of sites that are open early or late, and buy advance tickets if possible, but don’t try to cram in too much! My general guideline is that we spend half the day doing planned sightseeing in museums, churches, etc. and the other half soaking up the local culture in parks, cafes, or wandering in back alleys. In Florence, for example, I wouldn’t plan to visit the Accademia, Uffizi, Bargello, and Duomo all in the same day. That leaves no time for enjoying la dolce vita! Rather, we’d visit the Accademia in the morning, have a relaxing picnic lunch, escape the afternoon heat by wandering through the Bargello museum, and finish the day by watching the sun set over the city at Piazzale Michelangelo. For major sites, definitely buy advance tickets unless you plan to buy a city pass that allows you to skip the lines. And don’t be afraid to switch things up once you arrive! Maybe the weather today isn’t ideal for wandering through the gardens of Versailles, or you just don’t feel like stepping foot in another museum. European vacations are about so much more than the sights – it’s about the experience, the food, the joy of the unknown and unfamiliar. I believe that the best travel recommendations come from people you know, so be open to changing your itinerary if a coworker, friend, or favorite blogger who has recently visited your destination tells you about a spot they particularly loved.

View over the Seine, Paris.

View over the Seine, Paris.

9. Read up on your destination and get excited! Your trip is mostly planned, so now you can move on to the fun part. I love reading books and watching movies about the cities or countries we’re visiting, whether they’re historical fiction or current documentaries. In my opinion, the more you know about a destination, the more interesting it is when you visit. Read the news and stay informed about national events. Most European citizens (especially in larger cities) speak at least some English and would love to discuss current events with you. There’s also a somewhat negative perception among Europeans that all Americans care about is their own country, so let’s all work to change that image. Most importantly, get excited for your vacation! Not only will you not be working (the best part about vacations, in my opinion), you’ll be broadening your world and expanding your horizons, and all that research will certainly pay off!

What do you think? Is my trip planning overkill? How do you go about picking a vacation spot? Have your favorite trips been planned or more spontaneous? Where should we travel next?

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.