Hi Frugalistas! This post is a reworking of some (very) old blog posts on how to plan a trip to Europe, that takes you through the basics of a planning a trip to Europe. Regardless of your budget, or how long you have for your holiday, use this methodology and you will be sure to come up with the best vacation itinerary for you.
STEP 1: How much time do you have for your Europe itinerary?
The amount of time you have will play a significant role in what is realistic for your Europe itinerary. If you look at the big group tour Europe vacation itineraries, such as offered by Trafalgar or Insight, it would seem that you could see “all” of Europe during a 2 week Europe itinerary, but they are a pretty quick run around some of Europe’s biggest hits. The other thing is that a large proportion of your budget and precious time will be eaten up getting from one location to another. My preference is to spend less time on the road/in the train and more time in the places I want to be.
If you aren’t sure what is achievable for the time you have, here are some indicative timeframes:
Three days or less: unless you already live in Europe, forget it;
Four to seven days: one city with day trips to places no further than 3-4 hours away. For example London with Windsor, Oxford; Paris with the Loire Valley, Champagne; Athens with Hydra;
Seven to ten days: one country, or two adjacent countries, focussing on keeping distances short in both cases. For example Bavaria with Salzburg/Innsbruck; the Netherlands and Belgium +/- northern France; Spain; France; Germany; Italy; Switzerland;
Ten to fourteen days: one bigger country in more detail; two countries in more detail keeping distances short or three countries if you keep distances short. For example northern Italy with Switzerland and or Austria; England and Scotland;
Fourteen to twenty-one days: one bigger country in more detail; two countries in more detail; three or more countries depending on size and your interests.
STEP 2: How to plan a trip to Europe – where to go
Narrow your options down at this stage to a group of countries, single country or region depending on how much time you have and your interests. Thinking about that group of countries, country or region write a list of places (whether that is a list of countries or cities/towns doesn’t matter) or specific activities (I’m thinking things like going skiing, taking a cruise, enjoying a food tour etc). Don’t worry about whether it is logical at this stage – we’ll come to that, just make a list.
STEP 3: Prioritise the places you want to visit
At this point I relook at my list and work out whether it looks feasible. I allow about 2 days per destination (we’ll work out the details later – this is just a reality check at this stage) plus time for a special “minitrip” within my trip (like that cruise round the Greek Islands, the trek over the mountains etc) and then traveling time to and from my destination – don’t worry about where you are going to fly in and out of at this stage.
If my list is a bit optimistic (ie: so many places, so little time……) I take my list of where I want to go and re-order it into a priority ranking order and draw a line where the cut off point of days seems to end.
STEP 4: Consult your guidebook
If you haven’t done so now is the time to start some pretty hardcore research. Get out the guidebooks, get on the net for authoritative blogs (if it is itineraries you are looking for, I recommend seeking out experiential bloggers rather than blogs with lots of lists), seek advice from friends or sign up for Facebook groups (my own French Travel Planning Facebook group is full of great ideas for Paris and beyond. You can sign up here if you aren’t already a member).
A good map of where you want to go is also a great help. You need to work out how long you need/want to stay in each spot. This is where the 2 day average stay per location can be finessed. Realistically, if you are looking at key major cities anywhere you need a minimum of 3 to 4 days. I write how long I’m staying in each place next to each destination. When I get to the end, I check again – have I got enough days for what I want? If you’re short days draw a line where the new “end point” is. If you’re lucky enough to be able add in some extras, redraw that line.
Rick Steves has an excellent Europe planning map complete with distances between destinations, as well as maps for popular individual countries (click on the link to check it out):
You will note we still don’t have a logical traveling order yet, but that’s OK. Up to this point we’re just thinking about what is important to you and what is achievable from a practical perspective.
STEP 5: OK, now it’s time to put everything in a logical traveling order
To get things in order there are a few factors to think about. Where are you flying into to start your journey? That creates a possible obvious start. Don’t assume you need to fly in and out of the same destination. Many, if not most airlines will allow you to fly into one destination and fly out of another (a so called open jawed ticket) for the same price as a straightforward return. Some itineraries will lend themselves nicely to a circular itinerary, but others do lend themselves to a straight line. What are the distances between individual destinations along the way and how can you fit the pieces together into the most efficient picture? (Your map will come in handy here. You can also look at the itineraries of guided tours – they are usually particularly efficient although I find their distances too far for my taste).
Once you’ve put all the destinations into a sensible order are you left with anything that just doesn’t make sense? Consider reordering, reprioritising and if that doesn’t work, I’m afraid you should leave it for another day.
STEP 6: How to travel from place to place
This is based partly on personal preference, partly on distances and location, and partly on budget. While there are no right or wrong answers there are some basic principles that make sense. I’ve written a dedicated post on how to choose your mode of travel so I won’t labour the point here. What I will say though is that European cities are generally not places to have cars. The traffic is truly awful, most hotels don’t offer parking and is all but non existent on the streets. Some cities, such as London, tax cars entering the city.
Getting a car can be a good option if you are travelling in a group as you may find it cheaper, if you are planning on spending most of your time outside big cities. Prices do vary a lot. You need to check prices carefully if you are planning a one way rental. If you want to pick your car up in one country and drop it off in another, assume you will pay a hefty premium for this – you may find a mixture of car and rail/bus may work best for you. Rental Cars is an easy way to compare prices and options between companies:
If you are choosing to travel by rail work out whether a railpass is the way to go or whether individual tickets will work out cheaper. In some destinations bus networks are superior to trains, often at a cheaper price, so consult your guidebook or specialist websites to decide what your best options are for land-based travel.
The next thing to do is to check travel times and work out whether your itinerary still makes sense. Can you reorder some destinations to cut down your travel time? Are you restricted by certain transport options being limited to certain times and days? Should you plan an overnight stop to cut down the length of journeys on a given day? Revisit your itinerary in the light of your transport findings and amend as needs be.
STEP 7: Assess your plans against your Europe travel budget
You’ve now got an idea of where you are going, and how you are getting there and getting around. So now is a good time to assess your basic itinerary against your budget before you start putting anymore plans in place. What is your basic commitment in terms of time budget and dollars for airfare and getting around? Will you have enough days in total and in each place? If not reassess your itinerary and adjust in terms of your priorities and what makes sense.
STEP 8: Accommodation options in Europe
What type of accommodation are you interested in? If you are traveling in a group an apartment or other self catering accommodation can be fun and save money. Regardless of your budget if you are traveling alone, particularly for a long period, a hostel can help you connect with other travelers. B&Bs, or other types of homestays are a great way to connect with locals. Different styles of accommodation across your trip can be fun so don’t assume you will stick with just one style. Guidebooks can be a useful source of accommodation options, but do make sure you are using an up to date edition as costs and service offerings can change from year to year.
Most large cities have local, specialist apartment booking sites that you may prefer to book through, but for sheer convenience, aggregate sites such as Plum Guide and VRBO are great for booking apartments and even houses in Europe. .
If you prefer to book a hotel, I recommend bookingdotcom:
STEP 9: Revisit your Europe travel budget
Now that you’ve got some accommodation plans and can estimate costs in this area, you can go back to your budget. If need be revisit your itinerary and reprioritise or look at other accommodation options to save money.
Now it’s time to fill in the gaps with all the special moments that will make your trip one to really remember……
STEP 10: List all the things you want to do in each of your destinations
Taking into account the length of time you have in each destination, make a list of all the things you want to do for each of your destinations and prioritise them. Check your guidebook, tourism organisation websites, blogs and travel forums, or just ask your friends to help you add to your own personal list of must do’s.
Aggregator websites such as Get Your Guide or Viator can also be useful places to look for activity ideas. While many readers will be attracted to Viator, I prefer Get Your Guide due to their generous cancellation policies, and the fact you can see exactly who is providing your tour.
If you are interested in unique or more personal Europe experiences, check out With Locals:
STEP 11: Work out about how long each of your activities will take
I normally allow about half a day for the big key museums and art galleries. Personally, I find that’s enough for me, and I don’t know many people who can spend whole days. Churches and other historic sites can normally be done in about an hour, unless you want to attend a service, or go on a guided tour. For large historic sites such as Versailles I normally count them as museums and art galleries and allow half a day to just visit the chateau or a full day for both the chateau and gardens.
Then allow travel and queuing times.
You need to work out how best to get to each of your destinations and about how long they will take. I normally allow about 30mins for a metro train trip and 45mins to an hour for bus or walking. That allows you some slack for traffic, and for some window shopping and general sticky nosing if you walk.
Assume you will visit your sites at the beginning or ends of the day when queues are shortest and then stick to that. Look up if you can prebook an entrance and avoid the queues, and then make sure you stick to that. Many sites such as the Louvre, Versailles or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Vatican in Rome must be booked online in advance – in some cases because they are just so popular, and in others (such as the Louvre) to control on site numbers. Queues at some key tourist sites are horrendous, so don’t underestimate what a time waster that can be if you are on a tight schedule.
STEP 12: Check for days that the site may be closed, or when it may be open later
Many museums and art galleries (particularly in Europe) have a day when they are closed. Make sure you know when exactly that day is. Many are also open late one day per week. This is handy to know as well.
STEP 13: Allow some free time for spontaneity (and shopping!)
Don’t over schedule yourself. Allow time for some spontaneity, to linger in a park or to enjoy a previously undiscovered corner. Travelling can also be tiring, so make sure you schedule some down time. This is particularly important on the day you arrive if you are travelling from outside European time zones.
STEP 14: Piece it all together into an order that makes sense
Try and balance your time between hectic and more gentle pursuits. If you’ve got a special meal, a night at the theatre or some other evening activity planned, make that on a day when you know your day time activities are not going to leave you exhausted. If you’ve tried to include too much, reassess and reprioritise – and leave yourself a wishlist for next time.
Try and mix up your activities. Only a real art afficianado could cope with art galleries or museums day after day, so mix it up a bit with a variety of things to do and see. If you are traveling with children this is an absolute must – as is allowing for some play time. Get Your Guide offers an excellent range of family friendly activities that you can click here to find. Just click on the link, add in your destination and then filter for family activities.
STEP 15: Work out a basic plan of how you are going to get about in each location
You don’t need schedules for this – just a plan of attack. If you are planning on using public transport do some research on how to do this for your location. It will help you with budgeting as well as give you some confidence in a strange place. Checking your guidebook and generally looking like a lost tourist is just a sign saying “rob me” in many bus or train stations. I have a post on how to use the metro train system in Europe that can be applied to most European cities.
STEP 16: Look at food options
Research some places within your budget near your accommodation and places you are visiting. Cafes and restaurants in museums and art galleries are often good value and make an easy option. Research and plan for one great meal – regardless of your budget, and work out when best to do that. Checking out local restaurant review websites can help here – don’t just rely on your guidebook or Tripadvisor. I don’t recommend planning every single meal – again allow for some spontaneity and for finding your own hidden gem. I find The Fork app very helpful and reliable for recommendations – often by locals.
OK, so here we are. Your perfect itinerary for your perfect trip.
Nothing else left to do but enjoy!
Complete list of Europe itinerary planning resources:
(Click on the link to access)
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