First-time European traveler? Trying to save some cash by not working with a travel agent to plan your next trip to Europe? From one planner to another, here are a few tips from my own experiences that may help you along the way.
Choosing your destinations may be the hardest part of the entire trip. My advice is to begin with a broad, general idea of what you’d like to see, and explore the surrounding areas. Have you always dreamed of seeing Paris, but haven’t thought much further? London is a few hour’s Chunnel ride away, and the French countryside is gorgeous, too. Switzerland is stunning, and the public transportation is one of the absolute best – tour Zurich, Lucerne, Bern and Montreux and do it all by train. Did you realize that Italy is bordered by France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia? The most incredible thing about Europe is that you can experience so many cultures in so little time. With such well-connected public transportation systems and roadways, you’ll be amazed at the adventures you can pack into a 10- to 15-day tour.
From there, honestly, what’s worked for me is to start a Pinterest board dedicated to the trip. Do some research online, visit travel blogs, look at other travel-themed pin boards, and just start gathering those can’t-miss locations and experiences. You can pare down later on – for now, go all out!
After you’ve figured out a loose list of locations, one of the next things you’ll need to tackle is, when? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. In many European countries, August is the busiest month for tourists. Attractions and museums will be crowded, hotels will be booked full, and your price for lodging, travel and dining can end up through the roof. If you’re not visiting for the weather, consider an off-season month. Or, look at late May, early June, September and early October for the best of both worlds – you can expect less rain in most areas, as well as fewer tourists than in peak months.
Next up, it’s time to buy a plane ticket. Where should you fly into and out of? If you plan to visit many cities and countries during your tour, consider flying into one airport and out of another. As I planned an upcoming trip to Switzerland, France and Italy, I knew it would eat away at my days if I backtracked to be able to fly round-trip. To find the best prices on airfare, I tried multiple combinations and eventually found that flying into Zurich and out of Rome was the most cost-effective combination. I didn’t initially intend to visit Rome, although it’s always been on my list, so it was a nice way to justify adding one extra day on the tail end. Because, it’s Rome.
Quick tip: plane tickets overseas, to Europe in particular, generally don’t drop in price the closer you get to your travel dates. I’ve found that the lowest prices were available 10-11 months before my travel dates, and my research after the fact backed that up. By six months out (when I finally accepted that prices weren’t going back down), my ticket was an additional $350.
A few other tips for planning your European Tour:
- Pay special attention to Sundays and holidays. Train travel can be affected, as many will run on a restricted schedule on those days. Plus, many restaurants and attractions may be closed or have limited hours.
- Prioritize expenses. What’s most important to you – food, souvenirs, museums, luxury accommodations? You can save on some to splurge on others. But just remember, this is vacation. I’m a firm believer in choosing a few key experiences to indulge in.
- Plan for delays. They’ll happen, whether it’s missing your train or lingering over a delicious meal longer than expected, and that’s okay. If you’ve budgeted more time than you think you’ll need for a particular attraction or section of the city, your itinerary will remain intact.
- Relax and enjoy. The best advice I can give for planning your very own tour of Europe is to embrace the unexpected. If planning makes you more comfortable, then plan as much as you can. But allow yourself to enjoy the little moments and small discoveries you make along the way.