How to Plan a Trip to Europe

You know that feeling of euphoria you get when you’ve committed to doing something you’ve always wanted? Maybe it’s moving across the country or quitting that job you hated. That life-changing moment, have you felt it? One of my life-changing moment was booking my flight for my Europe trip. My decision was no doubt fueled by the stress and lack of sleep I was dealing with when working with the relief in Puerto Rico and USVI after the hurricanes in 2017. Maybe the best decisions are made that way, though.

Up to this point, I hadn’t traveled internationally. Something about getting a passport had me procrastinating like no other. Traveling had still always occupied my mind. Que my first Europe trip. Through this trip and the mistakes I made, I learned a lot about preparing and planning for Europe. So grab your coffee, some snacks and let’s dive into the do’s and don’ts of planning your trip!

(Also, by the way, I created a Europe trip planning checklist at the bottom of this post!)

Planning for your Trip to Europe

1. Determine Your Budget

Maybe it’s early in your planning. Europe may be a thought passing through your mind. Maybe you’re deadset on going. Regardless, setting a rough budget should be your first step. Budget is a huge limiting factor for length of stay and destination. Switzerland, for example, costs more than the Czech Republic. Three days in Budapest could be the equivalent of one day in Barcelona when you also consider the costs of food, accommodation, and transportation. It’s also important to have a budget so you know how much you are needing to save.

A notebook that has an example budget written down.

2. Choose Your Destinations Strategically

Once a budget has been established, it’s time to choose where you’ll be going. If you have a tight budget, looking into Eastern Europe could be a better option than opting to go somewhere in the Western region like Paris or London.

I knew that the one place that I wanted to go was Amsterdam, and because it was a cheap airport to fly in to, I booked my roundtrip ticket through AMS. At this point in my planning, I just started throwing out cities I wanted to go to without considering geographic location or travel time. This caused a lot of logistical problems and extra expenses. Especially because booking reservations across countries via the Eurail was finicky.

Learn from my mistakes! Look at the geographic location between each destination when you are looking into where you want to go. For shorter trips, planning closer destinations can mean saving time. However, for longer trips, choosing inconvenient travel times can mean saving money. Don’t put the logistics of your destinations on the backburner as I had.

3. Determine Your Transportation (& look at those transportation times)

There are four main methods of covering travel in Europe. The first is how I chose to travel, by train. Eurail (for non-EU citizens) or Interrail (for EU citizens) are two common options. You can find a post with more on my experience with Eurail here. I personally ran into a lot of complications with using Eurail.

Taking the bus is another popular method. Although there are a few different bus companies, I have used FlixBus. It takes a comparable amount of time to the train (when taking a direct route). The buses always have bathrooms and charging outlets, which is convenient. Bus tickets also stay affordable up until the last minute and prices for different companies can be compared on GoEuro.com.

The third option is by airfare. This is faster but can be more expensive. There are tons of budget airlines in Europe and if you plan on being strict with your route, this can be a great option. This can also be a great option if you don’t mind paying more for last minute flights. One thing to note on flying is that most of the budget airlines don’t include checked bags or enforce a low weight limit. This can tack on extra fees if you aren’t packing a light carry on.

The last main method is hitchhiking. I haven’t used this method, but I did meet someone from Morocco and had spent the last month traveling Iceland by hitchhiking. He had a great experience and showed me a collage of selfies. Each picture was one that he had taken with someone who had given him a ride. While I wouldn’t recommend this option, I know people do it and are successful with it.

For more on traveling by methods other than train, check out my post here!

4. Create a Flexible Itinerary

This is personally my favorite part of planning for a trip. During my month-long trip, I realized I had to make some tweaks to my planning. I am someone that likes to go with the flow so planning every minute of the day wasn’t ideal. I found that for me, booking transportation and hostels once city ahead at a time was more efficient than booking everything at once. If you are someone that needs a structure, then planning smaller details or further ahead may be more important.

When planning, I found it helpful to handwrite a brief itinerary of where I wanted to go and how many days I wanted to spend in each place. Ideally, you would include how long it will take via your transportation method to reach the next place and the time of your planned transportation. I also created a page for each city I planned to go to with relevant information and sites I wanted to see.

When creating a flexible itinerary, it would also be helpful to include what kind of accommodation you are looking to stay in. There are so many options between hostels, hotels, Airbnb’s (which I don’t suggest although it is a popular option), work-aways, and Couchsurfing.

5. Set Your Dates and Book Your Airfare!

At this point, you should have an idea of your budget, where you’re going, what you’re wanting to do, and how you will be getting around. It’s time to book the flight! For finding the best airfare prices, check out Skyscanner or Hopper! I love that with Skyscanner I was able to put in different destinations and dates to find the best deal. Flying out from larger airports can also help cut costs. I ended up flying out of Seattle instead of Portland because the tickets were more affordable. Booking budget airlines, waiting for sales like on Cyber Monday, and using airline miles can help save money. Let’s be real, flights can get expensive and can be one of the biggest expenses on a trip, especially if you don’t live near a huge international airport like JFK or LAX.

One thing I highly recommend is booking a one-way ticket. During my trip, I changed my route to travel with others and because of recommendations I got from other backpackers. Having to catch a return flight in a non-central location made it a struggle to get back to when my trip came to an end after changing my itinerary.

Make sure all your documents are or will be in order by your trip date. If you don’t have a passport, make sure that you are applying for one at least 6 weeks in advance and if you already have one, make sure that it won’t expire within 6 months of your departure date.

6. Figure Out the Logistics

Now is the time to figure out the smaller logistics. You now have set dates and it is much easier to plan for your Europe trip. Do you need a house or pet sitter? Have you looked into phone plans? Will you have to download offline maps of the cities you’re going to and pin important places? Do you need to book your accommodations for when you arrive in Europe (Check out Hostelworld here!)? What about travel insurance?

Figure out these things now that you have your tickets booked!

7. Pack

Your trip is now coming up! It will come faster than you think. I suggest packing a few days prior because who knows what will happen. The day before my flight was supposed to take off, thunderstorms in Chicago closed ORD (my connection) and canceled my flight. The airline sent me an email and gave me the option to reschedule and the only flight to make it to Amsterdam on the day that I was supposed to arrive took off in 4 hours. I hadn’t expected to leave until the next day and hadn’t packed yet!

… And now enjoy your trip!

If you made it through this, I hope this overview was helpful! If you are ready to figure out some of the details of your trip, check out these posts:

I have also attached a printable “Europe Trip Planning Checklist” below!

Travel Planning Checklist Download

Are you a planner or someone who just goes with the flow on your vacations? Let me know in the comments below!

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1 Comment

  1. January 9, 2019 / 9:43 am

    These are some really helpful tips. After years of travelling, I think being flexible is one of the biggest things I’ve learned. I still like to have a basic plan but one that can be tweaked – sometimes you fall in love with a place and don’t want to leave (or hate it and want to go early!), you meet people who suggest places you’d not thought of, or decide to join new friends somewhere. It makes the experience so much more enjoyable (for me) when not stuck to a rigid timetable.

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