Planning a Trip to Europe
Where to Start Planning a Trip to Europe
It starts with a dream, a cup of coffee, the internet and a notebook. You pick a country and begin to delve into the interwebs in search of beautiful imagery and visualize yourself there. This is where your trip itinerary for Europe starts, where the adventure begins. Whether you are traveling alone, traveling with a friend or traveling with kids, the excitement is the same. Time to start planning a trip to Europe.
This is how all my trips begin. With a small idea, a cappuccino, and curiosity for what's out there waiting for me. What's even better is, it morphs into something better by the time the wheels leave the runway.
Sometimes we get discouraged along the way, once we start adding up the costs. You might start asking yourself, "Should I go to Europe?" This doesn't mean we can't achieve those dreams we started with. It just means we have to take a different approach. It can be easy to travel in Europe on a budget. It may just mean that we may have to step out of our comfort zone and try something different. Europe can actually be more affordable than you think.
Reasons to Travel to Europe
There are so many reasons to travel to Europe. Why I love Europe is because there are so many places to visit in Europe in a small space. It is a fantastic place to experience many different cultures and history in a nice little package. My home province of Manitoba is slightly bigger in size than Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria and Czech Republic combined. Now the big difference is Manitoba has a population density of 2 people/sq.km (5pl/sq.mile), whereas those eight countries have an average of 233 people/sq.km (613pl/sq.mile). Thanks for the useless statistics Oliver, but this translates into more to see and do in Europe on your trip.
This means drive 20 minutes in Europe and there is something else unique to see. You could have Poffertjes in Eindhoven, Netherlands for breakfast, Waterzooi in Liège, Belgium for lunch, and Sauerbraten in Trier, Germany for dinner; all before my GPS tells me to turn off the Trans-Canada Highway back home.
"Be flexible! Be spontaneous!"
Our daily lives are structured enough as is. Work demands it, family life demands it. Don't make your vacation demand it. Once you learn to break this mold, your travel will be less stressful, way more enjoyable, and potentially cheaper. So it doesn't matter if you are first time traveler to Europe, or have done it half a dozen times. Hopefully, you will learn some new travel tips for Europe in these pages.
When is the Best Time to go to Europe?
You may consider many factors deciding when you should go to Europe. The time to go often gets determine by these factors.
- When can I get time off work?
- When is the weather good there?
- What places should I visit in Europe?
June - August is always the most popular time to go to Europe. That's when most people take their holidays and kids are off school. Weather-wise it's the most optimal. That also means everyone is going.
April - June, and September - October the weather is actually quite nice, and there are a lot fewer tourists. Certain tourist attractions may not be open, so check before you go. These are often referred to as the "shoulder seasons"
November - March, the cheapest time to go to Europe is the winter months, and you could experience things like the Christmas markets that Germany is famous for or go snowboarding in the Alps. Some countries around the Mediterranean still have beautiful weather in the winter.
Don't think of it as your only chance to go visit Europe. Look at it as one trip of many. Once you go once, you will want to go again....and again. So plan trips to different regions and hit a few countries at a time. You don't have to see it all at once. You will notice fast that there is so much to do in a small amount of space. There is always a way to travel around Europe on a budget. Traveling Europe on a budget doesn't necessarily mean you have to sacrifice comfort.
I've enjoyed Europe in May and October. Not the prime tourist times, not the prime work vacation times. Still Europe. These times may turn a three week trip into a four week trip because you are saving some money. Winter maybe changes your location and what you do. Why not try dog sledding in Scandinavia? Naples, Italy is on average 8.2c (46.7f) in January. That's a lot better than the -35c (-31f) my home city has in January.
If you are traveling to Europe for the first time, don't get caught up trying to see everything all in one trip. You'll drive yourself crazy. So pick a time that gives you the most amount of time you can afford to take. The minimum amount of time I would recommend is two weeks in Europe. The ideal time would be three to four weeks.
Places to Visit in Europe
There are so many place to visit in Europe. When you start planning your trip, you probably have your heart set on a country already. As you start researching that country or region, the internet will give you all the best places to visit in Europe. You might ask what are the best European cities to visit? What I have found in my travels is, some of my favourite experiences were found by accident. Don’t be afraid to take a “wrong turn”. Honestly, I haven't been disappointed with any place I've visited. Everyone has their own preference of what they want to see.
Europe can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. Are you looking to travel on a budget? Then considered Eastern Europe. Countries like the Baltic countries, or Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Hungary, the list goes on. They are in my opinion the hidden gems of Europe. They are less traveled than more popular western countries. They have stunning nature, and fantastic history and culture. When I traveled to Lithuania, I rented a hotel room and paid $30 CAD a night. Food was also really cheap. Some people have apprehensions about going to these countries due to "safety concerns". How safe are these countries? Well according to the Global Peace Index, much safer than you would expect.
Eastern Europe vs Western Europe
For example, here are some of the 2018 rankings on the Global Peace Index for Eastern European countries.
What about where we might live?
Let's compare that to some popular Western European destinations:
All I'm trying to say is, consider Eastern Europe, especially if you want to travel on a budget. You can always mix it with some western countries too, so that you can save money travelling to Eastern Europe, and it will balance out the higher cost of the Western Europe.
You will always find "Top 10 things to do in _______" Those are easy to find. Talk to the locals, they will help you find things you didn't know existed. They will also know of the best places to eat, and little hidden away things no tourist brochure will tell you about.
I was looking to rent a place near Koblenz. In the reviews of the place I was looking at renting, a person commented that the host had recommended to visit Burg Eltz. I had never heard of it. So I looked up more info on it, and thought that would make a good day trip. When we got to our place, I told my host we were going to visit Burg Eltz. She then recommended we should go visit the city of Trier then, it was only 45 minutes or so past the castle. So that day we decided that was a good plan! So all from a tucked away review, we went to visit an 800-year-old castle, and one of the oldest cities in Germany. See what people are talking about on the internet, always talk to the locals. Above all: Be flexible! Be spontaneous! The touristy stuff is always easy to find.
Step Outside the Top 10 things to do in...
When doing your research, look beyond the "Top 10 things to do in...." The little things in between are sometimes more fascinating.
You can't see it all. Popular tourist attractions can often take more time to see and may be more crowded, taking away from other things you could potentially do. Maybe you want to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. It's notoriously busy and massive. If you spent 60 seconds at each piece, it would take you 75 years to see it all. Why not check out the Mona Lisa copy done by an apprentice of Leonardo da Vinci's in Madrid's Prado Museum?
Smaller towns are fantastic and have some unexpected wonderful things. Problem is they are not as easily accessible by public transit, not impossible, but not as easy to get to as renting taking a car. So it depends how you are getting around that my determine what you see.
Learn more about the Best Ways to Get Around Europe here.
One of my favourite experiences was as we were driving on our way to a monastery in Germany. We came through a little town Rimsting. It was May 1st, May Day.
They were in the middle of erecting a May Pole. So we changed our plans a bit, parked and spent the morning taking part of this traditional day. It was fantastic. Sometimes the small towns have the most interesting stuff that the big cities and museum will never show you.
So make exploring smaller towns and rural areas part of your adventure. Research festivals or special holidays the country may have. You may find yourself experiencing a true cultural event. In Lithuania I found myself enjoying two days of a folk festival with music and dancing representing, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and more. You never know what you will find.
Here is a great way to find some things to do and see using Google Maps. You'll find things you would never find normally through a Google search. This is great for exploring the rural areas just outside of big cities to find those unique things. No tourist brochure will do this for you.
Check out the quick video below on how to do this! It's really simple!
So the point is, don't limit yourself. You'd be amazed what you can find off the beaten path. Sometimes going somewhere can be half of the adventure. And if you don't make it to your intended destination because of all the stuff in between, that's a pretty good day.
How to Find Cheap Flights to Europe
Regardless of what online flight booking website you plan on using to find cheap flights, the biggest thing that can save you money is flexibility. If you can be flexible on the day you leave and the day you fly home, that alone can make the biggest difference. I have priced watched flights to Europe, and certain days are definitely better than others. Flight prices also change hour to hour. So it can be a stroke of luck when you book unless you plan on sitting on your computer all day.
Sometimes we get fixated on landing at a certain airport. Sometimes choosing a different airport, even country, can save you big money, and even give you an interesting place to explore. If you are planning to visit multiple countries, try putting in multiple cities in the "to" field, and you can quickly see which city or country would be cheapest to fly in or out of. You can try it here ; pick three European cities or countries you would want to travel to, and see which is the cheapest. What did you come up with?
My family (2 adults, one child) to fly to Frankfurt: $3399 CAD ($2579 USD)
If I decided to land in London instead of Frankfurt: $2882 CAD ($2187 USD)
Savings flying to London versus Frankfurt: $517 ($392 USD)
So even if I wanted to go visit Germany, for between $150 CAD ($114 USD) and $225 CAD ($171 USD) we could get to Frankfurt from London with a regional airline, bus, or train. That still saves us up to $300 CAD ($228 USD), which could be used for quite a few meals, admission fees to sites, or four-night accommodations.
Icelandair offers flights to Europe via Iceland and allows you to get off in Iceland for up to seven days and then continue on. The cost is comparable to going direct. So why not visit a unique country on the way?
Depending on where you live it might be worth a drive to another city to depart out of. Play with all the options, you’d be surprised on the savings. There is a balance between savings and convenience.
It is way more convenient to go directly to a destination of your choice, but it comes at a higher cost. If you are working with a limited budget, then maybe a little inconvenience is worth it. What I outlined above can be a double bonus if you include the landing country in part of your adventure and/or you find an economical way to get to your intended goal.
Learn more about finding cheap flights here.
Best Ways to Get Around Europe
How to get around Europe is always a question that comes up. There are so many factors that come up when you consider how to get around. It really depends what you plan on seeing. Like mentioned before, the smaller towns and sites are sometimes only easily accessible by car. So if your trip involves a lot of "out of the way" places, then a renting a car may be the option. If you just plan on staying in bigger cities, then using a train or bus to get from city to city could be the most economical.
Driving around big European cities is not fun, so I recommend using the Park and Ride services and taking the train into the city if you are renting a car. It saves you the headache of parking and the traffic. It will save you time and stress. Generally in big cities I always public transit.
One drawback to driving in Europe is that driving in a different country can be a challenge, especially if you have to drive on the other side of the road than you are used to. If you are driving through the mountains, for example, the driver is missing out on some the beautiful scenery as they are focused on the road. I love taking the train through countries like Switzerland and Austria just to watch the countryside. You can walk around on the train to stretch your legs, play cards, and just relax.
Distance also makes a difference. I took a bus for 16 hours (each way) because the price was cheap. I could have paid double (120 EUR) and got there in an hour and a half. Lesson learned. So for long distances, you may lose valuable vacation time. So you have to weigh the options of time versus money.
So ask yourself:
I always enjoy every part of a trip. That includes my flight there, the experience of driving or taking a train from place to place. Think of it as a big part of the experience, not just how to get around Europe. Is it better to rent a car than take a train in Europe? That's for you to decide is best for your trip. You can always do both to experience a bit of everything. To learn more about the best ways to get around Europe go here.
Finding Accommodations in Europe
Did you know there are at least eight different types of accommodations that you could find to stay at in Europe? There is a place to stay in Europe to match every budget from high-end hotels to even staying for free with Couchsurfing. It really comes down to what suits your style. I've traveled alone and with my family. Each has had different requirements.
Finding a Good Place to Stay in Europe
Things to look for when picking a place to stay:
I often use vacation homes when I travel Europe. I get my own space and can cook my own meals, which can save a lot of money. You might prefer a hostel or even a hotel. Regardless of what type of place you stay in, make sure the area you are staying is a good, safe area. Read reviews. As many as you can. Whether you are staying in a vacation home or renting a hotel room, there should be reviews. Often people talk about how accessible it is, and what the neighborhood is like. I found one place that looked great, close to the subway, then I read the reviews. Everyone said the place itself was great. But at night the street was loud and had a questionable crowd, due to a bar that was right there.
Location, Location, Location
Finding the coolest place to stay is only good if you just planning on hanging out there. You are going to Europe to see things, so your accommodations should be a clean, safe place to stay, that is a conveniently located home base. Where your place is located can really make or break your stay. This is one of my number one factors when I pick a place.
When you stay in a big city try and find a place close to public transit. Often I get even pickier because I try and find a place close to a subway or tram. Why? There is nothing wrong with buses, but subways and trams are super easy to navigate because they follow a fixed route. This makes planning really easy. Subways especially run every couple of minutes, so you don't have to plan to leave at a certain time. Just go when you are ready to go. If you miss a subway, the next one is probably only five minutes away. Also, the subway will almost always go to all the major sites, including to the train station and airport. This makes the day you arrive stress-free. The stations are easy to find, whereas bus stops, can be a little trickier.
If you plan on visiting smaller towns outside of the big cities, try finding a place in a small town, that is in a central location to the sites you want to see. You don't want to spend all day driving. You can always visit the big cities, just use the Park and Ride system when you go. You can find some great places to stay like a farm stay or bed and breakfasts that can really make your trip a memorable one.
Use Google Maps to check out travel times to and from your accommodations. This way you get an idea how much time of your day is going to be spent traveling. If it takes you 40 minutes each day to get to what you want to see, are you okay with that? The nice thing about Google Maps is you can pick, walking, public transportation, biking or driving. So depending on how you plan on getting around, you can find that perfect location. You won't be close to everything, but being close to a quick driving route or a subway will get you there quickly give you more time to explore.
" There isn't inappropriate weather, just inappropriate clothing."
Planning a Europe Trip Itinerary
Some people like to plan every minute of every day while on vacation. While it's nice to know what you are doing day to day, you don't want to come home and need a vacation from your vacation. My recommendation when you plan an itinerary for Europe is to definitely plan some things you want to see but also be open-minded and ready to change the activities or days that you do them on. If you have a day by day list of times and places and weather changes, you may not make the best use of those days. If it's rainy and windy maybe switch up to some indoor activities. That being said there is an unwritten rule amongst the locals. There isn't inappropriate weather, just inappropriate clothing. So be prepared for anything so you can make the best out of every day.
Leave some flexibility in your day. You don't want to feel pressure to clock watch and be leaving before you are done. You are on vacation! There can also be unexpected delays (which I have always encountered at some point), whether it is with a traffic jam on the highway or rail repairs when taking the train.
Don't be afraid to take a wrong turn, or leave a day unplanned. I say have a trip guideline. An itinerary can lack spontaneity. I often plan what I want to see, but don't have a certain day that I have to see it. So the night before I make a decision based on the weather and everyone's mood. Sometimes a full day can leave you exhausted, so you might change your mind to have a lighter day.
Some things you may discover while walking around. This is why my first day in a city, I just go exploring or do a free walking tour. I almost always discover something I didn't know existed that I end up checking out. Most of my favourite experiences have happened this way.
Make sure to incorporate some relax time in your trip. You don't have to sit in your place and do nothing, but take a pause and soak in the surroundings. Walk the Old Town of a city. Sit and have a coffee and pastry and people watch. When we were in Trier, everyone in the outdoor cafe sat on the same side of the table facing the Town Square just to watch everyone go by. Even on cooler days, in Innsbruck we were offered blankets as we sat for our midday coffee break. In Hamburg there was a cafe on a dock and you could watch the giant ships go by on their way in and out of the harbour. These experiences were just as rewarding as some of the sites I visited.
- Find things to do.
- Decide on the time of year.
- Think about how you will get there.
- Consider how you will get around once you are on the ground.
- Look for accommodations that work with your location and mode of transport.
In summary, consider all factors when planning a trip. I would recommend picking a few countries as a starting point. Then do some research in the surrounding areas and countries. Be open-minded and research experiences over locations. This way you find things you want to do, and the locations will fall into place. Can you do/see these things in the "off-season"? Then consider how you will get there, and how you will get around. From there start looking at accommodations.
Remember: Be flexible! Be spontaneous!