Recently, over some paella and Spanish chardonnay with friends, it dawned on me that I'm such a veteran travel planner by now that I know how to plan a trip by second nature, but others do not. My friends had only just gone to Europe for the first time last fall and were looking to plan a trip to Italy with their kids for next year. Here's the basic advice I gave them to silo the planning process into digestible, easy to manage chunks:
1. Think about WHEN you want to go.
Don't plan for someday. Don't plan for next year. Plan within about 6-8 months of travel. Any longer out than that and the planning process will be too abstract.
Airfare isn't even available 10+ months out.
You don't know how your situation will change either. Maybe your finances change, maybe you move away, maybe your destination gets leveled by an earthquake or borders shut down from disease or war. Maybe your obsession with Emily in Paris turns into a hunt for Game of Thrones filming spots. You don't know. Maybe maybe maybe.
Having a concrete date in the near future is key to starting your travel planning.
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Boxed in by school dates? Expect to pay more for everything, wait in longer lines, and generally be hit with tourism madness wherever your destination should be - unless of course you steer clear of the top spots, especially in summer (you know: Rome, Florence, London, Barcelona, Paris...).
In this event, try to target dates on the shoulders of the school calendar. Does 5 year old Bobby really need to be at the last two days of his Kindergarten class? Can Marissa talk with her professor about moving up her final exam in College? Yes and yes. Work around the dates with the people who will be impacted to get the best deals and minimize travel chaos.
2. Research the best airfare.
Use my Google Flights guide to get started. I have daily (yes) alerts that come to my email for flights that I set tracking on. This helps me determine price trends for different locations. It's ok not to know where you are going yet. You've got a general idea of "when" and now a baseline on "how much". The idea here is to narrow down the best entry to Europe. Once you are there, getting around is easy by many different modes of travel.
3. Decide the type of travel
Taking a cruise from Barcelona? Backpacking by train? Racing down the autobahn in Germany? Flight hopping? Staying in one spot? Figure all this out in advance because this will impact your airfare choices. Consider Europe's extensive rail network (including overnight trains) and also consider the main ports for cruise travel like Barcelona, Rome, Venice and Athens.
4. Decide WHERE to fly in to and BOOK your airfare.
Remember - do not feel confined by destination. If it's cheaper to fly into London direct from home base, do that. Then, take puddle jumper low-budget airlines like RyanAir or Vueling to where you eventually want to end up. Or heck, find your nearest Hertz Rental car and get on the road. You'll see a lot more charm and a lot less crowds seeing Europe this way. Whatever you do, don't break your back and your wallet trying to get exactly from point A to point B. Remember, the journey is more important than the destination.
5. Once airfare is booked, start a spreadsheet.
I use Google sheets. It is accessible anywhere (on or offline) and shareable with others. Important features should include a chart with date, destination, travel details, activity details and more. Send me a message through my contact form if you'd like a free copy of a starter Google sheet for you to use!
6. Book hotels.
This helps form the framework of where you will expect to be each day so that you can plan the finer details later. Always book your hotels with Free Cancellation so you can change your mind often. I prefer using Booking.com, but Expedia and Tripadvisor are excellent supplementary tools to help you book!
7. Down to Details
Now plan as little or as much as you want. Maybe you want to wing it, or maybe you like to have reservations booked at restaurants and tickets booked at museums. You do you. Use Tripadvisor to find great restaurants and sites in each destination and cross reference your tastes to different blogs for more ideas.
Planning Your First Trip to Europe Can Be Simple
As the final weeks before travel approach, use my "6 Weeks Out" planning guide to button down trains, cars, and anything else.
Planning a trip can be daunting, but you need the basic framework to begin the detail work. Knowing when, where, and how to get where you are going will build the foundation on how to plan your first trip to Europe. I know you want to get started on what you will wear, where you will eat and what you will see, but that's not the most efficient way to start planning.
And if you need any extra help, check out my Travel Resources page!