When you decide you want to travel on an extended trip of a few weeks or a few months, deciding where you will go and how long of a trip to take is a big decision. Learning how to plan a trip to Europe can seem daunting. Being organized in our thought process is the most important step. We usually decide on a length, and that sets the parameters. We then decide what region or countries we want to visit, and we go to work. Since we oftentimes aren’t familiar with the area we will travel in, we expect to do a lot of research. We plan most trips the same way unless we are on a planned tour or cruise. While it takes time and focus, it is worth the effort in the end. Now, let’s get started!
Map and Calendar
We always begin our planning with a map and a blank calendar page. You can use a digital map you find online and draw on your tablet. I like to have a paper map that I can draw on and refer to often. Printing several maps and several blank calendar pages off the internet, is the first step. I then begin by drawing a route that I think might work. For example, if we are planning a two month trip to Asia, I pick about 12 places and circle them on the map. I then try to connect them into a route that I think makes sense. I then take the calendar and estimate the amount of days at each location and plan a timeline.
Changes will happen…
Be prepared, you will change your route. You will also need to adjust the number of days spent as you go through the different stages of research. This step is simply to get an overall idea of your journey. I usually go through many maps and many calendar pages before we settle on a route and timeline. When traveling Asia, if we are staying in a couple of countries, we might take the train. If we are covering a large area, we might fly. Figuring this out is a challenge, but you must start somewhere. Just remain flexible. Solving the puzzle of the route can be fun and rewarding.
When we went to Asia, we planned to go to China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. We thought we would go to China then to southern Vietnam. What we found when we researched flights is that there wasn’t a good connection on our preferred carrier, Air Asia. So, we flew from Guilin, China, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and then to Ho Chi Mien City, Vietnam. We did all the same places, just in a different order. It seemed we were backtracking north to Vietnam, but it was a cheaper flight, and it didn’t take that long. We just needed to be flexible, and we made the change before we got too far in our planning.
At this point and truly all along the process, it is important to research your country or location. Googling an area or researching itineraries on Pinterest gives you a better understanding of what sites you want to visit. Once you learn about your place, you might want to add additional days to the calendar. You might want to move on and spend less. Make a list of your key sites at each location that you want to see. It will help you determine your priorities.
Be careful not to miss something…
Be careful as you research your locations to make sure you get everything you want to see on your list. I took my niece on a trip to Europe once. I was lazy by the time I got to the end of the planning. We visited Segovia, Spain on one of the last days of our trip. I had never been there, but I knew it had a Roman aqueduct I had learned about in college. We visited it and were mesmerized by the skill it took to build such an incredible structure out of rock. Then we walked up the hill to the city and shopped and had lunch. We had a lovely time.
When I got home, John asked me what I thought of the castle in Segovia, and I said, “What castle?” After looking it up, I realized that I missed one of the most beautiful castles in Spain. I felt sick that I had been so careless as to miss such a landmark. Now, I am very careful that I know the important places. Sometimes other travelers will suggest places that don’t interest me. Please don’t be careless and miss something that you would enjoy. Do your research and at least know an area well.
Length of Visit
When we make an itinerary, we like to stay in a city for about four nights on average. Sometimes we stay less, if we are just traveling through and want to see a couple of things. One night stays feel too short because you are checking into a hotel and out the next morning. It helps to have your luggage stored away at the hotel to enjoy a place for a full day. Feeling that rushed is not as fun.
Make fun stops…
If on a train, and you know there is one thing you want to see in a particular town you are passing through, you can get off the train and catch a later one. Make sure you know there is one behind. Check schedules, but oftentimes on big routes, trains run all day. Stopping for lunch in a beautiful village or seeing a beautiful cathedral is doable if you plan ahead. Train stations sometimes have storage lockers where you can store your bag for a small fee. Many places now have independent companies that offer storage lockers near important sites, so you can store your bag safely. They are inexpensive, and we use them. It’s easy.
We do stay longer than four nights if we are in a location like Paris or London. Making day trips from these cities is great when you can leave your bag in one place. We’ve been to smaller cities where we stayed longer, and we wished we had moved on. Other times, we have met interesting people and wished we could stay longer to join them on an adventure. It’s hard to decide what to do, but for us, four nights is kind of our planning goal.
Don’t try to cram too much in…
One bit of advice, don’t try to cram everything into one trip. Plan to go on several trips over the course of your life. This is a good mindset. I totally understand why doing as much as possible is important to someone who can’t go on trips often or it is their first time to go abroad. We did it and are still guilty of doing it. It is hard not to. We have learned that trying to do too much in one trip ruins the balance of enjoyment. I really think focusing on your key interests and narrowing down your expectations is a good thing.
Allow for downtime
I have found that people who plan to live their lives with lots of travel tend to take their time in locations. They enjoy meeting people and getting involved in the culture of the community they visit. Try to do some of this, even if you are on a tight schedule. Plan to have down time in your trip to sit and talk. You will be blessed many times over for being friendly and being interested in the people you meet. We have met some fascinating people and when we remember them, those people were an important part of our trips. I’m so thankful for their contribution to our lives. We oftentimes ask to take their pictures, and we treasure the memory of them.
Running is a big part of John’s life, and he tries to run everywhere we go. Oftentimes he runs the city early in the morning and reports back to me what he saw. He then tells me where we should explore that day. It gives him joy. When he can he participates in 5K races. It is rewarding to him when he does well. It’s rewarding to me to watch him have fun doing what he loves.
Holidays and Closures
Another important detail on your planning is to consider national holidays and local closures. In France, for example, Tuesday is the national museum closure date and museums owned by France are closed that day. Also, locally owned museums outside the city of Paris are closed on Tuesday. In Paris, museums owned by the city are closed on Mondays.
This type of thing occurs in every country. Researching this is important if you plan to stop for short visits in various cities and are on a tight schedule. While you’re at it, look to see if those museums offer advance purchase of tickets. All over Europe you will find long lines of people waiting to get into sites. This is a big waste of your time. Having a ticket in hand enables you to pass the line and go straight in. Sometimes city passes get you to the front of the line. Just read up on what benefits you get by having a museum pass.
A Planning Overview
- Print maps
- Print blank calendar pages
- Draw route on map
- Write on calendar what city you will be in each night
- Research each location
- Adjust calendar and make sure you include travel time between locations
- Allow for downtime
- Allow for holidays
For some travelers, they like to be footloose and fancy free. They desire to travel the world without a planned route, staying in hostels and hotels they find on the fly. This is a fantastic way to live your life, and I admire people who do this well.
For us, we like to be prepared for our trip. We feel that preparation, reservations and such, give us a sense of control. Maybe it’s because I am a woman, the idea of being caught somewhere without a hotel room sounds scary. Having to stop and search for a room just goes against my better judgement. Maybe the more we travel, the more amenable we will be to just going with the flow, but I really doubt it. I like to read traveler’s reviews of lodging and doing my research helps make our trip a more enjoyable one. By the way, do leave reviews and be helpful to future travelers, and always be kind.
The other advantage to knowing where you are staying is being able to search for good rates. I have found when we are desperate, we tend to make decisions that cost us money on hotels and flights. Being prepared is always better for bargain hunting. Having decisions made before our trip, helps us stay the course on our budget and saves time, too. If you decide to just travel on the fly, research and keep a list of possible accommodations and find out their typical availability. At least that gives you some options.
Planning for one day…
At one time, we sat down and made a list of all the places we really wanted to go to someday. We drew basic routes on them. It helped us to prioritize our favorite places and have an overall plan for future travel. It also helped us put countries into regions and figure out routes that would work together. This will enable us to cover most of the globe in a ten to fifteen year period. The problem is that the more we travel, the more places we want to go, so there’s that, too!
Check out these articles:
- BACKPACKING EUROPE CHECKLIST
- CLOTHES FOR BACKPACKING EUROPE
- ORGANIZING TRAVEL DETAILS
- MINIMALIST RETIREMENT
- WORLD TRAVEL