Yearning for a dream vacation in Europe?
I recently put together a masterful, magical travel plan for a 4-month trip to Europe this year. I realised that with all my years of experience as a professional traveller, it was still a huge job.
So I want to help you if you're thinking about taking your first trip to Europe soon, or even if you've been before, to make the whole experience as smooth as butter. Whether you're going on a vacation for 1 week or 2 months, these tried-and-true planning tips will work for you.
A dream European trip has to start somewhere.
I'll paraphrase Benjamin Franklin's well-worn quote... "An ounce of preparation will save a huge pain in the ass later".
The best way to guarantee those magical life-changing moments on your big Europe trip is to plan for them... thoroughly. Then you just relax and be present in the moment when you're in Europe, taking in all the sights, sounds and smells.
When should you start the planning process? It used to be much easier to leave things to the last minute, but post-pandemic Europe is a different beast now.
The rules of travel have changed.
If you don't book accommodation, flights, and tours at least 3 months in advance, you'll have far fewer options, especially during the peak summer season. But if you want to jet off soon, then today is the best day to start.
A vacation in Europe has a lot of detailed components and can feel a bit overwhelming just thinking about where to start.
But don't worry.
I'll take you step-by-step through the entire process of planning and booking your European trip, following the same methods and secret spreadsheet I used to save thousands of dollars. The secret to success is a clear game plan, and breaking the big mission down into manageable bite-sized tasks.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will your European trip plan. But if I can do this, then so can you.
Let's make this happen.
Decide on Your Europe Trip Length
For most people, this will be determined by the amount of time you can take off work. Otherwise, it will depend on your wallet - how long can you afford to travel? An absolute minimum should be 1 week, but the longer, the better... Up to 4 months. Anything longer, and you might run into visa headaches, or you'd probably be considering relocation (even if it's temporary), or maybe you're a super-trendy digital nomad.
Is 1 month enough for a Europe trip? If your bank account allows, this is a sweet spot that will give you enough time to experience several different countries while (hopefully) not costing you a kidney. But if you’ve only got 2 weeks, then that is still doable.
How Much Does a Trip to Europe Cost in 2022?
If you’re a super duper solo budget traveller, it can be as low as US$70-$90 per day with camping and hostels. But a more realistic, comfortable, mid-range trip that will suit most couple travellers should allow for US$150-$250 per day. This includes hotel, food, transport, attractions, and tours. But if you throw in a few luxurious experiences or an expensive music festival (like Tomorrowland), the sky is the limit.
Your dollar will stretch much further the further east you go, in cheaper countries like Poland, Greece, and Turkey, and especially during shoulder seasons. For example, a basic short-term apartment rental in London, UK starts around US$125/day (summer), whereas something similar in Antalya, Turkey (autumn) is US$40. That’s a 300% difference!
Travelling to Europe as a couple, family or with friends can reduce the cost per person because you share accommodation and car rental.
Typically flights to/from your home country will be the most expensive components. But I will provide tips later on how to reduce that cost.
Here are several examples:
Note: I’ll work on the assumption that return flights from the United States are US$600pp (it’s possible to find even cheaper).
- 7 days in UK and France for 2 adults: ($220 x 7) + flights = US$2,740
- 14 days in Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria for 2 adults: ($200 x 14) + flights = US$4,000
- 30 days in Spain, France, Italy, Croatia via road trip for 4 adults: ($250 x 30) + flights = $9,900 ($2,475 per person)
- 14 days in Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary via bus for 2 adults: ($150 x 14) + flights = $3,300
- 7 days in Greece – Athens & Zakynthos for 1 adult: ($125 x 7) + flight = US$1,475
Expert tip: I needed to make my budget stretch further, so I travelled faster through Western Europe, where it was more expensive, and slowed down in Eastern Europe.
At this point, if you don’t have enough money, don’t despair – get to work and start saving some more. Make the tough sacrifices like giving up the daily caramel macchiato from Starbucks. And while you’re waiting, work on your Europe trip dreamboard. Whatever you do, don’t use your credit card to get into thousands of dollars of debt. Europe will still be there next year.
Do Your Visa Homework
Before you get carried away, find out if your passport makes you eligible for a visa-free stay in the Schengen area. If you don't know what that is, read up on it. If you’re from countries like the US, Canada, or Australia, you’re eligible for a visa-waiver stamp on arrival. Once you’re within the Schengen area, there are no border crossings or passport stamps between international borders.
If you're going to stay 90 days or more, you'll need to plan for time outside the Schengen area, such as UK, Croatia, or Turkey. If you're staying less than 90 days, it will be much easier. Keep in mind that the day you arrive and leave each counts as a “day” (even if you arrive at 11:59pm).
While you’re at it, ensure you have enough time left on your passport – you’ll need at least 6 months of validity on the date you enter Europe.
News: As of November 2023, a new visa-waiver fee of €7 will apply to most tourists entering the EU.
Start With a Theme
Ask yourself, what do you enjoy? Try to give your European trip an overarching theme. This will make it easier to choose what cities to visit. For example:
- Culture and art
You might have already found some inspiration on Instagram, Pinterest, Lonely Planet’s Europe travel guide, or this travel blog. If you can't think of a theme, then start dreaming now. This doesn't have to be written in stone, and you're free to mix and match multiple themes, but it will help give your travel planning some direction and focus.
When something jumps into your mind, write it down.
- Art/culture: Florence, Rome, Paris
- Relaxing by the beach: Antalya, Mallorca, Nice
- Vegan food: London, Berlin, Krakow, Barcelona
- Snow skiing: Switzerland, Northern Italy, Andorra
Choose 3 Essential Experiences
When you can go anywhere, where do you go in Europe? I find the best way to start is to pick 3 must-do experiences. Maybe these have been on your bucket list for a while? These experiences will become the anchors around which you plan your route.
A road trip around French wine regions, or party hard at Tomorrowland in Belgium. Perhaps shop till you drop in Milan, or watch the opera in Vienna. Soak up the sunrise from a hot air balloon in Cappadocia, or catch the winter solstice at Stonehenge.
This will structure your plan by choosing the European countries you'll visit. Now we will combine the “themes” with the “essential experiences,” and your itinerary will start to take shape.
How to Build an Itinerary for Europe
The right travel speed will depend on your preferences, age, health, zodiac sign, and favourite colour. There is no one-size-fits-all, but ironically this is the most popular question asked by first-timers who travel to Europe.
Firstly, don’t try to cram too much into a short amount of time, otherwise you’ll spend most of the trip bouncing between cities rather than seeing the things you actually came all the way here for. You can’t simply do everything on your first trip to Europe, and remember you can always come back in the future.
Ask yourself if a first-time tourist to the United States would try to see New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago in 7 days, would they do it justice? Probably not. Allow more time in bigger cities like London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, and Berlin. Here are a few basic guidelines:
- Allow at least 4 days minimum in large cities to give you time to get to know the culture.
- Allow at least 2 nights even in cities/towns where you just want to see one thing – you’ll probably arrive in the afternoon/evening, so you can’t fit much on that day. Then you’ll have 1 day for sightseeing, and on the following day, you’ll check out and move on to the next stop.
- Allow sufficient time to travel between cities: bus, train, car, or plane (plus transit time to/from the airport). I find shorter distances up to 5-6 hours are better via bus (cheapest), or train (most comfortable). Whereas longer distances are better via plane. Buses and trains are easier to book a few days or weeks in advance, whereas flights need to be booked at least 2-3 months in advance (or more) for the best prices.
- For maximum flexibility, a road trip will allow you to drive anywhere you want, on your own timing. This is handy for seeing several places in close proximity. But to keep the rental price low, try to make a loop – start and finish in the same city, otherwise you’ll pay exorbitant one-way rental fees.
Evaluate Your Fitness
Let's be realistic. If you can't manage 5 minutes on a treadmill, then don't plan to hike up the Matterhorn. Make sure your travel goals are realistic to your health.
I’ll admit, touring is tiring.
Most major cities in Europe are very walkable and have good public transport infrastructure, so there's a decent chance you'll be walking a lot... at least 10,000 steps per day. Sometimes double that. So if you can't do that now, start a cardio fitness plan today - go for a 45-minute walk every morning or evening, and throw in a couple dozen sit-ups and stretches for good measure. Work your way up until you comfortably reach 10,000 steps per day without falling apart.
Tip: I use my Galaxy Watch to keep track of my daily step count, and stay motivated.
Tip: Many European cities have cobblestone streets and footpaths. While these look quaint, they also put additional stress on your feet. Invest in good quality, well-cushioned walking shoes.
Tip: Bring extra socks and band-aids for potential blisters. If your socks are thin, try wearing 2 or even 3 pairs for extra cushioning on days with lots of walking. I swear by FITS Socks… they are worth every cent.
If you have mobility issues, then consider a cruise with accessibility features or check out fellow blogger Cory for inspiration.
Even if you’re physically fit, it’s smart to give yourself a little downtime every so often… even just a few hours to put your feet up. The mind can only absorb so much new information at one time, and you need downtime to process everything that’s going on around you.
Self-love goes a long way.
Allow for Jet Lag
If your home time zone is more than 3 hours before/after Europe, chances are you’ll be hit with jet lag when you arrive.
It ain’t pretty.
I usually have a hard time sleeping on planes, so my ideal plan is:
1) schedule the flight to arrive in the late afternoon (after minimal sleep on the long flight)
2) make my way straight to the hotel and check-in
3) find a quick bite to eat for dinner nearby (this helps the body adjust to the new timezone)
4) set the alarm for 7:30am the next morning and get to sleep before 9pm
5) wake up at 7:30am and start the day… even if I’d rather hit the “snooze” button
If I have to pay a little more for a flight to arrive in the afternoon rather than the morning, it’s worth it.
But if you can’t help arriving early, then resist the urge to sleep and just force yourself to stay awake all day. Use whatever you need – coffee, Red Bull, super glue on your eyelids. Just don’t expect to do too much on that first day – unless you want to look like a limping zombie from The Walking Dead.
Fun fact: If you travel west towards Europe, it’s actually easier on your body clock. Sorry to my American and Canadian readers.
Tip: The sooner you get used to the new timezone, the better you’ll feel on your trip. If available in your country, a melatonin pill can help you sleep on a long flight (in some countries, this will require a doctor’s prescription).
Choose a Season in Europe
Europe is extremely diverse in each season, so this factor cannot be over-emphasised.
Late Spring to early Autumn is best for most travel. Shoulder seasons, just before and after summer, are cheaper with fewer crowds. And some locations like the Greek islands or Ibiza completely shut down over the winter season.
It might be tempting to score that super cheap flight to Greece in March, but take my word for it; it is not fun when you’re freezing your cute little butt off.
Tip: I use Weather Spark to predict the temperature, rainfall, cloud cover, and wind for hundreds of cities worldwide.
If you're focused on a specific event or activity, you also have less flexibility. For example, Christmas markets in Germany only run in December, or skiing in the Swiss Alps only allows you a limited window for perfect conditions.
How to Pack for Europe - Luggage Strategy
There's no one-size-fits-all for luggage, but it comes down to personal preference, seasons, and activities you're planning.
If you can live out of carry-on luggage, you could save hundreds of dollars. Internal flights within Europe with discount airlines might be cheap, but they charge like a wounded bull for check-in luggage (and sometimes even carry-on).
I practice what I preach, and on my 4-month European trip, I only brought 1 carry-on bag and 1 backpack.
Another factor is that European accommodation is often smaller than the US and Australia. Trying to carry 2 large suitcases up a narrow flight of winding stairs in Florence is not fun.
Take my word for it.
If you're doing a long European road trip or Mediterranean cruise, then you'll have more flexibility. But my mantra is always "less is more". And don’t worry if your friends will see you in the same outfit more than once on Instagram. That doesn’t matter – your amazing memories do!
If you don't know where to start - just plan 1 week’s worth of clothing and use this pocket-sized washing machine with a little detergent in your hotel bathroom sink. Magic!
Don't forget to check out my comprehensive guide on how to pack a suitcase like a travel pro.
Toiletries tip: Many small hotels and apartment rentals in Europe don’t provide shampoo so plan to bring your own (in containers less than 100ml). Find reusable travel-size bottles on Amazon. Or if you’re catching buses and trains around Europe, just pick up what you need after you arrive.
Luggage tip: what should you do if you arrive in a city early and can’t check into your accommodation? I recommend this luggage storage solution in Europe. I used it in London recently, and it worked like a charm.
Booking Flights to Europe - Timing is everything
If you're flying to Europe from the US, Canada, Australia, Asia, or further afield, the long-haul flight getting there and back home will probably be the biggest expense (unless you're splashing out on luxury accommodation or a big cruise). So read my secrets to cheap one way flights to get the best prices possible - you could save 50% or more just by going one day earlier or later. Or perhaps flying into one city and out of another.
Tip: For maximum flexibility, don’t request time off work until you’ve managed to find the best possible flights to Europe.
Locking in a departure and return date gives your trip "bookends" so you've got a clearer vision of your European itinerary. It’s starting to take shape
Calculate a Rough Budget for Your Trip to Europe (Using my Secret Spreadsheet)
This can be the toughest part... Because you want to do everything but have finite resources. Especially after the pandemic. I feel ya.
A rough budget and total vacation length will also determine what methods of transport will fit you best - plane, train, bus, car rental, or cruise ship. When you don't have much time and want to cover a lot of ground, air travel might fit best. Or, if you want to take your time and smell the roses, a long road trip will be perfect.
If you spend time in both Western and Eastern Europe, then use an average between both for your budget – and expect to pay more in the west and less in the east.
Here are the most important parts of a Europe trip budget, with suggested ranges (for 1 adult in USD):
- Accommodation (per night): $40-$190 - $80 will be near impossible to find during the peak summer season in cities like London, Paris, Amsterdam, etc. This can be shared by 2 people. Finding 2-bedroom apartments in ancient city centres is considerably tougher.
- Food (per day): US$15-$70 - depending on the type of restaurants or street you choose. Make your own basic breakfast to save on your budget.
- Tours (each): $15-$150 – depending on the city, length, inclusions, and group size.
- Attractions (each): $0-90 – many public museums in London are free! Buying city cards gives you discounted access to multiple attractions.
- Flights (internal): $25-$200 – depending on route, season, and advanced booking.
- Trains (intercity): $10-$40 – depending on route (consider a Eurail Pass if you do a lot of train travel).
- Buses (intercity): $3-$30 – depending on the route.
- Car rental (per day): $30-$100 – depending on season and city (remember to account for petrol, tolls, and parking).
- Public transport & taxi/rideshare: varies by city and usage (including bicycles & e-scooters).
- SIM card (per month): $40 – for mobile data access anywhere (check recommended eSIM for Europe).
To make your life easier, I’ve shared a spreadsheet I created from scratch to plan my trip to Europe, including a budget and itinerary. Download it for free and follow the inline comments and instructions. This is the holy grail that will save you hours of time… and probably your sanity.
The first step is to enter budget estimates in the spreadsheet along with your start date and length of the trip. If you don’t know what number to enter, choose from the middle of the above ranges. The purpose of this exercise is to see if you’re even in the ballpark of having enough money to get to Europe.
In the next step, we’ll do more detailed research to determine the exact costs. And then things really get exciting.
Which European Cities to Visit: 1st Itinerary Draft
The itinerary will take shape over 4 distinct iterations. We’ll layer more detail with each revision to avoid a chicken-and-the-egg situation.
Based on the exercises you’ve completed earlier (choosing “essential experiences” and “themes”), you’ll have a rough idea of what you want to include in your itinerary.
Start with the names of cities plus a summary of highlights you want to experience (eg. Paris, climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower). For now, enter a rough number of nights to spend (eg. 3 nights). We’ll tidy this up at the next step.
By following the previous steps, you should have an arrival and departure date, and you'll know what cities are the cheapest to fly into Europe. These will be the start and end of the trip.
How To Get Around Europe: 2nd Itinerary Draft
If you're flying, one of the biggest expenses will be air travel. And if you read my essential flying tips, you'll know you can score cheap flights with little flexibility on dates.
Now is the time to look for the cheapest flights between two cities. This might mean you stay in a city a day or two longer... Or shorter. But could save you hundreds of dollars. Try comparing the cost of travelling via train or bus, and decide which you prefer.
For example, from Paris to Luxembourg, a bus via Flixbus is US$22pp and takes about 5.5 hours. By the time you allow for travel time to/from the airport, going through security, and waiting at the gate, it works out quicker, and way cheaper.
Here are sites/apps I recommend for researching prices:
- Trains and buses: Trainline, Wanderu, Bookaway
- Rental cars: RentalCars.com
- Flights: Google Flights, Skyscanner, FlightList.io
Chrome browser tab groups are your friends… to keep 20+ tabs organised.
Tip: In Google Flights you can now apply a filter to select the number of carry-on bags, so the prices from discount airlines (like Ryanair) are more realistic.
By doing this research, you might find there is a better way to reorganise your itinerary. For example, there are no buses that go direct from Salzburg to Prague. They usually go through Munich, so add that as another stop on your itinerary.
Now that you know the transport options and costs of getting between cities, add that detail to your spreadsheet and the firm number of nights.
Your plan is coming together beautifully!
Accommodation, Tours & Attractions in Europe: 3rd Itinerary Draft
This is where your plan really starts to look like what you were dreaming about.
Research booking.com, Flatio (or your preferred accommodation platform) to find reasonably-priced hotels, apartments, holiday rentals, or hostels. Where possible, look for properties with free cancellation and where payment can be scheduled later. Only filter properties with reviews of at least 7 (out of 10). I was shocked to find scores below 3 on booking.com. Yikes!
If you’re going for low-budget accommodations, HostelWorld has lots of options.
Tip: I use Google Maps to locate the most important attractions in a city, and make sure the accommodation is easily accessible – either via walking or public transport. This way, you don’t get stuck in an inconvenient location, wasting money on taxi fees.
Add those accommodation prices to the spreadsheet. But hold your horses... wait until your itinerary is complete before clicking “pay now”.
Record the activity and prices in your spreadsheet, along with the preferred date/time.
For example, 9am: walking tour around Prague ($20pp), 2pm: river cruise ($15pp).
Now we have an itinerary that is just about perfect. It’s ready for a final inspection.
Review your Trip Budget
At this point, you have your accommodation, transport, tours, and activities lined up. Now compare the total cost against what you planned for at the beginning. Are you living within your means, or do you need to make small adjustments to squeeze into your budget?
Be ruthlessly honest with yourself at this stage. If there’s something you simply can’t afford, then look for alternatives. It could be a cheaper accommodation further out of the centre of town, or a cheaper tour/attraction. Just make sure you never compromise on your “essential experiences” selected earlier.
Money Tip: It’s smart budgeting to have at least 10% wiggle room. A little extra cash up your sleeve might save the day – you never know. It helped me recently when I missed an intercity bus and had to book a last-minute train ticket.
What to Eat in Europe: Final Itinerary
The icing on the cake is food. You're coming all the way to Europe, so you've got to try local cuisines to get a real taste of the culture.
As a vegan, I start my research with HappyCow, but you can also try Google Maps, Pinterest, or a good 'ol Google search for inspiration on dishes to try and where to find them. I find it's best to have a few eateries bookmarked on Google Maps so you know what will be nearby at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, based on your detailed itinerary. I create a new “list” in Google Maps for each city to keep the bookmarks organised. If you’ve got a travel partner or buddy, it’s easy to share this list with them so you’re both on the same page.
Sometimes it will be worth going out of your way for a special meal, so if you've got time up your sleeve, go for it.
Now your itinerary is looking perfect.
Time to Book Your Trip
You've done all the research... But this is where the rubber hits the road.
The point of no return.
Take a deep breath, get your bank card out of your wallet and start spending! You can do it!
It's actually kinda fun watching all that money whoosh out of your account so quickly. There might be a slight sense of remorse at this point, but never fear; trust that this trip will be worth it. Any dream worth pursuing must involve sacrifice.
The advantage of doing all the planning up front, and booking in one hit, is that you can confidently book, knowing that your masterpiece of an itinerary will fit together like a fine jigsaw puzzle.
Tip: I found it is best to book the flights together first, and then the accommodations, finally followed by tours/attractions. Flight prices tend to be less stable and can easily fill up at short notice.
Take a Deep Breath
You've got this far, but we’re not quite finished.
But let's pause for a moment.
I recommend printing a copy of your beautiful itinerary for easy reference and saving it on your phone for offline access. It’s a gorgeous work of art, so hang it on the fridge proudly.
Damn, you’re awesome!
Tip: I store my spreadsheet in Dropbox, so it automatically synchronises between my laptop and phone. Alternatively, you could use Google Sheets.
Communications - Best SIM or eSIM for Europe
WiFi hotspots are so 2019. Now you can easily roam around Europe without the huge data roaming bill (or insultingly small allowances) from your mobile provider back home.
Check out my article on choosing an eSIM for Europe. Most modern smartphones either support 2 physical SIM cards or an eSIM. You'll need the Internet whenever you go in Europe, so don't mess up this step and stick with the provider I recommend, Holafly.
If you choose a physical SIM, Holafly can ship it to you in advance (to locations in Spain, France, and Germany), and you only activate it on the day you arrive in Europe. If you’re from Australia, check out SimsDirect.
Travel Insurance for Europe
Never leave home without it. You've got a lot of money on the line so make sure you read the fine print of the travel insurance policy to understand what is covered and what is not.
A comprehensive policy should cover you for flight cancellations, theft, illness, and injury. Hopefully, you'll never need to use it, but if you ever do, you'll be glad you've got it. The best travel insurance for you will depend on what country you're from. Popular options around the world:
- Worldwide: Safety Wing
- US: World Nomads, InsureMyTrip, Insured Nomads, Medjet
- Canada: Blue Cross
- Australia: Travel Insurance Direct
Tip: If anything goes wrong during your European trip, collect as much evidence as possible. That can mean taking photos with your smartphone of damaged luggage, photographing receipts of costs that you’ll need to be reimbursed, taking screenshots of official announcements about weather delays, etc.
Try to Learn a Few Words
Learning the equivalent of “please”, “thank you”, “hello” and “goodbye” in the local languages where you are travelling will not only be fun, but shows that you’re putting in some effort to respect the local cultures.
There’s no pressure to be fluent in French or Italian overnight, but try downloading a language app and set yourself a goal to learn a dozen words before you go.
It’ll be fun!
Tip: While you’re at it, download Google Translate if you don’t already have it, and download the languages you’ll need for offline (and faster) translation. Try the new “transcribe” feature to translate speech in near real-time.
Last Piece of Advice
I love making plans. I'm probably a little obsessive. But I've learned one important lesson over the years...
For all the wonderful travel plans you've put together, it's important to realise that life can take unexpected turns.
And that can be a good thing.
So give yourself the freedom and space to allow spontaneity to lead you when the time feels right. It might be making new friends in Rome and heading off on an unexpected day trip. Or saying yes to an invitation to a live music performance in London. You never know what will happen.
And that's the beauty of travel. Take the best plans and mix a little of the unexpected and just enjoy the ride.
It’s good for your mind, your heart, and your soul.
Put Your Feet Up and Relax
You've done it. You deserve to treat yourself in whatever way works for you - get a big slice of cake, take a relaxing stroll by the beach, or start shopping for clothes and luggage for your upcoming adventure.
You've put a lot of work into planning your first trip to Europe, but you've done it like a pro. Your friends might even ask you how you did it, so spread the love and send them a link to this article.
I'm so excited for you! Congratulations!
Now the countdown has started. How many sleeps to go until your trip to Europe?