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Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide

prague tyn cathedral clock towerBefore you can experience authentic Spanish tapas, piazzas in Rome or rooftop terraces in Prague, an important to-do list stands between you and your European vacation. The logistics involved in planning a Europe trip may seem tedious or overwhelming, but the more prepared you are, the greater your chances of a successful trip that lives up to your expectations. That's why it's important to do a bang-up job creating an itinerary, arranging transportation and tackling the brass tacks before you're off to the Continent.

The following simple steps will help you engineer a well-planned escape to Europe -- so you can spend less time worrying about your travel arrangements and more time staring at pictures of castles and men in kilts.

1. Get your documents in order.
If you don't have a passport, it will take four to six weeks from the time of application for you to receive one. Expedited services will trim the process down to two or three weeks, but it will cost you an additional $60, so it's best to take care of this well before your trip. Already have a passport? Check its expiration date. The last thing you need is to find out your passport has expired while you're in line at airport check-in.

All car rental companies require drivers to have valid licenses in their home country, so you'll also want to check the expiration date of your license. Some car rental companies also require an international driving permit for European rentals in addition to a valid driver's license. For U.S. citizens, these can be obtained through the American Auto Association (AAA).

U.S. travelers to Russia must have valid visas in addition to passports; obtaining one is a complicated process that can take weeks even after you have been approved -- so start early.

For more information:
  • The Passport Center
  • Passport and Visa Expeditors

    2. Establish a budget.
    It's important to establish a budget as early as possible -- even before you know your destination, travel dates or itinerary. Some destinations are generally cheaper than others, but there are ways to save everywhere: travel in the off-season, pick budget accommodations, plan a shorter trip. For example, London is an expensive city with an unfavorable exchange rate for Americans, but many travel providers and airlines offer affordable vacation packages to the city, and it's not hard to find cheap air deals to London, especially during the winter.

    Set your budget early on, and you'll avoid any disappointment that could come from forging a fabulous itinerary, like two weeks in Geneva during summer, and then discovering you can't afford it.

    For more information:
  • Nine Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation
  • Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

    3. Pick a destination.
    Now that you know how much you can spend, where do you want to go? If you're like many travelers (including the staff at IndependentTraveler.com) and you have a humongous list of places in Europe you want to visit, this could be tricky. Some tips:

  • Pick a particular site that's on your must-see travel list, and plan your vacation around that. Last year I planned a trip to Ireland centered on an excursion to remote Skellig Michael Island, a World Heritage Site I'd dreamed of visiting. The excursion turned into an unforgettable two-week Emerald Isle road trip.

    brussels grand place flowers
  • Pick someplace timely. Visit countries' tourism Web sites and search for seasonal events like festivals or local holidays (which you may want to either avoid or join, depending on how you feel about crowds). Don't forget to check the weather before you decide on your destination.

    For more information:
  • Europe City Guides and Slideshows
  • Europe Travel Message Boards
  • 11 Best Italy Experiences

    4. Create a rough itinerary.
    So you want to go to France, eh? Don't go ahead and buy a roundtrip flight to Paris and a hotel room -- at least, not yet. You'll want to sketch out a day-by-day itinerary of your perfect trip to France before you book a thing. Research sites and cities you really want to explore, and then figure out which ones you have the time and budget to get to.

    Check out alternative ways to travel in Europe. If you want to see multiple countries or cities but are on a tight budget, you may want to consider a cruise (exchange rates are naught for U.S. citizens onboard American ships). Walking tours, bike tours, camping and adventure tours are other interesting options worth considering.

    For more information:
  • How to Create the Perfect Itinerary
  • Bike Tours and Trips

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