Before 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 trip to Europe 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 at least four to six weeks from the time of application for you to receive one. Expedited services can trim the process down to two or three weeks, but it will cost you an additional fee, 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); in Canada, try the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).
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.
2. Establish a budget.
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.
Now that you know how much you can spend, where do you want to go? If you're like many travelers (including us!) 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.
Pick someplace timely. Visit countries' tourism websites 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.
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.
Because airfare will probably be the most expensive part of your trip, you'll want to book it before anything else (car rental, hotel, etc.). This will allow you to be more flexible with your dates, which is a great way to save money on your flight. You can also spend less by flying on international discount airlines like Aer Lingus or Norwegian.
Enliven your trip with a layover in a different country. Icelandair has a long-running program that allows passengers flying elsewhere in Europe to take a free stopover in Reykjavik for up to seven nights. Other airlines, such as Air France, offer occasional free layover promotions.
6. Book your accommodations.
It's time to go back to that rough itinerary you jotted down and fill in some places to sleep. As is the case with pretty much everything you book for your trip, the earlier you make arrangements, the better -- especially during summer high season.
Sure, you can just book a room at the local Hilton and be done with it. But do a bit of research and you could discover some funky lodging that's almost as exciting as the attractions you plan to visit. Keep your eyes open for historic castles, tiny bed and breakfasts, houseboats, eco-friendly hotels or organic farms. Budget travelers take note: Vacation rentals, homestays, farmstays and house-swapping are accommodation options that can be shockingly affordable ... or even free.
7. Consider travel insurance.
There are several kinds of travel insurance: trip cancellation insurance, flight cancellation insurance, medical insurance, etc. The best time to buy insurance is right after you put down the major deposits on your trip, whether that entails airfare, a package or prepaid hotels. Once you know how much money you've paid up front, you can insure your trip if you so choose. Many airlines and travel providers sell insurance that you can purchase along with your flight or tour package. Always, always read the fine print in your policy and compare it with other travel insurance policies before you make a purchase.
Check your medical insurance coverage to see if you're covered overseas. If not, you may want to purchase supplemental medical insurance to cover situations like the cost of transportation back home for emergency care.
For more information:
8. Book local transportation.
When in Rome, ride the Metropolitana. Find out how the locals get around the destination to which you're traveling, and act accordingly. You won't need a car rental in places like bike-friendly Amsterdam or London with its convenient underground Tube, unless you plan to go outside the city.
A car rental is your best bet if you're traveling to locales that can't be easily reached by rail or plane (such as the Irish countryside). Be mentally prepared to drive in a foreign country, which can be a frightening experience when faced with incomprehensible traffic signs, narrow streets or sheep roadblocks.
To get from city to city or country to country, examine your rail options in comparison to routes and prices offered by European discount airlines like easyJet or Ryanair. Travelers embarking on extensive travel within Europe may save money by purchasing a rail pass that permits unlimited train travel within a specified region.
A few weeks before your departure date is the right time to start taking care of a number of key logistics: money, phone, house-sitter, pet-sitter.
Call your credit card companies to let them know you'll be traveling abroad. While you're at it, find out if you're going to be charged a fee for using your card overseas. Research the locations of ATMs in your destination, especially if you'll be relying on cash.
Does your cell phone plan or equipment allow you to make calls overseas, and if so, how much will it cost you? Many cell phone companies offer temporary international plans that you can purchase for the month you're traveling. While you may be tempted to leave the phone at home and really "get away from it all," it's smart to have an emergency phone with you if you'll be traveling by car, or hiking or biking long distances.
Instead of packing the day before your trip, start thinking about what you'll need to bring at least a week before you leave. If your destination of choice is suddenly experiencing abnormal weather, you may need that extra time to go shopping for something like a packable rain coat. Plus, experienced travelers know that the chance of forgetting something essential increases the longer one puts off packing. (It's only a matter of time until a scientific study confirms this.) About a week before departure day, check the weather, put together a packing list, and take a look at your suitcase to make sure its wheels work and everything's going to fit.
--written by Caroline Costello