Planning a trip to Europe may seem overwhelming. It was for me on my first trip. Now, it's a simple 10-step process. Here's how I do it:
STEP 1: SELECT A DESTINATION. You can't plan a trip if you don't know where you want to go. I start with identifying the country I want to visit. Then, I determine a major city in that country nearest the must-see sites high on my priority list. This is also helpful to know when it comes to making flight arrangements since you will likely only have the option of flying into a major city. Once I have an idea of where I want to go, I move on to the next step.
STEP 2: BOOK FLIGHTS. Since I try to use award miles as much as possible, it is important that I book my flights early. If you notice, I haven't mentioned anything about setting my dates for the trip. Why? Because in most cases, booking flights with award miles will dictate my travel dates. I enter into the planning process with an "idea" of when I want to travel (e.g., the month I want to go, the approximate date of departure and the approximate date of return). When the flights have been booked and my travel dates are set, I proceed to Step 3.
STEP 3: DETERMINE THE CITIES OR REGIONS TO VISIT. This is probably the most time-intensive step for me, especially if I'm visiting a country that I am unfamiliar with. If this is a first-time visit to the destination, I know I will want to hit the highlights; if it is a repeat visit, I will want to go a little deeper into more remote areas. I narrow down my options by determining what type of transportation is available to get to and from each town or region; what there is to see and do; and, how much time is needed to get there and see what I want to see. By the end of Step 3, I have a sketch of an itinerary. For example, let's say I'm planning to visit Italy for 9 days and my flights arrive and depart out of Rome. By completing Step 3, my trip may look something like this now:Day 1: Leave home
Day 2: Arrive in Rome
Day 3: Rome
Day 4: Rome
Day 5: Take the train to Florence
Day 6: Florence
Day 7: Take the train to Siena; return to Rome
Day 8: Day-trip to Orvieto
Day 9: Return home
STEP 4: BOOK HOTELS. Now that I know where I'm going to be and how long I'm going to be there, I can plan for my lodging. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, I often find this to be one of the most difficult tasks. Cities offer thousands of hotel options. Smaller towns may not offer enough options. And, it is difficult to know if your room will be what the websites and photos promise it will be. So, I do more research. I search blogs, traveler rating sites and travel books to narrow down my search. If I know I will be utilizing regional trains, I look for proximity to train stations. I make my final selection based on its nearness to the sites I want to see, the standard of hotel I want to stay in, and of course, the price. Once my reservations are made, I then move on to the more fun stages of planning.
STEP 5: SKETCH OUT MY DAILY ITINERARY. I use the word "sketch" because I do like to keep some fluidity and flexibility in my days for the unexpected such as train delays and weather-related issues Or, I may find that I just want to relax in a sidewalk cafe one afternoon in lieu of hoofing it around town. Although, it is important to have a basic plan for each day. Why? To avoid travel mistakes such as museum or monument closures; to be prepared for dress codes; and, to have reservations where required. How frustrating would you be to take the 30-minute train ride from Paris to Versailles and find the palace closed for the day? Or, to stand in a 2-hour line to visit the Vatican and be turned away because you are not dressed appropriately? Preparing a daily itinerary will help you prepare for your visit and maximize your time.
STEP 6: RESERVE TOUR GUIDES, AIRPORT TRANSFERS, TRAIN TICKETS AND MUSEUM PASSES. With the previous step completed, I now know what advance arrangements need to be made.
STEP 7: SELECT RESTAURANT OPTIONS. I know many travelers who prefer to wing-it in this area. Winging-it doesn't always work well for me. The culinary aspect of a trip is equally important to me as seeing the sites. I am ecstatic (obviously) if I make a great dining discovery, but I am sorely disappointed when I've spent money on a meal and miss out on a fabulous local culinary experience! So, I do the research before I go. This also allows me to make any necessary reservations ahead of time.
STEP 8: PRINT AND COPY EVERYTHING. Before leaving, I print out all confirmations (hotels, tour guides, restaurant reservations, etc.). I make copies of credit cards and passports. I carry emergency numbers with me and leave my contact numbers with someone at home. I follow a pre-travel checklist to make sure all my i's are dotted and t's are crossed.
STEP 9: CONTACT CREDIT CARD COMPANIES. A few days before my departure, I contact my credit card companies and ask them to flag my accounts with my travels. Too many times, credit card companies see charges made from other countries, automatically assume it is fraudulent activity and close the accounts, leaving you high and dry. One simple phone call prior to departure eliminates that unhappy and unexpected mishap.
STEP 10: PACK APPROPRIATELY. I've written several posts on this subject, everything from how to pack light to what not to wear in Europe. I've even provided tips for traveling with jewelry (for those who feel they must). However, the bottom line is to check the weather before you go, pack comfortable clothes and shoes, and prepare for the unexpected (e.g., an umbrella for a rainy day, medicines for gastrointestinal issues, band-aids for blisters, etc.).
OK, I said this was a SIMPLE 10-step process. What I didn't tell you is it can be a time-intensive process. Lucky for me, I enjoy each step! And, lucky for me, <wink><wink>, others don't--or, I'd be out of a job!! But, if you are planning your own European vacation, hopefully these 10 steps will simplify the process for you.