Planning and packing tips

Planning a holiday to Europe

May 1, 2011 (Last Updated: July 1, 2020)
by Carolyn
Trip planning tools

Whilst the idea of planning a European holiday can cause many people to shudder, to me, the actual planning part can be almost as exciting as the holiday itself.

With Europe always my destination of choice, the possibilities of where to go and what to see are endless, so some thought needs to go into the trip planning, especially when there’s a limited time frame set aside for the vacation.

In this guide, you’ll find all the essential information you need to consider when planning your European vacation.

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How to plan a trip to Europe

Choosing your travel dates

So, where do you start? I guess the first thing to do is work out when you are going to be travelling to Europe and for how long. This can depend on a number of things such as when you can get leave from work or if you are planning to tie in your holiday with a visit to a particular event or season.


Passports and Visas

The next thing to check is the validity of your passport.

Many countries require you to have at least 6 months’ validity on your passport at the time of travel (ie. the date of departure from your home country) so it’s best to be sure that your passport will be valid for the dates you wish to travel.

If your passport won’t have six months validity when you arrive back in your home country, you should renew it. Allow plenty of time to do so and then you won’t be stressing at the last minute, hoping that your passport is returned to you in time.

When checking the validity of your passport it’s also wise to check if you require a visa to travel to Europe.  In most cases you won’t, but check here just to be sure.


Booking flights

Aeroplane flying

Once you have the dates sorted, it’s a good time to start getting prices for your air travel. If you are flexible with your dates, you may even be able to take advantage of lower fares by moving your trip a couple of weeks either way.

You’ll also need to know which European cities you will fly into and out of as not all airlines fly into every city.

Further reading: How to get the best seat on the plane – without paying a fortune

If you have an idea of where you would like to start and end your holiday, this can help you get the best price for your travel plans right from the start.

Booking your air tickets well in advance can also mean ‘earlybird’ savings, so keep an eye out for special deals advertised in the media and ask your travel agent for a quote.


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Buying travel insurance

As soon as you have outlaid any money for your holiday you should purchase travel insurance. Whilst most of us don’t like spending money on something that we may not need, travel insurance really is a necessity.

The unexpected can occur – as I’ve discovered on numerous occasions – so it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Not all travel insurance policies are equal so be sure to choose the right policy for your trip – these tips will help.

There’s an old saying that I totally agree with – “If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.”


Deciding which places to visit

Map of Europe with pins

Part of your consideration when deciding which places to visit will depend on your mode of transport (see the following section for more info).

If you decide an escorted coach tour is for you then you will be limited a little by the itineraries on offer, however there are a huge number of coach companies and most, if not all, offer itineraries that take in most of the ‘must sees’ for first time travellers to Europe.

London, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Innsbruck, Venice, Rome, Florence and the Swiss Alps are usually on the list of places to visit for visitors heading to Europe for the first time. These can be covered in 12 to 14 days on a coach tour but I would recommend a longer tour if you have the time.

All of these destinations can also easily be accessed by train or car.

Travellers returning to Europe may prefer to spend more time in rural areas to really experience ‘living like a local’, or head to places they didn’t visit on their first trip. Cities like Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava, Dubrovnik and Croatia are all growing in popularity and are becoming the ‘new’ destinations of choice.

The most important thing when planning which cities and towns will be part of your itinerary is to ensure that you actually get to see what you want to see in each place.

There’s really no point visiting a city if you arrive at 5pm one day and leave at 8am the next (unless it’s only an overnight stopover due to long travel distances). If you really want to visit a city or town, allow plenty of time to see it properly.

A whirlwind trip of seven countries in seven days will only leave you confused – you won’t remember what you saw where!

You can get some ideas of which places to include in your European itinerary here.


Choosing your mode of transport

Now that you have an idea of where you’re going to travel within Europe, you’ll need to decide how to get from place to place. Will you choose to take an escorted tour, buy a rail or bus pass, or drive yourself?

Map of Europe

Escorted tours

If your time is limited, you’re a first time traveller to Europe or you’re a bit apprehensive about getting around by yourself, a fully escorted tour is definitely worth considering. Many travellers have been introduced to the UK and Europe on an escorted tour and they are a hassle-free way to see the sights.

With all your accommodation pre-booked, it’s just a matter of hopping on the coach each morning and being taken to your next destination where your hotel room awaits.

The major tour companies like Trafalgar, Insight and Globus, use large coaches and generally cater for around 40-50 people per tour but an increasing number of small group tour companies are offering itineraries for more intimate groups, with passenger numbers generally not exceeding 16.

Coach travel isn’t the only option on escorted tours, either. There are a number of tour companies that offer fully-escorted European and British itineraries but utilise the excellent rail networks instead of travelling by coach.

Further reading: Choosing the right European coach tour

Cruising

Cruising is another popular way of seeing Europe – from the comfort of your own floating hotel.

European river cruising has become one of the most popular forms of travel in Europe in recent years and with no need to pack up and move hotels each night, as well as the myriad inclusions in the cruise price, it’s little wonder it’s so popular.

Ocean cruising is also incredibly popular, with multi-country itineraries in the Mediterranean and northern Europe attractive to many travellers.

Again, the fully-inclusive price with the added bonus of only unpacking once, is a convenient way to see a number of different destinations.


Rail

GoldenPass train near Gstaad

If you’d prefer to travel at your own pace, the European rail network offers a fast and efficient way to get from A to B. With modern trains and regular services, trains can get you to most places fast!

You can even travel from London to Paris or vice versa in only 2.5 hours thanks to the Channel Tunnel and the super-fast Eurostar.

Eurail passes have always been a popular option for non-EU residents and if you are planning on making a few train journeys, these could be ideal for you.

Rail passes are purchased for a set number of days travel within a two month period and prices vary depending on the number of countries you intend to visit by train.

Read all my tips for travelling by train in Europe here

Bus

Similar to a rail pass is a bus pass with BusAbout offering a number of itineraries to choose from. The company’s buses do various circuitous journeys in Europe and pass holders are able to get on and off as they please for the duration of their pass.


Car

Driving in Europe

Repeat travellers to Europe are often inclined to rent or lease a car and drive themselves around and driving can give you the greatest flexibility of all.

With an excellent road network across Europe, driving allows you to set your own schedule, stop where and when you like, and get off the beaten path.

Renting a car can also be a very economical mode of transport, particularly if you are travelling as a family or two couples. Advance purchase rates and the leasing program available to non-EU residents, can add to the savings.

Read all my tips for driving in Europe here

Booking your accommodation

If you’ve decided on a more independent holiday in Europe, either driving yourself or travelling by train, rather than a fully escorted coach tour, you’ll need to make your accommodation arrangements.

Whilst some travellers prefer to take the less organised approach, I would always recommend pre-booking as much of your accommodation before you go as possible. This not only means you will have a confirmed bed for the night but it can also save time and money.

If you’ve pre-paid for your accommodation, you won’t be in for any rude shocks due to currency fluctuations or accommodation in your price range being unavailable.

After all, if you’ve allowed a couple of hundred dollars per night for accommodation, having to pay double that due to a festival or major event being held in the town, could really put a strain on your finances.

So, what style of accommodation is best? Well it all depends on your budget and your own personal preference, of course, but below is a brief summary of the different accommodation types available.


Camping and on-site cabins and mobile homes

Holiday park at Lake Garda

Camping is not the style of accommodation that many folks would consider as ‘normal’ for a European holiday, however camping is extremely popular in Europe and the facilities available are excellent.

If you’re prepared to take a tent and camping equipment with you, or purchase them on arrival in Europe, there are a vast number of camping grounds to choose from.

Alternatively, you can go for the ‘luxury’ camping option with a company that specialises in this style of holiday.  These companies set up their mobile homes (on-site vans/cabins) at various holiday parks throughout Europe.

Mobile homes are fully self-contained, including shower and toilet, and all you have to bring is your food.


Apartments/gîtes/cottages/villas

Cottages in Flam

Self-catering apartments, gîtes (the French word for a self-catering cottage or house), cottages and villas are another great accommodation option in Europe.

Many rural gîtes, cottages and villas are centuries’ old and have been lovingly restored to offer guests a typical experience of life in a European village.

Apartments are usually city-based but many don’t offer car parking, so they are more suitable for train travellers. Cottages, gîtes and villas are generally located in rural towns or villages (or just outside), so a car is necessary to get around.

Renting a cottage, gîte, villa or apartment for a week or two is a fantastic way to really live like a local.

In rural villages, chances are you’ll see the same locals at the bakery each morning, or at the market buying their daily supplies, and by the end of your stay you’ll be greeted with a friendly wave and a smile and maybe even an attempt at conversation.


Motorhomes

Hiring a motorhome gives you the flexibility to travel where you want, when you want and saves you the need to find accommodation everywhere you go.

With your ‘home’ on wheels, you can stop wherever you please. ‘Free camping’ is legal and common at roadside stops in some countries but Europe is also home to thousands of excellent camping grounds that welcome motorhomes.

The advantages of renting a motorhome include the ability to cook your own meals and not having to pack and unpack each time you move to a new location.

Some of the disadvantages are the confined space that everyone has to share and the need to drive a large, sometimes cumbersome, vehicle through narrow streets that date back to Medieval times, and around twisty mountain passes.

Depending on where you plan to travel in Europe, and the duration of your trip, you might find a motorhome is the perfect means of transport and accommodation for you.


Hotels

Hotel in Riquewihr

There are hotels to suit every budget everywhere you look in Europe. You’ll be familiar with many of the international hotel chains including Hilton, Novotel, Mercure and Ibis, but there are also a huge number of privately owned and operated hotels.

Many hotels in Europe offer rates including breakfast, and ‘half-board’ (dinner and breakfast), and these can be good value.

Newer hotels tend to provide tea and coffee making facilities and a fridge in their rooms but some older style hotels do not, so if you like the option to make a cuppa in your room, check in advance as to what facilities are available.

Most hotels in the UK and Europe will only accommodate a maximum of three people per room so if you are travelling with two or more children, more often than not, you’ll need to book two hotel rooms.

Always check if family rooms are available, but don’t assume they will be.

And don’t assume your hotel will have air-conditioning, either. If you are travelling during the European summer, it’s definitely worth choosing a hotel that is air-conditioned.

Search hotels and check current prices


Hostels

Hostels have typically attracted the backpacking traveller who’s prepared to share a dormitory and communal kitchen and bathroom facilities but these days many hostels are attracting a much broader clientele.

Introducing twin and double rooms, as well as family rooms in some cases, means that you don’t need to share a room with multiple strangers if you choose to stay in a hostel.

Generally speaking, hostels have fairly basic rooms and shared facilities which means lower nightly rates.


Bed and Breakfasts

B and B in Brancion

Bed and Breakfasts are commonly associated with England and there are literally thousands of B&B’s in the UK alone. A B&B is basically an inn, country hotel or private home that offers overnight accommodation and breakfast for an inclusive price.

The French version of a B&B is known as a Chambres d’Hote and in German speaking countries you’ll hear them referred to as Pensions.

B&B’s are a great way to meet the locals as your hosts live on-site.


Monastery Stays

For a completely different and unique place to stay, why not consider a monastery stay?  Many monasteries and convents rent out rooms to overnight guests. 

Accommodation is normally quite basic but many rooms have private bathrooms and rates often include breakfast. 

If you are prepared to adhere to nightly curfews (monasteries are often locked up for the night around 10pm), a monastery could be a cost-effective accommodation option. 

Monastery stays are available in many European countries including Italy, Austria and Switzerland.


Farm Stays

If you’d like to get close to nature and experience genuine, old-fashioned hospitality, you might consider choosing a farm stay for your holiday accommodation.

Farm stay accommodation is part of a real working farm and you’ll be encouraged to be part of the family and help with the chores during your stay.

Many of the registered farms are home to young families so if you are travelling with kids, your children will have the chance to meet and play with other children.

Numerous countries in Europe offer farm stays – Austria alone has over 3,400 registered members of “Farm Holidays”.

You can read more planning and packing tips for your European holiday here >>


Budgeting for your trip

spending money

Budgeting for your European holiday can be one of the most important aspects of your trip planning. Whilst we’d probably all like to fly business class and stay in the very best accommodation, realistically it’s not going to be possible for most of us, so having a clear idea of what you can afford is a necessity.

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to pre-book as much of my trip as possible and pay for it all before I leave home.

This way any money I take with me (or load onto a pre-paid travel money card) is spending money and I’m not going to be dipping into it for larger expenses like accommodation, train tickets, etc.

If you plan on taking a fully-escorted coach tour or a cruise, your package price will include the majority of your expenses like accommodation, transport, some meals and sightseeing. For those travelling independently, it may help to set yourself a budget for each destination you visit to help you plan the overall cost of your trip.

Some European cities (London and Paris are just two examples) are very expensive so you may need to make some exceptions to your budget or stay a little further from the city centre than you would normally prefer to.

It’s also worth considering a different style of accommodation to what you’d usually choose – for example an apartment might work out cheaper than a hotel with the added bonus of giving you cooking facilities.


Spending money

Again, the amount of spending money you need will depend on the type of holiday you are taking. For an independent holiday you’ll need to allow for meals and drinks, sightseeing that you haven’t pre-booked, fuel if you are renting a car, shopping and souvenirs, etc.

Allow yourself a weekly budget with a little bit extra for emergencies or that ‘once in a lifetime’ gondola ride in Venice, a theatre ticket in London or a special meal out that you hadn’t initially thought you’d want to buy.

The following simple budget calculator is a good start to helping you work out an overall budget for your European holiday.

Price per adultPrice per childTotal cost
Airfares
Stopovers
Accommodation ($ per week x number of weeks)
Car/motorhome hire or leasing
Rail passes
Other transport (ferries, flights within Europe, etc.)
Cruises
Pre-purchased sightseeing
Passport & visa costs
Weekly ‘living’ budget (food, fuel, entry fees, local transport, internet, etc.)
Travel insurance
Kitty – for those ‘must haves’ you hadn’t planned on!
Grand Total

I hope you have found this guide to planning a trip to Europe helpful.

You can download all my free travel planning tools here >>

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