Many people dream of a European vacation, but get overwhelmed when it comes time to make the plans. Where to start? Why is it so complicated? I’m already so busy, and vacations are for relaxing, so why stress out over this? Maybe we’ll just go to the beach again …
But wait! With the right mindset and a few pointers in mind, you can be well on your way to planning the trip of a lifetime – and without spending your life savings.
I usually start planning a year in advance, but six months would do, as well.
First, get your passport. This can take some time and is a bit of an expense ($135 per person), so don’t delay. Sidenote: be prepared to hate your passport photo just as much as the one on your driver’s license. My dad insists mine was taken in a foreign prison after days of torture.
Second, you need to decide where you’d like to go. This can be one of the most difficult parts of planning a trip. My advice is to keep it simple and realistic. Consider how long you’ll really be able to take off of work and be away from home … for most of us, it’s two weeks max (or a lot less). If you’ve always wanted to travel through Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it’s a bad idea to cram all those into one trip, especially your first journey abroad. A good ratio to use is one country per one week of vacation. Remember that it takes time, money and energy to get from one place to another. In the scenario I mentioned above, I’d select one country and plan to visit several cities while there.
Once you’ve decided on a country(ies), now it’s guidebook time. Go out and buy one immediately, but keep an eye out for others as you continue your planning. Our favorites are the Rick Steves series and Lonely Planet, but Frommer’s and Fodor’s are reliable, though very textbookish. Start planning your path from one place to the next. One tried-and-true method that has benefited our travels tremendously has been picking a relatively unknown city/village as a quick one- or two-day stopover between more established and touristy big-name destinations. For example, we stopped at Zaragoza between Barcelona and Madrid during our first trip to Spain. We got a great deal out of our stay, including a break from big city prices.
Now, it’s budget time, which is a little more complicated than just determining how much money you’ll be able to save for a trip. You’ll need to look at when you’d like to go vs. when you can afford to go. Airfare fluctuates greatly based on the time of year, as do hotel rates and other expenses. This makes sense if you think about it just so – when less people travel, the tourism industry lowers prices to entice tourists. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but this is the best my math-addled brain can produce. But, do you want to travel to Central Europe during the heart of winter? That just depends on your tolerance to cold. As a hot-blooded Cajun duo, the chilliest weather we can generally stomach is early spring or fall, but those rates are decent as well.
To give you an idea, we generally find airfare priced at around $800 from New Orleans to any destination in Europe when departing in late May. These averages will shift depending on your location … West Coast peeps can expect to pay about $400 more per ticket on average, while upper East Coast readers can expect to pay around $200 less. October and March are two pleasant months with nice airfare breaks. One big piece of advice: if you see a flight with decent connections and a solid price, buy it as soon as you can. Prices fluctuate wildly, and you can easily miss the sale of the year by stalling. Oh, and look for open-jaw flights, which save you time, money and plenty of headaches by flying into one city and out of another.
Once you have a working idea of your airfare, then you need to look at accommodations. What kind of traveler are you? Are you ready to live like a backpacker and stay in hostels or rent rooms in a local’s home, or do you need an American-style hotel room to feel comfortable? How do you feel about shared bathrooms? There are no wrong answers, but you’ll need to be 100 percent honest with yourself – lots of people really want to dive into the experience but find themselves miserable in a hostel setting, or they splurge on a big name hotel and end up regretting the expense. I think that budget hotels and bed and breakfasts (B&Bs) are a safe bet for just about anyone on their first time abroad, and they tend to be priced pretty moderately. (We’ll talk more about how to find the right accommodation in a later post).
Once you’ve identified your hotel or B&B, now you know how much you’ll be spending to have a roof over your head, but what about your daily expenses? This is somewhat of a hotly debated topic in the travel world, as there’s no one way to calculate it. Remember, this not only includes food and drinks, but also public transportation, admission fees for museums or other attractions, and miscellaneous costs. We are generally able to do well on 80 Euro to $100 US a day or less, but that takes a lot of effort and not a lot of frills. We eat a lot of picnics. If you really want sit down dining experiences and some of the finer things, you could double or even triple that number. NOTE: Always have an emergency stash accessible in case your passport gets lost or stolen or something unexpected occurs.
At this point, you should have your passport, airfare, accommodations and budget lined up. This means you’re golden – your trip is going to happen. Finally, to end phase one, you need to go out and buy a money belt. No excuses — just do it. They are the most effective way to keep your money and other important possessions secure from pickpockets. We’ll discuss how to use them in a later post, but I’d advise a little practice at home before leaving for your trip.
Now comes my favorite part – the research. We’ll talk about this in length in an upcoming post: Beginner’s Guide to Planning a Trip to Europe – Part II.