By Rick Steves
Turning a wish list into a day-by-day itinerary for your European vacation isn’t just smart, it’s fun. Filling in the blanks between the flight out and the flight home is one of the more pleasurable parts of trip planning. It’s armchair travel that turns into real travel.
I never start a trip without having every day planned out. Your reaction to an itinerary may be, “Hey, won’t my spontaneity and freedom suffer?” Not necessarily. Although I always begin a trip with a well-thought-out plan, I maintain my flexibility and make changes as needed. An itinerary forces you to see the consequences of any spontaneous change you make while in Europe. For instance, if you spend two extra days in the sunny Alps, you’ll see that you won’t make it to the Greek Islands. With the help of an itinerary, you can lay out your goals, maximize their potential, and avoid regrettable changes.
Your itinerary depends on several factors, including weather, crowds, geography, timeline, and travel style (are you antsy to see as much as you can, or do you like settling into a place for a few days?) Take the following considerations into account as you build your European itinerary.
When planning your trip itinerary, deal thoughtfully with issues such as weather, culture shock, health maintenance, fatigue, and festivals — and you’ll travel happier.
Establish a logical flight plan. It’s been years since I flew into and out of the same city. You can avoid needless travel time and expense by flying into one airport and out from another. You usually pay just half the round-trip fare for each airport. Even if this type of flight plan is more expensive than the cheapest round-trip fare, it may save you lots of time and money when surface connections are figured in. For example, you could fly into London, travel east through whatever interests you in Europe, and fly home from Athens. This would eliminate the costly and time-consuming return to London. Plug various cities into flight websites and check the fares.
See countries in order of cultural hairiness. If you plan to see Britain, the Alps, Greece, and Turkey, do it in that order so you’ll grow steadily into the more intense and crazy travel. If you’ve never been out of the US, flying directly into Istanbul can be overwhelming. Even if you did survive Turkey, everything after that would be anticlimactic. Start mild — that means England. England, compared to any place but the United States, is pretty dull. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a wonderful place to travel. But go there first, when cream teas and roundabouts will be exotic. You’re more likely to enjoy Turkey, Naples, or Sarajevo if you gradually work your way south and east.
Match your destination to your interests. If you’re passionate about Renaissance art, Florence is a must. England’s Cotswolds beckon to those who fantasize about thatched cottages, time-passed villages, and sheep lazing on green hillsides. For World War II buffs, there’s no more stirring experience than a visit to Normandy. Beer connoisseurs make pilgrimages to Belgium. If you like big cities, you’ll enjoy London, Paris, Rome, and Venice. Want to get off the beaten path? Nothing rearranges your mental furniture like a trip to Bosnia’s Mostar or Morocco’s Tangier.
Moderate the weather conditions you’ll encounter. For 30 years of travels, my routine has been spring in the Mediterranean area and summer north of the Alps. Match the coolest month of your trip with the warmest area, and vice versa. For a spring and early-summer trip, enjoy comfortable temperatures throughout by starting in the southern countries and working your way north. If possible, avoid the midsummer Mediterranean heat and crowds of Italy and southern France. Spend those weeks in Scandinavia, Britain, Ireland, or the Alps (which may also increase your odds of sun in places prone to miserable weather).
Alternate intense big cities with villages and countryside. For example, break a tour of Venice, Florence, and Rome with an easygoing time in Italy’s hill towns or on the Italian Riviera. Judging Italy by Rome alone is like judging America by New York City.
Join the celebration. If you like parties, hit as many festivals, national holidays, and arts seasons as you can (or, if you hate crowds, learn the dates to avoid). This takes some planning. For a calendar of events, try my list of European festivals, national tourist offices, and official festival websites (the bigger ones have their own). An effort to visit the right places at the right times will drape your trip with festive tinsel. Remember to book your room well in advance.
Take advantage of cheap flights within Europe. The recent proliferation of no-frills, low-budget airlines in Europe is changing the way people design their itineraries. Two decades ago, you’d piece together a trip based on which towns could be connected by handy train trips (or, at most, overnight trains). But these days, it’s relatively cheap and easy to combine, say, Portugal, Poland, and Palermo on a single itinerary.
Minimize one-night stands. Even the speediest itinerary should be a series of two-night stands. I’d stretch every other day with long hours on the road or train and hurried sightseeing along the way in order to enjoy the sanity of two nights in the same bed. Minimizing hotel changes saves time and money, and gives you the sensation of actually being comfortable in a town on the second night.
Leave some slack in your itinerary. Don’t schedule yourself too tightly (a common tendency). Everyday chores, small business matters, transportation problems, constipation, and planning mistakes deserve about one day of slack per week in your itinerary. If your trip is a long one, schedule a “vacation from your vacation” in the middle of it. Most people need several days in a place where they couldn’t see a museum or take a tour even if they wanted to. A stop in the mountains or on an island, in a friendly rural town, or at the home of a relative is a great way to revitalize your tourist spirit.
Assume you will return. This “General MacArthur” approach is a key to touristic happiness. You can’t cover all of Europe in one trip — don’t even try. Enjoy what you’re seeing. Forget what you won’t get to on this trip. If you worry about things that are just out of reach, you won’t appreciate what’s in your hand. I’ve taken dozens of European trips, and I still need more time. I’m happy about what I can’t get to. It’s a blessing that we can never see all of Europe.
Your Best Itinerary in Eight Steps
Trying to narrow your choices among European destinations is a bit like being a kid in a candy shop. The options are endless and everything looks delicious (and consuming too much isn’t good for you). Start by listing everything you’d like to visit, then turn that list into a smart itinerary by following these steps.
- Decide on the places you want to see. Start by writing out your wish list. Then make sure you have a reason for every stop. Don’t visit Casablanca because you liked the movie. Just because George Clooney bought a villa on Lake Como doesn’t mean you should go there, too.
- Establish a route and timeline. Circle your destinations on a map, then figure out a logical geographical order and length for your trip. Pin down any places that you have to be on a certain date (and ask yourself if it’s really worth stifling your flexibility). Once you’ve settled on a list, be satisfied with your efficient plan, and focus any more study and preparation only on places that fall along your proposed route.
- Decide on the cities you’ll fly in and out of. Flying into one city and out of another is usually more efficient than booking a round-trip flight. Think carefully about which cities make the most sense as a first stop or a finale. If you’ll be renting a car, remember that a one-way drop-off fee can add to your costs.
- Determine the mode of transportation. Do this not based solely on cost, but by analyzing what’s best for the trip you envision. Study the ins and outs of the many ways of getting from point A to point B — whether flying, riding the rails, or driving.
For example, if you’re traveling alone, traversing a huge area, and spending the majority of your time in big cities, it makes more sense to go by train with a rail pass than to mess with a car.
- Make a rough itinerary. Sketch out an itinerary, writing in the number of days you’d like to stay in each place (knowing you’ll probably have to trim it later). Take advantage of weekends to stretch your time and minimize lost work days.
Carefully consider travel time. Check online to estimate how long various journeys will take by rail or by car. Consider night trains or overnight boats to save time and money.
- Adjust by cutting, streamlining, or adding to fit your timeline or budget. If your rough itinerary exceeds your available time or money, look first to minimize redundancy. On a quick trip, focus on only one part of the Alps. England’s two best-known university towns, Oxford and Cambridge, are redundant. Choose one (I prefer Cambridge). Next, consider travel time. If two destinations are equally important to you and you don’t have time for both, cut the place that takes the most time (or hassle) to reach. Finally, try trimming time from each stop. Five days in Paris would be grand, but an efficient traveler can see the high points in three.
- Fine-tune your itinerary. Study your guidebook. Take advantage of online tools and apps which allow you to browse destinations, map itineraries, and even get advice from friends or fellow travelers. Be sure crucial sights are open the day you’ll be in town. Remember that most cities close many of their major tourist attractions for one day during the week (usually Monday). It would be a shame to be in Paris only on a Tuesday, when the Louvre is fermé. Write out a day-by-day itinerary that takes into account any can’t-miss sights, festivals, or markets. Note that when flying from the US, you’ll most likely arrive in Europe on the next day. When returning, you arrive home the same day (or so you hope).
- Organize and share your itinerary. Whether you want to meet up with friends along the way, let family members know where you’ll be, or just corral all your travel details in one place — an itinerary chart saved in a Word document or Excel chart makes it easy to share your plans. Tools such as TripIt can also help; using your confirmation emails, the app creates an itinerary — with maps, directions, and recommendations — that you can access from your smartphone and share.