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. Even with my well-thought-out plan, I maintain my flexibility and make changes as needed, using my itinerary to see the consequences of any on-the-fly revisions I make. With the help of an itinerary, you can lay out your goals, maximize their execution, 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, public holidays, and festivals — and you'll travel happier.
Make a logical transatlantic flight plan. If your trip is geographically wide-ranging, 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's likely to 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 eliminates the costly, time-consuming, and needless return to London.
I used to fly into Amsterdam, travel to Rome, then ride one full day by train back to Amsterdam to fly home because I thought it was "too expensive" to pay $200 extra to fly out of Rome. Now I understand the real economy — in time and money — in breaking out of the round-trip mold.
See countries in order of cultural hairiness. If you plan to see Britain, the Alps, and Italy, 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 Rome can be overwhelming. Even if you did survive Italy, 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 feel exotic. You're more likely to enjoy Naples, Athens, 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 WWII 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 Madrid. Want to get off the beaten path? Nothing rearranges your mental furniture like a trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina's Mostar or Morocco's Tangier.
Moderate the weather conditions you'll encounter. Over my many 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 Venice-to-Florence-to-Rome trip 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.
Plan for (or around) festivals. Every year, Europe puts out a smörgåsbord of colorful festivals that range from giant city-wide bacchanals to quietly picturesque observances. Seasoned planners know to check for festivals that could make for especially memorable experiences — good or bad. If you're headed to Munich in early fall, be sure to check this year's Oktoberfest dates, whether or not that's your idea of fun. If it is, it'd be a shame to miss it by assuming the beer was still flowing in mid-October (despite its name, most of the party takes place in September). If tent-fulls of drunken Bavarians are something you'd rather avoid, it'd be a shame to plan a September visit just to needlessly encounter fully booked hotels, higher room rates, and a crowded city center.
Likewise, look out for public holidays that could cause closures, three-day-weekend traffic, or similar logistical headaches easily headed off with foresight. This takes some planning. One of the best places to start is with my country-by-country lists of Europe's major holidays and festivals. While these pages aim to list the main events likely to impact your trip (with a focus on places recommended in my guidebooks), they aren't comprehensive. Check events calendars on the tourist information sites for each stop, and if you're showing up in town at festival time, book your room well in advance.
Consider your mode(s) of transportation. Not too long ago, I’d piece together a trip based on which towns could be connected by train. Today, it’s relatively cheap and easy to combine, say, Portugal, Poland, and Palermo on a single itinerary by air. As you assemble your itinerary, check train schedules, air connections, and drive times to make sure each leg of your trip is feasibly timed.
Minimize one-night stands. Even the speediest itinerary should be a series of two-night stands. It can be worth taking a late-afternoon drive or train ride to settle into a town for two consecutive nights — and gain a full uninterrupted day for sightseeing. Depending on the distances involved, staying in a home base and making day trips can be more time-efficient than changing locations and hotels.
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. For long trips, schedule a "vacation from your vacation" in the middle. 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 Europe offers offers an undepletable trove of fascinating experiences.
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). Guidebooks, tour company websites, travel blogs, and other sources can provide you with well-thought-out itineraries to crib from. Start by listing every place 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. Write 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. 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 an order, 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, especially if you are crossing country borders.
- Determine the mode of transportation between stops. Base this not solely on cost, but by 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.
- 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). Remember that to have one full day in a town, you need to spend two nights there: don’t think you’ll get two days in Dublin if you arrive at noon one day and leave by noon the next.
Carefully consider travel time. Estimate how long various journeys will take by rail, by plane, or by car. Rome2Rio provides an overview of transportation options from Point A to Point B, including by plane, train, bus, car, or boat.
- Adjust to fit your timeline and budget. If your rough itinerary exceeds your available time or money, look for ways to save on travel time and/or cost. If two destinations are equally important to you and you don't have time for both, cut the place that takes the most time, hassle, or expense to reach. Also look for ways to minimize redundancy — for example, if you've got England's two best-known university towns, Oxford and Cambridge, on your list, choose just one (I prefer Cambridge) as they offer similar experiences. Finally, try trimming a little time from each stop. Five days in Paris would be grand, but an efficient traveler can see the high points in four.
- Fine-tune your itinerary. Study your guidebook. Take advantage of online tools and apps that allow you to browse destinations, compare 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 major tourist attractions close for one day during the week (usually Monday). It would be a shame to be in Paris only on a Monday, when the Orsay is fermé. Write out a day-by-day itinerary that takes into account public holidays and any can't-miss sights, festivals, or markets.
- Share your final 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 shared document makes it easy to plan with one another. 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 phone and share.