How to Plan a European Vacation in Eight Easy Steps

By Rick Steves
Beilstein and Mosel River, Germany
Balance out visits to hectic big cities by also spending time in tranquil villages like Beilstein, in Germany's Mosel Valley. (photo: Rick Steves)

The best travelers aren't those with the fattest wallets, but those who take planning seriously. Jack might jet off to Europe as a free spirit, with no real itinerary — and return home full of complaints about how expensive and stressful it all was. Jill, who travels with good information and a detailed day-to-day plan, returns home with rich stories of spontaneous European adventures. It's the classic paradox of good travel: "Winging it" can become a ball-and-chain of too many decisions, too little information, and scant time to relax. Structure rewards a traveler with freedom.

I like to plot my travel details in a chart organized by date. I collect all my reservations, train times, and other notes and reminders in one document. As I travel, I can see at a glance where I'll be sleeping a week from now, or what time the train leaves on Saturday. Here's how to create your own vacation plan.

1. Decide where you want to go and create a budget. Do your research to create a wish list, using the most up-to-date guidebooks, travel apps, and websites. (Be aware than many publications and websites are ad-supported, so their information may be biased. Also, crowd-sourced sites can give information distorted by bad or corrupt consumer comments.) Outline anticipated expenses, allowing for airfare, transportation within your destination, room and board, sightseeing and entertainment, and miscellaneous costs.

2. Establish a route and timeline. Figure out a logical geographical order and trip length. Consider how weather, crowds, geography, time of day, and your personal travel style will affect your plan. Balance big, intense cities with cozy small-town stops. For example, pair Vienna with the Danube River Valley, London with the Cotswolds, and Paris with the Loire Valley.

3. Decide on the cities you'll fly in and out of. Flying into one city and out of another is usually more efficient and economical (when you consider the time spent returning needlessly to your starting point) 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, take full advantage of picking up and dropping off in different cities (keep in mind that in bigger cities you don't want a car).

4. Figure out other transportation. Base this not solely on cost, but by what's best for your ideal trip. Study the many ways of getting from point A to point B — whether flying, riding the rails, driving, biking, or hiking. For example, train travel is often more economical for solo travelers, while renting a car saves money if you're with a small group.

5. Make a rough itinerary. On your chart, write in the number of days you'd like to stay in each place — knowing you'll probably have to trim it later. I recommend minimizing hotel changes to save time and money — and to better get to know the town. One-night stops are less efficient than stays of two or more nights. Take advantage of weekends to stretch your time and minimize lost work days. Websites like Rome2Rio make estimating travel time easy.

6. Adjust by cutting, streamlining, or adding to fit your timeline or budget. If two destinations are equally important to you but you don't have time or money for both, cut the place that takes the most time, hassle, or expense to reach. Don't try to do everything on one trip. Assume you will return.

7. Fine-tune your itinerary. Study your guidebook and get advice from friends or fellow travelers. Be sure crucial sights are open the day you'll be in town. Remember that many restaurants and sights close one day of the week (often a weekday). And many of the most important sights now require or highly advise reservations in advance (easy to get online). Note that if you're flying from the United States to Europe you'll generally arrive the day after you fly out.

8. 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, make an itinerary chart (for example, as a Word document) so that you can easily 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 and share from your smartphone.

Planning is always worth the effort: Anticipating obstacles, knowing your options, and living within your budget are fundamental to a good trip. Now you're ready to enjoy the freedom that rewards good planners and turn your travel dreams into smooth and affordable reality.