Planning a trip to Europe? Check out our tips for the ultimate European Vacation.
Traveling in Europe is a bucket list dream for millions of people around the world. Whether it’s savoring Spanish tapas, cruising the Greek islands, or touring wineries in the Italian countryside, there’s something magical about the continent’s combination of culture, history, gastronomy, architecture, and natural beauty.
But Europe is a vast continent, and the logistics involved in planning a European vacation can feel overwhelming. There’s the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Colosseum in Rome, the bohemian history of Prague, the imperial palaces of Russia, and the seemingly never-ending construction of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. So where should your trip around Europe even begin?
Organizing your trip itinerary can be easy, if you know how to approach it. Our step by step guide on how to plan a trip to Europe covers everything from setting your budget and choosing your favorite European destinations to planning your itinerary and all of the required documentation for your trip.
CREATING A EUROPEAN TRAVEL BUDGET
The first thing you need to do when you plan your Europe trip is to establish a budget. Decide how much you’re willing and able to spend, and do this as early as possible.
Europe is a diverse continent where you can spend anywhere from $35 to $1,000+ a night, depending on your travel style. It’s a cliché, but there really are European tours and hotels for every budget, from the broke backpacker to those wealthy enough to throw money away. So it’s important to start by deciding your European travel budget, which will inform the rest of your planning, from choosing your destination and travel dates to creating an itinerary.
Costs for a trip to Europe will vary widely depending on the length of your journey and the countries you choose. But, as a general average, most roundtrip flights from the US to major European cities will cost around $600 USD. Perhaps a bit less if you’re traveling from the UK or Asia, but much more if you’re traveling from Australia or New Zealand.
When setting your budget for flights, play around with comparison sites and run a range of different routes and travel dates to get a better idea of how much it’s going to cost you. Europe is known for its budget airlines, and it’s cheap to fly between countries. So if you’re planning on visiting Berlin, but it’s cheaper to fly into Paris, don’t be put off by booking a separate connection.
Beyond flights, you should also plan a budget for accommodations, food, activities, transportation around Europe, and extra spending money. Of course, if you’re booking organized European tours as opposed to traveling independently, they’re often all-inclusive and will cover your accommodations, activities, transport, and food, meaning you won’t need to budget for them separately.
CHOOSING EUROPEAN DESTINATIONS
After you’ve set your budget, the next step to planning your European holiday is to choose your destinations.
There are 28 countries in the European Union, and 18 others which are in Europe geographically, but not part of the EU. So it can definitely be overwhelming trying to pick the perfect destination. Some of the most important factors to consider when choosing a destination include your particular interests in terms of activities/attractions, the time of year you’re traveling, and your budget.
Your interests should be the first thing to consider when choosing where to go. For instance, if you’re not a big fan of nightlife and you enjoy active vacations over relaxing on the beach, you probably shouldn’t head to Ibiza. However, if you’re mad about UNESCO World Heritage Sites and love visiting off the beaten path places, you might consider a circumnavigation of Sicily cruise.
Don’t fall into the trap of picking a destination just because it’s trendy, and everyone else says to go. You’ll only enjoy the trip if the destination is well suited to your own passions.
The next thing to consider when choosing a destination is your travel budget, as some European countries are definitely a lot cheaper than others. For instance, places like Greece and Turkey tend to be a lot less expensive than more popular tourist hubs like France and Italy. In general, the further east and away from big cities you go, the cheaper your travel costs will be.
CHOOSING THE BEST TIME TO VISIT EUROPE
After you’ve established your travel budget and decided on your destination, the next step is to choose the best time to visit. Of course, if you’re locked into specific travel dates and can’t move them, this would be a determining factor for choosing a destination in the first place.
Cities that are fairly expensive during peak season can be surprisingly affordable once the summer crowds have dissipated. The tourism industry is all based on supply and demand. So if you’re traveling on a tight budget, you might want to consider planning your European vacation during the offseason.
Most of Europe has four distinct seasons, and summer (June to August) is peak season. This is when you’ll find the largest crowds, see the worst issues with overtourism, and pay the highest prices. Spring is from March to May, and this a great time to travel when the weather is still pleasant, but you don’t have to contend with high traffic and heightened costs.
Autumn is from September to November, and this is often the quietest and cheapest time of year for visiting Europe. Winter in Europe is December through February, and off-season for major cities like London, Paris, and Rome. But if you’re looking for winter outdoor adventures in places like the Alps, the Dolomites, or slopes throughout Switzerland, this is peak season.
The type of adventure you want will largely dictate the best time of the year to travel. If you’re dead set on catching the Northern Lights, you’ll need to travel during winter. If you’re dreaming of island-hopping in Greece, you’ll probably opt for June through August (though it’s worth noting that many Mediterranean destinations are warm all year round).
You may also want to consider unique local events when you’re choosing the best time to travel because Europe is home to many of the world’s best festivals. Whether you’re interested in joining locals in Spain for an annual city-wide tomato fight or witnessing the once-in-a-decade Oberammergau Passion Play, planning your European trip to coincide with bucket-list events can make the timing an easy choice.
CHOOSING THE LENGTH OF YOUR EUROPEAN VACATION
The duration of your vacation is another important consideration that will largely depend on your budget and how many countries you want to take in. Europe is one of those places where you can easily plan a whirlwind adventure, taking in a new country every two days if you want to. Or you can spend your whole journey digging deeper into one particular country, or region.
Most people plan European holidays for anywhere from two weeks to a month, and most European cruises and tours run for seven to 14 days. It’s worth noting that the maximum time allowed on a Schengen visa is 90 days. It’s important to understand that you’re not going to see all the greatest European tourist attractions in one trip, so you’ll need to plan your time strategically.
Once you’ve decided on a list of the European destinations you want to visit, you can make a detailed itinerary and map out how many days you’d like to spend in each location. We find it’s better to explore a few destinations thoroughly and really enjoy your time there rather than trying to cram a lot into a shorter period of time.
Rushing things generally leaves travelers feeling disappointed that they’ve missed out on things due to being limited on time. And remember that the more countries you visit, the more time you’ll spend in transit throughout your trip). We recommend spending a minimum of three to four days in each destination before moving onto the next place.
Once you’ve decided on the length of your trip and how many days you’ll spend in each destination, then it’s time to start filling out your itinerary with things to do, and book your accommodations and activities.
For most people planning a trip to Europe, their desired itinerary will include multiple countries. So it’s important to research, budget, and plan for the many different ways to travel across Europe, from planes and high-speed trains to buses and ferries.
When deciding how to travel across Europe, you’ll need to consider whether you prioritize money or time. Flights are typically the quickest way to get between countries, and you can often reach a new city/country in one to three hours. Europe is famous for its huge range of budget airlines, and you can often find airfare for as cheap as 1 Euro!
When scheduling flights, make sure you take into consideration the time it takes to get through the airport, clear customs and immigration, and then disembark to collect your luggage on the other end. It might end up being quicker crossing Europe by train. The continent has a highly efficient network of rail systems, which is also a great way to catch a glimpse of the impossibly scenic countryside you would miss by flying.
Buses are another popular cheap way to travel Europe, especially during peak season (when there aren’t a lot of cheap flight deals). Overnight buses across Europe are also a great way to save on a night’s accommodation.
You could also consider booking a multi-country small ship cruise, where all your transportation is taken care of for you. For instance, Zegrahm’s Best of the Baltic expedition cruise takes in eight different European countries over 15 days, and you don’t have to worry about planning all the logistics.
EUROPEAN TRAVEL DOCUMENTS
Once your trip is planned, it’s time to start organizing your European travel documents. You will, of course, need a valid passport, but it’s also important to make sure that your passport has at least six months of validity left on it. Most European countries won’t let you travel if your passport is due to expire in the next six months.
When it comes to visas, 26 European countries are signed onto the Schengen Agreement. This is a passport-free zone that allows you to travel freely between member countries, without border controls. This means that if you’re visiting a country within the Schengen Zone, you’ll apply for a Schengen Visa as opposed to a national visa for each European destination you’re visiting.
Not everyone needs a Schengen Visa to enter Europe: there are many countries whose citizens can travel visa-free (like Australia and the United States of America). Still, there are many countries whose citizens do need to apply for a visa to enter Europe. You can find a full list of all countries that require a Schengen Visa here.
The countries in the Schengen Zone include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. If the country you’re visiting is not on this list, you’ll need to organize your visa directly with their embassy. We recommend you don’t make any non-refundable bookings until you’ve secured your necessary visas.
It’s also advisable to travel with documents that show you have sufficient funds to sustain yourself financially throughout the trip, hotel confirmations that show proof of accommodation, flight confirmations that show how long you intend to stay, as well as your travel insurance documents. EU/Schengen border officials have been known to ask for these documents if you get pulled aside for extra questioning. –Megan Jerrard
BIO: Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.