Before I became completely addicted to travel, I took a 16-day trip with my best friend through Europe to celebrate finishing grad school. I assumed I wouldn’t have the opportunity or the funds to go back to Europe anytime soon so instead of visiting several cities in one country, like I do now, we planned a trip that took us from London to Paris to Amsterdam to Munich and finally to Prague. It was a major undertaking but we pulled it off. Here is how you can, too.
Decide which cities are a must-do.
If you’ve never been to Europe, there will probably be some cities that you’ve always dreamed of seeing like Rome, Paris, and London. You can either stop there or be ambitious and come up with other destinations that you may be interested in. I don’t recommend staying in any one place for less than 3 days because you won’t have as much time to see everything as you think you will and because it will be downright exhausting to pack up and go so frequently.
Decide on a budget and the length of your trip.
These two go hand in hand. The bigger your budget, the longer you can afford to stay. Your budget may also dictate where you can go. Switzerland is a beautiful place to visit but outrageously expensive. On the other hand, cities in Eastern Europe, like Prague, make your money go a long way.
Consider the time of year.
My favorite time of year to go Europe is late May, which is shoulder season – not quite off-peak, but not yet peak season. You get great weather; it’s not as hot as it is in the middle of summer and it’s not too cold or rainy. And since it’s just before peak season, everything is less crowded. If you end up standing in an 800 person line to get into the Louvre on a sunny day in August, you will remember this advice. The added byproduct of going during shoulder season is that everything will be cheaper. There is less demand for hotels and trains so you’ll save yourself some money.
Get acquainted with European geography.
Despite the fact that nearly all European cities are easily accessible by train or flying, some may be more expensive or take more time to reach, which will make you think twice about keeping them on the itinerary. A good thing to do is look at a map and check the relative distance between each city you want to visit. Decide how feasible it will be to get to each one and come up with the most geographically sound order to go in.
Save time and money by flying into your originating city and flying out of your departing city.
After getting familiar with the area, we decided to go from west to east, flying into London and flying back home out of Prague. This makes a lot more sense than zigzagging all over Europe. Part of the reason we went in that direction was also to get the expensive cities out of the way first in order to make it easier for us to stick to our budget. By the end of the trip, we were in Prague and had almost no money left but needed almost no money to get by. Unless you find an incredible deal, flights arriving in one city and departing out of another are just about the same as your average round trip ticket to Europe. Even if that’s not the case, you have to consider the cost of going back to your originating city. Unless your path is more circular and you can easily return to your point of arrival, you’re going to be spending extra money and time on the return trip to that city.
Book your flights first, then the hotels, then the trains.
Flights are usually the biggest cost of a trip, particularly when you’re splitting the cost of the hotels. As the biggest consideration and because that will dictate the exact dates you will be there, you should book that first. Once you have that, grab your calendar and decide how many days you want to spend in each city. You should always be checking out of one hotel on the same day you’re checking in to another. Keep a close eye on the dates so you don’t end up without a place to sleep for a night. While flights and hotels can start to go up in price months before your trip, depending on the time of year, trains can be purchased at a fair price with as little as days or weeks before your trip.
Consider flights as an option from one city to the next.
Though I prefer taking trains when traveling through Europe, you should look up all the different ways to get from one place to another to see what is most convenient for you. Many people swear by low-cost airlines like Easy Jet and Ryan Air. And though that can look cheaper and faster than taking a train at first glance, you have to consider several factors. For one, taking a flight is a longer process than hopping on a train. You have to go through security and be at the airport at least an hour and a half before your flight. In most major cities, train stations are in the center of the city, whereas airports are a train or cab ride away, adding to the time and cost of flying. So when you compare total time, don’t forget those other factors. When you train, you can arrive 30 minutes before you depart, your gate may not even be announced until 10 minutes prior in some instances and you’re on your way. When you compare total cost, you also have to remember that low-cost airlines charge hefty bag fees and if you’re backpacking across Europe, your bag is going to cost you a pretty penny to get onto a plane every three days.
Consider rail passes as an option from one city to the next.
If you are taking trains, another consideration is whether or not to buy rail passes or individual tickets. Rail passes give you a little bit more flexibility because you’re not tethered to any specific time like you are with a regular train ticket. Though it’s helpful to keep in mind that if you already have hotels booked in other cities, your itinerary is already limited in flexibility. As a general rule, rail passes are only worthwhile if the sum of individual tickets would cost more than just getting a rail pass for the trip. You also have to keep in mind that rail passes have a lot of restrictions. Many trains don’t allow you to board without a seat reservation, even if you have a rail pass, which means you either book your reservations before you leave for your trip, which nullifies the flexibility aspect of the pass, or you may end up spending more time than you expected at a train station waiting for a train that is not sold out. Some passes are only good in some countries but not others. Use sites like raileurope.com to compare rail pass prices to individual tickets. I’ve found that unless you’re going to be making a lot of stops, a pass will be more expensive than individual tickets.
Consider night trains as an option from one city to the next.
If you’re going a long distance and you’re not flying, taking a night train might be a good option. On a night train, you can stay in a sleeper cabin with a bed where you can rest while you’re transported to your next destination. This may be cost-effective as it eliminates one night of hotel. However, if you’re traveling with more than one person, splitting the cost of the hotel may be cheaper than paying for individual train tickets. As with the rail passes, it’s all about comparing before you book.
Check hotel and hostel review sites when deciding on a place to stay.
Whether you’re staying at the Ritz or slumming it in a hostel, location is everything. Safety, cleanliness, and comfort are pretty important, too. Since you’re presumably going somewhere you’ve never been, get acquainted with the best areas of the city to stay. Learn the public transportation system and figure out what is closest to the hotel. Figure out what kind of neighborhood you’ll be staying in and what attractions, restaurants, or other features are nearby. You’ll want something central and conveniently located to allow you to be mobile. Avoid situations that will be tiresome or potentially dangerous, like taking a 20 minute walk back to your hotel from the nearest metro stop at night. Speaking of danger, check traveler reviews on safety, particularly if you’re staying at a hostel. Reports of theft or lack of security in a questionable neighborhood should raise some red flags. After those basic things are covered, then consider your specific needs. If you want to see the Eiffel Tower out of your hotel window, do some research and see what hotels will offer that.
Make a list of sites and attractions you want to do and pre-buy any that will save you time.
Europe is a very popular tourist destination. As such, certain churches, museums, and other attractions in Europe can get very crowded. Though I don’t like to over-plan my vacations and I don’t recommend you do either, you should do a little research and figure out what places you want to try to see while you are there. For one, because they close certain days of the week so you want to make sure you don’t miss it while you’re there. But also because there are some attractions, like the Colosseum and Vatican Museum in Rome, the Louvre and Eiffel Tower in Paris, and Westminster Abbey in London, that will be crowded all day every day of the year. While I don’t recommend pre-buying tickets to everything because that severely limits what you can do with your day, you should grab admission online to those sites. It will save you hours of waiting in line. It’s Europe, there’s a lot to see; who has time for those lines?
Once you know when you’re going and where, it’s time to pack. On a trip like this it’s imperative to pack light. You’ll be moving around a lot so you don’t want a lot of cumbersome bags to haul around. Because you’ll be traveling to a lot of different places, I also recommend leaving enough space in your bag for anything you’ll buy abroad. It might even be a good idea to take an empty bag in your luggage if you plan to shop a lot. There are a lot of things you can do to keep your packing reasonable, but as a general rule, pack only as much as you’ll need.
Plan for exchanging money multiple times.
Unless you plan to stay in countries that use the Euro, you’ll likely have to switch between different currencies throughout your trip. During our trip, we started with the British Pound, then switched to the Euro and then to Czech Koruna. I’m not a big proponent of taking a lot of cash on trips because it would be devastating to get your money stolen or misplace it. Take a little bit of cash and use credit cards whenever you can. If you need more cash, one of the cheapest ways to exchange money is to use an ATM the way you would at home. The fees are lower than if you go to an exchange office, especially if your bank waives foreign ATM fees and that way you’ll only ever have on you what you need. If you end up having some extra currency from one place you won’t be returning to, you can always change it at a train station or airport.
Come up with a trip playlist.
Whether you’re on your own or with friends, any good trip needs music. You’re going to be on a lot of trains and planes and you probably won’t have access to Spotify so put together the right mix of tunes for when you’re trying to relax while you take long train rides or to get you pumped up and ready to go out when you’re in the hotel getting ready for a night out.
Enjoy yourself, you’re in Europe!
European cities are beautiful, the people are friendly, and there are a million things to do and see that you’ve never seen before. Make the most of it. Get up early, have some coffee and a chocolate croissant, and don’t go to sleep until the bars close.