How to Plan a Trip to Europe

By Meg Jernigan

Tips for a great European getaway

How to Plan a Trip to Europe

The tradition of taking the "Grand Tour" of Europe began in the 17th century, when a young man, after he finished his formal schooling, took time off to gain an informal education in life. He did so without airplanes, hotel chains or restaurants on every corner. Today, travelers planning a European vacation can choose from a world of options.

Getting to Europe

Depending on your starting point and your destination, a nonstop flight to Europe can take less than eight hours. Travelers with flexible travel dates or destinations usually get a better deal on airfares, but if your dates are set in stone, you can still find a good deal. Use an app like Yapta that tracks price drops on flights, and be prepared to buy your ticket on the spot when you see a deal. Start looking for deals at least four months before your departure date because airfares fluctuate constantly.

If you have plenty of time, a transatlantic cruise from the U.S. to Europe typically takes from six to eight days, with no stops at ports of call along the way. The least-expensive options are usually what the industry calls repositioning cruises, in which the cruise line moves ships from one port to another to position them for the next high cruise season. They take longer, and the amenities are fewer, but the cost can be half that of a standard cruise.

Getting from point A to point B

Where you go and what you see depends on your interests and how much time you have to satisfy them. Castles or Cotswolds? Oktoberfest or carnival? Cycling tours are popular, as are river cruises, but the mode of transportation limits what sights you see. Driving gives you almost complete freedom, but the train is among the best methods to get around the continent. Buy a Eurail Pass before you leave home for prepaid access to hundreds of train routes. Eurail has a number of suggested itineraries, from “best of” to suggestions for trips within individual countries.

If you’re having trouble deciding how to spend your time in Europe, use a website like Route Perfect, where you can enter starting and ending points, the length of your visit, and refinements to taste, such as great food spots, historic places and beaches. If you want expert advice, visit a site like Fodor’s European itineraries page, where you can sort trips by country and experience.

European accommodations options

Most travel aggregator websites like Travelocity or Kayak list hotel rooms in Europe. You can plan your journey point-to-point with them, but there are plenty of options for less standard accommodations. Make one leg of your trip on a night train, where you share a sleeper compartment with other travelers; reserve a sleeping berth, known as a couchette; or splurge on a private sleeping compartment. These options frequently sell out quickly, so make reservations in advance.

Hostels are among the best budget-friendly options in Europe if you’re willing to share a dorm-style room with shared common areas. Many hostels have private rooms, but you’ll miss the camaraderie that makes hostels the best way to meet new people.

Couch surfing, a service in which you crash in a local’s spare space, is another economical way to tour Europe. If you want a more upscale experience but prefer not to stay in a hotel, Airbnb lists rooms and houses across the continent.

Necessary documentation for a trip to Europe

Apply for a passport at least four weeks in advance of your trip and keep track of where your passport is in the approval process through the U.S. State Department’s website to ensure you get it in time for your trip. If you’re short on time, apply for an expedited passport, which has different requirements and costs and can take from three weeks to eight days, or use a private service. Some private services promise to get your passport in a matter of days.

As long as you travel in European Union countries, you won’t need visas. If you’re traveling in non-EU countries, check with the individual countries to see if a visa is required.

While a valid U.S. driver’s license is recognized in many European countries, apply for an International Driving Permit for use in countries that don’t. Many car rental agencies also require an IDP. Apply for an IDP through the American Automobile Association or the National Auto Club.

Carry copies, not the originals, of your passport, legal photo identification, and your birth certificate in case you lose your passport. Make copies of your credit cards, insurance cards and any other important items you carry in your wallet in case of theft or loss.

Must-haves for a European tour

Europe’s electrical system is different from the American system, but most U.S. devices can operate on both 110 and 220 volts. But the shape of wall outlets is different, so in most countries, you’ll need an adapter, easily available online or in travel-forward retail shops.

Consider a money belt, a cross-body bag or other secure place for traveler’s checks or cash, but plan to use credit cards rather than carrying large amounts of money. If you’re worried about your passport being stolen, leave it in your hotel’s safe.

Install a calculator app on your phone for currency conversion.

Washcloths are uncommon in some European countries. Pack a couple and a plastic zipper bag in case the cloth is still damp when you check out of your hotel.

Make sure you have enough medication, plus a little more in the event of complications in your trip, for your entire stay.

Over-packing, especially if you’re depending on public transportation on your arrival, slows you down. Check the weather in the countries you’ll be visiting, and pack accordingly. Avoid “just in case” items like a heavy coat for an autumn trip to Austria, and remember that you can buy anything you need after you arrive.

About the Author

Meg Jernigan has been writing for more than 30 years. She specializes in travel, cooking and interior decorating. Her offline credits include copy editing full-length books and creating marketing copy for nonprofit organizations. Jernigan attended George Washington University, majoring in speech and drama.