Narrowing down travel options can be overwhelming, especially when you have a limited timeline. Traveling in the spring or fall guarantees a nice balance of weather without the influx of tourists typically abundant in the summer months.
Wherever and whenever you decide to go, start big and end small in terms of planning. Think about what you want your trip to embody and have options ready so you can feel prepared.
Once Brad and I decided to go to Eastern Europe for three weeks, the fun, and challenging, work began. I researched countries and cities early on to see how we could optimize our time and budget.
The obvious cities to explore were Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. From there, we wanted smaller cities with unique architecture, especially castles. Nuremberg, Salzburg, and Bratislava offered an intimate look into the past and tempting cuisine. Auschwitz was also an important historical site for us to include, so Krakow made the cut as well. Hallstatt was a late addition that Brad was excited to include due to its picturesque location.
DISCLAIMER: I am a planner at heart and try to prepare for 75% of my trips ahead of time. This means I have attractions noted, tours booked, tickets purchased, and accommodations reserved. This method allows for a more enjoyable experience without standing around wondering what to do next. Of course adventure is a part of travel, so leave room for wandering!
Take a moment to ponder. When you think of Europe what comes to mind? The bluffs of Cornwall? The fairytale castles of Germany? Eating a warm croissant under the Eiffel Tower? Make your dreams a reality! Chances are you already know where you want to go, but if not, grab a Rick Steves guidebook or watch a show to find some inspiration.
Once you have one or two cities or countries figured out, understand the nitty-gritty. What is there to do and see? Is it affordable? How many days are ideal for a worthwhile experience?
For example, Paris is HUGE and two days will not suffice. However, smaller cities, such as Hallstatt, can be adequately visited in as little as four hours. Diligent research will help you decide how long to spend in each area. Piling on too much can cause exhaustion. Don't hesitate to make some cuts to really immerse yourself in your chosen locations.
The second step is to order your cities and countries in an efficient way. Pull up a map of the region and structure a route which minimizes the time spent traveling between destinations.
Travel days (below in yellow) can be taxing, especially if it means an early morning or late night. Modify the itinerary around them and plan for delays. Keeping travel days fluid can alleviate stress. Take a nap if necessary after checking into your room. Pay attention to your limits and RELAX.
TIP: Reflection is an important aspect of any expedition. Are you tired of museums and cathedrals? Craving a taste of home and need a cheeseburger? Make adjustments to your itinerary. Take the pressure off and revise your bucket list.
Start with your inbound and outbound flights. Remember, you don't need to fly in and out of the same city. Smaller airlines, such as Ryanair, offer cheap and efficient flights throughout Europe. If you want to cover more distance, flying is the obvious way to go, but beware of delays!
With my experience, trains are more predictable and reliable than airplanes. Europe has an impressive and expansive railway system. Soak in the views, assess your itinerary, or play a game of cards.
If you plan on taking more than one or two trains, purchasing a Eurail Pass may be a cost-effective option. The website makes it easy to pick the ideal pass for your adventure. I've used Eurail for each of my trips to Europe and appreciate the convenience. Keep in mind some routes and overnight trains require a reservation. The Eurail Pass also includes ferries and buses. Be sure to buy it at least six months before your trip and keep an eye out for discounts, especially on Black Friday.
Driving is also a dependable way to get around. We saved an hour and a half by taking a coach bus from Prague to Nuremberg instead of a train. Our driver frequently changed lanes, which made for an unforgettable queasy ride. The Pepto-Bismol definitely came in handy!
Visiting cities on a river? We took a ferry from Vienna to Bratislava and had a marvelous time cruising along the Danube. Grab a cocktail and enjoy the voyage!
Whether it's a plane, train, or ferry, weigh the pros and cons to decide on the best modes of transportation for your trip. Don't forget to take advantage of the affordable metro lines in the major cities and give your feet a break.
Having a safe place to rest your head at night is paramount. You want to feel secure and comfortable in a convenient location. Feeling friendly? Book a hostel in a shared or private room. Free tours, meals, and social events are often provided to bring fellow travelers together. Make friends, swap stories, and ask questions.
Need some peace and quiet? Airbnbs present a unique look into European living. Visit the grocery store and pick out some indigenous ingredients to make a home-cooked meal. Recharge your batteries and live like a local.
Boutique hotels are a unique option with ideal locations and amenities. Whatever you decide, make sure to book in advance to guarantee a room. Accommodations can book up fast especially during the peak season.
Don't be surprised if you have to wait if you arrive before check-in time. Early check-in is more of an American courtesy. Take advantage of lockers and store your luggage.
Having a realistic budget is important! The amount of attractions and restaurants you plan to visit will determine a rough estimate. Be sure to research each country's currency and have some prepared for you ahead of time at your local bank.
Smaller towns usually prefer cash, but larger cities are accustomed to credit cards. Activate your contactless credit card for easy payments and be aware of foreign transaction fees. Our preferred credit card is the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
For our trip to Eastern Europe we brought $1,000 worth of foreign currency. For our time in Germany, Austria, and Slovakia we brought €400. We brought 3500 Kč for Czech Republic, 45,000 Ft for Hungary, and 1,000 zł for Poland. Some of the booked tours and attractions required a cash payment which factored into our final amount.
Our estimates were right on the money and luckily we didn't have to withdraw more cash, but bring your debit card just in case. Avoid the ridiculous conversion fees with thoughtful planning. Always pay in the country's currency when you take care of a bill. Your credit card company will provide you with the best exchange rate.
Susceptible tourists will often pay in euros for convenience and unknowingly pay an inflated amount. Check the bill and bust out your math skills. Educate yourself with exchange rates and trust your gut if something seems wrong.
Although technology makes life easier, prepare for the unexpected. I lost my phone in Prague! If you have email confirmations of accommodations, activities, museum passes, tours, or reservations, PRINT COPIES! Some businesses require a printed receipt, so do yourself a favor and get organized.
Print a copy of your passport and drivers license as well. Understand your current health insurance plan and bring policy cards. Emergency contact and trip insurance information is also important. Place your documents in a folder so nothing gets misplaced.
Logistics are a vital part of any trip and can be honed with experience. Don't beat yourself up if you make mistakes. Have a backup plan ready and go with the flow. The more you nail down before your trip to Europe, the more time you will have to enjoy the leisurely cafes!
Ready to start packing? Check out my Europe packing post here!