How to Plan Your First Vacation to Europe

If you polled average Americans and asked “Where would you most like to go in Europe?” I’ll bet London, Paris, and Rome would be in the top ten percent. Many Americans even go so far as to try to cram all three places into one vacation, leaving them exhausted by the end. Is that what you really want or would you rather just pick one place and explore that area? There are many questions that should be explored to make the most out of your first visit to Europe. Do you even know where in Europe you want to go?

First ask yourself why you want to go to Europe. Is it because a friend or relative went there and said it was awesome? Or do you have something more specific in mind, like visiting St. Peter’s Basilica or The Eiffel Tower? Do you simply want to go somewhere different than the usual Disney World? Do you enjoy history and want to check out some historical sites?

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Want views like this? Go to Austria.

If you’re more flexible on where you’d like to go, you can look around for good deals on flights. As I mentioned previously in my post A Simple Way to Save Hundreds of Dollars on Airfare, Google flights is a great search engine for gaining insight on airfare. If you put in a city in the US and type in Europe, Google flights will generate a map with prices for major cities in Europe. You can even put in Eastern Europe or Southern Europe, for example, to zero in on a more specific region of Europe. Or, if you have a specific city you want to fly to but are flexible with your dates, you can check Google flights calendar day-by-day to see how prices fluctuate. Even if you’re locked in to only June through August for travel, prices often differ by at least a couple hundred dollars and sometimes several hundred dollars, depending on which dates you choose.

Let’s say you’ve decided you want to go to Rome, Florence, and Venice in Italy. This is certainly do-able if you’re going to be there more than 7 days. If you have 10 days to spend in Italy, you could spend 3 nights in Rome, 4 nights in Florence, and 2 nights in Venice or even 4 nights in Rome, 3 in Florence, and 2 in Venice (either would be great options). You can easily get from one city to the next by train. The rail system in Europe in general is pretty reliable and easy to navigate. I don’t recommend driving in any of these cities the first time you go and not even on subsequent times, as it’s just easier to get around in town by taxi and a lot less stressful, at least in these Italian cities.

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Don’t get me wrong, Italy is great, but why not go to Malta instead? There are less crowds and it’s cheaper but still filled with history and great food.

Let’s go back to the London, Paris, Rome example I brought up previously. To get from London to Paris can take up to 9 hours on a bus, a little over 6 hours by car, just over 2 hours by train, or a bit over an hour by plane. Taking the train seems the obvious choice to me, given the hassle with airports and the time difference between flying and the train isn’t that great. From Paris to Rome is a bit more of a stretch since the distance is much greater. One good option is to take the night train from Paris, on the Artesia sleeper trains from Paris to Italy. You must reserve a sleeping berth in either a sleeping-car or more economical couchette car (4 or 6 bunk-style beds) in advance. However, you can fly from Paris to Rome in about 2 hours for under $200 (usually much less) on Air France or one of Europe’s many discount airlines.

Putting all of the above together, let’s say you have 10 days total (9 nights) to spend in London, Paris, and Rome and you’re going to spend the first 3 nights in London. From London you’ll take the train to Paris and spend 3 nights there then fly to Rome and spend 3 nights there before flying back home to the United States. This is a bit tiring because of moving around such great distances, but the most you’ve spent in actual travel time in Europe is roughly 2 hours at a stretch, which isn’t bad. This of course doesn’t include any time spent at the train station or airport, but still isn’t terrible. I’d say it’s not as bad as it may seem at first, when you do the math and calculate the travel time.

By no means am I supporting the London-Paris-Rome first trip to Europe plan, however. Personally, I like to explore one country at a time, starting in a bigger city simply because they’re always cheaper to fly into, then branching out into smaller towns and villages of a country. For example, when I went to Austria, I flew into Munich, Germany and spent a couple of days here before I moved on to some of the small towns of Austria like Bad Gastein, St. Johann im Pongau, Werfen, and many others that most Americans have never heard of. I enjoyed the scenery, food, and activities much more in these tiny towns than I did in Munich. I know, technically I did explore two countries in my example here since I was in Austria and Germany, but other than Munich, I didn’t see any other parts of Germany other than driving through to get to Austria.

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Crete is not nearly as crowded as some other Greek islands but is full of beautiful beaches, gorgeous hiking trails, and ruins!

I guess my most important points in all of this would be the following. First determine how much money you can budget for this European vacation. Then figure out why you want to go to Europe and what specifically you want to see and do. Next look at travel times and how to get from one place to another if you want to visit multiple cities and look at the costs involved. Finally, factor in accommodations, dining out, drinks out, museum costs and other entertainment costs and leave some money for souvenirs and any unexpected costs. I’ve found that by choosing places that are a bit different than where some people might choose, they’re usually less crowded and cheaper, so don’t be afraid to think outside the box when choosing where to go!

By figuring these things out in advance, it will greatly add to your peace of mind, which should help you enjoy your vacation more. You will also find that it’s not so complicated after all to plan your first vacation to Europe. Given all of the information available online on destinations, you should be able to put together a package that includes your airfare, accommodations, transportation, and some ideas for things to do.

Some general planning websites I like:

Conde Nast Traveler

Frommers

Fodors

For figuring out how to get from point a to point b:

Rome 2 Rio

For flight information:

Google flights

Seat Guru

For putting all of your travel plans in one place:

Trip It

So go ahead and start planning your first vacation to Europe! Just don’t make the mistake of going there in August. Many Europeans take the month of August off work to travel so many restaurants and other businesses will be closed in August and beaches and other hotspots where Europeans like to vacation will be packed. Instead, travel during the shoulder season in September and October (with the exception of Paris, which tends to be quiet in August but crowded in September). Finally, I would be happy to give advice on anything travel-related if you have a more specific or personal question. Just send me an email @runningtotravel (gmail).

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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A Simple Way to Save Hundreds of Dollars on Airfare

When I first started this blog post, I thought I was going to write about planning your first trip to Europe (written for Americans), but it evolved into something else. Perhaps I’ll have to write another blog post on planning a trip to Europe, but for now, I’m going to focus here on buying airfare. I’m not going to get technical and talk about credit cards, using miles or points, or anything remotely like that. This is actually a pretty simple way that can save you hundreds of dollars for just one airline ticket.

One place I like to start is Google flights (flights.Google.com). The thing I like most about Google flights is how flexible it is with searches. You can put in any city in the US and for example, “Europe” for destination and see how much flights cost to some of the most popular cities in Europe. A map will be generated with prices for around 15 destinations in Europe. For example, a flight from New York City (JFK) to Dublin the end of June is as low as $671 round trip, but on that same day, a flight from New York City (JFK) to Rome is $1475. If you’re flexible about where you’re going, you can end up paying half or less for your flight.

Again, being flexible can help save you money if you’re flexible with your dates. You can scroll through Google flight’s calendar and see how prices fluctuate over time. That same flight to Dublin that cost $671 the end of June drops to $360 for a few dates in August, or goes to as much as $1088 for a four-day vacation the week of July 4th. I suggest you play with the dates and it could easily save you hundreds of dollars per ticket.

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Thanks to Google flights, I discovered it didn’t cost a single cent more to add on a stopover in Miami from Malta before flying home!

It seems like there are a dozen websites where you can compare airfare. You could spend hours going to them all, but in the end I’ve found they all pretty much give you the same information as Google flights, and I just prefer the platform Google flights uses. If you like Hipmunk, Momondo, or Expedia (or something comparable) better, by all means use them along with Google flights, but I really don’t feel you need to go to six different comparison sites like these, so choosing one will save you time.

Once you have a specific flight, go directly to the airline to make sure it’s the same as what you’re seeing on Google flights. So that flight to Dublin that’s $360 in August is with Wow airline, a budget carrier based in Iceland, which is notorious for adding extra fees. When I clicked the link through Google flights to purchase through the Wow Airline website, that same flight cost $199.99 to get there and $179.99 to get back for Wow basic ($379.98 for round-trip), which includes your flight ticket and one personal item, slightly more than $360 shown on Google flights. One carry-on bag costs $49.99 each way if purchased with the ticket or $69.99 if purchased at check-in. Each checked bag costs $67.99 each way in advance or $79.99 at check-in. Let’s go with one carry-on bag, so that adds another $99.98.

If you want to choose your seat, that will be another $4.99-$6.99 for each segment of your flight for budget standard seats, $9.99-$19.99 for standard plus seats, on up to $99-$249.99 for the “BigSeat- Extra wide seats with plenty of legroom and WOW premium service” with price variances based on if you’re flying to/from New York or Reykjavik. The main thing here is you’re paying extra for that seat from New York to Reykjavik, from Reykjavik to Dublin, from Dublin to Reykjavik, and from Reykjavik to New York. $4.99-$6.99 might not seems like that much, but when it turns out to be $23.96 for each person for all four segments, just to be able to choose a budget standard seat, it adds up. Meals are also extra with Wow airlines, with most ranging around $12-$14 for lunch items (salads, pizza, sandwiches).

Not even choosing seats or buying a meal onboard, your ticket will be $629.96 after taxes and fees with just one carry-on bag. This is a far cry from the $360 that showed up on Google flights. Still, it is cheaper than the next-expensive flight with Aer Lingus for $984 round trip. The Aer Lingus “smart” fare does include a carry-on and checked bag, complimentary meal, and seat selection.

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Google flights helped me plan my vacation to Antelope Canyon (shown here), Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas

I love playing around on Google flights and often check flights around the world (domestic and international). If I have specific dates in mind to a specific place, I’ll set up a price alert through Kayak to track the price for a flight so I can wait until the price drops and buy my tickets then. Contrary to popular belief, there is no magic date you should buy airfare before flying somewhere. Generally speaking, if you buy international airfare (especially more so than domestic) several months in advance, you will pay less than if you wait a month before you want to fly. Airfare is one of the most volatile things I’ve ever seen when it comes to price increases and drops, which is one reason I like Google flights calendar so much, because you can see that volatility in pricing day by day.

What about you all? Do you use Google flights or some other search engine to research airfare prices?

Happy travels!

Donna