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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Beginner’s Guide to Airbnb- Misconception versus Truth

For those of you that consider yourselves world travelers and stay at properties through Airbnb all the time, you may think everyone else also uses Airbnb all the time. Lately I’ve discovered more and more people who have never stayed anywhere with Airbnb. While I don’t consider myself an expert, I have stayed at multiple properties around the world and would like to hopefully shed some light on the company for newbies.

Since Airbnb was founded in 2008 it has grown to include over 3 million properties worldwide and over 200 million people have stayed at an Airbnb property. Airbnb is in over 191 countries and is constantly expanding. From what I’ve been told by people who have never stayed at an Airbnb property, there seem to be some common myths or misconceptions.

First misconception: it’s easier to just stay at a hotel. Truth:  it’s just as easy to make reservations through Airbnb as it is with a hotel. Simply go online, put in your destination and dates and see what’s available. You can even tailor your inquiry with specific requests but more on that later.

Second misconception:  I’ll be staying at someone else’s house. That would be weird and uncomfortable to me. Truth:  you have the option of choosing the entire property (house, apartment, condo for example), a shared space, or a private room in someone’s house. Some options work better for some people than others.

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View from our airbnb in Chile

Third misconception:  wouldn’t it be cleaner to stay at a hotel than through Airbnb? Truth:  Airbnb owners thoroughly clean their properties (most pay for a cleaning service rather than cleaning the place themselves), just as a hotel would. I’ve found just with hotels, you get what you pay for. If you go for the cheapest property on Airbnb, it’s not likely to be nearly as clean or in as good of overall shape as a more expensive property.

Fourth misconception:  it costs more to stay somewhere with Airbnb than to stay at a hotel. Truth:  sometimes it can be cheaper to stay at an Airbnb property than to stay at a hotel. I always check both and compare my options.

Fifth misconception:  the host is only there to take your money and won’t be available to help you if you have questions or problems during your stay. Truth:  in my experience, the hosts have always gone out of their way to help make me feel comfortable, offering advice on things to do in the area, places to eat, etc. One time the heat wasn’t working where I was staying and I sent a message to the host through Airbnb, and she responded within a few minutes, with step-by-step information how to turn on the heat (I was in another country and the system wasn’t one I had ever used before). She followed up several times after that to make sure everything was OK.

Now that we’ve cleared up the most common misconceptions, let’s move on to actually making a reservation. The first step of course is to go to the website, Airbnb.com. You should see choices for “Homes,” “Experiences,” and “Restaurants.” Choosing “Restaurants” allows you to make reservations at restaurants throughout the US. The “Experiences” option includes a plethora of options that basically put you in-touch with someone from the local area to do anything from go hiking, biking, surfing, wine tastings, cooking lessons, and the list goes on and on. “Homes” is just what it sounds like and includes single-family homes, apartments, cabins, and even camping sites.

Let’s start simple and choose “Homes” first. Then put in dates, how many guests,  and room type to start. You can fine-tune your search by putting in minimum and/or maximum rates per night and selecting from the list of options under the “More filters” button at the top. If you’d like to bring your well-behaved dog along with you, choose the Pets allowed option. If you really want a swimming pool, check pool under Facilities options. Just know that the more filters you check, the fewer your options will be. I suggest only choosing filters that are extremely important to you, or your dream property might not show up because of something you checked that really wasn’t a big deal to you.

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One of many beautiful sunsets taken from our airbnb in Chile

There is also an option for “Instant book,” which means you don’t have to get approval from the host before booking. I don’t usually check this, but it is an option. If you’re not sure where you want to stay, you can also search using the map and zoom in and out of areas around the world. You may also notice some hosts are listed as “Superhost.” This means the person hosted at least 10 trips, has a 90% response rate or greater, has 5-star reviews the majority of the time, and didn’t cancel reservations that were confirmed.

Finally, to give you a little peace of mind, if there is a problem during your stay that you can’t work out with your host, you can contact Airbnb to have them help you resolve the problem.

For those of you that are now convinced they should join the millions of other people who have used Airbnb, I have a little incentive for you. If you use the following code, you’ll get $40 towards your first rental and I’ll get $20 in travel credit after you travel. This is only for first-time Airbnb users.

link to airbnb with $40 discount

Happy travels!

Donna