Stress-Free European Vacation Planning
Thinking about a trip to Europe this year? Planning a vacation, especially abroad, can seem overwhelming. Unless you are taking a cruise or tour package, or just winging it, there’s hours of research and dozens of decisions to make. Where do I want to go? For how long? What are my transportation option? Where will I stay? What is there to see and do?
It's a lot to think about. But I believe travel planning should be as fun and pleasurable as your vacation, filling you with anticipation and new discoveries. Here’s some tips to make the process easier and far from stressful. So, take a deep breath and let’s get started.
1) Set your intentions
Before spending your hard-earned money and your vacation time, think about what you want to experience and receive from your travels. Imagine yourself on vacation and, more importantly, returning from vacation. How do you want to feel when you step back into normal life? Rested, relaxed and recharged? Expanded, inspired and ready to plan your next adventure?
Use your planning time to design a vacation that gives you what you need most. Do you want a totally relaxing time at a tropical beach or a yoga retreat? Are you hungry for culturally enriching experiences like museums and concerts? Do you want an action-packed adventure vacation that will physically challenge you? Do you long to immerse yourself in another countries’ lifestyle and culture? Are you ready to energize yourself with long hikes in nature? Or maybe you want a travel experience that provides a combination of experiences.
2) Do some research
Once you’ve set your intention, invest some time researching places online. Even if you already have a place in mind, do your research to ensure it will fulfill your goals. This is the exciting part of planning as you check out different locations, read blog posts and learn from the experiences of others.
3) Start with the big picture and book your airfare first
Once you decide where you want to go and for how long, book your airfare. Now you have your bookends — your arrival and departure dates. If you have enough frequent-flyer miles, use them. You'll get the biggest return on your miles for an international flight.
Look for the most direct route to a major European city with as few layovers as possible. Once you are in Europe there are inexpensive flights to smaller cities and train routes to towns and villages. If you have layovers, be sure there is enough time between flights. A two-hour layover is recommended for connections at the world’s busiest airports, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, London’s Heathrow Airport and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
When arriving back in the US or into a country abroad that is not your final destination, but where you’ll have to retrieve your luggage and go through customs, a four-hour layover is recommended, especially at high season. If you have Global Entry and/or no checked baggage, the process should be expedited, but there is no guarantee.
Choose flights with long layovers if you are changing airlines as you may have to walk or take a tram to another terminal. I’ve had no problem with 45-minute layovers in San Francisco before catching an international flight with the same airline, but there can always be delays. Choosing flights earlier in the day is safer because if you miss your connection, you have a better chance of getting on another flight that day.
3) Plan other transportation
Will you need a rent-a-car or can you travel by public transportation? SNCF.com is the site to use for booking train travel in France. If you want to explore multiple countries, a Eurail Pass may be the most economical way to go.
If you are traveling by car for a month or more, I highly recommend Auto France. You can rent a brand-new Peugeot straight off the factory floor at multiple cities throughout Europe. Rates are extremely reasonable and include full insurance, built-in GPS and roadside assistance. I’ve used them several times for long-stays in Europe.
Avoid driving in major cities like Paris or Rome. Either rent a car when you land at the airport (which are outside of the city center) or spend a few days exploring the city, then take a train to a smaller town and rent the car there.
4) Book your accommodations
Renting a car gives you more freedom, especially if you are interested in exploring the countryside and smaller towns and villages. You’ll also have more options for accommodations. Generally, accommodations outside of the city center will cost less, so that can make up for the cost of the rental car. However, you’ll also have the expense of gasoline or electric vehicle charging and you’ll have to pay for parking in larger towns.
If you’re traveling by train, you’ll need more centrally located accommodations. But staying in the heart of an historical city center can often be noisy at night. European cities have great public transportation, so don't be afraid of booking a place further from the center.
5) Book events
Now that you know where you’ll be staying, you can book local tours, museums and other events and attractions. If you’re going at high season, be sure to book these online before you leave. Larger European cities have city passes that give you discounts and let you skip the long lines when you purchase tickets for multiple museums and popular attractions. Before you purchase these, be realistic about how many sights you want to see within the timeframe you have. Don’t overbook yourself. Leave a few unscheduled days for relaxing and simply enjoying life in Europe.
6) Take a break
Research and travel planning can be exciting, but it can also be tedious and fatiguing if you’re at it for too long. If you feel drained or overwhelmed during the planning process, take a break. You don’t have to book everything at once. I find when I step away from the computer, I often come back with a clearer head, new insights and a better plan for organizing my trip.
Last year, while planning a three-month trip to France, I booked an Airbnb for the first of what I thought would be three four-week stays in different parts of Brittany. But that’s as far as I got. After taking a two-week break from trip planning, I realized I also wanted to explore the Vendee and Charente-Maritime departments. So I extended my first stay by another week, booked accommodations for a five-day road trip and then booked a second long-stay accommodation in Brittany for five weeks. My new plan gave me six extra days to explore the Normandy coast on my return trip to Paris. By giving myself a break from travel planning, instead of rushing ahead, I came up with a much better itinerary.
7) Enjoy the process
Most importantly, enjoy the process of trip planning, because anticipating your next journey is half the fun. Science shows there is as much benefit to imagining your future vacation as there is to actually experiencing it. So happy trip planning!
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