Where do you even begin when planning your first Europe trip? This is a question that has been posed to us many times by friends and family. From picking which cities to visit, to the logistics of budgeting time and sticking to a reasonable budget, it can seem overwhelming. However, after visiting 16 different European countries and traveling across the pond on 5 separate occasions, all on a budget, we can help. Here is our step-by-step guide on how to plan your first multi-city Europe trip on a budget.
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1. Write a list of MUST and WANT to go places on your trip
Divide this list into countries and even further into cities and attractions. Writing these places down will help you see potential routes for your trip. There are so many places to visit in Europe that you have to start by narrowing it down somehow for your first Europe trip. Remember you cannot go everywhere on just one trip. Regardless of the amount of time you spend, there will always be new places you want to explore or see.
On our first Europe trip, we picked the countries first based on our two country MUSTS—Greece and Italy. We then looked into flight options. Most of the departure flight options routed us through Ireland, which was on our WANT list, so we added Ireland to our itinerary as well. Looking into flights/train services to/from the cities you want to go will help you see what stops make more sense logistically than others.
For example, some MUST cities on our list were Rome, Cinque Terre and Venice but a WANT was Sicily. Logistically, with how our route worked out with train schedules and pricing, it didn’t make sense to go to Sicily and this was crossed off our list.
2. How much time do you have?
Can you be flexible? Determine how long you want to or can be gone for your trip. As a general rule of thumb, plan to be in each city you visit 2-4 days (including travel time). We find that if you travel any faster than this, you feel quite rushed and it takes away from the experience. Don’t try to go to too many places, especially on your first Europe trip—you want to enjoy it! For our first Europe trip, we felt we had the appropriate amount of time each place by spending 3 days in Athens, 4 in Santorini, 3 in Rome, 4 in Cinque Terre, 2 in Venice, 3 in Killarney and 2 in Dublin.
Remember, your biggest cost of your trip is going to be your flight to Europe so the more places you can go while already there and the longer you can stay, the more cost effective the trip becomes. If you can be flexible with your schedule and extend your trip, it will not only allow you to see another place or spend more time at your favorite place but will also potentially save you money on flights (see blog post on 5 Ways to Save on Flights). If you cannot be flexible with dates (a lot of people cannot be with their work schedules), this will help you determine how many places you can go and further narrow down your MUST and WANT list.
3. What is your budget?
How much do you want to aim to spend a day? Can you be flexible? Your budget will affect where you go on your trip as some places are much more expensive than others. For example, our goal on our first Europe trip was to spend less than $100 a night on accommodations (this ensured we always had a private bath). In Greece and Italy, this was not a problem but in Ireland, this was nearly impossible. We always set a budget for our trips but tend to be flexible with the budget depending on location. This flexibility creates less stress when planning knowing you have a little wiggle room.
To get a general cost idea of different European Cities, we suggest referring to Europe On A Shoestring and the Fodor’s Essential Europe books. Most travel books have general pricing data. You can easily buy these on Amazon (use the links above) or you can try to check them out from your local library.
Also, make sure to look at depart/return flights for the dates you tentatively want to go on your trip. For our first trip, due to work, we were limited to the dates we could depart/return and had to bite the bullet with a more pricey flight option. This is not something we regret but we have since learned how to save on flights (see blog post on 5 Ways to Save on Flights).
4. Determine starting/ending point of your trip and book arrival/departure flights
What makes the most sense logistically? What makes the most sense cost-wise? When we went to Spain and Portugal, it was over $600 less per person to fly into Madrid and out of Barcelona than it was to fly into Lisbon and out of Barcelona. Logistically, it would typically make more sense to start this trip in Lisbon but with only 2 hours difference in total fly times and a $600 cost difference in flights per person, changing our route only made sense. We still went to Lisbon but changed our initial planned route from Lisbon—> Madrid —> Barcelona to Madrid —> Lisbon —> Barcelona. In general, roundtrip flights to/from the same point tend to cost less but if money/budget is not as big of a priority as seeing more places, always start and end in different spots. For more on how to save on flights, see blog post on 5 Ways to Save on Flights).
5. Finalize Stops on Your Trip
After booking arrival/departure flights, book flights and trains in between cities. A tip for a first timer, sometimes taking a train between cities actually cost more than a flight. Look into both options but a flight is your best bet if you are short on time. That being said, we have had some of the best conversations with people we have met on trains in Europe. (See post on Why You Should Talk to Strangers While Traveling)
6. Book Accommodations
Look into all options—hotels, pensions, Airbnbs, etc.. We first look into accommodation recommendations from people (friends, family, coworkers, fellow bloggers, etc) who have traveled to the places we are going. For your first Europe trip, it is always nice to stay at places that you know people in your network have liked. Then, we look into options from our travel reference books and Airbnbs. We usually end up staying at a mixture of accommodations based on what’s available, location and cost. When you do not have a car, we find it is worth it to pay a little more to stay closer to the main areas of a city we want to see so we can walk everywhere. Walking around a city is a great way to see it from an angle you may not have otherwise (see post, coming soon, on Why You Should Walk Everywhere While Traveling).
Please see How to Book Accommodations post for more on booking accommodations.
7. Book Excursions
You may be able to book some excursions when you get to your destination but during peak season, you want to make sure you book popular excursions beforehand. For example, we went to the Vatican during peak season in July and needed to book our tour several months beforehand. Investigating activities that are free or require admission ticket beforehand is important to evaluate. Sometimes areas that are free still offer guided tours that can be helpful for those that want to hear from a local about the history and culture.
One of our favorite European excursions to book is a food tour. Our favorite European food tour was in Rome through the company Eating Europe. This company has tours in many countries/cities and we’d highly recommend going on one—it will be a highlight of your trip (see post Why you Should take a Food Tour While Traveling).
We hope this post helps you plan your first Europe trip on a budget. See all of our Europe Guides for more information to help you plan your first Europe trip. We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Anything you’d add to our guide on planning your first Europe Trip on a Budget? Please leave us a comment!
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