Planning a trip to Europe is incredibly exciting but it can also be a bit overwhelming. After living in Europe for 6 years I frequently get asked questions about how to plan a trip to Europe.
In this comprehensive guide I will give you lots of tips on how to plan a European vacation. Everything from deciding which countries to visit, how to create an itinerary, when is the best time to go, money saving tips and more!
Creating a plan for your European travels in advance will make your trip far more enjoyable and way less stressful. So grab your pen and paper and lets start trip planning!
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Is Europe a Country or a Continent?
One common misconception is that Europe is a country. It is, in fact, an entire continent made up of many countries. Europeans find it hilarious when other people say that they went on summer vacation in Europe and not specify the name of the country they traveled to.
1. Where to Travel in Europe: Make a List of Your Top Choices
This is probably going to be the toughest decision to make when planning a trip to Europe. Before you even begin the planning process, you’ll want to narrow down your choices of where to go in Europe. The best way to do this is to start by making a list of about 5-7 different countries that you dream of visiting. Then choose a few different cities within those countries that you’ll want to see.
If you’re list is starting to get pretty long and you feel like it’s all over the place don’t worry. It’s completely normal to get excited and feel overwhelmed. There are so many incredible places within Europe that you’ll no doubt want to squeeze in as much as you can.
However, the main goal of writing a list is not to create jam packed itinerary but to help with narrowing things down later. You will use this list plus a number of different factors that I will discuss to help you figure out your exact European itinerary!
If you are having a difficult time deciding on a few destinations try thinking about what kind of places and experiences you’d like to have. Are you interested in doing a city trip which would include more history, architecture, cafes & restaurants, shopping and sightseeing.
Or are you interested in creating an itinerary that revolves around nature and outdoor adventures. Exploring waterfalls, kayaking in fjords, hiking mountains and road tripping through the countryside.
Maybe you’d like to combine a bit of both, city and nature? These are all important factors that will help you make your decision of where to go in Europe.
How Many Countries are There in Europe?
Let’s start by discussing how many countries does Europe have? There is a total of 51 countries within Europe. This number does not include the other territories or archipelagos that are governed by countries within Europe. Those include destinations such as the Faroe Islands, Svalbard, Gibraltar and Isle of Man just to name a few.
What Countries are Part of the European Union?
There are 27 countries that are included in the European Union. These counties abide by the same rules, regulations and policies that are agreed upon unanimously by those within the member states.
These 27 countries are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.
What are the Schengen Countries & What is a Schengen Visa?
The Schengen Agreement was created in 1985 and is essentially a treaty where certain countries within Europe have chosen to remove their internal borders to allow free movement within what is called the Schengen Zone.
There are officially 26 countries that are part of the Schengen zone. These countries are Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
What European Countries Require a Visa?
What does this mean for travelers visiting from countries not within Europe? First thing you need to do is to check whether you actually need to apply for a visa to enter Europe or the Schengen Zone. You can find a list of all the countries that require and do not require a visa here.
If you do need to apply for a visa you can do so by filling out the proper paperwork and applying at your local Embassy or Consulate. You can apply for a single entry visa, double entry visa or a multiple entry visa.
If you apply for a single entry visa you are allowed to visit any of the countries in the Schengen Zone during your one entry, not just one single country.
However, be sure to guarantee that the country you are visiting is within the Schengen Zone or you could run into some issues. You can find more details about the different types of Schengen Visas, fees and validity HERE.
The best thing to do if you need a visa to visit Europe is to make an appointment with the closest embassy or consulate and discuss the details with a professional.
Make Sure You Have a Valid Passport When Planning a Trip to Europe
The most important thing that you will need to do before even booking your trip to Europe is to confirm you have a valid passport. Your passport will need to have at least 6 months validity or you could be turned away at the airport before even boarding your flight. Additionally, you will need to have at least 2 full pages in your passport that are completely free without any stamps.
2. When is the Best Time to Go to Europe?
Now that you have created your list of the top places you want to visit in Europe you can start to narrow it down based on a number of other factors. The next step in planning your trip to Europe is deciding which time of year you will go. Are you flexible or are you locked into specific dates?
This is very important because different countries and cities are better to visit depending on the season. There may be flowers in bloom you’d like to see, a festival or event that happens once a year or maybe you’re interested in attending the Christmas Markets.
You also may want to avoid the rainy season in some cities like Amsterdam or London. These are all factors that need to be considered when planning a trip to Europe.
3. Figure out your budget for a European Vacation
The third major thing to consider when planning a trip to Europe is budget. In fact, this may be the most important part of planning your European vacation once you’ve decided on a location and time frame. You’ll want to establish your budget long before you even step foot onto the European continent.
Now the key part of setting a budget is actually sticking to it once you are in Europe. I know just how easy it is to convince yourself that you need to buy that dress or have that expensive latte because when in Rome, right?
However, doing this over and over during the duration of your stay in Europe will quickly blow your budget and probably stress you out.
This is why it is important to set a budget which will include the upfront costs of the trip plus a little extra for those unexpected purchases and experiences.
How much does it cost to travel Europe?
The cost of traveling around Europe depends on a lot of different things. The destination will be one of the top deciding factors in regards to budget. Scandinavian countries are going to be more expensive than those in Eastern Europe for example.
When planning a trip to Europe consider that the popular destinations within countries like France, Italy or Spain are going to be more expensive. However, if you visit some of the lesser known spots within those same countries your expenses will be lower and you can find more budget friendly options.
If you are trying to decide on a destination within your budget you can start by researching how much accommodation is in that particular city. Another way is check out different restaurant menus and search for public transportation costs. This will give you a quick and relatively easy idea of the approximate amount you will spend once you are there.
How to Travel Europe on a Budget
There are a few easy ways that you can plan a trip to Europe on a budget. For starters look for accommodation that isn’t at the top of your budget.
You can find plenty of options these days whether it be standard hotels, boutique hotels, apartment rentals, AirBnb and even hostels! I will discuss the accommodations options in further detail a little bit later.
Another way that you can cut costs is by visiting local markets or supermarkets and purchasing food or snacks there. This will save some money since dining in a restaurant is always more expensive.
In Italy for example, you can save money by standing at the bar to have your espresso or cafe. This will save you the cost, albeit small, of the coperto or cover charge that they add to the bil if you choose to sit down.
You can also save money while traveling in Europe by using the public transportation systems. Most airports have public buses, trains or underground metros to get from the terminal to the city center.
This will cost much less than taking a taxi or hiring a private car through your hotel. The only reason to take a taxi is if you are with a large group and the cost ends up the same once you split it.
Where to Go in Europe on a Budget
Within Europe you will find that certain countries are less expensive than others. Some of the more expensive destinations will be the big cities such as Paris, London, Amsterdam and Rome. Of course that is only a small sampling of the most popular places to visit in Europe.
Luckily, just because those particular cities are expensive it doesn’t mean that the entire country is expensive either.
You can easily travel around small towns or lesser known cities in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, etc on a budget. That’s not to say you can’t find accommodation within your budget in the bigger cities as well. You’ll just have to do a little more research and read the reviews carefully.
The most expensive countries within Europe will be the Nordic countries, Switzerland and the UK. The Nordic countries include Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
The cheapest countries to visit in Europe are the Eastern European countries. These typically include the top destinations like Hungary, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and many others.
Some of the mid-range countries budget wise would be France, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Greece, Austria, Spain and others. While this is by no means a complete list, I hope that it helps gives some perspective on the different places you might consider visiting based on your budget.
4. Determine How Many Days You Have to Travel Around Europe
Narrowing down the actual amount of days you’ll have when planning a trip to Europe will help you decide where to go and how long to spend in each destination. This is a key part of mapping out your itinerary so make sure you know the exact number of days you have before settling on your final destinations.
Don’t Forget about Travel Time
One thing that you don’t want to forget about when creating an itinerary for your European travels is travel time. Determining how long it actually takes to get from one destination to the next is hugely important when deciding all the locations you want to visit.
Keep in mind that when traveling around Europe you will spend quite a bit of time in transit if you are hopping between different countries and cities.
When you travel by plane you will have to arrive at least 1.5 to 2 hours early to the airport. Then you have to consider how long it will take to reach your final destination from the airport. If you travel by train the transit time could potentially be similar.
How to Travel Europe by Train
If you are planning to spend a month or more traveling around Europe then I would recommend checking out the Rail Europe Pass called Eurail. However, the pass is really only necessary if you plan to cover a lot of distance.
Therefore, if your itinerary doesn’t include a ton of country hopping than purchasing a European Rail pass is most likely an unnecessary expense.
An alternative option is to use the local train systems within each country. Booking train travel in Europe is not only easy but also safe, efficient and very convenient. You can check timetables, purchase tickets and inquire about other information online.
Most of the train stations have either a ticket counter and/or a kiosk where you can purchase your ticket inside the train station as well
These are a few of the common local train companies within Europe:
- SNCF (French National Railway Company) in France
- Trenitalia in Italy
- Renfe in Spain
- Deutsche Bahn in Germany
- SNCB in Belgium
- NS ( Nederlandse Spoorwegen) in the Netherlands
- CP (Comboios de Portugal) in Portugal
- ÖBB in Austria
- SBB (Schweizerische BundesBahn) in Switzerland
- VY (ACP Rail International) in Norway
- DSB in Denmark
*This is not a complete list of all the national and regional train companies throughout Europe.
How to Travel Europe by Plane
Traveling around Europe by plane is incredibly easy and relatively inexpensive. With budget airlines like EasyJet and RyanAir you will be able to find flights to your desired destinations at a very reasonable price.
Typically the budget airlines will arrive and depart out of a smaller airport rather than the main international hub. Luckily, these airports will also have very easy public transportation to get you to the city center so it is 100% worth it to fly the budget airlines.
Remember that if you book flights with a budget airline there are no extras included. This means that you will need to purchase checked baggage, food, drinks and a few other things separately. Most of the airlines will include a small carry on bag but be sure to check the dimension and weight restrictions as they are very strict.
In addition to the budget airlines, you can also book your travels through a number of main airline companies. It is worth it to check fees for both the budget airlines and the main airlines.
Sometimes you’ll be able to find that the prices are similar but with the non-budget airlines you’ll have luggage allowance and would fly into a main airport.
The Best Budget Airlines in Europe Include:
- Easy Jet
- Ryan Air
- Transavia (mostly for flights in the Netherlands)
- Norwegian Air
- Wizz Air
- WOW Air (cheap flights to Iceland)
Many of these budget airlines run special deals throughout the year. Therefore, if you are planning of traveling around Europe by air I would suggest signing up for their email list. They will send you direct emails with their exclusive deals. You can always unsubscribe later!
The best website to use when browsing for flights within Europe is skyscanner.com. The website aggregates most of the budget airline options for you with one easy click.
You can quickly navigate through the website by selecting one way, roundtrip or multiple destinations. Another feature that I love about Skyscanner is that you can select a specific departure airport but type in ‘everywhere’ as your arrival destination. The site will then show you all the cheapest destinations for your selected dates based on your departure airport.
Additionally, you can select the departure and arrival airport with no specific dates. Click the month you will be traveling and the website will show you all the cheapest flights on each day within the month. Honestly, it is a great European travel planning tool and I always recommend using it!
With that being said I almost never book directly through skyscanner, instead I go directly to the airports website and book through them. If you have the time you can manually go to each of the airlines I mentioned and search their websites.
You can definitely find the best deals doing it manually since some flights and airlines might not show up on skyscanner. However, using a 3rd party website will save you a significant amount of time.
I’ve always been able to find great deals both through skyscanner.com and by searching manually. I’ve traveled from Venice, Italy to Paris, France roundtrip for €50 once, not even kidding! I cannot stress enough the importance of checking with multiple airlines and websites to find the best deals possible.
Should You Rent a Car in Europe?
Renting a car in Europe will depend entirely on the destination that you choose. I have personally rented a car in Europe many times and found it very handy for destinations where public transportation is not easily available. Renting a car is really only necessary if you plan on driving to destinations a bit off the beaten path or you want to do a road trip style vacation.
During my travels I always use the rental car company Europcar. Their prices are fair and their customer service was always very good. When you rent a car you can always add additional insurance and coverage to the rental policy. I would check with your credit cards prior to renting a car to see what they cover. I have the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card and they cover quite a bit so I never added extra insurance through the car rental company.
Some of the times that I’ve rented a car in Europe was to do a road trip though the Netherlands, drive around the Faroe Islands, a road trip through Southern Spain and so much more! I will also note that I previously resided in Italy for 6 years and so I used my own personal car to travel around as well. Having your own car is beneficial if you have the time and prefer to have a loose itinerary where you can add additional stops along the way.
I’ve also rented a camper van twice in Iceland to circumnavigate the country which was such a fun experience and one that I would highly recommend!
5. Create a Rough Itinerary of your European Travels
Now that you’ve narrowed down your list, determined the time when you can go and laid out your budget it’s time to create an itinerary for your trip! Use a calendar and jot down where exactly you want to be on each given day. Then dive in a bit further and start making a list of the sights you want to visit or things you want to do on each day.
This will help to give you a better understanding of how much time you’ve actually allotted in a day to see and do the things you want. Be sure not to pack too many things into one day as you will end up being overwhelmed and have to skip something anyways. You will always need to take into account the time it’ll take you to move around as most of the sights aren’t right next to each other.
When creating a rough itinerary for your European travels you’ll also want to play around with the flights. While you may be set on arriving in Paris and departing out of Rome you should also check flight prices the other way around. There are times where just by switching your starting and ending point you could save hundreds of dollars!
Which brings me to my next point. Do you want to visit multiple countries during your European travels? Or do you want to stick to just one country but travel amongst multiple cities?
6. Visiting Multiple Countries or Cities on One Trip
If you have your heart set on visiting multiple countries during your trip to Europe it can actually be quite easy to arrange. The key part of the equation is to choose destinations that are geographically close to each other. This will significantly reduce travel time and allow you to make the most of each day.
Below are a few sample itineraries that you could use to plan your European travels strategically while still visiting multiple countries:
- Northern Italy, Slovenia and Austria
- The main cities of Paris, London & Amsterdam
- Southern Spain and Portugal
- The Netherlands & Belgium
- Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia
- Finland, Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania
- Stockholm, Copenhagen & Oslo
- Norway (Bergen & Lofoten Islands) and the Faroe Islands
These are just a few ideas and all trips that I have personally done. If you want to visit non-neighboring countries the most efficient way to do so is to visit larger cities with easily accessible airports.
One of the main take aways about creating a multi country trip in Europe is to not over plan and plan strategically.
7. Start Booking Your Trip to Europe
Once you’ve created your rough itinerary and finally decided on the dates and destinations you’ll be visiting you can proceed with booking your trip to Europe. This is one of the most exciting parts of planning a trip to Europe and once you’ve hit purchase on those flights to can begin counting down the days till your trip!
Book Your Airfare to Europe
A good rule of thumb is to begin checking flights at least 6 months in advance. You can book directly through an airline or use one of the websites that aggregate ton of possible flights options. I personally use Expedia because in the past they usually have the best deals for international flights plus they offer free cancellation within 24 hours. Other reputable options are Google Flights, Kiwi.com, Cheapoair.com and Kayak.com.
Budget Saving Tips:
- If you have a VPN or IP blocker you can set it to a lower income country. Then open a new private or incognito window to check flight prices.
- Another way that you can potentially save month on flights is to search on different days of the week. Be sure to use the private or incognito window on your browser.
- Hopper app is something that you can use to track flight prices. On the app you will input the dates and airport codes of where you want to go and it will send you updates with changes in flight prices. It will also advise you if now is a good time to purchase or if they predict that prices will decrease.
- Arrive in one city and depart from another, this is called a multi-city or open jaw option. Essentially it saves time from back tracking plus its more economical and efficient.
Book Your Accommodation in Europe
Choosing the perfect accommodation in Europe is an important part of creating your itinerary. The two main booking sites that I use are booking.com and airbnb.com. There are many other booking sites out there but I used these two exclusively during my 6 years in Europe. I’ve also used only these during my year long travels throughout Asia.
Safe to say that I trust booking.com and airbnb.com although there is always that chance that you could have a bad experience. It is extremely important to read the reviews and the small print. Find out if taxes are included or what other charges may be applied upon arrival so that you aren’t blindsided by extra fees.
You can also book directly through a hotel or guesthouse website if you prefer to do so.
Book Local Tours Within Europe
When planning a trip to Europe you might want to book a few local tours. While I’m not usually a big fan of large group or guided tours, there are a few that can be pretty fun. For example I’ve done small group bike tours in both London and Amsterdam. I’ve kayaked the Norwegian fjords near Bergen with a tour, twice! . And I’ve also done glacier hiking in Iceland, just to name a few!
In addition to adventure style tours, you can book guided tours for some historical sights you might be visiting. This would be extremely beneficial when visiting places such as Pompeii, the Colosseum and many other sights within Europe that have historical significance.
Book Tickets in Advance to Some of the Main Attractions
While not everything you do in Europe needs to be pre-booked or planned in advance there are a few places that you might want to purchase tickets for before you arrive. This is different from booking a tour as these are solely entrance tickets to some of Europe’s most popular sights.
A few places that you’ll definitely want to consider pre-booking tickets would be to climb the Eiffel Tower in Paris, visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Vatican. Of course there are many other places that you would benefit from pre-purchasing you ticket.
Additionally, some sights may offer discounts if you purchase online. Follow the instructions of obtaining either a printed or electronic ticket and come prepared with all necessary documentation.
8. Must Haves for European Travel
Now that you’ve booked your flights, accommodation and tours it is time to start thinking about what to pack for your trip to Europe. There are some things that you’ll want to take care of prior to your trip so getting organized a few weeks out is key.
What to Pack When Traveling to Europe
Deciding what to pack for a trip to Europe or anywhere in general is usually one of my least favorite things to do before a trip. It is so hard to remember all the essential things that you may need and often times you end up overpacking. Just remember that if you forget to pack something you will be able to find it easily in Europe once you arrive.
One of the main things you’ll want to purchase and pack is a universal plug adaptor. These adaptors come in super handy when traveling around Europe as the plugs aren’t always the same in each country.
Another key thing that you’ll want to check is if your appliances (hair dryer, straightener, curling iron, etc) are dual voltage. In Europe they use 22 volts while in America they use 110 volts. If you check your appliance and it says “110-220 volts” then you will be just fine. If you want to use a 110 volt appliance in Europe or any country which uses 220 volts then you will need to purchase a travel converter which is different than a travel plus adaptor.
Be sure to pack all of your daily medications as well as some additional medications that you may need. I always pack some cold medicine, sinus & allergy medication, stomach medication and headache medication. The reason is that you never know when you might feel sick and you don’t want to be out searching for medication in those instances. I also recommend packing a small first aid kit with some additional bandaids.
Figuring out how to dress for travel in Europe can be one of the most challenging parts of packing up your suitcase. After living in Italy for 6 years and traveling extensively around Europe I can tell you that wearing neutral colors is the best way to not stand out as a tourist.
By all means pack whatever you’d like but if you are like me and prefer to blend in, then I would leave the sports team t-shirts and neon colored athletic tops at home.
I also recommend that you pack a light sweater during the summer months for cooler nights. Additionally, be sure to wear a comfortable pair of shoes since you will probably doing a lot of walking around the cities.
Get a Small Amount of Euro Cash from Your Bank
Only get a small amount of euro cash out from your local bank at home if that is an option. And by small I mean no more than €200. Once you arrive in Europe you won’t have a problem finding an ATM to withdraw euros. Plus the exchange rate will be way better than your bank back home.
Additionally, most places in Europe will take debit or credit cards so there shouldn’t be any problems. You can even purchase your train tickets via credit card through their machines.
Also, be sure to call your bank or go online and put a travel alert on all the cards you will use while in Europe. This way they won’t get immediately flagged as fraud and you won’t have to make an international call to unlock your credit card.
International Phone plan or get a SIM card when you arrive
Since we are all connected through our phones you’ll most likely want to have some kind of internet connection while traveling throughout Europe. Most cell phone providers offer an international phone plan option which you can add as an extra service. Those fews however can really add up depending on how long you’ll be traveling.
An alternative to adding an international plan to your phone is to purchase a SIM card in the country where you are traveling. Keep in mind that this will only work if your phone is UNLOCKED. Most phones in the states are locked while they are under contract with your phone company. The phone will be unlocked if you have completely paid it off.
During the time I was traveling through Europe I was living in Italy. Therefore I had a SIM card from the Italian internet provider called TIM. Through TIM I was able to purchase a SIM card and then add money to my phone as needed for internet or minutes. TIM also has an inexpensive plan which you can purchase allowing you to use a certain amount of minutes and data in other countries.
You can easily do the same with any European country that you are visiting. If you purchase a SIM card I recommend getting around 8-10 GB of internet usage and adding some minutes in case of an emergency.
While wifi is widely available in most European countries it is not always advisable to rely on that for your main source of connection.
Travel insurance is an absolute must when planning a trip abroad. There are plenty of different companies out there offering a variety of plans to fit your individual needs. Make sure you do your research and decide which plan best suits you and your travels.
You can also purchase plans that cover travel costs if you have to cancel for an emergencies. One of the companies that I can recommend is Safety Wing. They have great customer service and offer packages as low as $37 for 4 weeks of coverage.
As always when purchasing travel insurance make sure you thoroughly read the coverage details and fine print.
Download an Offline Map
Whenever I know that I am heading to a new destination I always download an offline map. For the majority of my travels I use Google Maps. However, there have been plenty of times where the data on my phone switches to no service and Google Maps stops working. Therefore an offline map can really save you in these moments!
An offline map is also super handy if you are traveling to Europe for a short amount of time and are only relying on wifi. The offline map that I use and have used for years is Maps.me. It is a free, downloadable app that you can get on an iPhone or android.
You can save space on your phone by only downloading the cities that you need and then off load them when you are done. Even when you off load the destination Maps.me will still save all your pinned locations so you can always re-download again later.
Get a Guidebook and a Paper Map of the Destination You are Visiting in Europe
In a world that revolves around technology, we have become dependent on using our phones for just about everything we do. Before your trip to Europe you’ll probably have downloaded that offline map and pinned a bunch of must see places on it. You’ll create lists on your phone of tips and tricks to remember when traveling around and you’ll probably have saved some blog posts to read later.
However, if you have the space in your luggage I would highly recommend packing a paper guidebook. Or at the very least a paper map of the destination you are visiting. You never know when your phone (and your power bank) may run out of battery and you don’t want to be stranded without your map.
The best thing to do is pack a back up paper map and jot down your must see list, places to eat and the address & phone number of where you are staying. This will help out so much if you happen to run into any issues while abroad!
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