Planning a trip to Europe

Going to Europe in the summer is about as much as you can ask for out of travel. Most people will tell you to stay away during the tourist season, but if you want to be there when the weather is great, you’ll have to put up with some other Americans making you want to wear a Canadian flag pin.

Planning diary

Before we get started you should get setup with Yahoo! Trip Planner. While I am openly a Yahoo! employee and sometimes an evangelist, I can say that there is nothing on the market that compares to Yahoo! Trip Planner for scheduling a trip. Now that their maps support European addresses, it’s the easiest way to keep track of all the information you’ll be accumulating. Even if you don’t use any of the journal features (blog, Flickr integration, etc.), this is the best way to create an itinerary.

You can see my working trip here: Sonar 2007: techno, tapas and tanning.

Finding the best flight

The most important piece of your planning is finding a flight to your destination. Unless you’re extremely rich or lucky, you’re unlikely to find a flight to your destination. Stop with the long face! Getting there is still well within reason using a few tricks.

Finding a good flight to Europe is ALL about the discount airlines. First you fly cheaply to any major hub, then you hop to your destination on El Cheapo Air. Here are the steps in more detail:

  1. Skipping point
    Find a cheap flight to a city you want to visit; this is your skipping point. Any city will do, just make sure you feel good about staying a night or two in this other location and that the price is nice. Use the major booking tools to find a good deal:

    You can verify that you’re getting a good deal by looking at the average prices on one of a few travel indexes:

    In my case I found a flight to Dublin for around $500, which is well within the range specified by Hotwire. I love Dublin. This is a perfect skipping point.

  2. Destination
    Find a flight from the skipping point to your destination. There are many, many discount airlines in Europe, and all of them have completely crazy destinations. You’re going to spend 45 minutes just finding the airlines that have routes from the skipping point to your destination. There’s no centralized search engine, so you’ll have to work through each airline’s website.

    Start with the list of discount European airlines provided by Wikitravel. If your skipping point is a low-cost hub, start with the airlines stationed there.

    Adjust your travel days on either end to find the best price. Typically you’ll end up staying 1-2 days in your skipping point, which is just enough time to explore the city and check it off your list. It’s possible that you could take a train from your skipping point to your destination, but I’d bet against it. These airlines are so cheap that Eurorail typically runs 2-3 times the price. Expect to pay €40-100 each way.

Once you find a suitable flight scenario, book it. The rest will follow, and the discount airlines change their prices almost daily. In my case, I secured a roundtrip on Clickair for €120. The total for my flight is less than $700, which is almost half the price of any flight I found through standard travel search tools.

Finding the best room

This is where strategy is important. There is a lot of money is hotel booking, so just about everyone will be trying to make money by arbitraging you. Be careful where you book and which tools you use.

  1. Hotels and B&Bs
    First, don’t type “destination B&B” into your favorite search engine as it’s not going to do any good. You’ll be barraged with search results that provide almost no information.

    • TripAdvisor: Good coverage of B&Bs and hotels, along with some useful user reviews
    • Venere: European search engine, good coverage of hotels and B&Bs
    • Orbitz: Major hotels
    • Expedia: Major hotels, only partial overlap with Orbitz.
  2. Apartments
    Your best deals are going to be apartments in the city you’re staying in. Some of these may be listed in TripAdvisor, but it’s unlikely unless the owner owns quite a few. Local vacation rental owners will typically market to a local audience only, so if you know someone who speaks the language, use one of the local tools owned by European Craigslist competitor, Kijiji:

    Craigslist will also work if there are expats renting to Americans (I find it uncommon, but it does happen). Using Loquo, I found an apartment in Barceloneta for €100/night for two people, which is expensive because it’s Sonar weekend. Any other part of the summer I could find something in the range of €40-€60/night, about half of the closest hotel.

Finding things to eat

Ok, you’ve got your flight and you’ve got your lodging. Now the fun part! Time to find some places that will make other travelers jealous. There’s no better way to do this than with Chowhound. If you’re not familiar with it, Chowhound is a community of food lovers that generates the best restaurant recommendations on the web.

Find the local board for your destination and start searching. Typically the recommendations will come from expats who have spent some considerable time in a city, so don’t expect to see people with the same edition of Lonely Planet sitting next to you. Most of these will not be in Trip Planner, so you’ll have to add them yourself, but it’s worth the effort for an amazing meal, right?

If you use Chowhound, give back. When you return, make sure to give a short review of your thoughts on the restaurants you chose.

Finding things to do

This part is actually surprisingly easy.

  • Upcoming: this collaborative events site actually has quite a few European events, but the quality of the content will vary greatly from city to city.
  • Wikitravel: using hte same software as Wikipedia, this collaboratively edited travel guide contains pretty good overviews of most cities and lists of suggested sites.
  • Yahoo! Travel: this offering from Yahoo! actually has pretty good coverage for tourist attractions and outings, plus it offers one-click adding to Trip Planner.

After this point, you’re pretty much done. Print out your itinerary from Trip Planner and execute as planned. Go! Experience! And when you’re done, write up some of your thoughts to make the process easier for future travelers.

35 thoughts on “Planning a trip to Europe

  1. Great article, but just one note: Wikitravel is completely independent of Wikipedia. They use the same software, but that’s it, it has no other connections to “the makers of Wikipedia”.

  2. I’m based in Dublin, but we’re going on a 3-week driving honeymoon of Europe in September (10 countries and 4.5k miles in 21 days). When I was researching the hotels for this trip I asked on my blog for recommendations for hotel booking sites and got the responses seen here:

    Due to a compressed itinerary and needing to be in specific cities on specific dates, all our hotels are now booked. We’re staying in mainly 4* and some 3* hotels and I did this for an average of €105 a night.

    Going to take a look at Yahoo trip planner as recommended by yourself, I’d love to be able to export the itinerary in a nice visual fashion to give to our relatives…

  3. @Jani: thanks, complete mistake on my part and duly corrected.

    Thanks for the other sites, they definitely look useful. I’ll check them the next time I make a trip across the pond.

  4. I looked again, and it’s kind of Dutch-centered. So it’ll mainly work if you choose Schiphol as your hub (it is one of the largest airports in Europe).

  5. I believe in getting off, even slightly, off the well worn tourist track to see more of the real Europe. If you visit a less well known destination then you will have a more authentic experience, avoid the tourist hordes and save money.

  6. boy, this article is superb … a friend asked me the same question today.How do i get cheap flights and hotels online.. i gave him the first few sites… expedia,kayak… but the others i never thought of.. this is going on my delicious…. ciao and have a good time..

  7. for European city trip planning.

    CityTherapy is a new online platform & social planning tool for European city life and city travel. The site brings together the 4 pillars of city living, the people, the places, the events and the trips in one connected social network.

    CityTherapy allows you to find a new friend, a new place, an interesting event, an insider city trip or just a whole -easy to print out- individualised trip schedule for when you are in the midst of exploring the buzz of European city life.

  8. well i want an itinerary plan for my trip to europe.we’re five members in one & my wife alongwith my father who’s age is 69yrs..with awalking disability & on a restricted two children aged 7yrs. & 16 months.

  9. I am contemplating doing 15 days in Europe.
    I plan to visit as many countries possible however am face with a minor problem which rail VS bus.Eurorail pass is costly the Bus about is much costly the only other alternative out there is Eurolines offers the best deal in travel yet not much is said about them.are they as good as they claimed to be

  10. Check out this site! it’s really great for planning a trip (map is integrated) as well as mainintaining a journal after you come back from a trip.
    You can save some useful information as cost, description of places and useful links there as well.
    It is also possible to post pictures from your trip and share it with others. Highly recommended, enjoy your trip to the website!

  11. me and my wife wish to visit our son in dubai and then tour europe. kindly suggest atrio of 10 days skipping london and switzerland. i am 63 years and my wife 59. time is end of jan 09

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