I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, and I seem to have timed myself out of skiing today with an extended writing session, so here we are. I’ve been planning the big summer tour. I want to share the basic steps of getting together a big trip like this one. (Just putting this out there: if you want me to plan your trip for you and are willing to pay me to do it, I’m happy to help! I’m pretty sure we can use a systematized approach to these questions to tailor your trip to your needs in a way a traditional travel agent cannot)
Question 1: What do you want to see or to do most?
Build the trip around the answer to this question. As it goes for all of us who have done extended travels abroad, my planning for this year began with an idea that I wanted to go to two particular places and has turned into something else entirely. In my case, for 2017, I wanted to return to Germany and to visit Georgia (for my American readers, I intend here the country near the Caucasus Mountains – not the lame-o American state). When I get into planning, things always change shape. The evolution of our travel ideas is the most exciting part of planning a trip!
Question 2: How much time can you take?
I have seven weeks (assuming I use every possible day available to me). You might have more limited time. Consider: if you’re in a position to do it, take an extended leave of absence, even if it’s unpaid. You will be rewarded with experiences. If you have to put off getting that new car for an additional year or two, your future self will thank your present (soon-to-be-past) self. But even if you can only get away for two or three weeks, this is an important question to answer. Set your arrival and departure windows of time, and build your trip around those.
Question 3: From where will you depart and where will you arrive?
If you can be flexible with your flight options, this is the most time-consuming question to answer. Here’s what I did this trip, and perhaps it will be instructive: I know that my target city (Berlin) is easy to get there from anywhere in Europe, so I looked at every major airport in the U.S. leaving for every major airport in Europe, checking every eastern-seaboard city in the U.S. and every country in Western and Central Europe. When I found (as I did in 2011, 2014, and 2015) that flights out of one airport in the United States are typically the cheapest and furthest reaching, I also found that these flights had common layover cities. I then checked costs and dates for direct flights to those common-layover spots from that airport. I then discovered that one airline in particular had business-class, direct flights from that U.S. airport to Oslo. I did something similar for the reverse direction and given my windows of opportunity (different days of the week, of course, always have differently-priced seats available). Despite my having the knowledge that Oslo itself is not a cheap city to visit, I confirmed that Oslo had cheap options for getting to Germany and other middle-point cities. I wouldn’t want to fly into a place it’d be expensive to get out of. I found a return flight that would get me directly back home from Paris – I paid with points, and I got a first-class seat. I used points to get to the embarkation airport at the start of the trip. Total cost to and from Europe, including taxes and fees: about $1100. Business- or first-class in both directions. Not bad.
Question 4: How does your airline travel change the look of the core of your trip?
The flights you’ve selected will of course change the shape of your trip. I had originally had zero intentions of spending time in Norway, but landing in Oslo means I’ll get a chance to take that Oslo-to-Bergen rail trip I’ve been hearing about for the last several years. And flying out of Paris means that I’ll need to (get the opportunity to) spend a few days in the City of Light. I know I want to see the Louvre and some French Revolution spots (thank you Mike Duncan for educating me). So things change quite a bit with these planned visits. Great!
Question 5: Do you have time to visit more than one key city?
If you’re only visiting Europe for ten or fifteen days, the “What sort of traveler are you?” question arises here. I prefer slower travel, and I never spend fewer than three nights in a place if I can help it. I prefer four nights for small towns and seven nights for bigger cities. So if I had only fifteen days, I wouldn’t do more than one target city in addition to my arrival and departure cities. I like to get a feel for the places I visit – I want to know what it might be like to live there. In a way, I’m always auditioning the places I visit for permanent residence (not that I assume all of them would necessarily want to select me as a resident).
I don’t worry about not seeing everything in a city, because I want excuses to make return trips. But I know that I don’t want to feel rushed. Keep in mind that the day you arrive and the day you depart are days that are essentially lost to travel. And if you travel between cities, you lose at least half a day in those cases, as well. So factor these travel days into your planning.
Question 6: Hotels, Pension / B&B, Hostels, or Apartment Rental?
Again: What sort of traveler are you? Are you a prude about your space? Are you a light sleeper? The most cost-effective, of course, will be hostels. And depending on which city/cities you’re visiting, apartment rentals may be more or less plentiful (and more or less legal, depending on local attitudes toward short-term rentals).
Accommodations (especially in the case of hostels) come in many flavors, and so your answer to this question will raise a whole host of other questions about which to choose. I intend to write a post about those questions as well.
Consider that explanations about the character of the neighborhoods in a city are easy enough to come by online, so doing a bit of research on this front can help you select a neighborhood in which you’ll feel both suitably comfortably and about which you’ll be curious and happy. Do you want a neighborhood with lots of nightlife and restaurants? A bedroom community with easy-to-access public transit? A quiet neighborhood next to a park? The information is at our fingertips. All we have to do is look.
I do prefer to stay at hostels in cities of which I know very little – talking with other travelers is often the best way to find a particular city’s gems – and to rent apartments after I get to know a place and know what I want to do and where I want to go while I’m there.
The sort of accommodation you are hunting for will depend on the sort of traveler you are, as with everything else.
Question 7: How will you get around while you’re there?
This question is wrapped up with most of the others. If you’re renting a car, your options for getting around – and your options for your flights in and out of Europe – will change drastically. So I’m assuming here that you, like me, cannot afford to rent a car for multiple weeks in a European country. So there are basically two options: you can fly from place to place, or you can ride the rails.
I prefer rail-travel for luxury, ease, and for the views. I have chosen to do four or five flights for this year’s trip because of costs and timing. The flights between European cities are often around a hundred dollars per one-way flight, if you’re checking a bag – and cheaper if you’re not. And they’re quick. So if you don’t wish to sit in a train and don’t care about the experience you’re missing (and you must ride a train while you’re in Europe at some point), then, by all means, take an aeroplane. But don’t miss out entirely. Rail passes often aren’t cost-effective, but if you’re going to be using the trains a lot, you can use a rail pass and make reservations on particular trains as you go. Curiously, I have always found it more cost-effective to book individual train tickets rather than to use rail passes. Keep in mind that many European trains are more comfortable than any coach airline seat, and you can always get up and wander around the train…
Question 8: Do you want to have everything planned in advance, or are you a discover-as-you-go kind of traveler?
I personally never plan particular activities (though I get an impression of every city I’ll be visiting before traveling there), but I am not okay with going to a city without knowing where I’ll lay my head at night. So I tend to book hostels and apartments well in advance of my trip for every single stop of the vacation. I do a lot of research at this point, not surprisingly, and I make myself a detailed itinerary in a digital document plotting every stop and every cost. I pay in advance wherever possible to get costs out of the way in advance of the trip. This reduces overall financial pressures while I’m traveling. Trains cannot be booked more than a few months (at most) in advance, but I also like to have train travel arranged before I leave home. Many train stations do not feature agents who speak English, and it’s one less thing to worry about if I have train tickets in hand before I leave home. And lost or stolen tickets can usually be replaced in-person, if the need should arise in a worst-case scenario.
Planning a big trip, especially for the first time, can be either exciting, overwhelming – or it may be both. I love planning. It’s one of the great pleasures of travel. I’d do it for a living, if I could.
I suppose it all comes down to this one consideration: What kind of traveler are you? It really is just the one question doing most of the work here.