May 2, 2013

How To: Plan a Your Own European Vacation

Since becoming my own personal travel agent these last few years living abroad, I've learned a myriad of tips and tricks for planning fabulous budget-friendly trips around Europe. Truth be told, there really is no wrong or right way to go about planning a vacation to any European destination. There also really isn't any need for assistance from a professional travel agency. With just a little research (and lots of patience) you can plan and travel anywhere in Europe with ease, and at a price point that won't break the bank. Lucky for you, today's Blog Every Day in May Challenge prompt is to "educate you on something I know a lot about or am good at," so I'm going toot my travelista horn and let you in on a few of my favorite travel planning websites and secrets! Ready? Let's do this!

Tip #1: Trip planning is often best done accompanied by a glass of wine. Trust me.

Step 1: Decide where you want to travel. 
This might seem like the easiest part, but honestly, it's what I have the hardest time doing! There are so many wonderful places to visit in Europe that it's almost impossible to go wrong. Things to consider: how much time do you have to be away from home, what kind of experience are you looking for (romantic, relaxed, kid-friendly, tropical, educational, etc.), how are you going to get there (train, plane, automobile), and what's your budget. All of these factors combined will determine where you choose to travel and how you should go about booking your accommodations. Once you've considered all of these factors and have picked a vacation destination, get to researching!

Step 2: Choose your hotel accommodations. 
This is often the first thing I book when planning a trip. If I can't find an affordable hotel option for the time period we'll be traveling, then I move on to another destination. Simple as that. My favorite hotel booking websites are:

Booking.com- My all-time favorite website for hotel bookings. 90% of the hotels we stay at in Europe have been booked through booking.com. Not only do they list tons of accommodations in almost every city around the world, but they show excellent city maps, room photos and descriptions, and offer honest reviews from past patrons. Another great feature...free cancellation!! Not every hotel on booking.com offers this option, but I typically won't book a hotel that doesn't offer it. You never know when your travel plans might change (especially if you're a military family!). Many hotels listed on this site also offer breakfast included in the booking price, so look out for those deals, too!

VRBO.com & Homeaway.com- Great for booking long term accommodations or for apartments/vacation homes that can house 4 or more people. We've only had wonderful experiences renting apartments and beach houses though these sites, but be mindful of scam artists who prey on unsuspecting vacation planners! Don't wire any deposit money until you're sure the person on the receiving end is legitimately the property owner.

Airbnb.com- This site is a community marketplace that connects people in over 190 countries who have places they want to rent out to those who need a place to stay. These "hosts," as they are called, rent out rooms or their entire homes (apartments, tree houses, boats, castles, private islands...you name it, they rent it!) to travelers looking for unique experiences. This option is great for groups of friends traveling together as well as those who enjoy meeting new people in new countries. 

*Side note: Becoming hotel rewards members for chains like Marriott, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Wyndham, and so on, could prove to be really beneficial for scoring some excellent hotel deals. D and I are Marriott Rewards members and have stayed in some pretty stellar Marriott hotels (London, in particular) just using the points we've acquired!

Step 3: Book your flight, rent a car, or grab some train tickets!
It's always a good idea to have a plan of how you're going to get from place to place while traveling around Europe. With so many public transportation options, sight-seeing is a breeze if you know where to look and how to book. Don't forget to check out each city's public bus, subway, and train routes to find the quickest (and cheapest) ways to check off all the sights on your itinerary!

Kayak.com- When looking for flights, this is the first place I stop. Kayak compares all the best airline websites to find you the best deal on plane tickets out there. They even have fare charts to show you price trends and what day and month airline tickets are cheapest. When you find the fare you want, Kayak transports you straight to the site where you can book them. Easy peasy! Tip # 2-some of the best travel deals can be found booking months in advance, but remember to get travel insurance to safeguard you and your hard earned money just in case your travel plans have to change at a moments notice.

RyanAir.com/EasyJet.com -Ok, so D and I have never ever used either one of these sites, but expats and budget travelers swear by them for super cheap flights to various destinations in Europe. The majority of the airports you can fly to and from are not in prime locations (i.e- you fly into a smaller airport on the outskirts of the city or a hour away from a major city), but they do offer some STUPID cheap ticket fares. I'm talking 60 euros round trip for TWO people, in some cases. As enticing as that is, there are also some downfalls to to budget airlines like these. There are restrictions on how much and how big your luggage can be (without racking up extra fees), early and inconvenient wake up times to get prime seating (or even seats beside whomever you're traveling with), and often...sub-par service. You really do get what you pay for. If you're really budget savvy and don't mind navigating through hidden fees, battling for seats, and packing SUPER light, then one of these airlines might be for you! D and I, not so much. I quite like bringing more than one pair of shoes on vacation.

Expedia.com- This is where I seem to always end up renting cars from. Even though they're a third party, they typically offer multiple rental options, are reliable for sending reminder emails, and have always given me the exact car that I booked online. I've used other sites in the past for car rentals and always ended up getting a completely different car (often smaller) than what I'd been promised at booking. I realize sometimes rental car companies offer you a certain size car without telling you exactly what make & model you'll be getting, but with Expedia, I already know. And I haven't been let down yet!

EuRail.com- Great site where you can buy train tickets and rail passes to connect you all throughout Europe. This site is really useful for backpackers and people traveling to multiple countries all in one trip. We don't use this option very much (because we use Germany's rail website bahn.com), but it did help us navigate our Big Fat European Family Vacation last May!

SeatGuru.com- Find the best seat in the house (ahem...on the plane) with this fun website!

*Side note: For military families stationed in Europe, we LOVE using USDtravel.com to book flights to and from the states. Prices are SO much cheaper than anywhere else because they're geared toward military members and their families. I've used their services 3 different times now and have never been disappointed! Tip #3- It's always a good idea to sign up for frequent flier mile programs with airlines. Try your best to stick with the same airline (and their affiliates) so you can rack up those miles a whole lot faster! D and I are Star Alliance members (US Airways, United, Lufthansa, Air Canada, etc.) and are almost ready to cash in for two round trip international flights! Whoo hoo! Want to rack up some serious mileage? Sign up for a credit card that offers frequent flier miles or hotel points as rewards. But please, remember to practice safe (and practical) card swiping.

Step 4: Research things to do, map out your plan of attack, book tours, & scope out dining options.
There are tons of travel guides and websites out there to help you plan your perfect trip...but the few tried and true ones I use are:

TripAdvisor.com- Tons of great traveler reviews on all the cities you could ever want to visit in Europe. Reviews on hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, and tour companies all in one comprehensive website. This is my first stop for planning out my itineraries and "must-see" attraction lists.

Viator.com- I use this site to book tours and day trips. It serves as a middle man between you and various tour companies so you get the best price possible for all your sight-seeing desires.

Rick Steve's Travel Guides- If you've never heard of Rick Steve's and his amazing travel guides, then you must be living under a rock! I adore his travel guides and have one for every country we've visited in Europe. I can load them straight to my iPhone or Kindle and whip them out whenever I need a quick restaurant tip or city map. It's like having my own personal tour guide without all the annoying "fun facts!" Other great guidebooks we use are: Fodor's, Lonely Planet, & DK Eyewitness Travel Guides

CruiseCritic.com- Planning your dream cruise? Cruise Critic is where you need to start. This site is the end-all be-all of cruise planning. Hundreds of traveler reviews & itineraries, forums filled with advice and cruising info, and tons of links, deck plans, & deals for every cruise line imaginable. Best cruise planning site out there, hands down!

Google Maps: Self explanatory. LOVE Google maps.

WHEW! Are you still with me? If so, CONGRATS! Because you now have the basic tools to plan and execute your dream European vacation from the comfort of your own home! Need some ideas to get started with Step 1? Head on over to my WANDERLUST page to get your travel juices flowing! If you guys have any other fabulous travel sites & tips you'd love to share, I'd love to hear them! And don't forget to link your own "How To" post up for the #BlogEveryDayinMay Challenge over at Story of My Life Blog and educate us all on something new!

44 comments:

  1. These are SUCH good points. I just planned a trip myself and while it takes a LOT of time, it's also pretty rewarding and not really that hard to do!

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  2. great tips. I sure hope one day to travel overseas. would be a great long list of places to see for me & the hubby. have a great day. ( :

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  3. great post!! :) there are so many useful tips, although I knew many of them, I learnt about a lot of new websites and possibilities! :) thanks!! :)

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  4. There are great tips and I may just have to bookmark this page to reread it in the future when I'm planning my dream vacation!! (although, who knows how far away that will be!) ;)

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  5. Thanks! Some of these tips can be applied for US vacations, too. Hopefully someday I can put these tips to good use.

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  6. When you guys move back to the states, you need to be a European travel agent!

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  7. I'm going to add to your USDtravel.com comment. Call them vs. settling for their online price. We saved nearly 500 EUROS just by doing so! It was amazing!

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  8. lovig your (day 2) travel tips!! also loving that your an american living in germany!
    i lived in germany for 13 years.. back in texas now!! soak it up!!
    xo- the lane
    ps: found your blog on the #blogeverdayinMay link up :)

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  9. Thank you so much for all these great tips! Bookmarking this page! We are planning on going to Europe in one year!

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  10. Such helpful tips. It's on bookmarks. Now to find a travel companion...

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  11. TrenItalia really helped us save money traveling in Italy on our honeymoon. Great trips!

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  12. This is awesome! I'm bookmarking this page for future traveling reference :)

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  13. thanks for the tips! as much as we love to travel there are certain aspects of planning that we wish were easier! have you looked at the website hipmunk.com?

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  14. I think Wikitravel is a great site for tips.

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  15. Thanks again Casey for this. You were such a source of knowledge when I was planning this Scotland trip. Plus, I found other bloggers in Scotland from your blog so thanks again. Enjoy the cruise. I can't wait for recaps.

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  16. Great tips. Can I just say that one reason I really love following your blog is because I am a former military kid and former military wife. Having grown up on bases in Europe, I love that you guys get out and travel and experience your host culture and abroad. I have met way too many people that stayed on 'little america' or would not leave the base if their husband was on TDY. My parents always tried to live on the economy and it really shaped my self and why I am probably living back in Europe now as an adult.

    Bonnie Rose | A Compass Rose

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  17. Kayak and Booking.com are pretty much my life

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  18. I do agree with you. Planning your trip in advance is much beneficial and plays a vital role to enjoy it accordingly. Even this helps you to avoid unnecessary events to occur.


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  21. I'm not sure about Ryan Air, but we had a great experience with EasyJet on a recent trip from London to Barcelona. Cheap tickets, on time flight, and good service. Seats are assigned, so that's not a problem. You do need to be aware of what airport you're traveling to/from, but otherwise it's a great airline for flights within Europe!

    Great tips otherwise. I think they key to a good trip is doing a decent bit of planning, and then relaxing and letting go once you're at your destination.

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  22. Love this! Can't wait to use this for travel plans!

    I've used RyanAir before, flying from Germany to Italy. Stupid cheap flights. Definitely recommend it!

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