For any traveler filled with wanderlust, backpacking through Europe is a rite of passage. Most people when bit by the travel bug make their first major adventure by country hopping across Europe. Of course if you are new to long term or multi-country voyages the planning could be quite daunting.
Recently I had a friend from the Bahamas that decided to have her first adventure in Europe, so she peppered me with questions during her planning and I helped as much as I could. Finally she was able to map out her route and solidify her itinerary. Which made me think of my first time in Europe.
It was 2006 and I decided I wanted to have the quintessential summer frolicking across the continent. My travels took me to 13 countries and over 20 cities in a month. Though I cannot take credit for mapping out my journey, booking transportation and accommodations or site seeing in any of those countries (I used Contiki Holidays) that trip taught me a lot. Since then I’ve learned so much more about traveling and planning it out the right way.
So if you are ready to embrace wanderlust and you want to start by seeing Europe then you’re in luck because I am about to give you a comprehensive guide on planning your first Escapade across the continent. Just follow these 10 easy steps and you will be on your way to having the time of your life!
Step 1: Decide on the Season and Length of Time
Traveling Europe extensively will require you to have some time on your hands. For trips like these I recommend a minimum of 21 days and of course there is no maximum. You can travel as long as you want. More time means you have a chance to explore a country more in depth than just seeing it at a glance in 2 or 3 days. Once you decide on the length of time you wish to travel you should choose your season. For budget travel it is best to visit Europe during off season November through to March. During this time you will find shorter lines, less tourist and attractions much more affordable; even transportation between countries and cities will be cheaper. However if you only have vacation time during peak season mid-June through to August then make sure to plan everything well in advanced to ensure there is availability.
Step 2: Make of List of Countries that You Want to Visit
Now that you know the season and the amount of time you have to visit; choose all the countries and cities you want to visit. This is your first trip so to decide on where to go first make a list of all the countries you want to see and if you want include their major cities that have point of interest for you. Once your list is made, you should sort the countries and cities by priority. Make another list with 3 columns: ‘Must see’, ‘Want to see’ and ‘If there is time’; then add your countries to the designated columns. Once you narrow down your list then you will be able to map out your journey. At this step you can also decide how many days you would like to spend in each country or city.
Step 3: Map Your Route
Get a map of Europe and decide your point of entry. Your starting point and your ending point can be the same or different depending on how you wish to book your flights. I suggest starting in either France or The Netherlands if you plan to do mostly Western Europe. If your journey will be concentrated more East then starting in Germany, Austria or Czech Republic might be best. If you want more of a Southern loop then try a Spain, Italy or South of France beginning. While mapping your route you want to make sure that you are flowing into countries that boarder each other, unless you plan to travel by air mostly and not land. Things to remember if crossing into Switzerland, it is not a part of the European Union but it is in the Schengen travel zone so ensure you have the necessary visas to enter if needed.
Step 4: Research/ Book Transportation
You’ve decided on your countries you’d like to visit and you’ve made a rough sketch of your route. Here comes the important part. Time to start booking transport. First order of business during this step is to book your round-trip ticket from your country to your point of entry into Europe. This will be the most expensive part of your journey. Once you’ve done that you can look at your route and decide on how you will travel around the continent. There are many inexpensive land options to accomplish this. I wrote a post about Traveling through Europe by Coach which is the most budget friendly option. Another option is by train with Eurail and their europass. You can also fly using cheap budget airlines like Ryanair, and JetBlue. You can even purchase a flexipass with Bus-A-Bout to get you there but this can be a bit pricey.
Step 5: Research/ Book Accommodations
So where will you rest your head every night after endless sight-seeing? Well there are so many options in Europe. You can check out our post on Budget Travel where we outline the best options for saving money on a place to stay. Depending on the season you plan to travel in you definitely want to do this as soon as you have the other steps completed. If you got for hotel and hostel options then most require you to book online with a credit card. If you plan to use Couch Surfing then finding a host can take some time so be sure to send request at least a month in advance. I recommend using a combination of Accommodation styles.
Step 6: Research Cities/ Decide on a Flexible Daily Itinerary
To maximize your time in each city/country you visit I suggest sketching out a rough itinerary of things you wish to see and do but keep it flexible to allow for changes and additions. For European Cities you definitely want to check and see if there are any City Passes available that include public transport. Check out our comprehensive blog post on European City Passes; these are a game changer as one pass can offer you free transport, discounts and free admission to museums and other attractions. Planning out your days allows you to use your time wisely. Plan for naps and breaks where you can reflect and do some travel ‘journaling’. Plan for long lunches especially in countries like Spain that take 2 hour siestas. This is a great time to research possible Day Trips or Special Excursions you’d like to take while in certain cities. For example while visiting Paris you might want to take a day trip to Versailles or Mt. Saint Michel.
Step 7: Look up Restaurants, Bars and Night Entertainment
Another item to add to your itinerary is looking up the night life in your city. Always plan to have a cutoff point to your day so you can rest up to see the offerings of a city at night. Research restaurants and read reviews online before going to ensure you have a great experience. Look for specialized bars in the area like a nice trendy Hipster Art Bar or free concerts. Having an idea of where you want to go and explore at night before hand will save you time. Research areas with lots of bars and restaurants to choose from. If you plan to travel during summer there are so many free events happening in most cities so it’s good to know before you go!
Step 8: Make a Packing List
The ultimate rule for traveling around Europe is to pack light! I repeat pack light! I learned this the hard way. I lugged a large suitcase across 13 countries and it was super annoying. Not to mention if you plan on going through metro stations with your luggage as transport to get to train stations because let’s face it taxis are expensive; then you want to pack light but make sure you have the essentials.
Check the weather for the season you are going in. Make sure you dress for the season. Always have a jacket of some sort and at least 1 long sleeve shirt unless you are traveling through the height of summer. Keep your toiletries to a minimum. You do not need to bring big bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and they probably won’t work as well because the water will be different in Europe, so it is best to buy them in Europe where they are formulated for the water. If you are used to certain brands I assure you they can be found here or you can purchase an alternative.
Use a piece of luggage that you will be comfortable traveling with. I am not the backpack type so I have never used one. Usually when I came over to Europe for the summer to work, I packed 2 months into a carry-on. In terms of shoes you really only need 2-3 pairs. A comfortable pair of walking shoes that can go with anything in your suitcase, a pair of shoes that are appropriate for night time fun, and another pair for either or. Make sure to bring a pair of flip flops too for shower and the beach. Once you make your list, cut it in half and stick to it!
Step 9: Get Travel Accessories
While traveling you must ensure that you have certain accessories to make life easier. Check out our post on the Top 10 Travel Accessories you should not leave your country without. For example remember that you will need an Adapter/Converter for your electronics or a portable WIFI hotspot like SkyRoam to ensure that you stay connected to friends and family, and that you’re able to post to Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. There are also great travel accessories that aid in packing. If you have no idea where to start check out our blog post complete with our Amazon travel store for all of your accessory needs here.
Step 10: Set a Budget
Now that you have planned out your adventure rather comprehensively, bravo to you, you need to set a daily and overall budget for your trip. Daily expenses can add up in a city if you are not careful. Food, transportation, attractions, museums, and shopping runs the tape up pretty quickly.
To mitigate over spending, plan to purchase City Passes where they are available. Check to see what is included and how it will save you money. After that calculate your daily expenditure for food and any extras. If you are planning to be on the frugal side I would say to aim for 30-50€ per day. If you have more wiggle room in your budget then you can plan for 50-100€ per day.
To cut cost you can decide which days you will eat at a restaurant for lunch. Some days you may prefer to have a picnic in a park to save money. Grocery stores are pretty inexpensive in Europe so it wouldn’t break the bank. Planning your trip out will help you see where you will spend most of your money and give you the flexibility you need to plan. Budget for souvenirs and gifts as well. If you have certain items you want from various countries, for example, a Cookoo Clock from Germany or a Tissot Watch from Switzerland, make sure you budget for this and research ahead of time. Remember to let your bank know that you will be traveling to multiple cities in Europe so that they don’t cut off your credit cards.
Now it’s time to finalize everything. Double check to make sure you’ve got all of your travel information and documents ready. Flights, and other transportation printed out, accommodations are booked, you route mapped out, all of the confirmations for your City Passes, your itinerary written out and ready to go and of course your must have travel accessories. Pack your bags and get ready to embark on the ultimate adventure!
If this blog post helped you, then let us know in the comments. If you want Travel Planning worksheets to go with this post let us know that too. I would love to hear how we can help you chase Wanderlust!