Now is the time to start planning your European summer vacation! While poring through maps and travel guides, getting advice and suggestions from friends and talking with travel agents are important, surfing the Web is now an indispensable part of planning for international travel. There is a plethora of great, free travel information out there.
Planning is not only fun, it is essential. The more you "study" now, the more prepared you'll be for the challenge of traveling abroad. Spend a few days scouring the Internet - print pages to take with you (they're lighter than thick travel books) and take copious notes.
Drawing up a Travel Plan
The first step in planning any vacation is to answer two very basic questions:
How much time do you have? (1 week or 3 months?)
How much money do you have to spend? (very little or the sky's the limit?)
Your answers to those questions will help you find realistic answers to the next two questions:
Where do you want to go? (Just Paris, Just Italy, or all of Europe?)
What "style" of travel do you want to experience? (fine dining and great hotels or walking tours and picnics?)
Be realistic about your needs and honest with yourself about your preferences! Can you really experience four countries in 10 days without going crazy? Do you want to get an overall view of Europe so that next time you can focus on your favorite area? Would you be comfortable sleeping in a dorm-style hostel and sharing a bath? Do you want the comforts and privacy of a large hotel? Do you want to meet locals and other travelers? Once you've thought through those questions, you will be able to set up a general travel plan. The following sites will help you explore some of the options:
Besides the occasional cruise or swim across the Atlantic, most people rely on planes for European travel. A plane ticket will be the largest line item of your budget, so shop wisely. Be aware that the standard 21-day advance purchase advantage that applies for domestic travel won't do you much good on an international ticket. Particularly for summer travel, booking really early will save you hundreds of dollars. If you are traveling in June or July, buy in February. Also be aware that "open jaw" tickets can save you lots of time and money. If you want to see France, Switzerland and Italy, fly into Paris and fly out of Rome. It won't cost you much more and it will save you from having to rush all the way back to Paris at the end of your trip. To learn your options, spend some time plugging in dates and locations at the following sites. Others are available in the TripSpot Airlines (http://www.tripspot.com/airlines.htm) and International Airlines (http://www.tripspot.com/intlairlines.htm) pages.
Once you've decided where you're going, the next step should be deciding how you'll get around locally. There are two primary options: trains and rental cars. Both have their benefits and drawbacks. If you are traveling alone, it is probably more cost efficient to use Europe's highly accessible public transportation system. While the cost of car rental might not be high, insurance, gas and tolls add up very quickly. If you are traveling with one or more companions, renting may be a reasonable option. You might consider doing both. For example, if you fly into Rome and plan on spending a few days in the city before heading out to the countryside, enjoy the city "car-free" and pick up the car on your way out of town.
Train travel allows you to meet other travelers, rest and see the sites as someone else drives. It also frees you from worrying about car theft, parking challenges and busy city streets. Though at first glance it may seem overwhelming, the train systems in most countries are very user-friendly (even if you don't speak the language) and flexible. For information, timetables and reservations, go to:
On the other hand, renting a car allows you to venture off the beaten path and away from the masses. A rental car also frees you from carrying all of your belongings from place to place and can double as an uncomfortable but free hotel room. For information on rental cars, check out:
First, you need to decide what is important to you about where you sleep. Are you the kind of traveler who needs a comfortable, private room? Do you mind sharing a toilet or shower? Will you be on the go until late and just need a safe, clean bed? Do you want the elegant air of a hotel or the homey feeling of a German grandmother cooking breakfast for you at a B&B? Again, be honest with yourself and your companions about what you want, need, and can afford!
Definitely reserve a room/bed in a hotel, hostel or Bed & Breakfast for nights you will be spending in large cities or in tourist areas during peak travel months. You do not want to find yourself in Rome in July at 6:00pm without a place to sleep! During off-peak months or in smaller locales, you don't have to worry as much. Once you get there, find a place early so you can enjoy the rest of the day.
The following sites can help you research your options, get addresses, phone numbers and email addresses and make reservations:
What you pack will depend on where you go and what time of year. There is no magical list. One thing that stands true is PACK LIGHTLY. No one will ever tell you that they wished they had brought more on a trip abroad. Bring one pair of very comfortable walking shoes (bad shoes can ruin a vacation). Don't bring enough shampoo for 3 months (it's fun to buy toiletries in a new country!). Plan to dress in layers. Bring shirts with sleeves and long pants (you'll look less like a tourist and many sacred places require shirtsleeves). Take a look at what some of the experts say and then find a balance for yourself:
Already have a passport? Be sure it will still be valid on your days of departure and return.
Carry your money, credit cards, passport, emergency contact, and a copy of your plane ticket in a security pouch around your neck or waist at all times.
Don't hassle with lots of traveler's checks. ATMs are EVERYWHERE in Europe and give you the best exchange rate. Make sure your card is in good shape and let your bank know that you're leaving the country.
You will get the best exchange rages at ATMs or Currency Exchanges away from popular tourist areas.
Visa and MasterCard are more widely accepted than American Express.
Make 2 legible photocopies of your plane ticket! Keep one in your luggage and one in your security pouch.
Report theft of any kind to the local police. They won't give you any sympathy but they will give you a copy of the report that you will need to claim insurance. If you've had your luggage stolen, you will need the report to show airport security (they are suspicious of those traveling with no bags).
DO NOT leave anything unattended on the train, at a cafe, at a "sight," etc. You don't have to be paranoid, just cautious.
Do not assume rental cars are safe for storage. The license plates on rental cars are coded - thieves know these codes and know how to break into cars in seconds. Lockers are your friends!
Contact your health insurance provider prior to departure. Let them know you are leaving the country and get overseas coverage procedures and contact phone numbers.
Especially if you are traveling alone, make a few "appointments" to check-in with a friend or family member back home. Leave a general itinerary with that person.
Do not expect anyone to speak English even though many Europeans do. Out of respect for the country, the culture and its people, carry a phrase book and attempt to speak the language. In return, you will not be seen as an "ugly American."
Finally, stay flexible! You WILL run into snags and hurdles no matter how well thought-out your plan is. Enjoy the detours and unexpected adventures! Those will become the stories you will love to tell.