Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide

Before you can experience authentic Spanish tapas, piazzas in Rome, or rooftop terraces in Prague, an important to-do list stands between you and your European vacation. The logistics involved in planning a trip to Europe may seem tedious or overwhelming, but the more prepared you are, the greater your chances of a successful trip that lives up to your expectations. That’s why it’s important to do a bang-up job creating an itinerary, arranging transportation, and tackling the brass tacks before you’re off to the Continent.

The following guide explains how to plan a trip to Europe in 10 simple steps—so you can spend less time worrying about your travel arrangements and more time staring at pictures of castles and men in kilts.

(1) Get your documents in order.

If you don’t have a passport, it will take at least four to six weeks from the time of application for you to receive one. Expedited services—either through the State Department or an expeditor such as Travel Visa Pro—can trim the process down to a week or so, but it will cost you an additional fee, so it’s best to take care of this well before your trip.

Already have a passport? Check its expiration date. The last thing you need is to find out your passport has expired while you’re in line at airport check-in. Keep in mind that some countries require your passport to be valid for six months beyond your trip dates.

All car rental companies require drivers to have valid licenses in their home country, so you’ll also want to check the expiration date of your license. Some car rental companies also require an international driving permit for European rentals in addition to a valid driver’s license. For U.S. citizens, these can be obtained through the American Auto Association (AAA); in Canada, try the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).

(2) Establish a budget.

When planning a trip to Europe, establish a budget as early as possible—even before you know your destination, travel dates, or itinerary. Some destinations are generally cheaper than others, but there are ways to save everywhere: travel in the off-season, pick budget accommodations, plan a shorter trip. For example, London is an expensive city, but many travel providers and airlines offer affordable vacation packages to the city, and it’s not hard to find cheap air deals to London, especially during the winter.

Set your budget early on, and you’ll avoid any disappointment that could come from forging a fabulous itinerary, like two weeks in Switzerland during summer, and then discovering you can’t afford it. Travel budget apps such as TrabeePocket (iOS | Android) can help you keep track of your expenses once you start making bookings.

For more information:

  • 9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation
  • Europe in the Winter Off-Season: Where and Why You Should Go
  • Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

(3) Pick a destination.

Now that you know how much you can spend, where do you want to go? If you’re like many travelers and you have a humongous list of places in Europe you want to visit, this could be tricky.

One strategy is to pick a particular site that’s on your must-see travel list, and plan your vacation around that. Last year I planned a trip to Ireland centered on an excursion to remote Skellig Michael Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site I’d dreamed of visiting. The excursion turned into an unforgettable two-week Emerald Isle road trip.

Another option is to pick someplace timely. Visit countries’ tourism websites and search for seasonal events like festivals or local holidays (which you may want to either avoid or join, depending on how you feel about crowds). Don’t forget to check the weather before you decide on your destination.

For more information:

  • 10 Secret Places in Europe You Can Still Visit on a Budget
  • 10 Emerging Places to Visit in Europe For a Crowd-Free Vacation

(4) Create a rough itinerary.

So you want to go to France, eh? Don’t go ahead and buy a roundtrip flight to Paris and a hotel room—at least, not yet. You’ll want to sketch out a day-by-day itinerary of your perfect trip to France before you book a thing. Research sites and cities you really want to explore, and then figure out which ones you have the time and budget to get to.

Check out alternative ways to travel in Europe. If you want to see multiple countries or cities but are on a tight budget, you may want to consider a cruise (exchange rates are naught for U.S. citizens onboard American ships). If you’d rather not do the work of creating your own itinerary, continue booking a group tour with a company such as Intrepid TravelG AdventuresTrafalgar, or Rick Steves’ Europe.

For more information:

  • How to Create the Perfect Travel Itinerary
  • The 5 Worst Trip Planning Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)
  • The 5 Best Trip Planner Apps for Travelers
  • 14 Tips for Choosing the Right Group Tour

(5) Book your airfare.

Because airfare will probably be the most expensive part of your trip, you’ll want to book it before anything else (car rental, hotel, etc.). This will allow you to be more flexible with your dates, which is a great way to save money on your flight. You can often spend less by flying on international discount airlines like Aer Lingus or Norwegian. Check multiple booking sites, including meta-search sites such as Skyscanner and traditional booking sites such as Expedia, to make sure you’re seeing a wide range of options. You can also set up fare alerts using Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site, so you’ll be notified when the price of your flight drops.

Consider spicing up your trip with a layover in a different country. Icelandair has a long-running program that allows passengers flying elsewhere in Europe to take a free stopover in Reykjavik for up to seven nights.

For more information:

  • International Discount Airlines
  • 10 Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
  • How to Find a Free Stopover
  • The 10 Best Flight Search Sites for Booking Cheap Airfare

(6) Book your accommodations.

It’s time to go back to that rough itinerary you jotted down and fill in some places to sleep. As is the case with pretty much everything you book for your trip, the earlier you make arrangements, the better—especially during summer high season.

Sure, you can just book a room at the local Hilton and be done with it. But do a bit of research and you could discover some funky lodging that’s almost as exciting as the attractions you plan to visit. Keep your eyes open for historic castles, tiny bed and breakfasts, houseboats, eco-friendly hotels, or organic farms. Budget travelers take note: Vacation rentals, homestays, farm stays, and house-swapping are accommodation options that can be shockingly affordable … or even free.

As with airfare, you should shop around on multiple hotel sites to make sure you’re getting the best deal, and read reviews from past guests to see what the experience is like. TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company),, and are a few good places to start.

For more information:

  • Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay
  • 11 Charming Hotels That’ll Make You Fall in Love with Europe
  • The 10 Best Hotel Booking Sites
  • 10 Castle Hotels in Europe That Are Worth the Splurge

(7) Consider travel insurance.

There are several kinds of travel insurance: trip cancellation insurance, flight cancellation insurance, medical insurance, etc. The best time to buy insurance is right after you put down the major deposits on your trip, whether that entails airfare, a package, or prepaid hotels. Once you know how much money you’ve paid upfront, you can ensure your trip if you so choose. Many airlines and travel providers sell insurance that you can purchase along with your flight or tour package. Always, always read the fine print in your policy and compare it with other travel insurance policies before you make a purchase.

Check your medical insurance coverage to see if you’re covered overseas. If not, you may want to purchase supplemental medical insurance to cover situations like the cost of transportation back home for emergency care.

Reputable travel insurance companies to consider include Allianz Travel and Seven Corners.

For more information:

  • Travel Insurance: What You Need to Know
  • 5 Common Travel Insurance Questions, Answered
  • Travel Insurance Coverage: 13 Things Your Policy Won’t Cover

(8) Book local transportation and day tours.

When in Rome, ride the Metropolitana. Find out how the locals get around the destination to which you’re traveling and act accordingly. You won’t need a car rental in places like bike-friendly Amsterdam or London with its convenient underground Tube, unless you plan to go outside the city.

A car rental is your best bet if you’re traveling to locales that can’t be easily reached by rail or plane (such as the Irish countryside). Be mentally prepared to drive in a foreign country, which can be a frightening experience when faced with incomprehensible traffic signs, narrow streets, or sheep roadblocks.

To get from city to city or country to country, examine your rail options in comparison to routes and prices offered by European discount airlines like easyJet or Ryanair. Travelers embarking on extensive travel within Europe may save money by purchasing a rail pass from Rail Europe that permits unlimited train travel within a specified region.

Check out our sister site, Viator, to book day tours, especially if you want to take advantage of skip-the-line options.

For more information:

  • 10 Speedy Train Routes in Europe That Are Faster Than Flying
  • 9 Gotchas of Renting a Car in Europe
  • 15 Tips for Driving on the Left Side of the Road
  • European Car Rental Companies Every Traveler Should Know
  • 10 Best Cities for Day Trips

(9) Tackle last-minute logistics.

A few weeks before your departure date is the right time to start taking care of a number of key logistics: money, phone, house-sitter, pet-sitter.

Call your credit card companies to let them know you’ll be traveling abroad. While you’re at it, find out if you’re going to be charged a fee for using your card overseas. Research the locations of ATMs in your destination, especially if you’ll be relying on cash.

Does your cell phone plan allow you to make calls overseas, and if so, how much will it cost you? Many cell phone companies offer temporary international plans that you can purchase for the month you’re traveling. You might also want to consider a mobile hotspot device to keep you connected.

For more information:

  • The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas
  • Travel MiFi: How a Mobile Hotspot Can Help You on the Road
  • The Best International Phone Plans for Travelers
  • 10 Things to Do Before You Travel

(10) Pack.

Packing for Europe requires both different items and a different mindset in comparison to some other types of trips. After all, there’s no arguing that Parisians are more stylish than your typical North American tourist. Most of central and western Europe have milder climates throughout the year, but that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter rain or a heatwave. You should pack clothing that’s easy to layer, and always include a packable raincoat or travel umbrella in your suitcase when traveling to Europe. Think about how you’ll be carrying your money—pickpocketing schemes are more common abroad, so it’s important to carry your money and personal belongings securely. When researching your European destination of choice, consider the overall climate and time of year you’ll be traveling. Then, about a week before your trip check out the forecast, mobilize a packing list, and ensure your suitcase is in working condition and meets your airline’s size restrictions.

Pro packing tip: If you’re tight on packing space, invest in a packing cube set. They do wonders, especially if you’re stopping in multiple destinations as they make repacking a breeze.

For more information:

  • The Ultimate Packing List
  • The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time
  • Packing for Europe: 8 Items You Should Leave at Home
  • 14 Best Shoes to Wear in Europe