Michelle has taken multiple trips to Europe, but she has yet to take a group tour. She prefers to chart her own course.
5 Tips for Planning the Perfect Vacation
Planning your own trip can be nearly as much fun as actually taking it. So, before you book a group tour where you’ll be told what to see and do, think about a few tips that might make you more intrepid about planning your own vacation.
1. Figure out where you want to go.
It’s a big, big world out there. Figuring out where you want to go is the first hurdle. If you want to travel to a country that has certain travel restrictions, where people don’t speak your language, or where you’re required to have a visa, you might want to check companies offering organized tours. For sure, you want to make certain that where you want to go is safe for Americans.
But if you want to go to a country in the European Union, for example, why not do your own planning? Most are English-friendly and easy to get to and from. Pick a country or a city or two and get started.
2. Avoid trying to see too much in the time you have.
Unless you want to take a "sampler tour," don't book a 10-day tour of Europe with an itinerary that takes you to France, Germany and Spain. You can’t do even one of those countries justice in 10 days. Narrow your focus. After all, traveling isn’t just seeing this site or that. It's about experiencing a culture.
For example, my mom’s family came from Ireland, so I’ve always wanted to visit the Emerald Isle. For my first trip there, I had only eight days. I made a list of places I wanted to visit, things I wanted to see and do, then ranked them most important to least. That exercise led me to a trip focused on a strip of the middle of Ireland, from Dublin on the Irish Sea to Westport on the Atlantic. It’s all about priorities.
3. Don’t feel compelled to see and do all the usual touristy things.
I didn't kiss the Blarney Stone in Ireland. With limited time in Amsterdam and Prague, I skipped the Rijksmuseum and the Charles Castle. As a good friend said to me, “Those will all still be here on the next trip.” Instead, in Ireland, I visited my family’s cottage ruin, a cemetery in Ballyhaunis, and spent a couple of hours in a little pub, visiting with the locals during a sudden rainstorm. In Amsterdam, Prague and Vienna, I walked for miles to little shops and flea markets and neighborhood restaurants rather than join the flocks of tourists.
That said, some of the tourist traps were important to me, like a tour and tasting at the Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey visitor’s center and visits to Guinness and the Irish Writer's Museum in Dublin. And while I skipped the museums in Amsterdam on that trip, I made sure to pop into the museum gift shops and took the obligatory selfie in front of the "I Heart Amsterdam" sign. I also booked dinner and a Mozart concert in Vienna.
Research local events and festivals when planning your trip. My itinerary in Ireland was somewhat dictated by the Taste of Dublin festival. It opened on my last full day, so I first visited the other towns on my itinerary, then ended up with a few days in Dublin. And I purchased my ticket in advance.
Do what you want to do, and give yourself time to really experience a place.
4. Choose accommodations that make sense for your trip and budget.
One of the most common questions I'm asked by family and friends about making my own travel plans is how I figure out where to stay while I’m there. I consider three factors. First is location, location, location. Second is price, value and priorities. Third is reputation.
Once I decide what I want to see and do, I find a hotel or B&B that’s within reasonable walking distance, or near public transportation, from most of the places I plan to go. In a small town or village, I want to be somewhere central, not tucked away in the countryside. When I want to visit a city, I pull up a map, mark all the places I want to go, then start looking for accommodations central to those spots. The internet makes that really easy to do.
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Second, look at price and value of those accommodations through the lens of your personal priorities—including your budget. Hotel rooms, bathrooms, etc., are typically smaller in Europe than in the United States. I’m fine staying in a room with two twin beds, one bedside table and a 15-inch walkway between the foot of the beds and the wall. I’m also fine with a shower barely wider than my shoulders, even if I do sound like an elephant in a peanut butter jar when I'm in it.
If you prefer a room more like an American hotel, you need to check out hotels in newer buildings that might offer more spacious accommodations. You might also need to decide if you’re okay with a bathroom shared with others, or if you can live without air conditioning or heat. And if you need an indoor pool or a gym, your choices will definitely be more limited and far more expensive. The fact is that when I travel, I use my accommodations to sleep, shower and repeat. I’m typically gone from morning until evening, so I don’t require all the other amenities. If you do, you need to research those options.
Finally, I look at reputation. The best way to determine whether or not a hotel or B&B is clean and safe is to read the reviews of other travelers. People who have stayed there will comment on a variety of things, including safety and noise levels. They’ll let you know if their room was clean and how helpful the staff was. Customer reviews are a great way to help you decided where you’ll stay.
5. Figure out how you’re going to get around.
One of the great things about booking a group tour is that you don’t have to figure out how you’re going to get around. The tour agency has already figured that out for you. But don’t let transportation intimidate you. Unlike the States, Europe is transit-oriented and usually bike and pedestrian friendly.
Travel by train in Europe is easy, and you get to sit back and enjoy the views and the people on the train. Trains connect large cities to small towns and villages, making them conducive to using them to get you from place to place.
Sometimes, transportation helps narrow the options for your trip. Since I didn't want to rent a car in Ireland so I could see the country without the need to pay extra attention while driving on the wrong side of the road while sitting on the wrong side of the car, I looked at train routes. The train from Dublin to Westport stopped at Tullamore and Ballyhaunis which was perfect for my trip. That said, don't be afraid of renting a car. Most places in Europe don’t have the labyrinth of highways and streets we do here in the States. There are a few major motorways that get you to all corners of a country, so travel by car is pretty easy. And if you choose to rent a car, you might need an international driving permit. It's easy enough to get one, but takes a little time.
A lot of cities in Europe have “hop on-hop off” buses. For a reasonable price, say seven Euros a day, you can take the bus throughout the city, getting on and off as you want to. Personally, I prefer to walk. Walking better orients me to the city and allows me to find some great little shops or restaurants tucked away from the main streets.
Planning transportation takes some time and research. Don't overlook details like how you get to the train or to your hotel from the airport terminal. It really can be intimidating if you're trying to navigate an unfamiliar airport in an unfamiliar country. Fortunately, most airports have signage in English. Knowing how to get out of an airport to your destination isn't something you want to "wing."
No matter how you're going to get around, when you check into your hotel or B&B, ask for a business card. Tuck it into your wallet and keep it with you. It’s an easy way to make sure you get back whether you need to ask someone for directions or you decide to take a cab. I usually program the hotel’s phone number and address in my phone.
Don’t forget to pack your map. I use my cell phone's maps app when I’m navigating an unfamiliar place. If your phone doesn't work abroad, make a photocopy of the relevant part of the city map, marked with your hotel and destinations, and take it with you at all times. And as you start walking around, look for landmarks near your hotel which will help you find your way back more easily. I’ve used the spire in Dublin, the clocktower in Prague, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, Ljubljana Castle in that city, and St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, to name a few.
Finally, before you venture out to explore the city, ask a concierge or the front desk staff if there are any neighborhoods you should avoid.
Be intrepid but be wise when planning your own trip. And happy travels!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Michelle Terhune