Ask LH: How Can I Plan A Trip To Europe?

Dear Lifehacker, I was wondering if you have any tips you can give someone trying to organise a brief one month trip to Europe. I'm very keen to go, but I'm finding it hard to get started. Thanks, Budding Europhile

Dear BE,

That's an enormous question: Mainland Europe has 50-odd countries. We won't pick out which ones you should visit (my personal biases would be all too clear), but we'll cover some key areas to think about as you're planning your vacation.

One thing to bear in mind: I'm an organisation freak, so I'll be talking advance planning. I know plenty of people whose schedules for a European holiday didn't amount to much more than "book a ticket to somewhere, land and then make it up as you go along". That can work, but if you fell into that category, you wouldn't be asking the question, would you?

1. Recognise that you can't do it all

There's no way you can realistically cover all of Europe, or even a fraction of it, in a single trip. While you can certainly cover a lot of ground in 30 days, sticking to the "one country a day" coach tour model means you'll spend more time seeing freeways than actually experiencing places in any depth. Identify a handful of countries that appeal to you, and stick with those. For the surprise element, add in a country that's in the area but which you might not have considered initially. Try looking up the airport in one of those countries and seeing what flight options it offers to get some ideas.

2. Choose your time of year carefully

Work or study circumstances might restrict your options here. However, if you have any choice, try and avoid the busiest periods: July/August (European summer) and around Christmas. At these times, prices will be higher and crowds will be larger. While snow can be appealing, the brutality of European winters (and the shortness of daylight hours) can be a shock to the system for Australians. April and May can be good times to travel, but double-check for Easter breaks.

3. Use your initial airline as a trigger

Flying to Europe is a competitive business, and many of the cheaper options won't land you in the obvious (for Australia) option of London. If you haven't yet determined where you want to go, letting your initial airfare determine your first country can be an interesting way to go. Use a flight comparison site such as Zuji or Expedia to identify possible choices. (You can search for a specific destination such as London but note which European cities you get routed through on the cheaper fares to pick out possibilities if your European geography isn't up to scratch.) Picture by Mark Harkin

4. Take advantage of transport options

Don't bring an Australia-centric "I want to fly to places and then drive" mentality with you. There are plenty of areas of Europe you can only see by road, but on a first trip, I wouldn't be focusing on car hire. In particular, Europe has well-developed national rail networks, and getting between cities by rail is often faster than flying, especially when you factor in transit times to and from the airport. (Taking the Eurostar between London and Paris is a much better choice than flying, for instance.)

The Eurail Pass is a good option for getting around on the mainland, and easier to organise if you book in advance. You don't have to book on all services, but it can make sense when travelling on busy routes. There are also good ferry services in many locations, and coach options if you're looking for cheap alternatives. We're big fans of rome2rio for identifying non-flight options for getting around.

One note about flying: when using budget airlines, check carefully for where they land. They'll often be a secondary airport for a major city, which means a longer bus trip at the other end. It can be worth it in money-saving terms; just make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. Picture by Les Chatfield

5. Think about how you'll communicate

Using your Australian mobile number in Europe is a sure-fire route to an unpleasantly massive bill. We've discussed the issues before, and our advice boils down to this: use free Wi-Fi whenever possible, and consider investing in a prepaid SIM once you hit Europe. Checking for free Wi-Fi is normally at the top of my list when I choose accommodation (with proximity to railway stations often a close second).

Enjoy your trip, and enjoy the planning -- it can be a big part of the fun. Readers, feel free to chime in with additional suggestions in the comments.

Cheers Lifehacker

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right. Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman can't believe he hasn't been to Greece yet. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    I initially had trouble working out where to go on my last Europe trip (3 weeks). I resolved this by disregarding all the possible itineraries I had created and worked out what are the top 3 places I want to visit. I mainly flew (due to lack of rail connections to Croatia) but decided it was better to tick off more places on my dream list, rather than visit places that were just convenient.

    Using Google Maps and Docs is a great way to plan your trip. Google Maps for planning a travel route with flights, train, buses, cities you're staying, key locations you want to visit, etc. Then using Google Docs to spreadsheet an itinerary with time, costs, etc.

    If you're traveling with a partner or friends, you can share these docs with them so they can contribute by dropping pins on the map of places they want to see, or cities they want to spend more time in, etc.

    One other tip - if you're trying to work out how much time you will need, or how much travel you can do in a restricted time, work out the trip starting with your travel time alone. Once you've worked out how long it'll take each time you hop on a plane, train, bus or in a car, you will know how long you have left to explore cities, countryside, etc. Also, plan rest days!!!

      definitely agree with googleDocs... i did this! great way to have backups of
      - tickets
      - passports
      - itinerary
      - photos

      good call Fiona~!

    Just go.

    Improvising a European trip is the best fun you will ever have in your life, guaranteed.

    It also allows you to be flexible and spontaeneously jump in on random opportunities. e.g.- you might (will) meet some amazing people at a backpackers who have a spare spot for their road trip. Hostels are full of these kinds of opportunities.

    damn you LH... i just got BACK from Europe! :(

    that siad, i wouldn't change a thing... did an amazing mix of catching up with friends, travelling in tour groups, and going around by myself! (definitely recommend travelling solo for some length of time. best experience ever!)

    A Eurail Pass will not necessarily save you money over flying, but it is much more convenient than getting to/from airports. As well as the benefit of riding in comfort and enjoying some great scenery.

    Youth hostels (whatever age you are) ar a great way to meet people.

    Do you need to take your phone/tablet/laptop ? Unless you are travelling for work, almost certainly not. Sure, there are useful travel apps, but you'll be fine without them, and cutting loose from being always-connected should liberate you to better enjoy your travel experience.

    Cheap calling cards, public phones and internet cafes (as well as internet access at most places you stay) will more than cover most of your communication needs for a month in Europe.

    Travelling off-peak is not only cheaper, but gives you more flexibility for last-minute change of plans, as you won't usually need to pre-book accomodation or transport. If you do get stuck, those tourist information offices you see everywhere are there to help.

    Just go. You'll have a ball.

    My fiancee and I did a great five week trip to Europe last year. I'm also an organisational freak, so before I left, I'd booked all my accommodation, and pretty much had all my transport (car/train/bus) sorted (if not booked, then I knew which train/bus I wanted to be on).

    Two websites made this possible. I spent more hours than I really should have on . We weren't staying in really upmarket places, but with all the research we'd done, we knew that the places we were staying would be the best for the money we were paying. Also was a godsend for all our train transport. Their journey planner gives you all the details you need, including departure time/platform, arrival time/platform, transfer time, etc. With all the details on hand, it made multi-stop train trips a breeze.

    Also, get a pre-paid SIM if you feel like it - but it's not the end of the world if you don't. I did my whole trip without one, and hotel wifi and strategic use of printouts kept everything running smoothly.

    The Eurail pass was supposed to be a convenience, but it ended up being more of a hassle to me. Realise that having a pass does not mean you'll get train tickets for free or cheap - they can cost just as much as a full price ticket if you don't book well in advance.

    For example: I arrived in the Netherlands by plane on a Thursday, but didn't get to a major train station until Saturday to book a ticket for the train trip to Paris on the Monday. They charged me a EUR52 booking/ticket fee (and this is on top of the $600 I'd spent on the Eurail pass). My Dutch-living friend informed me that she could get an entire ticket from Rotterdam to Paris for EUR50 (admittedly second class instead of first class).

    So basically: if you're going by train and want to make use of the Eurail pass, you need to book your tickets about a week in advance, otherwise you may as well not even bother wasting money on the Eurail pass. I learned my lesson and booked all my other train journeys more than 3 days in advance, which meant the seat reservation fee was EUR10 or less.

    My 2c...

    * Whether or not a Eurail pass is worth getting or not, and which kind of pass to get, is worth an entire topic on its own so I won't go

    too far into it. In a nut shell though, Eurail passes are only really worth it for long trips, and most of the time you'll find yourself

    being forced to pay a 'reservation' for trains which cover any worthwhile distance. Say for example you get a pass which gives you 10

    days of travel and costs $500, you'd need to make sure each day of travel involves trips costing at least ($50 + whatever reservation

    you have to pay if any) to be worthwhile. A trip from Barcelona to Berlin can cost several hundred € and be worth the Eurail price in a

    single day even with reservations included, whereas if you're doing lots of short trips within a country and only a few long ones it's

    well worth looking into busses or cheap flights. Also keep in mind you CAN buy a Eurail pass at most major train stations in Europe -

    don't feel as though you need to buy it before you leave Australia as is heavily implied by nearly all outlets that sell them here like

    YHA, STA etc.

    * For booking cheap flights there are plenty of sites available but the standout one for me was thanks to how it displays

    search results. I haven't found any good site for looking up international bus routes in Europe so if anyone knows one I'd love to hear


    * When planning international train trips, the 'local' train service web sites are not always the best. Germany's is by far one

    of the best rail service portals in Europe if not the world and is invaluable for planning trips that often don't even go through

    Germany at all.

    * Not all pre-paid SIM cards are created equal. Greece for example has many phone networks which are absolutely pathetic (WIND is even

    worse than Vodafone AU were in their notorious prime of a couple years ago), whereas something like Sweden's Comviq gives you flat call

    and SMS rates even when roaming in other countries, credit expiry which puts our own 30 day prepaid recharges to shame, and multiple

    ways to recharge or check your current balance with ease. If you have a micro-SIM device, be prepared to cut your SIM to size yourself

    as very few pre-paid providers in Europe are offering micro-SIMs yet.

    * Wifi has already been touched upon in the main article, but going further with that is Skype Wifi which essentially lets you access a

    tonne of otherwise expensive paid Wifi spots at a heavily reduced casual rate (eg: Amsterdam airport had Wifi for €5 for 15 mins, with

    a Skype Wifi subscription it works out to around AU$3.30 for 15 minutes). Sometimes the rate isn't that much better than the normal

    hotspot price but I've at least never seen it be higher, and the convenience of being able to use paid Wifi on many trains in particular

    without getting out the credit card or wading through foreign language landing pages was worth it.

    * If you're going to fly by a country in a few days then language is less of a concern but if you're going to spend even as little as a

    week somewhere it's definitely worth learning the basics of the main local language.Just knowing "excuse me, do you speak English?" is

    enough to not look like a typical rude arrogant American tourist who expects everyone to speak YOUR language and gets frustrated with

    "stupid" locals who don't understand simple English sentences. Phrase books are OK as a last resort but there's no substitute for

    HEARING how something is said, so if you can get a few free vocab apps for your phone or something like the Pimsleur audiobooks you'll

    be much better off.

    * I don't 'disagree' with Google Docs at all but found OneNote to be much more useful if you have a laptop/netbook/etc and iPhone with

    you. When I didn't have a laptop with me I stored backups of flight tickets, passport scans etc in Dropbox.

    * If you don't mind sharing a room with others, and are the best places to find cheap accommodation.

    Be aware that many parts of Europe will charge you extra for things like linen and pillows (especially in Scandinavia), and there are

    many hostels which are members of groups like Hostels International which offers no benefit to you and just means you'll be slugged with

    an extra fee on top of the advertised price for not paying to be a HI "member". If you want privacy, hostel prices become much less

    competitive and it's often worth going with a proper hotel - especially if you can pick up cheap rooms through something like

    * If you're going on a longer trip, laundry is something you really need to consider in advance. Many cities don't have any easily

    locatable public laundromats (or any at all), and even if you find one they're often expensive. Expect to pay anywhere from €5/load for

    self-service laundromats to around €10-15 per load for ones where you drop your clothes off and pick them up later. A lot of hostels

    also advertise having laundry facilities on sites like but don't actually offer laundry when you get there, or direct

    you to a local (or sometimes not so local) laundromat which is again usually expensive. If you're counting on having laundry facilities

    somewhere, try to contact them in advance to make sure it's what you expect. If you're traveling in Summer, you can try keeping your

    clothing to light synthetics which are easy to hand-wash in a bathroom sink and air-dry very quickly.

    * Don't confuse countries being part of the European Union with being in the "Euro Zone", ie using the € Euro currency. Even if a

    place offers to take currency which isn't the country's primary currency you'll usually find the convenience is outweighed by the dismal

    exchange rate they offer. That said, if you're in a country with a different local
    currency it might be worth buying things at the poor exchange rate simply to use up the last of
    your Euros.

    * Most shops in Europe will NOT accept a credit card without a chip. If you need to swipe and
    sign with your card, prepare to get a lot of frustrated rejections when you try to pay for things.
    At the very least, if you only have a swipe card, consider getting a pre-paid credit card with a
    chip before you leave so you aren't carrying large amounts of cash around needlessly.

    * In countries with stronger economies and higher amounts of tax going into public
    services, expect to see lots of "gypsies" (especially from Bulgaria, Romania and Albania). While it may be a point of conflict for many
    people, when you inevitably see non-locals standing/kneeling/whatever in major tourist spots with
    a cup putting on their best "I'm so pitiful" act, do NOT give them any money. Countries like
    Sweden have especially strong public welfare systems (as one would expect when as much as >50% of
    your salary goes to the tax man) and virtually no-one is legitimately homeless or desititute
    unless they have good reason to be. In the case of the 'gypsies', they can make far more money
    putting on a "poor me" act than the average honest citizen would make with a productive day job.
    It's not to say don't help the obviously needy where you can (and there are certainly many),
    just don't be a sucker about it.

    * Likewise watch out for obvious "ethnics" in crowded tourist spots who are selling things in the
    street when there is an obvious lack of locals selling it. Many are perfectly legitimate and the
    worst you have to worry about is being sold overpriced junk, but just as many are very experienced
    pickpockets. Call me "racist" if you want, but I'll be the one calling you "naive" when you get
    to your next stop, turn to get something out of your backpack and find it wide open with things
    missing. The quick hands also extend to street games - a favourite you'll probably see at least
    once or twice is where three boxes are placed on a mat with a pea under one of the boxes. The name
    of the 'game' escapes me at the moment but suffice to say it's a scam involving fast fingers and
    naive bystanders who are CERTAIN they know where the pea is. One quick way to confirm they're dodgy
    is look nervous and point discretely-but-obviously behind them saying "oh shit, police" or similar.
    Watch how quickly the games fold into a mat, the junk trinkets disappear into a bag and the
    dodgies melt into the crowd. Or simply try taking a video of their game on your phone and observe
    how many of the 'innocent bystanders' suddenly develop a vested interest in blocking your view
    and shuffling you away.

    * Taxis are another area where you can expect to get ripped off if the drivers smell a tourist.
    It doesn't matter what country you are in, one very simple rule applies. YOU always approach the
    taxi, not the other way around. If anyone comes offering YOU a taxi, just politely say "no I'm OK"
    and walk purposefully away from them. I say walk away because they'll keep at it from other angles,
    seeming to be polite and helpful ("do you need any help? Where do you need to find?") and it
    nearly always ends in "oh no busses that way, too far to walk, here I can drive you cheap, 5
    minutes OK boss?".

    * This will depend on the kind of person you are and what you want to get out of your trip, but if you want to meet locals, one

    of the best ways to do it is at a multi-day music festival. In hostels you tend to mostly meet travelers. In cities you meet people when

    they are living their normal lives and not necessarily at their friendliest or most outgoing. At a festival though, pretty much everyone

    is there to have a good time and much more open to meeting with strangers and chatting about everything under the sun. By picking a

    festival of a type you're actually interested in you're also likely to meet people with some common ground to chat about right off the

    bat. Easily 90%+ of the people I've met in Europe who I've become really good friends with I met at festivals, and through these people

    learnt far more about local culture, food, language, customs and non-touristy destinations than any guide book or commercial tour.

    Cannot recommend it highly enough.

    * Last but not least, I beg, try not to be one of "those" Aussies, ie 50% of everything that comes out of your mouth is "f*ck" or "c*nt" in your loudest and trashiest bogan voice. You'll find Americans are almost universally hated in Europe for being loud and obnoxious (and for their government, but also for the individuals), and while Australians are generally warmly welcomed in Europe we're gradually developing a similar reputation. I've been to plenty of hostels in particular where I hear other guests well before I see them and I feel compelled to open with an apology/disclaimer when others within the same hearing range ask where I'm from ("Australia, but I swear we're not all like that!").

    Buy a copy of Rick Steves' Best of Europe guidebook. Rick focuses his efforts on Europe and his guidebooks contain a wealth of tips to make the most of your time on a short trip. He does not cover every destination but the advice is up to date with every book revised every year and Rick still spends 4 months fact checking every year. His website is also a good resource.

      An excellent series of guidebooks.

    I went to Europe last year. 14 day Contiki tour - 7 countries. Far too fast. Every 2nd day was on a freeway for most the day.

    Great discussion! Just to wade into the train transport debate, as others have said even if you have a railpass you'll need to buy reservations for most high speed trains and most long-distance/overnight trains. In some cases, you can't use a railpass you have to just buy a ticket. It's worth doing lots of research beforehand as booking in advance by 3-4 months, when it opens you'll get the cheapest prices which is often cheaper overall than a pass.

    It's a fallacy you can buy a pass and hop on and off trains (as used to be the case in the golden days!)

    And take your time! People try to cover so much ground and it's better to slow it down and experience a place and not just do a whistle stop tour of all Europe just so you can say you've seen 10 countries!


    I've enjoyed using Tripit ( to keep track and share itineraries and it comes with great handy features e.g. Pick up a hire car in Bordeaux and with the night's accommodation booked in St Emillion, it generates Googlemaps style driving directions, weather forecast for region etc. Some really nice touches. Can sign in with Google account.

    Now a days there are some dedicated trip planning tools. If I remember it well was one of the first in its kind (focuses mainly on the US). A tool like that can come in handy planning a trip. Next to you general trip planning sites like tripadvisor, wikivoyage, etc. it will help you getting a better understanding of what's around and where you are actually going by displaying an itinerary on a map and connection selected places of interest. For Europe you can give a try a kind of for Europe, with the option of selecting your mode of transport (air, road, rail). Non of them is perfect but will surely help you in the planning stage. Of course combined with a good old fashion guide book like lonely planet or the eyewitness series and some googling :)

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