I enjoy having a plan.
I usually enjoy the process of creating a plan too, but planning for a two-week trip to Europe seemed a little daunting to me. I had never planned a vacation of that scale before. When I studied abroad, it was with a decent-size group, and everything was organized for us. Most of the vacations we went on growing up were cruises, so again, minimal planning involved. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to figure everything out on my own, but I decided to try. David is allergic to planning things ahead of time, so I knew it would mostly be up to me. I did reach out to a European travel agent early on in the process, but they never responded to me. This is how I went about it.
- Step One: Dreaming/Budgeting
Long before we settled on any details for our trip, we talked about going on a big vacation together. We both love to travel, and the last time we did a big trip together was for our honeymoon in Hawaii in 2013. I studied abroad in Argentina in 2012, and David went to Greece for work trips in 2015 and 2016. Because of that, I really wanted to go to Europe, and David really wanted to go to South America. We decided that we would go to Europe for this trip since a South American trip would include Argentina, and that way we could go to places neither of us had ever been. We’re both Anglophiles, so of course the UK had to be one of our destinations, but we weren’t sure after that. Once we started talking about it, we put a separate travel line in our budget every month and started setting aside money. We wanted to have a wonderful, memorable time, but not wipe out our savings, so it was important to us to plan with a budget. This stage is also when we made sure our passports were renewed!
- Step Two: Crowdsourcing
Although we had never done a trip like this before, we have lots of friends who have. I started asking around for input from people who have been to Europe and have planned their own trips. This is how we found out that Dublin is the cheapest place to fly into, and were convinced that we needed to add Paris onto our trip. It’s also how I got the idea to use Southwest points to fly to New York first, which saved us hundreds of dollars on our transatlantic flights. A lot of people confirmed what we were thinking, that it’s better to just pick a few destinations and see them well, than to try to visit everywhere in one two-week span. We decided we didn’t want to spend a ton of time traveling between cities, so we narrowed our focus for this trip to just Dublin, Edinburgh, London, and Paris. That still felt like a lot, and we didn’t have a ton of time anywhere, but I’m glad we didn’t try to do any more than that. We had a few friends who have lived in those places, and their input was invaluable. Of course, staying with friends in Edinburgh was the best possible scenario. A few friends who had been on similar trips sent me their detailed itineraries, and that helped me figure out what details needed to be settled before we left.
- Step Three: Securing Dates
Once we had an idea of where exactly we wanted to go, it was time to nail down dates. We were pretty flexible because I don’t work in the summers, so really anytime from June to early August would work. We knew two weeks was about the maximum of what we could afford for this trip, so I just started looking for flights with all kinds of different dates to see if I could find a good deal. I used the app Hopper to help me keep track of flight prices. You put in your destination and when you want to go, and Hopper will help you find the best price and advise you when prices are likely as low as they will get.
I found a website called European Destinations through a Facebook group I’m a part of. There were several people who said they had booked a trip through the website and it worked out well for them. I was a little wary of it at first because the website doesn’t look really professional. I hadn’t heard of them previously and wasn’t sure if they were a reputable company, but I looked up lots of reviews and it all sounded good. European Destinations allows you to design your own trip, and they take care of booking it for you. You choose your dates and what cities you want to go to, and they will help you find flights, accommodations, and ways to travel between cities. It allowed me to create several different itineraries and save them so I could price compare different dates and order of travel. One of my itineraries I created ended up being a really great deal, and cheaper than it would have been for me to book it all separately. I was able to organize our flights to Dublin, hotel in Dublin, flight to Edinburgh, train to Paris, hotel in Paris, and flights back home all through their website. It was so easy, and everything worked out perfectly. They sent us vouchers for everything we would need on our trip ahead of time, and it was wonderful to have it all in one place. They were really helpful and quick to respond when I had questions. I highly recommend them if you’re booking travel on your own.
As we started getting things booked, I made a Google Doc with a detailed itinerary with a page for each day, including times, addresses of where we were staying, confirmation numbers for flights or train travel, and directions to get to the next place. I also kept a to-do list as the first page of the document with things to get, print, book, and do before leaving. Once everything was settled, I printed off a copy of the itinerary and brought it in a folder, each page in chronological order with copies of tickets and anything else needed for the day. It really helped to have it in a Google Doc because I could also access it on my phone when we were out and about and the folder wasn’t handy.
- Step Four: Where to Stay and Travel Between Cities
I did some of this through European Destinations and some of it on my own, all based on the price. I tried adding several different things to our European Destinations package, and then priced it myself separately to see if they were getting us a better deal or not.
For accommodations through European Destinations, you can choose what level hotel you want to stay in and then choose from several options they give you, all with reviews available. We found a hotel we liked in Dublin in a great location. Since we were staying with friends in Edinburgh, I could opt out of a hotel there. I looked into other places to stay in London and found a better deal through AirBnb, so I opted out of that on our itinerary too. Side note: London is EXPENSIVE. It was by far the most expensive place we stayed on our trip, even though our room was teeny-tiny. I booked our hotel room in Paris directly through the website as well. For each city, I checked the options to European Destinations, googled hotels and hostels, and checked AirBnb.
I looked up train tickets from Edinburgh to London through a rail line that a friend had recommended and found them to be cheaper than what European Destinations was offering, so I booked those on my own. The EuroStar from London to Paris was cheaper through European Destinations, so I booked that directly with them. For me, it was worth checking on all of those things because it ended up saving us a pretty decent chunk of money to do the research and pick and choose what we wanted included in the package.
The train travel between Edinburgh and London, and then London and Paris, was so easy, simple, and comfortable. I highly recommend traveling by train whenever possible.
- Step Five: Activities
Once our days were set in each city, it was time to start breaking down what we wanted to do with our time in each place.
I sat down with David and made a list of what our priorities were in each place. Once we had ideas of what we wanted, I looked them up on a map and looked for things that were close to each other and made sense to do on the same day. I settled on an itinerary for each day in each city, starting with Dublin since we were going there first, and working my way through to Paris. Most cities offer some kind of museum pass that allows you to skip the line at different attractions. I priced out the pass vs. admission prices at each of the places we wanted to go. For all the cities we went to, it wasn’t worth it for us to buy the pass. If we were in each place longer or spent more time at museums, it would have been a great idea. Since it didn’t work out to do it that way, I just bought our admission tickets to each place online and printed them out. For most of the places we visited, buying tickets ahead of time allowed us to skip the line or join a shorter line when we got there. Some things, like the Harry Potter studio tour, required us to purchase tickets ahead of time. I looked for tickets to that about four months before our trip, and by then there was only one time slot left during the whole time we were in London. I ended up having to rework our whole itinerary for London to make it fit since we really wanted to to do the studio tour. If you’re going to try to do that, make sure you book it early!
The fine print on the tickets told us if we could just show them on our phones or needed to print them out, and where to go on arrival. It was different for everywhere we went, but I printed them all out just in case our WiFi wasn’t working on our phones.
Once we had our itinerary set, I also started working out how to get to each place. We walked and used public transportation whenever possible. I downloaded apps for the Subway in New York, Tube in London, and Metro in Paris. Each of those are super helpful, and allow you to plan your route. They’ll tell you which trains to get on and which stops to get off, and where you need to change trains. I was so glad I had downloaded all of those, and ended up using them multiple times before we left and while we were there.
I tried to do some research on places to eat, and it was hard for me to find places on Yelp or Google. I found a few places through Facebook groups that people recommended, like White Mulberries in London, but for the most part we just found stuff around us and it worked out great. In Edinburgh, it was really great to have Meagan there to eat with us or recommend places she liked.
The most scheduled thing we planned was our tour with Rabbie’s in the Scottish Highlands (see Scotland Part 2 for details). It was so much better than we expected, and we would really highly recommend it.
- Step Six: Just Go
I spent a lot of time researching and planning. There were a couple of weekends in the late winter and early spring where I really did nothing except work out details. It was totally worth it. We didn’t have to spend any time while we were there figuring out what we wanted to do or how to go about it. Now that it’s over, I’m so glad I invested the time to do that before we left so we could maximize the time we had there. However, there came a point when it was time to stop planning and just let it be. There were all kinds of things we couldn’t plan for or had to be flexible in, and one of the days we had a super loose schedule for the day ended up being one of our favorite days on the trip. I’m glad we left room for spontaneity and making decisions on the fly. It was the best of both worlds for David and me to have days when there was a loose plan, but freedom to linger where we wanted or break off and do something else that looked interesting. Eventually, it’s time to just go and enjoy it!