As I’m sure most people (especially Australians) would agree, COVID hung around a lot longer than I thought it would. With international travel finally back on the cards, I’m starting to plan future trips, particularly future holidays to Europe.
To plan my trips I use a mix of Excel spreadsheets (you can use them in Google Sheets which is like a free online version of Excel or Number for Mac) and an itinerary template I created in Microsoft Word.
I find other blogger’s itineraries and tips for planning itineraries very helpful, so wanted to share my own Europe trip planning process.
Warning, if you’re not a type A personality and don’t like to plan detailed itineraries, this post might not be for you…
Things I consider when planning a Europe trip
I have a very detailed post with the 50 Things to consider when planning an itinerary. But in this post I really wanted to get specific about planning a Europe itinerary.
I use a similar method for planning any holiday:
- Order of countries I’m visiting
- Timings & how long to stay in each city
- Time of year visited – seasons, weather, opening hours for main attractions
- Train versus bus versus plane
- DIY day trips versus pre-booked group tours
- Will the trip be too long?
- What could I change about this itinerary?
- What are my ‘must visit’ versus ‘good to visit’ destinations
I consider the cost when booking things like train versus a plane, type of accommodation and day tours. However, budget is not my main concern. I’m not going to skimp on cost and take the view that it costs whatever it costs. Past trips usually end up being about 15% more than I initially expected and I’m totally fine with that. I will not sacrifice decent accommodation and a good night sleep, or use an airline with a poor safety record, just to save a few dollars.
Countries Visited (in this order)
The trip was 45 days including travel days. I lose minimum 24 hours traveling each way to / from Australia. Half day transit each time I leave a destination is included in the timings for each country in the list below.
- Travel day – flight from Australia to Copenhagen (1 day)
- Denmark (2 days) – Copenhagen
- Finland (6 days) – Helsinki & Rovaniemi
- Estonia (3 days)
- Latvia (3 days)
- Lithuania (3 days)
- Netherlands (5 days)
- Belgium (3 days)
- Luxembourg (1 day – day trip from Brussels)
- Czech Republic (5 days)
- Croatia (2 days)
- Slovenia (3 days)
- Germany (7 days)
- Travel day – flight home to Australia (1 day)
Tutorial on how I make my travel photobooks is coming soon!
This order may appear odd, zig zagging across Europe, but there are very good reasons for that which I’ll explain more in this post.
Download a copy of my itinerary
If you’d like to download a copy of my detailed itinerary for this holiday, click here.
Why I visited the countries in this order
I departed September 11th and arrived back October 26th. I debated the country order a lot but in the end I wouldn’t change the countries visited or the order that I visited them.
- I always take the view that, if, for whatever reason I couldn’t get back to Europe for a while what would I regret not seeing and doing? (Covid arrived 3 months after I got back from this trip so I was glad I had taken this approach!)
- I was doing part of the trip with my sister who really wanted to see the northern lights in Finland
- I was travelling with my Mum – what things interest her and what places does she want to visit? She’s not getting any younger, so what activities do we want to do now while we’re both fit and healthy?
- We wanted to see autumn colors so I started with the northernmost countries as the Autumn colors would descend down the continent as the month went on. I researched what time of year autumn colors typically arrived in each of those countries and that influenced the country order as well
- Avoid Oktoberfest in Germany. I have zero interest in drinking and partying and I wouldn’t go to Oktoberfest in any country (let alone Germany), even if you paid me to go. Accommodation in Munich was also more expensive and hard to find during Oktoberfest
- Geographical distance, travel time & transport connections. Latvia and Lithuania weren’t even on my list. However they are right next to Estonia which was on the list. It’s only approx. 4 hour bus ride between these countries, they’re cheap to visit and not over-run with tourists yet so I figured why not add them to the list?
- Belgium is an easy train ride from the Netherlands. Could take an early train so can have most of the day in Belgium
- Prague had very limited flight options out of the country. No matter what countries I ordered after it in the itinerary, we had to do a stopover in Frankfurt to get anywhere other than the ‘big’ places like Paris. Brussels had a direct flight to Prague so we managed to avoid a stopover on the way there
- We only spent 2 days in Croatia. It wasn’t on the list either however, Zagreb where you can take a day trip from to the Plitvice Lakes, is a short bus ride from Ljubljana and we knew we wanted to go to Slovenia.. so Croatia was added to the list
- I don’t like to spend more than about 5 days (including day trips) in one place. I usually do 8am to 6pm or even 8pm itineraries so after 5 days in a major city like London or Paris I’ve had enough of a taste and am ready to explore something new
- Day trip options. I spend at least half as long as the actual holiday just planning the holiday. I enjoy itinerary planning and like taking my time, but day trips is one of the most frustrating things to coordinate. Some tours only operate on certain days of the week, or you need a morning tour but it’s only offered in the afternoon. I don’t want the hassle of hiring a car, figuring out how to drive in another country and no doubt getting lost, so lesser visited countries and attractions like the Plitvice lakes were planned around a weekend in order to do the day trip
We were actually only going to go for about 4 – 5 weeks, but Europe is so accessible once you get there and everything is so close which is how the trip ended up being 6.5 weeks.
Another thing I considered was a ‘travel to do list’ I created years ago, of all the countries I wanted to visit before I turned 30 and roughly in what order and at what time of year. I clustered places I wanted to see at certain times e.g. Alsace region of France at Christmastime, autumn colors, a Christmas markets European river cruise etc. So I tried to leave those places out, or if places were on this itinerary, I’d be happy to visit them again at another time of year e.g. I could go back to Amsterdam at springtime to see the tulips and it’s a hub to go in and out of Europe anyway so am likely to fly into Europe via there next time I visit.
This was my original travel plan I did in my digital notebook.. before I knew how long covid would drag on.
The first country we were going to visit was actually supposed to be Finland to meet up with my sister who had been in Russia prior. However, there aren’t any flights from Australia that will go directly from the key stopovers (Singapore, Dubai, Doha) to Helsinki. The only way to get to Helsinki was by flying through these stopovers and having another stopover somewhere in Europe.
The best option for flight times with the least amount of wasted time and for a reasonable price, was actually Copenhagen, Denmark. Quite odd as it’s an expensive destination once you get there. But then I thought, actually, that works out well. I’d be happy to go there and I’m not deliberately paying for a flight to get to Copenhagen, plus it aligned with a flight 2 days later that would go to Helsinki so I could land at 6:30am and have 2 full days in Copenhagen. Sold!
Another reason I thought Denmark would be good, is that less people are likely to go there as it’s so expensive, so the plane might not be as full. And it wasn’t. My Mum and I managed to have an empty seat between us on both legs of the flight there. Which really makes a difference when you’re flying cattle class.
I liked Nyhavn so much I made it the cover of my travel photobook
I will only fly on airlines that have a reputable safety history and I will happily pay extra for this. This does eliminate a few flight path routes to Europe, but the time is always about 24 hours, one way from Australia no matter which way you go anyway.
Another thing that I’ll admit was in the back of my mind. We were departing on September 11th… Just in case in the extremely unlikely event of something like a flight highjacking happening again on that anniversary, I will admit I didn’t bother looking at flight routes that went via the USA.
I will also only fly long haul with airlines that allow a decent baggage allowance (about 32kg per checked bag). On long haul for 6 weeks I knew my bag would probably end up near that weight by the time I’d finished buying chocolate, stationery and whatever else I found. I don’t want the hassle of having to pre-buy extra baggage or dealing with airport staff buying extra luggage allowance at the check in counter.
I have flown via Singapore’s Changi airport both times I’ve been to Europe and really like that airport – very easy to navigate
Train versus bus versus plane
If I can avoid getting on a plane in Europe, I do it. Train travel and bus travel are easy, inexpensive options.
- Most depart from the central station where the accommodation is near so don’t need to lug suitcases far
- Reasonable price and can get plenty of deals with a Eurostar or Eurail ticket
- Scenery out the window to look at
- There are usually tv like screens in the carriage telling you what stop is next, as well as a verbal announcement. You can also track where you are via Google Maps on your phone so I’ve never needed to ask a stranger for directions at a train station
- Less security. Once I enter the Schengen there’s no airport style security, it’s just like boarding a normal train. If you take a flight from a Schengen country to another Schengen country, you have to get to the airport really early and go through security. The time isn’t worth it for a short flight
- If you’re taking a long distance train and depending on the company, you can pre-select your seat when you buy the ticket (it may cost a few dollars extra)
- Most stations have lifts to the platform but there is the risk that they might not. For whatever reason I noticed there was usually a large step from the train down to the platform so keep that in mind
- Can walk around the train carriages
- No plane toilet, train toilets are usually cleaner
- Most arrive at the central station where again, I typically book accommodation so don’t need to lug suitcases
As for taking the bus, I prefer to take the train so have only done the Lux bus around Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the Flixbus from Zagreb to Ljubljana. The Lux bus was great. TV screens on the back of the seats, hardly anyone on the bus so you could spread out, no designated seats, curtains to block out the light. I’d use it again.
I had heard many stories from other people saying the Flixbus does not wait and will leave without you if you are late. I was so paranoid about this I didn’t drink any water so I wouldn’t need to get off the bus at one of the designated rest stops to go the toilet and risk them driving off without me! Apart from this paranoia and the bus driver not speaking English, the Flixbus was great. Only $20 AUD for a 2 hour bus ride, comfortable seats and they lifted my luggage in and out of the hold underneath the bus. I’d take it again for bus trips 4 hours or less and if the timings worked with my itinerary.
Timings & how long to stay in each city
I thoroughly researched everything so had a very good idea of how long it would take to get between places, which days I could switch based on weather, how far things were from the hotel etc. I spend so much time pouring over itineraries that I can basically recite the entire thing off by heart by the time I actually go on the trip.
Most of the days were 8am to 8pm. We fit in absolutely everything we wanted to see with no regrets and didn’t feel like we missed out on anything.
For me, the more well-known ‘big’ cities (e.g. London, Paris, Amsterdam) need 4 – 5 days and smaller cities (e.g. Prague, Vienna, Copenhagen) need 2 – 3 days to see the highlights. These timings do not include travel which may be half a day on each of the arrival and departure days. I usually do 1 – 2 full day or half day trips in each city which is included within these timings.
The only thing I’d change was that I didn’t need 7 days in Germany. I could’ve removed the day trip from Frankfurt to Marburg and the day trip from Munich to Lake Chiemsee HerrenChiemmse Palace (if you’ve been to Versailles don’t bother, you’ll be underwhelmed). Instead I would’ve either reduced the length of the trip, or added another part of Germany to get some more variety into the itinerary (I should’ve added more of the romantic road).
You can download a copy of my full itinerary here. If you prefer a slow pace of travel, you might need to add a half day or day in each city.
Time of year visited
I think September to October (autumn) was a great time of year to visit Europe. I have also been in April to May (spring) and really enjoyed that too. Visiting Europe during the summer months doesn’t interest me. Too many crowds of tourists, too hot (my chocolate snacks will melt!) and plus I’ll want to drink more water and if you’ve been to Europe I’m sure you aware of the toilet situation (or lack of). Prices can also be higher and depending on where you go I think it could be very difficult to find a restaurant for dinner without pre-booking.
So if you’re not sure when to go, try the shoulder season (April to June and September to November).
Related post: Bruges and Ghent day trip from Brussels via the train
DIY day trips versus pre-booked group tours
In less popular countries like Slovenia, the day tours don’t run every day and when they do, it’s a mini bus. There were only 4 – 6 people plus the tour guide on tours. It was far more enjoyable not having to wait for the stragglers, people had more of a say in the timings of things, they add little extras like ‘here’s a nice viewpoint let’s stop for photos’, they can buy tickets for you saving you time (and sometimes can swing a small discount for you too), you could ask the tour guide for restaurant recommendations, they’d talk about their life in that country. Overall just a much better, more personalised experience.
These tours can cost a bit more just because there are no other day tour options and obviously not as economical as operating a giant bus but I much prefer this style of travel.
You don’t get any of that on the big tour groups. I once had one where I was sitting at the front of the bus and could see the reflection of the tour guide in the windscreen… she was reading word for word off of palm cards!
Compare that to the tour for Neuschwanstein where there were 70 people on a 2 level bus and Grayline tours had 3 buses of that size departing on a single day (this was in October – shoulder season), I’d hate to know how crowded it gets in the summer.
Why do day tours instead of on my own? Some places you have to have a car to get around and I don’t think it would be possible for me to fit everything into 1 day. Directions, parking, finding a place to eat. Tour guides know where to go, have arrangements with restaurants, reserved tour bus parking. It makes it much more efficient. They usually have the timings down pat if they’ve been running the tour for a few years and sometimes I think I’d like a bit more time and some less, but I’ll take that trade off for just being able to go there. If it’s a choice between hiring a car or taking a tour I’d take the tour. But if there are trains and buses easily accessible I would rather do it myself.
If you were an influencer or professional photographer you’ll probably need an overnight in places like Rothenberg because there’s no way you’re going to get the perfect shot in the limited time on an organized day tour.
I purchased a train ticket from Amsterdam to go to Zaanse Schans, The Hague and then back to Amsterdam. But there were only certain trains that the ticket allowed (think it was non-express trains only), so we had to wait half an hour for the right train. If you were on a tour bus you wouldn’t have this problem so pros and cons for doing / not doing an organized day tour.
You can see the level of detail I go into when I plan a day trip myself versus joining an organized bus tour in my itinerary for this trip.
Was the trip too long?
Yes. The first Europe trip I did was 5.5 weeks. I felt this wasn’t quite enough. The second trip was 6.5 weeks. I felt like this was a little too much. I think for me the 6 week mark is the sweet spot. At the pace I travel it’s usually 20,000+ steps per day, going to viewpoints at night so getting back to the hotel late, getting up early the next morning for a group tour or to be at an attraction at opening time to avoid crowds and get good photos. By the 6 week mark I’m too tired to continue going at that pace.
If you travel at a slower pace you could spend a bit longer but once I spend about 5 days in one city I feel like I’m done, I’ve seen the highlights and I’m ready for a different city or country.
Read more: Tallin’s best viewpoints
What would I change about this itinerary?
Not much! I thoroughly research and planned everything so I was really happy with how the trip went. The only thing I would change is spending more time in Luxembourg (overnight instead of a rushed day trip where 6 hours was spent on a bus). It’s not far from Colmar and Alsace so I can add Luxembourg into a Christmas markets itinerary I want to do in that area on another trip (and would see it during a different season too).
I didn’t know this was going to happen when I planned the itinerary, but the only way to get from Ljubljana to Munich was on Slovenia’s national airline.. which went bust a few weeks before our flight. We had to re-book flights which sent us up to Warsaw in Poland with a connection back down to Munich (so 7 hours instead of 2 hours). We didn’t want to rush Ljubljana so we opted for the flight (which departed at 5pm). There was a train through Austria which left in the morning and would’ve taken the same amount of time and I’m sure would’ve been very scenic. If I’d known the issue with flights was going to happen before the trip, I probably would’ve rejigged the itinerary and opted for the train instead.
Download a copy of my itinerary
You can download a copy of my full itinerary here.
You can copy parts of my itinerary or gain an idea of what you can fit into each day at each destination. I split each day into morning and afternoon.
I hope this gave you some ideas for planning your own European holiday!
More travel tips
- Travel Planning: 50 Things to consider when planning an itinerary
- How I use Excel to organize all my travel plans (research, itinerary, hotel, tours, bookings, packing list etc.)
- Travel Planning: How to choose a hotel (my step by step process)
- Visit a City versus Google My Maps: which is better for visually planning your travel itinerary
- How I plan and make travel photobooks (plus download my workflow printable)
- 115 Things to Google before your next vacation
- 50 Things you must see and do when visiting London
- Guide to Visiting the Isle of Capri (Itinerary & Tips)
- Copenhagen Weekend (2 Day) Itinerary (What to see & do and best photo spots)
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