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*Post updated July 2019
Each time I plan a 10-day trip to Europe, I struggle with my age-old question: am I over-planning the trip, or am I not doing my homework? Am I going to do so little homework that I end up at all the wrong museums at all the worst times and wait in unnecessary lines and end up eating lunch at some horrible tourist trap where the crazy lady next to me spends the entire meal lecturing us about one time she had food poisoning on a cruise ship (this happened)?
Below you'll find my tips and tricks to use the right method to plan your trip in advance. However, this process assumes that you have your location all picked out. If you're having trouble nailing down a destination, check out these ideas for how to figure out which city in Europe is right for you! And, of course you'll need somewhere to sleep, so check out my thoughts on selecting hotels in Europe.
Make a list of must-see sites in the city you're visiting
First, in no particular order, make a list of all the places you have to see. Use blogs, travel books, your own knowledge of the place, and plain ol' Google to compile a rough list of places that are important to you. For now, this is just to get your juices flowing. But of course, traveling is not a check-list and I would strongly advise against feeling that you need to see *everything* in one trip. If you come across restaurants in this search, definitely include those on your list. For an approach to selecting restaurants in Europe, check out my musings on that very subject!
How to plan if you've already visited this European city
This list will be significantly different if you've visited a place before. For example, our most recent trip to London this past spring was my second in a couple years and my husband's third, including a period of living there. We'd already seen the main tourist sights on our most recent trip. There were some I wanted to see again - Westminster Abbey, for example, and some I could pass on. The Tower - lovely and historic, but so expensive without the London Pass, just didn't make the list for this specific trip. Our daily agenda (see below) for this trip was so much less detailed than it would have been for a first-time trip - some days just had a couple neighborhoods listed. I found this worked well, as we are so comfortable there, that we were able to change up the agenda at speed, and weren't attached to seeing specific things (if we arrived at something we had planned to see and found it crowded, or got side tracked, then we just did whatever we wanted and quickly reconfigured). I wouldn't have felt comfortable doing that in another destination.
Group attractions by location
Ok, so you have your list of things you want to see, and it's a jumbled mess. You've done some research about the city, and you're getting a sense of neighborhoods. So, now you need to morph your list by grouping the attractions by neighborhood. Open Google Maps and get sorting!
Decide whether you're going to buy a "Pass"
Lately, it seems that every major tourist city in Europe has developed a "pass." The London Pass and the Paris Pass are the two main options that come to mind. The passes can be very helpful, they generally are set-up to allow holders free or discounted entry to major tourist sites in the city, for a specific period of time, based on the price of the pass. They often involve the ability to skip lines, or special perks, including transportation.
Do not automatically assume that you will save money by purchasing one of these. Generally, they are most financially beneficial on first trips to a city, where you intend to take advantage of a large number of tourist sites, including the most expensive ones (such as the aforementioned Tower of London). Also, be sure to look at the timeframes in which the passes must be used. Normally, once you start using the pass, it kicks off the usage period - for example, say you buy a 5 day pass, where the 5 days must be used within 8 days. If you are going on 4 day trips during those 8 days, you are not going to be able to use one of the days you paid for on your pass. Or, if you do not intend to visit a large number of the sites that are included, it's better to just pay as you go.
Type up a day-by-day agenda
Now that you have your rough groupings of places you want to see by neighborhood, write out a detailed agenda with each "day" fairly fully planned. I list them out in a Google doc with hypothetical days connected to each planned day. However, I generally also assign a number to each day. To me, a "planned day" means a list of around 3 destinations we're hoping to see that day, and maybe a restaurant for lunch, all of which are reasonably close for walking, or a reasonable public transit trip. I like to pick a restaurant for dinner, but I generally avoid making reservations, unless the desired locale is extremely crowded.We generally don't do much at night, so that's normally open unless we're seeing a show.
I like to nail down only certainly days. For example, if we have day trips scheduled, naturally I include those on the agenda as well and those are normally tied to specific days, where train tickets are included.
Generally, we switch around the flexible days as the trip progresses, hence the numbering. The numbers probably sound silly, but it gets confusing when you change Wednesday for Saturday and half of Monday. Some of the most essential things to research in advance and lock-in on your schedule, are night openings of museums - a must, if they've available, days that places aren't open (generally Sunday or Monday, but not always the case!), or any times that a place is particularly crowded (for example, if something is closed on Monday, don't go on Tuesday).
Be realistic about your first day
Now that you have your day-to-day list, be flexible and rational about your first day in a new city after a ton of international travel. When we arrive on the first day, our goal is to see as much as we want and stay awake. If you arrive fairly early and efficiently, using the Heathrow Express, for example, we generally are even able to see a locale. For example, in Rome, we walked by the Pantheon at 4:30 on a Friday and found there wasn't a line - weird - so naturally we went in. Having checked a major place off of our list, of course that mean that we needed to...
Rearrange the schedule, as necessary
So, after our first day, we generally adjust the agenda to suit the following days. This allows the trip to progress naturally, but also does leave us in a situation where we have a full day ahead of us and no plan.
If it rains on the day we intended to go to Hampton Court, maybe we switch that with the British Museum day. If I'm sleepy one day, we might move days to push back a day trip. I find it works fairly well - we have some form of a plan so that we see the places we want to see in an organized way, but we also don't feel stuck to a rigid plan that would have us standing at the top of Stirling Castle in a blistering windstorm, missing one of the top attractions there - the lovely view! At the end of the trip, we've generally seen all of the things we wanted to see, and in a relatively organized fashion. I don't cram a ton of things into a trip, but what we do, I like to do without an unnecessary 10-mile walk and expensive cab ride back, so this works out well.
Be flexible with your plan
Things change. Your number one goal should be having fun and seeing as much as you reasonably can. Rearrange as necessary and be flexible!!
Summary: make a plan so you don't end up on a wild goose chase or at a loose end without a schedule (or at the Vatican at the wrong time...see below), but if you see an enoteca you can't resist, ditch the schedule and have fun!
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