Planning a Trip to Europe: part 2, Choosing a Destination and Buying Tickets
Welcome back to planning my would-be trip! Last time we talked turkey about budget figures. Today we talk about the next step of the planning process: how to decide where you’re going and how to get there.
If you’re planning a Europe trip (which thus far, all of ours have been), we often start with Rick Steves’ YouTube Channel just to see what’s out there and what piques our interest, as well as get our daily dose of dad jokes and fashion. (Last night I had the novel experience of watching one of his episodes, only to say, “Cute place, but I’d rather go elsewhere right now.” Never had that happen before, but totally helpful!) Before you decide where you’re going, it also helps to figure out what sort of activities you’d like to do: lots of food? museums? shopping? history? hiking? sitting and doing nothing? How many people are going and how busy/ambitious do you want to be? (Trip pacing coming up next!) Once we’ve figured out a broad outline of what we want to do, we buy a guide book(s) to help us in our initial planning; cities we want to visit, in what order they should be visited, how long we want to stay, and best ways to get there and get around. Again, we are fans of Rick Steves’ books for their practicality and clarity, not to mention suggested itineraries and which airports get you closest to where you want to go (between our families we own Spain, Germany, France, London, Italy, and have borrowed Czech Republic, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Despite all this, Rick has no idea who we are. Yet. Hi, Rick!)
Once we know where we want to go, time to stalk some flights! (I don’t book any lodging or transportation where I’m going until I have airline tickets in hand.) Getting a great deal on flights seems to me to be key to affordable international travel, especially with a crowd. You will most likely need some flexibility in your dates (and possibly your ideal destination) to get the best deal, but the savings are worth it! Traveling during the so-called “shoulder season” (usually April-May and September-October, depending on the destination) is our vote — everything’s in less demand since it’s not peak season yet, so your money goes further, but the weather is usually lovely, and it’s close enough to peak season for most everything to be open.
We highly recommend Scott’s Cheap Flights for scoring airline deals. (Scott doesn’t know who we are either, but we have a crush on him anyway. Hi, Scott!) It’s an email subscription that notifies you of airline sales (and possibly also mistake fares), with both a free and premium level. The free version is more than enough to trigger serious wanderlust, but for $39 a year the premium version will send you even more deals, and you can filter by airport. (I had to unsubscribe from even the free version because it was killing me to see that I could FLY TO GENEVA ROUND.TRIP. FOR $485. For our next trip I’m definitely buying a premium subscription.)
If you don’t live near a major airport, it may require some creativity to score a good deal… or friends near an airport. Consider multiple departure airports to cast your net as wide as possible. What, exactly, constitutes a good deal will vary on where you’re headed and how big the airport you’re leaving from is, but from New Orleans to anywhere in Europe I would consider anything $500 or less a bargain. If you’re flying out of NYC, a great buy can be even significantly less than that. If you’re considering booking two different tickets (say, to a major airport to catch the cheap international flight), be careful! Leave LOTS of time in between flights, so if there’s a delay you don’t miss your next flight. If you book separate legs the airline is under no obligation to you get to your final destination (file that under “lessons learned the hard way”, though it did pan out. After we payed extra money.)
If you’re traveling with children, you may have a lap infant up to the age of two (there will be taxes/fees involved on an international flight, so they won’t be totally free), and often airlines will give a little reduction in fare for young children (it will apply automatically). Don’t forget to get even the smallest babies a passport! And both parents have to be present when applying unless you have a notarized form for the absent parent.
Narrowing down what I want to see in a trip can be difficult (I want to see AAALL the stuff!), so now that we’ve figured out where we want to go, next up we’ll be talking trip pacing and booking accommodations.