Itinerary Planning Advice for Budget Backpacking in Europe
A proper itinerary is essential if you want to go backpacking cheaply in Europe. There are so many amazing places to visit in Europe — you could travel for over 12 months and still feel like you’ve missed a lot. It can be very difficult to narrow down exactly where you want to visit, and a lot of travelers can really struggle with the decision. It takes a lot of creativity, and you’ll probably spend many hours trying to nail down your itinerary. There are multiple strategies for traveling, and it’s up to you to find the one that works the best for your journey.
Keep in mind that the length of your trip has a huge impact on how much of an itinerary you’ll need. Basically, the shorter your trip, the more you need to plan. Anything under two weeks should be planned out in-depth; trips two to four weeks require a little less planning; and anything over a month can mostly be planned as you travel (although you should still do some planning ahead of time).
**Cheesy Analogy Alert** Planning is a lot like doing a puzzle. You start by assembling the border (your arrival and departure dates) because it is the easiest. Then you figure the rest out. Sometimes you have a few chunks assembled, but it takes a lot of trial and error before you complete it.
Why Should I Plan an Itinerary? I Want To Be A Free Spirit!
Some people travel to Europe with the “I’ll just wing it and see what happens” attitude. I was one of those people, and it doesn’t work. Without planning, you waste a lot of time on trivial stuff that you could have easily done at home, and you end up missing a lot of great things. It takes 10 minutes to book a hostel online, but it can take you an hour or two trying to find one randomly in an unfamiliar city. It takes an hour to research a city to find stuff that looks interesting, but showing up in a city without any clue about what it has to offer can be a disaster. You’ll spend all your time wandering, and you might not find anything that is really interesting to you. European cities are not like Disneyland — everything isn’t laid out all nice and neat. Sights are spread throughout the city, and you’ll never find the little gems if you don’t look ahead of time. You don’t have to plan out every second of your trip, but a little homework really pays off.
Note: I tried to present these steps in a logical order, but it is impossible to document exactly how to choose your itinerary. I think these steps will get you about 70% to where you need to be, but you’ll have to figure out your own system to do the rest.
Step One: Choose the time of year you want to travel. Check out our guide on picking which season to travel.
Step Two: Pick your travel dates. Your dates are usually determined by your budget or available free time — probably a combination of the two. How you plan a two-week trip is a lot different than a six-month trip. Don’t count the days you arrive and depart because you won’t be doing much on those days.
Step Three: Write down anything you are 100% certain you are going to do. This is stuff like “I have tickets to the Daft Punk concert on June 18th in Paris” or “My rich uncle is letting us stay at his villa in Tuscany May 5th-13th.” These are dates that can’t be moved. You’ll have to plan around these events, so they’ll greatly affect your other travel plans.
Step Four: Break out the map and start brainstorming where you want to visit. Go the the bookstore to take a look at the travel books. Look online at travel sites. Write down all the places that look interesting (don’t limit yourself at this point – go crazy). Think about what kind of stuff you’re interested in seeing — Do you want to see castles, beaches, WWII sights, major cities, nature, etc? Click Here for the Best Travel Guidebooks and Travel Guide Websites for Budget Backpacking in Europe.
Step Five: Start narrowing down your list. I would make three lists: 1) places you 100% want to see, 2) places you really want to see, and 3) places you could live without. You’ll find yourself returning to this step often as you narrow down your list.
Step Six: Write down how many days you think you’ll want to spend in each city. Don’t rush it! This is where many beginners — myself included — make mistakes. Naturally, you want to see as much as possible, so you end up trying to jam a million things into a short amount of time. You’ll just end up missing a lot, and you will get burned out. Getting burned out is one of the worst things that can happen. It will make your trip extremely stressful, and you might get to the point where you hate traveling.
I would recommend a minimum of 3 full days for big cities (and that is really rushing it). You can easily spend 5-9 days in cities like London and Paris without getting bored. The list below indicates the minimum amount of days that I think you should spend in each city. Remember that only staying for the minimum will feel like a whirlwind.
Don’t forget that there are a lot of good day trips that can be taken while in big cities.
Don’t forget to take travel time into account! Many beginner travelers forget how much time it takes to travel from one city to another. The traveling process includes getting to the airport/train station (you usually have to get there early), time spent traveling, getting to your new hostel, checking in, etc.
An Example Of How Travel Time Adds Up — Paris To Amsterdam (By Train)
- Hostel to Metro Station: 15 minute walk + 5 minute wait for the train
- Metro Ride to Train Station: 45 minutes
- Wait Time at Train Station: 30 minutes (you don’t want to miss your train)
- Train Ride From Paris to Amsterdam: 4.5 hours
- Walking to New Hostel: 35 minutes
- Getting Checked In and Putting Your Stuff Away: 20 minutes
Total Travel Time: About 7 hours (even though the train ride was only 4.5 hours). This also doesn’t take into account the extra time you’ll spend getting lost when you can’t find your new hostel (it will happen, trust me).
Another Travel Note: Traveling is exhausting. Spending all your time on a plane/train is terrible and by the time you arrive at your new hostel, you’ll be too tired to want to do anything. So this is another reason to slow down and to spend more time in each of your destinations.
Step Seven: At this point, you have a rough idea of where you want to visit. I would now start looking at your plane ticket to/from Europe. You have two options when purchasing a ticket. You can either buy a standard ticket or an “open jaw” ticket.
- Standard Ticket: You arrive and depart from the same airport. These can be good if you’re traveling in a specific region and the airport is relatively near where you’re traveling.
- For example, you want to travel to France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. You can easily fly in and out of Paris because you can design your travel so you go in a loop with Paris being at the end of the journey.
- Open Jaw: You arrive and depart from different airports. This can be a good option if you plan on traveling a good distance away from your arrival airport.
- For example, if you want to visit Ireland, England, France, and Germany, it makes sense to fly into Dublin and leave from Frankfurt.
There are many factors that go into what plane ticket you purchase. An open jaw ticket could cost a lot more, so you might have to adjust your trip based upon that factor. There can be a huge price difference between airports, so you might have to base your trip around that factor too. Click here for our guide to finding the cheapest airfare to Europe.
Step Eight: Decide on the best route to take. Try to avoid backtracking because it wastes time and money. Get a calendar and block out the days you’ll visit each location. Remember not to rush.
Step Nine: Now you should figure out your transportation costs. Are you going to take the train (buy tickets or use a Eurail pass), are you going to take planes, rent a car, or maybe use the bus? Are you going to take multiple forms of transportation? You need to price each option and figure this into your budget.
Get a rough idea of how much it is going to cost to get from city to city. You might start to see how much transportation eats into your budget. If the costs are too high, you might want to limit the number of cities you visit.
Even if you’re using a rail pass, you should still get an idea of where you want to visit. You want to use your pass as efficiently as possible. Click here for our guide to choosing and using a Eurail pass.
Step Ten: Go back through all the steps above (in no specific order) until you figure out your itinerary. Remember that all this will take some time and you’ll change your mind often.
It is important to remember that this isn’t about planning every second of your trip. You’ll drive yourself crazy doing that, but you’ll save a lot of money — and frustration — by planning as much as possible.
Savvy Tip For Beginners: If you’re a new traveler, I suggest starting your trip in an English speaking country. London is an excellent place to start. Aside from being one of the greatest cities in the world, it is foreign enough to be interesting, but similar enough to not be overwhelming (it also has excellent links to the rest of Europe). This way, you’ll ease into traveling before heading off to non-English speaking countries.
Savvy Tip Number Two: Don’t forget about jet lag. Your first day might be a little rough, so don’t plan on doing a ton of stuff. But don’t go to sleep in the middle of the day either because this will really mess you up.
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