Itinerary Planning Advice for Budget Backpacking in Europe

trip planning 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 is 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 2-4 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 like a hour to research a city to find stuff that looks interesting, but showing up in a city without any clue to 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 Disney Land — everything isn’t all laid out 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 any 100% certain things 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 not be moved. You’ll have to plan around these events so they’ll greatly effect 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, 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 burnt-out. Getting burnt-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.

  • Amsterdam — 2-3 days
  • Bruges — 1-2 days
  • Athens — 1-2 days
  • Barcelona — 2-3 days
  • Berlin — 2-3 days
  • Budapest — 2-3 days
  • Florence — 2-3 days
  • Edinburgh — 2-3 days
  • Dublin — 2-3 days
  • London — 3-4 days
  • Krakow — 2-3 days
  • Madrid — 2-3 days
  • Interlaken — 2-3 days
  • Munich — 1-2 days
  • Paris — 3-4 days
  • Prague — 2-3 days
  • Rome — 3-4 days
  • Seville — 1-2 days
  • Venice — 2-3 days
  • Vienna — 1-2 days

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 traveling, getting to the new hostel, checking in.

An Example Of How Travel Time Adds Up — Paris To Amsterdam (By Train):
Hostel>Metro Station: 15 minute walk + 5 minute wait for the train
Metro Ride To The Correct 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 Your 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. These can be 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. Therefore 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 you trip around that factor too. Click here for the Savvy 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.

Note: 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 The Savvy guide for choosing and using an 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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  • Susan W.

    I think this is a good guide for trip planning.
    Don’t forget to schedule some time outside the cities. After a while all the cities start to seem the same so I recommend spending some time smaller towns/villages. It is a nice change of pace.

    • TSB

      I totally agree. I love being in big cities but it was really nice to visit some of the smaller towns. I think most people only stick to the huge cities and I think they’re missing out on a major part of European culture by only seeing the large cities. There is a lot of nice countryside in Europe and the relaxation is great. Thanks for your comments!

      • Jen

        I’ve heard this as well, but how do you get to small towns? I was hoping to avoid driving!

        • Corinna

          Stuttgart (Baden-Wuertemburg, Germany) has a great train system that can get you to all sorts of interesting small towns easily. For example, you can hop on the S-Bahn and go to Weil der Stadt and see the birthplace of Johanes Kepler complete with medieval buildings and town wall, or go to Ludwigsburg and tour the palace and gardens of the Dukes/Kings of Wuertemburg. You can get an all-day ticket for a reasonable price. I am sure other cities have similar systems that will allow you to see smaller places without driving as well. Hope this helps!

        • dan

          you are an idiot

  • Pingback: Travel Information Overload | The Ultimate Round Trip()

  • el

    Very useful tips! Thanx!

  • http://www.cheapflightstrip.blogspot.in/ cheap flights Trip

    Amazing article. very helpful and useful tips..

  • Natalie

    This is amazing! The step by step process you have laid out is calming my stressed out mind. Thank you for the invaluable advice :)

  • anya

    I’m going to be traveling for 7 weeks, part of which is during the high tourist season. I want to keep things flexible, but I have a (probably illegitimate) worry that if a book hostels as I go (vs ahead of time), I may end up without a decent place to stay…is this something I need be concerned about? Thanks for all the great tips!

    • savvybackpacker

      Hi Anya,
      I wouldn’t worry too much about it. You should be fine if you book a day or two in advance. You might not always get your top choice but you should still be able to find something. Just try to book as early as you feel comfortable without cramping your travel style.

  • Martin Breslin

    One thing that should be mentioned about transportation is costs. In many European countries, train fares are lower if booked in advanced. You must have a specific itinerary planned, as advanced tickets are not flexible.

  • Gilda

    I’ve enjoyed reading your amazingly detailed and very informative blog entries. We’re planing a trip to Europe next year but want to do some sightseeing around as we will most likely fly into London but end up in Brno for a wedding. Big thing is we will have out 4 and 2 year old kiddos with us…so we’re a bit worried we may cram too much! I am sure we’ll eventually figure it out. I just wanted to say a big humongous THANK YOU! I have been doing research and reading for the last month to determine an itinerary and your blog is one of my top ones now. Carry on traveler!

  • Paula

    This helps a lot! Thank you

  • Merliejo

    Gosh, I SO need your help right now! :) Parents invited me to a quick 2-week trip to Europe. My gut is telling me that this is going to be a crazy trip because 1)we’ve NEVER been to Europe and 2)we are leaving in 1 week! YES. 1 week!!!!!

    With that said, they also asked me to make a route and find hotels. Ahhhh!!! Wanna cry. So, this morning…I have our hotel in Paris booked. But now, I have to find out places in London, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. With just 2 weeks, I’m freaking out just a tad. Ok, More than a tad.

    SO here I go. If you have any tips for me, please add. I will use them! :) Thanx for a great site~!!!

    Crap. Forgot about train tickets. Holey Moley Batman!

    • savvybackpacker

      Cut down on your destinations. You have way too much crammed into two weeks. Right now you have about 2.5 days per city country and that doesn’t include travel time. I’d pick three places… London, Paris and one other. You could probably just do London and Paris (and take a day trip or two from those two locations).

      • Merliejo

        Thank you! Unfortunately, I think Switzerland will be cut from that list. It was the least of my parents preferred (but one of my desires! But cuz they are footing the bill, I won’t complain..;) So that leaves Germany and Belgium. I’m thinking Germany stays because…well..,I haven’t heard much about Belgium. We’ll see. Thank you again for the insight!!!!!! Now to figure out this Eurostar thingy. LOL.

        • savvybackpacker

          Book those Eurostar tickets ASAP because they’re going to be expensive. You might look into budget airlines leaving from London. But yeah, cut out Switzerland and Belgium.

  • Melody

    Your blog has been super helpful. My boyfriend and I are planning a trip mid-September with 14 full days in Europe and a day on each side for travel. We are planning on doing Rome, Paris, Interlaken, and Munich (for Oktoberfest). I noticed you advised another girl to cut down on the number of cities/countries (she mentioned four also with a two week timeline). Do the places I mentioned sound doable in 14 days to you without killing ourselves? Any other advice? Thanks a TON!

  • Ilijan Illy

    Can you Guys Help MEEE??!!
    Im from Croatia,and i Have friend in Ahen(Germany),and thats near few countrys,and i can not decide which countrys to visite,and how to organise ma self,if you guys could help that would be great ,thanks allot….!

  • Jared Bonczek

    I have a 3 week trip planned. I am flying in and out of London. I am really taking into consideration your advice to not rush. I am loosely planning to do London (obv), Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, and Berlin. Any tips/suggestions?
    Things that I am into: bars, coffee shops, parks, sports

    • Konstantine

      Prague has an awesome beer garden that over looks the entire city, definitely recommend you getting there. Paris is a tourist trap if you let it, its a beautiful city with a lot to offer.
      Enjoy your time in Europe!

      • Aashi

        Thanks but we really have very tight schedule.
        Can you help me with our existing plan?
        Which places to see in prague and Austria..
        In Austria should we hire car or use train to travel?

        Ours is budget trip so if you can suggest good cheap apartments or hotels in close proximity of city.

        I would appreciate if you could guide me.

  • http://misshermionejeangranger.tumblr.com/ Ruxandra

    So so happy I found this site!! I’ve had a ridiculous urge to backpack europe and on my first summer off from university I really hope to travel for at least a month!

  • JDW

    I am looking to go with my 15 year old son for three weeks to Europe. I am thinking of flying into Ireland, then to London, Normandy, Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Is that too much?

  • KYFER

    Hi Kyf here. I need help in setting up my Itinerary for my solo-trip for 14 Days. On a stictly tight budget. Goal is just to be atleast 1 day in those city.

    Here’s my Itenerary In mind.
    1: Madrid
    2. Barcelona
    3.Paris

    4. London
    5. Amsterdam
    6.Frankfort
    7. Rome—then back to spain

    Concerns.
    1. Cheapest railways to take to connect them together
    2. Set the timing right to keep me from staying overnight on hostels and just stay on overnight trains.
    3.Major Do’s and dont’s

    I appreciate ypur feedback and suggestions.

  • Pat Patel

    Can you help me with my itenary . I am planning to
    1) Amsterdam
    2) Munich
    3) Austria
    4) Prague
    5) Croatia

    then I fly back from Croatia.
    This will be month long trip . Any suggestions . Thanks

    • Rohan Akerkar

      Hi

      5 of us friends are planning a backpacking budget trip to Europe. We have 3 weeks. To be precise, reaching on 25th July and departing on 15th Aug 15. Due to some reasons we need to start our trip from Rome. Hence we are flying in and out of Rome. The countries we are looking at are as follows:

      Italy – 8 nights
      French Riviera – 4 nights
      Amsterdam – 3 nights
      Germany (Berlin 2 nights, Munich 2 nights, Freiburg – 1 night) – total 5 nights. Need your suggestion here for the number of days in each place, and things to do
      Austria – 3 nights
      (Planning to purchase a Eurail pass. Need to know which trains are included in the Eurail pass)

      We also want to do some offbeat things like small villages quaint towns in Italy and austria. Please suggest.

  • Maulik Shah

    Hi I am from india and me and the missus r planning for 4 cities Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Kraków in end March – till mid April. Can these 4 be done in 12-13 days?
    What would be the best itinerary? Any other popular and budget locations can be added? This is our first trip outside asia

  • travelkook

    If you had 10 days in Europe what would be your cannot miss places and the amount of time you would spend there? A friend and I are looking to go for around 10 days but do not know where to start. Thanks!

  • Sariah Piedrasanta

    Thank you for taking the time and provide this guide for all of us.

    I am not sure how to help you with the amazon deal? My husband uses it a lot and I would like you to explain it like if I were an idiot please 😀

    Also, I am traveling with my super awesome cool 12 yr old twins boy and girl (trip was their idea). Any good advise on hostels where I could go with them? My friend will also be going with us so we will be taking advantage of group deals!!

    Thanks again, great job!

  • Ryan

    I am planning a trip to Europe for 3 months, and am hoping to do so for around $4000. Is this possible?

    • Carlos Campos

      It most certainely is, although it would depend on how you’ll be using your budget.
      Are you couchsurfing, staying in hostels? How much time and money would you spend on each place? I suggest spending a little bit more of both in the things that really interest you without looking too much at the cost of it. Even if that means you would be splurging a little, it generally makes the experience much more memorable. Make sure you don’t miss out on something you want badly because sometimes you only get one shot and you might regret not doing it later.

      I wanted to do 3 months, too, couchsurfing only and getting around by train, but then I realized it was too ambitious: too many places to visit, too much money to be spent in travelling from one place to the other, and sometimes even though places look close to one another in the map, the actual trip can be a hassle or even impossible.
      I was thinking about doing Bordeaux-Toulouse by train; the railway hasn’t even been built yet, and it might only be until 2022! Also, make sure to follow James’ advice and do a list of what countries, cities or sights you just have to cross out. Be specific! Personally, Croatia didn’t interest me until I saw all it had to offer, just to later realize getting there would be the toughest part of the journey, so I just dropped it and focused on optimizing my resources for Greece instead, which I’ve been dying to go to since forever.
      Iceland for me was also a dealbreaker, but there was no way I could create a circuit with it and the mainland without backtracking or on the cheap. Depends on where you’re from, but, for example, if you fly from North America to anywhere in Europe you get up to one week stopover in Iceland, accomodation free of charge, with Icelandair. Me, I’ll be living in Paris around 20 months before the trip, so I’ve decided to separate that part of the trip and make an individual 72-hour trip to Iceland before the bigger adventure. Just an example of how things can be arranged in your favor, though sacrifices may have to be made. It’s up to you to consider.

      I would still suggest you ponder over the idea of sticking to two months. This is a really, really rough guestimate, but based on my 5000 EUR-2 month travel itinerary (I did research on food, entertainment, train and air travel costs as well as lesser expenses), with $4000, taking a $1000 flight into Europe into account, along with maybe a $800 dollar Eurail Pass, if that fits your needs, couchsurfing and having one or two good but unexpensive local meals in at least every city you’re in, I would say you can fit in like 15 to 20 cities in your travel plan for the same amount of time. I don’t know about staying in hostels though.
      If 3 months is your goal, well, you may have to give up on some things. We can’t have it all when the money is scarce, that’s for sure! But still, the adventure will always have something in store for you, believe me, beyond your wildest dreams. So when you get there, yes, plan ahead, but do sit down and just take in the view for a while.
      I wish you all of the best, Ryan!

  • Aashi

    Hello.!!
    We are planning for 25 days trip to Europe
    We have planned as below but would love if you can give your opinions and suggestions on the same.
    Paris – 3 nights
    Amsterdam – 2 nights
    Prague – 2 nights
    Vienna & innsbruck – 1 night each
    Switzerland – 6 nights
    Italy ( venice, florence, cinq terra, Rome, Capri island, Amalfi coast) – 8 nights
    We can add 3 more days..

    We need your suggestions as to are these many days enough for each country?
    Italy 8 nights is perfect or we should cut down?
    Anything that we are missing out and should include?
    We can add 3 more days to our trip.
    Don’ts and Do’s as we are just 2 of us (Me & my Husband)
    We are from India and eat Jain Vegetarian food so if you know restaurants in these countries (tourist centres) pls suggest.
    Is there any non commercial and beautiful places in thesecountries that we shouldnt miss
    Our budget is around 6500$ for two people
    Plsss suggest. Thankss

  • Aashi

    Hello.!!
    We are planning for 25 days trip to Europe
    We have planned as below but would love if you can give your opinions and suggestions on the same.
    Paris – 3 nights
    Amsterdam – 2 nights
    Prague – 2 nights
    Vienna & innsbruck – 1 night each
    Switzerland – 6 nights
    Italy ( venice, florence, cinq terra, Rome, Capri island, Amalfi coast) – 8 nights
    We can add 3 more days..

    We need your suggestions as to are these many days enough for each country?
    Italy 8 nights is perfect or we should cut down?
    Anything that we are missing out and should include?
    We can add 3 more days to our trip.
    Don’ts and Do’s as we are just 2 of us (Me & my Husband)
    We are from India and eat Jain Vegetarian food so if you know restaurants in these countries (tourist centres) pls suggest.
    Is there any non commercial and beautiful places in thesecountries that we shouldnt miss
    Our budget is around 6500$ for two people
    Plsss suggest. Thankss

    • Konstantine

      Prague is amazing, its a shame you only can spend 2 nights there. very inexpensive to stay there, can enjoy a 1L beer at a bar for little over a dollar.

  • Christian from Squeeze Pod

    Very nice planning advice. Well planned and comprehensive. Thanks for sharing James.

  • Sylvia

    Hey :) I would need help with my itinerary. I`m a 22 yr old girl that will be packpacking solo in Europe in July and August. I will Land in london a stay a week there and then I would like to go to amsterdam and Dublin end of july. After that I am not too sure if my itinirary is good. (July 30th to August 25th) I will go to

    Paris and surroundings 4 days -> {MAYBE Switzerland (zermatt} -> (train) Rome and surroundings 4 days -> Monaco 3 days -> (train) Barcelona 4 days -> (flight) Lisbon or Marrakesh 3 days -> back to london (flight)

    and the rest of the days will be for travel and maybe another city if I have time. I am not sure about my plan and also the modes of transportation. I am looking for the cheapest alternative and cheapest logical itinerary.

    Please help me :)

    Thanks!!

  • Matt Boghos

    Need recommendations.. Never been to Tomorrowland. I am traveling from Las Vegas to Amsterdam, taking a train to Boom, Belgium. spending the weekend in book for TL. Then I have 8 days for backpacking, I want to travel and stay in hostels. Need recommendations, heard Budapest was a great time and to party. Let me know, Thanks

    Matt B from Vegas

  • Sneha Mutha

    Which is the best place to visit among Copenhagen, Vienna, Prague, Budapest during december-january for 3-4 days? I will fly from Paris and have to return back to Paris in 3-4 days.