Planning any vacation is stressful. Planning your first trip out of the country is downright crazy! Here’s everything you need to know.
For years, we had talked about going out of the country. Kyle and I have been plenty of places together, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, even Delaware, but neither of us had been out of the country. So we finally took the plunge and decided to go to Italy!
We had no clue how to even start planning for this. After we did a ton of research, talked to my grandparents (who used to live there and have gone back recently), and a lot of just winging it, we survived.
Picking Where to go and Researching
So before you can plan your vacation you need to pick where you want to go and do some research (OK, a lot of research). Researching is my FAVORITE part. You know aside from actually going on the trip. You get to look at tons of pictures of the beautiful places and history that you will get to see. Having a passport or being able to get one in time for your trip will help deciding where to go. Luckily, we planned ahead and received our passports about two weeks after applying.
We chose to go to Italy! (And to spend 3 days in Germany.) See when we first started planning our trip (July 2016) we were planning to go in May 2017. Well, life happened so we pushed it back until September 2017. That’s when we found out that Oktoberfest starts in September. We chose Italy for multiple reasons. First, I’m Italian, my mother was born there and my Nonna has shared our family history all throughout my childhood. Its always been a dream of mine to go! Second, it’s freaking beautiful! I mean who wouldn’t want to go to Italy (rhetorical question because everyone wants to go.). All the history, culture, food, and beauty is overwhelming. Just be sure, wherever you chose to go, that you get a passport if you don’t already have one. After you decide where then you need to decide how long.
We were lucky and started over a year before our trip so we went for 3 weeks. The length of your trip will greatly depend on your budget. Once you have a budget set, that’s where more research comes in. I found out while looking that it’s cheaper to vacation in Europe during off-peak months (late Sept-March) with the exception of Holidays of course. Now, you will want to book accommodations.
Booking Flights and Accommodations
There are a ton of apps and websites out there that will show you when flights are the cheapest. You just enter your destination and it shows you which days are cheaper. For example, it was about $200 cheaper per person to fly out of a Sunday than any other day of the week. This will just take some time changing dates. Once you have your dates you can go ahead and book your flights and hotel(s).
We used Expedia. I can not express how much I LOVE Expedia. If you bundle your flights with your hotel there is a significant discount. The only downfall of this option is that you have to fly in and out of the same airport. We traveled to 5 different cities while there, so we flew into Rome but finished our trip in Milan. So instead of flying out from the Milan airport, we had to take the train back down to Rome. We felt the discount was worth the trip back to Rome. Expedia also has a program where you earn points for each purchase to use towards more travel (Win!). I also found out that if you are constantly looking at different hotels or packages they email you with links for discounts, so don’t book right away. I looked at packages so much that we received 50% off.
You also need to decide if you will be renting a car or traveling by taxi, bus, or the Eurail. If renting a car make sure to check if you need an international drivers license. We decided to not rent a car. We thought it would be fun and more of an experience taking the Eurail. It was a good experience the first couple times. After that, it was actually exhausting. Personally, I think if you are traveling or backpacking from country to country this is a great option. It came in very handy when we went from Venice, Italy to Munich, Germany, but from city to city in one country, I think it would have less stressful to rent a car. We also didn’t know all the bus schedules so we wasted a lot of time getting from place to place. If you want to explore the options of Eurail passes, Rick Steve’s has a great article on them here.
I HIGHLY recommend purchasing travel insurance. There are a number of sites that offer travel insurance. When we booked (the first time) through Expedia, there was an option at the end to add insurance. It was a reasonable amount and thank goodness we did it! Kyle started a new job and we ended up pushing our trip back a few months. We only lost about $100 as opposed to the thousands that we had spent.
Y’all, I am a planner. If I had it my way I would have scheduled every day down to the hour. But for this trip, I promised Kyle I wouldn’t be crazy. We picked a few things in each city that we both wanted to do and then the rest of the time was for adventuring and relaxing. I do regret not planning a little bit more. For example, we should have bought tickets ahead of time to tour the Colosseum because the line was about 2 hours and we didn’t want to wait in it. But we had so much fun and so many amazing things came from us not planning. Just do your research and find out what things you have to plan ahead and what things you can decide on once your there.
I already said that I was a planner. Well, I’m also notorious for overpacking (Just ask Kyle, who had to lug around a broken suitcase for half the trip). Where you are going, how long, what time of year, and the climate will all be factors in what you pack. All I can tell you for sure is try and pack light. I didn’t wear 1/3 of the clothes I brought. Comfortable clothes are highly recommended especially if you plan on walking a lot. I wore workout clothes and running shoes for 98% of the trip and the other 2% was a bathing suit and shorts.
Again, research is key. There are tons of links on Pinterest about light packing and how to dress for the season in Europe. Next time we are either fully backpacking or only having our backpacks and one small bag. Another thing to keep in mind is that the roads, at least where we were, are horrible on your luggage (which is how ours got broken).
You can either get Euros before you leave from your local bank or wait until you arrive at the airport. We just took out a small amount of cash for things like tipping and some bus pass stations that only accepted cash. Everything else we put on our travel credit card. Since we had the majority of our trip saved for we put everything on our card and then paid it off when we got back home. The best thing about using a travel card is that there are no foreign transaction fees and we received travel points.
Another thing you should do is check your phone plan and see if you need to upgrade to use your phone out of the country without racking up your phone bill. Verizon has a program where you pay $10 a day, only on the days you use your data/minutes.
Hopefully, this made planning a trip to Europe a little less scary and more exciting. Now get out there and plan your next adventure!