One of the most stressful parts of travel for many people is the process of actually planning the trip. This is particularly true if you are heading abroad with your family for the first time. You want everything to be just perfect. But, the logistics involved in planning a trip to Europe can be quite overwhelming. I have found the more prepared you are, the more likely your trip will go off without a hitch. This all takes a lot of time, patience and skills in list making!
To help you get started on planning your dream trip, read on for my suggestions on how to get started planning a perfect European family vacation. So get ready to eat authentic Italian food, visit monuments you have only read about in books and make your travel dreams come true.
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Decide on a Budget
The budget for your trip will be the most important factor affecting all other decisions you make. This will dictate whether you are traveling as a backpacker or luxury traveler, whether you can do it all on your own or if you can do tours and whether you should stick to one region or hop around Europe.
The more restrictive your budget, the earlier you should start planning. If you have a tight budget, and can only visit during high season, it is imperative that you plan well in advance to take advantage of cheaper fares, accommodation options and to give yourself the opportunity to save more if you need to!
Think about your budget on a daily basis. How much can you afford to spend each day? On my first trip to Europe I had a budget of $50 per day. I stayed in bare bones hostels ranging from $10-20 a night, I ate at local hole in the wall cafes, used only local transportation (and my feet – a lot!) and chose my activities carefully.
When traveling with kids, make sure to add in a cushion for those unexpected ice creams, must have souvenirs or everyone is melting down, we must take a taxi home situations.
Be realistic about your budget. These days, solo budget travelers spend approximately 70 Euros per day in Western Europe. Depending on your family’s size, you can expect to spend at least double or triple this.
If budget is a major constraint, cut out expensive destinations like London and venture a little more east to the Czech, Hungary, Romania, Greece, etc.
Research Where to Go
This is one of the toughests part of planning a European family vacation. Coming from the US, Europe seems relatively small and easy to navigate, making it even more difficult to choose where to go. The biggest factors affecting your decision on where to go will be how much time you have, how much you want to move around and of course what you want to see/experience.
For many people, their first European vacation tends to focus on major cities in a variety of countries – London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Berlin, etc. While this is totally doable and will give you a great sense of the continent, there are a ton of unique off the beaten path places that are well worth checking out by sticking to just one region or moving a bit slower.
On my first trip to Europe, I loosely followed suggestions found in Rick Steve’s Europe Through the Backdoor guide book. He has a great way of finding unique accommodation options and cute towns that aren’t so well known, but that are wonderful to visit. I moved around a ton, but always felt like I had spent enough time in each destination. In a 3 week trip I managed to fit in: Paris, Amsterdam, Rhine River, Berlin, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Budapest, Krakow, Vienna and Switzerland before returning to Paris to fly home.
With children, it’s often best to move a little bit slower. Plan at least 2-3 days per destination before moving on. In most major cities in Europe there are plenty of child friendly opportunities available from “Family Trail” guides at museums to an abundance of playgrounds even in the city center.
If you aren’t sure where to go, check out a few itineraries online with established tour companies to see what places they provide their clients. Europe is a fascinating continent with so much to offer visitors that it is very easy to spend your entire trip in just one country or region, so don’t feel like you have to see it all in one go.
DIY or Join a Group Tour
Are you overwhelmed yet? Planning a European family vacation can easily become overwhelming for some. Luckily there are various ways to plan a trip like this. If you love doing the footwork of planning and want to stick to a tight budget, going independently is probably your best route. However, to save yourself some detail itinerary planning while in different cities, you can look into taking day tours. There are some really great options that cater to families such as Context tours.
If you find all of this too overwhelming and want to have someone else do it for you, you can outsource to a travel agent (yes they are making a comeback actually!) or look into taking a family tour with a trusted operator. In that case, most of the details would be planned, leaving you with minimal work. We love Rick Steves and imagine his family tours would be quite fun. Adventures by Disney also conducts river cruises throughout Europe that would be amazing I’m sure.
Planes, Trains or Automobiles?
Travel in Europe has changed so much since my first trip 20 years ago. Back then, the most convenient option was train travel. These days many travelers are wondering if it makes sense to go via train or to take advantage of competitive pricing and quick access with budget airlines. Or should you hire a car?
This all depends on several factors – how much time and money you have!
If you have a lot of time or aren’t exploring a large section of Europe, I highly recommend adding in at least one or two train journeys. There is a lot to be said for venturing around Europe by train. It is a unique opportunity to see the countryside, interact with locals and when utilizing overnight trains, it offers a great way to travel while you sleep!
Trains with families are a lot of fun as well. Swiss trains often have children’s carriages with playgrounds. My son still remembers his first Swiss train ride when he was 3 just because of this! Kids also find it amazing to be able to sleep on a train.
My recommendation is to add in at least one overnight train and one short train journey on your itinerary if it works as your family will really enjoy the experience.
That said, we have also driven in Europe and had a great experience. We created our own mini road trip from Madrid to Barcelona, venturing well off the beaten path, experiencing destinations that most tourists don’t’ see as well as getting a feel for what life is like in Spain outside of the big cities. I have also driven all over Ireland, but I am used to driving on the other side of the road!
In an ideal world, you can take advantage of all of these options to experience different aspects of the continent. Families often hire a car in Croatia as that tends to be an easier way to see the most. If you want to add on Greece or Italy to your European itinerary, it’s often best to get a budget flight to save time.
As you plan your itinerary, just keep in mind all of these options are available to you.
Decide Where to Stay: Hotels vs Airbnb
I often get this question from families looking to travel – is it better to get a hotel or an Airbnb? This really depends on your preferences and what your family budget and travel goals are. If your main aim is to get away from it all and be pampered, then definitely stay in a hotel.
If your aim is to just be able to visit other countries or destinations even though your budget is not high, staying in an AirBnb might save you money in the long run by allowing you to cook some meals yourself.
Do you have a larger family that would benefit from the space an Airbnb would provide? Are your kids picky eaters?
Overall, I suggest combining some of both. If you will be in large cities like Paris or London, it’s often preferable to stay in a neighborhood and feel more like a local. You will have better access to groceries, playgrounds and will get great experiences on public transportation. If you are planning to stay in smaller off the beaten path destinations, hotels are preferable. Mix it up! There are so many amazing options out there. You could even try your hand at couchsurfing with your family.
When planning a trip to Europe, I personally search for the cheapest flight to the continent and start my itinerary from that point. The cheapest entry points for many leaving from the US is London, Amsterdam, Paris or Frankfurt. However, if you have specific goals in mind for your trip, search for the biggest hub nearest to that destination.
In addition to booking round trip tickets, if you already have a decent idea of your itinerary, there is also the option to book open-jaw tickets where you fly into one city and out of another. Occasionally it is the same price or just a little bit more expensive, so it’s always wise to investigate this as an option before booking your tickets or finalizing your itinerary.
Consider Getting Travel Insurance
I do not always get travel insurance I will admit, but it is always wise to consider. For my most recent trip to India and my upcoming summer trips I have booked insurance through World Nomads.
Make Sure Your Passport Is Current & Valid
Many countries will not allow you in if your passport does not have at least 6 months validity left. If you are getting close to your expiration date, it is best to renew well in advance of your trip to be on the safe side.
Call your Bank and Credit Cards
As the world often relies almost exclusively on using plastic, it is important that you call your bank and your credit cards to let them know that you will be traveling and to which countries. I always also ask about specific foreign transaction fees that will apply to purchases as well as bank transfers. If you anticipate needing to take money off of your credit card, make sure you have set this all up in advance as it can take up to 10 days for some credit cards. If you are looking for a new credit card, we love our Chase Sapphire Reserve which offers unbeatable points/rewards as well as no fees while using it abroad.
There is so much that goes into planning a family holiday abroad, but once you have done it once or twice you will get the hang of it. And trust me, it will be one of the best experiences you have experienced together as a family – even on the bad days!
Do you have an upcoming trip to Europe? If you have more tips, please share them with us!
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