How we planned a family trip to Europe

In 2022 we started planning our 2023 family trip to Europe without a travel agent. We believe the best travellers are those who budget and plan. You don’t need to be a millionaire to explore Europe. Although, it would be nice to have unlimited funds with unlimited options. The age-old conundrum of enjoyable travel is this; “Winging it” can turn into a whirlwind of stress, unanswered questions, incomplete knowledge, and little downtime. Freedom can be rewarded to a traveler who applies structure and plans ahead.

Just because we planned ahead, didn’t mean we didn’t get to experience serendipity. Our family trip included 13 countries over four action packed and exciting weeks. We organised our flights, trains and accomodation in advance. We booked some of our absolute must see activities in advance, but still left some room to wing it. In this post we share the steps we took to plan our trip.

1. List the places you want to visit

The first step to planning our family trip to Europe was to decide where to go. We had everyone in the family write down a list of places they wanted to see; these were our must see locations. Then we added a few more places that we would like to see, but were okay if we missed out on. This gave us a guide for where to start planning our family trip to Europe.

Planning a family trip to Europe

2. Establish a route and timeline

Based on our list of places, we started to research flights, focusing on our main flight from Australia first. Airlines will advertise prices roughly 12 months in advance. This is when you will find the best deals. We decided on roughly four weeks in Europe based on the return pricing for our main flight from Australia. Google flights is great for flight comparison and finding the best deals.

Google flights

From there, we thought carefully about the cities we want to fly into and out of. When you factor in the time wasted traveling back to your starting point, flying into one location and out of another can be more cost-effective. We carefully considered which cities would be best to visit as a starting point and as a finishing point. In the end, we were able to book a return trip out of London, because our starting point and finishing point weren’t too far from London. This may not be the case for you, so consider where you want to start and finish.

3. Plan and then re-plan

Photo by Lara Jameson

While planning our family trip to Europe we set a route, then re-planned that route until we had considered all options. We also looked at alternative modes of transportation. Consider what will work best for your dream vacation rather than just price. Examine the many modes of transportation available for achieving your goals – driving, bicycling, hiking, flying, and rail. For instance, hiring a car is more cost-effective if you’re traveling in a small group, however may be more time consuming. Traveling by rail or plane is frequently more affordable for solo travellers. Flying may be less time consuming than catching a train. You will also want to determine how far the airport, train station or car hire drop off may be from your hotel or areas you want to explore.

4. Make a list of must do activities

Photo by Anete Lusina

Create a basic schedule and itinerary. While planning our family holiday to Europe we researched things to do based on our list of places to visit. To start, we looked into must do activities in each city or town. We did this by follow travel blogs, reading guidebooks, social media, googling information and asking around. All the while being mindful that the important activities we hoped to do were open on the day we planned to visit.

During this process, we asked our kids to start researching things they wanted to do in each place. This helps to involve them in the process. You will also get the kids excited and will be less likely to travel will disappointed kids.

5. Make an itinerary

Based on our list of places and things to do we wrote down how many days we would need in each place. Keeping in mind that we’d probably need to cut it down later, or add time based on distanced from the hotel. For example, the kids listed Disney Paris as a must see activity. However, Disney Paris is over an hour away from the city. For this reason we decided to add a day to our France trip. We stayed near the Disney Park to make the most of the park during the day and night. This also allowed us to head back to the hotel for a rest. A day at Disney can be fantastic, but also exhausting.

An itinerary helped us set a budget, save travel time, save money, as well as to have a deeper understanding of the area. We tried to book hotels that allowed free cancellations, this gave us some flexibility to make adjustments in case plans changed.

6. Be flexible and adjust

We adjusted our plans multiple times by removing, simplifying, or including locations to match our budget, time frame or schedule. We reassessed the location that required the most amount of time, trouble, or money to get to. If we had equal importance for two destinations but lacked the resources to get there, we reassessed and decided on one, or adjusted the plan to something easier. Our mentality was to try not to do everything in a single trip. We pretended we would be back to do the rest later.

7. Only book the things that need to be booked in advance

Based on our itinerary and list of activities we considered what needed to be booked in advance. Many of the most significant attractions now require reservations in advance, some, like the Anne Frank house sell out fast or only sell tickets six weeks in advance of your travel date. So we only booked the things that required pre-planning and then decided to be flexibile with the rest.

8. Organise your bookings

While planning our family trip to Europe, my personal preference was to print off each flight, hotel and activity booking. I placed each booking in a folder in date order. This helped me to keep track and spot any mistakes I might have made along the way, such as booking a hotel on the wrong date, or a train in the wrong direction.

Organisation is a personal preference, but I’d recommend organising your itinerary and document it. For those that like the digital approach, you can create an itinerary map in Google. If you create a Word document you can quickly share your plans with others. Whether your goal is to meet up with friends along the road, inform family members of your whereabouts, or simply organise all the specifics of your trip in one location. Resources like TripIt can also be helpful. TripIt can create an itinerary with maps, directions, and suggestions based on your confirmation emails. You can view and share from your smartphone.

Otherwise, if digital isn’t your thing, you can go a little old school like me and print all of your bookings and place them in a folder. Printing your bookings is also a backup option when your phone or electronics die while travelling.

It’s always worth planning ahead. A successful trip starts with knowing your alternatives, anticipating problems, and sticking to a budget (where possible). Now is the time to experience the freedom that comes with being a well-organised traveller and make your vacation fantasies a seamless, budget-friendly reality.

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