How to Plan a Europe Itinerary

7 Things to Know When Planning Your First Trip to Europe

Julie Itinerary, Travel Advice 39 Comments

If you are planning your first trip to Europe, it can be an overwhelming experience. Where should you go? How much will it cost? How many places can you visit?

Does this sound familiar?

We get emails every day from people who want advice planning their first trip to Europe. And we see the same questions over and over again. So we wrote this post to answer your questions and give you some things to think about as you plan your Europe itinerary.

How to Plan Your First Trip to Europe

Don’t Try to See Everything on Your First Visit

I can’t tell you how many times we get emails that go something like this: “I have 10 days in Europe and I am planning to visit Rome, Venice, Paris, London and Belgium. Do you think that’s too rushed?”

It’s just like saying “I have 10 days in the United States. I would like to visit Boston, New York City, Washington DC, Miami, and Chicago. Do you think that’s too rushed?”

We get it. Europe is huge and it’s loaded with “must-see” spots. Paris, Rome, Barcelona, London, Amsterdam, and Venice all make the must-see list for many first time travelers Europe. They are all amazing places to visit. And with so many fantastic sites to see, it can be very difficult to narrow your list down to just a few destinations.

You will have a much better time if you don’t try to get to a new city every day. The longer you spend in each place, the more you get to know it. There are some cities, like London, Paris, and Rome, which literally could keep you very busy and very entertained for a good five or more days.

Here are some basic guidelines for how many places you can visit depending on how much time you have:

  • With 7 days: 2 cities OR one city with day trips
  • With 10 days: 3 cities OR 2 cities with day trips
  • With 14 days: 4 cities OR a road/train trip through one or two countries

Barcelona

Barcelona, Spain

If you look at your itinerary and you wonder if you are moving too fast or you are trying to squeeze too much in, odds are, you probably are.

If you have 10 days and you plan to visit 4 major cities, it can be done, but it will be a rushed, exhausting experience. And you will be spending most of that time on trains and planes. Don’t forget that you will have to spend time traveling between destinations as well as packing, unpacking, and checking into hotels.

Here is a sample itinerary through London, Amsterdam, and Paris:
  • Day 1: Arrive in London
  • Day 2: London
  • Day 3: London
  • Day 4: London
  • Day 5: Morning train to Amsterdam, sightseeing in the afternoon
  • Day 6: Amsterdam
  • Day 7: Morning train to Paris, sightseeing in the afternoon
  • Day 8: Paris
  • Day 9: Paris
  • Day 10: Fly home

On this itinerary you get to three major cities. And even this itinerary is a bit rushed. You could really use an extra day in each city simply because there is so much to see and do in each of them.

For some more examples on how to plan 10 days in Europe, check out these itineraries:

Examples of visiting 3 cities:

Examples of exploring one region:

Amsterdam at Twilight

Amsterdam

Don’t Forget to Factor in Travel Time

So let’s say that you have 10 days in Europe and you’ve narrowed down your itinerary to 3 cities. How do you get around?

That depends on where you are going.

For cities that are close to one another, say Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville, the train would be your best option. If you are visiting Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam, then you will use a combination of planes and trains to get around.

Getting from city to city takes time, of course. And you need to factor this in, not only when planning your itinerary but also choosing where to go.

Just as a rough estimate, it will take about 4 hours, or half of a day, to get between two cities. This time can go up if the cities are far apart. So, if you are visiting three cities, you will lose about one day in total just traveling from place to place.

We usually plan to transfer between cities first thing in the morning. By taking an early train, we can usually check into our hotel by noon and have the entire afternoon for sightseeing. Occasionally, we will take an evening train if we want to have a little extra time in our departure city.

Pro Travel Tip: What about luggage? Let’s say you arrive by train to Florence at 11 am. It’s too early to check into your hotel, so what should you do with your luggage? You have two options. You can either store you luggage at the luggage storage area in the train station (and retrieve it at the end of the day) or have your hotel hold your luggage for you. We email our hotel ahead of time just to make sure they can hold our luggage for us (but so far no one has told us no).

Dubrovnik Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Using Trains versus Planes

In some scenarios, you might have the option to fly or to take a train to get from one city to another. When looking at travel times, a one hour flight may look a lot more time efficient than a 3 hour high speed train, but that is not always the case.

There is much longer check-in process for flights (we usually check in two hours before our flight). For train travel, in most cases you can arrive just before your departure time, although some high-speed trains request that you arrive 30 minutes before departure time.

Train stations are located in city centers. From the station, it might be just a short walk or metro ride to get you to your hotel. Airports are located outside of the cities and it can take 15 to 30 minutes (or even longer in some cities) to get into the city center. You’ll have to do this twice and this could tack on another hour to your travel time if you plan to fly.

We tend to lean towards train travel whenever possible. It’s fast, it’s cheap, and it’s much more eco-friendly than plane travel.

Pro Travel Tip: You can save time (and money on a hotel room) by booking an overnight train. It might also be worth getting a rail pass if you plan to hop from city to city.

Use Open Jaw Flights to Maximize Your Time

Open jaw flights arrive in one city and depart from a different city (for example, you arrive in London and depart from Paris).

You can save a lot of time by booking different arrival and departure cities.

Let’s say you want to visit Rome, Florence and Venice (who wouldn’t?!). If you fly to Rome and then fly home from Venice, you save about half of a day, the time it would take to backtrack to Rome.

In many cases, it is not more expensive to do this. We have flown open jaw many times for the same price as a round trip flight.

In some cases, it may be more expensive to fly open jaw. If it is, then you have to decide if it is worth spending a little extra to save some time. Maybe it’s worth spending a little more money for extra time in Venice than to take the train back to Rome (and don’t forget to figure that train cost into the decision to take an open jaw flight).

Hallstatt Austria

Hallstatt, Austria

What about Jet Lag?

Jet lag is the feeling of fatigue you get from crossing multiple time zones. Some lucky people have minimal symptoms while others can feel exhausted for several days.

If you are flying to Europe from the USA, most likely you will be on an overnight flight, arriving in the morning or midday. There is a very good chance that you will feel tired on your first day but if you had trouble sleeping on the airplane, you may feel more like a zombie.

To get over jet lag quickly, it’s usually best to stay awake that first day and go to bed early. I will admit that there have been a few times where we took a midday nap because we desperately needed it.

With this being said, it is usually best not to schedule a busy list of things to do on the first day of your itinerary. Sure, you will be excited to be in a new place and that can be energizing, but it will still be difficult for most people to function at 100% on that first day.

Should You Rent a Car?

There are some spots in Europe that are simply perfect for a road trip. Norway, Ireland, Slovenia and the Balkan Peninsula are all some of our favorite spots to explore with the freedom that a rental car provides. But before you rent a car there are some things you should know before you go.

If you are considering renting a car for your European trip, we have an article all about exciting things like International Drivers Licenses, how to choose a rental car company, vignettes and more. Read it here:

10 Things to Know Before Renting a Car in Europe

Colmar France

Colmar, France

How Do We Plan Our Itineraries?

Before you plan out your itinerary you need to do some research first. Flight costs, time of year, hotel availability, and tour availability all need to be factored into your decision-making.

Let’s say you decide to spend 10 days in Ireland. What do you need to know before you start making reservations?

We start off by researching flight costs. If you can be flexible with your dates you might be able to save money by flying mid-week versus the weekend.

Once we have our flight dates, we plan out our itinerary within those specific dates.

If you are planning a tour or a visit to a major attraction, make sure those dates align and work with your itinerary.

You can also do a quick hotel search to make sure that there are no surprises with hotel costs or availability. If you are booking your trip well in advance (4 months or earlier) this will be less of an issue. But at destinations like the Isle of Skye, the Lofoten Islands, the Cinque Terre, and islands in Croatia, hotels can sell out many months in advance, leaving either no availability or dreadful places that you normally wouldn’t consider.

Once everything looks like it works out, we book our flights and then book the hotels, the rental car (if necessary) and activities.

Nowadays, with the increase in tourism, it also helps to research the main sights you are visiting and then book your tickets in advance. We recently went to San Francisco and missed out on touring Alcatraz because tickets were sold out for three months!!

In our articles, we let you know what you need to reserve ahead of time to avoid disappointment (like our Alcatraz experience). It may be extra work to book your tickets ahead of time, but in today’s world it has become a necessity in order to see some of the world’s most popular sites.


Have fun planning your trip to Europe! And if you still have questions about your itinerary, feel free to comment below.

For more travel ideas and inspiration, take a look at our Itineraries page. We have lots of sample itineraries for Europe as well as Asia, Africa, South America, and the USA.

More Information to Help You Plan your Trip to Europe:

First Trip to Europe Itinerary

Comments 39

  1. Hi,

    I am planning a solo backpack trip to ( 4 days Budapest, 3 days vienna,4 prague and 4 days inberlin) in Aug. Would like to know how can i travel from one city to another cities and if i can buy tickets of train /bus online and information of guided tours.
    Top food cafes that are a must visit in these places and which area should i stay in each of these cities ?

    1. Post
      Author

      The best way to get between these cities is by train. You can purchase your tickets online in advance on a website like RailEurope.com. You should also look into a rail pass. It might not be worth it but it’s worth pricing out individual tickets and comparing them with the rail pass price. As far as where to stay and where to eat, all of our information would be in each city article. I don’t have a “where to stay” article for these cities, but some of these articles will have some hotel recommendations: Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Berlin. We also have a Central Europe itinerary that could be helpful. Cheers, Julie

  2. Hi Julie
    We are planning at 10 day trip to Barcelona in October with 2 teens (15,16). Other than a desire to go to a Football game and tour 1-2 in Barcelona we are open to ideas for another city/country we should see in this time. Or should we stay the entire time in Spain? What’s your opinion on mediterranean cruises so you can see more destinations? Thanks

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Janey. We are not big fans of cruises. I know that they can be convenient but I think that staying overnight in the cities and exploring them for several days is a much better travel experience than rushing through town with just a few hours for sightseeing. So far, we have only been to Barcelona (and day trips from here) in Spain. Spain is big and there are a lot of great places to visit…Andalucia, Madrid, Pamplona, the Rioja wine region, and Costa Brava just to name a few. It’s very easy to fill 5 days just in Barcelona with day trips. And then it’s up to you…see more of Spain, hop over to Lisbon, Portugal, visit Paris or London, or go to the French Riviera. If you haven’t seen it yet, take a look at our Europe itineraries article for more ideas. Cheers, Julie

  3. Hello,

    Thank you for wonderful information. We are planning trip from Orlando to Zurich 2 days, Germany 2 days and Italy 7 days. I want to explore more of Italy. I am not sure if we should book guided tour or is it easy explore on your own? I am concerned about admission and long lines to get in to famous places. Any suggestions.

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Smita. In my opinion, Italy is easy to explore on your own. At many sites you can now book your tickets in advance so you don’t have to wait in line. We have a lot of info on our site about Italy, including lots of info on how to book your tickets and tips so you don’t have to wait in line, so look through our Italy articles for inspiration and trip planning ideas. And then, if you have more questions, feel free to write in to us again. Cheers, Julie

  4. Hey, We are planning a trip to Europe for 10 days . We would like to visit Paris, and Switzerland can we try one more city. Please help!

    1. Post
      Author
  5. We are planning our first trip to Italy and will have 14 days. Our plan is to visit Rome, Florence, Tuscany, and Amalfi Coast. My husband would also like to see Normandy Beaches (yes, I do realize that is France and not Italy). Is it remotely possible to do this within 14 days? If you had to remove something, and Normandy wasn’t an option, where would you cut?

    1. Post
      Author

      Yes, you can do this. Take a look at our 10 day Italy itinerary post. Do itinerary #2. That will leave 3 – 4 days for Normandy, which should be enough time. I have not been to Normandy yet, so don’t have any insight on how to plan it. But this should be a good starting point to help you plan your trip. Cheers, Julie

  6. Hi Julie
    I am travelling to Italy in June/July. I have 14 days in total.
    My plan is to spend 3 days in Tuscany – can you advise best places to include and which town to stay in as a base?
    Then Florence, Venice and Cinque Terra ending in Milan (as I fly back from Milan)
    Can you advise length of time in each city and where best to stay as a base?
    Definately travelling by train between cities
    And any other helpful tips – what to see, what not to do, etc
    Your site is super helpful – thank you for the research and the information.

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Katharine. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might get a little more info from our 10 day Italy itineraries and our 14 day Italy itinerary. As for a home base in Tuscany, we stayed in Siena as our home base and loved it. It has a good location, it is well connected to Florence and some Tuscan towns by public transportation, and Siena is simply wonderful. It’s my fave Italian city after Verona. You can also stay in one of the smaller Tuscan hill towns, like Montalcino, Pienza, or Montepulciano. I think that these would be wonderful, too. To get around Tuscany I would recommend a rental car or a driver. We had a nightmare experience with the buses in Tuscany and other parts of Italy.

      Here are recommended times for each city: Florence 2 – 3 days; Venice 2 – 3 days; Cinque Terre – 2 full days; Milan 1 – 2 days. You can fly into Milan, Rome, or Florence as a good starting point. Connect the cities by train (like you said). The flow of your itinerary could look something like this: Tuscany to Florence to Venice to Cinque Terre to Milan. If you want to add Verona, you could stop here just for the day or for one night while traveling between Venice and the Cinque Terre. Hope this helps and let me know if you have more questions.

      Cheers, Julie

      1. Fantastic! Thank you Julie. I sense Verona is a must – I will add it in and do as you suggest.
        I loved your article on places to stay in Venice and will use that to choose accommodation.
        Do you have similar accommodation suggestions for Siena, Florence and Cinque Terra – and even Milan?
        This is so super helpful and I will take your advice about a driver or a tour for the Tuscany leg of the trip
        Katharine

        1. Post
          Author

          No, I don’t have dedicated “where to stay” articles for the other cities. However, our Siena and Florence articles give a few suggestions. When we visited the Cinque Terre, we stayed in La Spezia, since we traveled on a tight budget. And we just day tripped through Milan. We use Booking.com to choose our accommodations and make reservations. Ideally, I try to only pick hotels that get a 9.0 or higher (although this is not always possible). And yes, I love Verona. Have fun in Italy! Cheers, Julie

  7. Hi! We are planning a trip to Europe for 12-13 days and our flight is to and from Rome. We would like to visit Venice, Paris, and Switzerland as well, although we are confused on how to budget our time. Please help!

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      Author

      Hello Afreen. I would recommend 3 days in Rome, take a train to Venice and then plan on 2 days in Venice. That’s a total of 6 days. If you want to add on Paris, I recommend 3 days, plus a day of travel, which puts you at 10 days. That leaves 2-3 days for Switzerland, which is not enough time, in my opinion. Instead, you could add more time to Italy, and visit Florence for a day or two while traveling from Rome to Venice. Of course, you could spend less time in each city, which will give you more time in Switzerland, but then I think your trip will be very rushed. Cheers, Julie

  8. Hi.
    I’m a first time traveller to Europe. I’m planing a Europe trip for 10 days. With maximum of 3 to 4 countries. (Rome, Switzerland, Austria, Amsterdam). Can you help me to make my itinerary. Also I need to know about the travelling. And how do I book my train tickets

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Ann. That sounds like a lot to fit into 10 days. You could do Rome, Amsterdam, and one more city (you could do Lucerne or Vienna) and connect them by train or plane. Rail Europe is a good place to start to book your train tickets because their website is easy to use (just know that they charge a few euros per ticket for booking). Cheers, Julie

  9. Hi,

    Great blog! Very useful for first timers like me 🙂 I need your advice to plan my itinerary. I am traveling for official visit to Prague for 4 days. Later I am planning to extend for 9 days. I would like to go to Amsterdam and some more places rich with natural beauty. I am considering Austria-(Any 2- Salzburg,Salzkammergut,Zell Am See,Hallstatt).
    Paris I cant go b’cos of Airoshow-its going to be too crowded mostly. Traveling in mid-June. Can you please suggest something?

    1. Post
      Author

      From Prague, you could visit Salzburg, Hallstatt, and then go to Bavaria, and fly home via Munich. You won’t have enough time to get to Amsterdam, but you would get to see gorgeous landscapes and fairytale towns. Check out our 10 Day Bavaria itinerary for more ideas. Cheers, Julie

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