How to Plan a Europe Itinerary

7 Things to Know When Planning Your First Trip to Europe

Julie Itinerary, Travel Advice 52 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 52

  1. Julie, your blog is amazing. I have only referred to it at least 20 times in planning our trip to London and Paris!

    my question is around booking tickets in advance for theatres, zoo and aquarium in both cities. we are traveling with our 4 children and that has made their top 5 list of things to do. would you recommend booking tickets in advance for those attractions? we plan to buy the london pass (as recommended :)) and we are also touring the Harry Potter Warner Bros studio.

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      Author

      I don’t know much about the zoo and the aquarium and I would be surprised if these would sell out in advance, so I don’t think it is necessary to purchase your tickets in advance. However, if it gives you peace of mind, and you are definite about the date you would visit the aquarium and the zoo, it might be worth it to do this in advance (and sometimes you do save a little bit of money buying tickets online in advance). If you are planning to see a specific show at the theater, I would reserve your seats in advance. This sounds like a wonderful family trip!! Cheers, Julie

  2. Hello
    We are planning a trip for October. My husband is very interested in Switzerland. Initially we had thought we would revisit Lake Como and Venice, we LOVE them both. Lately Ive been considering other locals. Had read good things about Luca. I am not a big city person. Have seen Florence, do not need to return. Have been to Cinque Terra, Sienna, Santa Margherita, and Portofino.
    Now I am thinking of the possibility of So Italy. Is it realistic to fly from Switzerland to Naples. Ideas for travel without a car we like trains and to hire drivers

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      Sure, I think it would be reasonable to fly to Naples from Switzerland. We have not been to southern Italy yet so I don’t know much about the trains there. I recommend checking the Italiarail website to get an idea of available destinations in southern Italy and prices. Matera is becoming a popular spot! Cheers, Julie

  3. Hi Julie,

    Thank you for having the best and fun travel guides. My husband and I are planning our vacation to first time Europe trip the end of May 2019 for 12 days. The itinerary, Home (SF CA) -Paris – Niece – Barcelona – Home. Is the schedule good? What would be the best way to travel to each city? I appreciate very much for your guidance.

    Best regards,
    Cindy

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      Author

      Hello Cindy. Yes, this sounds wonderful. To get from Paris to Nice, you can take a train (learn more here) or fly. Flying will save you a few hours but it will be more expensive. Trains in Europe are cheap and very convenient. We rarely travel by train in the US but LOVE traveling by train in Europe. From what I know, there are no quick, convenient trains that travel Nice to Barcelona. I would recommend flying between these two cities. For more on what to do from Nice, if you haven’t seen it yet, check out our French Riviera itinerary so you can decide how many days you want to spend here. I think 3 days in each spot is a good starting point and then add in the extra time into what you might think will be your favorite spot. With extra time in the French Riviera, you can also see a little bit of Provence, and with extra time in Barcelona you can day trip to Girona and Montserrat. Cheers, Julie

  4. Hi Julie,
    I so appreciate your travel recommendations and advice! We are flying into Paris in June, headed south to the coast, then to Cinque Terre, Lucern and flying out of Zurich- all in 12 days. We have been to Paris and Zurich previously, but the south of France and Italy are new to us. What travel modes of transportation do you recommend for this kind of trip? And which stops along the French Riviera do you suggest? So far we have no specific cities chosen.

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      Author

      The quickest way from Paris to Nice is by plane although you can also take a train. We have a 10 day French Riviera & Provence itinerary you should take a look at. If you only wanted to do the French Riviera, you could spend 4 days visiting the towns between Marseilles and Monaco, using Nice as a home base. There is a train that connects all of these towns. The Cinque Terre is a bit out of the way from the French Riviera and Lucerne. You can get to the 5Terre by train but it will take roughly 5 – 6 hours (by car its 4 hours). Then, the train from La Spezia to Lucerne takes 6 to 8 hours. An alternative is to fly to Zurich, but you will first have to take a train to Milan or Florence. So, if you want to add the Cinque Terre, it will take up at least 4 days of your itinerary (2 days at 5Terre and 2 days of travel). You might want to save the Cinque Terre for a future trip to Italy because it’s very quick and easy to get to from Florence and Milan.

      If you took out the 5Terre, you could fly from Nice to Zurich (there are no fast trains for this journey). This would give you a lot of time on the coast…it’s worth it.

      One more alternative: rent a car in Nice. Road trip to Lucerne, going through Lake Como. This way, you get to see part of Italy that’s a little bit difficult to get to on the usual grand tour of Italy. We have not done this drive, or even been to Lake Como yet, but I think it would be amazing.

      So, your itinerary could look something like this (I’m keeping your time short in Paris and Zurich): 1, 2 – Paris; 3, 4, 5, 6 French Riviera; 7 drive to Lake Como; 8, 9 Lake Como area; 10 – drive to Lucerne; 11 Lucerne, drive to Zurich; 12 – fly home. Yes, you get very close to the 5Terre, and you could squeeze it in if you took time from the French Riviera and Lake Como. But I still think it’s worth saving it for later. Sorry, this got very involved and hopefully it’s not too much to think about, but I love a good road trip and if you don’t mind renting a car in Europe, it’s something to consider. Let me know if you have more questions. Cheers, Julie

  5. Going to visit our grandson in luxemborg in November He will be going to college. Want to visit Paris and some places in Germany. Would you advise taking the train to Paris from luxemborg rather than renting a car there will be 6 of us. Any ideas on places to see in Germany. Will be there nov 15 returning to us on the 24.

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      Author

      We took the train from Paris to Luxembourg last spring and it is incredibly fast and economical. So yes, I recommend taking the train. There’s a lot to see and do in Germany. Cologne and its grand cathedral is not too far from Luxembourg. Munich and Berlin are wonderful but they are farther away (I almost wonder if flying is better than the train to get to these cities). Another idea is that you could take a train to Frankfurt (or Cologne), rent a car, and road trip down the Rhine River. We have not been on the Rhine yet but it looks great…lots of castles! And then, farther east is the Romantic Road, with lots of fairytale towns to visit. Cheers, Julie

  6. Hi Julie. My fiancé and I are researching for our honeymoon and are currently enthralled on Earthtrekkers! We are set on Italy with stops in Venice/Veronca, Florance/Pisa, Rome, and ending in the Amalfi Coast. We were planning 10-14 days. What are your thoughts and recommendations on time in each city?

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      Author

      Hello Amber. Sounds like it will be a very nice honeymoon! Here are the minimum amount of days I would spend in each spot: Venice (2 days), Verona (1 day), Florence (2 days), day trip to Pisa from Florence (1 day), Rome (2 days but 3 is better), Amalfi Coast (3 days), transfer back to Rome for your flight home (1 day). That is 13 days. So you will be right at 15 days with travel in and out of Italy. If you need to eliminate something I recommend passing on Pisa (it’s overrated in my opinion). You can get around by train and look into getting a rail pass since you will use the train so frequently. Cheers, Julie

  7. Hi Julie,

    Interesting and useful blog.Planning first trip to Europe April ,2019.

    Planning on Switzerland,Paris and Nice…13 days.Pls inform if the choice looks good.

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      Author

      Honestly, anywhere in Europe is good. 🙂 Paris is one of my favorite cities so I say you are making a nice choice. In April, it will be a little cold to get in the water at Nice but you won’t have big crowds which will be great (I’d personally pick April over the summer months). 3 days in Paris is a nice amount of time. In Nice, you could spend 3 – 4 days here and day trip to nearby coastal towns. That leaves you with just under a week in Switzerland so you will have to pick the part of Switzerland that looks the most interesting to you. Have a nice trip! Cheers, Julie

  8. Hi Julie
    I am currently planning our first trip to Italy and hoping you might be able to look at our itinery to see if Im being a bit ambitious. We fly from New Zealand to Croatia for 10 days then head to Italy. Florence 3 nights, Cinque Terre 4 nights, Milan 2 nights, Lake Como 4 nights, Venice 2 nights. Then on to Paris 3 nights, Inverness (to visit family) 2 nights, edinburgh 3 nights, london 4 nights – then home via Singapore 1 or 2 nights. We are both reasonably fit 60 year olds.

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      Author

      Your timing looks great! It looks like you added a little bit of downtime in the Cinque Terre and at Lake Como, which you will need at that point in your trip. You have enough time in each city to get to the main sites, not feel too rushed, and allow for travel time. If you wanted to, you could move a day from the Cinque Terre and add it to Florence if you wanted some extra time to day trip into Tuscany (just a thought). Wow…Croatia, Italy, France, Scotland, and London…what a trip! Cheers, Julie

  9. Thanks Julie, I’m finding your blog very useful, planing our first family trip to Europe, 10 days in May 2019, planning on France and Portugal based on your advice of limiting cities to visit.

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      Author

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