Sep 23, 2013

How to Plan a Trip to Europe (for the frugal non-backpacker)


Earlier this year, my husband and I took a trip to Europe. I know most of you remember all the obnoxious amount of pictures I posted (see my guides to Paris, London, and Ireland). Well recently some friends asked about how we went about planning the trip, so I thought I would share it here as a resource for anyone who might be interested.

***Disclaimer: I have been to Europe twice, so I am in no way an expert travel guide. I'm just sharing what I learned in case it might be helpful to anyone else out there.***

 Musee d'Orsay, in Paris

1. Decide where you want to go. 
This one was really difficult. We actually had originally planned on going to Australia to visit a friend, but ultimately decided that we could get "more for our money" by going to Europe. Australia will still happen... someday. So once we decided on Europe, it was time to narrow it down. We picked 3 countries, because that felt like a good amount for 2 weeks (if you are doing more of a backpacking trip you could definitely get a lot more in - we wanted to be able to relax and spend a few days in each country).

Once we decided to do three countries, it was SO HARD to narrow it down. Knowing that we would be in Europe and not see everything was really hard. But you just have to remind yourself that you'll be back. At least that's what I had to do. So, Turkey, Switzerland, Italy - I'll be back for ya.

So, how did we narrow it down? Well, Eric and I both have Irish roots so we choose that first. Since Ireland is on the edge of Europe, it made it a lot easier. We chose London and Paris because we had never been to either and travel is actually quite convenient between the two.

Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

2. Money
Ah, yes. Money. Awkward.

Travel is expensive. For some people it's worth it, for some people it's not. Eric and I are both savers, so spending a crapload (excuse my french) on something intangible was a little bit hard for us. But, after the trip, I will definitely think we will be doing it again. The experience was absolutely priceless. Also, we have heard from a lot of people who began traveling when they were older (and more financially established) that they wished they had traveled when they were younger instead of waiting. Yeah, it can be a financial stretch, but life is short (morbid, but true) and when you are younger, you can get around so much more quickly and easily.  So, all that to say, there is no magic way to make it cheaper, but for us, the hole in our pockets afterward was totally worth it.

Here are some tangible financial tips:

My number one tip: have a SEPARATE savings account for your trip. This will help you know exactly how much you have towards your trip at any given moment and it will help cheapskates like me when you freak out about spending money and your husband sweetly reminds you - Ashley, we saved specifically to spend money this way. A separate savings/checking account also gives you the opportunity to find an account specific to your needs - we got an account with free international ATM usage - which meant we could use any ATM at anytime without a fee (typically $1-6 per transaction).

My number two tip: be patient, but save as much as you can. How fast you accumulate money obviously depends on how much you make, your other monthly payments, and whether or not you're paying off debt. My personal suggestion would be to NOT save for a trip if you are paying off any loans (including a car). Try to be future-minded with your purchases... "I could drink this grande iced mocha today, OR I could have an espresso and a macaroon in Paris. It really helps.

Airline Miles
We have a Southwest airlines credit card. I highly recommend it. It has an annual fee (which is normally a bad sign) but the rewards are absolutely worth it. We pay off our card every month (we live debt free - I promise I'll write a post about that someday) so that's not an issue for us. Obviously, Southwest doesn't fly to Europe, but we flew to and from NYC for free and then caught an international flight from JFK, so that was significant for us. Having an international airline card is another option, but it can be very limiting (it can limit where you can fly to/from; also an airline like British Airways, for example, has higher rates in general so it will take you longer to accumulate points).

Bath, England

It's not as expensive as you might think to fly to Europe. That is, if you're patient and you don't mind flying on an airline you've never heard of. Before we started looking for flights, I asked my friend Kari, who had recently done a similar trip with her husband, how they got to Europe. She told me they flew to Europe via an Indian airline that was crazy and awesome and inexpensive. I was determined to find a flight as cheap as her's, so we looked and looked, and priced and re-priced, and eventually we found it: $750 per person, round trip (priced from NYC - remember, we got there for free via Southwest). We flew on an Irish airline, and even though it was a bit of a pain to stop in Dublin on the way there (we flew into Paris), it was totally worth it. Our flights were such a great price that we felt financially comfortable the rest of the trip.

Book in Advance
I'm crazy a planner, so booking things in advance is my cup o' tea. But I know that for a lot of people, planning out an entire trip takes away some of the adventure. Personally, I think you can have both. When traveling somewhere like Europe, time is money. Your time is so precious there; it is not worth spending hours driving around trying to find a B&B with availability (which happened to us one night in Ireland - the only country we did not book in advance). Need some examples? Here are some deals we got that we could not have gotten if we had waited until we got to Europe:

Eurostar (underwater, speedy train from London to Paris): $59 booked 3 months out vs. $260 booked day of.

Marriot Hotel in London: booked for 65 pounds via Priceline vs. 324 pounds in person.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris

3. Outline
Once you've decided where you want to go, and you've got the dough, it's time to outline. For those of you that are backpackers/fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pant-ers, this might not be necessary. But, for anyone else that wants to save money and likes a bit of structure, I suggest doing this. Decide:
-where you'll fly in/out of
-how you'll get to/from each country
-how long you'll stay in each place

Book anything that should be booked in advance, and then you can relax and do the fun part: filling in all the gaps (hotels, restaurants, museums, etc.).

To see specific tips for each country we visited:





Rick Steves felt like a dorky member of our family during our trip to Europe. We read the Guide to Europe cover to cover and loved it. I highly recommend it.

Kayak to compare flights. We used Kayak to get an idea of the airlines that had the best deals, then we went to each airline site individually to try to find something even better.

Aspiring Kennedy is a blog written by an American living in England. I read through all of Lauren's suggestions about what to do/see.

Design Sponge city guides have exhaustive recommendations on where to eat/stay and plenty to do. I found these really helpful when "filling in the gaps" of our trip.

Pinterest, of course. I searched for blog posts that gave tips or suggestions for the cities we were planning on seeing and pinned them all to one board. I mean, duh. You knew to do that. But Pinterest is just so amazing I had to mention it.

*** This post became a novel without me planning on it. Please let me know if you have any thoughts/questions!


  1. Such a great post. My husband and I were talking about what to do next summer and Europe came up. Thanks for the tips!

  2. someday, SOME day we will go. I wish I was that financially responsible and disciplined!

  3. I absolutely loved this line: I could drink this grande iced mocha today, OR I could have an espresso and a macaroon in Paris. It really helps"

    Now to convince Adam to leave the US....

  4. Rick Steves is awesome! :) Thanks for the great tips!

  5. Love all these tips! i'm going to have to come back to this sometime!

  6. This is really helpful! I we aren't planning a trip to Europe any time soon, but it will be helpful when the time comes around. Thanks so much!

  7. I would love to go to Ireland! My husband's heritage is Irish and it looks so beautiful!

  8. this is such a well written post - I have to say - I travel a lot but would take all your points into good measure. Very detailed & well presented. I know you teach but this report is so thorough as only a teacher could have written. Those students are lucky to have you teach.

  9. We'll be going to Europe in a couple years, so I'll need to read your post again for sure :)


  10. What a great post with much good information. You definitely brought some new ideas to my attention. Thanks!

    blue hue wonderland

  11. Thank you so much for this! My problem is that I want to visit EVERYWHERE in Europe;P
    Hugs & Kisses,

  12. You have read my mind. My husband and I are planning a trip to Europe next year. Will definitely keep this post in mind. Thanks for sharing!

  13. This is great!!! Definitely going to file this one and I especially like the idea to think about holding off for that espresso in Paris before purchasing a latte here. :)

  14. These are the some great tips!! Next time you travel try for hotels and definitely invest in a Lonely Planet, even if its an old edition and it's second hand.
    Plus for travelling within the UK use to book cheap buses (sometimes the fare from Machester to London can be just 1 pound if you book early!!) to different cities!

  15. Ahhhh! £65! I can't believe it! I'm thinking Priceline and I will become good friends... Great tips, Ashley!

  16. Oh how I wish I could take my husband to Europe. I went when I was 18 on a school trip and it was amazing. Maybe someday when he finishes law school... great tips! And I love your pictures!


  17. As a fellow crazy person, UM, I MEAN, planner, I find this to be very helpful.

  18. Thanks for the informative post, Ashley! Makes me want to plan a Euro-trip right-away! :)
    Also, I think you meant 'hole' when you said the "whole in our pockets". :P

  19. This is such a great post, with so much valuable information, thank you! As I look out and work to plan more of our European trips, I will be referring back to this post for sure!

  20. This was a lengthy post but all very useful. Though I have been to Europe many times (I am originally from there) I could never write such a post. I think it helps if trips are longer - you find better deals. Usually I have stayed no longer than 5 days at each country. I am glad you enjoyed your recent stay there. If you ever go back, I would recommend some of the Easter European countries by the Mediterranean. For example, my home country Albania has some of the most gorgeous beaches and sea coast-lines.


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