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10 step guide to planning a trip to Europe

With so many countries and sights worth seeing, the choices can be difficult.
/ Source: Independent Traveler

Did you take a memorable trip to Europe that you would like to write about? Submit a trip report and we'll send you a link to your article and maybe even choose it to be the "Trip Report of the Week."

1. Decide on your destination
Is a whirlwind five-city tour what you have in mind? Or perhaps you shudder at the thought of visiting another museum and long for a relaxing week picking lavender in the south of France. The thing about Europe is that with so many countries, cities and sights worth seeing, the choices can be overwhelming. Think about what your ideal vacation is and begin your research. Check out our article Europe on and Off the Beaten Path for inspiration, and of course consult our members' trip reports.

2. Get your documents in order
Is your passport valid? Do you need a visa in the country you are visiting? Our article on passports includes everything you need to know about getting or renewing a passport, including links to forms you can download to expedite the process.

Keep in mind that if you are traveling with a child, a he or she needs a passport too. If you're reading this in a panic because you don't have a valid passport -- calm down -- a passport and visa expeditor can help you get yours fast.

3. Book your airfare
This is, perhaps, the most stressful part of planning a trip. You could lock in a reasonable fare early, but what if there is a major sale? You wait and wait for the sales to start and meanwhile the fares are creeping up. With the number of Americans traveling to Europe at its peak since 9/11, most experts agree that travelers aren't likely to see airfares to the continent take a dip for summer travel. If you don't have your heart set on traveling there this summer, consider going this fall -- the sales are already in progress. Check our Europe Bargains and Features page often -- it's updated daily with the latest sales.

4. Get creative with your flights
Until recently, booking a multi-leg flight required the help of a travel agent. However, the Web sites we have come to rely on for booking our simple round-trips -- specifically Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity and Kayak -- have progressed by leaps and bounds in terms of booking multi-city flight itineraries -- check out our case study here to see who came out on top. However, because these booking engines don't search results from discount airlines abroad you might end up paying quite a bit more than if you did the legwork yourself and booking two separate trips or booking an open-jaw ticket.

5. Keep in mind that Europe has discount airlines too
Europe, just like the U.S., has discount airlines. The trouble is, most of the search engines we have come to rely on don't account for those flights (just as they don't account for several American discount airlines either). The two most popular of these discount airlines are easyJet and Ryanair -- famous for super-discounted flights all over Europe. Consider flying to a large hub like London and connecting to a smaller city on one of these airlines. Be aware though that you may have to fly into one airport in London and out of another, as Ryanair and easyJet both operate the majority of their flights out of smaller airports. For a crash course on the international discount airlines, check out this article from Traveler's Ed.

6. Book your accommodations
Whether it's a five-star city hotel or a countryside villa, booking your accommodations well in advance, particularly during high season, is paramount. If you're traveling with a group or with several family members, consider a city apartment rental instead of several hotel rooms. specializes in apartment rentals in Barcelona, while is a good place to start your search for a rental on the Left Bank. Besides city-specific Web sites, you might also want to consider a home exchange. Two excellent sources for booking hotel or bed and breakfast accommodations all over Europe are and

7. Figure out how you will get around
For many, train travel is what automatically comes to mind when we think about traveling in Europe. Be sure to research your options long before you leave the United States -- many of the passes we have become familiar with (Eurail is by far the most famous) need to be purchased in advance. If you are planning on doing most of your traveling within one country, consider one of the many European country passes available.

A less expensive, if less scenic, option may be to travel on one of the discount airlines mentioned above. This is probably your best option if you want to see several cities but are short on time.

For those who can't bear the thought of adhering to any sort of schedule, renting a car is a great option. Be aware that there are several considerations beyond what side of the road you'll be driving on. You might need an International Driving Permit -- and you'll have to secure it before you leave home. Keep in mind that European rental cars are often smaller then their American counterparts -- a subcompact here is probably significantly larger than what you'll get in Europe. Visit our list of European rental car companies to help you get started.

8. Get excited
You've decided on your destination, booked your plane tickets and have made hotel reservations. What's left? Now is the time to do more research -- find that off-the-beaten-path leather shop or a cooking class in Provence -- and get excited for your trip. Visit our Europe Bargains and Features page to help you get started, our message boards to get answers to all your questions from our members, and our trip reports page to read the highlights and lowlights of other people's trips. And since even seasoned independent travelers need a good old-fashioned guidebook to help them along the way, we've chosen some of the best in our Guidebook Guide.

9. Figure out the money
It has long been accepted that using your credit card abroad would yield the best exchange rate for travelers. However, there has been a recent surge in the number of banks and credit card companies that have quietly added transaction and currency conversion fees for purchases made overseas. Making a call to your credit card company before you leave home is the best way to avoid a huge headache later -- like when your monthly statements arrives and you owe several hundred dollars more than you anticipated. When you arrive at your destination, you want to make sure you get the best exchange rate -- check out our article on this topic for tips.

10. Tie up the loose ends
Don't forget to stop your mail and call the pet sitter! Our own Traveler's Ed outlines the steps you need to take before you leave the house to ensure a stress-free trip in Make Your Next Trip a Breeze Before You Leave the House. When it comes time to pack, be sure to consult our packing checklist and our packing tips.

And when you get back, remember to tell us all about your trip -- your trip report could be featured on!

The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at , or at .