Here's How to Plan Your Very First Trip to Europe, According to a Professional Traveler

Heading to Europe for the very first time? We've got some advice for you.

Whether you study abroad, backpack solo, or go with a group for your first trip to Europe, it's an experience that will change your life — and alter your perspective in all the best ways — forever. Even if you visited the continent with your parents as a kid, your first "solo" adventure to Europe as a young adult promises to reward you with rich memories. From digging into freshly baked pizza in Italy to picnicking beneath the Eiffel Tower with a still-warm baguette, it's a trip filled with experiences you'll talk about for the rest of your life.

Though I had visited Italy with my parents as a kid, my own first adventure to Europe as a young adult was in 2015. I was 21, newly married, and heartbroken at the loss of my father four months earlier. I had been studying British literature and European history in my college classes and was eager to make real-world connections to my curriculum. In preparation, my husband and I watched every Rick Steves video on YouTube and movies like Under the Tuscan Sun, Midnight in Paris, Notting Hill, and Eat, Pray, Love. The spring semester of my junior year ended, and we set off with nothing but backpacks containing a few (and I do mean a few) sets of clothes, a budget of about $100 per day, and five short weeks to see it all.

Besides opening our eyes, pushing us to our limits, and expanding our perspectives in ways that nothing else could, that trip ignited in us a shared passion for travel — and for encouraging others to do the same. Read on for tips for planning your first trip to Europe like a pro.

Female tourist walking towards Corniglia village, Beautiful town in Cinque Terre coast
Getty Images

Get Around With a Eurail Pass

Do you need a Eurail pass to get around Europe? Maybe not, but I devoted a large chunk of our shoestring budget to it on my first trip, and I've bought one for every extended trip I've taken to Europe since then — even now that I've hit the ancient age of 28 and no longer qualify for Eurail's discounted youth pricing — so that should tell you something.

Most of Europe is well connected via a vast rail network spanning the continent. A Eurail pass — available exclusively to non-Europeans — makes it hassle-free to hop between countries and even navigate regional trains. Depending on your travel plans, you can purchase passes for specific countries or regions and choose whether you need unlimited use or a set number of travel days.

Remember that once you're in Europe, hops between major cities are often surprisingly low-price (I've seen flights for as little as $6), but often a train is the best choice when you factor in time, convenience, price, and the chance to watch the world go by from your window. Splurge on first-class passes, and you'll always have a comfortable seat.

A path marked through popular European cities
The author shares her planned route for traveling Europe. Screenshot via Google Maps

Plan Your Trip Geographically

Make a list of all your must-hit places, then look at where they fall on a map — connect the dots, and you have your route. Maybe you start in Spain and work your way east, or fly into London, take the Chunnel to Paris, and work your way down to Italy. Whatever you choose, ensure that your route makes sense geographically so you don't waste time (or money) crisscrossing the continent.

Charming restaurant Le Consulat on the Montmartre hill in Paris, France
Alex Kozlov/Getty Images

Keep Seasons in Mind

Europe is a large continent covering a variety of climates. It may seem obvious, but if you're planning a summer trip, don't expect to frolic in fields of Dutch tulips (that happens in the spring) or ski the Austrian slopes (that would be a winter thing). And as enchanting as the European Christmas markets look on Instagram, don't be disappointed when you put two and two together and realize that they'll only make it to your feed if you're going to Europe in November or December.

An Italian summer is nothing short of sweltering and ice-cold AC isn't a given, so if you're planning to cover all of Rome on foot at high noon, you may want to rethink that. (I learned this the hard way and damn near had a heat stroke.) A midday siesta is common in countries like Spain and Italy for a reason, so do as the locals do and take the summer weather into account before you overexert yourself.

A boat on Amsterdam's Prinsengracht Canal, viewed through greenery on the riverbank
Amsterdam is the perfect jumping-off point for a European tour. Miquel Gonzalez

Book in Advance

A PSA for type-A travelers like me: You don't have to have your entire trip planned out before leaving home. (I had a down-to-the-minute itinerary mapped out for my type-B husband and me on our first venture to Europe, and he almost left me as I dragged him from museum to walking tour to restaurant reservation and back again.) Part of the fun — especially if you have a Eurail pass — is going where the wind blows you and deciding what appeals to you upon arrival.

Pro tip: Taking a bus tour on your first day in a destination is a great way to get the lay of the land and cover a lot of ground quickly (without exhausting yourself).

Make a general timeline and book your departure flight from the USA to Europe before you leave home, but perhaps wait until you've hopped the pond to book your flight back. You may decide to stay longer in a particular country or run out of time to make it all the way to Portugal, where you originally intended to fly out of. Create a general outline, but leave some of your trip open and stay flexible.

The one thing you may want to do in advance is reserve hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs because they can fill up during the popular summer months. That's why it's helpful to have a general idea of where you'll be and when — just don't cling to your plan at the expense of a spontaneous sidetrack or two.

What to Bring to Europe

Start working on your packing list a few months beforehand. What you bring will vary depending on destinations, length of trip, and your fussiness level, but there are a few non-negotiables.

Don't leave home without:

  • Your passport
  • Converters for European outlets (both UK and EU, as needed)
  • A credit card and/or a debit card for getting cash out of an ATM (you'll get a better rate this way than doing it through a currency-exchange counter)
  • COVID-era items such as your vaccine card, printed copies of your negative COVID test results (if required), and a few self-test kits
  • A secure envelope to hold all of these important documents (including a few color copies of your passport) in one place
  • An international plan added to your phone (unless you're a T-Mobile customer)
  • Global Entry (not necessary, but a definite plus when you return to the USA)

You'll also find life a lot easier with the Google Translate app and the XE currency conversion app on your smartphone. Before you depart, download the countries you'll be visiting to ensure offline availability. The Been app, where you can track which countries you've visited and how much of the world you've seen, is another fun app for travelers, especially on a trip like this where you'll be checking off a lot of countries.

And a note on packing light: You'll need nothing more than a backpack and a carry-on, max. Trust me. (There are laundry rooms at every hostel and laundromats in every city.)

Map from Google with pins in popular destinations like London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Santorini
The writer shares her map of must-visit spots for a first visit to Europe. Screenshot via Google Maps

Where to Go on Your First Trip to Europe

If you only have time or the budget to see a few places, start with the basics. You've likely learned about major cities like London, Paris, and Rome since you can remember — now's the time to see them through your own eyes.

Once you have the must-hit places on your itinerary, plan some additional stops according to your interests. There's a lot to see in Italy outside of Rome — I'd include Venice, Cinque Terre or the Amalfi Coast, Florence, and the surrounding Tuscan wine country on any trip to Italy, especially for first-timers.

Maybe you've been digging into your ancestry and found that you have Hungarian heritage like I have — Budapest was a shoo-in for us this summer — or perhaps you've always dreamed of hiking the Swiss Alps, clinking glasses in a German beer hall, or soaking up the sun in the Greek Isles.

Maybe you want to visit Poland and pay your respects at Auschwitz — I consider this sobering, heart-wrenching experience a must — or try every waffle you come across in Belgium. You can do it all if you have enough time, but start by arranging a shortlist with your top priorities and then tack on additional destinations if you have space.

These are some of the best places to visit in Europe, but the best destinations for you will depend on your interests, priorities, and goals. If you're purely on "vacation" with no remote work or school obligations, two to three days in each place should suffice, but if you can't devote your full attention each day to exploring, then you'll want a little extra time in each city to do it justice.

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