Do You Need to
Pre-Plan Your European Vacation?
A Stitch in Time Saves Nine
An unplanned European vacation gives an illusion of freedom
But in reality it is more likely to give disappointment,
hassle, frustration and extra expense.
In this article we discuss the
deceptive appeal of the 'freedom' of traveling to Europe with
nothing planned or confirmed prior to travel. Although we
use Europe as an example, similar comments can apply to travel
to most other destinations as well.
We understand why this concept
holds appeal for many people. But we also know, from
personal experience as well as reports from other travelers, about
the dangerous downsides to this style of travel.
It is true that for some people
in some situations, it is an acceptable practice. But for
most of us, we recommend against it - read on to find out why.
Travel as an Expression of
Let's face it. Leisure
travel is one of the greatest self-indulgences to which we can
treat ourselves - spending thousands of dollars on something that,
at the end of the experience, we'll have nothing to show for
except some trashy souvenirs, photos that we won't remember the
significance of within a few months, and quickly fading memories
('What was the name of that quaint little town we visited on, uh,
the second or third day?' sort of stuff).
Shouldn't we be investing the
money wisely? Repainting the house? Replacing the car?
Or in some other way, buying something tangible with the money
We'll leave those questions
unanswered, shall we!
Suffice it to say that as an
extension of this extravagant self-indulgence, some people wish to
free themselves of all constraints while traveling. No more
being a slave to a schedule or a timetable such as they lead their
lives by during most of the year. Instead, they seek out the
ability to go where they want, when they want, and to do what they
want, how they want, free of all restrictions.
We often encounter such people
talking about their plans to, for example, go to Europe with
nothing planned at all except their flights in and out of the
continent. They might have pre-purchased a rail pass as
well, and a couple of travel guides, and beyond that, they'll play
it by ear. If a town looks interesting, they'll get off a
train and stay there for a while. If a town looks boring,
they'll travel on to the next town. And so on.
Doesn't that sound like the
ultimate liberation from the oppression of our usual lives?
And doesn't it promise to be the ultimate vacation experience,
interactively put together based on the reality of what you're
encountering, as and when you encounter it?
Actually, no. It sounds
like a recipe and invitation for massive disaster, frustration,
and disappointment. It also sounds like a terrible way of
wasting your time doing unpleasant administrative type tasks
during your precious time of 'freedom' in Europe.
Please allow us to explain.
We should start off by
conceding that there may be brief times of year when an unplanned
vacation is not as problematic as others. If you are in
truly a low season - no special school or public holidays or
festivals or events - then you may be able to travel around
without any problems finding accommodation at short notice.
But the flip side of that is
that if you're traveling to Europe at any 'nice' time of year, and
particularly in our summer school holidays, your ability to make
hotel bookings at the last minute will be highly marginalized.
Length of Stay Appropriateness
If you're treating yourself to
a six month or longer time in Europe, then you have some true
freedom (although you'll probably sacrifice this freedom by
renting an apartment for much of your time there, rather than
traveling from hotel to hotel without break for six long months).
In such a case - even if based in one location for most of your
stay, you can take wonderful advantage of the compactness of
Europe and the speed of their excellent trains and go wherever you
wish, whenever you wish.
But most of us are only going
to Europe for a week or two; at the most possibly three weeks.
Our 'time freedom' is very limited to start with, and with the
only small amount of truly free time, our ability to spend it
doing anything we like, anywhere in Europe, becomes
The Illusion of Freedom
The fact is that for most of
us, on typical 1 - 2 week vacations, we don't actually have all
that much freedom to start with. We know where we are going
to arrive, because we've a confirmed plane ticket to somewhere,
and we know where we will leave from, again due to the confirmed
It is a safe guess we'll
probably spend the first day (or two) close to where we fly in,
and the last day (or two) close to where we depart.
So when you take out travel
time, and the first and last day or two at the beginning and end
of your travels, you really only have maybe 3 - 10 days in the
middle which are 'free'.
Even those aren't really free.
Common sense suggests there will be probably be some sort of
reasonably coherent and ordered sequence to your travels.
You won't go 300 miles west on one day, only to double back 150
miles east the next day, and then the following day go another 300
miles west again. That is 750 miles of travel which much
doubling back on yourself, instead of 450 miles of travel in one
steady logical flow.
In addition to the imposition
of logical order on the sequence of places you'll visit, there is
also another geographic consideration. You don't want to
spend all day of every day traveling. If there's a place 10
hours by train from anywhere else you're likely to be, you'll
probably not go there.
In other words, the initial
concept of 'seeing (all of) Europe' is already starting to become
a more realistic 'seeing two or three countries within Europe'.
So, not only is your general
geographic area of travels starting to take shape, there are
probably some places that are on your 'must see' list already -
places that you know you're going to visit. When you plug
these into your itinerary, you'll find that there are very few
remaining days of 'freedom'.
When you start to think about
all these various factors, you start to realize that in actual
fact, your total time away will be clearly spent visiting some
places that you've already 90% identified.
Freedom is a State of Mind
Your freedom exists - but you
are better to be exercising your freedom before you
depart. You have freely chosen the places you most want to
see, but you are doing it before you get to Europe rather than
There's nothing wrong with
planning where you'll go, before you leave, indeed, as hopefully
you're starting to appreciate, exercising your freedom that way
makes you freer while on vacation.
Keep reading for more about
how you are making yourself freer on vacation, even though you've
planned and defined and booked and confirmed where you'll be
staying in advance.
Freeing Yourself from the Time
When you're at home and/or at
work, you're in a comfortable environment. You have as many
reference and travel books as you like, you have a lovely high
speed internet connection on a computer you're used to using
(European computers sometimes have slightly different keyboards),
and you can call up friends or travel agents or whatever else on a
nearby free telephone.
You also have no time pressure
acting on you. You can do some travel research today, and
more tomorrow, and make some bookings in the various days after
that. If one booking request comes back unavailable for the
days you want, that's not a problem. You can change things
around and do things in a different sequence. Or you can go
back to the research and find an alternate hotel or destination
for the days in question.
How many hours in total would
you spend planning a trip and booking hotels? Many more than
you might think. Take a guess - maybe if considered all the
hours of research and everything per day of travel, you might end
up with spending one or two hours of planning at home for each of
the days you'll subsequently be traveling through Europe.
There's nothing wrong with
that - for many of us, the planning is at least half the fun of
the entire experience.
Indeed - seize that thought.
You are actually enjoying the process of planning your trip,
when you're doing it in your free time at home. You're
getting to vicariously anticipate and enjoy your travels before
you've even left home.
Now let's think about the
implications of this if you simply go to Europe with nothing
You've not only robbed
yourself of all the anticipatory fun of planning and preparing for
your trip, but you now have to spend that same hour or two a day
doing the research and booking the hotels that you would have
otherwise done at home. Except that - ooops. You no
longer have fast convenient easy internet access. Instead it
is slow, possibly expensive, and maybe on an unfamiliar computer
in an inconvenient place and time.
The phone calls you could make
- they are now costing you dollars a minute, either from a hotel
or pay phone or on your cell phone at international roaming rates.
You can't just send emails and
wait a day or two for replies, either, because you need to get
tonight's hotel accommodation confirmed urgently.
Whereas you could easily look
on a map to see where hotels were located, and match them to other
attractions in an area, now it is all a confusing mess of details
Worst of all, what you would
have enjoyed doing at home, taking in total an hour or two per day
of travel, and done in your free time, now will take you easily
twice as long, and rather than in your free time, it is eating
into your vacation time. You could end up spending as much
as half of every day just trying to play where you'll spend the
night and what you'll do for the remainder of the day. (We
know this because we've sometimes trapped ourselves that way.)
You've chosen to become your
own travel agent at the worst possible moment, and in the most
disadvantaged of possible scenarios.
This is crazy. You want
to spend your precious time, while in Europe, doing the things you
wanted to see and do. You want to be sightseeing, eating,
drinking, and generally relaxing. Not anxiously thumbing
through hotel directories and desperately trying to find a room
for the night.
Let's continue to see one of
the problems associated with last minute booking. Unlike the
US, with Travelocity waiting to give you great last minute rates
at good hotels, you might find a very different set of rules
applies in Europe, especially in the busy summer season.
Only Bad Hotels Remain Available
At the Last Minute
With a reasonably efficient
marketplace and information sharing, it is reasonable to infer
that the 'best' hotels in an area will sell out first, leaving the
'worst' hotels as the slowest ones to fill.
And we do mean sell out.
Many European hotels are much smaller than US hotels, and whereas
in a typical 4/5 star generic franchise hotel with 300 rooms,
there is almost always a free rooms available, in a small little
boutique hotel with 15 rooms, it is common that all of the rooms
will be booked.
By 'best' and 'worst' we don't
necessarily mean the quality of the rooms themselves, although
that is for sure a factor. We mean the overall entire guest
experience - the hotel's location, the cost/value of the rooms,
the amenities, the rooms themselves, and so on.
The reality that the better
hotels sell out first is easy to understand and is unavoidably
true in most towns and cities. Not only do you have people
booking in advance after researching their choices, and not only
do you have people returning to hotels they know and like (and
avoiding ones they know and dislike) you also have the local
tourist information offices gently steering people towards better
properties too, and even for the most un-informed, some issues are
obvious such as location and price.
The later you wait to book
your hotels, the fewer the choices you'll have, and the worse
There is More Downside to
European Hotels than American Hotels
We are incredibly fortunate in
this country. Even the 'worst' hotels are reasonably good.
Think of a Motel 6 or a Red
Roof Inn or somewhere like that. They're not flash or fancy,
but you get a reasonably decent sized room, with a reasonably
clean bathroom, a reasonably comfortable bed, and reasonable
soundproofing, all at a very reasonable price. Most of them
even have free internet too.
Compare that to Europe, where
hotels are not built from standard designs, all rooms identical.
Instead they are made out of existing buildings, with the owners
exercising sometimes too much ingenuity into squeezing more rooms
they can sell each night out of spaces that were never intended to
have a room and associated bathroom.
We've all had experiences of
struggling up unending flights of stairs that are as narrow as
they are nearly vertical, in a hotel with no lift or porter, to a
room on the top floor. After getting to the top of the
stairs, we then squeeze along corridors so narrow we almost can't
fit our suitcase alongside us, while going up and down occasional
steps semi-randomly, and twisting and turning around corners all
When we get to our room, we
find there is a tired lumpy bed and maybe only a couple of feet of
floor space around it on three sides - there's not even enough
space to open our suitcases on the floor. As for the strange
bathroom in a corner, only a midget could manage to move around in
Oh - did we also mention the
paper thin walls and the noisy guests next door? Or the
window that opens only an inch, leaving the room overwhelmingly
hot and stuffy, with there being nothing you can do about it?
The 'air conditioning' which takes the form of a too hot heater in
winter and nothing at all in the summer?
But perhaps it is just as well
you can't open the window too much, because sounds from the
streets below echo up and into the room until about 2am, prior to
restarting again at about 5am. Let's not forget, of course,
the €200 a night rate you're paying for this hell-hole experience.
And as for the internet, if
you can find someone to give you an excuse in English for its
non-availability, you'll be complacently told that it is very hard
to get Wi-Fi to work in historic buildings, and too expensive to
cable the building for ethernet connections.
If you'd booked three months
prior to arriving, you'd have been in the lovely hotel just over
the road, with large rooms, a friendly staff, and happily paying
€100/night for an experience you actually enjoy.
Instead, you have the
'freedom' of paying top dollar for bottom quality.
The Freedom to Mess Up Your
If you plan things carefully
before you go, you can carefully research destinations, and get
opinions and ideas about places to go and see.
You can talk with friends who
have been there, you can check out computer websites, and you can
carefully find not only major tourist finds but also more obscured
attractions, perhaps that relate to a special interest or hobby of
You can then piece everything
together a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, balancing off the various
things you'd most like to see and do with the time available and
where everything is located relative to everything else, and end
up with something that is a good compromise, embracing the art of
You'll then be able to go on
vacation, relaxed and comfortable, knowing that you're going to
places you want to go, and knowing you're not overlooking any
major big things on the same route.
Compare that to if you just
arrive in Europe with a freshly purchased as yet unopened guide
You'll not only be desperately
thumbing through the guide book hoping to keep ahead of where you
are, but you'll be missing out on all sorts of things that you
didn't even know to research or consider going to. For all
you know, the boring looking town with the ugly train station that
you decided to skip might actually have an amazing museum or a
perfectly preserved medieval town square or who knows what else.
It might be the birthplace of someone of special interest to you.
But the first you'll know of
this is when you get back home, and a friend says 'Oh, if you went
from A to B, you surely must have stopped at X on the way.
What did you think of their amazing ---?'
Yes, by leaving everything
open and unplanned, the freedom you're most giving yourself is the
freedom to mess up your vacation and itinerary.
The Rick Steves Paradox
Now, don't get us wrong.
No disrespect intended, and we don't want to single out Rick
Steves (for anything other than praise). He has done a
brilliant job of advocating a great approach to travel, in Europe
and elsewhere. And our comments as they relate to his
publications and television shows can also apply to other travel
The thing is this. Many
people delight in the Rick Steves philosophy of traveling other
than as part of tour groups (unless, ahem, they are one of his
tour groups!), and staying in other than generic international
four and five star hotels.
These people want to get
closer to the countries and the peoples they visit. This is
all commendable and excellent.
But then they decide they'll
stay at Rick's latest wonderful discovery pension/B&B, and eat at
his latest wonderful restaurant. And here comes the problem
- what happens when they get there, clutching their Rick Steves
book in one hand and puzzling out a map with the other hand?
They notice the place is full
of other people, just like them, also clutching Rick Steves books
and guide maps. Unfortunately, the great success and
following of Rick and his books means that anything he writes
about is almost instantly transformed from little known and little
visited by western tourists, and instead becomes well known and
highly popular. The locals are driven away, the restaurant
owner redoes his menus in English, makes his food items slightly
more bland for foreigners, puts up his prices, and generally the
product evolves from that originally experienced by Rick, and in
time ends up as something quite different.
Plus, the tiny pension or B&B
with only six rooms? When you get there, they're all full
with international travelers and reader's of Rick's books, people
who booked in advance and got there before you. If you
should get a room, you'll hear the sounds of fellow American
travelers in the corridors, not locals.
You've also got to wager that
the owner, scarcely daring believe his good luck to be featured in
a major popular guidebook, has pushed the rates massively high,
and taken out some of the free inclusions and now are charging
extra for them. And due to now being so busy, they've had to
hire extra staff - they found some cheap help from Romania or
somewhere - and the place is no longer an exclusively family run
charming little oasis of tranquility.
Here's the paradox - a well
known travel writer can't write about a place without causing it
to change as a result of his (her) article.
But, Maybe Still You Wish
You're still unconvinced? Although
the preceding is both our personal opinion and experience, and
that of many people we've helped plan their travels, maybe you
enjoy the challenge of juggling a dozen different brochures, of
calling ten different hotels/B&Bs to try and work out where you
can stay for the night, looking up where they are on the map, and
so on and so on.
Maybe you enjoy struggling to understand
foreign language train timetables in a busy train station while
the train you should be catching is getting ready to depart on an
Maybe you simply laugh and don't worry when
you discover that what you thought was a centrally located hotel
with a large room and king size bed is actually out in the
suburbs, with a tiny room, and two narrow twin beds pushed close
to each other, and put it down to an honest linguistic
misunderstanding rather than a deliberate ripoff.
And maybe it is all good, no matter what
you do and don't see.
If so, you have our admiration for your zen-like
calm, and our blessing to go 'enjoy' your 'freedom'.
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07 Jun 2012, last update
30 May 2021
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