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Do You Need to Pre-Plan Your European Vacation?

A Stitch in Time Saves Nine

An unplanned European vacation gives an illusion of freedom and spontaneity.

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 Freedom

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 instead?

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.

Seasonal Appropriateness

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 correspondingly constrained.

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 plane booking.

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 subsequently.

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 Cost

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 planned.

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 and data.

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 they'll be.

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 the time.

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 that.

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 Vacation?

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 yours.

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 the possible.

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 book.

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 guides too.

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 Freedom?

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 unknown platform.

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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Originally published 07 Jun 2012, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.


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