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How to Plan a Multi-City European Tour (Without Completely Losing It)

Spending a week bopping around Europe is easier than you think with these planning tips.

For many Americans, a multi-stop European tour is the stuff of travel legends. The Grand Tour, first embarked upon by the British aristocrat class in the 18th Century, was later joined by masses of wealthy (and later, middle-class) Americans in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Today, such tours can take on a variety of forms.

In the earliest days, many travelers set out on organized package tours or traveled on their own devices with a trusted guidebook for advice, letters of credit, or traveler checks from their banks for sustenance. Today, we rely on smartphones and mobile payments (and maybe even a Fodor’s guidebook), but many of the questions facing modern travelers are time-worn, like how exactly to plan the logistics of travel between capitals and when to plan for some downtime on a busy travel day. Here are some tips for planning a multi-city European tour.

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Engage a Professional

A professional travel consultant specializing in multi-stop European tours can be your best resource. They have experience navigating Eurail passes and seat reservations, understand the quirks of European hotels, and can explain intricate things like why that one nonstop flight between the two smaller cities you’re traveling between costs a fortune.

Many travel professionals will charge a deposit for their planning efforts (to ensure clients don’t take their research and book on their own), but they’ll apply that toward the total price during booking.

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Allocate Appropriate Stay Lengths

When planning multi-stop tours, the most important thing is to allocate enough time to fully experience each destination. This can vary by city, but at an absolute minimum, you should plan for two full dawn-to-dusk days in major capitals—ideally more. Travelers benefit from time to shed the underlying anxiety of intercity travel and fully immerse themselves in their temporary provenance.

I once heard of some travelers who took a day trip to London from Paris just because they wanted to see the city. They spent five hours traveling between them and only a few hours on a bus tour of one of the world’s most fascinating cities. They could certainly say they had “seen” London, but it is debatable whether they actually experienced it.

Pack Light

European accommodations are—generally speaking—smaller. Elevators are smaller, hotel rooms are smaller, and corridors are smaller. On one of my first visits to Paris, I had a large suitcase, and my hotel room was so small the only place I could set it out was directly in front of my door (which is not the best setup in an emergency).

Travelers can pack lighter by selecting lightweight, durable clothes that can easily be washed in a hotel sink. Unless you’re going to fashion week, nobody is going to care about your sartorial choices, so you don’t need a variety of coordinated outfits with matching shoes. You’ll be grateful you didn’t take the big suitcase when you find the hotel elevator only has enough room for yourself and a small bag.

Packing light is also a good reason to watch stay lengths. Scheduling two consecutive nights at the same hotel also helps travelers pack lighter–hotel laundry service typically takes a full business day.

Plan Movements First

If you are planning on your own, the first thing to confirm is your transportation between cities. Particularly on longer or obscure routings, there may be few options, so you’ll not only want to get those confirmed but use them to set the timetable for the rest of your trip. You don’t want to depend on spending your last morning in Paris having a leisurely breakfast and going for a stroll if the only onward flight or train to your next destination leaves at 6 a.m.

One important thing to remember is that when rental cars are necessary, they’re also common at train stations in Europe. If you want to visit Normandy, you needn’t rent a car in Paris and drive out there: take the train to Caen, and rent a car at the station. You’ll spend less on gas (which is expensive in Europe) and have more time to sit back and watch the scenery without the hassle of driving.

While train travel is great for shorter distances, longer distances are better suited for flights. The journey from Paris to Lyon is a few hours on France’s high-speed TGV train, but the trip to Nice is several hours longer, and the flight is only 90 minutes (and the fares are generally competitive). Consider overall travel time when making value comparisons.

Once movements are determined, you can also determine if the timing might necessitate another day in the city to meet all your objectives.

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Consider Night Trains Carefully

Night trains have their benefits—imagine waking refreshed in a new city, having saved on the cost of a hotel by combining transportation and accommodations into one. It’s important, however, to self-examine and ask whether you would really get a sound night’s sleep on the train. Overnight trains can be comfortable, but they’re certainly not for everybody.

Not sure if you’ll be able to sleep on an overnight train? Experiment. Try one on your trip, but don’t plan anything strenuous for the day of your arrival in case you miss out on sleep.

Travel Days Are for Exploration

That brings us to another maxim—don’t depend on activities on a travel day. That means no squeezing in a museum the morning before departing on a flight or train and no going straight to a dinner reservation or a tour immediately upon arrival. Use pre- and post-travel periods to get out and explore your surroundings. There won’t be as much anxiety over everything running on time (trains and flights are prone to cancel or run late, even in countries renowned for their efficiency), and it’s nice to have the flexibility for a sleep-in or a nap when one is needed.

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Don’t Overplan

Itineraries worked out down to the minute aren’t really any fun. No, you can’t go to Musee d’Orsay in Paris or the Tate in London in 45 minutes. Italians will look at you funny if you try to have a café lunch in 30 minutes.

The rule I follow is one AM Activity and one PM Activity on the same day. The rest is flex time. Done with that museum early? Do a little shopping or linger in a café with a drink. Tour ran late because the guide was fascinating and chatty? No sweat—you didn’t have anything planned until dinner anyway.

Be flexible and understanding because travel requires it, and that’ll take most of the stress out of your multi-city European experience.

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