I was amazed at the amount of planning time required for our vacation. If you're going with a tour group or taking a cruise only, your planning will be minimal. But if you're traveling around Europe on your own, there are a ton of issues to research and plan. Here are some things to think about, plan for, and be aware of:
1. Use Frequent Flyer miles. We were fortunate that my husband had a fair number of frequent flyer miles. We reserved our Mediterranean cruise in the spring of 2014 and then examined our mileage situation. We definitely needed more, so we opened a United credit card (my husband typically flies United) which was offering a significant amount of bonus miles, plus more miles for dollars spent. But note, you will need to reserve your frequent flyer tickets as soon as possible. We kept an eye on United flight schedules and reserved our tickets soon after the summer 2015 flights became available -- about 10 months in advance of our flight. While credit cards like United are free for the first year, typically thereafter they will have an annual fee.
2. Hotels in Europe. We also recommend booking these early once you have your itinerary at least tentatively nailed down. Be aware that rooms in European hotels are generally very small. Finding a room that sleeps 4 comfortably can be very difficult. Many hotels we looked at had one bed and one sofa bed or just one bed (yet said it slept 4). Read the room descriptions very carefully to be sure everyone has a bed! You will have a wider selection and a greater possibility of “real” (not sofa) beds if you book early. If you do end up with a sofa bed in your room, I can tell you that they were more comfortable generally than sofa beds in the US. Also, it can be cheaper to book two rooms that sleep 2 then to book one room that sleeps 4 -- definitely something to check out. I used Expedia to book all our international hotels.
3. Getting around Europe. There are a variety of ways to move from one area of Europe to another. Flights are surprisingly inexpensive and we found them to be less expensive than trains -- both should be booked well in advance to get the best prices. Renting a car is another option, but be sure to look into parking charges and additional fees you may be charged if you rent the car in one location, then return to another. We were initially planning to drive from Germany to Paris, but the additional charges to return the car outside of Germany were over $200!
4. Research the top sights. Do your research on each place you plan to visit, decide what the "must see" sights are for you and your family and plan accordingly. We checked out books from the library and did internet research on each location we were planning to visit. There is no way you will see everything, so don't try to do so! Pick and choose what you really want to see with some alternatives planned if something doesn't work out or you find yourself with more time than expected. Double-check operating hours! European hours tend to be different than you will find in the US. For example, in Munich all stores were closed on Sundays. Investigate advance ticket purchases, especially for popular sights during the summer months.
5. Google Maps! When deciding the route to take from one place to another or how you will move between attractions in one city, Google maps is a good place to start. You can see driving directions and time, as well as public transit and walking directions and time. This really helped us make daily itineraries so that we maximized our time, money, and energy. Also, Google maps for entire areas (such as a city) can be downloaded onto your phone and then accessed without using data. This can help you navigate when you are on vacation without incurring hefty international data charges.
6. Daily itineraries and binder. Once we really got moving on the details of our travel plans (where we were visiting, how we were getting there, the sights to see), I started a Word document that captured our plans for each day. I would list the sights we were hoping to see that day, with details on ticketing and pricing, information on how to move between one sight to another, and details of hotel confirmation and other travel logistics. I would highlight those areas where we still needed to do some research and work. Once I had confirmations, maps, etc. I would print those documents and place them in the binder behind a tab for that day. When I had tickets or other documents that I didn't want to punch three holes into, I would place them into a plastic sleeve in the binder. When the binder was complete, I had all my information in one place for easy reference.
7. Get the kids involved in the planning. My son loved researching information for our itinerary. I would give him the name of a city we were planning to visit and asked him to research what sights we might like to see, or I would give him a few possible sights and ask him to research its hours, prices, etc. He enjoyed looking at our options and I would ask for his input in making our travel decisions. He did a great job and was a huge help! I also assigned my daughter (who is older) tasks such as finding train prices or investigating hotels. They enjoyed seeing their hard work in action when we saw the sights they suggested or took the train they had researched!