We are nearing our big 35-day trip to Europe!
One of the most difficult parts of planning a long trip is knowing when to start booking your lodging, planes, trains, rental cars and tours. Some websites suggest booking ahead of time to save money, others swear that you can get a great deal by showing up the day-of and asking if there are any available rooms. After weighing the options, my type-A personality won and my husband and I have decided to book all of our lodging, major forms of transportation and a handful of tours/activities ahead of time.
I bet I’ll receive some major backlash from other travelers for booking all of our lodging months ahead of time. I can see the comments now, ‘Where’s your sense of spontaneity?!’ Listen, we will be gallivanting across Europe for 35-days, I think we will be A-OK on adventure and I can do without the uncertainty of knowing where we will lay our heads each night.
While the 5-star hotel in the heart of the city may seem appealing, consider how often you will really be in the hotel. Bathtubs, 24-hour front desk attendants and renovated rooms all drive up the price.
Many times, instead of a hotel, we opted for an AirBnb with a kitchen and washer and dryer, knowing we would save money. If you’re set on a hotel, look for a place that offers a free breakfast.
AirBnb vs. Hotel vs. Hostel
When selecting a lodging option, you need to consider your priorities. Are you on a budget? Do you want to be in the center of town? Do you require a private room?
For example, in Amsterdam we valued price and privacy and compromised on location. Amsterdam was by far the most expensive city on our list and we decided a short train ride to the city was worth the couple hundred bucks we would be saving by staying in a nearby town.
After weeks of research and price/location/privacy comparisons, we ended up with a mix of AirBnbs, hotels and hostels, broken down accordingly:
- 16 nights in AirBnbs
- 10 nights in hotels
- 8 nights in hostels
On average, we are spending €34.21 per person on lodging.
Travel blogger Ashley Torres has some advice on booking AirBnbs abroad that I found insightful. As a reminder, always read the specifications of the AirBnb you are booking. Some say they sleep 6, but only have 2 beds and 4 couches. Also, keep in mind that the price goes up upon booking. It may say $60 USD a night, but that’s before the cleaning fee. Always read the reviews before booking. On one of our AirBnb selections, a review mentioned a broken refrigerator, I verified that this issue has been resolved before booking.
If you are looking for a more social, budget friendly experience, HostelWorld.com is your new best friend. Book directly from HostelWorld.com to keep it simple, pay 10% now and the rest when you arrive at the hostel. I usually sort by rating and price range. I recommend choosing one that offers a free breakfast which is a great chance to chat with other travelers before heading out for the day.
When looking for hotels, follow these simple tips from Rick Steves. One of his most valuable tips is to ask hotels if they have cheaper rooms available. Many hotels have outdated rooms at discounted rates. If you are just looking for a place to sleep, you don’t need granite countertops in your bathroom, right?
Avoid Cancellation Fees – Read The Fine Print
While we hope that nothing diverts us from our planned course, it’s smart to book places with a generous cancellation policy – the majority of our lodging selections allow us to cancel within 72 hours of our reservation.
Be warned, some places claim free cancellation but have hidden fees attached. As we booked, we jotted down cancellation details as well as check-in and check-out times. Many travelers complain that they were unaware of strict check-out times at hostels and were charged extra for leaving 30 minutes late. Avoid this by creating a spreadsheet with important dates and times.
I am a huge fan of Google Sheets. I created this basic spreadsheet to keep track of all of our lodging details. It’s important to note whether a place provides linens, we avoided places that required that we bring our own because we don’t have room in our luggage for sheets.
My husband did all of our transportation booking, so I looked to him for advice on writing this portion.
Initially, my husband bounced between Google Flights and Skyscanner to view flight prices. He always found that Skyscanner had better flights and a good range of times available. He recommends sorting your flight by price, cheapest first, then comparing to Google Flights pricing. Just keep in mind what your schedule looks like for the next day. While the flight arriving at midnight might be the cheapest, it may not make sense to sacrifice the next morning to save a few bucks. Alternatively, arriving very early in the morning will force you to carry your luggage around or find a place to store it before check in.
Another tip from my husband was to put a tracker on Google Flights to keep an eye on flight prices. This allowed us to budget easily for these flights, and get a feel for what a good price is vs. an inflated price.
Buying Train Tickets
Buying train tickets was much more difficult than buying flights, and some say it’s easier to just buy the tickets while you’re in Europe so you can speak with a cashier in person. My husband decided to go for it anyways, and found that Germany and France has a mobile app that’s easy to use and in English, our train times even saved directly to our phone calendar! The other train websites were trickier, and we had to be extra sure that we were booking the correct dates and arriving nearby our already booked hotels, hostels and AirBnbs.
Reserving Rental Cars
My husband used Skyscanner to book our rental cars. It is crucial to check locations for pick up and drop off carefully and plan ahead of time. You want to have your rental car pick up/drop off location within walking distance when possible, to avoid unnecessary taxi fees.
Be prepared for expensive rental car deposits. My friend came back from a Europe trip and warned us of a hefty $3,000 deposit upon rental car pick-up.
We are booking three activities before we get to Europe. Bernard Beer Spa in Prague, Macocha Abyss in Brno and Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. From our research, these are the only three things on our trip that we are positive we want to do and are rumored to sell out quickly.
A good way to gauge if you need to book ahead is by checking TripAdvisor, because people will often report if the ticket line was long or if you get a discount for booking online.
Our schedule is pretty set because we’ve already booked our lodging and transportation. We want to leave the activities as open as possible, just in case we’re completely exhausted and want to leave a tour for another day.
I’m curious to hear what you all have booked ahead of time or left until the last minute for your travels. Are you a planner like me? Or do you just play it by ear? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for reading,