Europe, Spain, Travel

How to plan a trip to Europe (or anywhere!)

August 10, 2012

We are leaving for Spain and Morocco tomorrow!!! I am beyond excited, and a little nervous, too.  I always get travel jitters.

We are finally able to cash in all of those miles we’ve been saving for over 10 years.  It took forever, but it’s totally worth it now. What helped us tremendously was getting the US Airways Mastercard because we got 30,000 miles each just from that! So, if you have never considered that, it might be a good option for you.

So, people always ask me, “What company are you using?  No tour companies. No packages. No travel agents. I do it all myself. While I think it’s worth it in the end, it’s quite an undertaking for some trips. I am little obsessive about travel planning and feel like I have to know everything about everything before I go, because I’m afraid I’ll miss out on something and because I don’t like to have to figure out what to do while being on vacation. This way, I get all the “work” done ahead of time and then enjoy my trip.

Planning vs. Spontaneity

Some people think you should show up and be more spontaneous. Yes, I like being spontaneous, too.  However, my husband and I are very indecisive and if we arrive somewhere with no plans, we’ll sit around exchanging, “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”  Not fun. So, I do research and try to get to know the city. I know the basic map, the transportation, ideas of things to do and restaurant possibilities. Then, if a local recommends a place — great! I love it!  But, if not, I have a back-up plan and we aren’t wasting precious time.

Also, in my opinion, no matter how spontaneous you want to be, there’s still some level of planning that must be done.  Otherwise, you might be very sorry later.

Some examples of potential travel gaffes

  • If I hadn’t researched the open days and times for the Mezquita and Alcazar in Cordoba before our trip, we would have rolled up on our way from Madrid to Seville, only to discover it was closed.  Major travel bummer that can be avoided.
  • Directions?  We’re taking our GPS, but understand that GPS in some of the small, pedestrian towns doesn’t really cut it.  So, I have directions and maps saved on my iPad with TripIt. You can also screenshot Google maps and save the images to your phone.
  • Tickets?  Usually, I buy tickets when we show up at an attraction. But, for the Alhambra in Granada, I read that they sell out.  I bought tickets last week and checked again today — only tickets available were for the late afternoon (the hottest part of the day).  No, thank you!
  • Transportation in Morocco – Without doing extensive research on this and chatting with folks on travel message boards, I’m convinced we would have been fleeced and not even known it.  Now, that we know what to expect to pay, we can bargain confidently.
  • I could go on and on with examples here…

Here’s are the steps I take

  • I do some preliminary research to get basic ideas on where exactly I want to go and get ideas of hotel and car prices to establish a rough estimate.  This is important for me because the estimate determines whether this trip will happen or not.
  • Then, I do more in-depth research on those cities, starting with hotels. I usually make a list in Google Docs of several options for each city and make notes about each one.  Such as….great views, right beside the cathedral, 100 euros/night, breakfast included. I always write down what I’m drawn to about the place so I’ll remember later.  I do my research in starts and stops, and my memory is awful, so this is important. Otherwise, I come back to my list or bookmarks and feel like I’m re-researching everything.  How much was this one again?  Where is it located? Why was this my top choice?
  • Now, that I know where I want to go and have ideas about where to stay, I make an itinerary.  For this trip, we are flying into Madrid and then renting a car.  So, it’s important that our journey is in something of a circle, ending in Madrid at the end.  I map that out and decide on the number of days for each place, keeping in mind what there is to do there based on my initial research.  For the itinerary, I create a Google spreadsheet.
  • I book airline tickets and a rental car (if applicable).
  • Then, I book hotels.
  • Now, I start doing more detailed research on sights to see, restaurants, entertainment, etc.  I make a list of the following for each city: 1. Things to do  2. Night Activities  3. Restaurants  4. Shopping  So, these lists are big at first and then I narrow it down.
  • And, I start adding all of the locations to Google maps.  You can create your own custom Google map. Here’s mine for Sevilla. This way I can get a feel for the city and keep attractions grouped as best as possible. Or least, I can plan transportation. Then, I do large resolution screenshots of my custom map and save to my phone/iPad as backup. We won’t have phone service and wireless will be spotty.  So, we shouldn’t have to carry paper maps around.  And, if we don’t have wireless, I just bring up this photo on my device.  It shows me exactly where every place I’m interested in is. Easy!
  • Finally, I am using TripIt for the first time to have all of the information handy on my phone or iPad without a bunch of paperwork.  (But, I’m taking maps and directions as a backup, in case our GPS freaks out.  Just no hotel confirmations or anything like that.)  So, I added everything into TripIt.  Hotels, flights, car, ferries, etc.

Research Tips

  • Trip Advisor.  I use Trip Advisor like crazy. It’s the holy grail of travel.  If you haven’t used this site before, it’s a massive travel review website – for hotels, restaurants, and things to do.  Sometimes, you find this perfect hotel.  It’s looks so charming from the hotel’s website, but then you read the reviews and realize it’s not what you thought it was. You have to be careful to balance negative comments as they could be from someone impossible to please.  But, if overall, everyone gives it a bad review…stay away!
  • Travel blogs.  I love travel blogs.  I follow a handful, so I use the search function on those individual sites to see if those people have been to the destination I’m interested in.  And, I try to weed through general Google search results, looking for any results that look like a blog.  I think real people give much better advice than travel websites, for the most part.  I also search for _______ + blog.  For example, the name of a hotel I’m interested in + blog.  Or a city name + blog.  I love reading real reviews or travel accounts. It’s a great way to get great information and tips and they usually have lots of photos.
  • Travel articles.  Travel articles are much better than a generic destination guide on the website.  Because, you guessed it, a real person went there and is writing about their experience.
  • Travel message boards.  Search them. Read them.  Ask your own questions. Try ThornTree by Lonely Planet, etc.

Money Tips

  • Make sure to take a credit card that doesn’t have international transaction fees.  The only one I’m aware of is Capital One, which I happen to have.  Otherwise, you’ll be charged 3-5% of every transaction while you’re traveling.
  • Make sure to call your bank for debit or credit cards and let them know where you’ll be and when.  Otherwise, your card might be declined as it could look like suspicious activity.
  • Make sure to take the phone numbers of the credit card companies for the cards you are taking in a separate location.  Don’t write down the actual card numbers because those could be stolen.  All you need is the phone numbers to call them.  Another thing you can do is leave the account numbers with a family member back home and then call them if you absolutely needed them.
  • We always wait until we get there and then take money out of a local ATM.  You usually get the best rates this way, although there is a transaction fee.  So, when you take money out, don’t do it frequently in small increments.


  • Your passport must be valid for at least 3 months beyond your period of stay.
  • You do not need a visa for a short vacation.  Visit the US State Department website for more info.
  • If you plan to rent a car, you need to get an international driver’s license.  You can get this for $15 at your local AAA office.

Travel Gear

Here are a few favorites for travel essentials.


1 – Portable Battery Pack – I love this thing! It has been a lifesaver for me. It is so much faster than plugging into a car or laptop, too. It charges really fast and you can charge two devices simultaneously.  It does up to four full charges for most smartphones and one full charge for a tablet.

2- Sugar Lip Balm – I love this little indulgence of lip balm. Creamy and nice and with sunscreen.

3 – Packing Cubes – I was resistant to trying these for a while, but I love them now. Especially for trips where you are moving around a lot. They help so that your suitcase isn’t a total mess especially when packing and repacking. It’s great to pull one out and get to just your swimsuits or tops quickly.

4- Sunscreen – Don’t be fooled by the name Thinkbaby, it’s for adults, too. I found this one when researching safer products for my kids and I loved it so much, I started using it, too.  It’s safe, it smells good (light natural scent), it’s effective and it’s eco-friendly for water activities that absolutely require it. (We were shocked and happy to see all of the tour operators we used in Mexico absolutely requiring eco-friendly sunscreen before allowing you on their boats, etc.) It has the safest rating you can get on the EWG ratings.  It’s a zinc based product and while it is a little whiter when applying, if you rub it in good, the white blends in.

5 – Travel Tubes – These are easy to use, easy to refill and meet TSA requirements. They have a wide mouth making them easy to clean and refill.

6 – Cosmetics/Toiletry Case – I used to the free bags that cosmetic companies give you. The vertical style ones with a zipper on top.  But, that left me always digging through trying to find stuff. I like this one because it’s wider and shallow and clear, so you can see everything easily and get what you want without having to dump all the contents out.

7- Maxah Travel Adaptor – This is is great because it has everything you need and is compact.

Plan your own trip

This particular trip was probably the most complicated trip I’ve planned to date, but I’m hoping it will all be worth it. You can save a lot of money planning your own trip and you can make it more customized to you. It’s a lot of work, but so worth it!

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  • Heather

    Wow, Whitney, these are lots of valuable tips.I think you’ll have a fantastic trip because you’re so prepared.

  • Jessica

    Wow, great tips! I don’t know if you have ever been to Spain before, but it is absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to see pictures when you get back!

  • Have a fantastic time! My husband is an obsessive planner too, and we’re currently planning a trip to Spain in December! I will definitely share TripIt with him. Can’t wait to hear about your trip when you get back. Have a great time!

  • Dee

    I’ll be looking forward to hearing about your trip! We’re going for 2 weeks in September for donor egg, and I’ve just started looking into where to go and what to see, including Granada. Can’t wait to hear about your faves!

    • Whitney

      Dee, That’s so exciting! Please feel free to email me any questions! I hope to get my Granada post up before you leave, but I’m not sure.

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