Everyone needs a friend who travels so that they can fill you in on the 3 secrets to planning a European vacation and we are going to be that friend for you.
Planning for our trip to Italy sounded so incredibly exciting and fun, until we actually started making our itinerary. We quickly realized that going to a whole new country and having an amazing time was entirely up to us and how well we planned. It was so overwhelming. But we learned a few essential tips for all of you.
Immediately we did what all of you do, we started asking friends for advice which only made things worse. Some had differing opinions while others hadn’t been in awhile so they weren’t sure if certain tours, restaurants etc still existed.
The stress settled in and I began reading everything I could online about sites to see and excursions to go on while Cade tirelessly worked on where to stay and eat. But then we realized we also needed to figure out currency, phrases to be familiar with and what clothes/shoes to pack.
Forget it, I didn’t even want to go anymore. This blog takes up a lot of time as do our children, our involvement in the community, speaking events with Time out for Women and church callings.
And then we found TripAdvisor. Actually, we found Viator which led us to TripAdvisor and we had so much fun planning our trip now that we knew the 3 secrets to planning a European vacation.
1. Book a Walking Tour the First Day
The very first day in any new country you need to adapt to a new time schedule, unless you’re traveling from nearby. In which case this first part wont apply, but this will, you’ll also need to adapt to a new map. A walking tour is the best way to fight the jet lag and stay awake as well start off on the right foot.
We absolutely adored our guide, Lisa on this Renaissance Florence Walking Tour. We each had a little ear piece and sound box that we wore around our neck and in our ear that made it easy to hear our guide no matter where we were. The group was small but hearing someone so clearly made the experience so much more enjoyable. Make sure you book a small group with headsets!
Get to Know Your New City
Start with a walking tour as even a total sceptic (I’m looking at you, Cade) will be sold on it after only the first tour because it orients you with where you are, making each day a breeze and so much fun, but it also lets you into this secret way of life. We went to Florence recently and expected our walking tour to be about the major attractions, but instead it went from everything about the Duomo and way of life back in the day (some really cool facts that you wouldn’t get from a school class) to how they would navigate and live in the city today which was essential for us quickly getting around and really enjoying all that the city had to offer.
Our tour guide even recommended better restaurants for better prices and great shops for half the price on leather goods. She was quick to show us how to use the bus system when we asked after the tour and how to get out into the country to her favorite town nestled in the hills. It ended up being and amazing adventure and far more beautiful than Florence itself, but the best part was it had a huge archeological site that we had no idea was there, so we got to see Roman baths, convents and artifacts from 200 AD!!!
I’ll do a whole post on the cool things we learned, but it changes everything when you know that there’s a crest you should be watching for, and what those beautiful bridges were really used for. You could be walking past fascinating buildings without ever knowing that was the ruler’s mistress’s home that he had built for her right next to his!
How to Book the Best Tours for the Best Prices
If you’re like me, your next thought is, yeah but I pull up a place and a million tours and attractions pop up with just as many prices which is overwhelming, stressful and feels like you’re sure to somehow still pick the most expensive let down after doing 100 hours of research you really didn’t have time for.
Is TripAdvisor a Good Resource?
Here’s the secret, head to TripAdvisor and do absolutely everything directly on the site. We spent almost a year planning for this trip and so I can say with 100% guarantee that after comparing every little tour, restaurant and tip, TA always beat out the competition and they had not only the biggest variety of adventures and prices (depending on what you wanted to spend, there was everything from crazy affordable to renting a fleet of vespas for travel) AND the absolute best reviews from fellow travelers.
It was so much easier to have one place with information, ideas, bookings, prices and reviews. You wont believe how good the travelers are that use TA. They leave so much information in their reviews which is priceless and you’ll find yourself wanting to do the same for other travelers.
How to Book Through TripAdvisor
Start out by looking up the location you’re headed to and find your walking tour. From there bounce back and forth between a day of attractions and a day off to relax. Look for a few simple things to make sure you’re booking the right stuff.
Once you find your walking tours, read through the important information tab as some can only be at certain times or in certain languages.
Read the Good AND the Bad Reviews
Once you’ve settled on a few that fit your schedule, click on the reviews and scroll through, browsing the messages, and paying special attention to any tips or complaints. There are always crabby people so you don’t have to fear any bad reviews, but some may tell you that this tour was a bit too into art history when you need less, or some may say that the group was too large and that will help you to think about what you prefer.
The reviews also include things like, look for the Eagle on the archway once you get to the square, now a big winding street opening into a huge square has a landmark that can save you time and stress in getting to the right place.
Organization at its Finest
Here’s the best part, you get to book right through TripAdvisor which takes out the worry of, will I be protected if this wasn’t a real tour, (yes we saw some sketchy websites out there) and most importantly, everything gets emailed to you AND stored with your login information right on the site, so you can always get to all of your bookings in one place.
2. Look up Restaurants Ahead of Time
Listen, we don’t care if you only like McDonalds and have no desire at all to be a “foodie”, look up restaurants around the attractions you’re going to ahead of time and one or two around town. Trust me, no one wants to travel with a “Hangry” person. I do pretty well, but Cade definitely likes to eat before it gets too far past a meal time. 🙂 Wandering the streets and only finding super expensive, closed (hello siesta) or seafood only restaurants when your little one hates fish is the perfect recipe for blood, sweat and tears.
Go to TripAdvisor and search for best restaurants in the areas you’ll be. It wont only populate with Michelin star restaurants, it will populate with anything in any price that others have deemed as the worth it places to eat. Again, read those reviews because TripAdvisor is like amazon, people take the time to leave reviews that will be essential to booking a great trip, such a great resource.
We got curious and started talking to people in our tours or restaurants and literally, and I’m not kidding, literally every person had done the same as us, TripAdvisore-d it. That’s a word while traveling so get used to it.
3. Book an Attraction for Fun
Yes, you want the freedom of site-seeing, but trust me, the real memories get created by jumping first feet into the culture. We had so much fun doing a cooking class and touring a Basilica as well as the walking tours. We saw people having a picnic in the hills, riding the vespas to different restaurants for Tapas and sailing through the Venetian islands. Not something you typically do during the day, so our final tip to a great European vacation is to do something that the locals would do. Italians cook a lot, and the Venetians travel everywhere by boat. Becoming immersed in a culture doesn’t mean you have to move there, it just means you have to be willing to do something new.
Our tours were fascinating, not at all over our heads, and so fun to get a local’s point of view. The information on our tickets told us exactly how to dress, how to get where we needed to go and everything lived up to its ratings.
We have worn you out, we can tell. That’s a lot of reading so we think you deserve Nutella Dulce De Leche Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies with a tall glass of icy cold milk, and a maybe even a little Netflix.
Don’t worry, we have more to share about how we went to Italy for $400 round trip, the absolute BEST shoes for traveling that don’t look like something your Great Grandma and Grandpa would wear along with our exact itinerary and restaurant recommendations so you don’t have to plan a single thing if you don’t want to.
We were able to work with TripAdvisor on this post, but only after discovering them all on our own. 🙂