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Do You Need A Strict Itinerary For A European Tour?

graph paper plotting our itinerary

Part of the fun of planning a long trip is figuring out where to go and what to do.  But do you really need a strict itinerary?  I don't think so, especially for a trip to Europe.

When our son Ben and his buddies went on a six week tour two years ago, they had the trip fully planned before they left Saskatchewan.  All rooms were booked in advance:  Two nights in London, a week in Rotterdam, a week in Lisbon, etc.   They didn't want to be stressed out finding accommodations while on the road.

Ben's trip worked pretty well.  One AirBnb host cancelled in the middle of the trip but they had time to rebook.  So they were never searching for rooms.

The biggest problem they faced was that they couldn't adjust their plans on the fly.  Bordeaux was boring for four young men, but they had paid for five nights accommodations, so they stayed.  Lisbon was awesome and they'd love to stay longer, but their Barcelona apartment was paid for and waiting for them.

For my trip, I want to avoid too many commitments.  If Evora is amazing, I want to stay longer.  If we get invited to a village bakery, we're going.  I don't want to say Sorry I can't go if an opportunity presents itself.

But still, it helps to have some idea.  So this is what we're doing:

  1. I built a calendar for the 93 (!) days we'll be away.
  2. I inked in the two fixed dates:  Arrive in Lisbon, depart via Amsterdam.
  3. We marked in key dates from the Real World.  When's Easter? (Expect southern Spain to be packed Easter week.)  When are any cool festivals we want to see?
  4. I used pencil and sticky tabs to block out week long blocks, going forward and backwards.  At the start of the trip, we want to have time to visit more of Portugal than Lisbon, so that gets two weeks.  At the end, we want time to cycle in the Netherlands, so that gets a week.  We want to linger in Paris on route to Holland, so another week there.

The first run through is like a filled chocolate:  semi-firm on top and bottom, but soft and gooey in the middle.  For example, we really have no clue how we'll make our way from northern Italy to Paris, although we know we'd like to be in Paris by May 10 at the latest.  And we know that if May is approaching and we're nowhere near Veneto, we had better re-think things.

As we read through guidebooks and get ideas from our friends, things may firm up a bit.  What's happening so far is that we're finding more and more things we want to see. That will increase for sure once we land in a few weeks.  But there are a few people we want to visit so it's good to at least commit to the month that we'll be in their country!

Our approach is to go slow and deep into the places we visit, so the lack of a fixed itinerary will help with this.  We'll need to make a lot of decisions as we go, but that's part of the fun.

We already know we won't have enough time to see everything we want on this trip.   Unless we sell the house.  Our kids have instructions of what to do if we call with the "sell" code.