So exciting to begin this planning! My husband and I are about to go on our first trip to Europe ourselves. We're in our retirement years before grandkids, so the time is finally right. While we haven't gone yet, the planning and air reservations are done, and I have some thoughts on your planning. First, do you have a copy Rick's Europe Through the Back Door? Lots of practical advice and how-tos for planning and traveling. For dreaming purposes, too, it's fun to check out RS guidebooks from the library, but be sure to purchase your own current guidebooks when you decide where you are going.
I've always wanted to go to EVERYwhere in Europe, while my husband has most wanted to see Spain and Italy. As we began to talk about the trip, we focused on what we saw ourselves doing (wandering streets to find interesting spots where we could sit and enjoy some wine and good food in a lovely setting, hike the trails in Cinque Terre, wade in the Mediterranean), what historical sites we wanted to visit (ancient Roman ruins, the home church of the Jesuit order, Montserrat), and what cultures we wanted to experience. We know we can't possibly see it all, so using the Rick Steves philosophy, we assume we will go back and have sketched out our itinerary with an eye to not overdoing it and giving ourselves time to live it. For your trip, I think you should go where you dream! If you very much want to go to Italy, DO IT!
On your own, or a tour? We are doing some of each. We are taking the RS Heart of Italy Tour from Rome to Volterra, Cinque Terre, and Florence with an extra night on each end of the tour. Before the tour begins we are spending four nights in Barcelona to see another place we've always wanted to see and get over our jet lag before the tour begins. I've probably spent two or three times as much time on the four nights in Barcelona as the 11 days in Italy. I'm still stressing that we have over-scheduled and will be exhausted before we get to Italy AND (paradoxically) will be missing something in Barcelona. But we remind ourselves that we will go back. Here's the take-away: if there is a tour that matches your dreams, take it. It's reassuring to have so much mapped out for you and tours arranged. And there's a good balance within the tour itself between touring and personal time. For a rookie, there are lots of advantages in a tour. We hope to gain the skills and confidence to strike out on our own on our next trip. And now we have everything planned, I wish we were going for three full weeks. Next time.
For airfares, check Kayak.com. You can set up notifications for the flights you are interested in to keep up-to-date as fares change. I watched for several weeks to get an idea of rates so I knew when to buy. Be creative about your departure airport, too. We live between Seattle and Vancouver, BC and found it was significantly less expensive to fly out of Canada. Remember to factor in the cost and ease of getting to and from the airport. I recommend you book with a single airline, so if (as happened to us) a leg of your flight is cancelled, they will rebook you on another flight for no charge. If you've booked separately with different airlines and one changes their time, your connection could become impossible and the cost of change is on you. That also happened to us on another trip. Costly rebooking, much stress, lesson learned. We took the recommendation from several others that we book into one airport and out of another, known as open-jaw. You save back-tracking when you are on your way home.
Happy planning and even happier travels! - Polly