The new year is well underway and you should be in the middle of planning that trip to Europe. It's not too late to start the process, however. Here are three quick and compelling reasons why:

  • In five of the last six years the vast majority of European travelers saved money by booking their European flight by the end of March.
  • European cruise prices will only get more expensive as the year goes on...unless you want to take a long-shot chance on a last-minute deal.
  • Car rental rates in several countries—notably France and Germany—are the lowest they have been in several years. Since, unlike airline tickets and cruises, you can always cancel and get a 100% refund, there is no reason not to take advantage of those cheap rates immediately.

We think the major trip-planning decisions fall within these categories:

  • When to go
  • Where to go
  • Insurance
  • Getting there and back
  • Ground transport
  • Accommodations
  • Changing money

This begins a multi-part series that will offer our advice on preparing for a European vacation, touching on all seven categories, briefly on some but others in greater depth.

When to Travel to Europe

This one doesn't merit much discussion here except to point out that, as almost every traveler knows, in good weather months when most people want to travel, prices for airfares and hotels are usually higher—especially airfares. This winter we've seen East Coast fares in the $700-plus range. Those are likely to nearly double this summer. Though hotel rates in many popular destinations rise in summer, some winter resort towns often lower their rates in summer. So the timing of your trip comes down to finances and personal preference. It is well to remember that Europe in winter does have its charms.

Where to Travel in Europe

Since the focus of this website pretty well sums up our preferences on this topic, there isn't a lot to say here either. Since we all have our favorite countries, the choice is highly personal. Cost, as much as it is a factor in the decision process, argues for east European countries such as Poland and Slovenia, and against Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. Once the traveler has decided on where to go, the next issue to resolve is how much time will be spent in cities and how much in small towns, keeping in mind that almost all things are cheaper in the countryside.

Trip Insurance

Heath issues, accidents, ash clouds, political upheavals, terrorists, weather-caused disasters, business failures, and other unexpected events can delay, interrupt or cancel your trip. Your need for trip insurance—as opposed to medical insurance— is measured by how much you stand to lose if your journey is canceled. If you are only out the cancellation fee on an airline ticket, you may choose to self-insure. This will likely be true for the majority of independent travelers. Most, but not all, hotel rooms can be canceled on short notice, rail passes and most rail tickets are 85-percent refundable, and any auto rental worth its salt should be 100-percent cancelable without penalty. It's the traveler with hundreds or thousands of dollars in non-refundable bookings, such as for a package tour, cruise, or vacation rental who needs trip insurance.

Don't make the mistake of leaving the trip insurance decision to the very end of the planning process. Pre-existing medical conditions that can cause cancellation or interruption of a trip are typically excluded from coverage if the insurance is purchased more than about two weeks after the first trip payment is made.

Many tour operators sell insurance to their customers. Some of their policies, however, don't offer cash refunds, they simply apply what has been paid to a future cruise or tour. Buy insurance from a third-party company that specializes in travel insurance. We recommend Travel Guard. They are the largest and have a history of paying claims promptly with the least amount of hassle.

Health/Medical Insurance While Traveling in Europe

A separate issue from trip insurance is medical coverage. Your home health plan may cover you in Europe, at least in most countries (probably not in countries labeled "at risk" by the U.S. State Department). Travelers who rely on Medicare, however, are not insured outside the U.S. unless their supplemental policy—if they have one—provides such coverage.

Short-term health insurance for older travelers is expensive, but there is a way to insure at a reasonable price; buy trip insurance with zero coverage. Here's how it works. In addition to trip cancellation coverage, many trip insurance policies provide medical coverage and emergency evacuation. Even if you don't need the trip insurance it may be worth purchasing a policy just to get the medical coverage. Since trip coverage premiums are mostly based on the amount of reimbursement for a canceled trip, you simply request zero coverage and the premium drops dramatically. Though you won't get any money back if the trip is canceled or interrupted, you still have the medical coverage. For example, the total premium on Travel Guard's Silver trip policy for a 70-year old couple that opts for $5,000 trip coverage on a two-week trip, is nearly $750. But reduce the trip coverage from $5,000 per person to zero and the premium drops to $79 total and you get $15,000 in medical coverage. A much better deal, however, is Travel Guard's Platinum coverage for $125. With zero trip insurance the medical coverage is $50,000 with $1 million in emergency evacuation insurance. For an extra $58 you can double the medical coverage to $100,000.

To research trip and medical insurance use our trip insurance comparison tool.