Group Tours to Plan-As-You-Go: 5 Very Different Ways for First-Timers to Explore Europe

Are you a solo traveler type? We've got you covered.

Planning a trip to Europe can seem like a difficult feat if you haven’t travel across the Atlantic before, or internationally at all for that matter. There are a few different options to consider when planning the trip, and we break down five of them for you here.

1. Small Group Exploring

The canals of Venice; Photo by Andrew Villagomez

While signing on for a big group European tour is of course an option, travelers might find touring in a smaller group more comfortable. For instance, Intrepid Travel specializes in small group adventure travel where the groups average about10 people. The company offers over 1,000 itineraries in over 100 countries, and among the different Europe tours they offer, a first-timer might consider Italy as a nice first step. The Italy Experience is a light exploration trip that takes travelers from Venice to Rome for an authentic experience, with overnights or day visits to La Spezia,Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, Perugia, and Spello in between. 

What’s included in an Intrepid Travel tour varies from tour to tour, but they all include transportation, accommodations, some activities and some meals, and a group leader. The group leader is a travel expert who is in charge of handling the logistics of the tour (such as being in charge of getting everyone from point A to point B, without any travel issues), while also answering any destination questions, booking attraction tickets not included in the trip, and providing an orientation walk when in a new stop on the tour to help travelers get familiar with the city or town so that they can explore on their own. Travelers get to see as much of the destination they want as there's lot of free time for exploration on your own when in each new city.

The Italy Experience doesn't come cheap, and neither does this stunning hotel in Rome:

2. Private Group Touring

The Blue Lagoon; Photo by Andrew Villagomez

A private group tour can provide a traveler with exclusive itinerary planning to ensure they get to see and experience all of the attraction, cultural, and nature highlights a destination offers. Private touring is also a great way to save time while in a destination as you have a set itinerary with a private guide and transportation; but since it’s just you and your party, another benefit is that there is a lot of flexibility. 

Gray Line Worldwide, the largest provider of sightseeing tours (creating and operating thousands of group tours and experiences in over 700 locations), offers private touring options that can be put together by getting in touch with the local Gray Line office in the destination you are interested in. The brand offers 500 private tours and services that can be found in more than 40 destinations. Among them, Iceland may be a country a first-timer to Europe might be interested in for its beauty and natural wonders. Gray Line Iceland can put together an agenda based on the tours they offer already, while also being able to amend as you’d like as they offer their local expertise. A couple different experiences include being led through the Golden Circle (the popular tourist route in South Iceland to visit the Þingvellir national park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geothermal valley of Haukadalur -- and for the foodie, there’s a new food tour option for the Golden Circle that will have you experiencing authentic Icelandic cuisine), spending a morning or evening at the Blue Lagoon, adventuring through the Langjökull glacier and into the Ice Cave in a Super Jeep, and exploring the South Coast and seeing the Seljalandsfoss and Skogarfoss waterfalls, the Reynisfjara black sand beach, and Dyrholaey cliff. Get a visual taste of Iceland through Gray Line’s new video series, The Bucket Life.

Reykjavik can be a perfect place to base your stay from when in Iceland. Here’s a solid hotel pick:

3. European Cruising

The Carnival Vista; Photo via Carnival

To see more cities across Europe in a shorter period of time, you may consider booking a cruise. With ships stopping at historic ports across the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, you can be in a new destination each day. Next month, Carnival is launching a brand-new ship called Vista, which is set to do sails from Athens to Barcelona and vice versa this spring and summer. Offering 8- and 10-day sails along the Mediterranean, these sails mean travelers will get to explore parts of Greece, Italy, France, and Spain. 

Vista will offer some new features to Carnival as well, such as SkyRide (a breakthrough suspended open-air cycling experience), the world’s first IMAX Theatre on a ship, and an on-board brewery (a first for a North American ship). Experience the daily bustle of the European city life, see historic and iconic landmarks, and be whisked away by the charm and allure of the different cultures. In each stop, Carnival also offers different excursion options (which comes at difference rates person), and these can also help you save time if select and purchase prior to your sail. 

If you’re thinking about hopping on the Carnival Vista cruise in Athens and end in Barcelona, this hotel is a great pick if you want to extend your stay:

4. Booking Attractions Ahead

Big Ben; Photo by Andrew Villagomez

While you can book most of your trip when signing up for tours and cruises, searching and selecting things to individually do and see through your own agenda is doable -- and can be fun. An easy destination to test out this method is London. A useful pass you can obtain to help you see top attractions is the London Pass. It can grant you entry to over 60 different London attractions and things to do in the city -- plus a Fast Track Entry where applicable. 

Attractions on it that you can easily do in a day to get your money's worth include the Tower of London, a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, the Thames River Boat Cruise, Westminster Abbey (allowing you to enter during the week at no added cost), the spooky London Bridge Experience, and the Tower Bridge Exhibition. Other things include a bike tour or rental, and entrance to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the Kensington Palace, the London Zoo, and even a movie at select Curzon theaters. Other attractions and classic London musts to look into setting up before headed to London include The View From The Shard, The London Eye, theater tickets, and a spot to enjoy an afternoon tea experience.

A wonderful hotel-meets-tea-experience in London:

5. Planning As You Go

The Eiffel Tower; Photo by Andrew Villagomez

A final way to experience Europe is of course just planning and booking as you go. Sometimes all you really need is a plane ticket (and maybe a EuroRail ticket and hotel booking for the first night) and you are good to go. While this process can alleviate the amount of research you spend before a trip, you might spend more time than you's like deciding on things to do while in the destination. 

But first-timers to Europe can certainly do it. For example, one summer just after graduating, I went with my family to Madrid and then to London on my own to stay with a friend there. I had been to London before, but that was my first solo flight in Europe. It was during the time of the volcano eruption in Iceland, and my flight ended up being delayed a day (surprising, not even due to the volcano but mechanical issues), so there I was in London’s Luton airport with no idea what to do. Soon, though, I found out about a train that takes you right into Paddington Station, so I went there to see me friend for a night in London before an early EuroRail departure to Paris

While in Paris, we didn’t have anything booked beyond a Best Western hotel just minutes from the Eiffel Tower. Since it was both our first times and we were only there for about 36 hours, we decided that the hop-on-hop-off bus would be best to see all the sights and to also use it are mode of transportation -- and it worked for us. And since picked a hotel so close to the Tower, we of course spent the morning we had before check out to experience going up it and looking out to the entire city. Of course you don’t have to totally plan alone as you go since hotels can have very helpful and knowledgeable concierges who can help and suggest or plan things to do, and chatting with locals (or returning travelers) is another way to help figure out where to go and what to see.

If you want a reasonably priced stay near the Eiffel Tower, you'll love this pick:

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