To understand Europe, you have to be a genius - or French. - Madeleine Albright

Despite the challenges of increasing airfare due to fuel prices and the weak dollar, our customers are still eager to travel across the pond for the trip of a lifetime. Many of our customers are not wanting to be confined to an escorted motorcoach tour, but prefer to determine their own itinerary and travel independently.

Planning for an independent trip is more involved than choosing an escorted itinerary. Rather than pointing to a particular itinerary in a brochure, traveling on an independent itinerary begins with a blank slate. How do you begin to fill in this blank slate? Consider the following:

First you must determine the scope of your trip. The first issue of scope is time. How much time can you afford to be gone? If you are not retired, this will be a different answer than if you are retired empty nesters. I am currently planning a trip to Rome where we will be gone only 6 days. Normally I prefer at least 10 days when possible.

Next, consider money. Along with time, money is probably the most significant issue when deciding what you can and can not do. When my niece turned 18 I took her to Europe and in 10 days we saw London, Paris, Rome, Munich and Frankfurt. One of my main purposes was to show her that it was possible to do really great things without spending a fortune. We stayed in very moderate places that served our purposes (they were safe, clean and well located), but we did not spend a fortune. You need to keep in mind, however, what it takes to make you comfortable. You don't want to make yourself and everyone around you miserable because you cannot relax where you are staying. If you are high maintenance, embrace it and choose your trip accordingly. One note about budgeting your money on a European trip. Please do not skimp on sightseeing. The reason you spend all of the other money..the airfare, the lodging, the transportation between cities, all of it is to enable the sightseeing. Wouldn't it be stupid to travel to the other side of the globe and then sit in your room because you didn't have any money left for that walking tour or the admission into that museum?

Finally, think about what you would like to see during this trip. On the first go-round, be bold. Get a big blank sheet of paper and write down everything you'd like to see or experience on this adventure. Perhaps you really want to cover Spain. Maybe you want to hit as many European capitals as possible. A weeklong cooking school might be the cornerstone of the trip. Whatever it is, get it all on paper and clear in your mind.

Next comes the challenging part. Now you have to figure out how the available time and money will best coincide with your dreams. This is where you pull out a map and a tablet of paper and a pencil with a big eraser and lots of lead. My technique is to write the start date at the top of the page and the return date on the bottom of the page. Then I take the map and put those 3M post it flags on the places that I would really like included on the trip. Usually a logical order will emerge when I look at the marked map. I write the cities in what appears to be the most logical order. Then I make my best guess as to how long I'd like to spend in each city.

After that I attempt to find the best way to get between each city. Train? Plane? Car? How much will it cost and how much time will it take? Sometimes at that part of the process something will surface that just isn't meshing well with the rest of the trip. A city that isn't easily traveled to from any of the others. At that point you have to decide how important is this "problem city". You have two choices, you can either drop it, or you can restructure the rest of the trip around it.

Once you've worked out all of these issues, and you think you have a workable itinerary, then all that is left to do is execute! Make the plane reservations, train reservations, hotel reservations and everything else to make this dream a reality.

I help people with this process every week. I find it to be satisfying and fun. I especially like it when people get home and tell me that traveling independently in Europe was not nearly as difficult as they had feared and that everything went smoothly!