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How to make the most of your trip to Europe

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/12/2016 Matt Alderton
The Eiffel Tower. © Getty Images/iStockphoto The Eiffel Tower.

People have strong opinions about Europe. Really strong opinions. Wherever and whenever you plan to go, someone will tell you you’re doing it wrong. That attraction you want to see? “Too touristy. Skip it.” The hotel you’ve decided to book? “Cancel it. I know the perfect place.” And your schedule? That’s the worst offense of all. Whether you plan to visit for two days or 10, your well-traveled friends will contend it’s “not nearly enough.”

Here’s the thing, though: It actually is.

“Even if you only have a day somewhere, you can still do a lot,” insists Suzanne Wolko, author of the travel blog PhilaTravelGirl and owner of trip-planning company Arden Road Travel. “If you want to go to Europe, you should go to Europe — even if you only have a few days. Just make sure you have realistic expectations about what you can do while you’re there, because you can’t do everything.”

Although you can’t do everything, you can do some things. And some things are better than nothing. Whether you want to sip afternoon tea in London, share a kiss beneath the Eiffel Tower or eat pizza in Rome, consult this quick-trip travel guide to turn minimal vacation time into maximum vacation.

Fly right

Jet lag can ruin a short trip by making you spend valuable vacation days counting sheep instead of seeing sites. Virgin Atlantic cabin crew member Clare Fraser says to start your trip off on the right foot by:

• Resting now, not later. Plan to sleep before you land instead of after so you can hit the ground running.

• Eating early. Eating before takeoff ensures you can spend your flight sleeping. Just be sure to avoid unfamiliar or disagreeable foods; an upset stomach could derail the first portion of your trip.

• Disconnecting. Games and email are tempting distractions on a long flight, but mobile devices stimulate the brain and make resting difficult. Power down an hour before takeoff.

• Hydrating. Skip the pre- and in-flight cocktails. Drink at least two liters of water instead, to land refreshed and ready.

It pays to plan …

When you have the luxury of time, unstructured days yield unexpected adventures. When you don’t, they create unnecessary delays. To avoid wasting time:

• Sample sites. “The Louvre is eight miles of art, which … can consume your whole visit,” Wolko says. “A highlight tour or VIP option is generally three hours and gives you a peek into the museum in a short time.”

• Stay central. “A lot of tourist attractions and sites are usually found within the city center, so staying close by saves you a lot of commuting time,” says college student Tiffany Choi, marketing assistant at Canadian travel-booking website LeaveTown who made short European jaunts while studying abroad in Ireland.

• Start strategically. “Almost every major city in Europe offers free walking tours,” says Choi, who notes that walking tours are a good way to get your bearings and pre-screen which sites you want to see up close. “They often only last a few hours, and your guide will know how to efficiently navigate around the city so you don’t waste time … getting lost.”

• Make reservations. “Everybody wants to see the same sites, and that means long lines,” says Andy Steves, founder of travel company Weekend Student Adventures Europe  and author of Andy Steves’ Europe: City-Hopping on a Budget. “If you make online reservations ahead of time, you can skip those lines.”

• Check the calendar. “When I traveled to certain cities, sometimes I found myself in a place where everything was closed, which put quite a damper on my plans — especially when I had such limited time,” says Choi, who notes that attractions are often closed at least one day a week and on local holidays.

• Cut the fat. “Don’t go to the Louvre in Paris just because you feel like you have to go. Plan your trip around whatever gets you most excited,” suggests Steves. Instead of seeing sites that don’t interest you, he says, plan your trip around a theme that does, such as art, architecture, history or food.

Timesaving tech

Technology is a time-pressed traveler’s best friend. Leverage it by:

• Buying data. Make sure you can use your phone to look up attractions, restaurants and translations. “Get your phone unlocked before you go, or buy a local SIM card when you touch down so you can make plans on the fly,” Steves says. “Yelp is pretty popular in Europe, and so is TripAdvisor.”

• Mapping your route. Look up desired attractions on your phone using Google Maps, then save them. “It makes it a lot easier to plan when you can see all the places you want to go visually on a map. That way, you can visit sites in a logical order and make efficient use of your time,” Choi says. “Plus, if you don’t have cellular data when you’re traveling, you can still use Google Maps if you load the maps ahead of time while you have Wi-Fi access.”

• Building an itinerary. Sites like TripCreator and Joyage  can help you create an airtight itinerary with which to maximize your time. The former uses your dates, travel style, budget and pace to create a suggested plan that you can customize to your individual tastes; the latter lets you commission local travel experts to create custom itineraries by exploiting their personal knowledge and experience.

Sample itinerary: Two days in Paris

Day one:

Morning: Grab your first authentic French croissant at a local patisserie (pastry shop), then head to the Paris Opera — the inspiration for The Phantom of the Opera — to meet up with Discover Walks (discoverwalks.com) for its 90-minute free walking tour of Paris landmarks at 10 a.m.

Afternoon: Get lunch at a local bakery, then take the Metro from Concorde, where your tour ended, to Montmartre (Metro stops: Blanche or Abbesses) to explore Paris’s most bohemian neighborhood. While you’re there, see Sacré-Cœur Basilica and the famous Moulin Rouge cabaret.

Evening: After freshening up at your hotel, have dinner in the 7th arrondissement, then ascend the Eiffel Tower to see why they call Paris the City of Lights. If the weather allows, pick up a bottle of wine, a baguette and some cheese to enjoy on the Champ de Mars.

Day two:

Morning: Start your day at the Louvre. A few hours should suffice to see highlights like the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.

Afternoon: Take the Metro uphill to the Arc de Triomphe (Metro stop: Charles de Gaulle-Étoile) and climb the arch for a view of France’s busiest intersection. Next, take the Metro to Notre Dame Cathedral (Metro stop: St-Michel Notre Dame), then hop on the RER C line to the Champs-Élysées for shopping on Paris’s most exclusive boulevard.

Evening: Join one of the many dinner cruises that take place on the Seine river to bid Paris adieu from the water.

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