Expedia, Lastminute and all the rest are constantly tell us to ‘build your own break.’  Sensible advice of course, unless you are looking for a package holiday beach destination it’s nearly always the cheapest way to do it.

But in reality using these companies’ sites quickly reveals some limitations for the savvy independent traveller.

The emperor’s new clothes are ‘tailor-made’

travelling sing hotels fairyToo often the much trumpeted flexibility boils down to a few less than stellar flight options (very early mornings, late nights or indirect flights giving you four hours to exhaust a soulless airport but precious little else) and choosing from a sliding scale of hotel options.

These sites also pre-suppose that you want to fly rather than explore trains, ferries or even buses. I’ve yet to find one offering foreign breaks with a reliable choice of combined air and land options.

Of course there’s no shortage of good hotel comparison sites out there (this one being one of them natch) so you could easily sort the whole shebang yourself, with just a little travel nous, time and patience.

Last year I did exactly that for a 5 day trip from Edinburgh to Paris and Venice.  I used a combination of three flights with two budget airlines, an overnight train and hotels in three cities, including a pragmatic pit stop in sleepy market town Weeze, near Dusseldorf on the Dutch border. (Oh the glamour!)

Sounds complicated?  Well, no, not really.  Here’s how you can do it.

1. Decide where you want to go

Make use of the budget airlines on your doorstep and see which inexpensive routes they offer.  Don’t always go for the obvious ‘must see’ cities.

There’s no shortage of charming towns on their routes these days. Philip Nolan’s excellent book Ryanland, in which the author dots around Europe for several months from one little-known Ryanaired city to another, is well worth reading to give you some inspiration on this front.

railway travel

2. Branch out with rail options

Consider making it a two or three centre break by picking two places with good rail links.  You can use excellent sites like www.seat61.com (step-by-step instructions and itineraries) and www.raileurope.co.uk (good maps and multiple pricing options) to research this.

Also the German national railway site www.bahn.de has extremely comprehensive timetables for international journeys far beyond the country’s own borders.  The rail network in Central Europe is particularly dense with comfortable and regular high spec, high speed trains running day and night.

3. Sleep on it

If you’re pressed for time or simply want to make the most of your break then consider taking an overnight sleeper train.  Prices vary enormously depending on what level of comfort you need, how big your travel group is and where you go, but it’s often cheaper than an average 4 star hotel, plus you will be delivered into the heart of a city in time for breakfast with no tedious and exorbitant airport transfers to fork out.

aircraft travel

4. Mix and match your flights

Sometimes you find a real bargain on the way out, but your heart sinks when you see how the return leg costs just that a plus the proverbial ‘arm’.  You can usually get round this by returning from a different city or airport, especially if you’re coming back from somewhere a little off the tourist trail.  Use sites like www.skyscanner.net to spot the real steals, and enable the ‘search for airports nearby’ function for maximum flexibility.

5. Double check prices before you book

When booking a multi-stop trip it’s always best to check all the live prices of your accommodation and journeys before you book any one element.  Be careful – flight comparison sites don’t always display the latest prices, which can sometimes jump up dramatically a week or two before departure, so check them on the airlines’ own sites to be certain.

6. Print everything off

With a more complex itinerary than usual, you’ll need to be ultra-clear about your route, so make sure you print everything off and better still, write it up yourself so that the business of ‘which train you’re catching from where and at what time’ gets firmly implanted into your head.  There are also some great trip planning resources for the more anal travellers out there.  Sites like www.tripit.com allow you to email over your various booking confirmations to them and they will send you a detailed and consistent itinerary for total peace of mind.

Book your own break abroad

7. Relax and feel rather pleased with yourself!

Finally, once you’ve got everything booked and your itinerary sorted, you can allow yourself to bask in the glow of your own smugness regarding the money you’ve saved and the flexibility you have achieved in booking a trip that genuinely is ‘tailored to you’ for once.  A word of caution though: trip planning is an addictive business.  Once you’ve started down this path you may well find it very hard to even think about booking a package break again!

About the Author

Jools Stone is a freelance writer and travel blogger based in Edinburgh.  His blog is called He Thought of Trains because he does…a lot!  His blog charts his enduring love affair with long distance train travel, green travel and independent trip planning in Europe and beyond.