Remember when you were in school and the first writing assignment each September was: "What did you do on your summer vacation?"

I can't answer that question yet, because my vacation doesn't start for three more weeks. But I thought it would be helpful for those planning to spend thousands of dollars for leisure or business travel to tell you about my experience researching and booking a two-week trip to Europe with my wife.

First, let me say to the travel agents whose good service and help I have appreciated for years, I didn't follow your advice and let you do it for me. I did all the planning and booking myself on my home computer.

I wasn't trying to avoid paying an agency for its work. If you find a good agent, he or she will probably be worth the money. I did my own planning and booking for several other reasons, starting with the fact that I actually enjoy doing the work required.

Do-it-yourself online is also the way most travelers plan trips, and I want to have the same experience with the process as you do.

Especially in searching for hotels in my price range, I like to look at multiple Web sites that offer reviews of travelers' experiences and rate hotels, usually on a 1-to-5 scale. The one I used most is www.tripadvisor.com; others I have found useful are www.hotels.com and www.booking.com.

Beyond that, doing the work myself enabled me to check, over weeks starting in January, what was happening to airfares and other travel costs. I checked individual airline Web sites as well as multicarrier online agencies - Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity and Vayama - each a few times, before settling down to use just one multi-airline site and two airline sites.

As I checked, about once every other day, I found fares could range widely on the same Web site, from about $800 to $1,400, for the same itinerary on different airlines.

Airline experts were predicting in January that transatlantic fares were likely to drop as the year went on because the recession had pushed down demand so significantly. We were still mulling over which airline and European gateways we would use, so we decided to wait a month or two to buy tickets.

I also set up a search at www.airfarewatchdog.com that promised to alert me when fares went down on a particular itinerary I specified. It did its job, telling me in early February that the cost had dropped about $100, or about 5 percent, for two tickets.

But old habits die hard, and the last time I planned a trip to Europe, four years ago, I waited too long and wound up paying more for tickets.

So the last week of February, I took the plunge and bought the tickets for just over $900 apiece. Then over the next month, the experts who forecast that fares would drop turned out to be right.

Airfarewatchdog.com continued to send me messages about lower costs, making me wonder if I should cancel the first reservation - for a $500 penalty - and start over.

Had I waited another month or two, I could have saved about $100 for each ticket, not enough to cancel and rebook. Had we been able to take the trip in late winter or spring, we could have saved several hundred dollars more as airlines began slashing fares to fill empty airplanes.

But I'm not unhappy with what I bought, because the lower fares for the summer travel we needed were for slightly different itineraries on different airlines. I was glad I got the precise ones I wanted.

The hotel search process is easier for me than looking for airlines and fares. For each city we will visit, I checked tripadvisor.com, which lists hotels by their popularity ratings by travelers from all over the world.

Scrolling down a list of hotels, you find good descriptions and room rates and whether a hotel is rated from one to five stars. I love smaller European hotels, and chose ones that were in the locations we wanted and received rave reviews from several previous guests.

Tripadvisor.com connects you to multiple online agency sites to actually book a room.

I waited until a few weeks ago to settle on transportation within Europe. We eventually decided to use both trains and a rental car, and compared the cost of buying Eurail passes or individual point-to-point tickets on www.raileurope.com.

For a rental car, raileurope.com has train passes that also include use of a car for a certain number of days. But for the car, I Googled "European rental cars" and found a wide choice of both U.S. and European companies with roughly similar rates.

I will tell you more about our European adventure when we return. Now, if the dollar vs. the euro exchange rate would just stabilize, I can figure out how much we can afford to spend on the wine.

Contact Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com