Friday, February 8, 2008

How I Plan My European Trips

Oh, how I love to travel! I can remember back in high school making list of places I wanted to visit someday. One of my girlfriends recently said, "You are doing exactly what you dreamed about in high school." My list consisted of countries in Europe. I grew up living in many different places to include Japan, Okinawa, and Hawaii (I was born in Spain), so Europe was on my mind.
I plan my trip 6 to 8 months in advance, although the next trip is in the back of my mind. The planning portion is my first part of traveling. It's a hobby collecting information and reading and researching for my vacation. My vacations normally last 2 to 3 weeks, depending on where I’m going, and always to just one country per trip, unless I’m on a cruise. Each country has so much to offer that I prefer not spread myself so thin.

I usually travel in the shoulder season, April through early June or October - November. I think this is a good time of year to travel to Europe, plus the high tourist season hasn’t started or just ended. The weather is usually lovely in the spring and fall. By traveling during the low or shoulder season, prices for hotels and airfares are less expensive.

I buy three to four travel books. The first one is entitled 'Insight Guides,' which provides a great deal of information on the country I've chosen. It discusses the history, culture, people, food, etc., and discusses each area of that country. It's not a true travel guide book like Fodor's or Frommer's, (it does have a small portion in the back providing some travel information), but it's a valuable book learn about the country I want to visit and help me choose what I want to see and where to go. The photographs are beautiful! My other book is usually a Frommer's guidebook. In addition, I go to the library to pick up the Fodor's and Rick Steve's travel books for additional information on hotels and restaurants. I also buy a Berlitz pocket sized language book to take with me, when needed. If foreign language classes are available at the local college, I'll sign up. They are usually a 10-week basic course for the traveler. I always make an effort to learn the basic phrases. It helps me to get around and get what I need and I believe my efforts are appreciated. I also like the “Top 10” books, as well as the AAA Sprial books.

After reading about each city I want to visit and what it has to offer, I can determine how many days I want to spend in each place, giving myself enough time to travel between cities. I read about opening hours of museums, monuments, exhibits, etc., so that I don't miss any important places to visit. I'll choose a city where I can stay and use as a home-base for a several days and take day trips from there. This saves me having to pack and repack to often.

I write to the foreign tourist offices located in New York City and the cities in the country that I plan to visit to request information on hotels, restaurants, transportation, city and town maps, and other information that will help me in my planning. I usually receive a country map so I can figure out my travel route. I don't want to jump all over the country, but rather plan a logical or circular route. Also, the internet is a great search tool to find any kind of information to include train schedules and additional hotel/restaurant information. I post questions to the European forum at Fodor's and Slow Talk to find about hotels, restaurants, and any other information, which will help me in planning my trip.

I always choose the smaller hotels (classified as 2-3stars), such as pensiones, to stay in rather than "American-style" or pricier hotels. I agree when Rick Steve's writes, "A tight budget forces you to travel close to the ground, meeting and communicating with the people...simply enjoy the local-style alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants." On the other hand, I have used Priceline to book hotels in London and Puerto Rico, where hotels are expensive. My May 2005 London hotel, a 4-star hotel, cost me $125/night. Pricing at that time directly from the hotel was around $350. Although not charming and quaint like a pensione, it was the way to go with London hotels.

I send Emails or letters to several hotels for each town requesting pricing information, availability, any possible discounts for payment in cash, and their cancellation policy. Once I have decided on a hotel, I book with them.

I call several airlines and consolidators to get the best-priced tickets with the best travel schedule. I try to fly without having to change planes, but if I do, I won't change more than once. I plan my trips so that I fly during mid week as tickets are less expensive when traveling Monday through Thursday. Flying open-jaws can also result in lower airfares.

Up until my trip to France in 1999, I traveled by train or bus. I get train information from Rail Europe so I can determine whether to get point-to-point tickets or a flexi-pass. There are a variety of passes to choose from, depending on the travel plans. I also check out the train companies for each country, as their prices are less expensive than going through Rail Europe when going point-to-point. For bus information, the travel books have some information, but I'll visit the tourist office or the bus station and get a time schedule. Usually I'll take a bus for day trips and the train for longer trips.

In my recent travels, I have become comfortable driving in a foreign country. I rent a car for a portion of my trip whenever I feel it is best to travel by car, such as the hill towns of Tuscany Italy. My first experience in renting a car was in Normandy France. I wanted to visit the D-Day beaches and Mont St Michel and discovered that other than a car, I would have to catch a local bus, which didn't run too often, or go with an organized tour group, which was expensive. Having a car meant being flexible to visit each location at my own pace. I’ll check several car rental agencies to get the best price. I also rent the smallest car available since many towns have small streets…and to help save on gas expense.

While planning my trip, I create an Excel spread sheet of my estimates for transportation, gas, hotel, food, sightseeing, and shopping, all based on my research. I do keep in mind that the prices stated in guidebooks and online would be slightly higher by the time I got to Europe. I've always come home not spending as much as the estimate because either the exchange rates have been better than when I first started my plans, I may have skipped visiting a couple of sights, and meals are normally less than what I estimated.

Once I’ve made all my plans and reservations, I can relax and make my purchases for my trip (film, spare batteries, walking shoes, travelers checks, journal, notebook, etc), and wait for the day to come.

I write up my packing list (now conveniently posted on my web page – copy/paste into Word, revise based on the trip, and print out), organize my travel papers (maps, hotel confirmation letters, tourist information, etc.) to take, and I pull out my suitcase!
A brief comment on Cruises

What a way to travel! Travel to the location of ship, board, unpack once and enjoy the ride. That’s the easy part. The difficult part is to figure out where to go, what ship, what type cabin, which sights to see while in port, etc. There are many wonderful web sites that will help you plan a cruise. The best one, IMHO, is Cruise Critic. Without writing up how I pick a cruise, here’s a link, which will answer all your questions.

Bon voyage!


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