The Planning Process
1. Planning your trip:
A) It’s time for a vacation! Woohoo! That means it’s time for some questions! Where would you like to go? What is it that you want to see or do there? When is a good time for you to go? How long can you be away from home? How much of a budget are you allowing? Are you traveling with a group? Are you a sightseer, looking for culture and history? Are you the athletic type, ready for skiing, biking or hiking? What is the next most important must-do destination or activity in your mind? Come up with a “shortlist” of potential destinations. I recommend starting the planning process at least six months in advance of your projected vacation window.
B) Start doing your homework. Read some travel blogs or watch a few YouTube videos about your shortlist. Read books or view what is on-line from the likes of Frommer’s, Fodor’s, TripAdvisor and Rick Steves. Many of these sources offer practical itineraries for different numbers of days and different reasons for going. Narrow down the places you would like to visit, and compare those places with your travel timeframe. Read the latest world news about those places for political instability or possible transportation strikes. Check predicted weather for your locations – you may decide to adjust your schedule due to poor projected weather during your visit window.
C) Do you need a passport for your chosen destination? Some countries require your passport to be valid for several months after you return from your trip, so be aware of this if you have a mature passport. The renewal process normally takes about 4 to 6 weeks.
D) Decide early on your itinerary. Some hotels fill early and some shows sell out. The sooner you can nail down dates and locations, the sooner you can book that choice hotel with the room with the balcony overlooking the lake, or get those choice seats at the theater.
Example 1: I wanted to see the Lipizzaner Stallions when we were in Vienna. After doing some research, I decided to book the tickets directly on-line from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Even four months in advance, many of the seats were already reserved. The show turned out to be much more enjoyable for those with the “ring-side seats” than those with the last-minute arrangements.
Example 2: Hallstatt is a beautiful small town in Austria, known for its picturesque lakeside location. My wife and I enjoy a glass of wine in the evening, so I wanted a balcony overlooking the lake. Again, even four months in advance, the first two hotels I contacted were already booked for the choice rooms. Luckily, I was able research further and correspond with a Gasthaus with some choice rooms that was able to accommodate us. I was later surprised to learn that the town is a primary location for Chinese tourists, which partly explained its unexpected popularity.
E) Decide on your transportation. Is the area that you are visiting friendly and convenient to public transportation? Most large towns and cities in Europe are not good places to drive. Many have zones that limit vehicular traffic and the fines can be costly. In contrast, those same locations usually have excellent public transportation, via either subway, tram or bus. Conversely, seeing the villages of Tuscany or Alsace can be problematic without a car. A further option is hiring a van-tour with a guide for those areas.
Example: My first journey to Italy is one that I mentally revisit on a regular occasion, and while I enjoyed the experience, if I had it to do over again I would plan it differently. I rented a car for the entire trip, which was in retrospect a horrible decision. Trains in Italy, as in most of Europe, are an excellent means of getting from Rome to Florence, or Florence to the Cinque Terre, or most destinations for that matter. Instead I rented a car and drove to those locations, and now I have the gray hairs and smaller bank account to show for it. See more on this particular experience in < href="/my-first-trip-to-italy-and-europe-or-how-i-learned-the-process/">my first trip to Italy (and Europe) post.
A footnote on rental cars: there is a lot of discussion in forums about how to handle the insurance that is offered when you rent a car in a foreign country. I’ve heard personally and read on-line the horror stories of others who have dealt with returning a rental car, only to be told that this or that was damaged or missing by the car company’s inspector and that hundreds of extra euros are owed by the customer. Strange to say that this never seems to happen if you have taken out the insurance beforehand. With those thoughts in mind, I generally choose to get the insurance when I rent a car outside of the USA.
F) Pick your airline, choose your flights. I always fly Delta Airlines, partly due to my proximity to Delta’s main hub (Atlanta, GA). My experience with Delta and its partners has been good. When flying coach, I can always count on lots of food with free drinks (wine!). The included entertainment has a wide variety of current and popular movies with free headsets. A blanket, a pillow and eye-covers are also included at no charge. I’m a tall guy (6’2”), but the seat spacing on the overseas flights is generally enough that my knees are not up against the seat in front of me – unlike many domestic flights.
I use the Delta website to help me choose my flights. Using variable travel days, you can see the range of prices offered for the different days to travel. My trips are usually approximately two weeks, Wednesday to Wednesday, since that is usually the cheapest and least busy time to fly. The choice seats are a little easier to come by.
Speaking of seats, I recommend picking your seats through the airline’s on-line services or via a telephone representative. Many aircraft have a 2-5-2 seating arrangement. My wife and I always try to score one of the “2” seats on the side, preferably as far forward as possible but without being a bulkhead seat (no personal entertainment) or a seat next to a bathroom door (for obvious olfactory reasons).
Make sure you have plenty of time between connecting flights. I recommend a minimum of one hour, if not two. Small delays are not uncommon, and 30 minutes on a tight schedule can be the difference between making your connection and spending some quality time at the airport on the dreaded stand-by list. If you have a connecting flight in Europe, allow some time to clear customs at your “entry” airport.
Example: During my recent flight to Vienna, the entry airport for the European Union was Amsterdam’s Schiphol. The line to clear customs was approximately 250 people by the time I joined. It took approximately 45 minutes to clear customs. Luckily I had a 2.5 hour layover, so I still was not panicked by the time I finally got to the gate. Speaking with other folks in line, I was told that the line is often not that bad. Still, this is one of the many variables to be considered when planning your flights.
When returning to the USA, be prepared to use a special terminal. At Rome’s Fiumincino Airport, there was a terminal with extra security for use by Israeli and US citizens. I appreciated the concern, but it did lead to me becoming temporarily lost when trying to find the correct terminal.
G) Learn some of the local language prior to going. Unless you are traveling to a country where English is the primary language, it is always helpful to know a few key phrases is the local tongue. “Entschuldigen, bitte! Wo ist die toiletten?” Normally, the locals will appreciate your efforts and use their normally better English skills. Luckily for English speakers, English has become the international language in most European countries. It never ceases to amaze me to see tourists from countries whose first language is not English conversing with their Italian, French or Austrian waiter in English.
Example 1: We were leaving De Gaulle airport via taxi to get to our hotel in Paris. Our driver could not speak any English. Luckily, we had taken a few lessons from the Fluenz French language series, and we were able to communicate where we needed to go beyond simply pointing a finger at a written address.
Example 2: Early on, I rented a car at Rome’s airport with the intention of driving to Tuscany. Among the many mistakes I made planning that trip was the fact that I did not take the time to learn any basic Italian. Needless to say, all of the road-signs are in Italian! I wasn’t even aware of what the words for “Entry” and “Exit” were. Much extra stress could have been avoided by learning a few good driving words beforehand.
H) Learn some of the local customs. One of the most basic in Europe, that I had to learn the hard way, was that a waiter will not bring your bill until you ask them to. Likewise, they often will not bring basic condiments to the table unless requested. Even something as simple as holding up fingers to indicate quantity can be misunderstood. If you hold up an index finger, does it mean one or two to your server? In many countries it would count as two, with the thumb implied as one and the index finger as two.
Example: We were at a nice cafe in Florence during our first trip to Europe. We could not understand why the waitress was not bringing our bill even though she had clearly noticed that we were finished eating. The idea of being given time to enjoy your table until you are ready to leave is not a concept that is often practiced in the States. After chasing down the waitress and seeing her surprise at our annoyance, we realized that all we needed to do in the future was get the server’s attention and ask for the bill.
2. Packing your suitcase:
A) Bring 220v electronic outlet adapters appropriate for the country you are visiting. American 110v plugs do not fit, nor would you want them to unless you like your electronics fried over-easy. Note that adapters that work in one country may not work in the next.
An adapter is not necessarily a converter! Your 110v electronics may not be the same after you plug them in to a 220v outlet.
Example 1: Our first trip was to Italy, so naturally we bought 220v adapters ahead of time that work in the three-prong outlets there. On the next trip, I ignorantly assumed that those same adapters would work in France. Surprise! France uses the two-prong plugs. Luckily I was able to borrow adapters at the hotels.
Example 2: Even with the 220v adapters (not converters), Diane has lost still one hairdryer and almost lost a second. In both cases we had to air-out the room to get rid of the smoke.
B) Most hotels in Europe have 220v hair dryers. It probably is not worth the space in your baggage to bring one.
C) Know the average temperature where you are going – use layering if needed
Example: During my recent two-week trip to Austria in September, I packed a light jacket, long-sleeve shirts and tee shirts. Most of the time, a tee with a long-sleeve shirt was sufficient. However, the Alpine regions were naturally colder and adding the jacket to a heavier long-sleeve shirt and tee was enough to stay comfortable.
D) Plan ahead for using a laundromat, otherwise pack enough socks and undergarments for the entire stay.
Example: I normally do not like to use any of my precious travel time for such mundane efforts as laundry. I would rather bring 14 boxers and 14 pairs of socks than bring seven of each and then spend two hours washing clothes. Bring a few plastic bags for keeping all that dirty laundry separate from your remaining clean items.
Diane’s tips for the ladies: For reusing jeans and minimizing undergarments, bring some disposable thin pads for daily comfort.
E) Do not over-pack. Jeans and comfortable shoes are good enough most of the time. If you are planning on attending more formal events such as attending church or eating at a classy restaurant, bring one set of clothing and shoes for those occasions.
Example: I did attend a high Mass in Vienna to hear the amazing choir at the St Augustine church in the Hofburg Palace. I brought one pair of slacks and a nice shirt, which was very much fitting for the crowd in attendance. Later in the trip I used that same ensemble while in Salzburg to attend the Mozart Dinner show at St Peter’s.
F) Pack wrinkle-free clothing as much as you can. European hotels rarely have clothing irons. Normally the best you can do to lessen the wrinkles is the old method of hanging your clothes in the bathroom while you shower.
G) Keep your baggage to a minimum weight and quantity for manageability.
Example: When you are boarding a train to your next destination, you do not want to have to lift 50 pounds into the train car. You also do not want three bags draped around your arms and shoulders while getting through that relatively narrow passageway on the train. Likewise, many European elevators are very “cozy”. Two people with even only one bag each can completely fill an elevator. Even better, some older locations, such as a Gasthaus, may not even have an elevator. There is nothing like climbing five flights of tiny spiraling stairs with your luggage to get to that great balcony room overlooking the lake.
3. When you arrive:
A) Go to an ATM at the airport and get some local currency. You may need a few Euros or Pounds to pay for transportation to your hotel. Do NOT use a currency exchange service. Exchange services are exactly that – a service. They will add in exorbitant fees to your exchange so that your effective exchange rate skyrockets.
Example: When I first decided that I needed some Euros while travelling in Italy, I naively stopped at a currency exchange service near the Duomo in Florence. Even though the going exchange rate at the time was 1.66 dollars to the euro, the fees left me with a final exchange rate of 2 to 1. Thereafter I used ATMs, and was rewarded with the proper bank exchange rate.
B) While at the arrival airport, this may be the time to check in with your first TI (Tourist Information). Many popular arrival airport TI’s have good maps, and offer bulk subway tickets or city-pass combination attraction tickets.
C) If you are travelling overseas to Europe, you will be jetlagged. Unless you pay up for premium seating for your flight, odds are that you will not get very much quality sleep. Arriving at the airport, you may notice that some of your judgement is impaired. You will need to adjust your biological clock, either by taking a quick nap when you get to your hotel, or by “powering through” and forcing yourself to stay up till a reasonable hour for that new time. For me, the danger with napping is the potential to over-sleep. Powering through usually makes for a quick adjustment for the next morning.
D) Relax! You’re finally there! There’s nothing quite like that feeling of checking into that first hotel, comfortable in the knowledge that all that homework and pre-planning has culminated with you being at this place you have dreamed of. Time to explore, experience and enjoy!