Thursday, March 9, 2017

Planning a Trip


I'm certainly no expert, but when people inquire about how I plan my trips, they always seem shocked that I do all the planning myself.  I don't book the trips through an organized tour, and I don't use a travel agent.  I do enjoy planning trips, and I know everyone doesn't, but it doesn't always require hours and hours of planning, and I think it is easy for everyone to do.

I've written before about some tools I use for planning trips, so if you want to check that post out, you can click HERE.

Where are you going?

First step, is figuring out where you want to go.  This also will require figuring out how long you can be gone.  I always have a running list of vacation itineraries in my head, but if you don't, then a good place to start is by looking at a map.  I also will google train travel times from one location to the next to figure out destinations.  I think this is also where guidebooks and pinterest can come in handy...you can find great itineraries from each of these sources.  

If there are some out of the way kind of places on your bucket list, see if you could easily wrap one of those into your trip.  For example, when I was in Europe before Christmas a couple of years ago, I knew Prague & Vienna were on the list, but I was trying to decide on a third destination.  I could have done Munich or other places in Austria, but I decided those would be easier to hit up on future trips.  I decided to go to Budapest because it wasn't as easy to hit up on another itinerary in the future.

I have found that most cities can be seen in 2 or 3 days.  Now, you won't get to see everything in the city, but I think you can hit the highlights for sure.  I've even tackled some cities in just one day, and found that if you have the stamina, you can see a lot.  That being said, be mindful to not schedule too much.  You don't want to spend all your time going from one city to the next, and be so exhausted when you get there that you just want a nap...know your limitations.   

When are you going?

Let me guess, you want to go in the Summer?  You and everyone else!  I've been to Europe in the Summer, and it's fine.  Just know everywhere is going to be more crowded.  Think outside the box.  I have come to LOVE traveling to Europe around Christmas.  For me, it is perfect.  I love cooler weather.  I love Christmas decorations.  I love fewer crowds.  So for me, it's a win-win-win.  Though I haven't been able to test out this theory, I suspect Autumn and Spring would be lovely times to visit as well.

Whenever you are going, be mindful of holidays.  Not just the biggies like Christmas, New Years, Easter, etc.  Check to see if the country you are visiting is having a bank holiday or religious day.  This can impact openings, restaurants, travel, etc.  You can find this out by just a random google search.  It may not impact your decision to travel, but it's good to know so you can plan accordingly.

Also, check to see if there are any festivals during your travels.  A few years ago, I was planning a trip to London, and just happened to notice that Brussels was having their biennial flower carpet during my trip.  So I just hopped the Eurostar over for the day for a chance to see the sight.

Flight Info

I've paid some considerable prices for flights to Europe, and then I've gotten some great deals.  Usually great deals require being flexible with travel dates.  I usually don't have much flexibility but if you do, take advantage.

I follow a couple of Twitter accounts that list flight deals on a daily basis.  I'm sure they have Facebook accounts too, but I'm not on Facebook.  On Twitter, they are: @TheFlightDeal and @Secret Flying

I found my last flight to Milan from DFW through one of the two (I don't remember which one, and honestly it could have been both).  I paid $432 ROUNDTRIP to go for New Year's.

Also, keep in mind that you might want to take advantage of a layover.  I was planning to go to Prague a couple of years ago, and from DFW, this required a stop in London.  I tinkered with the flights and noticed that I could stop in London, and as long as the layover was less than 24 hours, it did not change the price of my ticket.  Having been to London many times, my 23 hour 55 minute layover was perfect for me to have a day to see London in all of it's Christmas glory, shop at some of my favorite shops, and eat at a couple of my favorite restaurants.  

A lot of other airlines encourage layovers too.  One of the top ones I see frequently offered up is stopping in Iceland for a couple of days either coming or going to Europe.  This isn't one I've taken advantage of yet, but I plan to one day!

Be mindful that you don't have to fly in and out of the same place.  I know everyone knows this.  This isn't a secret.  Just know when you are booking like this, you usually won't be booking a roundtrip flight, but rather two separate flights.

Also, you might catch a deal to Milan, but really just want to go to Austria.  It's not that far and you could totally take a train to enjoy Austria (even consider a sleeper car for an overnight train).

Also, you can generally book through Expedia and have 24 hours to cancel the flight.  This is no way a paid ad for Expedia.  Sometimes I use them, sometimes I have booked a cheaper flight going directly through the airline, but when I ran across the cheap flight to Italy in November, I booked it immediately on Expedia and then spent the rest of the day trying to figure out if it was feasible to go on the trip.  
  
Transportation in Europe (planes, trains, and automobiles)

Europe is so much easier to get around than the United States.  The train system is good and easy to use.  The larger cities have great metro systems, taxis, and even Uber.  I know some who have rented cars, but this is not anything I have ever done.  There are also lots of cheap airlines that fly throughout Europe (just be mindful that airport time, etc. may not make this the faster option, and extra fees for luggage, etc. may increase your cost).

I stick with trains when traveling from one city to the next.  I almost always book my trains well in advance of my trips.  I like to know when I leave and have a plan.  Of course you can always buy tickets right at the station.

We hear lots about Eurorail passes.  Keep in mind the passes are not always your best option.  Unless you are traveling lots and for an extended period of time, it might be cheaper to just buy individual train tickets.  Each country has their own way to book your tickets.  I find these through Google, or a guidebook.  Some countries allow you to book out farther in the future than others.

When booking train tickets, keep in mind any of the seats are good, but Economy is the bottom and Business is the top.  First class is in between Economy and Business.  This may not ALWAYS be the case, but I have found it to be so.  Just double check when booking.... a good rule of thumb is that the highest level will be the most expensive.  Business class will be the nicest, and when it comes to train travel, there isn't a huge difference between the class costs.

You will be a little fish out of the water the first time or two you take a train.  You can almost always find assistance.  Some places (Italy for example) have their departure/arrivals signs translated in English too, so you know what you are looking at.  In Czech Republic, they do not, and it can be a little more daunting. 

My tips for train travel:

(1) Get there early.  You don't want to miss your train and have to buy another ticket.

(2) See if you can find out from an information desk whether your car number will be at the front or the back of the train.

(3) As soon as the track is put up on the screen, make your way to the track ASAP.  You don't want to miss your train, and if you have luggage, you want to make sure you find space for your bags.  Trains don't stay at the station for very long, so hustle.

(4) Hold on to your ticket.  Don't set it in your seat when you go to put your bag up.  Don't leave it behind if you go to the loo.  Don't put it somewhere after it has been validated.  DO NOT LOSE YOUR TICKET.  They may come through to validate it and see it more than once if you are on a train with multiple stops, and you could be fined if you don't have your ticket.

(5) Know that all trains are a little different.  Bags go in different places.  Seats are organized differently.  Just be ready to roll with it.

Here is a short video I took as the train left Venice.  You can get an idea of what the Business class (note: our idea of First Class) carriage is like:


Hotels

Sometimes I really research hotels, and other times, I've just done a blind booking through Hotwire or Priceline.  I've never had a terrible experience, but you just need to keep in mind that you are traveling to a different country and likely a different continent.  Hotels aren't the same world wide.  For example, be prepared for a 4 star hotel in Italy to not live up to your American 4 star hotel expectations.  

As I mentioned in that planning post I linked at the top, I really love to use Trip Advisor for researching hotels.  I like the travelers reviews and the real traveler photos.  I find they are invaluable when it comes to booking hotels across the world.  

I generally like to figure out what I want and then narrow my search from there: 

(1) What part of the city do I want to stay in?  Do I want to be near certain sights?  Do I want to be near a metro station?  Do I want to be on a particular metro line?  For me, as a solo female traveler, I often like to figure out what I plan to do at night.  If I know I want to visit a particular Christmas market at night, then I likely will want to stay close to that market to limit my trip in the dark.  

(2) What do I want in a hotel?  Do I want a single room, a double room?  Ensuite bathrooms are always a must for me.  I generally want a hotel with an elevator, an in-room safe, free Wifi in the rooms, and if it is the summer, then air conditioners are a must.  I also enjoy finding a room with a small refrigerator, but that isn't make or break for me.  

When I booked my hotels for Italy, I did blind booking on Hotwire.  They had it set up so that they rated the areas of the city for walkability to the sites.  I found this pretty useful (even if I hadn't used their website to book, it helped me figure out where to stay to best be able to walk most places).


Side Tours

Sometimes I like to arrange tours for my trip.  There are usually a couple of reasons I would book one of these: (1) I want to see the most of a city in a short period of time, or (2) I want to go to a few places off the beaten path.

For the first of those reasons, I really enjoy hop-on, hop-off tour buses.  Some are always going to be better than others, but this is usually a good way to see a lot because you cover a lot of ground (above ground...one of the downsides to using metros is you are underground).  If time allows, I like to make the entire loop of the city, and make note of where I want to hop off on my second loop.

For the second reason, sometimes certain places aren't reachable by train.  Unless you want to rent a car, then booking a tour is the best way to get there.

The downside to tours are, and will always be, that you stay some places longer than you'd like, and don't have as much time as you'd wish for in others.  But it is still a pretty good way to see places you otherwise wouldn't get to see.

When booking tours in Europe, I like to go through Viator.  I've used them several times and have generally been happy with the tours.  


Hopefully some of these tips will help you plan your trip.  If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email (email link is over under the "this is me" tab if you are viewing on a real computer): legallyblondesproceedings at gmail dot com

If you want to check out some of my trips, and the itineraries I used, you can access many of them HERE

Eat Well, Travel Often!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

My Trips to Europe and Canada

I have blogged many posts about my travels, and for ease, I'm putting links to the the various trips here in case you want to access them (just click on each "day"):


Italy (2016-2017)

Milan (Day 1)
Florence (Day 2)
Florence- Siena, San Gimignano, & Chianti (Day 3) 
Florence (Day 4)
Venice (Day 5)
Venice (Day 6)
Venice-Milan (Day 7)

London, Prague, Vienna, Budapest (2015)


Montreal & Quebec City (2016)




London & Brussels (2014)

Day 1- Harrods, Earl's Court, Hotel Information
Day 2, part 1- Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Borough Market
Day 2,part 2- Millennium Bridge, Westminster Abbey, The London Eye
Day 3- Highclere Castle (aka: Downton Abbey), Natural History Museum
Day 4- Brussels, Belgium
Day 5-Portobello Rd. Market, British Museum, KP, Hyde Park, Theatre
Day 6- Buckingham Palace and Shopping


Eat Well, Travel Often!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Italy for the New Year {Venice & Milan- Day 7}

The last full day of my vacation was on January 5th.   I spent a few hours in Venice before my 10:50 train out of Venezia San Lucia to Milano Centrale.  I went to St. Mark's Square first thing just to take in the sights of Venice one last time without crowds...

A classic Venice scene...
The day before I made sure I could find the taxi dock where I arrived, and I even walked down there to make sure taxis were available.  The day before there were 4 or 5 docked there.  

That morning when I needed one, there were none.  Of course!

I went to the end of the dock and tried to flag down some that I saw driving by.  I guess they don't do that?  Because they all looked at me like I was deranged.  

I yelled over at some Gondoliers and asked how to get a taxi.  They suggested I walk to San Mark's Square dock.  I could do that, but I had luggage, and the streets are not great for rolling luggage, plus you factor in all the bridges, and that didn't seem like it should be Plan B.  Plan C maybe.  But not Plan B.

I walked to a very close hotel, and they were nice enough to call a taxi for me.  Turns out the taxi cost 5 euros more to go back to the train station!  Some sights along the way that I snapped with my phone...

So THIS is in fact the most expensive taxi ride ever....
The view from the train as it crosses the bridge out of Venice...
The train station in Verona...
I arrived in Milan at 1:15.  I took a cab to my hotel (a different one than I had stayed at the week before...more on it at the bottom of the post).  I honestly didn't do a ton that day.  I meandered around the streets, stopped in some shops, but my goal was to go back to the Galleria Vitorio Emanuele II and Plaza del Duomo for some nighttime pics. 

Even on the second viewing, I couldn't get over the Galleria.

 The sun was setting pretty early, but it wasn't quite dark yet.  I stopped in the Prada owned Marchesi patisserie which is located on the second floor of the Galleria.
 I got a great seat, and though I didn't see an afternoon set tea on the menu, I created my own with a pot of Earl Grey, some sandwiches...
 one of the blackberry mini-tarts...
 and one of the mini cream puffs.
 I was connected to their wifi, so I enjoyed sitting here for a good while.
Not a shabby view either!
 After I was done with my tea, I headed out to the plaza for those night photos of the Duomo...

 The Galleria exterior...
 The interior at night is breathtaking...





 Another building across from the Duomo and the Christmas market stalls...


 I went back to my hotel to try and figure out dinner.  I passed lots of fun decor on the way...
 I ended up going down to the "river" or the canal for dinner.  I wish I had remembered to bring my real camera because the lights strung over the canal were so pretty...
 Dinner was just ok, but I grabbed a final gelato to eat on the walk back to the metro stop

 One final look at the Galleria...

For my last night in Italy, I was staying at the Hotel Capitol in Milan.  Again I got this by blind booking off of Hotwire.  I had also booked the single room here, but they upgraded me!  Hooray!  After being cooped up in the small red room in Venice, and sleeping on twin beds for a week in general, I was ready for some space!
 And the TV here had CNN International.  Oh how I was having CNN withdrawals, and also, if I had to watch the same BBC stories again, I thought I was going to lose my mind!


The next day was a very long travel day.  I took the Malpensa Express again to the airport in Milan, but this time from the Cardona station instead of Centrale (because Cardona was close to this hotel).  I flew from Milan to JFK, and then on to DFW.

Thanks for following along with my New Year trip to Italy!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Italy for the New Year {Venice-Day 6}

On Day 6 of my trip, I woke up to a beautiful sunny day in Venice.  First thing I did was make my way St. Mark's Square for a tour of the Basilica.  The line had been long on the previous day, so I figured if I got there when it opened I could miss the line.  This strategy worked.

 The mosaics outside the Basilica tell stories, specifically of the theft of St. Mark's body from Alexandria, Egypt in A.D. 828.
 The detail everywhere is amazing.  They don't allow photos inside, but the gold mosaic is unlike any other Basilica you will see.  Google "St. Mark's Basilica Photos Interior" and just browse the pics if you are interested.  It's stunning and worth a look.
 The Clock Tower in St. Mark's Square (Torre dell'Orologio)
 San Marco Column
 San Marco Column on left, San Theodore Column on right



 La Fenice Opera House that was next door to my hotel
Built in 1792, it has seen the first performance of many famous Operas.
 Traffic Jam, Venice Style

 I spent a good portion of the day on a 3 island tour.  First stop was Murano.  We were whisked off the boat and immediately into a glass factory to see some glass blowing.
 We saw this vase being blown, and I purchased a similar vase at that company store.
We had a short time to walk around on our own before the boat left.

 Not enough time to explore much of the island, but enough time to hit up a few stores and take some pics.

 Looking back toward Venice



Next stop was Burano.  Here is the short video I took as we approached Burano.
Notice: (1) their bell tower leans, and (2) the tour guide has the most stereotypical Italian speaking English accent ever.

Burano is a fishing island and also famous for lace making.

 All the buildings are brightly colored and I could not have loved it more.



We had a fair amount of time there and yet, I almost missed the boat because I was so caught up in the lace shopping!



 Stopped in a bakery for some special cookies they make on Burano (they would become my dinner).





 The last stop was Torcello, which is scarcely populated, but is the oldest populated island in Venice.







 The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta on the left, and Santa Fosca on the right.
Y'all.  This was founded in 639, and first renovated in 864.  It is OLD.





 Hemingway hung out at this Cipriani hotel in 1948 when he was writing Across the River and Into the Trees.
After Torcello, it was time to head back to Venice.  Per usual, I took the name of my purse (The Neverfull) as a challenge.
I got some good pics from the water coming as we came back into Venice.





 I walked back to my hotel to unload my purse, and then set out for Rialto Bridge.  I wanted to get there before the sunset.
 The Grand Canal
Rialto Bridge



 The shops on Rialto Bridge
 Sunset over the Grand Canal
 I crossed over the bridge from San Marco to San Palo and walked through the markets a little bit.
Then I meandered back from Rialto to St. Mark's.  It was a route I hadn't been before, so there was lots to check out.  I stopped in many shops and worked to fill my purse back up.
 I like this last shot I took of the day... The Campanille with a small sliver of the moon rising.

That's almost a wrap on Venice.  Stay tuned for the last day of my trip... Venice, and back to Milan.  

 

2009 sweet cheeky designs sweet cheeky designs

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