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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!

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