People often wonder how we plan our trips, so I thought I'd write up something about how we go about it. Our trips actually evolve over time. We start out with the idea of wanting to go someplace, but what we finally end up doing usually doesn't look a lot like what we started thinking about.
One of the key pieces of information we need to determine at the start is how much time we are going to take. This will have a lot to do with how much ground we can cover while we're there. Even if we adjust the time later, knowing how many days we can take, makes it easier to decide the other 2 key factors: where to go and the budget.
Reading the various travel forums (Fodor's, Rick Steves, Trip Advisor), I'm amazed at how many people post "I'm going to Europe -- where should I go?" Apparently, they haven't even looked at a map let alone read a travel guide! The first thing we do after we have the idea is get a good map and a travel book.
When we started planning our first trip in 1994, we had the idea of taking 5 weeks and traveling through most of Western Europe. It didn't take long for me to realize that if we did that it would be a lot like the bus tour of Europe that we took in 1978, which I now think of as seeing Europe as a series of picture postcards because we went through 8 countries so quickly. After reading some books and looking at maps, both Mom and I found that we were spending most of our time studying England and France, so decided to focus on those two countries.
We are fans of Rick Steves and wanted to travel in his style as much as we could, but quickly decided that not all of his budget travel ideas were our cup of tea. Initally, we thought we would travel by train, but decided that really wouldn't work for us. Mom had had a hip replacement a few years before and we just couldn't see ourselves running to catch trains, so renting a car was the best means of transportation for us. But, we did follow his tennents of packing light, and staying in B&Bs, though again, we had a preferance for private "en suite" bathrooms. Even Rick has eased his budget travel ideas somewhat as he has gotten older.
Now, we are planning our 5th trip to Europe since that first one in 1994, and each trip has evolved a little differently. In 1995 we went to Ireland and England, traveling much the same as we had traveled in the previous trip. In 2000, we went back to France, and being a little older, opted for hotels with elevators rather than B&Bs as Mom had had a 2nd hip replacement and a knee replacement by then. In 2005, we rented a house for 3 weeks and used it as our base for day-trips.
When we went to the south of France in 2005, we flew non-stop to London and had to change airports to fly into Montpellier. We arranged to have a car and driver meet us at Heathrow to drive us to Gatwick where we stayed overnight before flying on to Montpellier the next day. Considering we left Seattle at around 6:00 PM, arrived in London at 11:00 AM the next morning, and flew on to Montpellier following day, getting there was quite time-consuming. Now Air France has daily non-stops from Seattle to Paris, so no question about which airlines to take, but neither of us was looking forward to the communter flight from Paris to the south, and we would probably have had to change airports, too. So, we decided to pick up our rental car in Paris and drive down. That added a couple of days to each end of the trip.
Initially, we were not planning to spend any time in Paris. Large cities are difficult for us to get around in because of Mom's limited mobility. The easiest way to get around Paris is the Metro, but most of the stations do not have elevators or escalators, so it isn't a good match for us. However, in my readings, I found out about a cooking school called "Cook 'n Class," and we decided we would go to Paris, so we could take their 4-hour cooking class. We're spending 3 nights in Paris at the start of the trip, which is counter to my preference of visiting the big cities at the end of the trip. One advantage is that we will hopefully get over our jetlag while in Paris, so will be in much better shape for the drive to the south. This also means we can pick up our car at Orly Airport, which is south of Paris, and not have to go back to Charles De Gaulle, saving us a lot of time. We will still use 2 days to drive to Provence, but will actually stay 2 nights in Beaune, enabling us to spend a day in Burgundy. At the end of the trip, we will drive from the Dordogne to Normandy and spend 2 nights there before returning to Paris to fly home.
So, trip evolved over time from 4-weeks to 5+ weeks (38 days).
Renting Houses in France
When we rented our house in 2005, I used the internet to locate likely rentals. Many of the rentals appeared to be so utterly charming! Old stone mills converted to a gite (a gite is a rental house in rural France). They sounded perfect until I read the part about the spiral staircase leading up to the bedrooms. I kept looking. My criteria: 2 or 3 bedrooms all on one level.
But I'm ahead of myself: how did I decide where I wanted to rent the house? First, we decided where we wanted to go. We knew we wanted to go the the South, so I got out a map and plotted out all of the various sights we wanted to visit. After doing that, it was apparent that Languedoc, specifically l'Herault, was more centrally located for the places we wanted to visit than any place Provence, but we could easily day-trip into Provence from there.
So, once I'd identified a region I narrowed my search down to houses in that region with 2 or 3 bedrooms. The internet postings all have pictures, so it was pretty easy to weed out those that were on more than 1 level. It helped to know that in Europe, what we consider to be the 1st floor is the ground floor, and what we consider to be the 2nd floor, they call the 1st floor. So, if the discription said the bedrooms were on the 1st floor, I knew it was a 2-story house even if it didn't look like it in the pictures.
This time, we decided we wanted to stay in Provence and the Dordogne, and since Languedoc is between the two and because we loved our stay there, we decided to rent the same house there, too. Again, I mapped out where we wanted to visit and looked for houses central to those sights. The websites often have reviews written by former guests and have detailed discriptions of the accommodations. In each case, I made the reservations directly with the owners. I used mostly UK websites because a lot of people from Great Britain rent houses in France and those websites are very complete and easy to use -- and they are in English!. There are also French websites.
Making the reservations was simply a matter of sending a couple of emails back and forth. The more difficult part of the process is sending the money for the deposits. Sending money to Europe is not easy, nor is it cheap. We finally used wire-transfers to send the deposits in British pounds to the 2 British owners, but had to get an international money order to send the euros to the French owner. The wire transfers didn't cost anything when we sent the deposits, but by the time we were ready to send the balance of the rent our bank (Chase) had started to charge $45 for wire-transfers. It also cost money for the international money order. All we can do is consider that money part of what it costs us to rent the houses. Both of the British owners have allowed us to send the security/damage deposits in US dollars. I've sent them money orders, which they will have to send back to us if they don't need them, so I can redeposit them. We pay the French owner in cash when we get there, so we will need to start taking euros out of ATMs as soon as we get to France in order to have enough to cover both the rent and security deposit.
Renting houses a big advantage over B&Bs and hotels, so it is worth a few extra hassles. First, renting a house costs less per night. Additionally, it is a lot more comfortable. If we want to take a day off from sightseeing, we have a comfortable place to spend the day. Hotels just aren't that comfortable and B&B hosts usually want the guests out of the house during the day. We can also do our own cooking, which saves us money, and it is fun -- we can go to the local markets, and buy the wonderful foods being offered, then cook them up for dinner!
Renting a car
I've always rented through AutoEurope.com which is a consolidator. They give the best rates, using the various rental agencies. Usually in France, you end up renting through EuropeCar. The cost is prepaid when the reservations are made. This time, we are leasing the car through a buy-back program. It works similarly to renting, but you have to have the car for a minimum of 17 days. The advantage is that you can order the car you want and get it. With rentals, you often just get what they have left of the lot. In our case, we need an automatic (not as available in Europe), and we need lots of cargo room for Mom's walker and our luggage, so the lease-buy-back seemed to be the best option. With the lease, there are no additional charges, and ALL insurance with no deductible is included -- even collision. There was some preliminary paperwork, but the car will be registered in my name, and it will be a brand-new Peugot 5008 van. I just pay for the use of the car for the length of time I will have it, and the cost is about $300 - $400 less than a rental for the same length of time.
Driving in France is not that different than driving in the US. The highways are excellent. French drivers tend to drive fast and aggressively, though.
We do get travel insurance. Since my travel partner is an octogenarian, it just makes a lot of sense to do so. This time I bought it online through insuremytrip.com, which provides several quotes through different companies. We get travel insurance for 2 reasons: 1) in case we have to cancel the trip before we leave home -- we can recoup any prepaid costs; and 2) in the event we need to get one of us home in an emergency. Of course, this year there was the Icelandic volcano. Fortunately, I bought our travel insurance several weeks before the volcano erupted, so we're covered!
Planning the Itinerary
This is where we break everything down by days: where we will be and when. This can be as simple as just jotting the locations down on a calendar, but I always finalize it in a table format. Ideally, when planning a road trip, I like to keep the "one-night-stands" to a minimum. Three nights at each location is best, assuming there's enough sightseeing for two full days. Two nights at one place allows for one full day of sightseeing at that location. We always break our drive time up by having a couple of sights to see in route. We also try to build in some "off days" -- time to just relax, soak up the ambience of the place, or to do laundry and other housekeeping chores.
I pin the locations down to specific days, but other than that I like to keep our time fluid. What we do on what day may depend a lot on the weather or how we feel that day, so I don't want to be tied to having go up the Eiffel Tower on Tuesday -- it might rain on Tuesday. In the forums, I'm always surprised at how many people seem to have everyday planned out, even to where they are going to eat dinner that night. I like to be a little more spontaneous. We do read the travel books and have a pretty good idea of what we do want to see and do at each location. I make a list of those things we definitely want to see. Some sights do require reservations or prior booking, depending on the season, so we work around those.
Travel is supposed to be fun! But, it can also be stressful, so I don't want to make it more stressful by tying ourselves down to a tight schedule. Besides, I don't think you need to see and do everything -- I always leave some things to see the next time we're there. Even if you think this may be your only trip, you have to go with the idea that you will come back.
I love planning trips. It is a lot of fun, and so easy to do now with the internet. It's amazing what pops up when you enter a city name or landmark in the search engine. There are also a lot of helpful sights such as ricksteves.com; fodors.com; and tripadvisor.com.This is the first European trip we have planned totally without a travel agent. Our last trip, we used a travel agent for booking our flights.
I book our flights as soon as we've decided where and when we want to go, or about 6 months in advance. Some people want to wait, thinking the ticket prices might go down, but I'm of the opinion that earlier is better. You want to make sure you can get the flights you want, and if you wait too long, you might miss out. But, I like non-stop flights. If I didn't mind flying through LA or Atlanta, I might be more comortable waiting for a cheap ticket.
A lot of people travel without hotel reservations, but I like to know where I'm going to be sleeping every night. Without reservations, you have to stop around 4pm everyday to start looking for a place and be prepared for disappointment. When we've stayed in B&Bs and hotels, we've usually used Rick Steves' or Karen Brown's recommendations, and for the most part they have been excellent. This time I made our hotel reservations for Paris, Beaune, and Normandy through booking.com which I think is a great site as it doesn't require prepayment and there are guest reviews and photos of all of the properties.
As a case in point, when we were in England in 1994, we picked the car up at Heathrow and it was the first time I had used right-hand drive and driven on the left. I drove in circles around Heathrow airport for about 26 miles before finally getting on the highway -- going north when we wanted to go south. We finally got going in the right direction and had a nice lunch in Salisbury, visited Stonehenge, and pulled into Bath where we had reservations at a B&B. I got so lost in Bath with all of the one-way streets. Finally, with some help I found our B&B and we were welcomed by our charming hostess. It was one of the most stressful days I've ever experienced, punctuated with thoughts of "how do I dump this car and get on a bus tour?" If I had also had to search for a place to sleep that night, it wouldn't have been pretty.
I see on the forums where people write wanting to know how the weather will be at a specific time in the future! Who knows?! Weather is one variable of travel that you have absolutely no control over. Whatever the weather, go prepared to have a good time, and take a rain coat!
Well, these are my thoughts on trip planning. I'll add more if I should think of anything else.