Thursday, August 29, 2013

Do Europe on Your Own

It's one of the things that once puzzled me.  How on Earth can a normal, middle income person afford to go to Europe?  We've all looked into the package tour, because it would make sense that if there were a whole bunch of people going, it should cost less.  Then we see the price and give up on that dream of seeing castles and ruins forever.

This is one of the great fallacies of travel.  I've checked out the tours myself.  They are ridiculous.  Most people take them because they worry about an interpreter, or they worry that they will have some kind of legal problems.  Pish posh.  Quit worrying and listen to some great tips on travel in Europe.

Tip #1  Research is your best friend.  Do not call a travel agent, because they will give you their best
            deals.  You probably have a computer.  Use it.  There are dozens of sites that will help you
            find what you need to accomplish your dream trip.

Tip #2 Do everything in advance.  Pay for everything you can in advance.  Book things as far in
           advance as you possibly can.  I book nearly a year ahead to do what I want for the price I
           can afford.

Tip #3 Combine your research for the best offers.  I go to a multi site, like Expedia, and look for
            airfare, hotels, and cars.  Then I get their best offer and go to the company sites to look for
            further discounts.  This does not always work.  But sometimes you do really well with this

Tip #4 Take the layover.  Most foreign airlines will offer you a great deal on your destination if you
            take a long layover in their country.  Time is something that most of us can afford.  Take the
            time and see a place that you never thought about going to.  It will surprise you.

Here's an example of taking the layover.  This picture is not from the USA.  This is in Helsinki, Finland.  On my latest trip, we took the layover both on the way over for a day and on the way back for a day, and got a great deal on Finnair.  Turns out, lots of people in Helsinki speak English, it was no problem to get around, and we saw some great stuff and learned a lot about Finland.  Make sure you do research on your layover spot, so you can enjoy it and take the extra adventure.  It's worth it.  I also have to say that Finnair treated me to the best overseas flight I've ever had.

Tip#5  Be careful what day of the week you make your bookings on.  I'm not joking.  There are good
            days and bad days for prices.  Airlines lead the pack in that idiosyncrasy.

Tip#6  Check all package deals against separate pricing.  You may be surprised to find out that by
            booking things separately, you can save money.

Tip#7  Check into transportation very carefully.  In Europe, it may be cheaper for you to use the
            train system in your country of choice.  You may wish to take trains instead of drive.  Plan
            out your transportation very carefully.

In Switzerland, they have one of the most efficient train systems in Europe and maybe the world.  There are train stations in most towns.  The cost isn't bad.  The Swiss Card will also save you money on most specialty trains and other transports.  However, if you really want to meander around the countryside, rent a car.  This is all personal choice.  I wanted to see the countryside, so we took the car.  If you would prefer to do more in town exploring, maybe the train pass would be the way to go.  It's all about choices.

Tip#8  Hotels are one of the toughest things to choose on your own.  Truth is, you don't have to
            backpack and stay in hostels to afford your trip.  Just do the same thing as air travel and car
            rentals.  Check the multi sites, check the company against it, and get your best deal.  How
            do you know if it's a nice place or not?  There are a few things you can do.  First, look at
            reviews.  People do tell the truth.  It's very helpful.  Second, look at how long it's been there.
            If it's been around a long time, it's probably all right.

Here's a real tip for you.  Make sure you get something suitable.  It doesn't have to be a chain hotel, and it doesn't have to be a traditional hotel.  In France we stayed just outside Geneva, Switzerland.  We were very close to CERN the physics research facility that is used by physicists from all over the world.  Because of this location, we found an apartment complex that is used as a hotel.  It was a great price, it was homey, and it was in a quiet neighborhood.  The visiting physicists tend to stay there.  It was great.

On the flipside of that, my big goof of the trip was booking a Holiday Inn in Helsinki.  It was a beautiful place, but I thought that it was the Holiday Inn.  In fact it was a Holiday Inn.  There are four of them in Helsinki, and I picked one far from downtown where the tourist spots are.  So, don't think that the familiar is always better.  Find out all about your accommodations and book accordingly.  Reviews will help with that.

Tip#9  Do not plan too many items on your itinerary.  If you plan everything out, you will miss
           something spectacular.  By overplanning, you can ruin your memories.  Yes, you will have
           done what you came to do, but you may have missed the whole point.  Remember, you've
           never been there.  You may just stumble onto something wonderful.  I plan a couple of big
           things that are the centerpiece for why I went to that location, and let the rest materialize.  I
           always talk to the locals, and ask the staff at the hotel about things to do and see.  I always
           ask the hotel staff where to eat.  You should not decide that one on your own.

Case and point for not overplanning.  I went to Switzerland to go up to the top of Jungfrau and to the top of the Schilthorn.  I was there for a while, so we had plenty of time to do other things.  One night, at the recommendation of the girls at our hotel, we went to the campground to a great restaurant for dinner.  We just happened to be there on folklore night.  There were all kinds of traditional dance, music, and crafts.  It was wonderful.  Had we planned everything out to the hour, we never would have seen that.

Tip#10 For my last tip on this list, I have to say to get a sat nav in your car if you're driving.  Take a
             map as well, but you will need this.  It's far easier to find your way around with modern
             technology.  I've done it in the past without it, and it's totally doable, but why bother?  When
             you get to the car rental place, and they upgrade you because no one on Earth ever has the
             car you ordered, just bully them into including it.

Now, I said to also take a map.  That's good advice.  Why?  Well, on my last adventure, we got the sat nav.  In the Alps they have a lot of tunnels.  Every time we went through one, out sat nav got confused.  It's always good to have a backup.  Technology is great until it doesn't work.

So, I've given you a few tips to start you off with.  Remember, you can do this.  I'm not rich, and I did.  I will give more tips in another entry to help with the planning of a great trip.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.  There are a lot of things that if you know about them, you can be a great traveler.  It's all about what you know.

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