In just a couple of days, John (who is back in Germany with me!) and I will be heading to Budapest for our first travel getaway of 2014! When it was decided we would head to Budapest, I began the normal trip preparation routine of figuring out transportation, finding the perfect accommodations and planning what to see and do.
For the non-planner, this is probably a mind-numbing process. And even though I have started to soften a bit on the idea of having an hour by hour itinerary, it really is a good idea to know what you want to see and do. That way, you don’t show up and discover a museum you really wanted to see is closed or the tour you were dying to go on is all booked up.
Here are a few suggestions to plan a successful trip in Europe:
1. Finding the perfect Accommodations:
The first step is looking at a map and finding the area with the most attractions nearby. I am a firm believer that, if at all possible, it is best to book a room within walking distance to most everything you want to see. It truly makes a trip better and easier if you don’t have to try to figure out the public transportation for everywhere you want to go. Don’t get me wrong, the train system in Europe is amazing and I love it, but it’s also nice having the option to pop back to the hotel if you forgot something or if you just need to take a break. (Although in cities like Paris or Berlin or other more sprawling places, don’t avoid the metros…they will for sure make your life easier!)
Once you have the basic idea of where you want to stay, now it’s time to surf the web. My no-fail, go-to sites are:
– Booking.com: This site has been an absolute gem of a find since arriving in Germany. About 95 percent of the rooms I have booked over here have been through this Web site. In fact, I have booked so many rooms through them that I now get a “Genius Discount” which saves at least 10 percent off the already discounted price. What I really love about Booking.com is the fact that I can pretty much book any room without fear of a penalty should I have to cancel and more often than not, the rooms also come with breakfast and all of them come with a “pay later” option so if you do cancel, you don’t have to worry about waiting for a payment return.
– Vrbo.com: This is a good option in smaller areas or even in larger, more expensive cities. We used this site to find a place to stay in Cinque Terre, Italy, where there aren’t an abundance of name-brand hotels. We found an inexpensive B&B that we plan on returning to at some point. You can find really great, affordable options in ideal locations on this site, not to mention, it gives you a better opportunity to really interact with the locals.
2. How to get from Point A to Point B:
In Europe, you have three viable options – air, car and train. Each option is possible with planning, although a car may be less than ideal if you are non-military and can’t get your hands on an ESSO card, which allows you to buy gas at American-like prices instead of the ungodly expensive EURO prices. The train can be cheap as long as you book in advance or if you have a discount card. The same with planes – there are discount airlines that if planned or timed right can make flying around Europe incredibly inexpensive.
Good sites to look at:
– Raileurope.com: Again, when planning in advance, you can find some really great deals or you can find some passes that will fit your touring needs. We used bahn.com to book our tickets to Paris and included in the price, we received the 25% off annual train pass that also saves a little bit off the price. But the further out you plan, the better prices you find.
– Ryanair.com: There are unbelievable deals on Ryanair.com – a couple I plan on taking advantage of this summer (hello, a flight to London round trip is just under $100!!) This is a good option if you are on a time crunch but still want to get the most out of your trip. One thing to note – most Ryanair flights fly into airports outside of the center area, so you will have to put in a little extra time working out transportation, or you can take advantage of Ryanair’s offers of transportation to the city centers.
– German Wings: German Wings flies to more areas than Ryanair and good deals can also be found, again, if planned in advance. One option on German Wings that I plan to also utilize this summer is something called “Blind Booking.” For 66E, you can pick an option of what you want to do – Party, Sight-See, Historical Tours – and German Wings books you on a flight to one of the cities offered in each option. You can unpick towns you don’t want to go to for an extra fee but the not knowing right away is what makes it fun and exciting!
3. Research, Research, Research
Once the location and transportation has been sorted, it’s time for the fun part! The library on base is stocked with travel books, so that is usually my first stop. I really enjoy Eyewitness and Lonely Planet travel books, and can handle Rick Steves to an extent.
And then it is back to the internets for more information searches!
– Blogs – I find some of the best information is offered by fellow travelers, that is why I tend to start by googling the town I am going to, followed by “travel blog.” It helped me find Rowdy In Germany, We Took the Road Less Traveled, and Monkeys and Mountains – all of which helped me with places to go on multiple occasions! (And inspired me to blog on my own!)
– Tripomatic.com – This site is GENIUS! I absolutely love it. It allows you to find the city you are visiting and then either helps you build an itinerary or lets you do it on your own. Once you build the itinerary, you can download and print it out, and that’s when the magic happens. Not only does it print out the itinerary you built, it first prints 12 pages with all kinds of insider tips, such as emergency numbers, transportation tips, important dates and things to do and not to do. THEN! Not only does it print the itinerary you chose, it adds information, such as opening hours, admission prices and a brief summary on the attraction. If you build it right, it will also give you walking times and distances between attractions. I love it!!
– YouTube – If you aren’t an Amazon.com Prime Member (where you can watch Samantha Brown’s Passport to Europe for Free!), or if you don’t want to pay for the Rick Steves videos, then hop on to YouTube and google the town you are about to visit. I’m currently watching a 55-minute video about the Rhine River in Germany, and it is great! There are tons of travel videos with lots of information for your research!
4. Take Advantage of Online Deals and Booking options
Once you have determined what you want to see, and you have determined if there is an admission fee, it is always good practice to check the attractions web sites to see if there are discounts for booking in advance. This was key for our trip to Ireland, where we found a lot of places offered at least 10 percent off the door price by simply buying the tickets online.
It’s also good to get in the habit of reserving tickets online for tours that you know you want to see. A night river cruise in Budapest was highly recommended by everything I had read, so I didn’t want to chance it by trying to book it when we arrived. This way, I got the date and time I wanted without any additional stress. More often than not, it’s really worth it to buy tickets and reserve tours online to cut down on any stress it may cause later!
No matter what kind of trip you are aiming for, it is always important to have the basics down! Once that is done – you can sit back, relax and look forward to a fun vacation!