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Trip Report How I Planned For A Month In Europe

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I hope this is an appropriate forum for this post. It's something I felt like writing up after we returned last week from what was, for us, a sort of vacation of a lifetime. I think there are visitors here who might benefit from reading it. Even though it's pretty long there is obviously much I didn't include, so I'd be happy to answer any questions.

In December I began planning for a long European vacation that would happen in June or July. I only had an outline of a plan.

- - Vacation should last approximately one month.
I figured a month was about as long as I could reasonably take away from my job. Since a big part of the expense of this vacation was going to be airfare to and from Europe, it seemed reasonable to stay as long as possible once we were there.

- - London was a 'must' destination.
We have good friends who live in Emsworth, UK and they had offered to put us up for at least a couple nights and show us around. Neither of us had ever visited the UK and London seemed like a great destination that would also let us spend some time with our friends.

- - Desire a mix of big city, mountains, and beach.
A month seemed like a long enough time to enjoy a nice bit of several things. My original vision was four major stops, with two cities, the beach on the French Riviera, and some time in the Alps.

- - Desire apartment rentals over hotel rooms.
We didn't want to have to organize laundry excursions so this was primarily for a washing machine. It was also so we could have some combination of better views and/or locations and also more space than the typical hotel room.

In addition to that list, my wife requested that we make at least one leg of the trip in Italy. After talking to friends about places to visit in northern Italy, Florence was picked as a destination. Together we decided that we would begin the trip by visiting our friends in Emsworth and that it might be a fun experience to take a train from England to France, so Paris was added as a destination. We also knew approximately where we wanted to be for our beach stay. Our plan was coming together!

I needed a way to visualize our month so one day I sat down on the floor, drew a calendar grid on a big piece of paper and then stuck it on the wall. I then made color coded labels from Post-It notes and arranged and rearranged them as my plans evolved. Yeah, I know, there are computer tools these days and I used them too, but it was nice having this big visual aid on the wall next to my desk. As I made reservations over the next few months, I added those details to this calendar. As reservations were locked in, I used a glue stick to more permanently attach the notes.

By the time we actually traveled, this calendar was completely filled in with landlord names, addresses & phone numbers and reservation & flight numbers. This also was the go-to resource for our house sitter in case she needed to know where we were at any time while we were gone.

http://techquarium.com/gallery2z/d/58414-2/DSC_6171.jpg

I needed something to organize links and notes from the web as I researched each location. It needed to be web-based so I could access it from anywhere and it needed to have collaboration tools so my wife and I could use it. After looking around at what was available, I decided to use Planapple. For us, it was a great choice. I broke the trip into segments and categorized and saved information I found online. It was easy to share with my wife so she could contribute also and it exported its calendar to my phone. The software is free, although they do ask for donations. I was sufficiently impressed that I gave them money before we traveled.

http://techquarium.com/gallery2z/d/58408-2/Screen+Shot+2015-07-15+at+6_06_04+PM+_2_.png

For vacation rental apartments, I tried several different resources such as booking.com and vrbo.com, but in the end I rented all five of our apartments through Airbnb. Their website stood well above the competition in its ability to let me choose amenities, price, and location. I was able to specify, for example, that our apartment in Paris must have a balcony, air conditioner, washing machine, wi-fi, and elevator and be priced less than $225/night and then immediately see what was available for the dates we picked on a resizable map. We would each pick a couple apartments in each location, save them to Planapple, and work from there by a process of elimination.

On the topic of vacation rentals. There is a very large variety of rentals available on sites like VRBO and Airbnb, some appearing to be more professional than others. We didn't want to live in someone else's space while our landlord went to stay with their mother for a few days. We wanted apartments that were dedicated vacation rentals and landlords who are professionals. To that end we paid close attention to the photos and text that accompanied the ads. We also gave more weight to ads with lots of positive reviews and to landlords with other properties.

Also, if you rent instead of using traditional hotels you need to be aware that it may be of questionable legality in some locations and that there may be no reasonable way to know for sure before you rent. I knew this but what research I could do made me feel good about all our apartments except Paris. I found lots of news articles from last year about Paris cracking down on short stay rentals, but there were also hundreds of available listings on Airbnb. I rolled the dice and booked our place. Airbnb holds the money until 24 hours after our arrival, so I figured the worst that could happen is we would have to find a hotel on short notice. Not fun, but probably not a disaster.

One thing that needed to be settled early on was air travel from Florida to London and back. I looked at flights that arrived and departed from different cities, such as flying to London and returning from Rome, but I never could get this to work with our other criteria. I looked at other departure airports in Florida, but in the end we opted for convenience and flew from our home town of Sarasota. It did cost more, but we didn't have to worry about driving or parking and it was quite wonderful to get off the plane and be a short ride from home.

Keep in mind that flight times change and you can't depend on the airline to tell you. We booked our flights 4 months in advance and when we checked on them about 1 month before departure, we learned our connecting flights times had changed, making them incompatible with our main flights. We had to rebook, but it would have been worse if we hadn't checked and discovered the problem closer to the departure date.. Keep an eye on your flights!

We would fly to London on a Tuesday and fly home from London four Tuesdays later. An itinerary emerged:
Two nights in Emsworth, UK. We would fly to London and be picked up by our UK friends who would drive us to Emsworth and put us up for a couple nights. We would then take a train to London and then on to Paris.
Five nights in Paris. At the end of the Paris stay, we pick up our rental car and drive towards Munich with an overnight stop around Stuttgart.
Four nights in the mountains. Originally I was looking for an apartment in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. A resort town in the Bavarian Alps that's also very close to the Austrian border. Ultimately I expanded my search area to nearby towns. Then we drive to Florence.
Four nights in Florence. Then drive to Cap d'Adge with an overnight stop around Sanremo.
Seven nights in Cap d'Agde, France. Turn in the car and fly from Montpellier to London.
Three nights in London. Fly home.
The two overnight stops were to be at whatever hotel we found along the road.

I made sure beforehand that we would be able to fly from Montpellier to London on a Saturday in July and that I could return our rental car at the Montpellier airport. I had read that certain countries might require that I have an International Driver's Permit, so I ordered one from AAA for $15.

The decision to rent a car and drive ourselves for 17 days was partly made just because I like to drive, but also because alternatives were both limited and limiting. Yes, there are trains and busses and air routes between European cities, that doesn't mean you can jump on one any time, any where or even any day. Driving worked best for us. Yeah, gas prices in Europe are shocking, but our rental car got terrific mileage and the rental itself was surprisingly inexpensive. I printed out a page of street and highway signs and read a few links about parking and driving etiquette and I was good to go.

There were a couple very challenging parts of the drive. First, because we picked up the car in the heart of Paris, I had to drive through Paris to get us out and on the highway. Similarly, I had to drive through some frighteningly tight areas of Florence to find a parking garage, but we made it. The other thing was the toll booths. Pretty much every mile we drove through France and Italy was on a toll road and of course the toll booths aren't in English. Even knowing which booth to approach wasn't always easy. If I were doing this again, I would study the toll system in those two countries beforehand. I suspect I could have saved money by purchasing a pre-paid ticket.

A couple notes about renting a car in Europe. First, plan on returning the car to the same country from which you rented it. It doesn't cost much extra to return the car to a different city, but the price difference to return in another country is staggering. Also, learn to drive a stick or expect again to pay a lot more.

Another detail we took care of early was replacing any credit cards we wanted to take on the trip with versions that include a chip in the card. Most credit cards will charge a fee when you purchase in a different currency, but some don't. We planned to deal mostly in cash and it wasn't worth opening a new card just for the trip, so we ate the fee. The math might work out differently for you. Our debit card did not have a chip, but our bank advised us it would work in any ATM we were likely to find and we found this to be true.

Most of the above was done in the first couple months of planning. Over the next couple months all the tickets were bought, apartments rented, and car reserved. With a couple months still to go before the trip we were essentially done. I'll be honest, that kind of sucked. All those weeks of research and then nothing but waiting. On the plus side, this vacation was mostly paid for before we ever left.

Finally, we had to take care of communications. Just before we left we added a $30/month plan to my wife's phone that gave her international texting, $1 voice calls, and a tiny amount of data. I have an iPad with cellular, so I bought a month-to-month data plan from T-Mobile that works in Europe. That allowed the iPad to do GPS/Nav duties and have internet access while we traveled and it worked perfectly for the whole trip. In hindsight, I should probably have added the texting plan to my phone as well. We never did lose each other during the trip, but if we had it would have been nice to just be able to text each other.

Four of our five apartments had wi-fi and we also found many restaurants and bars had it as well, although frequently overloaded with poor speeds.

We also made sure our bank and credit card banks knew what countries we were visiting in the coming month.

This was our final route. The black lines are trains, the blue line is rental car, and the purple line is flying.

http://techquarium.com/gallery2z/d/58404-2/eurovacation.png

We made this trip in June and July of 2015 and it went almost perfectly at every stage. There were weather delays and re-routing at the beginning that caused our luggage to arrive in the UK about 30 hours after we did. Fortunately, we had "baked-in" a couple days close to the arrival airport so it was easy for our luggage to find us.

Everything else worked splendidly. Trains, rental cars, all five apartments, no problems or serious complaints. If we could have, we would have turned around and done the entire thing again.

Thanks for reading!

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