A Guide on Planning a European Vacation
Ah, the magic of Ireland. The history of London. The highlands of Scotland. You've heard of them for years, seen them in the tourist commercials, and heard about them in the music. Yet you have never yet visited these dreams. And why not?
It's too expensive, you say. I could never afford a trip to Europe.
Less expensive than a week at Disneyworld, I say! For a two week Ireland vacation in summer (2006), including airfare, rental car, B & B accommodation and trip insurance, I spend about $ 1600. Yes, that's it. Now, that does not include food or souvenirs, of course, but it did include a wonderful vacation to a magical place.
So, how do you get such a deal? Well, it takes patience, research, and the ability to make decisions when you need to. I will take you through, step-by-step, how to get the best deal for a European vacation.
DECISIONS: Who, What, Where, When and Why
WHO's going? You? Your spouse? Your children or parents? Your best friend? A huge group of 20 friends (not recommended unless you want ulcers!) This decision makes a big difference in accommodation and transportation choices.
WHAT to do? Are you interested in touring the whiskey distilleries in Scotland? Or the abbeys in England? Or the pubs in Ireland? Your trip does not have to have a theme, of course, but it is more fun if you have one – and helps you to plan when your mind is a blank. Perhaps you've seen a movie or read a book set in Yorkshire, and want to tour the area? Or you dance and want to learn step dancing in Ireland? The imagination can take flight here!
WHERE to go, of course, depends on WHAT you are doing. It also ties into WHEN you want to go. Since my most recent trip was Ireland, I will use that as an example, but most of my advice can be applied to any destination in Europe, or even beyond. The decision of WHEN to go will be tied into the destination. For instance, Ireland is much nicer to visit in the summer – but also more expensive; whereas Greece is cooler as a winter destination. The days are longer in the summer the farther you go north – and conversely, shorter in winter, resulting in much shorter days for sightseeing.
Another part of WHERE includes the character of place – towns and villages, or bustling metropolis? London or Kilkenny? Edinburgh or Ullapool? While each city has its own character, they can be overwhelming at times, and are not always the best places to stay. A small village used as a base of exploration can be wonderful, and you get more chances to meet the locals.
You might also want to think about WHY you want to go. Do you want to touch the roots of your ancestors? Or experience an ancient culture? Do you just want to get away from the screaming kids? Or make your co-workers jealous? There are many reasons WHY you may want to go to Europe – pick several!
RESEARCH: Find out everything about everything – then throw half of it away
The internet is many things. Addicting, yes; maddening, yes. But it is also incredibly helpful when doing research, especially about places far from your home. Airfare, hotels, cities, beautiful beaches (yes, they exist in the UK) and gloomy castles are all listed somewhere – you just have to find them. The best order of research I've found is airfare first, then itinerary, lodging, and finally ground transportation. The airfares available may define your itinerary something, and the itinerary will define the other items.
There is a reason I look for this first. There is a definite season to vacationing in the UK – summer. While many people do go on the non-'peak 'months of July and August, there is indeed a reason why summer is the best. Longer days to see sights, warmer weather, less rain and wind – and more things are open. That also means the airfare is the most expensive, and usually lodging as well.
The shoulder months of May, June, September and October are becoming more popular, as the weather is still nice, and the days are not incredibly short yet. However, that also means that the airfares are creeping up as they become more popular. I have traveled to southern Ireland in April and it was beautiful – and inexpensive.
When I've decided how much cash I'm willing to sacrifice for a warmer vacation, I start researching my flights. I go to dozens of websites, sometimes daily, to find the best fare. When I got tickets to Ireland in 2006, I found them on Travelocity on a one-day fare sale on Virgin Air. The tickets were non-stop from Miami to London, for $ 488 including taxes – in June. They were gone within 24 hours, so if I had not jumped on them, I would have stuck with the lowest I could find later – $ 800 a piece.
Also consider flying into one city and out of another. This is great for Ireland, as you can fly into Shannon, explore the west, and end up flying out of Dublin at the end of your trip. Edinburgh, London, and Glasgow are also considerations for this technique. This is called an open-jaw ticket, and usually does not cost much more, if any, than a normal round trip ticket.
Here are some of the sites I regularly check for discount airfare:
o ITA software
There are others, of course, but these are the ones I've used most often. Also do not forget to check the airline websites; If you find a great fare on Travelocity for Delta, Delta might have it cheaper, and it is usually better to deal directly rather than through a middleman. Also remember not all sites include taxes in their fare quotes.
When you buy your tickets, check out the cancellation policies. Usually, the cheaper the flight, the less flexible the changes allowed. Make sure you are going before you purchase non-refundable, non-change tickets!
There is a wealth of information about places, monuments, workshops, battles, and other things of interest. Most cities and towns, even villages, have their own website with tourist information. In addition, many travel agent websites have great information for the intrepid traveler. Even more, there are websites dedicated to those interested in travel, with wonderful forums for those odd questions. Some of my favorites are:
o My own site (see link below)
o Lonely Planet
o Rick Steves
Once you have done exhaustive research of the places you want to see, taken notes to places, planned routes around them, and then throw half of it out. Yes, that's right – you will likely end up with a list of 17 things to see in each city, and you will only have time for half of that, so pick your favorites.
Also, do yourself a favor, and be sure to leave room in your itinerary for free time – wandering around and getting lost, people-watching at a café, or just having a pint with the locals. These are usually the most memorable parts of your trip, leave time for them frequently. You do not want to end up with an itinerary where you are rushing through things so fast you do not see them. Michele at Ireland Yes calls that the Green Blur tour. (I suppose a Scottish version would be the Plaid Blur?)
If you've got the places listed you want to see, look for a pattern. Are they all close to a couple central locations? If so, pick several places and use them as bases of exploration. Can they be strung together in a large circle? Then spend a couple nights in each place, moving around the circle. Plan wisely, and try to avoid criss-crossing or backtracking. Check driving times between places with ViaMichelin and TheAA. Then add about 20% to those driving times – they do not take into account UK and Irish roads. They twist, turn, and wiggle, which keeps speeds down lower than the speed limit! You do not want a day where you are driving 80% of the time, trust me! I try to keep my days to 3 hours of driving at the most, and even that broken up with sites along the way.
Once you have your airfare and itinerary, you know which nights you are going to need lodging for, and where. The UK is wonderfully full of adorable Bed & Breakfasts, and I highly recommend this accommodation choice. The B & Bs in the US tend to be more upscale and expensive than those in the UK, so do not go by their example. Most B & Bs I've ever been in have been comfortable, clean, cozy, and a delight to stay at. They run around $ 30- $ 60 a night per person, and include a huge breakfast (more on that later). You will pay higher for city B & Bs, and sometimes shared hotel rooms are less expensive in the larger cities. Do chat with the owners, and get their advice about local sites and attractions.
Hotels, as mentioned above, usually charge by room rather than person. However, they may or may not include breakfast in the deal, and are usually more cookie-cutter and sterile. They are a place to stay rather than a place to enjoy.
Then you can try the other options, such as youth hostels (not just for youth anymore), camping, caravanning (RV), canal boats, or lodging in old monasteries, colleges out for the summer, etc. There is no end of unusual places to stay. On the Isle of Lewis, you can stay in a traditional black house; near Inverness, there is a converted church set up as a B & B. Get creative!
Once you have decided where you want to stay, make a reservation. Make sure to check the cancellation policies. Most have a day or so required, some a week or even a month. Email is usually an option for communication these days, but some may require a phone call; remember they are at 5pm when it is noon on our east coast, and do not wake anyone up!
So, you know when, where, and why you are going – how are you getting there? Well, my recommendation for the UK and Ireland is definitely for renting a car. While it is possible to use bus and train to get around, and certainly many people do, you can not find the little villages doing this, and getting lost on the way is half the fun. If you are in a bus, you can not make a detour on a whim to go find a hidden castle when you see a sign. You can not always determine how long you stay at one spot; there is much less flexibility.
Now, I know it is scary to think about driving on the wrong side of the road. It gets worse: automatic transmission cars are twice as expensive to rent, and the manual transmission cars make you shift with your left hand (since the driver is on the right of the car). Confused yet? I remember many times trying to grab the stick with my right hand – only to bang it on the door. However, it's not so bad – you get used to it very quickly. It helps to have a designated navigator, as the signage on the islands is different. Signs tend to tell you what the next town is, not what the road is called. That means you should know the major towns on the way to where you are going, or even the ones just past your destination.
Many cities in the UK do not require a car to get around in; in fact, having a car is a liability in Edinburgh, Dublin and London. It is difficult to drive, find parking, and expensive. London even has a toll to enter the city center! Those cities have a good public transport system, though, especially the Underground in London, so use those instead. Turn in the car before getting there, or wait to rent it until you leave.
Gas (petrol) is very expensive over there. It is running around $ 8 a gallon right now. Yes, really! The good news is their engines run much more efficiently, and you can usually get around 45 mpg from them. However, filling up a tank can still run you $ 100! Budget accordingly.
I've gotten decent deals from AutoEurope (a rental agent, you will end up with a company like Enterprise or Europcar for the actual rental) and from Dan Dooley. I would advise against renting from a place you've never heard of, cars can be very expensive – and it is difficult to fight a fraudulent damage claim from overseas. Do be aware that most credit card insurances do NOT cover Ireland, so you will likely be required to purchase expensive CDW insurance for such a rental.
OK, you've done your research, gotten your tickets, your reservations for lodging, and your car rental. Ready to go? Not yet!
You break your leg the week before the trip. Ruined! All your money lost! Not so, grasshopper – if you bought the proper trip insurance. Go to Insure My Trip and compare the benefits of different packages. Find out if your health insurance will cover you on foreign soil. Find out if you need medical evacuation, trip cancellation in case of medical emergency, etc. Compare the benefits, and find one that fits right. For a small investment, you get a great deal of peace of mind.
Paperwork, money, etc.
This should be taken care of before you even get the tickets, but everyone procrastinates. My husband ended up getting his passport the day before we flew out – we were very nervous! Normal processing time for a new passport is six weeks, but please give it plenty of leeway (especially if you've already bought non-refundable tickets!).
US citizens do not need visas for short visits to the UK or Ireland, but if you are going somewhere else, do read up on the requirements long before your flight, and make sure all paperwork is in order.
Right now, the UK is on the Pound Sterling and Ireland is on the Euro. I recommend going to your bank and getting a couple hundred dollars to start out with, and getting more during your vacation from the ATM machine, and / or using your credit card. Shop around for a card with a good rate – many (Capital One is one of the few that do not) add on an extra 3% for any foreign transaction, in addition to the 1% Visa / MC charges. You do not want to carry too much with you, but some B & Bs require cash, and some require prepayment.
Sure, you've packed dozens of times for vacations. What's the big deal? Well, the new flight carry-on restrictions, for one. Transatlantic flights have new rules, and it behooves you to know them before you are waiting in the security line for your flight.
Carry-on: Most airlines have their carry on rules on their websites. Some have weight as well as size restrictions, and the liquid restrictions are fun. Check before you go! Right now (Jan 2007) any carry-on liquids must be in containers no larger than 3oz (100ml) and they must all fit comfortably in a quart-sized clear Ziploc bag. That includes water, drinks, toiletries, even lip gloss. Prescription medicines must be labeled in the traveler's name, baby formula may need to be tested at the gate. There are several exceptions like this, so check them out.
Checked luggage: Some airlines are now charging hefty fees for overweight luggage, and limit the number of pieces each person can check. Also, any locks on checked luggage can be cut by TSA (airport security). I usually use cable ties to tie mine – if TSA does go into my bag, they will put their own on afterwards, and in the meanime I'll know if someone else goes into my bag.
Do not, do not, do not put valuables or medicines in your checked luggage !!! Cameras, laptops, anything fragile, anything essential, must go in your carry-on. Of course, this makes your carry-on heavy, so some decision making is sometimes necessary. I also usually put one day's worth of clean clothes in my carry-on, in case the checked luggage is delayed or lost.
READY TO GO? Do not forget the smile!
Do not forget to pack the most important thing for any trip – a great attitude. This small item can make the worst disaster into a hilarious story, can take the largest lemon and make lemonade out of it. After all, how can it be terrible – you're in Europe!
A trip to Europe will be full of wonderful memories, historic experiences, and meeting wonderful folks. Whether you get addicted like I have, or are happy with going once and treasuring the memory forever, you will have an excellent time.