Tag Archives: vacation

How to plan a trip to Europe – Part II

I interrupted this series to share our big news (we bought a house!), but now I’m back with Part II of How to Plan a Trip to Europe.

The first part of this series was all about getting together a vague outline, and we determined, generally, the who, where, when of the trip. This part is all about drilling down to specifics to end up with a moderately detailed daily itinerary.

Luxembourg garden, Paris.

Luxembourg garden, Paris.

Although first, I suppose I should convince you of why you need to go through all this effort in the first place? Couldn’t you just buy plane tickets, make some hotel reservations, show up, and figure it out once you get there? Well, sure. It’s your vacation, so you do you.

But consider this. In Florence, there are five sites that are widely considered “must-see” (the Duomo, its bell tower, and Baptistery; the Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David; the Uffizi Gallery, which displays countless Italian masterpieces, including works by Simone Martini, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, and the like; the Palazzo Vecchio; and the Ponte Vecchio bridge). Then you have the other blockbusters (the churches of Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, and San Marco, the Bargello museum, and Piazzale Michelangelo and nearby San Miniato church), and even more amazing museums, churches, markets, bridges, and shopping districts. Then consider that lines for the blockbuster sites can be hours long, even during the off-season, and that certain sites are open early, some stay open late, and they all close on various days of the week. How in the world would you keep that all straight? And wouldn’t it be a shame to spend all that money on a trip to Florence and not be able to enjoy as many of its amazing sites as reasonably possible?

Lines at major European sites can be hours long. Don’t waste precious time during your vacation standing in line behind a bunch of sweaty, smelly tourists. You’re better than that! (Image source here.)

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your- trust me. A little planning before your trip will make your vacation so. much. better.

Trip Planning – Part II

(Remember, steps 1 – 5 were covered in the Trip Planning – Part I post.)

6. Finalize travel dates, make a list of cities, and buy flights. Now that you’ve decided on a general destination, confirm travel dates with everyone in the group (plus or minus a few days to allow for savings on airfare). Make a list of cities that sound interesting, then do some more research, considering where you could fly into or out of. Go through and prioritize the cities you’ve written down – which deserve more time, which can be done as day trips, which can be cut? Keep in mind airfare costs, distance between cities, balancing busy cities with relaxed towns, and practicality of transportation. Booking airfare is my least favorite part, but it’s worthwhile to investigate several different options on multiple carriers and websites. Remember that it’s usually better to fly “open-jaw”, into and out of different cities; not only do you get to see more without having to return to a city you’ve already visited, it’s usually cheaper. I prefer to visit fewer cities for longer periods of time to cut down on moving between hotels; for a two week trip, I would do no more than 7 overnight cities, and even less than that if we were a larger group.  For our two week trip to Germany and Belgium this fall, here’s our plan:

Munich – 3 nights

Staufen – 2 nights

Baden-Baden – 1 night

Bacharach – 2 nights

Bruges – 3 nights

Brussels – 3 nights

Italian Monastery, Assisi.

Italian Monastery.

7. Lock down hotel reservations (maybe). If you’re traveling during a large festival or during peak season, make sure to book rooms as early as possible. For travel during the off-season, you can leave this step until later or even book as you go, depending on how comfortable you are with spontaneity. When it was just Adam and I traveling through Italy in the winter, we emailed hotels a few days in advance or our arrival and never had an issue. We were also able to save quite a bit of money. However, for our trip to Germany in September, I’ve already booked all hotel rooms for the entire trip, since we’ll be traveling during shoulder season and will need two rooms (one for us, one for my parents) in each hotel.

8. Sketch a daily itinerary, but remember to be flexible. A daily itinerary is much more important for big cities with major sites (London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin) than it is for small towns. For each city on your list, determine which attractions you’d like to see, then go through and prioritize (sense a theme?). You likely won’t be able to see everything, so don’t even try. Tell yourself you will return. I’ve been to London, Paris, and Rome multiple times and haven’t even come close to crossing everything off on my list. Take advantage of sites that are open early or late, and buy advance tickets if possible, but don’t try to cram in too much! My general guideline is that we spend half the day doing planned sightseeing in museums, churches, etc. and the other half soaking up the local culture in parks, cafes, or wandering in back alleys. In Florence, for example, I wouldn’t plan to visit the Accademia, Uffizi, Bargello, and Duomo all in the same day. That leaves no time for enjoying la dolce vita! Rather, we’d visit the Accademia in the morning, have a relaxing picnic lunch, escape the afternoon heat by wandering through the Bargello museum, and finish the day by watching the sun set over the city at Piazzale Michelangelo. For major sites, definitely buy advance tickets unless you plan to buy a city pass that allows you to skip the lines. And don’t be afraid to switch things up once you arrive! Maybe the weather today isn’t ideal for wandering through the gardens of Versailles, or you just don’t feel like stepping foot in another museum. European vacations are about so much more than the sights – it’s about the experience, the food, the joy of the unknown and unfamiliar. I believe that the best travel recommendations come from people you know, so be open to changing your itinerary if a coworker, friend, or favorite blogger who has recently visited your destination tells you about a spot they particularly loved.

View over the Seine, Paris.

View over the Seine, Paris.

9. Read up on your destination and get excited! Your trip is mostly planned, so now you can move on to the fun part. I love reading books and watching movies about the cities or countries we’re visiting, whether they’re historical fiction or current documentaries. In my opinion, the more you know about a destination, the more interesting it is when you visit. Read the news and stay informed about national events. Most European citizens (especially in larger cities) speak at least some English and would love to discuss current events with you. There’s also a somewhat negative perception among Europeans that all Americans care about is their own country, so let’s all work to change that image. Most importantly, get excited for your vacation! Not only will you not be working (the best part about vacations, in my opinion), you’ll be broadening your world and expanding your horizons, and all that research will certainly pay off!

What do you think? Is my trip planning overkill? How do you go about picking a vacation spot? Have your favorite trips been planned or more spontaneous? Where should we travel next?

Europe 2014 – Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel is an abbey built up towards the heavens on an island off the coast of Normandy. It has been a pilgrimage site since 708 AD when the voice of Archangel Michael commanded the bishop of Avranches to build a church on the mount. Originally, pilgrims had to cross a mudflat, braving wild surging tides, disorienting fog, and quicksand. Today, it’s much easier to reach thanks to a paved causeway connecting the island to the nearby town and visitors center.

From Bayeux, it was an easy 75 minute drive. Our guidebook warned us that crowds were horrendous mid-day, so we planned to arrive early and leave shortly after lunch. After parking on the mainland, we boarded a free shuttle bus to take us across the causeway, and began the winding walk up to the abbey. Following our guidebook’s suggestion, we took a path to the left, avoiding both crowds and stairs, and happened upon some incredible views along the way.

At the tippy top of the mountain is the abbey, the idea being that the closer to heaven and the more removed from society and its temptations, the better. Because there wasn’t enough level ground to support a church of a decent size, the abbey actually sits on four large crypts which were built to hold up the wings of the church. This plan worked until 1421 when one of the wings collapsed. We were assured that the remaining and rebuilt wings were architecturally sound and that we would be perfectly safe exploring the abbey and the crypts below 🙂

The picture below was taken in the Hall of the Grand Pillars, which is the crypt that collapsed in the 15th century. Those columns are 15 feet around; the architects rebuilding this wing certainly didn’t want history to repeat itself.

After our tour of the abbey, we walked down the main street and were amazed at how crowded it had become. It truly was wall-to-wall people hiking up the mountain. We stopped at the Restaurant le St. Michel for huge, tasty platters of mussels and were thankful we’d gotten to the island early.

We drove back to Bayeux, picked up a bottle of wine, and spent the rest of the afternoon watching the world go by from our hotel room balcony. It was our last day of our Europe 2014 vacation, and I wouldn’t have spent it any other way.

Europe 2014 – 2 nights in Reykjavik

Thanks to a few Icelandair advertisements strategically placed in DC metro stations, I learned about their free stopover policy several months ago. It’s only a 5 hour flight from DC (Dulles) to Reykjavik, and then just under 3 hours from Reykjavik to London, so it seemed like a great way to break up a long trans-Atlantic trip. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland ever since I read Jar City by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason, and fitting it in on our way to London turned out to be perfect.

Iceland

Our flight left Dulles at 8:30pm on Saturday and touched down in Reykjavik at 6:30am local time. Because we were visiting in late October, the sun wasn’t yet up, and wouldn’t be for another few hours. We never check bags, unless the flight attendants are particularly nasty (they weren’t), so we were able to go straight through customs with our carry-ons and were on a bus into town within 30 minutes. Reykjavik airport is small and efficient. The drive took about 45 minutes total; I can’t say I was awake for any or all of it. After a quick switch at the bus terminal (tour buses and narrow Reykjavik streets aren’t exactly compatible), the mini bus dropped us right around the corner from our incredible airbnb house, which I found for loads cheaper than any of the other hotels in Reykjavik.

Despite all the warnings about napping and jet lag, we were going on a few hours of sleep at best, and the down comforters on the king size bed were too much to resist. We decided that if the sun wasn’t up yet, we didn’t need to be either.

A few hours later, with sunlight streaming through our window, we found the energy to get out of bed, shower, and bundle up to explore the city. Temperatures were in the low 30s – not exactly warm, but certainly bearable. First up, the church of Hallgrimskirkja, which looks unlike any other church I’ve ever seen.

Hallgrimskirkja

The church was right up the street from our airbnb house and is said to have been designed to resemble the basalt lava flows in Iceland’s landscape. The statue in front is of Leif Eriksson, famous Icelandic explorer. The church is free to enter, but is very spartan inside, keeping with the Lutheran tradition.

Inside Hallgrimskirkja

Inside Hallgrimskirkja is bright and airy and worlds away from the embellished and adorned Catholic cathedrals I’m used to visiting in Europe. At the back of the church is a large and beautiful pipe organ, the only adornment. The organ weighs 25 tons.

Hallgrimskirkja pipe organ

Although the organ is impressive, the real attraction, in my opinion, is the bell tower, which is open to visitors for a small fee (I believe it was Ikr 900 per person – just over $7). You buy tickets in the small gift shop, then take a very small elevator all the way to the top.

Hallgrimskirkja square

Reykjavik view

Reykjavik view

After our tour of Hallgrimskirkja, it was time for lunch. We quickly found out that food in Iceland is expensive, so we turned to a local hole-in-the-wall noodle place for a hearty, warming meal on the cheap. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was popular and amazing. Hubby got chicken, I got veggies, both extra spicy. It was deeeeelicious.

Noodle lunch After lunch, the plan was to walk down to the harbor area and do some sightseeing, but the weather had other ideas. Just as we were heading out, it started pouring. Already cold and tired, we were not ready to add soaking wet to the mix, so we opted for a low-key afternoon in a coffee shop with our books and bowls of steaming lattes. Eventually, the rain stopped and we ventured out to do some browsing in the shops along Laugavegur, where I picked up a souvenir from the Handknitting Association of Iceland (see photo below).

This hat my look silly, but it was warm!

This hat may look silly, but it is warm!

After an early dinner (we ate at Fish, which was ok but not great), it was time for bed. None of the legendary Reykjavik pub crawl action for us! I’m not as young as I used to be, folks.

Day Two in Reykjavik was sunny, but cold with a biting wind. We spent the day wandering around town, window shopping, and trying to stay warm.

Colorful houses

Beatles bar

I let my husband steal my hat to keep warm

I let my husband steal my hat to keep warm

Lunch at Snaps

Lunch at Snaps

For lunch, we decided to splurge on the lunch special at Snaps restaurant (located in the Hotel Odensve). We were not disappointed! The menu descriptions were victim of a little mistranslation (the description on my husband’s meal – the far plate in the photo said “open faced sandwich”), but both dishes were incredible. We couldn’t believe how much food we received for the price (Ikr 1800 per plate) – especially when prices for similar restaurants were at least Ikr 2200.

After lunch, we caught a bus out to Laugardalslaug, one of the local swimming pools on the outskirt of town. While not nearly as resort-like as the famous Blue Lagoon, it was incredibly nice for loads cheaper. One thing you must do in Iceland, either at Blue Lagoon or at a local pool, is take a dip in a “hot pot” – a small pool naturally heated by geothermal springs. Basking in clear blue water, naturally heated to 104 degrees, while the snow falls was easily our favorite experience in Iceland. I didn’t visit Blue Lagoon, so I can’t compare, but I highly recommend Laugardalslaug – it’s easy to get to, incredibly clean, and we were the only non-Icelandic people there. I wish I had taken a picture, but I find that hot tubs and iPhones aren’t the best of friends.

After a few hours lounging in the hot pots, it was time to catch the bus back into town, find something for dinner, and go to bed early before our 4am wakeup call. Next stop – London!

Check out these other posts to read about the rest of our Europe 2014 trip! 

  • London Part I – arrival in London, fish & chips, a snazzy pub, and the British Library
  • London Part II – walking tour of London highlights, Westminster Abbey, and an Irish pub
  • London Part III – St. Paul’s, Borough Market, and an incredible WWI memorial at the Tower of London
  • Paris Part Ia walk through Luxembourg gardens and sunset at the Eiffel Tower
  • Paris Part IIthree blockbuster sites: Notre Dame, Versailles, and Sainte Chapelle
  • Paris Part III – the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Auguste Rodin museum
  • Bayeux – small town France
  • D-Day Beaches – paying tribute to the Greatest Generation
  • Mont Saint-Michel – an abbey on an island

From the other side

Hello there! I’m now officially married and am writing to you from St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. I’ve had two rum punches and three margaritas and am typing this on my iPhone; you should be shocked and amazed if there are less than 12 typos in this post.

We’ll be honeymooning for about two weeks, splitting our time on St. Thomas and the surrounding islands. Everyone keeps asking us about our travel and sight-seeing plans; I feel like such a bum for saying we don’t have any, but it’s the truth. I just want to sit on a beach for a few days and enjoy the fact that no one is asking me about whether these napkins would be best for the appetizer table or for the dessert table. Eventually, we’ll make plans and explore and I’ll (hopefully) have something to write about when there’s less alcohol in my system. But for now, please enjoy a collection of photos from my highly sophisticated iPhone.

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This was my car’s temperature gauge as I drove across the Georgia-Florida state line. After weeks of near-freezing temps in DC, I almost got out and did a little dance. Temperature in central Florida while we said “I do” – 82 degrees F.

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Thank you notes that we’re tucked into the out-of-town guests’ gift bags.

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Picture of said gift bags, stuffed with granola bars, water bottles, aspirin, orange juice, tea bags, jelly beans, oranges, and orange flavored popcorn (not as weird as it sounds).

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Neither of us really like cake, so for dessert we had Krispy Kreme donuts that were flambé’d in orange liqueur and served with vanilla ice cream. Apparently they were very good. I didn’t get to have any though. The bride and groom are very popular at a wedding, did you know that? Everyone wants to talk to them.

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Us dancing at our wedding. That’s me in the long white dress!

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A picture of the free travel magazine they gave us as we boarded our flight. I am all about a good travel mag, and free is better than not free! I read the whole thing cover to cover and circled the names of restaurants I want to try while we’re here.

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Of course I dragged us out of bed for 7am sunrise yoga this morning. Not only did we get in some de-stressifyng (yes, it’s a word, trust me on this!) twists and sun salutations, we were up early enough to get some great pictures off our hotel room balcony.

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View from our table at lunch. Yes, it’s over-priced, but the food is good and the weather is heavenly. I’m not going to complain.

I heard there’s another snow dump heading for the East Coast. Y’all stay safe; I’ll try to send warm thoughts your way!