How do you pick what trip is perfect for you? Well that’s up to you really. Don’t listen to other people, do what YOU want. I once read a message board where some woman posted that her niece (or whoever) went to (wherever) and hadn’t planned enough time in that city and that “The poor thing rushed around so much that she couldn’t even remember what museums she had visited!”.
See, that’s not how I view it at all. To me, the “poor thing” arrived in a city unclear of what there was to do and see there, and followed other people’s advice rather than doing her own research. That’s how she ended up at places with names she couldn’t remember. Trust me, if she had done research and planned “I want to see THIS”, she would have made a beeline for THIS and she would in fact remember seeing the thing she was most excited to see in that city.
If you aren’t sure what you want? Find out! I bought a ton of completely outdated guide books on ebay for around a dollar each. You can also use your library and get these for free. The beauty of Europe is that everything is so old that you can read a book from a decade ago and all the attractions are still there. You can find things you never knew existed, that are huge musts. This is how I learned more about cities and this is how I began to find places I wanted to see. I never had a clue that the dancing house in Prague existed. What if I had gone to Prague and not had seen THIS:
For my second trip (which I consider my first real trip, the actual real first trip was a starter trip), I knew I was going to go all over Europe and see everything!
The first thing I did was price airfare. The best way to go about seeing Europe is to fly open jaw (also known as “multi city” on some websites, including kayak.com). This does not mean you purchase two one ways. This means you use the “multi city” option and buy one ticket , arriving in and departing from different cities. I didn’t even realize this when I booked my first trip. I was trying to book one ways and it cost way more than a round trip so I was “stuck” going back to London. The multi city option is your best friend. It gives you so much flexibility and lets you go so much further since you don’t have to double back to your originating city to catch a flight home.
My flight choice was made a bit easier since I knew where I had to start my trip (Brussels, to attend Groezrock fest for the second year in a row). So now all I had to do was pick an end city. This was overwhelming since I had never seen anything and wanted to see everything, so where on earth do I start!?? I wanted to go everywhere. I knew that my main wants were Prague and Auschwitz. I knew nothing else. I didn’t even know where Prague or Poland were on a map. I’m honestly not even sure I knew Prague was a city and not a country. Now I can pick out pretty much any European country on a map, but back then, I was clueless. I did consult a map and began using that map to price multi city flights landing in Brussels and going home from every country in Europe. Even if they weren’t convenient countries, I priced them. As far as I was concerned, I could do no wrong with picking any city in Europe to fly home from. I wanted to see it all.
The best airfare I found was leaving NYC to Brussels and then home from Dublin. I ended up crossing it off the list as I got deeper into planning. The more I learned, the more I realized I wanted to be in Eastern Europe. I didn’t really want to fly back to Dublin from there to catch a flight back to the states. So I kept going and finally found NYC – Brussels, home from Milan. I hadn’t even considered Italy for this trip. But the price for my flight was $539 total round trip. So I booked it.
Using a map, bahn.de and booking.com – I was able to come up with what was the perfect schedule for me. This took at least a month just to get the itinerary perfect. For every place I planned to go, I made my list of things I wanted to see and figured out how much time I needed. I ended up having to cut out a bunch of countries from my first imagined itinerary. My dream of seeing Auschwitz? This was probably doable but the more research I did, the more I realized that Poland is a country that I want to see so much of, that I didn’t want to just zip through and see one thing and leave.
I also wasn’t willing to spend a ton of time in one country because I was just dying to zip through and cross a bunch of countries off my list all at once. Poland ended up being the first country on a now growing list of countries that I would like to go and spend a minimum of ten days in (other countries on the list are Germany, Ukraine, Norway and Turkey). As an added bonus, it killed me because I was so close to being able to add in Poprad, which I was really dying to see. But now whenever I end up doing Poland, I can just tack it onto that trip.
My second trip ended up being:
Belgium (Staying in Geel for Groezrock, the fest that kicked off my trip)
Prague, Czech Republic – with Kutna Hora as a day trip
Zagreb, Croatia (with a day trip to Plitvice National Park – this trip to the park was the main reason or me being here)
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Florence, Italy (with a day trip to Pisa)
Milan, Italy – picked solely for the cost of the flight home.
A huge word of advice: if you are picking your flight home based on cost, take some time to figure out if your route is doable. Check train schedules on bahn.de. Having a cheap flight and then finding out you cant get there in time to catch your flight home, outdoes the cost of the cheap flight. I wasn’t even sure what route I would be taking when I started planning. Somewhere in my apartment I am sure, is a leftover map from when I started. I originally drew numbers on countries of how many nights I would spend in each one. I’m sure it’s hilarious because I’m sure I planned to do one per night. This is where insane research came in handy.
Take time to figure out if the routes you are taking allow you to see the places you will be. When you are looking at train schedules and picking destinations based off of them, take the time to look at a guide, or even just Google the cities you are planning to spend time in. Make sure you allow enough time to see them all. If your train arrives at noon and you want to see ten different things, you need to figure out how long those things will take to do. Don’t guess, do research. Also – train times. Don’t just take a peek and move on. Go further. You might look on bahn.de and see a train that is six hours and think “okay so I will arrive at this time”. But when you go to book it, you may see a train that is $100 less if you arrive two hours later. Make sure to figure out what time for sure you are arriving so you know how much time you have in each city. Make sure that when looking at trains, if you find a website that has cheaper train tickets, MAKE A NOTE OF IT. Don’t expect yourself to remember that “oh hey two weeks ago, this train ticket was ten bucks on…….fuck what the fuck was the website FUCK”. Keep a list as you are looking at stuff.
Once I was satisfied with the route I was going to be taking, it was time to start booking. I can not express how much I loved myself for having spent the past month keeping track of every website I found my train tickets on as I was researching schedules. I didn’t want to book until I had the itinerary set in stone. Once it was and I had to go back and buy everything, it was so easy because I had already done the research and I had every website listed in my spreadsheet.
I planned like a maniac. I’m so glad I did. It felt so great to be leaving so over prepared. It just seemed like I had covered EVERYTHING for this trip. Not everyone wants to vacation like that, but I sure did. I had one envelope per day, filled with maps, walking tours, train tickets, a list of everything I wanted to do and its cost, etc. I also had a one page itinerary for the entire trip. On that itinerary was where I would be going, what train time, did I have a ticket, did I need a ticket, what hotel I was at, how I was getting there, how to say “hello” “goodbye” “please” “thank you” and “do you speak English” in the language of the day. I printed out one to bring with me always, and then copies for each envelope “just in case”. This worked perfectly when I got stuck in a rainstorm in Bratislava that drenched everything, including running all the ink on my itinerary. don’t worry, I have more YAY.
Oh. You are probably wondering “Why doesn’t she just put all of this on her smart phone/laptop/notebook/netbook/Kindle/tablet”. Because I refuse all of those things. I would much rather spend my paychecks on plane tickets and hotels than a smart phone. Call me crazy…