When friends learn about the ambitious itineraries for our vacations, they often raise their eyebrows and ask, “Are you going on a tour? Do you use a travel agent? How do you plan such a complicated trip?”
My answer is something like, “No, we’re independent travelers most of the time and we haven’t used a travel agent in years except for a cruise to Alaska. We do our own research and planning and make reservations either directly or through a website like Booking.com.”
Every year that we’ve travelled to Europe, we plan to stay for at least a month. Now that we are retired, it is easy to stretch that month to an even longer vacation. In 2012 we spent seven weeks in Europe including a romantic week in a cottage in the Dordogne region of France, ten days in a chic flat in Paris and a seven-day Christmas Market cruise on the Rhine River. This year we are headed to France and England for another seven weeks.
We pack in a lot of sightseeing in many locales regardless of what country we visit. Over the years we developed a travel planning system that has worked well and that is holding up with the lengthier trips we now take. Once my husband and I have agreed upon a destination, we check out guidebooks from our local library and begin scanning for inspiration. Our favorite travel guides are anything by Rick Steves or Lonely Planet.
For logistics, we consult Rick’s books. He and his team are unsurpassed at identifying the best ways to get from here to there, pointing out when public transportation works well and when a car is needed. He has practical suggestions about hotels and restaurants and how to avoid long queues at major attractions. As an example, Rick explains how to use the Paris City Pass to get in the door quickly at popular places like the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay.
Lonely Planet leads us to adventure off the track trod by hordes of other tourists. This year the “Lonely Planet Pocket London Guide” has been very useful for planning our daily activities in that city. We are also using the “Lonely Planet Lake District Guide” to survey hiking opportunities in that region of England. For example, in the guide we have found descriptions of several easy hikes that start in our base town of Keswick. The book provides an overview map and an indication of difficulty for each hike. And they recommend buying local maps for more details!
We make lists of cities or areas we want to see and the main attractions in each. About this time, I open up a spreadsheet and start recording our itinerary.
Most years we have hard start and hard stop dates based on school or family events. We lay out the itinerary like a calendar, noting where we want to spend a week, where a few days will suffice and where we can manage just an overnight.
Once we have a draft itinerary, our next step is checking on-line for anything that might impact either the availability of hotel rooms or the schedule for public transport. This year, for example, we adjusted our stay in the Cotswolds to include Easter Sunday and Monday so that we could avoid a hassle with the limited holiday bus schedule from Moreton-in-Marsh to Stratford-upon-Avon. A longer time in Moreton will allow for more rambles through the Cotswolds countryside and more local brew in area pubs. On Tuesday when the bus schedule is back to normal and all the Shakespeare sites are less crowded we’ll go on to Stratford.
When our itinerary is more or less firm, it is time to get serious about airline tickets. We do subscribe to a number of different services, like Kayak, Travelocity and Budget Travel to track the ups and downs of airfares. In the end, however, it isn’t price that determines when we book; it is the availability of seats on the day we want to fly! I suspect we could get better prices on our airline tickets, but it seems like tracking airfares to get the cheapest price is like riding the stock market or playing poker…we just take our chances. If the final number fits in our travel budget we go for it!
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