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Have you ever been travelling and realised that there was actually something really cool you could have seen or done somewhere you’ve just left?  Or if you had planned your journey slightly differently, you could have been in the right place at the right time for that once in a lifetime experience? Well I have many times and it’s been those “D’oh!” moments that have made me a pretty anal travel planner nowadays.

You only need one of these to lose your will to move…

Planning your journey isn’t necessarily about booking absolutely everything in advance leaving you no room for spontaneous diversions, it’s more about knowing your options and being prepared.

It means that when you do stumble across that cute little village and partake in so much of the local brew that you simply can’t bear to leave, you’ll have a very clear idea of how it will impact the rest of your trip, and what you’re potentially going to miss out on further down the track.  It’s about making informed decisions on the fly while you’re on the ground.

So what things should you be thinking about when you’re planning your next adventure?  I’ve already talked about deciding how long to go for, so this is more about now that you’ve got your timeframe, how do you decide what to pack into that time?

Where to go? Now this really is a hard question!  There’s just so much to see and do in Europe, it’s easy to fall into the trap of racing around 5 countries to try and squeeze as much in as possible, but this isn’t necessarily going to be the best idea.  With 3 to 4 weeks, I would try to stick to just one country.  This should allow you to see the major sights and not have a series of one night stands (of the city variety!).  5 weeks or more will allow you to easily go a little further afield, or else get to know a particular region better.

Alhambra, Grenada – magic!

When you think about travelling to Europe, what first springs to mind?  If you’re thinking about the Eiffel Tower and that book about living in Provence you just finished reading, then France is most likely your best bet.  Or is it more about ancient wonders – in that case Italy or Greece may be more your speed.  Do you have family somewhere?  Have you always wanted to throw tomatoes in Spain?  Whatever you decide, coming up with a plan of attack is vital to getting the most out of the destinations you’ve chosen.

Make a wish list or a list of ‘must sees’. This will give you a clearer idea of what it is you’re hoping to achieve and will also help you to see if you’re really going to try and squeeze too much into one trip. It also helps you and your travel companion/s to be on the same page.

Chambord Chateau, a French ‘must see’

How are you going to get around?  This is actually very important as this will dictate what you can hope to comfortably fit in.  The two main choices for independent travellers to Europe is hiring a car or buying a rail pass.  There are also bus pass options but rail is more popular and quicker over long distances.  They each have their own pros and cons and so you need to think about what is going to suit you best, or be the least stressful.

Here are just a few things to think about for both options….

Car Hire:

The Good

  • flexibility, get off the beaten track
  • door to door service
  • no struggling with bags through streets getting to/from stations
  • basing yourself in one spot and doing day trips becomes an easy option
  • easier to get to those out of the way places that aren’t well served by public transport
  • accommodation options are much broader, a farm house in the countryside becomes possible.
The Bad
  • parking, you will have to constantly think about where to park, and how much it will cost
  • navigating, even with a GPS you will need to still be fairly comfortable with a map and this sort of stress can really test even the best friendships or marriages.
  • accidents & fines – if you’re involved in a bingle, you will need to get police reports in a foreign language and be subject to their laws.  Also read the fine print of leasing a car – the company many not have any obligation to help you with a replacement car or getting the car fixed.
  • Petrol costs – if you’re doing a lot of driving, this can really add up.

    Tuscan farm house, you’ll need a car for this one!

Rail :
The Good
  • almost stress free whilst getting from A to B – you can just sit back and look out the window.
  • you can use the time to plan what you’ll do in the next place, relax and read a book or catch a few Z’s.
  • you will generally arrive in or near the centre of a town with handy tourist information (not guaranteed!) and bus connections at the station.
  • Rail passes can be much cheaper than hiring a car if travelling solo or there’s only a couple of you, particularly if you’re just staying within the one country.
The Bad
  • you are bound by train schedules and destinations
  • having to change trains can mean lost time
  • you will need to struggle on/off the trains with your bags and then to your final destination
  • you need to keep your wits about you to keep an eye on your luggage and personal belongings
  • at peak times, you may not be able to get a seat on the train that’s most convenient
  • high speed trains and/or international trains can have mandatory reservations that will be at a cost.  They may also be at an additional charge to your pass.

Everyone breathe in! Car hire at its best.

If you’ve decided to hire a car, a great website I’ve used extensively in the past is Via Michelin. You can enter your origin and destination points in addition to any via points and it will give you a route, directions, road tolls and even an idea of petrol usage.  I find this a great tool to really make sure I’ve allowed enough in my budget to cover those incidentals.  The results even come with an interactive map where you can make changes and see what difference that makes in your travel time and costs. Check to see if the company you’re hiring through offers some kind of GPS and at what charge.  If you’re not going to pay for navigation, make sure you take your own road maps with you, the car will not come with anything.

If you’ve decided on the rail option, then the German website Bahn(German for train) is a really useful planning tool, even if you’re not travelling in Germany.  I just use it to plug in my points to see what times the trains go on certain days of the week, how many changes there are, what kind of train it is (so I can see if my pass covers it) and how long it takes.  There are plenty of other websites that offer this as well, I just find Bahn to be simple to use and has been consistently accurate in my experience.

Fox spotting from the train, a great way to pass the time…

Regardless of your transportation, research how long it’s going to take you to get from A to B.  If you’ve only allowed yourself 2 nights somewhere thinking that will give you 2 days, but you won’t arrive until late in the day and then you have to leave first thing in the morning on the last day, that’s really only leaving yourself 1 full day – is that really going to be enough to do it justice?

Opening Days / Hours.  If you’re planning on visiting that famous museum or attraction and you only have the one day planned there to see it, make sure you know that it’s definitely going to be open.

A memorable way to view the Loire!

Look out for Special Events. A simple search for “What’s on in XXX during XXX” will quickly let you know if there’s going to be something special happening in a location while you’re away.  This will mean a couple of things : 1. a great opportunity to see some local flavour at a special event and 2. a potential accommodation nightmare.  So decide if you want to avoid it like the plague, or else leap at the chance and book some accommodation in early.

What’s special in the area? Is it a wine region?  Chateau country?  Coastal caves?  Find out what makes this area special and find something to do that will tie in with it, whether it’s wine tasting, a cooking class, a boat trip or a balloon flight – do something memorable!

Look at a map!  Make sure the route you’ve planned more resembles a circle or a line, rather than a tangled knot.  Take some time to ensure that you’re moving in a constant logical fashion from one place to the next so you’re not uselessly backtracking and doglegging all over the place.

Consider private guides or transfers. A private guide will cost more, but in some places  can offer you such an amazing experience and insight it’s worth it.  Attractions like Pompeii can really be brought to life with the benefit of a private guide.  Banding together with some other travellers you’ve met on the train or bus there is a good way to keep the cost down.  Also, in some places where you really don’t want to be driving but public transport is a bit of a mission, look into the cost of a private transfer.  I recently had to get 6 people from Naples to a villa on the Amalfi Coast.  None of us was keen to drive and public transport meant struggling with luggage on a train and 2 buses, and how would we know exactly when to get off?

Are you brave enough to face Amalfi traffic??

After a bit of research I found a company willing to take all 6 of us door to door for 120 euros – bargain! On the way back and for a bit more, they dropped us off at Herculaneum for a couple of hours with a private guide before continuing back to Naples.  A fantastic way to see something extra without wasting any time or having to worry about our luggage!

Herculaneum comes alive with a guide to show you the fast food joints!

Learn some local lingo!  Even if it’s just basic “please” and “thank you”, it will go a long way and the locals will love you for it.  Remember, you’re not at home anymore and not everyone will speak your language – if they don’t speak English, repeating something louder will not suddenly make them understand.

By taking the time to think through each of these points, even if you still don’t book anything, you’ll have a far greater understanding of the journey you’re about to take and have an ultimately more rewarding experience.  See, you CAN plan for spontaneity!

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