After a lot of considerations, we settled on Europe as the destination for our month-long honeymoon and we decided to plan the trip ourselves. Was it difficult/cumbersome/time-consuming? You bet! Was it worth it? Hell Yes! In fact a lot of netizens out there claim that planning a trip is actually more fun than the trip itself. Go figure!
Anyways, so why did we decide to ignore the easier option of opting for a travel package (when a myriad of them are available) and go for the whole planning thing ourselves? Firstly, for the customization. We could visit places which the tour packages rarely cover and at our own pace which gave us the freedom to enjoy our trip the way we wanted to. Secondly, budget considerations. Yes, doing it yourself makes it a lot cheaper (just trust me on that) and you can spend your money where you want to. Thirdly, we were going to Europe and there is a lot of information available on the internet regarding hotels, what to see, travel and anything else you could wish for.
So now from ‘why’ we will move to ‘how’.
Step 1: Set a Budget range
I cannot emphasize enough on “Setting a Budget” because this single step will determine most of the factors of your trip like duration of trip, type of accommodation, means of transport, places where you dine, wine and shop etc.
The main heads for budgetary considerations which we could think of were
- Accommodation: This was the biggest expense head for us and the one where you can save a lot or spend a lot.
- International Flights: Again a significant expense which depends on personal preferences.
- Food: We are not foodies and never splurged on food (well apart from a couple of times) but still it was one of the biggest expense head for us. And mind you, Indian food is BLOODY EXPENSIVE in Europe.
- Transportation: It is a head that is usually underestimated by travelers but traveling within cities (we used public transport) and moving from one city to another is a significant expense.
- Sightseeing: We Indians are not used to shelling out money for sightseeing as most attractions in India are either free or have a very nominal fee. But sightseeing costs a lot in Europe.
- Shopping & souvenirs: This is completely a personal preference but we did allot some budget for this head too.
- And finally Experiences: These are the things which we remember for life. Yes, they are costly but they are the best moments of your trip. Allot a little money for the experiences. We chose to watch a football match in Milan and did paragliding in Switzerland (although that was a wedding gift, the best one we got by far).
Step 2: Make a rough Itinerary
Once we knew where to go and how much we could spend (indirectly translating to how long we could stay in Europe), the next part was “when” to go. Our research indicated that Europe was too cold till March while the peak tourist season starts by June. So we scheduled our trip from mid-April to mid-May.
Both of us are history buffs and nature lovers so Italy and Switzerland were automatically selected, and because we were going to Europe and it was our honeymoon, Paris had to be there. Initially we thought about visiting less famous destinations like Vienna, Prague and Budapest but then thought it better to stick to more famous destinations. Later we realized that it was good we stuck to them because the reason these places are famous is that they are actually awesome. But still our love for history and preference for less crowded places made us select Provence area of France. Now that we were so close to Barcelona, it would almost be a sin not to visit such a colorful city. So Barcelona it was next and now that we were in Spain and according to our assumptions pretty tired after 25 days of travelling all over Europe, we wanted to spend the last few days of our trip in a beach city in a relaxing atmosphere. So we chose Torremolinos, a town next to Malaga in South Spain, the added advantage of Malaga being its good connectivity to other cities.
Step 3: Book International flights
Now this was one of the less savory parts of our trip. Going by the common perception of booking flights as soon as possible, we booked the cheapest flights available once our dates were decided which was approximately 4 months before our trip was scheduled to commence. We booked Aeroflot to travel to Rome (via Moscow) and our return journey from Madrid (via Amsterdam) was booked with KLM. But just 7 days after we booked the Aeroflot flight we found Qatar Airways had also opened up a flight to Rome and at a similar cost. This caused a lot of consternation on our parts but what was done was done. Basically I still don’t know whether the old adage of booking flights ASAP still holds good.
Finally the day of departure arrived and we reached the Delhi airport in a jubilant mood at about midnight. And there we found out that our flight was delayed by 3 hours and would now depart at 7 am. The process of collecting boarding passes was also chaotic as the staff seemed clueless and was ushering in people to the boarding desks randomly. After boarding, we spent most of our journey to Moscow sleeping (since we hadn’t slept a wink the whole night) and worrying about our connecting flight. On the food front, the term awful doesn’t even begin to do it justice (and we are not even finicky about food). Finally we reached Moscow at about 11 am local time and predictably missed our connecting flight as did a host of other unfortunate people who were travelling with us. The Aeroflot staff at the airport handed everyone new boarding passes and meal coupons without any apologies as if this was routine for them. We were given boarding passes for an evening flight which meant that after spending close to 7 hours at Delhi airport we had to spend 7 more hours at Moscow airport. They should come up with new terms like “airport sickness” or “airport phobia” because we were most definitely suffering from it by the time we boarded our flights to Rome. Eventually we reached Rome at 10 pm, 8 hours after we were supposed to reach and thus wasted the very first day of our trip.
Lesson learnt: Think 10 times before booking an Aeroflot flight and after you have finished thinking choose another airline.
The return journey with KLM was much better in terms of punctuality and food except for the fact that the audiovisual failed mid-flight and we had nothing to do apart from trying to get intermittent sleep for the rest of the journey.
Step 4: Book hotels/Apartments
This was the next thing we did after booking flights and unlike our experience of the flights this was much better. We made a list of hotels for each city on the basis of factors like our budget, distance from city center, proximity to public transport and reviews on TripAdvisor. In cities like Rome, Florence and Venice we stayed a little away from the city center but we ensured that these hotels had a bus stop nearby. However, at destinations like Avignon and Torremolinos, which we used as a base to explore the surrounding areas, we chose hotels close to the train/bus station. We looked through many sites but primarily booked the hotels from Expedia as we found the best rates there (No, they have not paid us in any way for saying this).
We booked studio apartments at Interlaken and Paris via Airbnb since we wanted to stay in the center and couldn’t find a good hotel in our budget. Having never tried them before, we were apprehensive in the beginning but now we can say that our stay at apartments, especially the one at Paris, outdid our stay at some of the hotels. Next time onwards apartments it is!
Step 5: Book train tickets
Travelling via trains within Europe is much better and cheaper than flying (unless you have to cover really large distances). Trains are fast, comfortable and with connections usually from city centers. On the other hand flights are expensive (the inexpensive ones impose luggage limits), and airports are usually outside the city.
But most people pay over the top even when they travel by train which is because they choose the Eurail pass for convenience. Our research revealed that we can easily buy train tickets for point to point travel using the official railway websites of various countries and the whole process is easier than booking tickets on IRCTC!!! The catch is that the railway tickets for long distance fast trains in Europe work on the principle of dynamic pricing (just like airfares) so the earlier you book them the cheaper they are. So you have to keep checking their websites regularly to see when the booking for a particular date opens up. But it is totally worth it because when we later compared our booking costs to Eurail pass, there was a big difference. For short distance trains there is no advance booking and you can buy them easily at the station.
seat61.com probably contains the most exhaustive information on trains and helped us tremendously during our planning.
Step 6: Make day-to-day Itinerary
Once all the bookings were done, we started making a detailed itinerary. This is important because you should know which parts of the city you are going to cover and which places you will visit in a day. We clubbed places which were in the same area and covered them on the same day. We mainly used Utrip and TripAdvisor to shortlist places we wanted to see within a city. You also need to make this list so you can buy tickets to famous places in advance as they usually have long lines while some even get sold out!! Also certain places remain closed on certain days of the week which we found out after going there.
Step 7: Checkout the passes
I know we suggested you to not go for the Eurail pass but there are some passes which are worth going for. The first category is of local travel passes. Many big cities or regions offer travel passes for specific number of days which you can use to travel on metros, buses, trams etc. Buying passes only makes sense if you going to use the public transport system extensively. Some cities also offer a booklet of 10 metro tickets which is much cheaper than buying 10 individual tickets. We preferred these booklets to individual tickets.The other category of passes is sightseeing passes. Some cities offer passes which provide free or discounted entry to many museums/monuments etc. You have to decide if you are going to visit enough places mentioned on the pass for it to make sense to buy it. We bought the museum pass in Paris while in Rome it made more sense for us to buy tickets individually. Some places also provide combined sightseeing and travel passes but they didn’t make much financial sense to us.
Passes in Switzerland: Switzerland is pretty expensive but they offer a variety of passes to help bring down the cost. We will talk about the passes offered in Switzerland later.
Step 8: Apply for Schengen Visa
We applied for the visa 1 month before our travel date. We used an agent for our visa but the process is fairly easy and applications can be made online. We went to the Italian embassy in Delhi for an interview but it was a fairly short one and if you have all the documents then there is really no need to worry. The whole process doesn’t take more than 5-7 days.
Step 9: Arrangements for Foreign currency and Forex Card
One thing everyone warned us of was pick-pockets in Italy and Spain. Hence, we decided against carrying a lot of cash and relied mainly on Forex card. The foreign currency and card can be easily obtained from any exchange agency. The Euro Forex Card can be activated online easily and is accepted at almost all places in Europe.
So basically this is how we planned it. Next we shall be sharing our experiences of the cities we visited starting with Rome. If you have any queries or suggestions do write to us.