June 16, 2011 by Leah
I’ve always enjoyed trip planning, but man, it can get pretty involved. My first triumph in this area was an Eastern Seaboard trip I planned in 1997 when I was looking at colleges. Mom gave me her credit card and, a few hours later, was presented with an itinerary including flights, Amtrak schedules, and hotels (there was also the small matter of a bill).
The European odyssey we are leaving for in two weeks was not nearly so quick or easy to put together, but we are in the home stretch of the planning part of the adventure. Our original travel intention for this summer was to visit my cousin Andrea in Prague. Then one of Aaron’s friends invited us to his wedding in Italy. Then one of my friends invited us to a borrowed country house in Burgundy. We realized we couldn’t do everything in one trip, and we decided to attend the one-time events (Andrea assured me she will be in Prague for some years to come – her husband is Czech, after all). Of course, those invitations were just the beginning.
We really wanted to keep costs down for this trip, but upon realizing Aaron didn’t have quite enough airline miles for a round-trip ticket to Europe, we ended up paying actual dollars for our plane tickets. The lowest fare we found ($1561.80 per person) was for a US Airways flight from LAX to Zurich, which turned out to be well-situated as a jumping-off point for the rest of our journey. Plus, Aaron had always wanted to see Switzerland. (We had previously been talking about Austria as a third destination. I must admit, I had never been particularly interested in visiting either country, but some gentle persuasion regarding Alpine scenery, hiking, beer, and famous composers changed my mind.)
This has been a very lengthy and occasionally agonizingly slow process. I checked out my first round of guide books on March 9th. We booked the plane tickets on April 25th. Then I checked out the second round of guide books. We discussed camping, but decided that since we’ll be in cities much of the time, staying with friends in Burgundy, and in a hotel for the wedding, it wasn’t worth it to carry camping gear with us for only a few nights’ use.
We booked hotels for our first night in Zurich, three nights in Venice, and the wedding in Sirmione on May 27th. We booked hotels in Bern, Lauterbrunnen, Nice, and Milan yesterday. The lowest price (other than the borrowed country house) we are paying for lodging is $65 per night. This will allow us to sleep in a hostel in Lauterbrunnen, the jumping off point to the Alpine paradise that is the Berner Oberland. The highest price we are paying is $142 for a Saturday night in Venice – and we’re paying that for the privilege of sleeping in bunk beds. (We are moving to a nicer, yet cheaper place in a different part of the city for the two nights following.) A pleasant surprise was finding a decently-reviewed hotel in Nice for $75 per night; Milan was also reasonable with a lot of hotels in the $75-100 per night range. That said, we are expecting cramped conditions, spotty amenities (by which I mean air conditioning), occasional twin beds, and some shared bathrooms. Neither of us find these things at all problematic.
(I’ve got to say, the hotel reviews by English-speaking tourists that whine about cramped or spartan-yet-clean conditions at budget hotels in “the old town” portions of major cities crack me up. To paraphrase a friend of my mom’s: when you’re in business you decide how much attention you will give to price, quality, and service, but you can’t run a successful business by trying to offer the best of all three.)
At some point, Aaron bought us a Eurail pass. This will be the second time Aaron has used one. I’ve never used one. My previous European vacations have included tours with choirs or orchestras (the planning was done for us!), a spring break in Amsterdam with a side trip to Bruges, and a road trip around the Scottish highlands. I have to admit, while the 16-year-old me would have romanticized a Eurail pass, the 29-year-old me was a little skeptical. I mistrusted the idea that one piece of paper would really allow us to legally board any trains we felt like going on. I don’t mistrust my husband, though, and he put a great deal of time and effort into finding the best way for us to get around.
This morning, I finally opened our Eurail pass and read all the enclosed information. The pass itself is a piece of paper that we must. not. lose. Aaron got us a first-class Eurail Select Flexi Pass for three countries, which means we can ride for any eight days out of a two month period (good job, honey). It cost $1131 ($28 of which was insurance – again, good job, honey) for the two of us. Yet, and rather unsurprisingly, it turns out that there are several train routes on which one needs to pay a modest fee to reserve seats, even with the pass in hand. These include popular routes during the high season (some of which have a limited amount of seats for pass-holders, depending on the country) and international routes. Reserving online from the States is slightly more expensive than making reservations once in Europe, but early reservations are recommended.
I spent the morning reserving seats on trains from Bern to Dijon, Nice to Milan, and Milan to Zurich (the international trips), as well as trains from Dijon to Nice and Milan to Venice (the high-season touristy trips). This step cost a little extra but it made me feel secure, and we still have room for flexibility and spontaneity within Switzerland and Italy. The only problem is that four of our five reservations are paper, since e-tickets are only available within France and one other country. Who uses paper tickets anymore?!
While we’re staying in reasonably budget accommodations and booked the cheapest flight we could find (we could have paid upwards of $14,000 per night in Nice and I don’t even want to think about the cost of a first-class plane ticket to Europe), this trip is still going to be expensive. Mostly because we will be away for three entire weeks. We are also renting a car for the time we are in Burgundy (although our housemates will probably be chipping in to cover some expenses). We’re planning on saving money by eating most of our meals picnic-fashion (e.g. bread, cheese, sausage, and fruit). While I really, really want to eat amazing local cuisine (and I’m sure we will manage to do so a few times), I can get behind this as a cost saving measure. Plus, it frees up our schedule if we always have food with us and don’t have to lurch around, starving and miserable, trying to find a restaurant while everyone is off taking a nap or something. In fact, I specifically booked our Milan hotel because it was across the street from a grocery store.
We are planning on getting our grocery money out of ATMs, although my dad suggested we look into a pre-loaded chip & pin card – apparently some countries are moving away from the plain old American-style magnetic-strip credit card. I should probably look at our credit cards and see what kind of international transaction fees each lender charges. I believe Capital One does not charge international transaction fees when we charge in different currencies. (Switzerland is not a member of the EU and therefore uses its own currency, the Swiss Franc. The kinds of people who have Swiss bank accounts would not be pleased if their money was suddenly threatened by the economic collapse in Greece, e.g.)
I’m also looking into how we are going to communicate. We will probably buy a cheap pre-paid mobile when we first arrive, but I’ve seen internet rumors that it’s possible to jailbreak an iPhone and buy a $20 SIM card in each country. The iPhone capabilities (specifically the map, guidebook, web-browsing, and timekeeping functions) would be extremely handy to have while there. As to language, Aaron has reasonably decent German and found Rick Steves’ French, Italian and German Phrase Book on eBay for like a dollar. I, on the other hand, will be much more comical. Though I got a blue ribbon in French in 6th grade, my pronunciation probably makes me sound like an ailing cow and I can’t really remember how to string words together. My Italian is even more dismal, as I have none. If necessary, I will attempt to decipher cognates between Italian and Spanish. Alternately, I could just rely on musical Italian. Prestissimo! Largo! Arco! Col legno! Okay, maybe not. I am pretty good at gesturing, though.
For people who have been trying to limit expenditures over the past year and who are talking about buying a house, spending, let’s see… $1536 for lodging and $4544 for transportation (and that’s not including fuel for the rental car) was probably not the most frugal thing we could have done; however, over half of the total cost will be covered by the unexpected inheritance I received, we happen to be sitting on a lot of cash at the moment (due to a little problem with direct paying the rent), and in my opinion, travel is always worth it. Even if we have to rent a house for a year in order to save enough for a down payment.
In case I don’t manage to jailbreak my iPhone, though, one or both of us should probably procure a watch. If we want to catch our trains, that is.