Enjoying a trip really boils down to how the planning was done. Yes, planning is quite a tedious process and can take away several nights of your sleep. But is it worth it? YES! The more time you spend planning your vacation, the less unpleasant surprises await you.
Europe is one of the best locations to plan a vacation for beginners. Why? Because Europe caters to lovers of art, history, nature, adventure, you name it and Europe has it. Hence, our decision to make Europe our first vacation destination.
It all started with “Let’s plan a vacation” and the next thing I remember is booking hotels and tours in seven different cities of four countries in Europe.
WHERE TO START?
Vacationing can be quite easy if you have the right passport. But with the kind of a passport we own, vacation planning usually carries a lot of anxiety before it has even started. So we began by solving 3 key issues:
- How many cities/countries?
- How to budget?
- Visa Requirements?
Considering that we only had 14 days to spend there, we decided 7 cities in 4 countries was a good number. As for the budget, see how much you can dedicate to the vacation and then start by budgeting the biggest expenses first – airfares, hotels, Eurail and tours. Since we own Pakistani passports, our visa application processes are a lot more complicated than your average American passport.
SCHENGEN VISA APPLICATION
The next step was to get the visa, which for some reason kept me anxious until I saw the visa on my passport. My nationality and religion are not exactly the most favorable in the world right now. So no matter what sort of an individual I am, if the embassies decide to reject the application, they do it and without a reason as well. Not getting the visa meant that all our planning and dreams of traveling would be shattered.
Anyway, following all the details of the application process started on the Italian embassy’s website, I gathered all the required documents, and we set off to get our passports stamped. Gathering the documents is another hell of a process. Here are the things you need (and you need them right) in order to get the visa:
- Company’s NOC
- Bank statement (past 6 months)
- Return air ticket
- Dummy hotel reservations
Doesn’t sound so difficult right? It’s not – if your bank account is beefed up and you have contacts in a travel agency to give you dummy tickets to apply for your visa. Having enough funds in your account is a given, something under your control. But what do you do if you don’t know anyone in a travel agency? Well, dummy reservations are not a must – you can make real bookings but be prepared to pay cancellation fees if your visa is delayed or rejected.
We used my sister’s company contacts to get the dummy reservations, collected our bank statements, our NOCs and finally set off with the application process. We booked a VIP appointment at the Italian embassy as we were running late (make sure you book it at least 2 months in advance, the normal application appointments are always full). All we had to do at the embassy was submit our documents, give our finger prints, answer some questions and leave.
Two days later, our passports were delivered to our doorstep (yes, of course we paid for that too!), with the Schengen visa valid for a month (wohoo).
Difficult job done, now was the time to start spending on actually booking the flights, hotels and tours.
I started off with booking our Eurail pass for 4 countries. This was an expensive decision but extremely convenient and well worth it. But the passes are not the only cost you incur on Eurail. Every time you board a train, you have to ensure whether the destination requires a reservation. From what I recall, our trip from Rome to Florence cost us an additional €10 per person and from Zurich to Paris an additional €70 per person.
So be prepared to shell out more of those Euros despite spending hundreds on your Eurail pass. Without the pass, of course, you will be spending a lot more on the reservations.
AIR TICKETS & HOTELS
Next in line, were the air tickets and hotel bookings. I wanted deals that fit my budget, so I checked rates on several websites before making a final call. Some of the websites I checked were:
Booking hotels in seven different cities of Europe was quite a task. My best buddies were tripadvisor.com and booking.com for ratings and reviews (how true those reviews is another story). I read reviews of hotels close to the central train stations of the cities we were visiting to make a decision. And this is what we decided:
- Rome – Holiday Inn Express, San Jiovani
- Florence – Hotel Sempione (Loved this!!)
- Venice – Best Western Hotel
- Salzburg – Holiday Inn Express
- Zurich – easyHotel
- Paris – Hotel Eldorado
Next step, booking tours. For those who are traveling for the first time, these pre-booked tours are really worth investing. You get all your tickets faster than those long queues, the tour guide briefs you on the history and culture of the place/monument, and also gives you a few additional tips on how to avoid being duped (more on that later as well).
We picked the places we wanted to visit on our tours based on suggestions from friends, books, as well as Google. The next website that helped me with these bookings was www.viator.com. I selected all the tours I wanted to buy, and when I wanted to check-out, their system did not accept my credit card details. I had spent 3 hours looking for the right tours only to face a technical issue like that. In order to avoid something like that, try Viator’s competitor, www.expedia.com. They had the same tours listed, and the booking did not take more than 30 minutes to complete. No technical issues, no delays. Just a nice, sweet, comforting confirmation email.
No, not really. This post covered only the basics of planning. We then built an itinerary for each city and planned the details – what times we will begin/end the day, how we will commute within the city, what we will do in our free time etc. I will discuss this in another post (after I find where I put all of that stuff).