Friday, 16 September 2011

A dummy's guide to planning a trip to Europe

A Euro trip is admittedly the biggest cliché on Bucket Lists over the world. But, it is a cliché for a reason. It really MUST be done. From the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia in Turkey to the northern lights in Scandinavian countries like Sweden or Finland, Europe is a traveller’s paradise.
I recently got (more like, grabbed) an opportunity to do a short solo backpacking trip to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. Being a first-timer, there were several bumps on the road, but it wouldn’t have been fun without them either! So, here are some basic tips and suggestions for a first-time traveller planning a trip to Europe; derived by my experiences and information I acquired while planning my trip. Some are obvious, some you’d have read elsewhere before and some you may not be aware of; yet, I feel they deserve a mention. Do share any valuable trips you might like to add to the list, and don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have; I’d be happy to answer them. Good luck!

1.      Decide the number of days and budget: So one fine day you exclaim “I want to go to Europe” with that wide-angle smile and eye-popping enthusiasm that almost instantly diminishes as you begin to realise you don’t know much about how to go about it. The first thing you need to do is figure out how many days you have in hand, together with your budget. This will decide the destinations you can visit.

2.      Keep in mind internal travel while planning your destinations: Paris and Brussels can be clubbed together as they are an hour and half apart, but one can’t cover Berlin and Istanbul is all you have are three days. Be sure to check the travel time between your preferred destinations before you finalise them. In addition, talk to people who’ve been to Europe and ask them to suggest possible itineraries. For me, for example, it was the Backpacking Ninja who suggested I spend two days in Amsterdam, as they are sufficient to see the basic tourist spots of the city.

3.      Check the country-specific visa requirements: Once you’ve finalised your destinations, check the visa requirements for each. For the UK and Turkey, for example, you require separate visas, but a Schengen visa lets you travel to 15 European countries, namely:
  • Austria
  • Germany
  • Belgium
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Greece
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Luxemburg
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • The Netherlands
4.      Flight and train tickets: Flight tickets are usually quite expensive, so thoroughly research multiple websites and carriers before you buy them. There are some carriers that offer connecting flights that usually cost much lesser than direct flights. I for one, fortunately found a connecting flight that took only a hour more than a direct flight would have, so I didn’t end up wasting much time getting there either. Personally, I’ve found Makemytrip.com to be very useful and reliable. However, check multiple such websites, as well as websites of the carrier as well; sometimes they have better deals.

To book trains for internal travel from one destination to another, check railway websites like Thalys.com or Raileurope.co.uk.



Once you book a ticket on Thayls, all you need to is a printout that you can show the train manager, who will check the bar code.
Check this website for more information on how to go about buying cheap European train tickets: www.seat61.com

If you’re clear about your itinerary, then book them online before you go, as you can get good deals early on. But if you want the freedom to decide your itinerary once you get there, you can also buy tickets at the station itself.
Please note: Keep some gap between your flight arrival and train departure since you’re unaware of inter-city travel time and transport; you don’t want to miss your train like I did! (details coming soon in the next few posts)

5.      Getting forex, travel insurance and local SIM card: Most places that offer foreign currency also offer travel insurance, which is a must when visiting foreign countries. To obtain a local number abroad, either buy a SIM card from India itself or buy one once you reach (be sure to look up local companies that offer SIM cards in your chosen city before you leave). It will surely be cheaper than using your phone on roaming.
6.      Keep copies of all your documents: It is really important to keep multiple copies of your passport, ticket, insurance, etc. Xerox a total of 3 sets of copies.
·        Keep one with yourself in a different bag from your original documents, so that if you lose the originals, you still have a copy with you.
·        One copy is to be kept at the hostel/hotel room you’re staying in; just in case you lose your bags.
·        Keep a third copy with someone back home, just in case you lose all of the above.
Most hostels/hotels have lockers that you can rent where you can alternatively keep your original documents if you don’t want to carry then around every day.

7.      Figure out accommodation: A hostel is a budget traveller’s best bet. I stayed in hostels in Brussels and Amsterdam and had a great experience. Not only does it perfectly fit into one’s budget, it also lets you meet people from different countries, which can be a lot of fun if you’re travelling alone. Also, many hostels put up information boards with listings of local events and happenings. Many even include breakfast. Look out for cards like these (picture below) for useful discounts and tips.

For hostels, I found HostelWorld.com to be extremely helpful, reliable and systematic. They offer detailed information on hundreds of hostels, complete with the facilities, room rates (they also have a tab that lets you view the rates in your local currency) and ratings from people who have visited them. You can get dorm rooms that house four people to some that house twenty. Not all have attached bathrooms, so check properly before you book. HostelWorld.com also offers pocket guides to various cities that you can download free of cost.
 
·        Be sure to thoroughly research these websites on the basis of your needs. Keep in mind the location of your chosen accommodation. You might want to be in the centre of the city, and not on the outskirts. For example, I chose the Grand Place Hostel in Brussels, primarily because it is one of the main hubs of the city.

·        It is not necessary to book online, but it is advisable because thousands of people visit Europe every year and hence getting a room in your preferred hostel/hotel may not always be possible.
·        Most hostels offer free maps of the city; so ask for them.

8.      Sightseeing: Now that you’re all set with the basics, find out what all you want to see once you’re there. You probably feel that there’s no need to figure this out now, but it is good to know what to look forward to so that you don’t end up missing something you wish you had seen. Make a list of the places you want to see and mark the timings and days in the week it is open. This way, if you know in advance that a museum you want to visit will be closed on Mondays; you can plan your trip in a way that you end up there on Sunday instead. For example, if you’re a fan of Tintin comics, you would definitely not want to miss the Herge Museum in Brussels, dedicated to the creator. You don’t need to make a comprehensive list by the hour, but just certain places you know you want to see.

9.      Trip essentials: There are certain things you must remember to carry on this trip:
·        A multi-pin plug.
·        Toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
·        An extra lock and key comes handy when you want to rent a locker in hostels, as they often ask you to rent locks at a price.
·        I’ve personally found carrying a few plastic bags rather useful in case I need to carry wet clothes or to separate dirty laundry from fresh clothes in the suitcase.
·        Munchies like nutri-bars, cup noodles and chocolates are very useful for those in-between-meals hunger pangs. 

ONCE YOU’RE THERE
1)      Get a city map: The first thing to do is to get hold of a city map. You will find maps at airports, at tourist/visitor centres, where you’re staying and sometimes on trains (I found one on a Thalys train).

2)      Buy a train/bus pass: Most places have single and multiple day train/bus passes that can be bought at either the station, on buses or visitor centres. This way you don’t have to buy tickets every day, and it turns out to be cost-effective too.

3)      If words fail, use your mobile phone: Not many know or learn the local language before heading there, nor do they necessarily carry a language guidebook. If you’re one of those people, like me, use your mobile phone to explain what you’re looking for. If you don’t have internet or helpful apps, simply write it on your phone and show it to a passerby and ask for directions.

4)      Ready-to-eat food: Big stores usually have ready-to-eat foods that you only need to heat in a microwave (that is usually present in hostels) before eating. This is a great option for the typical backpacker who doesn’t want to spend on expensive meals, but yet doesn’t want to survive only on bread and fries.

5)      Pay to use a bathroom: To be honest, this one came as a surprise to me. Most bathrooms have an entry fee of €50 cent, which was disappointing. On the brighter side, they are clean. Guest tip (by Carmenne K.): You don't have to pay for all the toilets you use. Try going into malls and using their bathrooms or at McDonalds or Quick burger.

These are very basic guidelines that are important, but the best way to learn about a place is to go there. So, just GO and make your explorations!            


COMING SOON: Individual posts on Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris.

8 comments:

TD23 said...

hey,
a very exhaustive guide. i really liked tip no.6 and 7. i see Brussels in the list of places u visited. Hoping u went to Bruges as well. one of my dream destinations:P
looking forward to the upcoming travelogues:)
take care
ciao

Bedouin said...

Hey, thank you :)I didn't get the chance to go to Bruges, though I had hoped to. Maybe next time :P

Carmenne said...

You dont have to pay for all the toilets you use and 50 cents seems too much. A tip: try going into malls and using their bathrooms or MacDonalds or Quick burger ;)

The Floating Clouds said...

Hey Ruchika,
Very informative post, would be handy even for veteran travellers.
I loved your blog, could identify with so many things you have said and experienced.

Bedouin said...

@Carmenne: Thank you for that tip; I shall add it in the list :)
@The Floating Clouds: Thank you so much :)

Anonymous said...

thanks

Jerrick said...

Amazing plan! I am going to Europe as well next month! My first class airline tickets just arrived yesterday and I am very excited. I am planning my trip too and this post really helped me a lot. Thanks for sharing.

Bedouin said...

You're welcome :) I'm so glad I could help. Have a super trip!