I always get asked how do I decide where to go and how do I find out about overnight trains, low cost airlines and bargain rates in great hotels. While it may seem obvious to a lot of people, it isn’t to everybody, and with that came the inspiration to write this post.
The inspiration to travel comes from a lot of sources: movies, art, pictures, blogs, magazines, documentaries, History, maps, travel books… the travel possibilities are endless! For example, the idea to go to Santorini (Greece) a decade ago came from a few pictures I saw in a travel magazine and when the chance (and cheap air fare) came along, I knew just where to go.
The planning resources I use to plan what to see and do and plan mornings/afternoons/evenings accordingly are these:
- DK Eyewitness Books: being a visual person, these books do just the trick for me. While I love books, I learnt the hard way that carrying them around on your trips can be heavy… that way I use them for research at home and take notes on my travel journal that I will be carrying with me. Another good thing are the travel apps that DK now has for iPad and iPhone; while they don’t have for all destinations, the top ones are just like the books – but cheaper and easier to carry around on your travels.
- Lonely Planet Books: while DK books are very visual I find Lonely Planet books very good with tips like that “hole-in-the-wall” place in Munich that sells the best cheap lunch you could ask for, not to mention the content and the walking routes. Apart from the books they also sell .pdf chapters, which are a great way to leave the books at home and have the .pdf on your iPad or iPhone.
- TripAdvisor: the travel forums and traveler reviews are fantastic. I got so much help when planning our Europe trip in 2010, from how to book the City Night Line overnight train to kid friendly restaurants in Paris and where to get a birthday cake in Prague and getting invaluable tips from locals. One thing people should note is that on the various forums, some people are very passionate about what to see and do and what is a “waste of time” or not; advice is always given based on personal preference, so always weigh what your preferences are vs. what they are telling you to do/not to do. Case in point: a lot of people say the Pantheon in Paris is a waste of time and the worst possible place to take your kids to, but for us it was perfect and our little one did not want to leave.
- SeatGuru.com: this is a great website to check out the configuration of the plane for that intercontinental flight with your family. It shows what are the good and not so good seats on the plane and we use it to decide which seats we will pick before booking out trips. There are also some cool statistics about your specific flight, which could be helpful.
- Seat61.com: the place to go for anything train travel is this website. We have used it before and I still check it out when trying to figure out train configurations to choose best seats/cabins for our family.
- Google: it is known that Google offers a world of information about anything and everything, so I use it extensively. Google Maps is one of my favorites, I love to use street view (where available) to “look around the neighborhood” of where we will be visiting and to just try and find out an off the beaten path route or place to go and visit.
Budgeting is the tricky part. It is tricky because, in my case, I am budgeting for 2 adults and 1 child and now that the child is turning 8 years old it means she pays for most of the things she didn’t have to when she was 5. The resources I use for budgeting are:
- Kayak.com: this is basically the one stop shop to look up travel fares, hotels, car rentals for us. The site compares prices among the websites and shows you all side by side making the decision to where to book slightly easier. You can also filter your search to show TripAdvisor’s ranking of a hotel, which always helps me.
- The hotel chain and airline websites: I found some very good deals looking for hotel and air fares in the hotel chains and in the airlines websites. Note that usually those fantastic fares have a “non-refundable” clause, a “advanced payment required” and things like that, so always be mindful of that.
- Train company and low cost airline websites: these are helpful to help you budget as well as choose which connections are faster and where you can also buy your tickets in advance (recommended).
Here is a list of train companies and low cost airlines I have used to budget and book online:
- DB Bahn: this is the German railway where we booked our City Night Line tickets and we use it constantly to budget for trips to/from Switzerland, Czech Republic, Austria and The Netherlands. The website was very easy to navigate and I got help from their customer support and the Train Travel forum at TripAdvisor when I got stuck not knowing what to do in the booking process.
- SNCF: this is the French railway and I will be using them very soon to book tickets to France, so I will report back on how the experience was.
- SBB: this is the Swiss railway, looks very user friendly but I haven’t booked with them yet (will do soon).
- Trenitalia: this is the Italian railway, very straightforward to use and the earlier you book, the better the fares.
- Eurostar: no need to elaborate on this one :)! Very simple website, used it a couple of times and it is very intuitive.
- Easyjet: this is my low cost airline of choice. Never had problems navigating their website and never experienced delays (half an hour due to weather conditions is nothing in my opinion).
- Ryanair: I used them only once and it would always be my second choice. Never experienced delays, but heard it’s very common lately.
I believe this is travel planning in a nutshell for us. I enjoy the whole process, but I recognize it takes a lot of time and research. But the freedom you have to change itineraries/schedules and align it to your pace is priceless and pays off when you’re out and about discovering new lands!