It has been a long time since I wrote a blog post. While the reasons for that have been multiple and of no interest to the reader, I have been planning a vacation in this time and that may interest a few people. Hence this post, so here goes…
To most people planning of a vacation means selecting a destination and selecting for a group tour which does it at the cheapest. For me the planning of a vacation is a long drawn process and I enjoy it as much as the vacation itself if not more, as the planning period lasts for a much longer time than the vacation does.
Both I and my better half are avid travellers and have polar opposite interests. I am a fan of wildlife, wildlife photography and safaris while the better half likes architecture, naturally beautiful locales and adventure sports. So our vacations alternate from my interests and hers. Over the years travelling together she has become a superb spotter of wildlife and I have started taking a liking to photographing landscapes in addition to the birds which I find and photograph every where I go ( Even in the centre of Paris!!)
Choosing a destination
Planning of any vacation involves the following questions
- Where to go??
- When to go??
- How many days can we afford to spare for the vacation??
- Can we afford it!!
Both of us being doctors the third question becomes the most important of all. Usually we go on one long vacation a year of around 10 days and one short one of 2-3 days which is with a conference that either of us has to attend. This post will be more towards planning of a longer vacation of the non wildlife type ( Safaris are a totally different animal – Pun intended!!). I have stopped going on group tours because it doesn’t suit our style of travel and if planned correctly going by yourself costs the same as a group trip with the added advantage of being your own master and deciding your own sightseeing depending on your interests. While it was scary initially to be alone in a foreign country, it is the only way I travel now.
As I already mentioned earlier we go on alternate wildlife and non wildlife trips. This time it was the turn of a non wildlife trip. Where to go is also very intricately connected with the next question that is when to go?? For us that means when the better half can get leave from her job, I am a free lancer and one of the perks of that is I am my own master. Also we like to go for a vacation in what is known as the shoulder season when the tourist hordes are not in frenzy. In most cases the shoulder season has mild weather with some rain. But living in Mumbai most European rain feels like a drizzle.
This year my wife has managed to get leave from her duties in November. So then the search began for a place which is not too cold in November as we didn’t want to spend our vacation cooped up in a hotel room under blankets!! One more thing I should be mentioning here is that both of us are not great fans of long haul flights as we don’t get that much leave in the first place. So living in India our range is restricted to Europe, Africa and South East Asia. So a non wildlife vacation is in Europe or South East Asia and a wildlife one is in India itself or in Africa.
As I researched for places to visit two countries struck my fancy, Croatia and Italy. Both had relatively mild weather for November in Europe being two of the southern most countries in Europe. Initially I researched Croatia and the surrounding Balkans to the ground as it was the more cheaper alternative. I even helped a senior plan a trip to Croatia & Slovenia. But then the planning hit a major roadblock. We travel by public transport and during off season the public transport in Croatia which is made up of ferries and buses almost grinds to a halt. I didn’t want to be stranded in the Balkans so I had to start all over again with Italy which has a robust train and bus network throughout the year.
Now that we had decided on our destination country ( Yes, I only do one country at a time and abhor the 11 countries in 15 days type of trips offered by most Indian tour operators!!) and the time of travel the next step was deciding the actual places to visit in Italy. For Europe I am a big fan of Rick Steves and his guidebooks and I bought the Italy book to start planning the actual nitty – grittys of the vacation. Three places are a must visit for any first time visit to Italy according to all sources so Venice, Florence and Rome were included. Since my last trip to France I have become a fan of small towns where you can actually see the culture beyond the tourist hordes.
One of the places I wanted to visit in Italy was the Cinque Terre, a group of 5 sea side villages which look right out of a fairy tale. But unfortunately November is a rainy month in Italy and the trails connecting these villages close down in the rains so the Cinque Terre will have to wait for another trip. The other small towns which interested me were the Hill towns of Siena and Orvieto and the walled small town of Lucca. (I know, most Indian tour goers & operators must not even have heard of these places let alone have a tour which includes them!!) As these places were on the route of Venice – Florence – Rome making them convenient and we had more than enough places to visit on a 11 night trip I stopped searching for more.
Booking a Vacation
Any vacation involves the following bookings
Flights and Internal Transport
Most important and usually the main bulk of the cost of a vacation. While cost is a major factor, the time of the flight & number and durations of layovers matter too. While direct flights are the best, if a layover is inevitable I would rather choose a flight with a smaller layover even if it is slightly expensive. Also since both of us have no problems sleeping on a plane we choose flights which fly at night so we don’t waste any valuable days on a flight.
Another thing which I love are open ended flights so that we don’t have to double back to catch a return flight from the same destination wasting more time. I have found that in most instances open ended flights (in this case into Venice and out of Rome) cost the same as return flights or are slightly more expensive.
It is common sense to check multiple sites for prices before booking a flight. The best time to book an international flight is 3 months before a vacation as prices are same before that and may increase rapidly depending on demand after that.
For internal transport in between towns and cities I prefer to use the train as it is far more convenient than buses. But in towns which don’t have good rail connections or where the station is far away from the city centre I use buses. Long distance trains can usually be booked online from 3 months before the day of travel and are available dirt cheap when they open for booking. For Europe using the national train sites e.g. voyages sniff for France or Trenitalia for Italy are far more cheaper than Raileurope which charges much more than the national sites for no reason!
In the big cities we use the metro and bus/ tram network to get around the place. It is a bit overwhelming at first but with a bit of effort and planning you can zoom around the city at very low cost.
The single most important factor for choosing a hotel for me is the location. I always like to stay small midrange boutique hotels in the centre of town close to the tourist attractions. While this may be slightly expensive when compared to the huge chain hotels in the periphery of a city that the groups use. It more than compensates for it by being close to the action, getting personal attention from the staff and you don’t waste any time or money getting from your cheap impersonal hotel to the sightseeing. Also city centre hotels give you the chance to see the city centre all lit up and beautiful and not be worried about how you will reach your hotel later. When there are group hotels in the city centre they may be considered if there is a considerable price difference.
AirBnB and similar types have been gaining popularity nowadays. But I have no personal experience of the same and so can’t comment on the same. All places I stay have a front desk as it is of great use in a new city to recommend local eateries and interesting places in the nearby locality.
I usually search hotels from the aggregator sites and see Rick Steves recommendations, once the hotel has been finalised I usually book the hotel 2-3 moths in advance with a refundable option direct with the hotel itself. I find that this is the cheapest of all the refundable options. The refundable option leaves you with flexibility in case of any unforeseen circumstances.
If a buffet breakfast is included its great, a packed breakfast in the room that some hotels offer at an extra price is not worth it as you will get a fresher, better breakfast at the corner cafe at the same price. I never take full or half board options at it limits your choice and mobility.
I always prefer 2 nights at least per destination and 3 nights for the most important place , in this case Rome so that you get a good feel of the place and you don’t feel rushed in the sightseeing.
This is the most important part of any vacation. While I may skimp on flights and hotel rooms I never do that when it comes to sightseeing. Its what you are there for!!
I max out the sightseeing as far as possible but leave some time just to stand and stare. Every town has some must visit sights and every tourist knows this. So its best to have reservations where possible to minimise time spent in lines. Where reservations are not possible try to visit the most popular sights right when they open. Thats not always possible in every case so you have to do the best to make full use of your time in the place by planning out the sightseeing so that you waste minimum time in transit or in ticket lines. Inspite of your best planning, delays are always to be expected and its best to keep some contingency time for the same.
Museum or city passes are good deals in some cities like Paris while they might not be worth the money in some cities like Florence. So its common sense to see what they include and whether you save money if you visit just the sights you want to visit.
Also you should have a good mix of sights in a day. It can get very irritating and boring if you do three museums or 4 churches / parks in one day!!
Every destination has its splurge experiences, a concert in a cathedral, a gondola ride in Venice and Bungee jump/ paraglide from a tower/ bridge. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. So if that is your type of thing do it and ignore the price. You can have a sandwich that day for lunch and dinner to compensate. Chances are, few years from now you won’t remember what you ate but you will surely remember the magical experience of violins in an old cathedral or gliding through Venice in a gondola.
Researching all this makes you understand the place better. Me, I know the city map, main attractions and bus routes before I reach the place and it doesn’t seem so unfamiliar when I actually get there. That makes the trip less stressful and all the more enjoyable for me.
This is just my process of planning a vacation. I hope it’s not too preachy and it makes at least one person read and research about their vacation, even if they go on a group tour so that they can enjoy the place on a whole new level and maybe try a vacation on their own someday.
Till next time.