Hello from Düsseldorf, Germany!
Many people have asked me recently how you go about planning extended travel. The difference in planning travel with an undefined end actually poses more and less issues depending on what element you are talking about. I have never been to Europe (shock to some, I know…) I’m leveraging this career sabbatical to see many places that have “been on the list” but have yet to be seen. Below is a breakdown of the key elements so far.
The key to planning really comes down to a “less is more” mantra. I have a list I’ve put together over the years of places I’ve always wanted to see. If you are planning a defined trip like “10 days in Italy” you really do need to iron out the logistics of flying in / flying out, internal transit, accommodation, tours, festivals or events, etc. When you have an open ended trip you have a much easier ability to wing it versus being prescriptive. If you like a place, stay longer. If you can’t wait to leave. You leave. I find most of my desire to move comes from the people I meet while I’m there. Nothing sucks more than leaving an awesome travel companion or group because you have to catch a plane. This is particularly key in solo travel.
There are a ton of resources you can use to help navigate your way around. There are also thousands of travel bloggers, like me, who have gathered a bunch of tips along the way to save you some time. Rather than go into that now I will post a section dedicated to the sites I use for travel booking and link that on the main page. (Link here)
I find the best way to plan is to at least iron out your arrival city and your initial accommodation. Some backpackers just land somewhere and figure it out on arrival. I’ve definitely had to do this when for whatever reason your plans go to hell due to weather or other forces outside of your control. Personally, I don;t get much enjoyment schlepping my nags around an unknown city seeking out somewhere to rest my head for the night.
Taking the above into consideration, I did actually iron out the first few stops on my trip. In effect this was dictated by a fixed element – I booked my USA flight on points accrued via British Airways. This meant I had the choice of starting in London, England or Düsseldorf, Germany. There were more options but I was happy choosing between the two. BA has a great points program called Avios but they are also the industry leader in high fuel surcharges when you book using points. For example, I had the choice of flying JFK to London or Düsseldorf for around 20,000 points. However, flying on BA “metal” was an additional fuel surcharge of $240. Using the same number of points and booking code-share on airberlin was only a fuel surcharge of $5. Yep, no typo. About $235 in savings. That’s a lot of money that could easily be spent elsewhere.
Once nailing down the arrival location I simply looked at this map (for a long time).
To be honest, I was surprised at where a few of the countries actually are… Meshing this, knowledge of the weather, itineraries of young people group tour stops, European summer travel patterns (avoid southern Europe in July/August), and lord knows how many blogs I found with “3 month Europe itinerary” I had a much better sense of where to go. It really is a delicate balancing act of hitting places in good seasons but not the main “tourist season” This link was quite helpful in identifying “shoulder seasons”. Basically where the weather is good but you’re not mobbed by other tourists and stuck paying “high season” prices and dealing with limited availability.
Here’s what I came up with:
- Düsseldorf – my arrival city. Somewhere I found they had a cool old town, progressive and younger resident base and ample beer gardens. I figured two days was sufficient.
- Amsterdam, Netherlands – stop #2 Located close by Düsseldorf and one of my “must see” cities. I found cheap bus fare via www.rome2rio.com for €21. It’s a 3 hour bus ride but I’m not in a rush and hopefully will see some nice countryside. I mean look at their publicity photos… It will also give me a good opportunity to maybe meet like minded travelers on the way. We are a captive audience after all. Given the amount of trouble I think is possible in Amsterdam I am limiting myself to 5 days / 4 nights.
- Belgium – Looking at the map, Belgium is right between the Netherlands and France. Since Paris was next on my list I thought what the hell, why not book a few days there to see how much Belgian beer and chocolate I can consume. Perhaps a day trip to Bruges as well. I literally have no idea what I’m in for but that’s part of the fun. You guessed it, green bus… €8
- From Belgium, it’s back on the green bus for a €15 4 hour ride to Paris. Oh look – I guess I’ll see similar countryside…. Paris, the city of lights, is good for 5 days. It allows me enough time to just relax, take in the Parisian cafe culture, and selectively hit the usually swarmed tourist hot spots.
- From Paris, I am off to Barcelona. This one required that I book a flight in advance. The cost of train travel was exorbitant compared to a cheap flight and I ended up landing the flight with Transavia for only €52. While I will miss seeing the French countryside via the 6 hour train I also save significant funds as the train runs for up to €180. The bus was an option but was similar in cost to the flight and took 14 hours versus 1.5.
- This schedule takes me from August 12th-28th across 4 countries with what should be an appropriate time for each stop.
- From here, It’s completely up in the air. I have friends visiting Europe over the coming months and will do my best to align our travel plans where I can. I’m all for splitting accommodation costs. More on that below.
This can make or break a trip budget. Being smart about transit and accommodation costs is key to staying on track as they are the easiest to blow out your budget. For the most part, I will stick to hostels. While Americans tend to have little knowledge or bad perceptions of hostels I love them. By definition, they are catered to budget travelers. And guess what, in Europe it’s not just young people. It’s all ages, families, etc. Pretty much all groups except business travelers. I can’t blame them, I do miss being able to expense poshy hotel rooms. Hostels are kitted out with everything you need: places to store your stuff in transit, common lounges, bars, kitchens, some have private rooms, ensuites, even luxury items like pools. While some can be awful run-down places I have generally had good luck. Oh, and they are CHEAP! You save money while being able to meet other travelers and making friends along the way.
I mean there are drawbacks to sharing a room / bathroom. People are loud, they can be messy, smelly, snore, or any other things that annoy you. It happens. Invest in a sleeping mask and earplugs and you typically are fine.
With the wealth of booking and review sites I typically know what I’m getting into. In the absence of a hostel there are always hotels, B&B’s home stays, couch surfing, or staying with friends/travelers.
I have listed some of the best booking sites here
Setting a budget and keeping a budget are two very different things. There will always be budget busters whether that’s an unforeseen expense, illness, or an activity that you just really want to do. The key is keeping a reasonable daily goal and letting the excesses be offset by the days you end up under budget. Plenty of bloggers and travel books suggest budget ranges but it all comes down to you. And yes, this typically means adjusting your at-home party habits back. A night of partying can set you back massively for the benefit of a hangover.
For my trip, I am roughly budgeting $100US per day but am trying to stay well below that as is reasonable.
What to bring / pack
This is a whole subject on it’s own so i’ll conquer that on a separate post. (Link coming soon)
Not a sexy topic, but I highly recommend taking out a travel insurance policy. It provides your medical cover as well as really useful coverage for delays or having items lost/stolen. It happens, and the policies are typically affordable. For me, I almost exclusively use World Nomads. I’ve just heard too many horror stories of the home country medical not covering overseas or credit card cover falling short. The expense is worth the piece of mind. Also, had a great experience getting a camera in Thailand replaced after it fell out of a boat I was riding in.
Europe is full of many cultures and many languages. While you can’t master them all, you can do your best to learn a few basic words or phrases as you go. In cities, most people speak or understand English as the common international language. Less so once you go rural. But, people will help you more if you show a general attempt at knowing the basics. Best not appear as the average dickhead American tourist.
Wifi isn’t everywhere – but it’s in a lot of places and usually free. I’m also guilty of sitting outside of cafes and logging on. There is not real good solution in Europe for an all country Sim-card. I’m pretty happy about this because unplugging is part of the fun. For some apps and ways to stay in touch I’ve listed a few options I use here: (Link coming soon)
Safety really comes down to a “don’t be stupid” mantra. This get stolen, pick pocketers exist, and tourists tend to be low hanging fruit.General discretion here goes a long way. I don’t fundamentally interact any different when traveling than I do when in the USA or Australia.
If there are any areas I didn’t touch on here please send me a note, happy to add any items I left off. Email me at email@example.com