A few people have asked how we planned the itinerary for our trip, how we chose the attractions and activities we did and saw, whether we used a travel agency or tour group and where we stayed. How did we see it all? So I thought in conjunction with all of the city blog posts (London, Paris, Cinque Terre, Pisa, Rome, and Amsterdam) I'd make a big post of trip planning tips and tricks.
We didn't use a travel agency and we didn't go with a tour group. We planned this whole trip on our own, from start to finish. Planning trips is totally my cup of tea. I could plan trips in my spare time, just for fun, I like it so much. Here's a little glimpse into our planning process:
The first thing we did was buy our plane tickets. This helped structure our itinerary. We knew we would be flying into London and out of Amsterdam and we knew that we would be there for 2 weeks. From there we had to decide where else we wanted to go and how long we wanted to be in each place. This was trickier than it should have been. It seems like everyone has an opinion about how fast or slow to go on trips. We had some friends who went to Europe a few years ago and they never stayed in one place longer than 2 days and said they moved too fast. We've also had friends go to Europe and stay in one city the entire time, all 8 days of their trip. My mom said that when she's traveling she likes to move really fast and see as much as possible. In the end we were pretty pleased with how long we were in each city. We always tried to follow Rick Steve's recommendation to stay at least 2 nights in the same place so you can have a little bit of familiarity and comfort on that second night.
WHERE TO GO: We know from the beginning we'd be flying into London and out of Amsterdam. We also knew that we wanted to go to Paris while we were there. For a while we were just going to go to those 3 cities. Then we decided to add Rome, and since we were going to be in Italy we also added Cinque Terre (and then while we were on our trip we decided to spend a few hours in Pisa on our way to Rome).
We chose our destinations based on bucket lists, places we had seen friends go, cities that looked cool...etc. It's not too hard to find somewhere cool to go.
TRAVEL BETWEEN CITIES: There are a lot of different ways to get between cities (plane, train, car, bus, boat...etc.). We mostly flew between cities because we found that it was the cheapest and saved us the most time. One great resource for planning this is part of the trip is Google Flights. It helps you find the cheapest days to fly and which airlines to use. It also tells you the flight times that are available across all of the airline companies on the particular day you want to travel (in case you are on a tight schedule) and you can also search train prices as well). We also really liked Rome2Rio which helped us plan the trains we took in Italy. (A few of my other favorite flight planning sites are Skyscanner and Kayak.)
Using Google Flights we decided that it was best for our schedule and price range to fly AirFrance from London to Paris ($65 each). From Paris we flew Ryanair to Pisa ($26 each). Leaving Rome we flew EasyJet to Amsterdam ($80 each). We had good experiences with all of the airlines we used. One thing to note is that Ryanair typically doesn't fly out of the main airports. Leaving Paris we had to take an hour long shuttle ride to get to the airport where the Ryanair flights were departing.
While in Italy we took lots of trains (from Pisa to Riomaggiore, and then from Riomaggiore back to Pisa on to Florence and then Florence to Rome). Our experience with the trains in Italy was interesting. They were on strike when we got there and I also had my phone stolen on a train at the train station in Pisa. So our initial experience was that the trains were unreliable and not safe. I felt like I had to be very "on guard" whenever we were on a train or at the train station, and to really keep a close eye on all of our stuff. Given that though we did really enjoy the high speed train from Florence to Rome. That was a fun experience.
WHERE TO STAY: We stayed almost exclusively in Airbnbs. The only exception was the hotel we stayed at in Riomaggiore. We looked at hotels for about a half second but realized very quickly that they were much more expensive (even if we booked them with Skymiles). Airbnb was great. I loved reading the reviews to really feel informed about the place we were inquiring about.
Here are a few tips about using Airbnbs:
1. Look for locations hosted by Superhosts. They will treat you well, their places will be awesome, and you will have all of the things you'll need for a comfortable stay. Our Superhost in London literally treated us like we were family. I almost want to send her a Christmas card. (Superhosts will be indicated by a special badge next to their profile picture).
2. While searching I was really careful to note locations where the host had ever canceled a booking. I avoided bookings because I didn't want to risk any kind of flakiness. In the reviews it will indicate if a booking has been canceled.
3. We've never been brave enough to try booking a private or shared room, we always rent an entire house/apartment. On a trip like this I wanted 100% privacy and security. I wanted to be able to leave my bags there during the day with my laptop and our passports and know that they were safe.
4. Know your specifications and search for them. On this trip it was very important to us that we had access to a washer and dryer. We also wanted good Wi-Fi, and a kitchen so we could eat breakfast at home to save money. We weren't renting cars in any of the cities we visited so we needed to have easy access to Tube/Metro stations so we also looked for information about that in the listing and reviews.
GETTING AROUND TOWN: We didn't want to rent a car in any of the cities we visited so we needed to figure out how to get to our Airbnbs from the Airport and how to get around in each city.
IN LONDON: We took Heathrow Connect from Heathrow to Paddington Station. (We could have taken Heathrow Express but decided to save a little bit of money since we weren't in a rush.) Getting around town we used the Tube. It was so easy to navigate and we loved that it worked so well with Google Maps. We bought Oyster cards at Paddington Station which made paying for our rides fast and easy. We also took one double decker bus (which you can pay for with the Oyster card). Next time we're in London we'll take more double decker buses because their routes also work with Google Maps and are easy to navigate.
IN PARIS: From Charles de Gaulle we took a taxi into Paris. We could have taken an RER train but since we were in a rush the taxi worked great. Within Paris we used the Metro. We downloaded the RATP Metro app which made navigating the Metro a cinch. Before our first Metro ride we purchased a carnet 10 pack, which gave us 10 rides within Zones 1 and 2 in Paris. We ended up having to buy a few single tickets past that but not enough to buy another 10 pack. To get to Versailles we had to buy different train tickets because it is in Zone 4 (can't use the carnets). The ticket machines in the train stations are pretty self explanatory and we used them quite a bit.
IN CINQUE TERRE: From Paris we flew to Pisa, and from Pisa we took a train to La Spezia and then on to Riomaggiore. There are train stations in all of the cities in Cinque Terre and the trains run between the cities every 15 minutes or so. There is also a ferry that runs between all of the towns. Alternatively, you can hike between them (some of the trails are closed at the moment but hopefully they'll open again someday).
IN ROME: Upon arriving in Rome we walked everywhere until it was time to get to the airport, when we took the most terrifying taxi ride of our life and were ripped off by the driver. (We didn't use the metro because we had heard that it wasn't totally safe.) Honestly, I'm not sure what the best way is to get around is in Rome. Walking was a exhausting, the metro was unsafe, and the taxi drivers were crazy...
IN AMSTERDAM: Bikes!! The very best way to see the Canal Ring is on bike. We took the train from the airport to Amsterdam Central and then walked to our Airbnb. Our Airbnb had bikes we could use for the rest of our stay. We could get everywhere we needed to go on the bikes, and we got there so fast (compared to all of the walking we did in Rome).
STAYING CONNECTED: Staying connected was much easier than I thought it was going to be, because so many places have free Wi-Fi and like I mentioned above, we made sure that all of the places we stayed had Wi-Fi. Because of this we were able to FaceTime our daughters back home every night. We also purchase a European SIM card right when we got there to use whenever we were out and about and needed to use a phone.
ACTIVITIES AND ATTRACTIONS: This is probably the biggest part of any trip, how are you going to fill your time. On this trip because it was just the two of us we knew that we'd be able to move pretty fast. Given this we still left some time for adjustments knowing that we could get tired or need a little break.
This is where I did the bulk of my research. I tried to find as many itineraries as I could, whether in blog posts or travel books (I even messaged a lot of my friends who had recently visited these cities and asked them what they did and liked/didn't like). I looked at the itineraries of Rick Steve's tours for the cities we'd be visiting, and also his itinerary tips. I really liked this website which helps you create an itinerary based on the pace you'd like to go. I also spent a LOT of time on pinterest, and pinned and read through anything that looked like it would be remotely helpful (here is my Europe Inspiration Board). I also read through lots of blog posts that said things like "10 things to do in...." (like this) or "The experience you can't miss in..." (like this). I looked at all of the City Passes (like the London Pass, Paris Pass...etc.) and read about the available attractions.
I always make a custom Google Map of each city we visit and mark restaurants or attractions we might be interested in visiting. This not only helps me get acquainted with the city but helps us know good restaurants to visit if we're out and about and start getting hungry.
We planned a lot of our trip around specific attractions we wanted to visit. For example the Portobello Market in London is really best visited on a Saturday, so we made sure that we were there on a Saturday. Another thing that really helped was a making a big master list for each city with attractions and their prices and the days/hours they were open. This was helpful because for example, the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays and Versailles is closed on Mondays, so it was an obvious choice that we visit the Louvre on Monday and Versailles on Tuesday. I also indicated on the list which places had cheaper tickets online verses which tickets we could purchase in person on site.
Let me know if you have any questions that I didn't answer. I would love to discuss further!
Do you enjoy planning trips? What are your best trip planning resources or secrets? What did I miss?