How to plan a European holiday? Part-2

The Swiss Alps

The Swiss Alps

Read Part-1 of this article here.

In my last post, I had written about how to choose places to visit in Europe, and how to plan a holiday around Europe. When you plan a holiday, it is only natural that you want to have an idea on how much it costs, and how much you need to spend. This will help to categorize what are the planned costs, and what can be surprise expenses. In this post, I will comment on what are the costs involved in a European holiday, and how to make decisions on the budget for a trip to Europe.

How much do I budget for the trip?

This is another important, but subjective question when planning a trip. If correctly planned, you can stick to your budget, and in some cases even spend less than what you had planned. But, budget planning needs some groundwork. I split my expenses into four main buckets –

  • Accommodation
  • Food
  • Travel
  • Sightseeing

Other than these, there could be expenses like – laundry, medical, shopping, and unexpected expenses. I will show how to plan for each of these buckets.

Accommodation

A centrally located business hotel in Paris can cost you more than the entire amount you are spending for your trip. So, choosing the right accommodation within a fixed budget is important. For a trip in Europe, looking at the average price of accommodations (including hostels) at the various places I had chosen, I had allocated a budget of EUR 35 per person per night. That would make it EUR 70 for a room per night. These were the qualifications I looked for in a hotel while booking –

  • Does it have private double rooms? (Sometimes hostels do not have private rooms)
  • Does the room have a private shower and toilet?
  • Is the hotel centrally located?
  • If not, is there a local public transport option within 5 minutes of walk from the hotel?
  • Does it have a good rating in most of the popular online review websites?
  • If there are bad reviews, what are they based on? And, can I adjust with some shortcomings if there are many positives?
Hotel Isis, Amsterdam

Hotel Isis, Amsterdam

If I get YES as the answer to all of the above questions, I go ahead and book the hotel by paying an advance through the hotel’s own website, or hotel booking sites like hotels.com, booking.com, hostelbookers.com or the like. In some places, I can get rooms for EUR 60 per night, and in some places like Switzerland, I might have to increase my budget to EUR 80-85 per night. But overall, I would like to stick to my average budget. Many times, a non-cancellable option will be 5-10% cheaper than a cancellable option. I try to book cancellable options as much as possible. Who knows when your plan might change, and you would want to minimize losses!

Staying in hostels is a very good option. Though hostels mainly tend to have shared dormitory-like accommodation, a lot of hostels have private rooms as well, which tend to get booked very fast. I have stayed in shared accommodation a number of times earlier, and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But, since I was traveling with my wife, for whom this is a first time visit to a foreign land, I chose private rooms over dormitories. Either ways, hostels are great because, they have shared kitchen facilities, conducted tours, pub crawls, reading rooms, and sometimes even serve meals. Also, hostels are great places to meet and socialize with travelers from all over the world.

Another options are B&Bs (bread and breakfast), which are usually small establishments with a few rooms, that offer breakfast as well. They offer no-frills lodging, and do not have the other facilities of a hotel, but the rooms are fully stocked and no less in comfort. They give excellent value for money.

In metropolitan cities which have a well organized public transport system, you can choose something 15-30 minutes away from the city center by public transport, and still have an excellent place of stay. In villages and small towns, choose something close to the train or bus station, so that you can get to the hotel or leave easily, especially with luggage. Make full use of Google maps, Google street view, and Wikivoyage for selecting a good accommodation option in any town. Online review sites like tripadvisor.com, and the reviews in booking sites themselves, like hotels.combooking.comhostelbookers.com or hostelworld.com will all be very helpful in judging if the place you chose is going to be as advertised or not. I did all this analysis and chose my hotels – and I was not disappointed once in my whole stay.

Places I stayed in my tour –

  • AmsterdamHotel Isis (5 minutes across the river from the train station, good host and rooms)
  • LauterbrunnenValley hostel (an excellent choice, 2 minutes from the train station)
  • ZermattLe Petit Hotel (had to walk 10 minutes to get here, but good hotel)
  • ParisGrand Hotel de Clermont (room on the 2nd floor without lift, and noisy bar downstairs, but vfm in Paris)
  • VeniceCasa per ferie alle Lagune (the best accommodation in terms of comfort)
  • SorrentoHotel Nice (good hotel, but bad breakfast, 10 steps from train station)
  • RomeSunmoon hostel (excellent host, good rooms, 2 minutes from train station)

Food

The cost of food varies greatly between the different basket of countries I had mentioned earlier. And for Indians, especially vegetarians, finding the right food, which is also tasty and palatable is a big challenge. In our trip, I and my wife tried the local cuisine a lot whenever we could, and had a good time in most places. We ate dishes that had eggs, chicken, fish, crabs and shrimps, and occasionally bacon. Also we acquired a taste for the different types of green uncooked leaves served as part of a salad – they were actually good!

Pizza Vegetariana

Pizza Vegetariana
Source: Onnoth on Flickr

All restaurants mostly tend to have at least 1 or 2 vegetarian options, and usually more than that. Salad choices are plenty, and healthy too. Vegetarian pastas and pizzas having aubergines (brinjal) were a hit with us in Italy in most places. Avoid Lebanese kebab places serving pizzas, as they do not suit the Indian palate one bit.

As far as allocating a budget for food, I had fixed it at EUR 25 per person per day. That makes it EUR 50 for a couple for a day. We had a policy of light breakfast, quick lunch, and a sit down dinner. Apart from this, we had snacks and ice creams whenever available. Whenever breakfast was available in the hotel, we used to eat heartily. For lunch, we ate sandwiches, burgers, to-go items or fast food. During dinner time, we went to a good restaurant and had a nice sit down meal.

When the hotel did not serve breakfast, a croissant and a macaroon or muffin in a bakery was our breakfast, and this could be done in EUR 3-6 for both. We had lunch in sandwich stands, McDonald’s, Subway, or sometime packed food from the bakery the morning. This way, lunch always costed around EUR 10-15 for both of us together. During dinner, a main dish in a restaurant usually costs around 10 euros. And, we had 2 drinks, 2 main dishes and sometimes a side dish for dinner, and the bill came to EUR 30 to 35. Add it all, and we could do it in EUR 50 per day for both of us. Breakfast was served in a number of hotels we stayed, and we used the saved money to splurge on lunch🙂 In Switzerland, the bakery items and cookies in co-ops (supermarkets) we pretty tasty and fresh – that we bought packets of them to have whenever we were hungry.

In big cities like Paris, Amsterdam, or Rome, finding cheap and good food might be pretty easy. Cities have a lot of choice in the type of cuisine, cost of food, and the taste as well. You can also find a number of roadside eateries and food stalls selling cheap food. But in small towns and villages, the number of restaurants or food joints are limited, and you will be forced to spend more for food. But the former and the latter balance each other, as you will have cities as well as towns as villages in your trip. Also, avoid eating anything near major sights, landmarks or squares. Prices at these places will be at least 2-3 times more than a nearby cross street or gully. Eating at places that have menus only in the native language (not in English) will be cheaper, but it is impractical most of the times for Indians, because we are choosy on food. So, it is better to stick to some place in a cross street, which has menu displayed in English outside.

Towards the end of the trip, when we found that we have saved up some cash, we splurged a little on food, eating in Indian restaurants and sitting down for lunch as well.

Travel

The first step in travel to Europe, is getting from India to Europe. Based on the travel plan you have drawn up, you can choose your port of entry to the Schengen area. Remember that you apply for Schengen visa to the country where you are going to spend the maximum number of nights. Booking early could give you good fares on flights to Europe. The usual ports of entry to the Schengen area from India are Frankfurt, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Munich, in that order, or other cities, based on the carrier you choose. From your port of entry, you can decide where to go, and how to carry on your journey.

I have found Emirates to be the most professional and comfortable airline to travel anywhere, followed by Qatar Airlines. My experience with Lufthansa was average in all departments – seat comfort, food, and entertainment – but of course the flight was on time.

A superfast train in France

A superfast train in France
Source: Sascha in Flickr

Driving a car in Europe is not my cup of tea. In the US, or even in the UK, it is a viable option, but in Europe, with a language barrier, and not having the best signed roads everywhere, and having an excellent public transport network, I would prefer using public transport any day. Also, in places like Amalfi coast, driving a car is really a challenge, with its winding and narrow mountain roads, and heavy traffic. Also, public transport takes you right to the center of the city or town, and local transport takes you anywhere you need quite fast – so that is the most preferred option.

There are two low cost carriers in Europe – easyJet and Ryanair. Though they are low cost, you might have to pay for check-in luggage, and usually these carriers fly to the second or third airport of a city, which is usually considerably away from the city with minimal connectivity options. There are, of course, exceptions, but this tends to be the rule. So, check for these carriers to go from one city to another, and also remember to check which airport it flies to, and how far it is from the city center. I had taken flights with easyJet from Paris to Venice, and Venice to Naples. In Paris, it was the Orly airport, which has good connectivity with the city by public transport, and Venice Marco Polo airport is the main airport for Venice. In Naples, easyJet flies to the Naples International Airport, and we took a bus directly from Naples airport to Sorrento. In other cities, we preferred to travel by trains, as they took us directly to the city center. Europe has high speed trains that travel up to 320 kmph speeds, and no time is lost in check in or transfer.

In Europe, trains are run by private companies, and a simple google search will tell you which train is run by which company. You will be able to book from the company’s website, and you will get good deals if booked early. The booking period starts at different times for different trains, and may range from 3 months to 45 days. So, keep a track of time and book at the earliest possible date. There are websites like raileurope.com, which can book trains from anywhere to anywhere in Europe in a single place, but the prices tend to be slightly higher. Using the German train website bahn.de, you can book tickets on most trains that go in and around Germany. For Switzerland, sbb.ch is the website to book trains. But, getting a Swiss Pass will be more convenient and will save time. For France, it is thalys.com and tgv-europe.com, and for Italy, it is trenitalia.com. A good option will be to look at the different trains available and their schedules at raileurope.com, and book them from their respective sites.

The very popular eurail pass allows ticketless travel in many trains, but for long distance and high speed trains, reservation fees has to be paid, which at some times is quite high. So, it would be wise to do a cost benefit analysis of the eurail pass, and check if it fits your bill. If it does, and you are doing a lot of train travel, go for it, else stick to individual train tickets.

Instead of taking an eurail pass, I chose to book individual tickets for trains, and reserved them well in advance before my journey. This saved me trouble during the journey, and also let me have low fares. In Switzerland alone, I purchased an 8-day Swiss Pass, which entitled me to travel in any train, bus or public transport for free. Also, the museums and lake cruises were free. So, it was value for money. But, even with my Swiss pass, I had to pay for some of the high altitude cablecars and gondolas (especially the train to Jungfrau). So, educate yourself on these options before you leave.

The budget for travel would vary on a case to case basis – depending on how many places you stay in, how you choose to travel between cities, how you go around in a particular city, how long before your journey you booked the tickets, and so on. In my case, the return flight ticket to Frankfurt for one person costed INR 47,500 per person. All the other travel in Europe costed approximately EUR 750 per person. This includes two flight journeys on easyJet, the cost of Swiss Pass for 8 days, at least 5 train long distance train journeys, one bus journey, and all local public transport options in cities – for a total period of 30 days.

Sightseeing

Sightseeing can be the easiest or the hardest part of planning, depending on how you do it. One approach would be – to decide on the cities/towns you would like to visit, and then check what all sights can be visited in those cities or towns. This is the easier approach. The other way would be to list down all sights you would want to check out in Europe, and then pick your cities based on the sights you love to visit the most. Either way, both of these approaches will overlap one another till your final plan is in place.

Important points to consider when choosing sights –

  • Does the sight interest you, or are you going just because it is in the guide books?
  • Does the sight have an entrance fee? If it does, how much?
  • What are the days of closure?
  • What are the opening hours?
  • How do you reach the place?
  • Does it cost too much to reach the place by public transport?
  • What is the best time to visit, in terms of crowds?
  • Can you carry a bag? If not, is there luggage storage facilities?
  • Does it need to be prebooked, or can you turn up and get in?
  • Can you book it online? If yes, how many days in advance?

All of this information is available online, and for places that don’t need reservations, you can plan a couple of days in advance so that you can be prepared for your visit. When making reservations, please remember that booking anything before 11 am will mean that you will have to wake up early, have your breakfast early, and take public transport if necessary to reach this sight. So, factor in all these while making bookings online. Afternoons are best for spending in indoor attractions, and evenings are best for walking tours or unplanned activities.

The Louvre, Paris

The Louvre, Paris
Source: Grufnik on Flickr

Europe is full of museums. When museums definitely give a good insight into the art, culture and history of a region, they need a lot of time to explore, and usually give too much information than you can assimilate. I prefer to visit only a few museums (around 4-5) in any long trip, because anything beyond that is an overdose, and you cannot enjoy them. Typically, a museum takes around 4 to 5 hours to explore, and all of that time is spent walking and looking at either paintings or artifacts. Exploring museums are very tiring physically and mentally, and by the end of a museum visit, all you want to do is go back and rest. So, I have some tips on visiting a museum.

Either take a guided tour, or an audio guide tour, or a guide downloaded online. Guided tours are very good, because you have some one take you through all the important sights in a museum, and also give you a good insight into what it is all about. Without that, you might end up staring at some unimportant or mundane displays for a long time, and lose all your energy when the real masterpieces come up. But, one problem with guided tours is that you could feel rushed. There might be a whole room dedicated to your favorite displays (say, Egypt), and the guide might skip it for something less interesting to you. The next option – taking an audio guide from the museum. While this helps a great deal in enjoying every display in your own pace, the narrative is usually very long, formal, and boring. It may not give you fun facts or anecdotes some times, and might be tiring as well. The third, and my preferred way of touring a museum is to download an online guide. This could be an audio guide, or a text guide. This way, you choose what you want to see beforehand, and save up all your energy for the best of the lot. I have downloaded audio guides and text guides for Italian museums from Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com/news/audio-tours.htm), and generally had a good experience with them.

Walking tours are a great way of getting to know a city or town. Sandeman’s tours are quite popular around Europe, and there a quite a lot of others, that give an overview of the city. A local guide usually takes a bunch of tourists around the city showing all the interesting spots, and giving a bite of history and stories about the place. Also, there are specific walking tours if you are interested in food, fashion, photography, or anything else on offer in a city. So, make use of these for a pleasant and memorable experience.

Every city has a whole list of sights and monuments, and each have their own opening times and entrance fees. Some of these might need reservations in advance, and it might be difficult to get the reservations if it is too late. Also, reservations are a great way to skip the long queues in the sights, and get in right away. So, read up about the sights in every place you are visiting – in wikivoyages, and choose just one or two of the sights to enjoy when you get there. For example, in Paris, the lift up to the summit of Eiffel tower gets booked up very quickly, and if you turn up there without reservations, you have to get behind an insanely long queue. The same goes for Louvre and the Vatican museums.

Zaans Schans, Netherlands

Zaans Schans, Netherlands

There might also be small excursions to nearby towns or villages that could give you a totally different experience from where you are staying. So, look out for these as well. In Amsterdam, a day trip to Volendam, Edam, Zaanse Schans and so on, will give you lasting impressions of Dutch life, history, and culture. In Switzerland, there are a whole lot of mountains, hikes and glaciers to explore, and the trains are plenty and punctual. In Paris, you could easily do a day trip to the Loire valley, Versailles, Normandy or Disneyland Paris – if that excites you. In Venice, there are boats going to the cute little islands of Murano and Burano. So, reading up about these excursions, or asking at your hotel will help you escape the busy city life and visit some charming town stuck up in an olden era, or a quaint village with picture post card sceneries.

Pub crawls are popular in the cities like London or Edinburgh, or even in eastern European cities like Prague or Vienna, and they are a great way of having a good time, and meeting a lot of people from around the world as well. Piazzas and squares are best visited in the evenings when the sun is a little down, and the atmosphere turns romantic. A walk along a popular street or locality might give you some new ideas for places to visit, food to eat, or activities to do.

Sightseeing decisions and expenses related to that are purely subjective. But, to give a ballpark figure, in my Europe trip with my wife, I spent around EUR 500 per person for the whole 30 days of sightseeing. This includes all walking tours, entrances to museums and monuments, guides, cablecars and all things in that category.

Miscellaneous expenses

Laundry

This is one of the things you need to plan for while travelling. The best trip will be the one where you pack the lightest. If you can pack just a carry on luggage, and live off it for 30 days, you are a travel genius. My advice would be to pack for just a week, and wash your clothes in a laundry every week. If you follow this advice, you will have the least problems with luggage. Self-service laundromats are available in every city, town or village, and they are pretty easy to operate. Usually, they are coin operated. On an average it costs EUR 5-8 for washing a load of clothes, and EUR 4-5 for tumble drying. Washing and drying takes around 1-1.5 hours, and at the end, you just need to fold your clothes to be put back in your luggage. If you cannot make out the instructions (which are usually not in English), ask someone around and you will definitely find help. We did laundry thrice during our 30-day trip, and predictably spent around EUR 40 on the whole.

Medicines and toiletries

You can carry all prescription medicines with you (with prescriptions), and medication for common ailments like cold, headache, diarrhea and so on. I had a small bruise on my knee when cycling down the valley in Switzerland, and could pick up an adhesive bandage in the nearby pharmacy. Toiletries like soaps, shampoos, sunscreen lotion and so on can be picked up from a co-op, and take up valuable space in your luggage if packed from home.

Anything you need, which is not listed above will fall into unplanned expenses. This might be because of cancelled trains, shopping expenses or minor indulgences along the way. Plan at least 10% of your planned budget for these kind of expenses.

This brings an end to the expenses part of the Europe trip. Please feel free to ask any question in the comments section, and I will be glad to answer if I know.

Read Part-1 of this article here.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: