Dos and Don'ts for Planning Your Next Trip to Europe
I have to get away to Europe at least once a year, and for me, there is no better time to be there than June, July, August and September. I've just finished booking my next trip to France. If you're a sun seeker like me, the extra amount you'll pay to be there during peak season is worth every penny. And if you're thinking about a summer getaway but are not sure where to start, here are a few quick tips for booking your own European escape:
- Find airfare. You can forget about finding deals to Europe during these months, but there are a few tricks you can try. Consider flying into one city and out of the other. For the money (and time) it will cost you to backtrack to your arrival point, it may be cheaper to fly out of another airport and take a car or the train between points. You may also want to compare prices for flying early in the week to later; generally, Monday through Wednesday flight prices tend to be cheaper. Time of day also matters. If there are several flights, try flying at off-peak times. And remember, Europe does not celebrate Memorial Day, the Fourth of July or Labor Day, so when you're finding it tough to get a reasonably priced flight within the U.S. at this time and you're open to traveling a bit farther, you may just find a great opportunity to hop across the pond for just a bit more.
- Get started in steps. Take booking your trip in stages. It's like baking a cake: You need to have all the ingredients first. Start with some basic research on your travel destination then book your flight. I always compare sites but recently have found that by booking straight with the airlines I can get a fare comparable to any travel site.
- Find your hotel. Know the general area where you want to stay (I was looking for Inns in Provence, for example), and start searching on TripAdvisor for inns with the highest ratings and a lot of feedback. From there, check out their own websites, any Michelin ratings and recommendations from past guests directly from the hotel. TripAdvisor is also very helpful with its Facebook connect overlay, and you can see places your friends have reviewed as well as find the exact location of the property in Google Maps. You can also see pricing on several hotel sites.
- Comparison shop. Once you find a hotel you like, compare the hotel's site with the pricing on booking engines. Often you can get a better deal if you go direct. But when I was booking my hotel in Antibes, I found that Hotels.com had the best rates. Sometimes these rates are pre-negotiated at a set exchange rate, or the booking site will have a limited number of rooms to sell at this price. With a little research, you will get the best deal.
- Book your ride. Rent a car with A/C. I suffered in France one summer when I made the mistake of not getting it and will never let that happen again. Most cars you'll rent in Europe are stick/manual transmission. If you cannot drive a stick then make sure you look specifically for an automatic.
- Consider other transit, too. Trains can be faster and are often cheaper than a car rental, depending on where you're going. Make sure you compare both in terms of time, convenience and cost. Remember that for car rentals you need to take into account the daily rate, tolls, gas (which is expensive in Europe) and insurance. Rail Europe has some great pricing on fares and rail passes that are already in USD, so these can be more affordable than you think.
- Get some background. Before you start planning what to do during your trip, watch Rick Steve's clips on the area. I love watching Rick's clips to get a sense of an area and what the main highlights are. I also like Insight Guides for an easy-to-read guide to the region. If you're planning to drive, pick up a copy of the Michelin map for the country you're going to visit.
- Put the icing on the cake. Once you have the main ingredients, then it's time to top it off with a few extras. You might want to consider making some winery appointments or reservations for dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
- Don't delay booking flights. The flight prices will not get better.
- Don't overcommit yourself. Although distances may be smaller and you can be in another country very quickly, Europe is very dense. You want to allow yourself time to take in the little towns or wineries along the way.
- If you are taking a GPS, don't forget to download the map for the country you are traveling to. I took my GPS to France last year and could not use it because I didn't realize I needed to do this. I ended up having a crash course in Basque signage. Not fun.
- Don't forget to check your passport for the expiration date. The last thing you want is to have to cancel or move your trip because you don't have enough of a time window left on your passport.
- Don't limit how you can pay. For all of you American Express cardholders out there (and yes, I'm one), don't forget that it is not as widely accepted in Europe. Make sure you have a Visa or MasterCard on you, since if you travel out of major cities, chances are they will not take Amex.
Wishing you safe travels to Europe, or wherever this summer takes you!
Tell me your Europe travel tips here on the blog, or tweet to me @mindyjoyce