Monday, August 29, 2011

A Few Tips

I did all of our travel arrangements for our trip to Europe. I first looked at going with prepackaged deals or with specific tour groups but I kept hearing that we could do so much more for our money by scheduling everything ourselves, and that turned out to be true. We probably afforded two extra days of vacation by making all of our own bookings. It was a lot of work, however. The upside to that was that I learned a lot in advance about where we were going and the attractions, history and amenities of those places. That was a good thing. A time suck on the front end but well worth it in the end. So how did it all work? For the most part, really well. We had only one bobble along the way, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Here’s a rundown of the good stuff.

Affordability and flexibility: By booking our own stuff, we were able to make our own schedule and adjust it as necessary. If we were in a museum we especially enjoyed, we could stay as long as we liked. If we were at a dud, we could bail and move onto something else without having to wait another hour on a bus full of people. We had a lot of control over our time and our money, and that’s a very big deal on a vacation like that. Or any vacation, for that matter.

Museum passes: Most of the museums in London are free, but for the attractions that weren’t I bought our tickets online before we left. In fact, I started the trip with a big manila envelope full of vouchers that had to be redeemed at different places along the way. (I kept two copies at all times in case one envelope was lost, and I kept the emails in an email account I could access from London or Paris. Obsess much, Hula?) This was a tremendous time saver. For example, the morning we got to the Tower of London, the line for tickets was a mile long. We walked right up to the group ticket window where no one was waiting, showed our vouchers and walked right in. This happened on several occasions during our trip. The key to this is knowing exactly which attractions you definitely plan on seeing, because you will lose money if you don’t use the tickets.

It also ensures that you get into things that sell out quickly. I bought our Buckingham Palace tour tickets online about two weeks before we left. It’s a hot ticket this year, with Kate Middleton’s dress on display, and there weren’t many time slots available when I bought our tickets. The day we walked up to the booth to redeem our tickets, they were turning away people right and left because the tours were sold out. We would have never gotten in if I had tried to buy them at the door at any point during our stay in London.

Also, sometimes when you buy several tickets through a single tour vendor, you can get a bit of a discount or find a coupon code that saves you money. Just be sure to check the prices at the official venue sites. Some vendors jack up the regular rates quite a bit.

I also bought Paris Museum Passes before we left. Those passes get you in to just about every museum in Paris, including the Palace of Versailles. We would have spent far more on individual tickets for the attractions we saw than we did on those passes. They were worth their price in time savings, too. At many places, you simply waved your pass and went straight to the security line. We probably saved an hour and a half to two hours at the Louvre, just by skipping the ticket line. It also allowed us to pop into a museum where we wanted to see only one or two things, without worrying about paying an admission price that might have been a deterrent had we paid that individually. If you plan to stay a few days in Paris and see several museums, I highly recommend the Paris Museum Pass, especially during the high tourism season.

Subway passes: We relied on the Tube in London and the Metro in Paris for most of our daily travel, with some other trains in between. We utilized daily subway passes in London which worked well. Prior to the trip I had bought subway passes for the Paris Metro that allowed us unlimited usage for five days. We picked them up at the tourism office when we got to town and wore those suckers out. They came in a little cardboard pouch that we put in our money belt and we just whipped them out whenever we needed them. And we needed them a lot. One day in Paris, we literally lost count of how many times we got on the subway. We think it was seven. The passes also covered our train ride to Versailles and would have covered our Metro ride to the airport for our flight out had I not said to heck with lugging this freakin’ luggage up and down any more steps, I’m callin’ a shuttle. Best 50 Euros I spent in France, other than all that money I spent on ice cream.

And can I just say, the London Tube is spotless. You could eat off the floor of those subway cars, and that is not an exaggeration. New York and St. Louis could take a lesson (or four) from the British, although I honestly do not see how they are going to handle the extra subway traffic from Olympic tourists next summer. It’s already packed.

Airfare: I looked at twelve different online booking sites, getting various prices. Right before I booked, I went directly to the American Airlines site to check their prices and darn if they weren’t $30 cheaper per ticket than all the rest. I booked directly through them. Moral of the story-don’t assume Orbitz, Expedia or one of those is always the cheapest.

Lodging: I booked a really nice hotel in London through, many weeks in advance. It turned out to be a great buy and in a really good location. Sometimes really nice deals do happen on the internet like they’re supposed to without buying them blind through Priceline. Lesson? Don’t be afraid to scour really nice hotels for deals. Sometimes they actually offer them.

In Paris, I rented an apartment. I didn’t even know this was possible until I stumbled upon it in a hotel review on Trip Advisor. I had booked condos this way in the US, but never thought about doing it overseas. For less than I would have spent on a tiny, mediocre hotel room in Paris (Geez, hotels are expensive there!) I got a nice apartment in Ru Cler within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower that gave us the opportunity to live like the French and have a quiet place to go to each evening. We could have cooked there if we wanted, but we didn’t. We had a fridge, a TV and free international calling. I called Hubby every night, and that helped to ease his anxiety level over his girls wandering around Europe without body guards. It also saved us a lot of money on international calls. I just didn’t call him much from London. I did sign up for international calling on my cell phone before I left. That meant I paid 99 cents a minute instead of $6 a minute for the few times I used my cell phone. I will cancel the international plan when the charges for this trip have been paid. This is a very common practice, and I don’t feel bad about doing it as the cell phone bill could practically qualify as extortion each month, in my opinion.

I ended up booking the apartment through Vacations in Paris, which is headquartered in the US. I paid in American currency, and they mailed us the key to the apartment before we left home. We were able to go straight from the train station to our apartment, drop our luggage and run to the Eiffel Tower. Vacations in Paris was great to work with. I looked at their properties online, made my selection and looked at it on Google Earth to make sure it wasn’t in a crappy neighborhood before signing the papers. It was great. I highly recommend it. You can also use VBRO for Paris rentals. Who knew?

Money-We exchanged most of our spending money at our local bank before we left. They gave us a rate as good as we would have gotten at most European banks or kiosks, and we had money in our hands for cabs, subways etc…as soon as we arrived in London and Paris. The other option to save on this item is to simply use ATM’s to withdraw it from your checking account while you’re there. However, I wasn’t keen on the idea of using my debit card around town, so I felt better getting cash ahead of time.

Money belt-Yes, they are a bit cumbersome. Yes, they make you look about ten pounds heavier ladies, but they are worth the trouble. Paris is right behind Rome and Madrid when it comes to pickpockets. It really is a bad problem there. While I certainly don’t think it should deter anyone from traveling there, I would NEVER, EVER carry money, credit cards or ID around that city in anything but a money belt. Why? I had my phone stolen on the Metro while it was in my front right pants pocket.

The phone didn’t fit well in the money belt, and I didn’t really feel like it was safe in the small backpack I carried, so I uneasily put it in my pants pocket. I wasn’t real happy with that idea, though. As we were entering the subway turnstile at Pere La Chaise, a guy ran up behind me, started shoving me into the turnstile and screaming that he didn’t have a ticket. I thought he was trying to get in free. Frankly, after having been jostled and shoved by 13 million tourists that week, it pissed me off that he was pushing me around, plus it hurt. I elbowed him as hard as I could and pushed my way through the turnstile. He took off the other way, and as soon as I ran my hand into my pocket I realized what had happened. In the middle of broad daylight, right in front of a ticket booth where a Metro employee was working and right under a security camera. I may or may not have said some ugly words.

We reported it at the closest police station which is how we ended up looking at mug shots in the middle of a beautiful Paris afternoon with a cute police officer who spoke excellent English. He basically told us that pick pocketing is as bad as ever there and that they’ve had a real problem with the pick pockets becoming more violent. Basically, they will use as much force as necessary to take what they want from you, especially jewelry or expensive electronics. The majority of thefts on the streets and subways of Paris are phones these days, and they are especially fond of iPhones. They call it “pickin’ apples”. Bottom line, we weren’t hurt, we didn’t have any money or other valuables stolen and a phone is easy to replace. It could have been a lot worse had I not been wearing the money belt. All of our valuables were tucked under my pants. You would have had to have grabbed my hoo hoo to get any money off of us, and that’s the way I will travel from now on. Money belt? Totally worth looking ten pounds heavier.

By the way, I did not have any valuable information in my Blackberry, and I was really glad. I never use it to access any financial accounts, and I didn’t have any pertinent information regarding our apartment in it. I had actually stored the front door code to our building in the memos section under a fake heading of “work locker” in case I lost the phone, and I was really glad I did that. I don’t think anyone would have recognized what that code was. All of the other information regarding our apartment was on a typed piece of paper in the money belt next to my Fruit of the Looms, thankfully. As soon as we left the police station, we high tailed it back to the apartment, called to have all of the phone’s service shut down, and I used Teen Angel’s iPod to change my FaceBook password. We also took off all of our jewelry and tried really hard for the rest of the trip to not stand out as American tourists. That’s pretty hard to do for two really white girls from Kentucky, though. We were under no illusions about our appearance. For any of my Blackberry contacts who get a call from some weird sounding French guy in the next few weeks, please ignore him and hang up. Unless of course, you’re interested in talking to a Parisian thug.

Like I said, that was the only bobble in our trip, and while it was upsetting at the time, it wasn’t horrible. Heck, we were off to dinner shortly after that. Everything else went swimmingly. If you’re looking to squeeze as much as possible out of your vacation and don’t mind a lot of research and homework on the front end, then don’t be afraid to book your own arrangements. The internet is a wonderful thing. If, however, you would rather someone else do all the work, then call Triple A. Just be sure to join first, so you can get the discount on their packages. And please, wear the money belt. Seriously. Wear the belt.


A New England Life said...

Those are some awesome tips! Can't believe you were abused like that when he stole your phone. Or that he stole it out of your front pocket! My word that is bold.

I wondered if your husband traveled with you. To bad he couldn't go along with his girls : /

Kelley with Amy's Angels said...

I'm so glad you posted this. I agree with everything you said. I'm going to make a note to look at this post again when we start to book for good refreshers (It's been a while since I was in London!). :)

Anonymous said...

Dee from Tennessee

Oh, I loved reading about your trip. Would love to go but it will never I LOVE to read about others' adventures.Glad you weren't hurt and had a great time and great memories!!