Tag Archives: Travel planning

I love it when a plan comes together

Thinking about how my upcoming Christmas trip to Prague, Vienna and Budapest is slowly but surely starting to take shape reminded me of the Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith line from the ’80s TV series, The A-Team. I’m probably really dating myself by admitting that show and quote comes to mind for any reason whatsoever, but as the proverbial they say, “It is what it is.”

Now that flights have been secured, hotels have been reserved and a few other logistical details have been considered and are awaiting confirmation once train/bus schedules for December are released, I’ve moved on to researching options for how my son and I will spend our time in each of our destination cities. Per my typical travel planning style, I love to read about what most consider to be the highlights and must-sees of each city we’ll be visiting.  I certainly can’t say that the pre-trip planning is half of the fun for me, as the actual travel itself is disproportionately more enjoyable than the research leading up to the trip. That being said, learning about my upcoming destinations does provide distinct enjoyment as it not only lays the groundwork for the trip itself, what I read also provides me with background and history that will enrich not only the vacation, but also my knowledge base. What can I say? I am a nerd, and I wear that badge of honor (or is it a bozo button?!) with pride.

Since no one resource or destination expert’s opinion could possibly singularly properly guide others’ preferred activities whilst traveling, I tend to scour ad nauseum a vast array of sources which outline what to see and do in each of the cities we’ll be hitting this winter.

While I love to stray from the set plan as I randomly encounter the unexpected during my travels, I can’t imagine going back to the completely haphazard travel style of my youth. Needing some semblance of a schedule largely correlates to the fact that my time to explore my destinations is extremely short with my limited vacation time, as opposed to the leisurely month long trips back in the days when vacation time was not a consideration.

As I devour a wealth of information from websites such as Tripadvisor, Rick Steves, Fodor’s, Frommer’s,  Lonely Planet and other sites that are specific to my destination countries and cities, I’ve been outlining a general game plan for how we will spend our days to try to make our time as efficiently scheduled as possible to avoid frustration and allow us to see the must-see sights as well as have plenty of time to veer off course and see what kind of surprises we can encounter along the way. I recently discovered Tripomatic which allows you to save details for each segment of your trip and provides a good deal of destination data that it retains in your trip plan. Tripomatic also includes interactive functionality that seems like it could come in handy while traveling.

At this juncture, I have a good general idea of how we’ll allot our time in Prague, and once my son has the chance to do his homework in between his ROTC obligations, we’ll be able to incorporate his wish list into the plan. Now, I’m working on the Vienna and Budapest plan. Tomorrow marks four months out from travel date. December seems so far away, but the way that time flies by, it will be here before we know it. So much to do; so little time…..

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Holding Pattern

Now that I’ve finally determined that I’ll be visiting Prague, Vienna and Budapest during my next “big”  trip (I will likely take a “little” one the month prior) as well as with whom I will be traveling (my son – YAY!), I’ve become incredibly antsy (yes, a surprise for those who know me) to get all of my proverbial ducks in a row so that I have a general game plan to review and tweak as travel day approaches. However, in this case, definitive planning is somewhat stalled for the time being, although my nerd research continues full bore.

Some of the structural bones to the trip have been defined to date, which is a nice feeling since those are the essential elements to trip planning, while the activities laced between are all somewhat adaptable to circumstances. Thus far, I’ve secured our flights to Prague and home from Budapest (after much ado weighing the virtues of convenient flight times, reasonable layovers and palatable fares) as well as our lodgings in each of the cities we’ll be visiting. As per usual, we’ll take advantage of my credit card points in Prague and Budapest – hey, not much beats “free” – and, Hotwire helped me find a conveniently located and reasonable, yet decent, hotel in Vienna, where the hotels included in my rewards plan would have drained my points stockpile a bit further than I would have liked.

Our airport transfer modes have also been determined (though not yet secured) with utilizing the Airport Express bus service from Vaclav Havel Airport Prague (no reservation is required) and a private pre-arranged transfer (too early to book) at the miserable hour of 2:45 am from the hotel in Budapest to catch our 5 am flight home from Ferenc Liszt International Airport. However, my logistical planning has been slightly delayed on account of train schedules being a bit in flux at the current juncture. From what I’ve read, a new main train station in Vienna (Wien Hauptbahnhof) has been under construction for some time and should be fully operational by the start of December, with schedules not being released until mid-October. Since Vienna is flanked by Prague and Budapest in our itinerary and arrival and departure via train are part of the plan, this logistical detail will have to wait until schedules are available. Once train schedules are finally released, there’s even the possibility we’ll utilize a bus service between cities instead, if those schedules turn out to be more conducive to our overall game plan.

In the meantime, there’s much to research in each of our destination cities. But my holding pattern is twofold, though, since I want to consider my son’s input in the activity planning. Given that he’s been incommunicado whilst at training at Fort Knox for three weeks now (sniff, sniff), he’s neither been able to do his own research nor even provide input to ideas I’ve garnered to date.  At least soon he’ll have access to the outside world once he arrives at Fort Polk for infantry training (big time YAY!), so he’ll be able to provide his thoughts about how we should spend our time during the trip.  Without a doubt, sampling some fine Czech pilsners will end up on his to-do list. I’m sure we can work that into the schedule for him somehow….

And the winner is……. Prague!

Well, the headline of this post is quite incomplete, possibly even a bit inaccurate, since I’m the real winner being that my son agreed to be my travel buddy on my upcoming trip once again. But as far as the travel destination selection goes, Prague, along with Vienna and Budapest, won my internal debate about where I should spend Christmas with my son this year. It’s been an arduous process just to arrive at this conclusion, but now that I’m finally there… the fun begins!

Vienna, Austria at Christmas
Vienna doesn’t seem to be a bad place to spend Christmas with my son!

I took the first leap yesterday and bought our plane tickets via Kayak and Vayama after spending many hours researching flights on Skyscanner, Airfarewatchdog, and Google Flights amongst many of the other flight aggregator sites. It wasn’t easy to decide the right approach, but “right” is subjective. For me, it turned out to be finding a good mix of relatively conveniently scheduled and relatively reasonable flights. I say “relatively” on both counts since the flights to Prague and from Budapest both have layovers in Lisbon (TAP Portugal) with the layover on the journey to Prague being unpleasantly long (a bit over four hours), the departure flight from Budapest is at an unreasonably early hour (5 am – YUCK!), and the price, while the cheapest I’ve paid to get to Europe in many years, still wasn’t a real bargain. But, all things considered, these flights seemed a good option to grab so I can forge ahead with the next stages of the trip planning process.

So, now I’m in full research mode….looking into accommodation options as well as logistical details, mainly the train schedule between Prague and Vienna and from Vienna and Budapest at this stage in the game. The train schedule could very well affect my plan for travel dates between cities since I don’t want to cut the stay in any of the cities we’ll be visiting too short. It looks like Devan and I will be spending Christmas 2014 in Vienna, though! I’ve never spent Christmas overseas before, but Christmas in Vienna looks magical and seems like a good way to give a European Christmas a try! Really, how bad could it be?!

Now that “big decision number one” has been determined, the Tripadvisor forums will be one of the places you’ll be able to find me over the next several months. These forums are invaluable tools for seeking out advice from destination experts around the globe. They’re also quite entertaining, since there are typically resident know-it-alls, who are not only very knowledgeable about the destination they claim as their area of expertise, but who also enjoy lacing a bit of sarcasm and wit into their responses to posts, particularly to newbies.

I can't wait to take my own photos in Budapest!
I can’t wait to take my own photos in Budapest!

So much to do…but at least I have a bit of time to get all of my proverbial ducks in a row. Since my son is still incommunicado at Fort Knox Army ROTC training, he is unaware that our Christmas trip destination has been finalized. When he’s allowed to communicate with the outside world once again next month, I’m hoping he’ll be pleased with the outcome of what was the question of the hour. At the very least, I’m sure he’ll be thrilled at the prospect of sampling some fine Czech pilsners!

 

 
Continue reading And the winner is……. Prague!

What comes first, the city or the plane?

Now that my travel companion for my upcoming vacation has been determined, the planning process has officially commenced. My travel buddy will once again be my son – YAY! Yes, the trip will cost me twice as much as if I were to travel with friends who would be paying their own way, but I count myself lucky to have a 21 year old son who is still willing (and even sounded excited) to travel with his mommy. I am realistic and understand that international travel may very well (and likely) be the the big draw, but, hey, I will take what I can get – and this could quite possibly be the last opportunity in a long time for me to be able to travel with my son or otherwise have 10 or 11 days of dedicated “together time” with him. I hope not, but for that being the likely case, I am thrilled beyond belief to be planning this trip for my son and me.

That being said, selecting my travel buddy didn’t really help narrow down the destination options all that much, as Devan said he is completely open regarding where we end up going. We both are leaning toward another European venture, and given that he can only travel during his university’s Christmas break, I’m thinking that a metropolitan oriented trip is the way to go due to the limited daylight hours. I had considered taking a driving trip, but given the shorter daylight hours in December, I prefer not to be on the road in a foreign country at night – not because I’m afraid (Europe is fairly safe, and I will be traveling with a tough guy Army ROTC cadet / karate black belt / MMA fighter), but because, so much scenery would be missed if we were to be on the road at night.

So, now I’m back to my original quandary. Do I select our destination and then seek out flight options, or do I compare convenient/reasonable flights and then select the destination based upon the best flight options I find? Devan and I did discuss a few possibilities before he headed off to Fort Knox to start his month of training there (where he will be incommunicado until August). I still keep going back to my Prague/Budapest interest. We also considered a trip to Amsterdam and Brussels combined with potential side stops in Ghent, Bruges or even into somewhere a bit east into Germany. Since we won’t be traveling until December, I have a little bit of time to get the framework of the trip settled and then move on to the fun details associated with where we will ultimately find ourselves…..

Can’t wait to get the planning in place and then take the trip with the best travel buddy ever!

 

The Question Words of Travel

I’ve been finding myself struggling ad nauseam with the conundrum of how to approach the planning of my next much anticipated vacation. Normally, I’m not so indecisive and without direction of my next steps, but with so many variables undefined, I was having trouble determining the best angle from which to attack the travel planning process. Then, I suddenly had an epiphany that I need to break the details down into simplistic terms, which should start with the question words — Who? What? Where? When? Why? Which? and How? — not necessarily in that order.

  • Who? — I kept going back to the “Who?” question since several friends have expressed interest in participating in my next vacation plan. After the inability to solidify plans to date, I believe I’ve finally nailed down my travel buddy (not literally, of course) for my upcoming vacation….so I’m happy to be able to move on to the rest of the travel question words which will preface the answers that will formulate my trip’s ultimate execution. So…. YAY!
  • What? — What do I want to do on the trip? My only answer at this point is that I want do do something(s) new and different. Other than that, my “What?” is largely flexible.
  • Where? — Oh, that, of course, is now the question of the hour. Similar to my quest to do something new, I also want to visit somewhere I’ve never been or that I’ve not been since I was young, as going as an adult would be a vastly different experience. The list is reasonably long, but slowly narrowing.
  • When? — Besides the “Who?” question, this is also asked and answered, at least to a general range… A Christmas trip, it is!
  • Why? — Well, duh! Because there is nothing better than traveling.
  • Which? — Which way should we go? Hmmmm. Hopefully, we won’t make a wrong left turn at Albuquerque.
  • How? — Trains? Planes? Automobiles? There will most certainly be some combination of these three options, potentially with some other responses to the “How?” mixed in.

Now that the critical question words have been applied to my upcoming trip, I’d best get going to fill in the remaining blanks.

The Buddy System

VW bus in Europe
Just found this photo and was surprised since I have no recollection of my brother and me getting along well enough on trips for us to share one of the bench seats in the VW buses my dad used to rent in Europe (so that we’d have a whole row of seating to ourselves)

Looking back at my early travels, I never realized how important a decision it is to pick the “right” travel mates. As children, my brother and I were by default part of our parents’ little travel posse, which provided an amazing introduction to the world of travel and adventure.  When I was engaged in my younger years, I traveled a bit with my now ex-fiance, which was a mixed bag, since parts of our travel experience were enjoyable; others, not so much, for a variety of reasons.

Juneau, Alaska
With my son in Juneau, Alaska, during a port stop on an Alaskan cruise (2010)
Tour Eiffel, Paris, France
Devan and me, obviously, at Tour Eiffel in Paris, France (2010)
Templo de Debod, Madrid, Spain
My son and me at Templo de Debod in Madrid, Spain (2009)
Seattle, Washington
Devan and me visiting my friend David in Seattle, Washington (2010)
Diamond Head, Honolulu, Hawaii
Atop Diamond Head with Devan (2013)
Waiʻanapanapa State Park, Maui, Hawaii
Devan and me at Waiʻanapanapa State Park, Maui (2007)
Air Force Academy Chapel, Colorado Springs, Colorado
With Devan at the Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado, Springs, CO (2006)
Füssen, Bavaria, Germany
Devan’s first trip to Europe – Füssen, Germany (2005)
Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas, Nevada, with my Grandma (2004)
Fort Myers, Florida
Mini-vacation in Fort Myers, Florida, for Devan’s karate tournament (2004)

In more recent history, my main travel companion was my son Devan who accompanied me on a variety of domestic and international vacations. Devan spoiled me, as he was a travel buddy extraordinaire (which shouldn’t have been surprising, since he’s a son extraordinaire). After some recent travels with friends who (I learned) were not of the same travel mindset as me, I had to ask myself, “What made my son the perfect travel buddy for me?” What makes Devan such a wonderful travel companion is a conglomeration of factors. Firstly, Devan is incredibly intelligent, and, as such, his natural curiosity about the world, even from a very early age, made him interested in culture, new sights and discovering what else existed beyond the suburban microcosm of our every day lives. He loves learning, so participating as navigator and map reader was not a chore for him, since he relished the opportunity to utilize his deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills. As an example, he would often grab the transit map we were using to muddle our way through a city and make it his responsibility to determine which line, platform, etc. we needed to get to our next destination. But overall, he was always open to exploring and was never intimidated to forge ahead into the unknown on our way to our next destination or experience.

My son is also incredibly cool, calm and collected, so very little rattles him; such composure is an invaluable trait, since travel-by-fire frequently leads you to unexpected places. If things didn’t go the way we planned, he would roll with the punches and would patiently and pragmatically help me decide how to optimize whatever situation we found ourselves in. Devan, like me , is also adventurous (probably more so), so he was always game to find a new activity to try, whether it was zip lining in Ketchikan, going horseback riding down a precarious mountainside outside Las Vegas, snowmobiling along the Continental Divide, learning to ski in the Austrian Alps or sky diving to take in the view of Oahu from an altitude 12,000 feet.   Devan is also multifaceted, so he not only enjoys action packed activities, he also could appreciate meandering through cities to take in the architecture, visiting the Louvre, the Prado or Accademia to experience the work of The Masters or just sitting in a public square to people watch and absorb the energy of a city, while sampling a snack from one of the local proprietors. My son is also not shy, so he was never hesitant to try out his limited German (or other language indigenous to our destination) to ask someone where the train station was or how much something cost. Devan was also ready to offer his input about what he would enjoy doing, but was also accommodating to allow me to enjoy shopping in a few more stores than he would have liked.

At risk of this post turning into an homage to my son, of which he is most certainly worthy both as son and travel buddy….. It bears stating that Devan exemplifies the epitome of what makes for in ideal travel companion, at least for me, but likely in any case. Not every travel buddy needs to be as “perfect” a fit, but there has to be a level of symbiosis to your travel styles and objectives. Thus, many considerations should be pondered in selecting travel companions, as the company you keep can profoundly affect your experience. Here are a few things that might be prudent to ponder and discuss prior to embarking with a new travel mate for the first time.

  1. Outline the objectives of the trip. Do you have the same goals? (e.g. seeing as many sights as possible, having plenty of time to linger and relax, trying new activities, sampling local cuisine)
  2. Discuss modes of transport. Do you each like to hoof it to stay active and to allow ability to roam and wander? Are you OK with various modes of public transport, such as bus, subway or train to save money and/or have the local experience, or do you prefer to take taxis for convenience?
  3. Define your schedules. Are you an early riser so you can maximize your exploration time? Or do you like to sleep in after a late night on the town? Do you have lots of energy to keep going from sun up until late night, or do you need to take a siesta and nap to gear up for late day sight seeing?
  4. Review in detail what your destination entails. Will there be tons of crowds? Is the location known for being rife with gypsies or locals who badger and bully tourists into paying for unsolicited goods or services? Does special caution need to be taken to avert the attention of pickpockets? Will you have to amble along cobblestone roads, ascend staircases or lug suitcases if transport can’t drop you at your hotel doorstep?
  5. Discuss interest sets. Does one of you like to visit as many churches and cathedrals as possible to see the ornate details? Is shopping and souvenir gathering top on your list? Do you love art and plan to spend as much time in museums of all varieties while you’re trekking the globe? Does it matter to you whether you take time for fine dining or do you prefer to grab a meal from a sidewalk cafe or bakery and eat on the run as you head to your next point on interest? Are sports venues a priority to work into your schedule, or are you more interested in seeing the wonders of nature?
  6. Set expectations. Does one of you have something specific in mind to do or as a way of doing things? Or, does one of the travel group have something specific in mind NOT to do or as a way of doing things?
Venice, Italy
Jen and me in Venice (2009)
New York City, New York
Traveling in a group presents its own set of challenges, but can be fun (DBGB Kitchen, New York, NY, 2012)
Austin, Texas
My friend Suzanne and me in Austin, Texas (2013)
Carnival Liberty, Western Caribbean Cruise
Exotic Western Caribbean Cruise with my friend Sandy (2013)

Surely, there are many considerations to take into account prior to hitting the road with a friend whose travel preferences are a wild card. Sometimes, you won’t find out that your travel styles don’t mesh well until your’re a country or two into your journey. All you can do at that point is suck it up and hope your travel buddy has a willingness to compromise, or if that isn’t possible, sometimes it’s best to part ways and enjoy some wandering travels solo for a little while…..

“I Wish I Could Afford to Travel”

I’ve heard that line so many times when people ask me about my past and upcoming travel plans. They often act like attaining the goal of taking a trip similar to mine equates to completing the quest for the Holy Grail.  Travel and vacations typically aren’t free, so yes, some travel budgeting is necessary for those of us who are not independently wealthy or heir to some throne or corporate fortune.  On the other hand, if planned properly, an amazing vacation experience can be had without breaking the bank.

Zion National Park
Taking in the beauty of nature doesn’t cost a penny (Zion National Park, July 2004)
Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin
Playing tourist while visiting family back in Wisconsin

There are myriad ways to mitigate the impact a vacation has on your bank account. But, before we even touch upon how to keep travel costs down during the planning and booking phase, a bit of common sense (what’s that?!) comes into play. The first thing I would recommend to people who are covetous of a spectacularly fun getaway would be to evaluate their current spending habits. For example, someone who stops at Starbucks or another similar coffee shop daily and buys a coffee every day on the way to work would spend over $1000 per year (presuming 5 days a week for 52 weeks at an average of $4 per overpriced cafe latte). Or, someone who eats lunch in a restaurant every workday would, similarly, spend $2600 per year (presuming an average of $10 per lunch). The money wasted on those daily coffees and fast food type lunches, when totaled, would pay for quite a nice little getaway in my book. Or if you put away just a measly $25 per week that you would have otherwise wasted on frivolities, after just two years, you would have accumulated $2600 to apply toward a very nice vacation of your choice. Of course, some trips would cost more; some, obviously, would cost less. For one, I would happily do without that daily Starbucks habit in favor of stashing some cash for my next adventure. To that point, just about a year ago, after I realized that I was paying approximately $130 per month for a ridiculous cable TV plan for service that I may have utilized a couple of hours per month, I pulled the plug on U-Verse. Originally, I had planned to decrease service to a minimal level, but then decided to go cold turkey — turn off cable all together and see if I missed it. A full year later, I have to say that my life hasn’t changed at all for not having TV in my house. Sure, I can watch shows streaming or on Netflix, but I rarely even do that; so, I consider that $1500 per year that I’m saving by foregoing cable TV service to be a part of my annual travel budget. Sure, I could still have cable and go on my trips, but the savings I’ve realized helps me justify my travel addiction.

Once we get past the common sense ideas to budget for travel (or other luxuries), there are so many tools available these days to help compare prices and options to help keep costs as low as possible. Those tools, even just the ones I’ve used in the past (and there are so many more I’ve never used and may not even know exist), warrant a complete discussion of their own, since the wealth of information available at our fingertips so very comprehensive. As such, I’ll leave that discussion for a later date.

In the meantime, why not sit back and evaluate some of those little daily expenditures and their true worth for adding value to your life? That’s what I’ve done and continue to do, since a coffee is a coffee, but a vacation offers a wealth of experiences and memories.

It’s all about the priorities, isn’t it?