Europe Trip 2012: Part 1

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So much for good intentions. I had spent that much time planning this year’s trip that I fully intended to live blog it - giving a day-by-day narration to our adventures. When it came to it however, the itinerary was that packed that for the first 3 weeks there was not a single hour spare to sit down and do some writing, and for the final week I was simply too exhausted to care.

Trip Series Links

The Planning

After the disaster which was our honeymoon in Nov 2010 (I never covered it on here, it was too depressing), we decided our next overseas trip would be back to the UK. After all, we emigrated here in May 2007 and hadn’t been back once, whereas in that time our parents had visited us twice.

We knew that we would need a month - flying to the other side of the world and coming back just two weeks later is no fun. We also knew that we would want to use the opportunity to see Europe, and not just our home towns of Worksop and Doncaster. Four weeks in Worksop and Doncaster is not my idea of a holiday.

We began saving. We told ourselves that we would make the most of the trip and although we wouldn’t go mad, it wouldn’t be a budget holiday either; the itinerary would dictate the budget not the other way round.

We worked out rough dates. We wanted Lauren to miss as little school as possible, but at the same time we wanted to travel at an optimal time taking into account cost and weather conditions. The summer school holidays in Australia run from Christmas through to the end of January. We briefly considered booking for Christmas 2011 but it was only a fleeting thought. It’s one of the busiest times for travelling so we knew that flights and hotels would be expensive, even if we booked well in advance. Plus, it would be Winter. Maybe Christmas in Finland is magical but that’s not the term I’d use to describe December in the UK!

We considered Jun/Jul/Aug this year. It was a great summer for London and the UK in general with the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, but as a visitor I didn’t fancy the extra crowds and expense that would inevitably ensue. Also, I get really bad hayfever during the UK summers, a condition that I really don’t miss.

We finally decided on Sep/Oct 2012. It would tie in with half-term so Lauren wouldn’t have to miss too much school, and all the travel books recommend visiting the major cities during the shoulder months either side of summer. We could have gone during the European spring this year but Sept would give us a bit more time to save.

Flight Booking

With that decided we set about looking for flights. I haven’t used a travel agent since the 90’s. With Tripadvisor, flight comparison sites, travel forums, etc, who needs them? Again, the brief we gave ourself was that the flight must be a good compromise between affordability and the inclusion of stopovers somewhere nice. In the three trips we did to Australia from Europe, including emigrating, we always had a stopover. For one, it’s a chance to see a different part of the world, and two, the flight through to the other side of the world is a killer if, like me, you have problems sleeping or airplanes.

We ideally wanted stopovers in places we haven’t visited before. That ruled out Singapore, Dubai and Los Angeles - perhaps the most common stopovers between the UK and Australia. I really fancied visiting San Francisco and Seattle. When I looked into it though all the flights from Brisbane pretty much go via LA, first requiring flight changes to SF or Seattle, so it would have been expensive and would have added a fair few hours to the travelling time. We’re saving San Francisco and Seattle up for a future trip. We’d like to drive the west coast of America from San Francisco up to Seattle and then over the border to Vancouver.

Surprisingly, after much research we found affordable flights with Qantas and British Airways. I say surprisingly because usually they’re amongst the dearest with Singapore Airlines and Emirates being the cheapest. We settled on Singapore on the way out and Hong Kong on the way back. Yes we have been to Singapore before (this would be my third time) but we would make this time different by staying on Sentosa Island.

I spent countless hours researching every aspect of this trip and the lessons I learnt from booking these flights were:

  1. We get ripped off in Australia. It’s often nearly twice as dear to fly from Australia to Europe as it is the other way round.
  2. Just because you live in Australia (or any other country for that matter) you don’t have to book flights using websites in your own country. We got our flights cheapest using orbitz.com. The site I recommend now for flight comparisons is hipmunk.com.
  3. The earlier you book the better. You can get some bargains closer to the date but in general flights are cheapest when they first become available.

The Itinerary

With the flights booked and the dates of travel locked in the next step was to determine our itinerary. This is something that evolved over time right up until leaving. Hotels can generally be cancelled without charge up to 24 hours before the arrival time (unless you get a deal which doesn’t allow cancellation without charge), nevertheless, once we decided on a place we stuck to it. The only exception was the hotel on Sentosa Island - I later managed to find a good deal at what we thought was a better hotel.

London was on the list. We both love London and it’s been a while since we’ve been. I lived in London for 6 months during my time in the Navy but you could spend a year in London and not see everything. Also, it’s a vibrant world-class city that never stands still and I wanted Lauren to experience it. We took her as a small child but she can’t remember it.

Also on the list was Venice. We both love Italy. Our last trip to Italy was a few years ago when we enjoyed a fantastic long weekend in Rome courtesy of a cheap flight with Ryan Air. Those cheap European flights is something we’ve really missed since emigrating. I visited Italy countless times during my Navy years but never really appreciated it. I was young and stupid and in those days judged a place by the quality of its pub crawl.

I visited Trieste in Italy about 5 times when I was in the Navy. Trieste is roughly a 90 min drive from Venice but I never ventured over to Venice because I made a promise to my girlfriend at the time (who was to become my first wife) that I wouldn’t go to Venice without her. In fairness this was because the first time my ship had planned to visit Trieste I made arrangements to take shore leave and spend a few days in Venice with her - arriving on New Year’s Eve. Due to operational reasons the ship couldn’t make it to Trieste and I had to ring her at the last minute to tell her to cancel it. This happened a lot in the Navy and was one of many reasons that I left after 7 and a half years - you couldn’t plan anything.

My first trip to Italy after leaving the Navy was with Rachelle when we got a cheap Ryan Air flight to Rimini for a couple of days. It was out of season but it was a completely different experience to my time in the Navy. We instantly fell in love with Italian culture and particularly the cuisine.

Also on the list was Paris. My only previous trip to France was to Bordeaux, again during the Navy. My only memory of Bordeaux is getting very drunk, leaving a nightclub on my own and getting lost trying to find my way back to the ship. After walking in the wrong direction for 2 hours, in my inebriated state I managed a “où est le maritime” to someone in a Shell petrol station who finally directed me in the right direction. I didn’t have enough money for a taxi.

Rachelle had visited Paris as a teenager during one of her many French exchange visits. She didn’t like it at the time and had a panic attack under the Eiffel Tower. She was in no rush to re-visit but I managed to convince her that you can’t judge a place by your experience as a teenager. As it happens her visit to Paris this time only went as far as the Eiffel Tower, but I’ll come to that later.

Of course, we wanted to spend a good amount of time with family and friends so we needed to factor that into the equation. A good chunk of the visit would be spent in the UK but we also saw this as an opportunity to visit a few places in the UK which we had never got around to visiting previously.

Finally, we realised the itinerary was looking very city-heavy, so we wanted to go somewhere completely different to break it up a little.

I already had in mind that I’d like to travel between Venice and Paris via rail. I like travelling by rail in Europe. I hold quite a fondness for rail travel as it was my main method of transport during my time in the navy (besides ships of course) - I didn’t sit my driving test until I left the Navy. If only Queensland Rail were as clean, fast, efficient and comfortable as the trains in Europe.

I took a look at the rail routes between Venice and Paris, and straight away the Swiss Alps jumped out at me as an ideal mid-point. I remember reading an article a while ago about the Bernini Express and had dreamt about gliding through the Alps with snow-capped mountains on either side ever since.

After more research and discussions with Rach we settled on the small town of Grindelwald near Interlaken, in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland. This would be my first time to Switzerland (it’s land-locked).

Rail Bookings in Europe

Benefit from my many hours of research into rail travel in Europe and know this - do not book via RailEurope.com. You can get much cheaper tickets booking directly with the rail companies that you will be travelling with.

We purchased our tickets between Venice and Grindelwald through TrenItalia and the Grindelwald to Paris tickets were purchased through SBB. For some reason SBB didn’t offer e-tickets for part of the journey so we had to get them delivered. It was much cheaper to get them delivered to our parent’s house in the UK than delivered to Australia - if I remember right the delivery charge would have been 50% of the ticket price to Australia

After Grindelwald and Paris the plan was then to take the Eurostar back to London to catch our flight from Heathrow to Hong Kong for a few days, and then home to Brisbane.

Rick Steves Europe Guides

We had a rough itinerary worked out: Brisbane > Sentosa Island > London > Doncaster/Worksop > other UK places TBD > Venice > Grindelwald > Paris > London > Hong Kong > Brisbane.

The planning for this trip started last December - a good nine months before we were to travel. This doesn’t sound like much but to me it was a lifetime. I’m used to being spontaneous and getting last minute deals.

I then discovered a new hobby - reading travel guides! I’ve always been a fan of Lonely Plan travel guides but I’ve finally discovered Rick Steves. Now I live in Australia I shop through amazon.com rather than amazon.co.uk - they haven’t launched amazon.com.au yet, unfortunately. Being targeted at American readers, Rick Steves travel guides never came across my radar when I used to purchase travel guides from amazon.co.uk.

I highly recommend Rick Steves travel guides to anyone who is planning a trip to Europe. His guides are much more personal than the Lonely Planet ones and contain a lot of practical advice. He also has a number of free video and audio podcasts that I found invaluable for the planning, and great audio guides to use when visiting the sights.

My planning for this trip wasn’t limited to reading the travel guides and spending time on the travel forums (mainly Tripadvisor and Fodors). My 2012 New Year’s Resolutions were focused on this trip. To get the most out of it I pledged to a) learn photography and b) study European art, history and literature related to the places we would be visiting. On the first count I didn’t do too bad, although you might think otherwise when you see my Hong Kong photos (I had my camera on the wrong settings). On the second count I’d give myself a grade of C. I did learn a fair bit but as much as I’d like to think of myself as a ‘learned fellow’, the truth is I can only get halfway through one of Shakespeare’s plays before flicking to a Chris Ryan book. Reading about a piece of art is much more interesting when you’re actually standing in front of it. To paraphrase Robin William’s character in Good Will Hunting - reading about the Sistine Chapel isn’t the same as smelling it.

Using the Rick Steves guides, in consultation with Rach I worked out rough interaries for our days in London, Paris and Venice. I figured I would be more flexible for the other places.

So, after many months of research and planning we were ready to go. The final itinerary looked like this: Brisbane > Sentosa Island > London > Doncaster/Worksop > Cotswolds > Bath > Longleat House & Safari Park > Doncaster/Worksop > Harry Potter Movie Studios (on the way to the Airport) > Venice > Grindelwald > Paris > London > Hong Kong > Home.