Planning a European getaway is not as simple as it sounds, especially if you are traveling with the family. In contrast to the United States, you should not expect large hotel rooms abroad that can fit everyone comfortably. Most hotels, at least those located near the town center, are situated in old historic buildings – which means space is limited, and bathrooms are tiny. Ditto for rental cars. Small winding cobblestone streets = no roomy SUV’s. Oh, and I hope you can drive a stick shift!
|Artist: Joris Renders (My grandfather)
STEP ONE: AIRFARE. The decision has been made – we’re on our way! Now, just to find the perfect flight that won’t cost an arm and a leg. What’s the secret? Airline miles. I’m a huge advocate of getting an airline rewards credit card and charging your way to a free trip. But……be sure to pay off that balance monthly! Instead of paying cash or using your debit card, charge gas, groceries, everything you can in order to rack up miles. Remember, this is a strategy to make your dollars work for you.
Once you have your miles in check, it’s time to find a flight. But, the airlines have turned redeeming your mileage rewards into a tricky game. The biggest question – how do I maximize my miles? The magic time frame seems to be six-months out from the date of your trip. In addition, rates can be better from October 15 through May 15. I found the best deal flying direct from Miami to Paris, for…are you ready? 20,000 miles each way. That is practically unheard of, to fly to Europe for 40,000 miles. You can hardly get a domestic ticket for 25,000 miles these days. Yes, this is a proud accomplishment! While Miami happens to work for a direct flight to Paris, other cities may require a connection through New York or Boston. Quick tip: When searching a domestic connection to fly to Europe, you’ll find that the domestic flight is “free”! It only charges miles from the connecting city (i.e. NY or Boston) to Europe.
STEP TWO: THE HOTEL. There are lots of options for accommodations in Europe…hotel, B&B, and holiday rental apartment. But the one thing they most have in common is occupancy for only two (that, and the high prices!). In need of a triple room this time around, I’ve come up with a strategy using a variety of websites to aid in my search. http://www.Booking.com is one of the only websites that allows you to enter the criteria of traveling as a group. In addition, you can narrow down your search to specific areas of the city, the star rating, and more. While Booking.com does provide customer reviews, the real authority is http://www.TripAdvisor.com. TripAdvisor is a fantastic resource, with honest opinions and many times personal photos, which can give you the best way to “double check” a hotel’s fancy website photos. Their reviews from real travelers often provide you with specific details about the hotel experience that you won’t find anywhere else.
Another option for staying arrangements is to rent a private holiday rental apartment. This can be a great option, with plenty of websites specializing in these such as http://www.HomeAway.com and http://www.VRBO.com. However, what I found stopping me – whether going directly through the owner or through an agency – was a large deposit required at booking, and payment in full well in advance of arrival. How can you be assured you are getting what you paid for? Not to mention, there are many scams to be aware of, especially using Craigslist, so please don’t use that as a resource for apartments. There is not a widely-used resource for apartment reviews. The rental websites do include reviews, however, I believe the owner has the ability to control their page and can delete reviews as they please. This concerns me. TripAdvisor has started a section for reviews of rental apartments, but it hasn’t really taken off just yet.
In looking for accommodations, I found it nearly impossible to find a triple room in a hotel for the area I needed. So, I resorted to looking at apartments. Well, the one and only apartment listed for the area. It looked nice, in a historic building, and a trendy area of town. Luckily, I have family living nearby that could check it out. What they found? Old dusty furniture, beds nearly falling in, and a cat sauntering by! If we would have chosen it, I couldn’t even enter the place due to my allergies! (note to self: always ask about cats!).
STEP THREE: RENTAL CARS. When researching cars, you’ll notice that most are pretty small, but they are nice – Mercedes, even! It’s sort of difficult to tell what you are getting from the picture, since their cars are different than cars in the U.S. I recommend Googling the automaker to view exterior & interior photos. If you cannot operate a manual transmission, the selection dwindles quite drastically. Look carefully for the tag to search for automatic only. The biggest thing to know about rental cars abroad is the insurance. Most companies will offer you a basic rate, or an inclusive rate. In most countries, the basic rate covers personal liability and property damage, as required by law. The inclusive rate includes the “extra” coverage that we all usually decline when renting a car here in the U.S. So, why would we consider it for Europe? Because our American auto insurance does not cover us in Europe. It’s worth checking if your credit card will cover you for this excess insurance.