How to shortlist places to visit for your trip

As i was penning the series on Travel Bucket List, I recalled how often people asked me about how long it took to plan my trips (and i get asked very often). It seemed like mission impossible to them to plan a 5 weeks trip. I think the question behind that question really is how to shortlist places to go or things to do for a trip. Often times when a trip is being planned, one has no idea how to fill the trip duration with activities, which is why it would take a very long time to plan for a trip.

I think die-hard travel bugs have the tenacity to pour through review after reviews to come up with their dream holiday itinerary. That takes a lot of time indeed, if you’re relying on blog posts (especially those with the title that goes something like “10 cafes to visit”), travel articles or even travel guides. You end up with information overload this way, and you’ll typically remain rather clueless about what to include in your trip even after reading many articles.

I found a somewhat unconventional way that helps me make up my mind on places to visit rather quickly: using search engine image results, be it Google, Bing or Yahoo Images. When you search for images of a travel destination, you’re usually presented with the images that are most representative and appealing about that place. As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words. If the images capture your attention and whet your appetite, then go for it. You can’t really go wrong with this approach. Often times, there are surprises in the images, places worth visiting you didn’t know about before, either at the particular travel destination or associated with it. You can usually find out more about that place by browsing the webpage from which the search engine extracted the image.

Google search is also quite helpful for shortlisting tourist attractions to visit. Searching for “<destination> tourist attractions” (e.g. “Spain tourist attractions”) gives you a summarized list of attractions. You’re less likely to miss out on the really significant places to visit if you did your search this way than relying on a few individuals’ recommendation (who may be none the wiser).attractions

There are always more places to see than there is time to see them, so, at the end of the day, you have to prioritize. I think it’s always a good idea to focus on the really significant places of interest (e.g. UNESCO World Heritage Sites) on your first visit, just in case you somehow don’t get to visit the country/region again. Another key factor to successful trip planning is the ability to visualize yourself being at the trip destinations, such that you can estimate how much time you need for every segment of your trip. Google Maps help me estimate how much time i need to get around, be it driving, taking the metro/subway or walking. This helps me set my pace. Maybe not everyone will like this rather regimental way of travelling (some people even go to the extreme of not pre-planning anything at all), but to me, few things give as much satisfaction as checking places off your bucket list. To be able to do so requires planning, like buying entrance tickets and booking the accommodation in advance. Need suggestion on which places to include in your travel bucket list? Check out my ongoing series.

Travel Bucket List: Provence


Think Provence, think Lavender. Well, Provence is much more than that, but Provence is probably the place most associated with Lavender. The chief aim of my trip there June last year was to catch a glimpse of the fabled Lavender fields.

The Lavenders only start to bloom from late June, which made me rather anxious, since I may have been there too early. True enough, it was rather difficult to find blooming lavender fields. We were overjoyed when we finally found one near Saignon, one of the popular Provencal villages, which provided a nice backdrop to the lavender field.

Lavender field at Saignon

Finding the Lavender depends on trip research (Saignon being mentioned in various references), and, unfortunately, it is even more dependent on chance. No one can tell you for sure where you can find a blooming Lavender field, since they seem to be grown in batches and each batch blooms at a different time. I imagine this is so that there can be a continuous supply of Lavender. If you’re there during the peak season, some time between early to the middle of July, it is probably easier to find blooming Lavender fields. Otherwise, be prepared to have to drive around a bit to find one.

Since the Lavender fields are privately owned, you’re not actually supposed to just walk into it without permission. Well, I did so because there was no sign stating it (at least not one in a language i could understand), and, the temptation to walk into the field to snap photos was simply irresistible. After a while, someone across the road waved at us and we quickly got off the field. I must say they were very polite.

There are endless possibilities when it comes to organising an itinerary for Provence. Mine is tailored to meet two main goals – to see the Lavender fields and to experience the market. Most people concur that the Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is one of the best. I think it was excellent. The location of the market, being on an island surrounded by the Sorgue river, made it very atmospheric. As the market only operates within a short span of 3 hours, from 9am to noon, you really need to get there early. I bought fruit confit from here and i must say, the French does it best.

Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

The Sorgue river

Besides L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, i also chose to visit St Remy de Provence (well known as the place where Picasso lived for some time, though i was not there for Picasso), Les Baux de Provence (unique town with nice castle ruin), Saignon (nice for strolling, and Lavender fields can be found here), Roussillon (famous for Ochre), Gordes (picturesque, though i only just drove past) and Abbaye de Senanque (famous for the view with Lavender fields surrounding it). I did visit a few other villages as well, but the above mentioned are places where i would recommend visiting. I also went to Chateauneuf-du-Pape to grab some wine, and i visited Avignon on a previous trip.

Picturesque corner in Saignon

The Abbaye de Senanque looks nice even without blooming Lavenders

Les Baux de Provence

Ochres of Roussillon

I suspect the majority of people don’t know this, that most of what Provence is famous for is in the region called the Luberon. This is where the lavender fields and villages perched on hill tops are located. Due to the popularity and limited availability, staying in the Luberon is very costly, especially when most of the accommodation available are the boutique bed and breakfast type. Yes, it’s great to stay in one of these to get a feel of what it is like to live in a Provencal house. But, if you’re on a tight budget, you can stay just outside the Luberon, since all of the Luberon are accessible within reasonably short driving distance.

Typical Provencal estate in the Luberon

What i did was, i stayed at Avignon (city just outside the Luberon) the first night, then a B&B near Les Baux de Provence the second night (one of the cheaper ones), and another B&B at Apt (one of the largest towns in the Luberon) the third night. You will usually find cheaper accommodation in the city and larger towns than in the touristy villages. Some people may place higher priority on location over cost though, so it really depends on personal preference. In any case, don’t expect cheap accommodation in summer in this extremely popular holiday region.

Village on a hill (can’t remember which one)


Well, French cuisine in Provence can’t really be bad. Still, it pays to do prior research to get an idea of what kind of food you can try, and how much you might expect to pay. As with the jostling with other tourists you will expect to encounter during sightseeing, you will have the same competition for food, so it is wise to do advance booking if you want to eat at popular restaurants.

Travel Bucket List: Sintra

Pena National Palace

This is going to be the start of a series of travel articles written in retrospect. I wanted to start with this piece on Sintra, since it is a place well worth travelling to and it was one place where i felt I wasn’t able to extract sufficient information from the internet when I did my research, so I thought I really should help fellow travelers.

Sintra has enough attractions to fill about 2 days. I spent only one day there, focusing on the 3 attractions that no one should miss – the Moorish Castle, Pena National Palace and Quinta da Regaleira. The main obstacle one encounters when visiting Sintra is the slopes. While driving up to the Pena National Palace, I saw people making their way up the same road on foot. Don’t do that! You waste much precious time, while also sapping the energy that should be spent on the real sightseeing. You could at least take a bus. Another pitfall to avoid is visiting on a weekend or public holiday. I took that advice and went on a Monday, so I can’t tell you how congested it can be on a weekend or public holiday when local visitors are likely to be present also, but I suggest you don’t try to find out either.

Here’s the suggested one day itinerary (assuming you visit Sintra by car and you’re physically fit enough to jog 5km or 3 miles): start with the Moorish Castle, proceed to Pena National Palace, go for lunch, then finish off with Quinta da Regaleira.

The Moorish Castle

The Moorish Castle and Pena National Palace are located along the same road (Estrada da Pena). There are limited parking spaces for either one of them. You can see the location of the parking lots using Google Street View. Many cars are parked along the road side and not in officially marked lots (which are very few in numbers). That was probably a busy day captured on Street View. If you traverse up that road in Street View, you’ll notice that the road becomes narrow once you get past the entrance to the Moorish Castle, and since this is a one way road, if you miss the last available parking lot, you will have to do a big loop to get back, so do go slow once you start seeing cars parked on the side. It probably means you should take the next available space. For the Pena National Palace, there is a parking area on the right hand side before reaching the entrance of the palace and another one on the left after the sharp bend near the entrance. The parking situation for Sintra town itself and Quinta da Regaleira are similarly difficult (so by all means, avoid weekends and public holidays). Be prepared to be a little creative in finding your parking lot!

Pena Park

The best bet for finding food is in Sintra town itself. As usual, i did prior research and decided on Restaurante Regional de Sintra, which was excellent. The meal hours in Portugal and Spain work very well for travellers – lunch hours are until 4pm. That was how i was able to cram two attractions in the first half of the day, with allowance for the usual disorientation when going about in unfamiliar places.

The Waterfall Lake at Quinta da Regaleira

Strategy for covering the attractions
Buy a combo ticket at the ticket booth at the Moorish Castle (as recommended by other travelers). The combo ticket will save you some money and possibly some time at the Pena National Palace where there may be a queue for tickets since it is the most popular attraction in Sintra. It is also possible to buy the tickets online and save even more, if you’re certain of your date of visit.

Visiting the Moorish Castle is quite straight forward. Once you get into the ground, everything that can be explored is within your field of view at the entrance. If you’re not afraid of heights, take the path on the left, where you can climb to the highest point of the castle ruin. It should take you no more than an hour to cover the entire place.

The Pena National Palace ground (including the surrounding Pena Park) is huge. Once you get past the main entrance, there is a slope to climb to get to the palace. Electric trams are available (at a price of course) to take you up there if you don’t wish to do it on foot. Making your way back to the main entrance after visiting the palace isn’t as easy as it seems – i got lost trying to do so, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The route took me through Pena Park, which was breathtakingly beautiful. It was quite a walk, but every bit worthwhile. I would suggest making it a point to walk through at least parts of Pena Park despite the risk of getting lost inside the park. It is otherworldly and not quite like what you find in the gardens of British Manors or French Castles.

A beautiful corner in Quinta da Regaleira

You may be exhausted after doing both the Moorish Castle and Pena National Park, but believe me, the mysterious beauty of Quinta da Regaleira is more than enough to keep you going. Nothing quite compares with this quaint estate. It is an adult’s playground, with many secret passages and tunnels. The Initiation Well is undoubtedly the most well known feature of the park. To be honest, you’d want to spend more time here than my one day itinerary allows. If you did proper planning and are properly equipped (i think walking poles will help a lot), you should still be able to spend a good 2 to 3 hours here.

The Initiation Well

4 tips on saving money on your trip

#1 Book ahead

Prices for hotel and car rental normally go up the closer you get to the date you are traveling, especially if it is holiday season. I have seen hotel and car rental prices more than double two months before my travel date, so you can save A LOT if you secure your hotel and car rental bookings way in advance (4 months or more). Sometimes, prices can fall as you approach the date of your stay, probably due to poor hotel occupancy rate (e.g. sometimes has a 10% discount nearer to your date of stay), in which case you can cancel your original booking and book again (I normally avoid doing non-refundable bookings). So DON’T just book and forget but check often to see if prices have been adjusted. Car rentals are also usually cancellable without any penalty, so there’s no harm booking ahead and cancelling later if you find a better deal.

Flight fares are more likely to go up than down especially for peak travel period, so i personally think it’s better to book in advance. In any case, without having a firm date for your flights, you can’t book your hotel stays and car rentals, so you’ll likely lose out much more if you waited. The good-value accommodation in popular destinations do sell out very quickly.

While I’m least stingy when it comes to spending on food when travelling, I do want good value food too. I check TripAdvisor to get an idea on how much the meals will cost, and I mostly avoid the super expensive fine dining establishments. In the past when I didn’t do prior research on meals, I had a terrible experience eating at a place just outside the Vatican City. It was a place that served pre-cooked food, like a canteen. The meal which consisted of a chicken main course, some pasta and some veg came up to more than 50 Euros. It was clearly a tourist trap. Since I started planning ahead the meals for trips, i can say that I was seldom disappointed, and i’m quite certain I saved money too.

Other than car rentals, you may also have other transport needs, like airport transfers, or public transportation within the city when it is not feasible to drive. It pays to find out ahead exactly which option will save you money (e.g. day pass vs single trip tickets). When i was in Stockholm, i found out before hand that the metro/bus pass actually covered the ride to the airport (though it requires you to transfer from train to bus). I suspect many people don’t know this and they take the easy but very expensive option of the airport express train.

#2 Choose the right hotel and hotel booking website

Individual personal preference for hotels is a very subjective matter. You usually have to decide between price vs location and comfort. I’m more inclined to get a cheaper place that satisfies the basic criteria of having a private bathroom and a review rating of at least 6.5/10. The cost for accommodation is usually the biggest chunk of your trip expense, so if you do spend enough effort in searching, you will save money. Check out my strategy for hotel search.

#3 Use the right credit card

You may save on exchange rates and transaction fees if you bring cash, but i think nobody brings a huge amount of cash for practical and safety reasons. Credit cards are indispensable for a trip. If you’re renting a car, it is a prerequisite to have a credit card under your own name for the rental. Quick tip: remember to activate your credit card for overseas usage! Since you will be incurring a fair bit of spending on your credit card, make sure you get some cash rebate in return! Check out my post on the credit card i found to be best for overseas spending.

#4 Carry your passport with you when shopping

If you’re going to Europe or Japan, you can enjoy tax-free (8% for Japan and around 5-15% for Europe) shopping IF you have your passport with you at the point of sale.


How to choose the hotel for your trip

Choosing a hotel could be a daunting task for a lot of people, because often times there are too many hotels to choose from. Here’s my strategy for choosing a good value hotel.

Hotel Booking Site
First, you have to decide on which hotel booking website to use. I mainly use and Agoda. When searching for the same hotel on various hotel booking sites, you will have to read the fine print carefully. Some sites include all taxes and service charge in their rates while some do not. and Agoda’s price tends to be more or less the same (after factoring in service charge and taxes). The hotel is probably obligated to offer the same rate when they signed up for listing with the booking sites. The exception to this is when a website offers a special discount. Agoda sometimes offer a special non-refundable option, while sometimes has a 10% discounts.

The choices of hotels available from hotel booking websites are largely the same for the more popular sites like and Agoda, but sometimes may have additional choices. Some countries have booking sites that cater specifically to that country (e.g. in Taiwan) and more choices can be found on these, so for such cases you should go with the local booking sites. Chain hotels like Accor hotels have their own booking websites and are worth a look, though these are usually more expensive.

These days, the cashback scheme has also infiltrated hotel booking sites. A cashback scheme is one that gives you cashback when you complete your booking by going through another website. I’ve written about one such site before – They offer cashback for many hotel booking sites, including,,,, Hotelclub, Accor Hotels and many more. is another cashback site (homegrown in Singapore). I found out that hotel booking sites (specifically may not be all reliable when it comes to paying you cashback for your hotel bookings. Even though is supposed to pay 2% cashback, i have only received the cashback a few times, for probably more than 30 bookings done (Update: this was likely due to booking more than 80 days ahead). Expedia, on the other hand, is reliable in paying the cashback (for flights in my case, though i suspect it will be so for hotel bookings also). Hotel booking sites are forced to offer cashback since everyone else is doing it – or risk losing business to competitors. When booking hotels, keep in mind that the cashback could make one hotel booking site cheaper than another even if they have the same hotel rates. Agoda pays S$10 (S$15 when they run a promotion) cashback for bookings above US$50 through Shopback, which is a very significant discount to your overall booking rate. The catch is, Agoda charges the hotel payment to your credit card about a week before your stay there, so you won’t enjoy any credit card related cashback (ANZ gives you 5% cashback for expenses at a hotel), unless you use a credit card that gives you cashback for online transactions (e.g. Bank of China Shop! card). Don’t be misled by those sites that give you 6%-10% cashback – most of the time, their hotel rates are higher.

If you have a rental car
Often times, if you have a rental car, you can choose to stay in the middle of nowhere, where the accommodation is likely to be very cheap (with free parking too). I still recall staying in a remote place outside Amsterdam for 20 Euros per night (inclusive of 2 Euros tax). In many European cities, you can use park and ride (i.e. park at special rates at a car park at the edge of the city centre and take the metro) to tour the city without actually having to stay in the city itself. I do this when i don’t plan to spend more than one day in that city.

Use the map
For a city destination where I am going to use the metro to get around, i look for hotels near a metro station, and you can really only do this using the map. So when viewing the hotel details page, i would click the “Show map” link that points out the location of the hotel and check out the other hotels marked on the map that are also near a metro station. I usually don’t mind staying a little further away as long as the hotel is no more than 30 minutes away by metro to the city centre.

When i have a rental car, for those days when i just need a place to stay for the night while on the way to the next destination i am going to visit, i would use the map to find a hotel that is along the way (or not too far off the path) and is the cheapest. Use Google Maps to help estimate the driving time.

Read the reviews
Reviews offer you the first hand account of someone who has stayed in the hotel. You will have to read beyond the words and take into account if the reviewer is an overly fussy person, which is often the case. It is the norm for people to exaggerate the negative aspects of their experience. Look out for things in the reviews for things you absolutely cannot tolerate, such as a hard bed, sleezy neighbourhood etc.

Update 14/11/2015: I have just discovered why i am not getting my cashback for hotel bookings on, now that is also on Shopback. The terms and conditions for cashback states that no cashback is awarded for bookings done 80 days or more in advance. That applies to most of my bookings, so, i guess the trick is to re-do the booking if there is still vacancy in less than 80 days to date of reservation, or book with Agoda, if the price is comparable. No such condition is stated for Agoda.

The best credit cards for overseas travel spending

Note: this post is specific to Singapore. Feel free to browse my other articles if you’re a visitor from the other corners of the world 🙂 

For all my past trips, I have been using the Manhattan credit card for overseas spending, the reason being it rewarded 5% cashback. Subsequently, it was cut to 3%, and I continued using it for overseas spending since I was lazy to find out if there was a better alternative.

Things have changed with the introduction of the ANZ optimum card. It rewards 5% cashback on dining and hotel spending. Before I continue, let me state the disclaimer again that, other than being a regular customer, I am in no way affiliated with any bank mentioned in this article.

Alright, let’s first discuss the transaction fees involved in cross-border transactions. As of now (July 2015), the published cross-border transaction fee for the ANZ optimum card is 2.5%, comprising of 1.5% that ANZ charges and 1% that MasterCard charges. For the SCB Manhattan card, it is 2.5% plus a variable rate of 0.2% to 1% that SCB claims MasterCard charges. It looks like ANZ fixes the MasterCard fee at 1% even though in actual fact it could be a variable rate that is possibly lower than 1%. Nevertheless, the fee charged by ANZ is obviously still the lower of the two. If you consider the cash rebate, the 3% you get from Manhattan is not even enough to cover the transaction fee which is 2.7-3.5%. On the other hand, the 5% you get from ANZ covers the 2.5% fee, and leaves you with another 2.5% to offset the currency exchange premium. Clearly the ANZ optimum card is far better.

Before embarking on my trip, i called up ANZ to find out if paying for hotel stays qualify for the 5% cash rebate. The answer was affirmative. With that, i was set on using the ANZ optimum card for the trip. Afterall, the major expenses incurred while travelling are on hotel stays and meals.


Towards the end of my trip, a statement cycle had lapsed and i received the bill from ANZ. I earned $258 in cashback, not bad! The Manhattan card has a cap of $200 in cashback per quarter, whereas there is no cap for the ANZ card.

The other major category of spending on an overseas trip is of course shopping. The card I chose to use for shopping was the M1 Citibank card. This card offers a 5% cash rebate if you chalk up over S$3000 of retail purchase in foreign currency within one statement cycle, capped at S$200 (i.e. up to S$4000 spending). That is easy to achieve when you visit Japan (cosmetics), USA (outlet branded goods) or Europe (branded goods). Otherwise, if your spending is under S$3000, you only get a 1% rebate. The rebate comes in the form of Citi Rebate, which you can only redeem by spending at participating merchant stores. Well, the merchants do include supermarkets such as Cold Storage, Giant and Sheng Siong, so it’s as good as cash. By the way, you don’t have to be an M1 customer to apply for the M1 Citibank card.

Update 19/11/15: There is another card that bests the M1 Citibank card – UOB Visa Signature card. You earn 5% rebate with just a minimum of S$1000 worth of foreign currency spend, INCLUDING online spending in foreign currency! The cashback is capped at $100 per month, which allows one to spend up to the equivalent of S$2000 in foreign currency per month. In fact, you have to accumulate S$2000 worth of spending in order to do a cash credit redemption (UNI$4000). It is easy to spend S$2000 when overseas. Just charge the shopping, admission tickets and rental car etc. to the card. If these don’t make up S$2000, then charge your hotel bills and meals too. Here’s a tip: if you use Agoda for hotel booking, then you should definitely use the UOB Visa Signature for payment to get 5% rebate (be careful to choose USD or better still, the original foreign currency of the country of destination for the payment when you do the booking!). Online payments for hotel doesn’t count towards getting 5% cashback from the ANZ Optimum card.

Update 15 Apr 15: UOB Visa Signature test drive result.

Update 12 Apr 17

CIMB credit cards look pretty good for overseas food and hotel expenses, you get 10% rebate for up to S$600 worth of spending plus zero admin fees! I would use CIMB for the initial $600 worth of food and hotel expenses respectively, then switch to ANZ Optimum or UOB Visa Signature.

Update 16 Nov 18

Well, ANZ has ceased to exist, and both the Citi M1 and UOB Visa Signature cards no longer offer 5% cash rebate. If you pump petrol at SPC then you still get the equivalent of 3.33% rebate from UOB Visa Signature. CIMB Visa Signature credit cards remain the same. Standard Chartered Manhattan offers 3% rebate for above $3000 spending in local or foreign currency. Perhaps the YouTrip card is the better deal now.

How to find food for your trip


For me, and, i suspect, for many people, food is a very important part of travelling. Many will wander weary miles just to satisfy their taste buds, myself no less. In fact, to me, the food part has an equal weight to the rest of the sightseeing experience, so i spare no effort to make sure that every meal on a trip will be good, and i mean EVERY meal (other than breakfast provided by the hotel). That means i will do prior research on where and even what i will have for my meals. Since I started doing this, my trips have become much more satisfying than those times when I left everything to chance. The best restaurant may be right under your nose without your knowing it and what a pity that would be.

What i think most people will do is to check TripAdvisor. I do too, though it’s not always the most reliable source for food reviews. I think the best reviews are those by the locals themselves, which is usually not the case on TripAdvisor (sorry to say this but I would trust a review on, say, Japanese food by an Asian more than I would someone from the western world). The results on TripAdvisor are often skewed in favour of restaurants nearer to tourist attractions and those that have an English menu. So, in addition to referencing TripAdvisor, I would go on to check if there are native food review websites.

In the case of Japan (where I’m going very soon), I found, which basically made TripAdvisor redundant. The restaurants recommended on TripAdvisor were not always as highly rated, according to the Japanese reviewers on Also, there are many more restaurants reviewed, and the store information available is much more comprehensive and accurate (especially the name of the restaurant in Japanese characters which you may need for identifying the restaurant, and the pinpoint location on a map). The entire website is in Japanese of course, but with Google translate, there is no problem for anyone to be able to understand.

For North America, I found yelp to be useful. For Australia and New Zealand, urbanspoon did the job. For Singapore, hungrygowhere is the go to website. Often times, blogs provide the best information on where to find good food. For Hong Kong, I basically followed the recommendation of a single blogger and it worked well. Ultimately, you should base your decision on multiple sources and don’t just count on TripAdvisor.

By the way, if you’re curious about the food in the photos above, in clockwise direction from the top left:

  • Goose liver at Erhardt, Szeged, Hungary
  • Tapas (grilled cheese and mushroom that tasted heavenly) at El Majuelo, Salamanca, Spain
  • Beef steak at Dom Beisl (one star Michelin), Vienna, Austria
  • Seafood casserole (with rice at the bottom, very tasty and filling) at Restaurante Regional de Sintra, Portugal

Chasing the Northern Lights

No photo to show since i failed in my attempt to see it. The Northern Lights are a beautiful phenomena. Some people call it a “once in a lifetime experience”, especially tour operators trying to cash in on tourist dollars. I would suggest that one should not think of the Northern Lights as a once in a lifetime event. Just think of the residents in those regions where he Northern Lights occur, they would see it over and over again. And it is really not impossible to get to any place in the world. With proper planning, YOU can see the Northern Lights.

Here’s what i learned:

  • It gets dark enough at night for you to see the Northern Lights only during the late autumn through winter period, so your holiday would have to be a winter holiday. If you’re not afraid of cold, winter could be just as fun.
  • When there is good auroral activity, you might be able to see it from anywhere, but it will be good to stay away from the city area where there is light pollution, and good to stay clear of the full moon period, so plan accordingly.
  • You can’t plan the weather, and this is THE factor that will ruin your chances (as it did mine). So, plan for at least 3 to 5 days in your itinerary to see it.
  • One way to plan a 3 to 5 days itinerary in Scandinavia is to rent a car and drive the Northern Lights Route, which traverses Norway, Finland and Sweden. This way, you fill up your days with some nice sight seeing through 3 Scandinavian countries while giving yourself maximal chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
  • Check the weather forecast. The tour operators do this to decide where to bring their clients to see the Northern Lights and you can certainly do it yourself. However if you’re wary of doing your own driving (there’s really nothing difficult about it), it’s not a bad idea to just go with a guide. From Tromsø, i could recommend Guide Gunnar. Even though i did not join their tour, while on my tour with another operator, i saw their mini-bus went further towards the Finnish border (which probably had better weather at that time), while the driver of the mini-bus i was on was reluctant to go further nor wait longer (waiting time of only under 2 hours). So, quite a disappointment after paying NOK 850 (S$195) per person and not seeing the Northern Lights (though they probably would have offered to bring us out again for free on a different day, as they did for another couple). Guide Gunnar charges NOK 950 (as at time of writing) but it is probably worth it since they do seem to try harder. In any case, as with all services offered in Norway, they try to deliver you the goods in all honesty, so rest assured that you will get what you paid for.
  • Don’t give up if you failed to see the Northern Lights, just try again! I’m definitely including this as one of the things i will do before i die!

Anyway, to get an idea of what the Northern Lights look like, check out the videos here.

Fast Travel

Fast Travel is not exactly the opposite of Slow Travel. Among the 10 principles mentioned in Slow Travel Europe (March 2009), “A Manifesto for Slow Travel”, there is only one principle against which i would propose a different approach:

2. Travel slow. Avoid planes if at all possible, and instead enjoy ferries, local buses and slow trains. Speed destroys the connection with landscape. Slow travel restores it.

Not that i’m opposed to this principle, but i would suggest: Travel fast. Take a plane if necessary to cover long distances. Plan to take ferries, local buses and slow trains if these are what you worked out as highlights of your trip. There’s too much landscape for you to be able to cover on any given trip anyway. Fast travel helps you make the best out of the time you have on your trip. In fact, if you do it right, you get more time to perform what’s advocated in Slow Travel (principles 4 through 8).

I found it a little amusing that someone got rather excited about his 7 days itinerary in Norway when what he ends up seeing is just a little more than 2 cities in a vast country. Just for comparisons (ok i admit i’m being a little smug here), here are maps showing places he covered versus what i did, also in 7 days.

Luke's Trip Norway

On hindsight, i do have some regrets too. If i had another additional 3 or 4 days, i would have been able to add parts of Finland into my itinerary. Oh well.. this was the result of booking the return flight ticket before having even the slightest idea of an itinerary. And time was not on my side for taking advantage of Qatar Airway’s S$436 promotional flight to Oslo as they did run out quickly and i was more than thankful to have secured it.

So, Fast Travel in Norway.. this is a bit of a dichotomy, since the speed limit is mostly 80km/h. First things first, you must rent a car to see Norway. Most people would fall into the trap of taking the “Norway in a Nutshell“ package and thinking they have seen Norway. Hardly the case, as a Norwegian puts it in a forum posting, it’s “like going to two cities in your own country – travelling with stops one way for seeing an attraction or 2″. “Norway in a Nutshell” is overhyped, as with most tourist attractions (as an aside, on the cruise section that’s supposed to be a highlight of the Nutshell trip, i saw tourists who slept through it. There’s probably no better way to waste money than doing that!). A car lets you go places, cheaply, where it will cost you a bomb if you were on a packaged tour instead. You can stop the car anytime, anywhere, to do the Slow Travel things you ought to be doing. It lets you stay outside of town so you can save money. It saves you money by allowing you to cover more places than you could if you relied on public transport. And money you need to save in Norway, since everything is bloody expensive.

Another example – between Trondheim and Tromso in Norway, which are more than 1000 km apart, the driving time is over 15 hours. A budget flight takes under 2 hours and costs less than a days’ worth of car rental and petrol. The choice is obvious. You probably won’t see any landscape that’s worth driving that many hours anyway.

For the rest of Europe or for that matter, the rest of the world, i would suggest Fast Travel too. Choose your connections wisely. Make the best out of the limited time and money you have.

How to plan a Europe trip


Here’s how i go about planning a Europe trip:

1. Decide places to visit
2. Check connections availability and travel time
3. Book!

Decide places to visit

  • You have to have some idea of the places that may be of interest to you to begin with. Most people probably think of the major European cities they are familiar with, and that’s not a bad way to start. Do look up wikipedia/wikitravel/tripadvisor to check if the attractions of those places are enough to warrant a visit. As a general rule, places with a higher sense of historical significance have more to offer. If you have no idea at all, look up the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, they usually don’t disappoint (however, these usually do not coincide with the major cities).
  • Plot the places you have selected on a map of Europe and see if you can join up the dots to form a logical itinerary. Scale down if you have checked and found out that the travelling time to go between the places are too long. As a general rule, i try not to spend more than 5 hours travelling per day (except on an overnight train), otherwise you might end up just getting from point to point instead of sightseeing. On a long drive, i would arrange for a short visit midway before reaching the destination.

Check connections availability and travel time

  • The modes of transport are to fly, take a train or drive. Fly when you have to cover a very long distance (it is usually cheaper and faster than taking a train that covers the same distance). Drive when it’s not expensive to rent a car (this is the preferred mode of transport because it can take you to the doorstep of any place and it is least tiring since you don’t have to carry your luggage around). Taking a train could be cheap if you book in advance, and the good thing is it takes you right into the city centre.
  • It is cheap to rent a car in Germany, which also happens to be relatively central in continental Europe, which makes Germany a good place to begin and end your trip. You can usually return the car to a different city from the one from which you picked up the car. Nothing beats having a car right up to the point before you fly home.
  • Check for flights using comparison sites such as My preference is to find out the cheapest flight using such a site, then proceed to book with the airline website directly.
  • I have never failed to find information in English on how to get around, such as finding the cheapest way to get to/from the airport, the cheapest way to utilise the metro etc. so don’t worry
  • Develop confidence in knowing how to get from point to point by studying maps beforehand. I keep screen captures of the locations of hotels, restaurants and places of interest, especially in relation to the nearest metro station on my phone. It helps even more when you use streetview to “recce” a place, to find a restaurant or car park for example.


  • Do it top down – secure your flight to/from Europe first, then the connections between places on your itinerary, and lastly the hotels (the least to have to worry about)
  • A lot of places/events of interest (e.g. museums, UNESCO heritage sites) require you to book way in advance because they can take in a limited number of visitors per day, so do remember to check.
  • Hotel booking sites are aplenty. I normally go with Agoda or, occasionally (sometimes cheaper for the non-refundable option). I avoid those sites that award points or some form of credit for the bookings. Most of the time, you are allowed to cancel the booking even up to the day before you’re supposed to arrive at the hotel. Take advantage of this to secure hotel vacancies before you do further research for better alternatives, or convert the cancellable bookings into non-refundable ones (cheaper) along the way once you’re sure you’ll be there. If you have a rental car, remember to check for availability of parking at or near the hotel.