How to plan a Europe trip

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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 skyscanner.net. 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.

Book

  • 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 booking.com, occasionally venere.com (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.

Safety Tips for Europe

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As mentioned in my previous posting, i had the misfortune of a second encounter with pick-pocketing, in Barcelona. However, “thanks” to the previous encounter, i learnt how not to fall prey this time.

It happened in the metro station again. We went past a lift and back-tracked to take it. Immediately three men who were standing near the lift followed us into it. They were not going to take the lift, and yet they did the moment we turned around to take it. Suspicious. Now this was a see-through lift with 24 hours surveillance video recording, and even this was not good enough to deter pick-pockets! They pretended to want to help with our luggage, putting their hands on the it but not actually exerting any force. Strange looking gestures. If you think about it, ordinary folks wouldn’t be bothered about your luggage unless you are really in need of help.

One of them continued with the gesture of bending down, towards me, even though there was no need to move the luggage. He had a jacket on his hand. This was literally meant for covering up his act. Immediately, I stuck my hands into my pockets and pressed down against my phone and wallet. This stopped him from what he was intending to do. The lift door opens, and i smiled while gesturing to them to go out first. A close shave indeed.

DSC_0137 The lift where it happened

In the Barcelona metro stations, they broadcast announcements in English to warn people of pick-pocket distraction tactics. They also have security personnels accompanied by dogs (as shown in the top most photo). The effort is certainly to be lauded. But the fact that there are still pick-pockets preying on tourists is regrettable. It points to a bigger problem.

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It seems quite a common hearsay that there is a very high likelihood of getting pick-pocketed or robbed while on holiday in Europe. My take on this – I wouldn’t be too worried. Europe is really quite safe. Policemen and surveillance are deployed where they are needed, and they really don’t take security lightly. On the part of the traveller, these are the safety tips i would observe to avert trouble:

  • Don’t carry your wallet in your pocket. If you have to, use a slim wallet and store only what you need for the day – probably just one credit card and some cash.
  • When you are moving your luggage, you are very VULNERABLE, since your attention will be on your luggage and you can be distracted easily. In such a situation, you definitely must not carry any valuables in your pocket. Put them in your luggage or haversack.
  • Don’t respond to anyone who tries to talk to you on the street. It is not normal for common folks to do this, unless you’re in Switzerland, where you may actually meet some genuinely friendly people who are not in need of money. In Italy, watch out for those who try to tie a bangle on your hand saying it’s free and then ask for money later.

Be alert but don’t worry too much.

Don’t go to Madrid

Bruise

Not unexpectedly, I’m back from my Grand Tour of Europe and i haven’t had time to blog during the trip, so it looks like i will have to do so retrospectively. Anyway, thanks for tuning in!

The photo shows bruises sustained on my elbow and knees when tackling youngsters who robbed me on day 3 of my trip. Yes, unfortunately, the first thing of interest i can write about on my Grand Tour of Europe is my experience of being pick-pocketed (technically speaking being robbed), in Madrid.

Upon leaving the hotel after checking out early in the morning (8am is considered early in Spain), two youngsters followed us, one of them blasting away at me in his native Spanish language which i couldn’t understand of course. The entrance to the metro was only 30m away, and they trailed us down into the metro entrance. I could guess he was asking for money, and i ignored him. Then he started kicking my legs, and moments later i suddenly thought that he could be aiming for my wallet, and true enough, my wallet was gone! i went after him, and he passed the wallet to his accomplice. I tackled his accomplice down to the floor, but couldn’t prevent him from passing the wallet back to him. My wife was in a state of panic and in her effort to help, she held on to my legs instead of the accomplice’s. So they managed to get away while i was immobilized (duh!). Anyway, they were “kind enough” to return my wallet. He took the cash and stuffed 10 Euros back into the wallet. Credit cards and driving license intact, phew! One passer by who came by a minute later stopped to help, and he advised us to report the incident to the police and he said “I’m sorry”, the only English phrase he could manage.

All in all, not a big loss (<S$300), no major injury, no credit card or other important documents lost. We were able to continue on with our journey, albeit feeling affected by the incident for a good few hours. This was already the best outcome possible, for which i’m thankful, and this was actually a good “lesson” to help me prevent the next pick-pocketing incident from happening while in Barcelona (yes, a second time within just 3 days! More on this in a follow-up posting on how to be safe while in Europe).

This is the first time, after 5 times of traveling around Europe, including Eastern Europe, that i have ever been pick-pocketed. And it happened twice within the same country – Spain, done by locals who make a profession out of pick-pocketing tourists! While this is not a problem exclusive to Spain, the fact that it happened to me twice within 3 days shows that the situation is particularly bad there.

On closing, i’m saying “don’t go to Madrid” not just because of the unwelcome event, but more so because there’s really nothing much to see there. If you’re into art, you can go to the Prado museum (where you can see the magnificent “Las Meninas“ by Velãzquez). Plaza Mayor, which is supposed to be the main plaza in Madrid, is one of the worst i’ve seen in all of Europe. Don’t go to Madrid.