Since we are heading to Venice for a quick weekend trip and I'm planning a fun, regional getaway for Memorial Day Weekend, I wanted to go ahead and put together this post with the top tips I've cultivated from my previous years traveling around Europe! I hope this can help or inspire you in your travel planning!
First, let’s agree that travel planning is unique to the individual. There is no one right way to do it and the way I prefer may not be the best for you. I have learned a lot over the years about what works for me and my husband (travel buddy) and I’m happy to share those tips with you for you to use as you wish, or not at all!
I feel somewhat out of travel-planning practice since we have traveled much less over the past 5 years living in the US, where it is so much more expensive and time consuming to travel. (No jumping on a 2hr flight to Paris for less than 100 bucks r/t anymore!) Then, of course, with the onset of the pandemic I had to cancel trips to Palm Springs, NYC, and two different trips to North Carolina to visit family and for my husband’s High School Reunion. So it’s REALLY been awhile! But in the grand scheme of the troubles that the pandemic brought, cancelling a few trips is not much to complain about, so I try to keep that in perspective!
Let me preface this by saying I am a planner by nature. I do not like to fly by the seat of my pants for much of anything, but especially not when traveling. The idea of going somewhere and not knowing where we are going to stay when we get there makes me break out in stress hives! Also, I REALLY enjoy planning. I love reading up on the history of a place, I love looking at maps, I love plotting a route, I love researching, etc. It’s my jam. I get that some folks prefer to go with the flow more and that is cool for them. I just do not enjoy that. I will say though, that I do try to plan the days with flexibility in mind. Usually there are several specific things we want to hit up wherever we are. I’ll check out the days and hours they’re open and make note of it, this includes sites, shops, restaurants, etc. and then I’ll make a general plan based on that. But I try to make sure we have enough time to do some wandering and exploring and not have us on a tight schedule from morning to night for the whole trip!
So for me, (and this may or may not be the most popular thing to admit on a travel blog, but oh well!) I like to take a look a Rick Steves guide early on. This, of course, applies to European travel specifically. But so far, that is the extent of my travel experience outside of the US, so there ya go! I know not everyone is a fan and it’s not the “cool” thing to do, but I find that when it comes to seeing the sites he has wonderfully specific tips that have come in handy many times! I don’t know that we’ve ever stayed at a hotel recommended in his guides. (If we have it was probably a coincidence!) Those don’t tend to be our style, but for getting around, self-guided walks, museum tours, and sometimes restaurants I’ve found these guides to be super valuable! We skipped the longest lines for tickets at Versailles, and at the Accademia Gallery (to see Michelangelo’s David) by following his advice. We’ve found many a much-needed public restroom by following his directions. We took an elevator to the top of Rome’s Victor Emmanuel II Monument for gorgeous views, and barely any other people up there, thanks to him. Plus the audio guides on his smartphone app are really great, if you enjoy that type of thing. So for Europe, I still recommend him as a starting point!
Next up, I’ll jump on to Pinterest and type in my destination. From there usually hundreds of blog posts come up and it’s time to start weeding through. After you’ve done this for a few trips you'll notice some of the same bloggers popping up time and again, and you’ll recognize which ones you vibe with and which you don’t. This is where you can find more off-the-beaten track things to do, often titled “15 Off the Beaten Track Things to Do In…”! :-) It was through random blog posts on Pinterest that I found a reservation-only absinthe bar in Prague that was an amazing experience, as well as a tiny, tasty restaurant in Paris with the most perfect little jazz club in the cellar! Thank you Pinterest!!
Another place to get travel ideas is Instagram. This wasn’t so much a thing when we were living in Italy before, but it’s VERY much a thing now! I follow a lot of travel bloggers and accounts of people who live outside the US, so as I scroll through my feed I see a lot of gorgeous places that I want to remember. I love that Instagram has the “save” feature, so I will hit that little ribbon icon when I see something particularly special. Then, within my “saves”, I have those divided in to collections based on location like, Vicenza specific, Italy specific, etc. I even have a collection of photo inspiration for when I see a cool shot at a certain place. Not that I want to just copy other people, but sometimes it’s nice to have an idea to start from and then move in to doing your own thing. On Insta, you can also search specific locations and see all the posts that have been tagged there! I found out about a really beautiful old Abbey from Insta when I was researching our trip to Normandy in 2019. It was listed in some travel books, but I don’t think I would have been as interested if I hadn’t seen some lovely Insta pics of it! It was a quick detour and hubs and I both enjoyed checking it out and getting some pretty photos!
For lodging it gets a little trickier for us because neither my husband nor I are interested in hostels, but we (read he) also don’t like to break the bank on a room when we are going to spend most of our time out of it. One thing we DO agree on when it comes to a place to stay is that we prefer, if possible, for it to be more modern and updated. We are not looking for “old-world charm” in the place where we are staying. We will get all the charm we need as we eat the food, see the sites, and interact with the locals. However, finding a more modern and updated place in the very mid-range budget we try to keep to can be a challenge. And now I’m going to say something else kind of controversial… I don’t love an AirBnB situation. Gasp! I know, but I just don’t. If it’s a place that is used ONLY as guest lodging I feel better about it. But like, I just don’t want to be in a stranger’s personal space. Even if they are cool with it. Even when they aren’t there. It stresses me out and weirds me out and I’m just not into it. I have done it and it’s been fine, and I’ve done it and it’s been not fine. I’d rather just be in a hotel. Period. That’s me. It’s cool if you disagree. Due to that preference I most often book through the Booking.com site and because we’ve used it so much we sometimes get extra discounts through their Genus loyalty program and that is where, more often than not, I find the best prices. I will also always check hotel websites directly for pricing because sometimes the rate there is actually lower than anywhere else on the internet. I’ve found that this happens more often in the US than in Europe though.
For actually choosing a hotel, I usually go right to TripAdvisor. I know there have been controversies about reviews over the years, but here’s what I like – traveler photos. Show me your personal pictures of the bathroom! Yes! I don’t want to see management’s edited photos. Give me those crooked shots of holes in the ceiling and weird things happening in corners. Give me the dates! Oh it looked good in 2012, but in 2019 not so much? Thank you! I also click on the 3 star ratings first. The 5 stars are usually overly gushy and it’s difficult to decipher what’s really true and what’s embellishment. The 1 stars are usually overly dramatic about something dumb that I don’t even care about. (Example: We stayed at a major hotel chain in Brussels, not at all what we usually do, and it was SO nice! But the ratings were lower than what I would normally be okay with. However, when reading the reviews, it became clear the low ratings were because business travelers were moaning about how small the gym was and that they didn’t have the right cookies in the mini bar and relatively silly things like that! NOTHING I cared about at all!) The 3 stars are usually the most realistic and give you the best idea of whether it’s going to be for you or not. The keyword search is also helpful, especially if you have specific concerns like parking, or noise levels. Use all of their tools! From there I’ll go and actually secure it through Booking.com.
Another aspect of choosing the hotel is, of course, location. Based on what we have planned and what I’ve learned about the “must-dos” of the city I usually have a good idea of the area where we’d like to stay. Generally it’s in the city center, but if it’s a larger city like Paris or London you’ve got to narrow it down more. I use a mix of just looking at Google Maps and the TripAdvisor map (like I said, I love a map!) to narrow down the area. But if I’ve come across a seemingly great hotel in our price range and the vibe we like, we aren’t afraid to stay a little bit out of the way.
Speaking of Google Maps, once I’ve booked the lodging I like to really take a look at where the hotel is in relation to major sites we want to see, public transportation we might need and restaurants – especially if we are getting in around a meal time and I know we’ll be hungry and not trying to go across town to eat. We don’t need to get hangry and start the trip on a less than positive note! Depending on the city, we often will take public transportation – bus, train, metro, etc. from the airport to the hotel, which is hubby’s preference rather than a taxi or ride-share service. In those cases I get pretty detail oriented and will use Maps to plot out exactly how to get to our destination and I even write it out on a piece of paper to carry with me because WHAT IF OUR PHONES DIE OR THERE IS NO SERVICE?!?!?! I like to be prepared!
As much as I love planning, I have not yet become a travel spreadsheet kind of person. I do take a lot of notes and write addresses and phone numbers down, but when it’s just me and hubs I’ll just keep that hand-written info in my purse. Which, as I type this, I’m thinking I should have more copies in case my purse gets stolen. But so far (knock wood) it’s worked fine for us. We’ve traveled with people who do like more of a typed up itinerary and that can certainly be a good idea if you are trying to do a lot of scheduled outings with a good sized group of people. During our last time living in Italy we had the opportunity to take quite a few trips with different friends and it’s always interesting to see how people do things. It’s also nice to work together to plan, especially if you have an area that you are not great at. Like for me, I’m just not great at picking restaurants. I have been an extremely picky eater for most of my life and now, as a real adult, I have to work to push myself out of my food comfort zone. So picking restaurants is just hard for me sometimes. I can eat sandwiches for every meal and be content. LOL But then, the other side of me knows that it is fun and fulfilling to actually experience a different culture through their food. Still, I tend to go for somewhat familiar and safe things when looking at restaurants. So I’m always happy to hand off that responsibility to a friend we are traveling with, so I don’t have to worry about picking something too basic that other people will be disappointed in! At the end of the day when you are in a position to travel with different friends, just keep in mind that it’s okay if all of your friends are not the same type of traveler as you. We were fortunate enough to have several good friends that were a nice travel fit! But there were a couple times where it was like… alright, note-to-self, those are not our travel people! And again, that’s OKAY!
On the topic of friends, another great way to get info is from your friends that travel too! Especially if you are living overseas where there are a lot of people in the area that are traveling to the same places, they can bring a wealth of information to your planning! (This helped me a lot with my poor restaurant picking skills!) I LOVE getting and giving recommendations! It was friends that told us about the bar we *had* go to up on the hillside in Taormina, Sicily. Bar Turrisi, a.k.a the Penis bar. Yep. That's right. Phalluses (phalli?) carved from wood and stone cover the walls and hang from the ceiling. The menus, door handles, artwork, lamps are all that very specific shape. It’s hilarious and I’m so glad we didn’t miss it! Thanks friends!!
I’m SUPER excited to put these tips to my own use again! As I’ve said before, I’m beyond grateful for the traveling we were able to do when we lived overseas previously, but there is always something new to add to the ol’ travel bucket list! This time around I’m hoping to visit the Loire Valley in France for chateaux tours and wine tasting. Tallinn, Estonia is high on my list and while there I want to ferry over to Helsinki, since we’ve never been to any Nordic countries. We also want to check out more of the Slavic countries since our new region of Italy is so close and we never made it to Croatia or Slovenia last time. We'd also like to spend more time exploring Italy itself. We are so close to exciting places like Venice, Bologna, Verona, Lake Garda, Padua, Modena... the list goes on! And we didn’t spend a ton of time in northern Italy before, so this will be so new to us!
I hope you are able to use some of these tips to use some time soon if you want. I feel like after being locked down for over a year even people who don’t usually travel that much are going to be booking trips as soon as they can, just because they can! So safe travels to everyone and ciao for now friends!
Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any app or website mentioned in this post.