Europe is a long way from India – A long expensive air journey warrants a longer tour than most Europeans. I fully grasped this only when I met a British couple in Amalfi who told me that they visit the coast twice a year – The flight time from London Gatwick to Amalfi (Naples ) is just two hours plus – The distance between Bangalore and Delhi! At Vienna we observed that another national capital -Bratislava was less than an hour and Budapest was only two hours away. As a geographic dividend, therefore European tourists travel more often, for shorter durations with much lighter baggage and visit each place many times. Indians, however need to be more careful in our planning, selective in our locations and prioritize as also maximize our sight seeing as many may never come back again to those parts. While this may influence the way we Indians travel on a foreign holiday the planning considerations in this blog are applicable to any tourist.
My wife and I were planning a trip to Europe for some time now and we have plans to visit more than once and hence we decided – one country at time – Italy was the first choice and we added on Vienna as our exit airport since we did not want to backtrack from Venice – just a few hours away. Our trip finally materialized this July (2018). I am writing this blog to share my experiences of my trip to Italy.We started our planing about two months before our departure from India
The first decision to take was how long and how many places to visit during the trip. Should it be – touch as many places as you can and tick them off your list or spend a few days each but visit fewer towns. We opted for the latter and chose to spend three weeks in Italy with at least four to five days in each location so that we could flavor the towns better – And so it was Rome – Amalfi coast- Florence- Venice and since we had gone so close to Austria we chose to exit out of Vienna. We had to drop Milan, Naples, Cinque Terre, Sicily and a cruise off the list due to time constraints though they were on my A-List.
How many days trip – Depends on the budget and the leave of absence that you have. Personally I would suggest at least four to five days in each place to get the best out of the city if you are traveling alone or with partner. The other option is do a quick conducted tour which is always hectic and may not be to your convenience.
Once you have decided on the trip duration the next step is to identify what you would like to visit. It is not possible to visit all the locations and also keep in mind that European tourist guides sometimes list locations which in my view do not even warrant a visit. So if you are a first timer do some research. Some searches on the net for starters are “What are the top 10 things to do in say Rome” – “Things to do in Rome” – I found Trip Advisor a great place to start. Lonely Planet is another great site. I would suggest you buy a Lonely Planet guide from the local book store particularly during your planning process. Well worth the expense . Once you have gone through a few web sites you would get a feel of the city and the distances involved -Read reviews about the attractions and you will be able to make your own list of the things to see and do in a city – For example in Rome as a first time tourist my shortlist would take in the Trevie Fontana, Vatican, Spanish Steps, Colosseum, Pantheon, Capitol monument, Villa Borghese, Piazzas Navona and Poppola and the Campa de Fiori. Add to this some shopping areas – we chose the Via Del Corso and its offshoot lanes and you pretty much have a good starting list. Notice this list does not have any museums and Cathedrals except the Vatican and St Paul’s Cathedral. You could read up a little more and then tinker with the list.
Next look them up on map – where are they how close are they to one another. What is a workable visit plan – In the case of all the cities we visited they were in reasonable proximity to one another and generally in the city centre. Which then leads to the question of selecting a location for the hotel. There are two views on this -Stay away from the city center where the hotels are cheaper and then use the savings to pay for expensive local transport or stay in the city center where the hotels are more expensive. I preferred to stay in the city center as it offers great flexibility in sight seeing and also gives the option of returning to the hotel during the day for a mid afternoon or early evening rest and siesta before setting out for a second round in the evening. Do Keep in mind that Italy has 15-16 hours of daylight in summer and two sessions of sight seeing is possible in one day.
Local sight seeing was something that we decided not to plan in advance but to take each day as it came. This gave us great flexibility but added to costs as spot tickets are more expensive than advance bookings. Also some tickets may not be available when you want them. You could also try to contact agents on the site or your hotel for tickets. In most places there is a concept of “break the line” tickets where for a few Euro more you need not stand in the line for tickets. For example in the Vatican the additional cost is 4 Euros but individual tickets were sold out. We had to approach a travel agency on the spot which did cost us quite a bit of money – In Venice we chose to stand in the general queue to visit the Doges palace and the San Marco cathedral.
With this background information we need to zero in on the hotel – Five star hotels are generally expensive – However not much of difference in price between an average four star and a good three star hotel. Get on to any hotel booking site- I recommend Booking.com as I have been using it satisfactorily for many years now in combination with Tripadvisor reviews. Have had a very good experience each and every time (Check out my reviews on TRIPADVISOR I have so far written sixty-five reviews on the site as ramanand55) -Start with the basic filters of locations and refine your search further and you get a good shortlist of hotels with their prices and facilities. Map their locations to the study you did earlier and then check out the reviews of the hotel. I always choose a combination of two sites Booking.com and Tripadvisor. A clear trend and pattern will emerge after going through the reviews and will help you further refine your shortlist of hotels. Prices of hotels vary with some hotels getting cheaper as the time gets closer while others get expensive. Check out the cancellation policies and the rate difference between upfront and therefore lower prices with limited or no refund vs free cancellation and a higher price. I always book the free cancellation option and keep track of the free cancellations dates – As time gets by and closer to the date of travel compare the rates of your shortlisted hotels with the upfront payment rates of these hotels .This method worked very successfully for me in three of the five hotels booked where I saved upto 25% from the initial “with cancellation” rate. In the Amalfi coast there were no options available due to tourist rush and in Vienna all hotel rates had gone up
Now with the towns, hotels and a broad idea of sight seeing locations you have a draft itinerary in place. With this draft in place fill in the gaps for train, local air, bus and ferry bookings. Trenitalia has some interesting promo offers where you can get first class tickets at the rate of second class! We travelled first and premium second though the second class too is a good option – We booked a ferry through Travelmar and a bus trip through FLIXBUS -Thus we experienced air, train, bus, taxi, ferry and water-bus, metro , tram and local bus on our trip -All these tickets can be booked in advance at discounted rates on the local web sites -Again cancellation rules apply but Non refundable bookings are always cheaper. The cost of train tickets is a small percentage of the overall costs and I recommend non refundable bookings. Even if you cancel You don’t lose a princely sum However before doing international transactions on your cards check out the conversion rates ( not just exchange rates but also markups) on cards you hold .I got a limited period offer from CITIBANK where there were no markups. Make sure you cater for some rest days if you are on a longish trip like we did – Else you are better off on a organized conducted tour where you are hustled from place to place on a busy schedule.
Once your itinerary and “with cancellations ” hotel bookings and other tickets are in place you need to book your air tickets – Choose a journey timing which does not mess up with your sleep schedules or else you would begin your first day in a hotel room making up the deficit ! Check out from the agents of the Italian embassy in India (VFS ) the waiting time for an appointment for document submission and processing time. Try and submit your papers at least 60 days before your travel but definitely 45 days – This will help you fix your travel date more precisely I would suggest that the Airport of entry should be different from the exit airport-While this would mean a small additional cost it avoids backtracking to the airport of entry and the cost is well worth it -Play around with dates , timings , websites and airlines till you get the optimum journey routing and dates. Remember to consider costs incurred during stopovers , exchange rates , down time on arrival and the taxi fares to/from airports in case of multiple airports
Visa submission to VFS proved to a little cumbersome . We bought our airline tickets about a month before our travel only to find that there were no VFS visa appointments for the next thirty days.We approached a travel agent who also threw his hands up This gave me a bit of a scare but with constant trawling through the VFS website I found a more acceptable date. Given our three week duration we had to submit all tickets air/train/bus ferry and hotel bookings along with a detailed itinerary apart from the usual proof of financial capability and intention to return. In hindsight , I should have submitted a simple three week itinerary showing one location and one three week hotel ” with cancellation” booking and independent of this made my plans
Lastly a word about FOREX – Shop around a bit for the best rate. The Forex dealers have a huge discretionary spread and all that you need to be eligible is to ask. There is a spread of almost two rupees a Euro !
And so finally we were ready with a visa, forex cards, cash, airline bookings, hotel confirmations, train ferry and bus bookings and we were ready to go – and to think of it I did all this from the confines of my home.
Here is the final itinerary of our three week trip to Italy In the coming posts I will share my journey through Italy