Several years ago I started taking trips abroad. Planning the first few trips was pretty stressful, I really had no idea what I was doing. As with most things in life, it's a learning curve.
In these travel articles I write about some of the things I've learned about planning and executing trips. In particular a mega road trip I recently took across Europe. Now I don't claim to be a travel expert, just someone that's gone through the whole holiday newbie thing.
In this article I write about some of the decisions I had to make about destinations and accommodation before going on my road trip.
Figuring out where to go and what to do
While I was on my road trip I went to see a very famous landmark. The landmark was nice enough. Sadly, over the years it’s turned into a massive tourist trap. Coach load upon coach load of tourists, ridiculous crowds, all trying to get that photo of themselves with the landmark. And a small army of people trying to sell them crappy tourist trinkets.
There are many famous landmarks that are so amazing you can forgive the insane crowds, but this definitely wasn't one of them. Not my idea of fun. So why did I go there? Because it’s on all of the lists of top places to visit in that particular country!
Before I went, I did my research. I read the comments on Google maps from people that had actually been there. There were red flags. People who described the crowds, who said it wasn't worth it. But I ignored them. I wanted to tick that landmark off the list. It was a bad choice.
Isn't hindsight great. The thing is, until we’ve actually been somewhere, we see these places through other peoples eyes. Often travel writers, the random websites we find on Google, friends or family. Very few of the places I've travelled to have been anything like how I imagined them. Some better, some worse, mostly just different. You can probably guess what I learned from visiting that famous landmark. Pay attention to the red flags!
Packing it in
It's tough, especially on your first few holidays. You feel like you have to stuff your trip full of famous tourist attractions. I'm certainly guilty of doing that. It reminds me of a comedy movie, I forget the name, where the father drags his family around tourist attractions all day religiously following an itinerary, while his family were bored out of their minds.
What I did on my road trip that was different from previous trips was to really mix it up. Cherry pick a few famous places and spend the rest of the time either doing other stuff that I knew I'd enjoy, things I hadn't really done before or just plan nothing at all.
When I think back, I'd have to say that on the whole I enjoyed the other stuff more than visiting the famous places. And the only way I was able to last for three weeks was to take regular breaks to chill out.
When you're doing your research and making lists of things to do, these are just options. I didn't end up doing half the things on my ideas list but I'm glad I had the list.
Before committing to a long road trip I went on a mini road trip for just two days over to Belgium. It was a great learning experience and gave me the confidence that I could handle driving in Europe. I was actually quite surprised, the driving was nowhere near as stressful as I’d imagined. By the end of the mini trip I was really enjoying it. Well, that was until I got back to the UK and had to adjust back to UK roads!
In a way, some of the short trips I'd been on previously were taster trips. I'd already done big art galleries, museums and other stuff so I had a fair idea what I did and didn't like before planning the road trip.
Going on holiday with other people usually means you’ll be spending an aweful lot of time together over multiple days. If you don’t usually spend that amount of time together then no matter how well you get on there’s always a risk of friction. Especially if you're doing a multi week road trip where you're going to be stuck in a car together for long periods of time.
Taking a short taster trip with them might be insightful.
Another thing we did on a previous trip was for everyone to agree up front that it was ok to split up from time to time and go do our own thing. There's a curious social thing where that's seen as rude. That it somehow infers you don't like your travelling companions. But occasionally going off and doing our own thing worked out really well for us. There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of personal space from time to time. And it's also a way to mitigate the age old problem of feeling pressured in to going to places you're not interested in, just because others like that kind of thing.
When to go
What about weather forecasts?
The long and the short of it is don’t trust the weather forecasts.
On one of my earlier trips I got a bit lucky and the long term weather forecast turned out to be pretty accurate. Lulled into a false sense of security I foolishly planned my road trip based on a long term weather forecast for nice warm sunny weather.
As the trip got closer and closer the weather forecast kept changing. In the end, the first week was stupidly hot, 30+ degrees and the last week was cloudy and grey. During the trip, even the next day’s forecast would regularly change.
I'm not suggesting you ignore the weather forecast. Just take it with a pinch of salt. Especially the long term forecast. I found that sometimes the forecasts would slide. The long term forecast had bad weather at the start of a particular week and as it got closer to that week, the bad weather slowly slid to the end of that week.
Air Conditioning and heating
For the first week of my road trip, I’d booked a couple of nights in B&Bs. It hadn’t occurred to me to check if the rooms had air conditioning. They didn’t. To be fair, the B&Bs were not in countries known for their scorching hot climate. But as I mentioned, the temperatures hit 30+ degrees and I had a couple of uncomfortable nights sleep.
It was a bit of a freak weather event. I guess if you’re going somewhere hot or cold don’t forget to check the Hotel room has heating or cooling. It’s something that’s easily overlooked but easy to check. Places like Italy get stupid hot in July and August.
Traditionally, many European countries tend to shut down on Sundays, especially shops and restaurants. Far more so than we do in the UK. It's often a cultural thing to do with separating work and family time. During my road trip I quickly got in to the habit of going food shopping on Saturday so I had everything I needed for Sunday.
Something else to bear in mind is that a lot of Mediterranean countries such as Italy shut down at lunchtime for anything from an hour to two hours.
Mondays are not museum days
In some European countries such as Italy and Germany, most museums are closed all day on Mondays. If you're going to be spending a single day in a city full of famous museums then Monday is a bad day to visit - as I discovered the hard way! You might want to shift the day your trip starts or move around destinations to take into account Sundays and Mondays.
Deciding where to stay
For my road trip I decided to go with a combination of relatively cheap B&B’s, hotels and camping. AirBnB and hostels were an option but I ruled them out for this particular trip.
Since it was going to be a long trip, cost was important. In my head I was thinking anything up to 4 weeks. That’s a lot of accommodation to pay for and 4 weeks of B&B's and Hotels would be cripplingly expensive. I hadn't really done any camping before but I knew that it was a cheap. After doing some research I worked out that three nights of camping would cost roughly the same as a single night in a cheap B&B or hotel. At that ratio I could at least half the cost of the trip by mixing in camping.
I came across a fair few hostels while looking for hotels and B&Bs and they were usually very cheap - sometimes as cheap as camping. You need to be comfortable sharing a room with strangers though. Not something I’ve done in a very long time. From what people tell me you get to meet a lot of different people which is good, or bad depending on your point of view. I’ve heard stories about things getting stolen. I guess you just have to be careful. In the end I decided to skip hostels as it was going to be yet another big unknown and I had enough of those in this trip already.
I've had mixed results with AirBnB. On one trip I booked an apartment without any problems. The last time I used AirBnB it took ages for the hosts to reply. And not all of them did. In the end I got fed up and booked into a Hotel instead. Maybe I was just unlucky. Either way I decided to skip AirBnB this time around not least because I wanted keep things flexible and arrange accommodation on the fly during the trip. There wasn't going to be time to hang around waiting for hosts to respond.
For my road trip I pretty much exclusively used Booking.com to find B&B’s and hotels. I'm not necessarily suggesting it's the best hotel booking website. For this trip I was going to be booking lots and lots of one or two night stays. Normally I'd shop around a bit but Googling around to compare Hotel prices on different websites became very time consuming. It turned out that most B&B’s and hotels are on all the major booking websites at roughly the same price. So it was just easier to stick to a single booking website. It also meant that I could keep all my bookings in one place.
One of the great things about booking websites is that they have customer reviews. You can also checkout TripAdvisor and Google Maps for reviews. For me personally, the customer reviews are seriously important. You’ll often learn things from the reviews that aren’t mentioned in the hotel or B&B’s listing.
Generally speaking I would rule out Hotels with less than a 7.5 out of 10 rating. I'd also look at the number of reviews and rule out any with none or a very low number, especially those with a very high rating but few reviews.
Be careful though. You’ll get the odd person that’ll give a 1 star review claiming that the staff were rude or something like that and completely ignoring every other aspect of the hotel. When most other reviews are 8 out of 10 (or 4 out of 5 stars on Trip Advisor and Google Maps) then it’s usually just someone being an idiot.
Talking about rude staff, many people assume that the American style of happy smiley service is universal. Just bear in mind that there are cultural differences across Europe. I found that many of the smaller hotels and B&B’s in places like Germany the staff were great and very helpful and efficient but perhaps not American style smiley and happy. You can see how some people might misinterpret this as rudeness. I actually think it’s quite rude to assume everywhere else in the world should be like your country. But that’s just me :)
When I first started taking trips I didn't realise just how much the prices for some things can vary over time. I'm not talking about the kind of price changes you get at the supermarket or on Amazon. This is about booking flights, trains and sometimes accommodation for specific dates and times and the price changes can be massive. It's really important to understand when you're planning a trip.
It's the classic problem. You're thinking about taking a trip so you check out prices for flights and accommodation and it all looks great, well within budget. But by the time you actually get around to booking things you discover that the prices have gone up and you end up paying far more than you'd intended.
Lets take airplane travel as an example. You'll be booking a flight for a specific date and time. To start with, the price can vary by the day of the week that you want to travel on. For example, flying on a Friday is often more expensive since it's one of the busiest days. Then price can also start to creep up as you get closer to the departure date, usually the week before and can easily double by the time of the actual flight. It can also be demand driven where prices go up as more tickets are sold. The last few tickets becoming ridiculously expensive.
Usually it comes down to how far ahead you want to book and that's a personal thing. I feel uncomfortable booking too far ahead. But then again, I've been caught out. On one occasion, it was getting late and I decided to book flights the next day. Only to find the price had nearly doubled overnight. Bear in mind that this was about a week before I wanted to fly out.
Conversely you need to be careful not to panic book because you're worried about the prices going up. I very nearly got caught out booking a super cheap 6am flight. I'd got so carried away with the cheap price that I very nearly forgot to check if I could actually get to the airport that early on the train. Which of-course, I couldn't.
One other thing to bear in mind about the booking websites. They’ll try and hurry you along. “Only one room left”, “There are 3 other people looking at this property”. They want to pressure you into booking by making you think you’ll miss out. I had to keep telling myself to ignore them, especially when booking non-refundable accommodation. Take your time to do a proper search before booking.
Location, location, location
One of the features of booking.com (and probably many of the other booking websites) that I really like is the map. Once you’ve got a list of hotels, you have the option to show their locations on a map. This gives you a much better idea of where they are in relation to the city centre, each other, underground stations, bus stops, train stations, airports etc… You can mouse over them and see their prices too.
That’s when you realise just how far out of town that awesomely cheap hotel really is. Most of the time the cheap B&Bs and hotels are cheap for a reason and sometimes it’s down to their location. In major cities, you'll often get clusters of hotels around the central train station. Not that I want to make sweeping generalisations but often the area around central train stations can be a bit rough.
I personally prefer to be nearer the city centre but this was problematic on my road trip because of parking. Finding a cheap Hotel that had free private parking in or near the city centre was often impossible.
Google street view
When I found an interesting Hotel on booking.com I’d try and locate it on Google maps and drop the little yellow street view guy as close to it as I could. I'd take a virtual tour of the street and check out the hotel and surrounding area.
One red flag on booking.com is when a Hotel doesn’t provide a photo of the Hotel exterior and instead focuses on the lobby, rooms and famous landmarks. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any wrong with it. But sometimes it’s in a dodgy area. Best to check it out on street view first.
I once found an excellent but strangely cheap hotel. Before I booked it, I pulled up street view. The hotel exterior was actually quite smart but it turned out to be right next door to a sex shop. The general area was pretty rough too which explained the cheap price.
Since it was a road trip, the Hotels I booked had to have parking. Luckily this was shown on the booking website. You have to pay attention though. Some say they have free public parking nearby. In some city centres this may be technically true but you’ll be lucky to find a parking space. Sometimes it says “public parking, fees apply” but then doesn’t state what the fees are.
Street view was also very useful for checking out the hotel parking. Especially when they say free public on street parking. It’s personal choice but I generally rejected these Hotels. And not just because I’m crap at parallel parking :)
If they charged for parking, I'd factor that into the price when comparing hotels as it could add up over multiple nights.
Something that I hadn't considered when booking accommodation is that some cities and towns, especially in Germany, have environmental zones in the centre of town. You need to get a little sticker that states the environmental rating of your car and display it on your windscreen before entering these zones. If you get caught without one, you can get fined. In Germany, getting an environmental sticker requires a trip to a special garage with your car registration documents.
If you’re going to be out and about all day then breakfast is a very important meal. If you're staying in a hotel or B&B it's sometimes included but often times you’ll need to pay extra.
The money saving instinct is to skip paying for the Hotel breakfast and go out to a local cafe, bread shop or supermarket which is what I often did. But it's a lot of faffing about. To be honest I preferred getting breakfast at the Hotel.
It depends how much you’re willing to pay. Is €10 too much for a continental breakfast? Personally speaking, for a full English breakfast that's fine but it's a lot for a continental breakfast. Often the customer reviews on the booking website will tell you if the breakfast is good value or not.
For those of you that don’t know what a continental breakfast is, it’s completely different from a full English breakfast. It’s cold meats, cheeses, rolls, boiled eggs, salad, sometimes cakes and cereal. It's a bit different from what we're used to in the UK but I like it.
Also, another aside and I'm sorry if I'm stating the obvious here but don’t forget that coffee can be different too. In Italy, it's served in tiny little cups - expresso style shots of caffeine. If you’re thirsty, go buy a bottle of water!
If you’ve got a half decent roaming data plan for your mobile phone then you probably won’t need to worry too much about Wi-Fi. Virtually all the places I stayed at provided Wi-Fi access but I rarely needed to use it.
A word of warning about using your mobile phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot or tethering it to other devices while abroad. Most mobile companies have different rules for this when roaming. It's usually not allowed, at all. If you're taking a laptop or device that only has Wi-Fi then you'll probably want to make sure your accommodation provides Wi-Fi access.
If your accommodation does provide Wi-Fi, especially if it's free, remember to check the wording closely. Sometimes, it’s only in communal areas. Again, check out the customer feedback and see what people who have stayed there say.
For camp sites that provide Wi-Fi it's almost always only available in the main reception area and doesn’t extend across the entire campsite.
One of the things that I never really figured out very well was finding campsites. It was a lot more hassle than looking for a hotel. There don't seem to be any really good websites listing campsites like the hotel booking websites. Sure there are websites out there, but if you want to camp in a particular location you'd have to search through half a dozen different websites.
Google maps was the only place that seemed to have a definitive list of sites. I would find the rough area I wanted to camp in on the map and then search for "campsite". The campsite locations appear on the map with whatever details Google has about them. Most of the campsites had a website and booking involved conacting them directly.
Something that I found a bit frustrating was that very few of the campsite websites had photographs of the tent pitches in any detail. What is the ground like? How close together are the pitches? These things are useful to know. Sometimes I found photos taken by campers by searching Google. And there would often be ratings and comments on Google maps about the campsite.
Camping was a bit of a learning curve for me. I'd assumed that campsites were for tents - camping, right? Well, pretty much all the campsites I saw were dominated by mobile home style camper vans. They'd all be lined up in rows like a mini town. With a small area for pitching tents kind of tagged on the side somewhere. I guess it's a cultural thing. Mobile home camping seems to be a big thing in Western Europe. Many of the campsites had really good toilet blocks and showers, saunas, a restaurant and all sorts of other amenities. I got the impression that the majority of guests were staying for at least a week in a mobile home and wanted all the comforts of home. Whereas most people pitching tents would stay for a couple of nights at most.
By their very nature there are far fewer campsites around than hotels and B&Bs. If you want to camp in a particular area then your options are going to be limited. The areas around popular locations like lakes are often dominated by the larger, mobile home oriented campsites. You might have to be a bit more flexible on location than you would when booking a hotel.
I'd also naively assumed that you needed to book a tent pitch in advance. Again, this varied from site to site and country to country. Most campsites you just turn up and ask for a pitch. Some will reserve a space in advance but they often want a fairly big deposit and there's a minimum number of days you can reserve. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. They can't be making much money out of tent pitches so it's just not worth the time and effort doing reservations only to have people not turn up.
Road-trip: my car or hire car?
One of the major decisions that I had to make for my road trip was whether to take my own car or hire one in Europe.
Kind of goes without saying that hiring a car was going to cost a fair bit, especially over several weeks. What I did was total up the cost of taking my car, including the ferry cost, additional insurance and breakdown cover. I compared this to the total cost of hiring a car, including flights. I did a Google search for car hire in Europe and compare prices for several different companies. The result wasn't much of a surprise. Hiring a car was going to be way more expensive, probably equivalent to an additional weeks Hotel accommodation. There were other factors to consider but it was looking like taking my own car would be the better option.
One advantage of taking my own car was that I could load it up with stuff. This is especially relevant since I was planning to do a fair bit of camping. If you decide to hire a car then you'll need to think about whether you'll be able to take everything you need on the plane. Hold luggage is another cost to factor in.
Start and end
Hiring a car gives you the ability to start and end your road trip more or less where-ever you want. Just fly out and pick up your hire car. If you want to use your own car then you've got to physically drive there first. For a road trip around Spain or Italy, that's going to add days to your trip.
I used Google Maps to try out different routes around Europe starting at Dunkirk or Calais. Driving straight down to somewhere like southern France would have meant a ten hour drive on Frances toll motorways - another expense. In the end, I decided to take my own car and make the journey down through Europe a feature of the road trip and stop off at various places along the way.
European spec car
If you pick up a hire car then it's going to be a proper Euro spec left hand drive. There are pros and cons to this. You won't have to worry about making sure your car complies with the various regulations such as having a GB sticker or EU numberplate, reflective jackets, warning triangle, medical kit and ensuring that your headlights are ok for driving at night. I'd already spent a considerable amount of time and effort making sure my car was ok to drive in Europe so it wasn't something I needed to worry about for my road trip.
Something else to consider with a left hand drive hire car is that you'll be sat on the correct side of the car for things like toll booths, multi-story car park entrances and overtaking. If you're driving alone in a right hand drive car then those things can be a pain!
Is your car up to the job?
When I decided to buy a car, I had the road trip in the back of my mind. I decided it was worth paying a bit more for a relatively new car that was going to be reliable. For a road trip, the car is absolutely critical. If the car dies then you're screwed. I guess it depends - maybe that would be part of the adventure. If I hadn't had a reliable car then I think I'd probably have paired down the trip and gone with a hire car. If anything, to reduce the worry of getting stranded somewhere.
During my research I discovered that by law, all car insurers in EU countries (at the time of writing that included the UK), have to provide you with a minimum of third party cover across all other EU countries. It's known as the Green Card. You don't need to request it from your insurer and you don't have to buy special car insurance. You are automatically covered in all EU countries. Your insurer will confirm this. It's still probably a good idea to tell your insurer that you'll be driving abroad anyway.
Just to avoid confusion. The Green card is essentially a Europe wide insurance certificate - a standard format document that the Police and other officials understand across the EU. You used to have to get your insurer to send you one before travelling but the law changed and it's no longer needed. You just need to take your UK car insurance certificate with you. Some people have suggested that it's still a good idea to get a Green card from your insurer anyway as it'll speed up any claims but I don't know how true that is. It took a week for mine to arrive and I'd already left by then!
By law, the insurer has to provide third party cover only. It's worth checking your policy as some insurers will allow you to drive in Europe with the same level of cover you have in the UK for a number of days per year, often 90. So, if you have fully comp insurance in the UK, you can drive in Europe with fully comp too. You need to check with your insurer. If you don't then there's usually an optional add on that you can purchase. Again, don't forget to factor this into the cost when comparing with car hire.
If you have any of your own tips, suggestions or just have an opinion about something I’ve written whether it's good, bad or ugly, please get in touch using the form below. It’d be great to keep adding and updating these articles.