Tips And Lessons Learnt From My First European Holiday

February 11, 2018


Palace of Versailles
Hello, hello, hellooo.... To be honest I am a little ashamed to say that I missed this space but I did, I do miss you. In my previous post I mentioned that I was away on my first European trip; well I am back and it was AMAZING to say the least. I spent the 2 weeks in Paris, France; Rome, Italy and Barcelona and Sitges, Spain; in that order. I must say that out of all the vacations I have been on to date, this one trumps them all. I tried to share as much as I could on my Facebook and Instagram pages interchangeably whilst basking in the moment and not taking the fun out of it all.  
From the first live video I shared or even on a “check-in”, people were interested in knowing how we did it. I received tons of questions around the planning of the trip, if I used a travel agent or if I did it myself. Travelling to Europe or let alone anywhere for the first time can be daunting. It could be intimidating if you are not prepared because not only is everything new to you, you want to be able to fit in for the best experience. In that case you do not want to be that person who is frustrated because you do not know how to get around or know what you must say or do to get people to listen to you so that you can get the help you need. To be quite honest, no one cares that you are a tourist and you need help. People go on about their day to day lives because life does not stop because you are on holiday. Be prepared to put in the effort to so that you don't have to bother anyone. With that said please learn how to say "Hello, do you know English, and Thank you" in the native language of the country you will be visiting. Trust me it goes a long way and you can thank me later. 
Before we get into the heart of the post, let me say that there is no best advice out there for planning “your” trip other than doing the research yourself. However, you can learn or get tips from those who have done it before. So herewith are some tips from the lessons learnt whilst planning our holiday. 

1. Don't be lazy to compare holiday packages to booking everything yourself
Obviously being the frugal person that I am, I compared what we were going to get if we were using a travel agency to what we would get if we were booking everything ourselves to ensure that we were getting the best deal. And obviously doing everything ourselves not only afforded us the extra days, we saved 25%+ in comparison to the quote from the travel agency; mind you this is just for accommodation and flights.. Also you will not believe that the agency was quoting us for only 9 days and not 13 days I managed to get for us.  
 
Me inside the Palace of Versailles
2. Travel Documents
Passport
Get your travel documents in order at least a month in advance. It is good that nowadays you can get your passport within 3 days from Home Affairs but you do not want to leave it to the last week or 2 like we did with my husband’s passport. His personal passport expired in November 2017 and we thought we could use his official passport. Mind you we booked our accommodation and flights at least 2 months before our travel date. We had enough time to sort out his personal passport; but we did not because he also has an official passport he “could” use. So we enjoyed our festive holidays counting the days to our departure day thinking all is well. We planned to apply for our VISAs the first week of January 2018 so that we do not forfeit any days unnecessarily should we decide to go to Europe again before the 6 months is up(we applied for 6 months VISAs). 

Let me just say that had we not gone to apply for our VISAs then we would have not known the issues and the red tape around an official passport. What a nightmare and stressful period that was. This was 2 weeks before we were supposed to travel. We were so stressed to a point where we were coming up with different scenarios that if he does not get his paperwork sorted out by the Friday before leaving; I was gonna leave and we would meet in Paris. Mind you by then we had “unveilings” to attend to so it was basically poor planning on our side. I even prayed for a time machine so that I can turn back the hands of time and apply for a new passport only in December and not first week of January.
Outside the Colosseum
VISA
This one is linked to the first one. Check if your desired destination requires or does not require a VISA. If it does, please make sure that you research the application process and the cost associated with it. Also where you must go to apply or submit your application. Also don’t be like us and leave it to a week before leaving to get the VISAs sorted out. Apply for your VISA at least a month in advance so that you can give yourselves the time to make changes to your travel plans should there be a need.

Also note that by the time you apply for a VISA, you must have you travel and accommodation itineraries in place.
Mock-up of what the Colosseum used to look like
3. Flights and Travel Insurance
Travel Insurance
You will need travel insurance; and most importantly an “Embassy Letter” which is normally issued by your travel insurance provider. We used AIG through Emirates and it was not only affordable it was also the best option for us.

Flight Tickets
I know that it costs a little bit more for flexible air tickets but please be willing to put invest a couple of Rands more (whichever currency applies to you e.g dollars) J because should there be an emergency and you cannot travel on your planned dates, you can always change your itinerary to a more convenient time without losing the money already spent on your flights. Imagine if my husband’s passport did not come back in time or even his VISA took longer to come back, he would have had to pay for a new ticket to France.
 
Outside Notre Dame Cathedral; Mosaic on the ceiling inside the church 
4. Accommodation and Dining
I am glad that we opted for both hotel and holiday apartment options. Not only did they provide a different feel and experience; we got to see both the pros and cons of each. All I can say is that for short stay holidays, i.e. week or less you can go for a hotel; but more than that definitely go for a holiday home or apartment. Not only do holiday homes provide the space and the freedom you need to prepare your own meals because dining out everyday, breakfast to dinner for 2 weeks is not only costly; you get tired of it. Or maybe it was just us. We ate at different restaurants everyday but we started missing home cooked meals.

One thing I can say is that do not be on holiday and still live and eat like you are at home especially in a foreign country. Explore the best that the region has to offer; from the food to the culture. Find the balance and go with the flow. If you hotel offers breakfast and the likes, try it. What is the harm in that especially on the first night or morning? After 10+ hours of travelling all you need is a shower, rest and food then the rest comes later.
One of the gorgeous paintings I loved from the Louvre Museum
If you are going to stay with a friend or family please make sure that you arrange with them in time and they have agreed to accommodate you. If for some reason they cannot or should you have a fall out because it happens; make sure you have enough money to find yourself a last minute hotel.

5. Transportation and Getting Around
Getting around starts from the time you land at your destination. Plan and know how you are going to get around. If you are going to hire a car, know if you need special permits for that; if they drive on the left or on the right and the challenge thereof if God forbid they drive on the opposite side. It is not that difficult but it is something to get used to. We had the privilege of doing just that and we both agreed that it is not something we will be attempting again especially in Europe where the streets are very small and there is little to no parking. And if you find parking, it is super expensive.

I must recommend that you use as much of the public transportation as you can. It is affordable and you can go almost anywhere with the buses and the trains. Then there is also Uber or MyTaxi should you want your own space J but make sure you have the coins for it. Uber prices in Europe are ridiculously EXPENSIVE; it costs an arm and a leg for what you are getting. Let me say their equivalent of Uber Black is UberX in South Africa in terms of the car and experience but paying the price of 3-4x Uber Black in S.A.

We hired a car in Paris which had its perks especially when it rained and the temperature was unfavourable in our standards; in Italy we used the busses and Uber; then in Spain we used busses, metro and MyTaxi which was VERY VERY VERY EXPENSIVE and regrettably so. 
Gardens of the Palace of Versailles
6.Sightseeing and Spending Money
Sightseeing
Please try to book sightseeing tickets before you leave the country if you can. You do not want to be the unfortunate one in queues with thousands of tourists like you trying to get a ticket PLEASE. You can buy city passes online and they allow you to visit most if not all the major landmarks and some can be used to board trains and buses. I would also recommend booking a hop-on hop-off bus city tour which gives you a tour of the city; where you can hop on and off as you like. Or better yet the information you get on the bus may help you make an informed decision on which landmarks you would really like to visit. In all honest truth you will not be able to visit all of the landmarks else it will become a race against time which will end up taking the fun in being a tourist on a holiday.

Spending Money
Please budget the same amount if not more for sightseeing, getting around, food and shopping because you will want to spend money. Or you will have to and sometimes be tempted to spend and spend so be prepared.
 
Inside St Peter's Basilica - Vatican City
7. Luggage allowance
Lastly research, note and know your limits for international, inter flights, and budget friendly airlines etc because you do not want to be shocked when they tell you that you have to pay the same amount if not more to get your luggage to your destination. One last important thing, if you know you are going to shop, please pack only 2 outfits then wear the clothes you have bought on your vacation. In this way you do not have to worry about getting an extra bag and the cost associated with the latter. I did not listen to my husband on this one and I wish I did because I had no capacity to accommodate any new items I wanted to buy. So next time I am packing 2-3 outfits. I will expand more on this because this post is already 8+ paragraphs long and I do not want to lose you whilst you are still with me.

Thanks for your continued support and reading thus far. Should you have more questions, leave them in the comment section below and I will respond to them as soon as I can but I will. Mwah for now! I will write separate blog posts about what I wore as well as what I enjoyed about each city. 

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