A vacation in Europe is one-third planning, one-third being there, one-third remembering. Photo / 123RF
In our new column, the beginner’s guide to… seasoned traveler Ewan McDonald answers your vacation questions
Q. We are in our mid-60s and desperate to see our children, married and alive
In England. We’ve been to the UK once and obviously family is our priority this time around, but we’d like to dip our toes in Europe for the first time. We don’t like the idea of a tour package as we prefer to go at our own pace and choose what we want to see. What should we consider, given the challenges of global travel right now?
Unless there’s a crucial reason to fly tomorrow – grandchild on the way, perhaps? – consider waiting and planning ahead for next year instead. It will take time for airlines to restore their fleets, recruit and train staff, for airports and government agencies to upgrade their teams, and for accommodation, hospitality and attractions.
It’s also time for that first mad rush of pent-up demand that packs planes and museums to relax a bit. By next summer-fall in the north, we hope to see a wider choice of carriers and routes, and prices may also have eased.
Don’t waste that time, though. A good rule of thumb: A great vacation is one-third planning, one-third attendance, one-third memories.
The first things to budget for are your time – two weeks? six? – and your expenses.
Then decide what kind of trip you want – cities and culture? food and wine? Golf? Do your research and make a long, long list to narrow down among yourselves.
Tip: Focus on quality, not quantity – don’t try to see every one of these wish list cities and landmarks in one trip. Sure, you might not return to Europe to see the places you missed, but you’ll have much better memories of the ones you enjoyed.
Plan your route in a loop, i.e. you pencil the main must-see sites on a map and make sure you only go in one direction – clockwise or counter-clockwise – and you don’t retrace your steps. In Europe, use the superb rail network to get around rather than renting a car and driving yourself (and your partner) to the distraction. Greener too, and you’ve already racked up quite a few air miles.
Use some of this time to make sure you are reasonably fit and active. In Europe, you’ll want to get up early and probably be out all day, rather than relaxing or recovering in your hotel/Airbnb. Even in a relatively compact city like Paris or Florence, you’ll be covering quite a few miles each day, and those sidewalks can be hard on your feet. Fortunately, gelato!
As with any vacation, your main expenses – other than getting there – will be sleeping, eating, and getting around. You said you wanted to go at your own pace, which means making your own accommodation arrangements, and each style has its pros and cons.
You might prefer a chain hotel for its comfort, security, dining room, and English-speaking staff, but you probably won’t meet too many locals or get too many suggestions for cool local bars or cafes. You might prefer Airbnb, but is that far from a night at home watching TV?
Personally, I prefer small hotels, often family-run, in which Europe still excels, in towns or villages. You’ll engage with the locals (yes, most speak English), strike up a conversation and learn about their way of life, and gain that insider information.
Thanks to my stay in these, I found myself at an Italian wedding in Grande, Grasso on a Saturday night in a small mountain village, drank ayran almost straight from the goat on a Turkish farm and I was taken to a Spanish Premier League football match.
Eating and drinking depends on your personal preferences, of course, but in general Europeans take this seriously and your experience will be richer if you follow the “when in Rome…” rule.
Avoid chain establishments and anywhere with a menu outside written in six languages, with poorly taken photographs and using Comic Sans font. Don’t forget that there’s a reason champagne comes from Champagne, pizza from Naples, paella from Valencia and Caesar salad doesn’t come from Rome.
Finally, don’t get sucked into big city syndrome. Consider staying in the smaller towns a few clicks away and taking the train to the Eiffel Tower or the Sistine Chapel, back to the guesthouse or B&B in the evening. The villages don’t see as many tourists, so the prices are lower and the people are much friendlier.
The Beginner’s Guide to… is a new bi-monthly column where we’ll answer your travel-related questions, from roaming in Rome to lower roaming charges. Send your questions and travel advice to [email protected] with “First-timer” in the subject line