Grant McWilliams

Trip Planning

I've been spending virtually every summer in Europe for 11 years. When I started traveling we were four people - myself and my three young kids ages 7, 8 and 12. I've added a couple of people to my family with my significant other and her 14 year old daughter bringing us to six travelers. In the last couple of years two of my children have grown up and moved out with my oldest living in Paris full time which dropped us back to a family of four. The combination of having fewer travelers, an amazing exchange rate, and a killer deal on peak season plane tickets left us with a bit of room in our budget for someone else – my 75 year old mother.

 

Now I should tell you that my mother hasn't traveled much unless you call a quick drive from Washington to Illinois traveling. I suppose we shouldn't forget that one trip to Las Vegas in the early 1960's either – still no major travels. Several years ago I took her across the border to Vancouver British Columbia and she loved it. Vancouver seemed so... foreign to her. There were French speaking people, the money looked different and the metric system.

 

Last year we attempted to take my mother to Europe but she refused due to her age (75) and the fact that she's not as mobile as she once was. I think there were other factors too – you don't just go from wanting to travel your whole life to getting on an airplane for 10 hrs specially when you'd never flown before. That's right – NEVER. However, I bought her a non-refundable ticket this year and paid to get her passport application turned in. Once that was done I continued to update her on my progress in planning the trip and things started getting real.

 

Plane tickets out of Seattle to anywhere in Europe were $1300 but we could leave Vancouver BC for $716. Multiply that by 5 and you have a month's rent in Paris paid for just by flying out of a different airport. This meant we'd have to take the Amtrak Cascades train to Canada and possibly stay the night on our return trip. It also meant we were leaving on June 23rd and not returning until August 28th – a 10 week adventure. This doesn't bother me much as I've only had one trip in which I wanted to come home. That trip ended with 4 cases of Montezuma's Revenge, a heart attack, three ambulances, one cardiologist, a hotel doctor, on case of fainting at the airport curb, two days holed up in a hotel trying to hold toast down, three blocked bank cards and an airline that told us to get a new passport at the embassy before they could allow us on the plane. THAT trip I wanted to come home from and in fact, we came home early which is the only time I've ever done that. My perfect trip is a one-way ticket so I was more than willing to book a 10 week vacation.

 

My original master plan was to spend one month in Paris and a second month in Croatia with a few days in between to travel to where my mother's side of the family came from – Thornbury England. Whenever you travel you can save money by staying in one spot for a longer period of time. Usually you can get weekly or monthly rates on apartments that save a ton of money. However, due to the late acquisition of funding for the trip the apartment pickings were slim and the Paris apartment we wanted was only available for 3 weeks which meant we'd fly into Paris and have a week to blow before getting into our apartment. Our options were to rent another apartment for a week in Paris... or go somewhere else. One week rentals in Paris are more expensive then renting for a month so I had to budget $125 per day for accommodations for that week. For contrast we were paying about $85 per day for the other 3 weeks. As we dug through the remaining apartments in Paris that we could fit into our budget we came to the realization that we didn't like any of them so we considered our options. The previous year we stayed in Provence for a week and toured Avignon, Arles, Nimes and Orange. Out of those four cities Nimes was by far our favorite. A quick search for apartments there yielded a whole house for $68/night not far from the historic center! One week's rent in Nimes plus five return tickets on France's high speed train brought our daily cost to $120 which fit into our budget. Nimes is a town of about 150,000 people so it would be a more gentle introduction to Europe for my mother as well. Paris can be a bit overwhelming at times.

 

 

With France portion of the trip planned and booked I turned my attention to Croatia. Plane tickets from Paris to Croatia were $150 each but out of London they were $40 each. London is a very expensive city but flying out of London would save us $600 in plane fare which we could put toward accommodations, transportation and food. Audrey Hepburn in the movie Sabrina said “Paris is always a good idea”. She did NOT say London was always a good idea which we were to find out later. Once plane tickets were purchased we bought advance tickets to the Stansted Express train from central London to Stansted airport for cheap. Normally these tickets are 19 pounds each. That sounds a bit high until you do the math to calculate the exchange rate and realize that's nearly $30! The 30 minute train to the airport costs as much as the flight halfway across Europe! At that point you realize that London is rarely a good idea. However, since we were purchasing tickets in advance we only had to give up one kidney, a firstborn and some gold cuff links.

 

With high speed rail tickets to London, flight to Trieste Italy and Stansted express tickets purchased we went about finding accommodations in London. Keep in mind that we are paying $85/night for a 100 square meter, 2 bedroom apartment in Paris. I sent reservation requests to six different apartment owners without success. One man had a 120 pound cleaning fee or about $200 US dollars. Let's think about that for a moment, the cleaning fee adds up to about $66 per day. The apartment itself was $150 US dollars per day. I complained and he told me he'd drop the cleaning fee a bit but out of principle I can't just stand there and let someone rip me off. You see – cleaning fees aren't added into the airbnb price until you view the property so this apartment look like a reasonable deal and then wham! The price goes up 50% due to the hidden cleaning fee. He justified the cleaning fee by blaming the government (congestion tax) and how many people he had to pay to clean the one room studio apartment and how long they had to drive to get there etc.. Still I got a bad feeling from it so we continued looking. After the sixth turn-down I started worrying a bit – I can't be on the street with my daughter who was in a wheel chair and my 75 year old mother so I booked a place using airbnb's instant book. You usually pay a bit more but there's no waiting 24 hrs to get refused by a host that doesn't bother updating the availability calendar. For a paltry $225 USD we rented a room in someone else's apartment, while they lived there. For only 3 times the price of our big, beautiful Parisian apartment we get a bed in a room, an air mattress and a pull out couch in someone's house while they're living there. London is rarely a good idea but at this point we were committed so I booked it.

 

The cheapest way to get to Croatia was by flying into Trieste Italy on the border with Slovenia, taking a Slovenian taxi to Ljubljana, then a train to Zagreb the capitol of Croatia and a bus from there to our destination. Sort of the long way around but I wanted my mother to see Slovenia as it's an amazingly beautiful country full of wonderful people. In Ljubljana we get a two story 4 bedroom apartment that I would move into RIGHT NOW if I could. The apartment is on the top floor of a building housing a classy hotel and included a wall of books and a ladder to reach them, a hammock three large bedrooms and one small one, an outdoor balcony and two large bathrooms for half the price of our one room in London. I don't mean to beat a dead horse but just want to stress the value of some places over others.

 

Our simple one month in Croatia started to get a bit more complex as I attempted to book apartments. My intentions on spending a month in Croatia is for residence practice – I'd like to live there. I figured if we stayed for a month we would go to the market and buy produce, cheese, bread etc. and cook at home to see what the limitations were. The area I'm most interested in is Dalmatia – specifically the city of Split. I've stayed in Split several times before and I'm not that interested in Split proper but the area makes sense . It's a city of almost 200,000 people, has an airport close, it's on the water, has 1700 year old ruins etc.. However, the city itself is a bit industrial with many communist era buildings messing up the view. Near Split is an old Greek then Roman city built on an island named Trogir. Last year we spent a day there and liked it but the idea of staying inside the walls of a medieval city for a month wasn't that appealing. Some people like to live in cramped quarters but I prefer to visit. Trogir is connected to the mainland by way of a bridge. On the seaside of Trogir there's yet another much larger island that's connected to Trogir via drawbridge. Yes, an island is connected to another island which is then connected to the mainland. I remember gazing out to the mysterious larger island and thinking that it would be just about perfect to be out there and walk to Trogir for the green market so that's what I planned on doing.

 

That second island is called Ciovo and I set out to find an apartment for a month on Ciovo – and failed. Having not set foot on Ciovo and Google's street view only showing one street it was a bit difficult to find an apartment or even to figure out where we wanted to be. Ciovo has a mountainous spine running down it so on a map you may choose an apartment that's 100 meters from the beach and you'd need a grappling hook to get to it. In a rush I rented an apartment from a man with 1 review and a photo that made him look like the Russian mafia. Questions for clarification were returned with simple one sentence answer and in some cases one word answers – yes, there's a bbq, yes we can pick you up, no you shouldn't take the bus etc.. And the apartment was only available for the last two weeks of the month.

 

Airfare from Croatia back to Split was another $150 but we could fly to Florence Italy for $40 and then from Bologna to Paris for $40 saving enough money to pay for our Italian apartments. Sound familiar? This airfare schedules set and our Ciovo apartment rented we were left with two weeks between Slovenia and Ciovo to book. On a whim I booked an apartment in Zadar for a week and 4 days in Split. At this point I was getting a little exhausted from planning and wanted it all locked in. I quickly booked an apartment in Florence for 2 days and an apartment in Bologna for another two days and a cheap hotel at the Paris airport for our stayover before flying out.

 

This planning process was actually still happening a month into our trip. Normally I like having this all done before I leave but it didn't work that way this time around.

 

I respect the work travel agents do. It's a great deal of work to find all the right accomodations and transportation options. It's even harder to get it done for a decent price. Below is the total daily cost in each location. This includes our daily budget inclusive of food, transportation and trinkets along with our accommodation costs.

 

Nimes - $168

Paris - $180

London - $370

Ljubljana - $175

Zadar - $165

Split - $165

Ciovo - $165

Florence - $225

Bologna - $235

 

Nimes could have been $20 cheaper per day but it was the beginning of the trip so we spent our whole daily amount. Split and Ciovo should have been $20 more expensive as we had a pretty tight daily budget at that point as we didn't go out to eat much at all then.