This section of the site is still under construction, but I hope will make for pleasant browsing...
Plan early and plan as much as you can. I always feel that last minute travel always sounds the most attractive to the travel agent or airline that's trying to sell you the package. More and more people travel these days, and it can be hard, not just to get the flight that you want and the hotel you want, but even just to get into a museum you'd like to visit, or make a reservation at a favorite restaurant. Start thinking about your trip three months ahead and you'd be amazed at what you can get done.
Figure out your hotels first. This isn't a hard and fast rule by any means, but just from experience, I find that it's even harder to get hotel reservations than to get flight reservations. If you can be flexible about when you're staying, you can often get the place you want (maybe even with the view you want) and THEN you can purchase airline tickets.
Deal directly with the hotel and don't be afraid to ask for what you want. I often use sites like Expedia.com or Hotels.com, to find out what the best discounts and rates are for a place. Then, I call, fax or email the hotel directly and make my request. Personally, it just makes me happier to hear back from a human being who's working someplace at the hotel.
I like to figure out my seats when I book flights and happily most online booking systems let you choose your place. I also often use a fantastic little site called Seatguru.com which lets you plug in any airline and aircraft, and it lets you know the plusses and minuses of that seat. How cool is that?
The smaller carriers that operate in Europe often aren't on the big websites like Expedia or Orbitz. You can search for flights though, using whichbudget.com. I also like the itasoftware.com site for figuring out which of the zillions of air carriers can give you the lowest priced and most convenient itinerary. A new website called Farecast.com also uses automated search power to give you the best fare deals on your planned route (on in the US right now) and how much the flight has cost historically. None of these sites will book the tickets for you, but you can use the info to go onto the carrier's site and find your fare.
Two new airlines that have been getting attention for their "all business class, all comfort" flights are Maxjet and Eos, both which now runs between New York and London. Maxjet also connect DC to London and early in 2006 announced expansion of its service to cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Dallas, while Eos is considering flights to Paris. If you've ever dreaded that slog flight across the pond, but couldn't imagine coughing up $4000 for the pleasures of business class, Maxjet offers deep reclining leather seats with a whopping 60 inches of leg room, deep recline, gourmet meals. On Eos you get a little "pod" that gives you 21 square feet in which to fully recline on a 78-inch bed, or sit in front of a flip out table with a guest opposite you in desk mode. A recent price check for fall 2006 pulled up a sale fare of $1400 roundtrip NY-London, with Eos offering just about twice that price for the same dates.
Getting around by train? There are lots of great sites with information about travel by rail, but I like to start with railsaver.com, which has a trip planner that helps you calculate whether it would be less expensive to buy a railpass, or do point-to-point tickets and explains all the ins and outs of ticketing combinations. For instance, I once travelled through Europe from Milan to Bern to Vienna to Paris to London. You'd think maybe a five country Europass? Or a four country rail pass with Eurostar ticket? Railsaver explained that I could buy a ticket from Milan to Chiasso at the Swiss border and then use a four country (Switzerland/Austria/France/Germany) rail pass for the rest of the journey. Why did I need Germany? Because the trip from Vienna to Paris passes through Germany, and your rail pass has to cover all the countries you pass through. They also noted that your rail pass then gives you a discount on a Eurostar ticket from Paris to London.
Don't forget the nuts and bolts issues of trip planning. Has your passport expired? Did you need travel insurance? Do you need vaccinations before you go? Are you arriving in Italy on the Feast of the Assumption and want to check if the banks are open? (They're not) And most importantly, did you make a xeroxed copy of your passport, ID, credit cards, railpasses, tickets, hotel reservations and pack it in your luggage?
I love Rick Steves -- I know, he's geeky, and goofy, but I'm so addicted to his site. One of his best concepts is the one bag idea. Nobody ever comes back from a trip thinking "I'm going to pack more next time." Yup. I've also heard many people repeat the axiom that there are only two types of luggage: carry-on and lost. I've had lost luggage. Not fun. My suitcases once travelled in a taxi chasing after me for three days from Athens halfway across the Peloponnese. Now, I take one nice carry-on which is actually a office computer case -- wheeled, small, it fits the international carry-on requirements AND it has a slot for my laptop. I love it.
Here's another thing. I take an empty bag with me -- sometimes it's a boat bag, sometimes it's fold up tote. As I buy stuff on my trip, I fill it up. Sometimes, if I've bought heavy stuff, I make a switch and put the clothes in the shoulder bag (because they're light) and I pack the souvenirs and mustards and meats and cheeses (all legal ones, of course -- wink, wink, nudge, nudge) into the wheeled suitcase. I figure on the way back home it won't matter as much if I have to check a bag and it gets lost.
What to take? It's up to you. Plenty of sites out there have suggestions (Rick Steves, onebag.com, Barbara Shaw at Bootsnall ) as to what is necessary. I will say that I've had great use for: a small towel, a mini Maglite, ziploc baggies, and a travel sewing kit.
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