The summer of 2017 - Nam and I were planning our first long vacation together. We were looking at 13 days in the first half of June. After working out multiple itineraries, we settled on Eastern Europe. We wanted to experience the best of what each place had to offer. This meant staying with the locals, having the best of the local cuisine, exploring the small lanes by foot and travelling light by public transport across cities - in other words, backpacking! The way I see it, there are two types of backpackers - ones who go where the roads take them and others who research and plan well ahead. It is difficult to be the first type when you are a working Indian and have less than 15 days of vacation (sigh!). Also, I prefer to be second type - it ensures that you do not miss out on the top experiences. In fact, I enjoy planning trips almost as much as the travelling.
And so, after over a month of research and reading hundreds of blogs, we were ready with our itinerary! We had 13 days and 4 countries to cover - the top sights of each city/town and the must-eat places, dishes were all listed down in our handy-dandy notebook. This blog post will be about how we went about building our itinerary.
1. Picking the places
To choose which places you want to include in your plan, the first thing you need is an idea of where the places are on a map. If you are planning Amsterdam, Prague and Venice in a single itinerary of 10 days, you are calling on disaster (unless you have a big budget and can fly from city to city). So open Google Maps and check where the places are. You might discover interesting towns that are not part of popular itineraries but are close enough to explore - for example, going to St. Gilgen while visiting Salzburg. These are places where you get a true experience of the country and are not crowded and "touristy" which makes them totally worth it!
The next step would be to see if all the places you've chosen are well connected so that you have flexibility in terms of travel time and multiple options. Though most of the countries are connected quite seamlessly, there are chances that you might have scarcity of options towards the eastern part of Europe - lasting impact of the past wars. Once you've picked the places, you need to figure out how you're going to get from one place to the next.
Reach out to friends who have already been to that part of the world as you could get first-hand pro-tips from them. Thanks to Darshan for his pro-tips on Eastern Europe!
2. Travel between cities
The road and rail connectivity in Europe is amazing and you can rely on public transport. There are many blogs which can help you figure out which trains or buses to book. We preferred the trains as they were smooth, comfortable and always on time. We got a lot of help from the Man in Seat Sixty-One, who has got one of the best blogs I've come across. We had to translate Czech, Hungarian and German to book tickets on the local websites as you get the best rates in these! Be wary of the options that appear on the top of your Google search - I've seen that the easiest options charge almost double of the actual rates (including commission etc). The more you read, the better options you will get! Some countries like Croatia have better road connectivity than rail - here too you have many options to choose from like Flixbus and GetbyBus (like Redbus). Make sure the timings do not clash with the duration required for your local sightseeing. We preferred to avoid overnight travel as we also wanted to enjoy the country-side landscape.
3. Time to spend at each place
Once you've figured out the connectivity between cities, you know exactly when you can arrive and leave from there. Now you need to figure out how much time is needed to do the things you want to do - walk around, visit museums and monuments, eat at cafés and restaurants, enjoy musical events or just chill. If you get a fair idea of the timings of tourist attractions and the duration required to cover them, you'll know how much time you need to spend in the city to do justice to the place. Yes, yes - when you have a crunched timeline of 10-15 days, it is impossible to do everything. But then, every person has their own reason for travelling as I mentioned earlier - find yours and make sure you enjoy to the fullest. And anyway, if you miss out on something, that only gives you more reason to come back and visit again! ????
Pro Tip: Make a check-list of places you want to see. It helps you stay focused while moving around without getting distracted and wasting time. We even had a list of places we wanted to eat at with their signature dishes!
4. Where to stay
This depends entirely on your budget as this could be a major portion of it. We spent a lot of time searching for options on Airbnb and Booking.com - two of the best platforms to search for accommodation of all types. You could choose from dormitories to hotels and everything in between - the major consideration should be the proximity to the train and bus station. Also, check if there are bus or tram route which can take you to various parts of the city. Remember - you're not there to enjoy the room! So, it wouldn't make sense to travel all the way to your room with your luggage just to dump it there for the day.
Pro Tip: Read as many reviews as you can to find the place that best suits your needs.
5. Local Travel
All the cities we were visiting had excellent connectivity by bus, tram and metro. You can get cheap single-day passes which let you get on any mode of transport on that day. You can also buy bunches of single trip tickets in case you do not plan to move around much. Pick up a city map as soon as you arrive at a city and make a quick plan of where you need to go and how you can get there. We also downloaded offline maps of the cities we were visiting on Google Maps - it made navigation a lot easier. In our entire trip of 13 days, we never took a cab!
Pro Tip: Look out for tobacco shops as they sell cheaper tickets than on the buses.
This was a big point of dilemma while we were planning our trip - every country we were visiting had a different currency. This meant that if we converted too much or too little, we would lose money on the conversion rate. It did not make any sense to convert the whole thing to the local currency as it was always better to hold on to Euros wherever you went. So, we had to be accurate with our conversion. We read multiple blogs by backpackers to understand how much to budget for each day. We even checked out the entry ticket rates to tourist attractions, average price of eating at a supermarket vs a café vs a fancy restaurant and local travel ticket prices. Based on all this, we decided on budgets for each day (splurging on some days and being stingy on others) and bought currency accordingly. To our luck, our budgeting was shockingly accurate. In fact, we were spending our last euro at the airport on our way back to India! (Obviously keep a secret stash for emergencies) Thanks to all the folks with the awesome blogs on budgeting!
Pro Tip: Never buy currency at the airports if you have a choice. It is always better to check out a couple of outlets in the city centre as they always offer much better rates!
7. Luggage and Packing List
I cannot emphasize this enough but travel LIGHT! We carried all our stuff in two backpacks and one small cabin-size trolley. And no, we didn't wear the same outfit more than once. We had three pages on our handy-dandy notebook for each place we were visiting. One was the things to see/do, second had the places to eat and the third was what we would wear. We picked out our clothes based on what would look best with the backdrop of the place we would be in as well as the weather (Nam is an expert at this!). Put in those clothes, the regular toilet kit, emergency medicines, one extra pair of footwear, all the required documents, and you are ready to go! The best part about travelling light is that it is easy to move around - you can take the public transport with ease and when you reach a place, all you need is a medium sized locker (lockers are available at most of the major metro or railway stations across Europe) to put your bag in and off you go to explore the city!
Pro Tip: Always keep a spare pair of clothes in your backpack, just in case your checked-in luggage gets delayed.
8. Tickets and Visa
Getting the best tickets takes a lot of patience. You can also add in a pinch of luck. It would be ideal to look for tickets at least 3-4 months before the date of travel. Skyscanner is definitely the place to start. In fact, we have even ended up going for trips just because we found good ticket prices on Skyscanner! In India, the best places to start looking for the cheapest fares to Europe would be Mumbai and Delhi. For South-East Asia and Australia, it would be Chennai and Kochi. Also, look for multi-city options where you can start from one city and fly back from another. This will help avoid a journey back to the first city which will end up being more expensive and a needless travel in most cases. For our Eastern Europe trip, we flew from Mumbai to Prague and flew back from Zagreb to Mumbai.
Three of the four countries we were visiting were covered in the Schengen zone, while we could visit Croatia with a Schengen visa. So, we had to get a multi-entry Schengen visa. Make sure you know which countries fall under which Visa so that you don't get sent back from the border. Apply for the visa at the embassy of the country where you will be spending the most number of nights. You can also apply from your point of entry. We chose Austria as we were going to spend 5 nights there. You'll get a lot of information on the documents required for the visa - just make sure you have everything in order, and you should be able to get the visa with ease.
That pretty much covers the planning part of a typical trip. Once you are done with this, you can sit back, relax and wait for the adventure to begin!
There's more where this came from. For more tips and travel experiences, do check out my blog by clicking here and follow it for all the latest updates!