Peru Travel Planning

Peru Travel Planning

Why Go to Peru –  Peru Travel Planning

Peru travel planning can be tricky because there’s tremendous variety for the first time visitor. Options include the vast, arid Pacific Ocean beaches, the steamy, and exotic Amazonia, Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable Lake in the world, the high Andes with ancient Inca secrets like Machu Picchu, and the beautiful 16th century Spanish Colonial cities of Cusco and Arequipa. Peru could easily be a traveler’s first country to visit in South America.

I had nine nights to work with for this particular itinerary, my first time to Peru. I needed to choose from all that Peru has to offer with the intent of having an immersive travel experience there. Too many destinations with insufficient time spent feels rushed, rarely leading to a memorable experience. And rushing it in Peru may have other consequences as well. Many destinations around my points of interest in Peru are at high elevations, between 7,000 to 11,000 feet. A steady pace would benefit the immersive travel experience, as well as help to avoid altitude sickness.

Where to go in Peru – Peru Travel Planning

The selection of itinerary is as much about where not to go, as it is about where to go. For example, I avoided spending time in Lima on this trip. And I also discounted visits to Amazonia, and Lake Titicaca. It simply comes down to choice, and personal preferences. I elected to go with the major themes of the great outdoors, discovering Incan heritage, and exploring 16th century Colonial Spanish cities and architecture.

With 9 nights of calendar budget over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I chose to spend 3 nights in Ollantaytambo to focus on Incan heritage sites, like the massive site in Ollantaytambo itself, and Machu Picchu, of course.

I wanted to spend 3 nights in Cusco because it was a great combination of Incan heritage, and Spanish Colonial history. Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, situated right at its center when the empire spanned from present day Colombia to Chilean Patagonia. It was also the capital of Spanish Colonial Peru until they moved the capital to Lima, so the city is steeped in 16th century Spanish Colonial architecture.

And finally, 3 nights in Arequipa – The White City, so named because of its white volcanic rock buildings – surrounded by 80 volcanoes in the region. Still touched by Incan heritage, but to a lesser extent than Cusco and its surrounding cities, including Ollantaytambo. This destination is more about Spanish Colonial history and architecture, but also about the great outdoors with a side trip to the Colca Canyon. I expected to have an immersive New Year’s Eve celebration in Arequipa with the locals.

Ollantaytambo – 3 Nights

Machu Picchu – Day Trip

Cusco – 3 nights

Arequipa – 3 nights

Logistics – Peru Travel Planning

Airfare to Lima from my home base in Atlanta was very straight forward, with non-stop flights available. Connecting flights to both Cusco and Arequipa from Lima were not scarce. The only real decision was whether to start in Cusco, and work my way to Arequipa, or vice versa. I would have much preferred to start in Arequipa at 7,000 feet, then work my way to Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet, and end the trip in Cusco at 11,000. This would have been the ideal itinerary to gradually acclimate to ultimate altitude of 11,000 in Cusco. Alas, I could not make the airline schedules accommodate my personal timetable around the holidays and had to opt for a Cusco/Ollantaytambo/Arequipa circuit.

While I tried to find apartments for each of the three destinations, there simply wasn’t any quality inventory in either Ollantaytambo or Arequipa. So I settled for hotel rooms accommodating my requirements.

Hotels and Apartments

I booked the Ollantaytambo hotel room through Booking.com. The interestingly named hotel, Sauce, was as boutique as could be, with only 7 rooms under management. It was very centrally located, just steps away from Plaza de Armas. They had a complimentary breakfast buffet included in the price of the room. And it was actually worth getting up a little earlier to hit the breakfast buffet.

I booked the Cusco apartment through Booking.com about 7 months in advance of arrival. The photos speak volumes regarding the apartment. It’s all about the views. Stunning views both day and night, which include the old part of town, and the Plaza de Armas. The apartment’s location had a minor drawback being several hundred steps above Cusco street level, enabling the spectacular views. Several hundred steps is trivial downhill, but not so much going back up at over 11,000 feet of elevation. I am glad to share that I never did take the stairs up, as Uber was so incredibly inexpensive (less than $USD 1.50) to get from the center of town back to the apartment.

I also booked the Arequipa hotel on Booking.com, making it a trifecta for this particular itinerary. The boutique hotel was centrally located right on the Plaza de Armas. It had a high quality restaurant attached, which served a fabulous New Year’s Eve menu to its guests. This was the best place to stay in Arequipa given my Immersive Travel principles.

Driving in Peru

I did not rent a car in Peru. And I am so glad I didn’t. They drive maniacally as if immortal in Peru. I personally love to drive, and have driven on travels in some places known for aggressive, if not chaotic driving – but nothing like this. I saw people passing uphill, around a hairpin turn, on a narrow mountain road, for example. No thanks. I wouldn’t recommend driving in Peru, unless you’re a daredevil with a death wish.

How get Local Currency in Peru

My approach when traveling is to use local currency for cafes, restaurants, and incidental spending. I use credit cards for major spend, for example, hotels, car rentals, and other transportation, like rail. I’ve adopted this approach over the years of traveling because it’s the most convenient, both for myself, and the various little restaurants and cafes I like to patronize.

The best way to get local currency, everywhere I’ve traveled, has been to use ATM machines associated with major local banks. They provide a very good exchange rate, and with a little planning, a minimal transaction fee. By planning, I mean that the traveler must select a financial institution in their home country that provides an international travel-friendly debit card, charging no transactions fees – and even reimbursing transaction fees other institutions would charge. I personally have two for this purpose: Fidelity Investment Services Visa debit card, and Capital One 360 Mastercard debit card. I use the Fidelity card exclusively because they reimburse other bank ATM fees, and keep the Capital One card as a backup.

Based on my previous travels, I’ve found the effective ATM currency exchange fee to be 1% or  less.  I withdrew Soles from all four of the Banks represented near the food court on the second floor of the Lima airport. Three out of the four had effective exchange rates below 1%, and were competitive. The fourth was a bank called BCP.  It was interesting that they allowed for a larger withdrawal of 700 soles versus the 400 soles the other 3 banks allowed. And moreover, they charged less for the transaction fee. But, they rob the consumer with an effective 4.5% exchange rate fee. I will never use a BCP bank ATM again, and neither should anyone with a choice.

How to Avoid Food Sickness in Peru

I have never commented on traveler’s food survival strategies previously because I had never written about any place where such a thing would be a worry, until now.

Do not drink the water. It has both bacteria and parasites that will ultimately make the unaccustomed very ill. Do not drink anything that comes with ice, either cubed or crushed. You can take the risk and ask if the ice is made from purified water, or you can be sure and simply avoid iced drinks. Do not eat fresh fruits and vegetables because they’re washed with the local water. Avoid anything that has not been cooked, and preferably eat cooked food served hot.

Do not buy food from street vendors, including ice cream.

And here’s the toughest advice: do not eat the ceviche. Are you kidding, Peru is famous for its ceviche? Fresh fish bear a variety of parasites that are only killed by proper cooking, and ceviche is raw fish marinated in citrus juices. Uncooked fish need to be frozen for a week or more to an internal temperature of -4°F to be considered safe. I wouldn’t trust a nation that cannot deliver drinkable water to have that level of responsibility in preparing raw fish for ceviche. Furthermore, I personally know someone that came down with a parasitic infestation after a trip to Lima – the cosmopolitan city of Peru, where you’re more likely to have better hygiene, and adherence to best practices for food preparation.

And last but not least, do not brush your teeth with tap water. No I am not paranoid, I just want to improve my odds for having a healthy, if not immersive travel experience.

How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Peru

The altitude at the Cusco airport is 11,000 feet at landing, and the taxi ride to Ollantaytambo takes you to over 12,000 before a descent down to 9,000. People not acclimated to this type of altitude may pay a price. Altitude sickness has a variety of symptoms ranging from headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath and a variety of others.

It’s best to acclimate to high altitude by starting at the lowest altitude planned for the trip and work up to the highest. For this trip it would have been best to start in Arequipa at 7,000 feet, then to Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet, then to Cusco at 11,000 feet. I simply could not make the airline flights available work for my schedule, but would highly recommend this itinerary because it is altitude acclimatization friendly.

How to Acclimate to High Altitude

Even with the altitude acclimatization friendly itinerary, I would highly recommend staying well hydrated. The high altitudes make for drier air, which is dehydrating and makes worse any altitude related symptoms. I would recommend a slow, acclimating pace upon arrival at the first destination, even taking a nap first thing. I would recommend taking it easy with alcohol as high altitude heightens the effects.

My full altitude sickness symptoms for 3 days in Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet were a low grade headache, a bitter, metallic taste in my mouth, and a feeling like I was hungover – a little fuzzy around the edges. All wore off in due time, and by the way ibuprofen did not help with the headache. The local remedy for altitude sickness, among other things, was Coca tea. And I tried it, but alas it had no effect on any of my symptoms. And moreover, I found it to taste like like tea brewed from barnyard straw, so I didn’t try this remedy a second time.

It is possible to get preventative medication from your local doctor before departure. My own research showed that the medication may have more harmful side effects than the altitude sickness itself, so I didn’t go this route. But it may be worth considering for those prone to severe altitude sickness.

How to Stay Healthy in Peru

Vaccines and mosquito preparation are necessary for a trip to Peru. The short list of vaccines recommended by the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control for a visit to Peru include Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hepatitis A & B, and Rabies. Vaccination should be an integral part of travel planning for Peru. There are no mosquitoes at higher elevations, like Cusco, for example. But elevations of 8,000 feet – Like Machu Picchu – and below can be mosquito breeding grounds. Long sleeves, long pants, and mosquito repellent with Deet are strongly recommended. The Deet should be applied to clothing to deter the aggressive mosquitos.

Resources – Peru Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport.  

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals.  In the order of preference:  HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb.  Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them. All hotels and apartments for this trip were booked through Booking.com.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, and I find the travel forums specific to my destinations particularly useful. There’s no better advice than from someone that’s already done what I’m planning to do.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy. It’s also very necessary for non-Spanish speakers because the locals speak little English.

 

Epilogue – Peru Travel Planning

Reflections on Peru. Peru is definitely a highlight of South America, and bucket-list worthy. The premier reason for going, and my personal highlight, was the great outdoors. From the Andes cradling Machu Picchu near Ollantaytambo, to the beautiful ruggedness of the Cola Canyon, the great outdoors were both breathtaking and memorable. The next most compelling reason to go, for me personally, was the 16th century Spanish Colonial history and architecture in the cities of Cusco, and especially Arequipa. And the last, but certainly not the least, reason is the Incan history and heritage peppered throughout the country. I should note that Peru would require a much longer visit to see the attractions I bypassed, like Lima, the coastal beaches, Amazonia, and Lake Titicaca.

 

Related Topics

France and Italy Travel Planning – Highlights of Europe

Travel Planning France and Italy.

Motivation – France and Italy Travel Planning

A long-time friend of mine asked to join me for one of my immersive travel experiences. More clearly, he asked that he and his wife join my wife and I for one of our immersive travel experiences. I had to give the idea some thought before I agreed because these trips were intimate experiences for me, and I do them my way. I wasn’t sure others would find my approach to travel to be their cup of tea. So I went on to share my approach with my long-time friend, and he showed even more interest. And in fact, some of the inspiration to put together this web site came from the France and Italy Travel Planning experience we shared.

Why France and Italy? My friend and his wife had not previously traveled outside of the United States. I wanted to share with them what in my view were the highlights of Europe.  And along with the highlights, a good cross-section as well. For example, Simply spending time in Paris and Rome wouldn’t do, as they’re both large city experiences – very different from each other to be sure, but big city experiences nonetheless.

To truly experience Europe, and especially France and Italy, a visit to the countryside is a must. Smaller towns and villages need to be explored to get a proper sense of the culture and history of a country. A different pace of life can be found in smaller cities and towns. Even the food is different, as cuisine varies by by geography even within the same country.

It’s About the Contrast

France and Italy Travel Planning would be an exercise in comparing and contrasting two of the most interesting countries and cultures in Europe. Similar because both languages are Latin based. Similar because they’re both grand vintners, producing some of best wine in the world. They’re both similar with cuisine being a tremendous cultural focus, and chef being among the most respected profession in each country.

And yet, for each category of similarity, there are so many differences – some profound, but all very interesting. For example, cuisine – truly an art form in each country, but very different in delightful ways. Another example would be the world-class wines each produce. But even a novice wine palate could discern the differences between French and Italian wines.

Itinerary – France and Italy Travel Planning

The selection of destinations is important because I needed to highlight the similarities and differences, and expose them to be consumed as experiences by my traveling companions. Even the order of countries visited is important. Consider experiencing Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, then visiting Notre Dame de Paris, and Sainte Chappelle in that order. Both are memorable experiences, but Notre Dame and Sainte Chappelle would be less impressive if visited after Saint Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel.

There was no doubt in my mind that France had to come first on this travel planning exercise to maximize impact – the “wow” factor. At the risk of insulting or demeaning the French, Italy just has more wow to it, as compared to France. They are both steeped in history, but Italy is made of history. They both have beautiful outdoors. Artists have made Provence in France a pilgrimage destination to seek its light. But Italy’s outdoors are sweeping, dramatic, and awe inspiring. The experience of this itinerary would indeed be diminished if visited in the incorrect order, with Italy first.

City and Countryside Contrast

So France and Italy travel planning needs both city and countryside destinations. My choice for the French city experience can be none other than Paris, the city of light, romance, culture, and some of the best food in the world. Paris should be at the top of the list of French cities for a first time visitor.

The Loire Valley, and its Chateaux were my choice for the French countryside destination. I selected the lovely little town of Amboise – right on the Loire River. From there, chateau visiting would be a lovely day trip experience. And the city promised some high caliber French cuisine, including a Michelin starred restaurant.

Rome had to be the logical choice for an Italian city experience. There is no other city like it in the world. Not only steeped in history, it is made of history, with 2,000+ year old monuments and buildings peppered throughout. In-progress archaeological digs may still be found in the city. And the city surrounds the tiny Vatican, with its treasures of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museum.

Sorrento, with its proximity to the Amalfi coast, and lovely little towns dotting the coastline, was my destination choice for the Italian countryside. A side trip to Ravelo, climbing the legendary twists and turns to get a view of the grand coastline, was definitely in the plan. And a ferry ride to Capri to tour the island and explore its wind swept heights was also a must do.

Paris – 4 Nights

Amboise – 2 Nights

Rome – 4 nights

Sorrento – 2 Nights

Logistics – France and Italy Travel Planning

The logistics here are fairly straight forward. A direct flight from my home base in Atlanta to Paris Charles de Gall airport is as convenient as it gets for air transportation. A connecting flight to Rome from Charles de Gall was necessary for the Italian portion of the itinerary. And finally, a direct flight from Rome Fiumicino airport to Atlanta at the end of trip completed all air transportation requirements, optimizing for time and convenience.

This is the first Immersive Travel Planning post that does not recommend an apartment to catalyze an immersive travel experience. Traveling as a foursome is different than traveling as a couple. There are complexities that need to be considered, as well as the need for individual space, and independent time apart. All can be better accomplished with individual hotel rooms.

Hotel rooms, yes – but not hotel rooms at a multi-national chain, or away from the city center. The objective is to go local, and enjoy an immersive travel experience. That is better achieved by staying in smaller, boutique hotels, in the city center, where all of the things we need to do are within walking distance from our hotel. All of the details related to the hotels selected are in the Immersive Travel Experience posts related to this France and Italy Travel Planning post, with the links at the bottom of this page.

Car rental was necessary. Getting to the countryside in both France and Italy was accomplished by vehicle.  And this was yet another wonderful contrast between France and Italy – driving the French roads versus driving the Italian roads, and Italian drivers contrasted with French drivers.

Resources – France and Italy Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Lisbon.  

I relied on  booking.com for researching boutique hotels in France and Italy.  TripAdvisor was also very handy for hotel research, with lots of community ratings and commentary.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy.

Sixt is my first choice for car rental in Europe. They are a competent company, typically delivering road worthy German cars. On this particular occasion, I reserved a larger Volvo V60 in France, and a VW Tiguan in Italy, to accommodate 4 adults and all of their luggage.

Epilogue – France and Italy Travel Planning

Reflections on France and Italy. This was truly a wonderfully memorable itinerary, made even more memorable with the company of great friends. Our companions thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and had an experience like no other in their lives. This trip opened their minds to other cultures, the further possibility of traveling on their own in the future. It was a spectacular introduction to the possibilities of Immersive Travel.

 

Related Topics – France and Italy Travel Planning

Portugal Travel Planning

Portugal Travel Planning

Motivation – Portugal Travel Planning

With architecture dating back to the 1500 – 1800s, when Portugal had a mighty maritime empire, a food culture centering around the bounty of the sea, and a tradition of winemaking that includes fortified, vintage Port, there are plenty of motivations to visit this gem of the Iberian Peninsula.  Portugal’s history has been touched by a variety of cultures, including Romans, Visigoths, and the Moors over the millennia – all have left something, adding to what is the modern day country and culture of Portugal. On top of all this, add the fact that Portugal is very affordable by European standards, with good weather year-round, a visit to Portugal is impossible to resist. And lastly, a visit to Portugal is a must for anyone wishing to round out their European immersive travel experiences.

 

Itinerary – Portugal Travel Planning

The calendar allowed for 9 nights on this trip, starting at the end of December, 2015. I resisted the urge to schedule more than 2 destinations, which would have diluted the amount of time spent at any one of them. My immersive travel motto calls for enough time at each destination to enable familiarity, and exploration, all leading to an immersive travel experience. Immersion happens best at a leisurely pace, where it’s more about being there than doing more.

The city of Porto, nestled on the Douro River, with its medieval architecture, friendly locals, the source of Port wine, and a food scene that simply must be experienced, was at the top of my list for destinations in Portugal – ahead of Lisbon.

Lisbon must be visited on a first trip to Portugal. As the seat of Portugal’s maritime empire, Lisbon is deeply steeped in history and tradition. Nestled on seven hills on the Tagus River, the city has some of most breathtaking views from these hillsides, and will enchant the first time visitor.

 

Porto – 4 Nights

 

Lisbon – 5 nights

 

Logistics – Portugal Travel Planning

At the time this trip was planned, there were no regularly scheduled, direct flights from my home base in Atlanta to either Lisbon or Porto. The best I could do to minimize travel time, and therefore optimize my immersive travel experience, was to book a direct flight to Madrid. There were plenty of options for connections from Madrid to Lisbon, but fewer and more complex options to Porto. Again in the interest of time, I elected to fly to Lisbon.

The choice to visit Porto first on this itinerary is borne by the logistics necessary to fly back to Madrid for the return trip home. Had I elected to visit Lisbon first, it would have required a very early train ride from Porto back to Lisbon to catch the connecting flight to Madrid. The connection times from the train station to the airport in Lisbon were too tight, and would have been an uncomfortable experience even if successful.

I elected to use the Portuguese rail system to get to and from Porto, rather than rent a car. I very much enjoy driving, as it adds to the immersion for me, but on this occasion it didn’t make sense. A vehicle was simply unnecessary for either Porto or Lisbon. The train was sufficient to go round trip to Porto from Lisbon, and it had some immersive travel experience all its own.

I rented an apartment in both Porto as well as Lisbon for this trip. Apartments make for a much more immersive travel experience, in my opinion. There were plenty of high quality properties available on multiple holiday rental websites. I had a good selection that met my criteria of being in residential areas, and in historic parts of town to choose from. There was no need to even consider a hotel.

 

Resources – Portugal Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Lisbon.  

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals.  In the order of preference:  HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb.  Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them.  Both apartments for this trip were booked through HomeAway.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, and I find the travel forums specific to my destinations particularly useful. There’s no better advice than from someone that’s already done what I’m planning to do.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy.

 

Epilogue – Portugal Travel Planning

Reflections on Portugal. This trip was a fabulous entree to Portugal – a sort of nine-night highlight tour of some of the best the country had to offer. It whetted my appetite. While I had a wonderful time exploring Porto and Lisbon – and Porto was by far the more immersive travel experience, it left me wanting to come back and further explore the places in between. In my opinion, that is the hallmark of a well planned travel itinerary. It should be immersive, steeped in discovery, but always leave you wanting to further explore. And this lovely country, wonderfully affordable, with its friendly population, and its approachable culture, merits much more of my exploration in the future.

 

 

Related Topics

Croatia Travel Planning

Croatia Travel Planning

Motivation – Croatia Travel Planning

The Balkans are a part of the continent that must be explored by anyone wanting to see a good representation of European history, geography, and culture. There is so much more to Europe than France and Italy, with all due respect to the charm and allure of this magical duo. Let’s face it, we won’t see the rest of Europe, not to mention the world, if we don’t stop visiting these two wonderful countries. It took me years to move on from the France/Italy habit, and I still go back occasionally – just not exclusively.

Croatia has so many wonderful things going for it, starting with its mild, sunny Adriatic climate. The Croatians are a friendly, even-keeled lot – easy going, English speaking, and customer focused since so much of their GDP comes from tourism.

Modern day Croatia has a history going back to Roman times, then through periods of Hungarian, Venetian, Ottoman, Napoleonic, and Austrian rule – all before World War II. It is steeped in history. Croatian food has a focus on the bounty of the sea, the Adriatic to be specific. Lovers of seafood will have a heyday, and others will enjoy the great variety of meats, sausages, and cheeses that have made Croatia famous. They have traditional restaurants called Konobas that specialize in a variety of meat dishes. Vegetarians be warned.

Croatia has thousands of islands comprising its sunny Dalmatian coast. The geography is perfect for lovers of the beach, sunshine, and island hopping. And the very best part – it is amazingly affordable. Compared to the dynamic duo of France and Italy, it is even dirt cheap.

Plan a trip, and pack your bags.

 

Itinerary – Croatia Travel Planning

The calendar allowed for 12 nights on this trip, starting at the beginning of June 2016. I wanted to establish reasonable lengths of stay at each destination to explore them at my leisure, and to have the best chance for an immersive travel experience. Three nights in Zagreb is necessary, not only to get over the jet lag, but explore the city thoroughly, and to do a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. I apportioned  five nights for Dubrovnik because I wanted to do day trips to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzigovina, Kotor, Montenegro, and do some island hopping in the area. And lastly, I set aside four nights for Split because I expected to do at least one day trip there as well to Hvar and Zadar.

Zagreb – 3 Nights

 

Dubrovnik – 5 nights

 

Split – 4 nights

 

Logistics – Croatia Travel Planning

There are no regularly scheduled direct flights to Croatia from the US at the time of this writing. So the best we can plan for is a one-stop of reasonable duration in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, or Munich airports. Other airports – most notably Istanbul, take us out of our way with lengthier flight times. From my Atlanta home base, I can book flights on Delta and their SkyTeam partners conveniently to Amsterdam and Paris using frequent flyer miles. This greatly reduces transportation costs for the longest and most expensive leg of the flight. I selected Paris Charles DeGaul as the layover because it had the most convenient connecting flights to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city. The Air France connecting flight to Zagreb was very reasonably priced due to the intense competition in Europe from all of its startup carriers, like EasyJet and RyanAir. So my airfare requirements to get to Zagreb were complete –  frequent flier miles sponsored round-trip to Paris, and round-trip Paris to Zagreb on Air France – a major carrier without the silly bag restrictions that some of the smaller carriers impose.

There were other destinations in Croatia to be visited beyond Zagreb. I briefly considered driving to them, but such an itinerary would have only made sense with more days than I had because the driving times were so long.  Flying was more pragmatic, convenient, and relatively cheap as well.

I planned to fly to Dubrovnik, the Southernmost point in Croatia for this trip. Dubrovnik would be a perfect hub to use for exploration by car. The car would be used to work my way North on the Dalmatian coast to Split, our last destination on this trip. And finally, Split had many scheduled flights to Zagreb to conveniently connect back to Paris.  Air Croatia had a near monopoly on these flights, but didn’t gouge its customers because of it.  I found the service to be very good, and the prices competitive, much to my surprise. I think the Croatians understand the gold mine that tourism is to their economy, contributing nearly 20% to GDP.  I think Air Croatia is a key factor to that gold mine.

Take a look at Croatia on Google Maps. It begs to have some exploration by car. Driving on this trip is a must – definitely for aesthetic reasons, aside the pragmatic need to get between points A and B. I booked a car for a day trip from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes National Park – a single day booking, which I had not done previously. I also booked a car for a week, to be picked up in Dubrovnik and dropped off in Split. This would provide ample opportunity to day trip from both locations, as well as the basic transportation to get between them. Sixt is my go-to car rental company in Europe, having booked many times previously with them, and always having had a good experience – even the one time I damaged the car during the rental.  The customer service is very good, and the execution is German-efficient.

I have a strong preference for apartments over hotels for several reasons. In general, apartments are a better value as compared to hotel rooms because they have much more space, can come with a washing machine so that both excess luggage and laundry services can be avoided, and are typically less expensive than hotel rooms – sometimes much less expensive for a much better experience. And the most important reason for apartments over hotel rooms is that it leads to a much more immersive travel experience for me.

I can find apartments in the center of the old part of town in most of the destinations of interest, which leads to more exploration time because I’m already located where I usually need to be for my style of travel, and I avoid transit time to the center of town. An apartment feels more like being a resident as compared to a hotel room. I found excellent apartments for each of the three destinations on this trip using a combination of Homeaway.com, and Airbnb.com.

 

Resources – Croatia Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Zagreb.  Once I have my flight schedule selected, I add my flights to the alert list for price changes, and patiently wait for a good price to come my way.

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals.  In the order of preference:  HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb.  Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them.  On this particular trip, I did end up using Airbnb for Zagreb as they had some good apartment selections, and I was  able to circumvent the Airbnb location ambiguity (mostly) before booking it.  The other two apartments were booked through HomeAway, as they had quality listings in both Dubrovnik, and Split. Ironically, I booked nothing through Booking.com.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of purposes.  On this trip, it served as my GPS while navigating through Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. It’s also very useful for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on a discovery trek.

TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, as well as finding a decent restaurant on the spot.  When I use it for this purpose, I select “near me now/restaurants” and filter on “open now”.  Then I sort by distance – not highest rated.  When I’m hungry enough to find an unplanned restaurant, I want closest, then best.  To be fair, Google maps is also good for this purpose, although the restaurant ratings are less sophisticated.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. But every place I went to in Croatia was English friendly, and I only had some minor issues with language in Mostar, Bosnia.

 

Epilogue – Croatia Travel Planning

Reflections on Croatia. The trip was a wonderful extended vacation, with immersive travel experiences in Zagreb, and Split. Dubrovnik was very touristy, and as a cruise ship port of call, it received tourists in great volumes on certain days. Still, it was an exceptional travel experience, which I would both recommend, and personally return to in the future. The trip was relatively inexpensive – I rarely comment on this because my focus is on immersion, but it is noteworthy. The people were lovely, accommodating to travelers, and were sharply focused on providing a good experience for visitors. English was spoken well everywhere I visited in Croatia. The food was excellent, and a great value – although vegans might have a tough time finding accommodating fare. I find myself at a loss in recalling any negative reflections on this trip.

 

 

Related Destinations – Croatia Travel Planning

Northern Italy Travel Planning

Northern Italy Travel Planning - Milan, Genoa, Portofino, Verona, Como

Motivation – Northern Italy Travel Planning

This is about travel planning – an exercise in imagination regarding where to go, and moreover, why go there. It helps me set my own expectations about what’s to come at the selected destinations. The theme of this trip is a selected region within a single country – Northern Italy.

Italy is a country I continue to return to, and continue to discover, time and again. The regions I’ve already visited are varied, and differ from one another in geography, climate, cuisine, language, and other dimensions I have yet to discover. But they’re all interesting.  

Having passed through Milan several times previously in transit to Venice, and Florence, I knew I wanted to eventually spend time there. Milan is the anchor of this Northern Italy trip, being both its entry and exit points, with the rest of the destinations visited in a circuit.

I wanted to visit the Ligurian Italian Riviera, specifically the town of Portofino and thought it would work out well as a day trip from Genoa.

Having previously been to Venice, I wanted to further explore the Veneto region, and do so through stopovers in smaller towns that would present a different kind of profile, and less densely touristed. It was a toss-up between Vicenza and Verona. I picked Verona because it made a tighter geographic circuit, and it was closer to Lake Garda – I thought it might be nice to explore there if time permitted.

And finally, I needed to see Lake Como, and the wonderful towns, and villas dotting its shores that I’ve read so much about in the media, and travel blogs.

 

Itinerary – Northern Italy Travel Planning

The calendar allowed for 9 nights on this trip, scheduled over the American Independence Day holiday, the 4th of July.  Four destinations would be a challenging itinerary as transit time would cut into exploration and discovery, but I really wanted to see all four destinations. I thought Milan deserved the extra time as compared to the other 3 destinations as it was by far the grander city, with the most exploration to be done.

 

Milan – 3 nights

 

Genoa – 2 nights

 

Verona – 2 nights

 

Como – 2 nights

 

Logistics – Northern Italy Travel Planning

From my home base in Atlanta, nonstop flights to Milan are available through Delta, and Alitalia as a Delta code share. While non stop flights are by far the most convenient, they can be very expensive, especially for the summer high season. Typically finding nonstop round trip tickets under $1,000 is pretty rare because the International market is dominated by Delta, and the lack of competition out of Atlanta. But I happened upon a flash sale by Alitalia where they were discounting coach fare to under $700. At that price point it was a good value, so I jumped on the opportunity.

With 4 destinations, and each separated by a three hour drive from the previous on my selected circuit, it logistically made little sense to use trains, or any other public transportation as it would take even longer to get to the next destination. Trains in particular may have multiple stops, may not run on time, may require a change with added connection time, and so on. Therefore I elected to rent a car, and here too I found a bargain through Rentalcars.com on an Alfa Romeo.

Car rental is a bit different in Italy in that insurance coverage is compulsory for primary coverage. Most insurance comes with high deductibles, and full coverage is either not available or comes at a high price. I typically use American Express as my primary coverage when possible, or as the secondary coverage when primary insurance is compulsory, as in this case with Italy.  This has worked well for my personal situation.

I have a strong preference for apartments over hotels for several reasons. In general, apartments are a better value as compared to hotel rooms because they have much more space, can come with a washing machine so that both excess luggage and laundry services can be avoided, and are typically less expensive than hotel rooms – sometimes much less expensive for a much better experience. And the most important reason for apartments over hotel rooms is that it leads to a much more immersive experience for me.

I can find apartments in the center of the old part of town in most of the destinations of interest, which leads to more exploration time because I’m already located where I usually need to be for my style of travel, and I avoid transit time to the center of town. An apartment feels more like being a resident as compared to a hotel room. I found excellent apartments for each of the four destinations on this trip using a combination of Homeaway.com, and Booking.com

 

Resources – Northern Italy Travel Planning

Google Flights is my standard tool for research, and planning airfare. There are plenty of others, and I’ve tried most, but find that I really don’t need to save the very last nickel at the cost of spending more time chasing that nickel.

Booking.com, and Homeaway.com, were used to book all of the apartments for this trip. My preference is to avoid Airbnb because they’re not transparent with property locations, and do not promote the size of their properties in their standard description.  But I do use them if I can circumvent their deficiencies.

Google Maps is absolutely indispensable for planning purposes. I shudder to think what trip planning would be without it. I download the maps for the countries I travel, to avoid being out of cell range (highly unlikely in Europe), and to navigate should I exceed my daily data allowance.

Google Translate is installed on my phone and smart watch with Italian already downloaded for this trip. This way I can translate on the spur of the moment even if I have no data left for the day, or if I’m out of cell range (which still happens when indoors in some locations).

Tripadvisor is awesome for advanced travel planning, as well as finding a decent restaurant on the spot. 

 

 

Related Destinations – Northern Italy Travel Planning

Travel Planning – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

Travel Planning Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

 

Travel Planning – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

Motivation

This is about trip planning, but more than anything, it’s about an exercise of imagination, the expression of curiosity, and the definition of a theme. Imagine  approaching an elegant buffet with a great variety of food and drink, ranging from haute cuisine to more basic, but tempting dishes from far flung parts of the world. You’re hungry. How do you decide what to eat with so much variety? The problem comes down to choice, with an endless array at our fingertips.

Such is the challenge in trip planning. The explorable world is before us like an elegant, well organized buffet. We merely need to decide what’s next on our plate. It sounds easy, and it would be if we had hard constraints. Using the buffet analogy, if we were shellfish lovers for example, we could immediately eliminate a large portion of the menu and concentrate on what we like most. And so it is with trip planning. We need to know what we like, or at least what interests us next, either due to curiosity or the ongoing execution of a theme.

And that’s what I like to do – work on a broad theme, in this case it’s Europe. This particular theme has been unfolding for over a decade, with sometimes focused exploration of one country, and other times far flung meandering across a region. This trip leans towards the meandering, but with a connecting thread that binds the destinations together – mostly.

Slovakia, southern Poland, and the Czech Republic, a collection of Western Slavic speaking Central European countries, geographically contiguous, and explorable by automobile over a couple of weeks. All three share the same branch of the European language tree, and have culture and history binding them together as well. The food is hearty and the drink is strong, with the latter useful for warding off the chills of the long winter nights.

 

Itinerary

In short, the selection is as follows, to be navigated in a grand counterclockwise circuit by automobile over 14 days:

 

Bratislava, Slovakia – 3 nights

 

Kosice, Slovakia – 2 nights

 

Krakow, Poland – 3 nights

 

Wroclaw, Poland – 2 nights

 

Olomouc, Czech Republic – 2 nights

 

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic – 2 nights

 

I wanted to visit Bratislava and Kosice in Slovakia because they are its main cities. I wanted to visit Krakow because it’s simply a must see in Poland, more so than any other city based on its history, culture, and architecture – and Wroclaw not only due to geographic proximity to Krakow, but because in addition, it’s worthy of a visit.  I wanted to finish the circuit with the exploration of smaller towns in the Czech Republic, since I’d already been to Prague on a previous trip.  Olomouc stood out a great opportunity for exploration with its history dating back to the 11th century, and as a lesser known, off the tourist path type of destination. I selected Cesky Krumlov as the final destination for very similar historic reasons, although it is as firmly part of the beaten down tourist path as possible.

I elected to start the itinerary in Bratislava and work my way east to Kosice, covering most of Slovakia over a 5 day period.  Then head north to Krakow, Poland for a 3 day exploration of the ancient seat of Polish Kings – which saw no damage to speak of in the major wars of the 20th century, and should be in pristine architectural shape. Continuing the counterclockwise circuit, I next selected Wroclaw for 2 nights as a compliment to Krakow in Poland. Also steeped in history, but did not escape the specter of war unscathed. And the circuit is completed in the Czech Republic with stops in Olomouc, and Cesky Krumlov, each for 2 nights, covering both the former kingdoms of Moravia, and Bohemia.  I thought the two cities would represent the Czech Republic well, although Cesky Krumlov is densely touristed, I had hoped I was early enough in the season to avoid the main surge.  I reserved a 1 night stay in Vienna to await the early return flight to Heathrow, connecting back to Atlanta.  Without this tactical accommodation, I would have had to drive from Cesky Krumlov to Vienna in the very early hours of a Sunday morning, like departing at 2:30 AM, to arrive at the Vienna airport at 6:00 AM. I shudder at the thought.

 

Logistics

There are no direct commercial flights from the US to Bratislava. It’s easy to check this with Google Flights using the Explore feature while filtering on direct flights only. Given that I had to make a layover, I selected London Heathrow because of the broad selection of connecting flights, which gave me a reasonable connection time, as well as good prices due to competition among carriers. I chose a direct flight to Vienna from Heathrow to complete the outbound air transportation part of the trip. The Vienna airport is serviced by many more carriers than Bratislava’s airport, which drives up competition and reduces prices. And the Vienna airport is an easy 45 minute Uber ride to central Bratislava.

With so many cities to connect to, I definitely wanted to drive over taking trains and public transportation. It’s the connection time that elongates travel using public transportation. And nothing beats the convenience of going on your own schedule to wherever you need to on any given day. Can’t do that with public transportation. Driving is more expensive to be sure, but I’m optimizing for time, not budget.  And there will be plenty of driving, to be sure.  I estimate about 2,000 kilometers of driving with 3 to 4 ½ hours between the destinations planned, which is a golden opportunity for discovering the countryside, and stopping in little out of the way places in between.

With so many interesting, steeped in history, smaller cities to explore, I definitely wanted apartments over hotels on this trip. And I was focusing on apartments that were centrally located, within the confines of the  pedestrian-only parts of the old town. This allows for convenient exploration with no transit time to get to the historic and interesting parts of town. And there’s nothing more immersive than stepping out of your own door and being in the heart of the historic part of town.

 

Resources

Google Flights is my standard tool for research, and planning airfare. There are plenty of others, and I’ve tried most, but find that I really don’t need to save the very last nickel at the cost of spending more time chasing that nickel.

Booking.com, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb were used to book all of the apartments for this trip. My preference is to avoid Airbnb because they’re not transparent with property locations, and do not promote the size of their properties in their standard description.  But I do use them if I can circumvent their deficiencies.  It’s interesting that I booked no properties with Homeaway on this trip, especially considering that I explore for apartments there first.

Google Maps is absolutely indispensable for planning purposes. I shudder to think what trip planning would be without it. I download the maps for the countries I travel, to avoid being out of cell range (highly unlikely in Europe), and to navigate should I exceed my daily data allowance.

Google Translate is installed on my phone with all of the languages I need on this trip already downloaded. This way I can translate on the spur of the moment even if I have no data left for the day, or if I’m out of cell range (a huge improbability in Europe).

In Your Pocket guides were useful for getting a background, and some history of Krakow and Wroclaw in particular, but also good for an overview of Olomouc. The quality is very good, and I hope they do more cities.

Sixt is my first choice for car rental in Europe. They are a competent company, typically delivering road worthy German cars. On this particular occasion, I reserved a BMW 520d. An excellent automobile for the exhilarating driving possible on European roads.

Uber is what I planned to use to get to central Bratislava from the Vienna airport, as well as return to Vienna from Bratislava after dropping off the rental car to spend the night before the return flight to Heathrow.  It also comes in handy for getting around from point A to B once I’ve had enough walking for one day (which sometimes, but rarely, happens).

 

Epilogue

Reflections on this trip.  The itinerary in general was very good, but I am disappointed as to how densely touristed Cesky Krumlov was even in early June, the time we were at this particular destination. CK was interesting, and I liked the destination, but found it impossible to blend in, and have an immersive experience. There is no such thing – it was like trying to be immersive at Disney World.  In retrospect, I would have chosen Telc as the second city in the Czech Republic, and bypass CK, because it doesn’t fit my criteria for Immersive Travel. Otherwise, I would consider this trip epic, with many fond memories of the destinations visited.

 

 

Related Destinations

France Travel Planning – Lyon to Bordeaux

France Travel Planning - Lyon to Bordeaux

Motivation – France Travel Planning

This would not be an itinerary I’d choose for a first-time visit to Europe in general, nor for a first-time visit to France specifically. This is a combination of destinations suitable to a more seasoned European traveler, and moreover, someone having experienced France previously. Having been to France in the past, I’ve visited the Paris area, Normandy, Alsace-Lorraine, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire Valley, Burgundy, Provence, and Hautes Alpes. I truly wouldn’t have seen the rest of Europe had I not taken time off from visiting France specifically!

The south-central slice of France comprising Lyon at its eastern end, and Bordeaux to the west, with the Massif Central at its center, held for me unexplored portions of the country, promising cuisine, wine, history, and architecture to be discovered. In particular, the cuisine in the historic city of Lyon, with their traditional Bouchons, was waiting to be explored. And of course the wines of the Bordeaux region, known across France and the world, were also on the list for discovery. Both cities are UNESCO world heritage sites, and both cities have opportunities for day trips to explore the surrounding region and countryside.

 

Logistics – France Travel Planning

With Atlanta as my home base in the US, direct flights from there to Paris Charles de Gaulle are frequent, but generally not competitively priced. Delta and Air France have a lock on direct flights from Atlanta, and they’re codeshare partners, where codeshare is “code” for monopoly from a consumer perspective. A workable alternative would have been Atlanta to Heathrow, with a connecting flight either to Lyon, or to Bordeaux. Because I had Delta Frequent Flyer miles to burn, Atlanta to Paris Charles de Gaulle was the most convenient option, with a 55 minute connecting flight to Lyon as the second leg of the itinerary to start the trip.

I secured a rental car from Sixt, my favorite car rental company in Europe. I requested a BMW 5-series for 6 days, but received a Volvo S60, which turned out to be fairly competitive to the German car for quality and road worthiness. I like Sixt because they generally have German cars, and the quality of service has been very good in the past. I like German cars because they are designed for high speeds and handle very well. While the French speed limit is 130 KPH (80 MPH), there are wide open stretches where one could hit much higher speeds were one so inclined. Driving any faster than 130 KPH is unsafe in a vehicle not engineered and equipped for that purpose. Driving in Europe is not for the meek at heart, nor for the timid driver. I can understand the “horror” stories recounted by some US tourists of their driving experiences in Europe. Personally, driving is part of the immersive experience in travel. It’s not like home, but it’s not meant to be. And in some ways, it’s much better than driving at home. For example, European drivers generally yield the left-hand lane to those intending to pass when practical. Compare that to the doddering old coot perpetually in the left hand lane with his left turn signal on in your favorite locale in the US. In general, highways in France are less crowded than in the US, but only away from major population centers. In the cities, the French roads are every bit as congested as name-your-nightmare rush hour in the US.

Having secured a car for day trips in Lyon and Bordeaux, as well as the connection to Bordeaux from Lyon, what remained was the transportation from Bordeaux back to Paris Charles de Gaulle to start the first leg of the return trip home. To train or not to train, that is the question. I decided on First Class TGV accommodations from Bordeaux Saint Jean to Charles de Gaulle terminal 2. Yes, the TGV (Tres Grande Vitesse) does take longer than a 1 hour “puddle jumper” from Bordeaux to Paris. But sometimes it’s not about the quickest route. The train does take longer, but that’s actually a good thing. Enjoying the company of your fellow travelers, taking in the sun-soaked countryside, and catching up on one’s blog posts are all things possible in comfort with first class train tickets. And it beats sitting around Charles de Gaulle terminal 2 for hours on end, hunting down a place to sit with access to power for portable devices.

 

Itinerary – France Travel Planning

My choice for basic itinerary was to split the 8 nights available for this trip evenly between Lyon and Bordeaux. In retrospect, 8 nights is not enough time for a thorough immersion in both destinations. But the reality is that there is never enough time, so the even split was a best effort immersion starter – and there’s always the next time for those things we invariably miss, no matter how well considered and planned we make our itineraries. 

Definitely apartments over hotel rooms for this trip. As mentioned earlier, both cities are UNESCO world heritage sites, steeped in history and architecture. Lyon has 2000 years of history, including a well preserved Roman amphitheater, a medieval and Renaissance Vieille Ville portion of the city (Old Town), and a charming Presqu’ile residential area on the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. Lyon is the culinary capital of France – not Paris. The choice of apartments for Lyon was brilliant, with panoramic views over the Saone river to the Notre Dame de Fourviere at the top of the hill. The views at night were particularly stunning, with little justice provided by photographs taken as compared to being there, no matter the effort undertaken to take the right photo, under the right conditions. Seeing the views in real time always beats the pictures taken. That’s why we travel. It’s not the same as the photos we bring back. The views from the apartment in the centrally located Presqu’ile neighborhood were simply not available from a hotel. And the price would have been many times more for the hotel as compared to the apartment had it been possible. Moreover, it’s difficult to have the same level of immersion from a hotel experience as compared to being a temporary resident, in a residential city neighborhood for a few days.

Wine drinker or otherwise, most people have heard of Bordeaux as the famed hub of the French wine growing region. Wine growing is the most common denominator when it comes to first thoughts on the region of Bordeaux, but the city has so much more to offer. UNESCO recognized for its beautiful, and consistent architecture, the city center is clean and well maintained. Other French cities aspire to be as well-kempt as Bordeaux. Due to its smaller size, Bordeaux has a more intimate feel than Lyon. The old town is laid out in a series of medieval streets that open onto plazas and grander boulevards. Historic sites, parks, and things that simply catch the eye are peppered throughout the old part of the city. The apartment selected for Bordeaux was centrally located, right in the heart of Rue Saint Catherine, just a few minutes’ walk from the Garonne riverfront. This apartment was more about location than views, with immediate and easy pedestrian access to all city attractions, and restaurants. Bordeaux is the type of city an enthusiast could easily walk through all day , not realizing until the end that 10 miles had pleasantly passed.

 

Resources – France Travel Planning

Absolutely can’t live without google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers. I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Lyon and Bordeaux. Once I have my flight schedule selected, I add my flights to the alert list for price changes, and patiently wait for a good price to come my way.

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals. In the order of preference: HomeAway, booking.com, Tripadvisor, and last and definitely least, Airbnb. Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them. Their business model simply doesn’t suit me, and they have basic functional deficiencies. I’ll have to put together a Travel Tips blog post on apartment selection, and share my perspective on the challenges in using some sites versus others. But on this particular trip, I did end up using Airbnb for Lyon as they had the best apartment, and I was able to circumvent the Airbnb location ambiguity to my satisfaction before booking it. I used booking.com for the Bordeaux apartment as they had the closest to the heart of the old town. I did use the other two apartment hunting resources, but their facilities were not competitive on this particular trip with the dates I had in mind.

google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of purpose. France has great cellular coverage, so I didn’t have to resort to downloading maps for offline usage, like on other trips (Chile). However, France also has the so-called “safety cameras” peppered throughout their roadway systems, mostly on their 130 kph divided highways. In the many previous trips driving in France, I have received only one speeding violation in the mail. Considering my love of driving with vigor, I consider myself lucky. This time I used waze to help me navigate around the misnamed safety cameras. The app worked pretty well, alerting upon entry to and exit from the “enforcement zones.” I do have to caution that it is a data-hungry beast when in continuous use on a long drive, chewing up a lot of roaming data, which will be of concern to those on expensive international roaming plans.

Tripadvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, as well as finding a decent restaurant on the spot. When I use it for this purpose, I select “near me now/restaurants” and filter on “open now”. Then I sort by distance – not highest rated. When I’m hungry enough to find an unplanned restaurant, I want closest, then best. Of note is the Michelin restaurant app, which I did use both in Lyon and Bordeaux. But I always cross-referenced whatever restaurants the Michelin app recommended with the Tripadvisor app, and selected what made the most sense. It was usually Tripadvisor. Yelp is not particularly useful, and I don’t even have it installed on my phone any more.

Uber works in France, and it does come in handy. It is much better than trying to hire a taxi because you need not have any communication with the driver if language challenged, aside from properly identifying yourself on pickup. I used Uber from the airport to central Lyon, as well as around town when I simply tired of walking – once or twice.

With google translate on my phone at the ready, I seek out restaurants that have no English menu available. Going to countries where I don’t speak the language, and have bare familiarity with the alphabet is possible with google translate installed. Game changer for traveling off the beaten path – or even on the beaten path where language challenged. It’s important to note that language modules are downloadable for offline usage. Again not an issue in France because the coverage is so good, but it may save some money for those on expensive roaming plans.

Meteo-France is worth a mention as a useful resource. A better weather forecasting app for France doesn’t exist. It’s nice to have a sense for the day’s weather as I set out in the morning.

 

An Opportunity Missed

I love to plan because good planning usually yields a better experience, to the extent that planning can do that. But there is no such thing as perfect planning. Too much planning is a bad thing. Good travel, immersive travel, happens with a certain element of “being there” decisions, and even chance, that simply can’t and shouldn’t be planned. So, that’s the beginning of the conversation I have with anyone asking how I enjoyed the “wine tours” of Bordeaux. I didn’t do any wine tours in Bordeaux. The village hopping we did on our one-day excursion by car from Bordeaux was my choice for an immersive experience. And Bordeaux was too lovely to spend any less time exploring her. I do like wine. A lot. So there’s definitely an opportunity when I return to Bordeaux. And there are many more villages to explore in the region. In fact, so many that it would take months to visit every little village just one day at a time from Bordeaux. And I do love little villages. And so, I may not make the wine tour next time either. Of course the real solution is to move to Bordeaux, perhaps not permanently, but at least for a year. I could hit all the wine-maker’s chateaux, and all the villages from my centrally located Bordeaux apartment, just off the Garonne River. It’s a lovely thought.

France Travel Planning - Lyon to Bordeaux

 

 

Related Destinations – France Travel Planning

Chile Travel Planning – Santiago, The Lakes District and Patagonia

Chile travel planning

Motivation – Chile Travel Planning

Of all the countries is South America, why would I choose Chile as the first to visit for some personal vacation time. Personal safety comes to top of mind as a motivator. Chile is safe to visit, even for those that speak no Spanish, with a low incident of crime. Chile is tourist friendly, with a young vibe, particularly in the capital city of Santiago. In fact, I’ve never traveled to any country that accepted more variety of credit cards, in more places than Chile. I eventually stopped withdrawing local currency from ATMs in favor of using my Amex card in restaurants and shops, and found nowhere it wasn’t accepted.

But the strongest motivator for Chile would be its great outdoors. Having read all about the Lakes district near Puerto Varas, mesmerized with the photos of Chilean Patagonia, and hypnotized with YouTube videos of Torres del Paine National Park, a trip to Chile was inevitable for me.

 

Logistics -Chile Travel Planning

I selected the time around Christmas and New Year for the trip for 2 basic reasons. Opportunistically, I had time off from work as paid holiday and didn’t have to dip deep into vacation time. Late December, and Early January in Chile is essentially the beginning of Summer, and pretty good weather to do the outdoor activities I had in mind in South America – In particular it is a good time of the year to visit Chilean Patagonia, and Torres del Paine National Park.

Air transportation in and out of Santiago was convenient from Atlanta, my home airport, with direct flights available. Flights from Santiago to Puerto Montt in the Lakes District, and Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia were available through LATAM Airways, and surprisingly inexpensive. For example, a round trip itinerary from Santiago to Puerto Montt, Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, and finally the last leg back from Punta Arenas back to Santiago was under $200 per person. I had a very positive experience with LATAM airlines, a professionally run organization with good on-time performance, good personal service, and decent WIFI enabled entertainment onboard.

For ground transportation, rental cars were necessary in the lakes district, and in Patagonia. In the case of arrival at Puerto Montt, it’s basically a 30-minute drive to Puerto Varas, and no real options for alternate transportation like taxis. A rental car is also necessary to do a circuit of the lake, and to visit the volcanoes while in Puerto Varas. In the case of Punta Arenas, it would have been possible to take a bus to Puerto Natales, and another bus to Torres del Paine National Park, but this isn’t my style. It’s simply too inconvenient, time consuming (turn a 2 hour car drive into a 3 hour bus ride), and aggravating to deal with other people’s schedules. As it turned out, driving Ruta del Fin del Mundo was a must-have experience for me which framed part of the Patagonia experience in my mind, and couldn’t have been done without a rental car.

 

Itinerary -Chile Travel Planning

The basic itinerary selected was to spend 2 nights in Santiago, take an hour and 45-minute plane ride directly south to Puerto Montt, then rent a car and drive the leisurely 30 minutes to Puerto Varas. Spend 2 nights in Puerto Varas exploring the little city and its surrounding lake and volcanoes, then take the 2 hour+ flight directly to Punta Arenas. Rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle in Punta Arenas, and drive to Puerto Natales directly. Spend 4 nights in Puerto Natales, within a 2-hour drive to Torres del Paine National Park. I planned to visit 2 of the more accessible and jaw-dropping sights on the so-called W-trail in Torres del Paine National Park: Mirador del Torres at one end of the park, and the catamaran to the glaciers on Lago Grey at the other.

Other options would have been to spend some time in the Atacama high desert, but my motivation wasn’t there for a desert adventure, and the logistics would have been prohibitive as well, requiring a 2-hour plane ride from Santiago going north, while the both the Lakes District and Patagonia were several hours south, in the opposite direction, by plane. I also considered and passed on Valparaiso as a destination for this particular trip. It just didn’t fit with the “outdoor theme” as well as the Lakes District and Patagonia. Easter Island was never a consideration, although I was aware it could have been an option. Easter Island would have been a lot of time spent for little travel experience in return.

 

Resources -Chile Travel Planning

There are way too many behave-alike airfare search engines out there with little differentiation among them. For my time and effort, I find that I can’t do better than using google flights. I can’t beat it for accuracy, speed, and functionality. I searched and tracked the mainstream carrier round-trip flights to Santiago, as well as the local LATAM carrier flights from Santiago to Puerto Montt, and Punta Arenas through google flights, having made use to the tracking and notification feature to get good prices.

I find myself going to booking.com first for both hotel and apartment reservations anymore. I like their map function which displays available properties visually for easy decision making. Even better is the fact that it can filter both apartments and hotels together on the same map, giving a great comparison for availability and price across both property types. The actual decision to go with an apartment or a hotel room can be a little tricky, and on this occasion felt more comfortable with hotel rooms. Apartments for me require a higher level of independence, with no support for things like concierge service, for example. Given that this was my first vacation in South America, hotels made more sense from a support perspective.

I did not depend on cellular coverage being continuously available for navigation purposes, and it turned out to be a reasonable assumption as carrier service did drop when we got way outside the cities. However, google maps has a feature where you can download map areas to your device and use google maps while offline. This turned out to work very well, although turn-by-turn voice instructions don’t work in the offline mode, the app got the job done in getting us around Patagonia where the cell signal was the worst.

I booked a rental car in Puerto Montt, as well as Punta Arenas – both through rentalcars.com. The booking experience was ok, although it is one of those sites that require an up-front deposit to confirm the reservation, which I don’t like. The site did pose a problem on one of the rentals as it tried to charge for the entire rental at reservation time. It took 15 minutes on the phone with a customer service agent to straighten out the issue. I would prefer to book directly with a rental car company of my choice, but those operating in Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas were not on my “A” list for direct dealing, so I went with rentalcars.com which had reasonably good prices.

Tripadvisor has become an indispensable travel resource for me. The phone app is particularly useful for finding things close to your current location. The most import of which is finding a good place to eat on the spot, and in short order. When I use it for this purpose, I select near me now/restaurants and filter on “open now”. Then I sort by distance – not highest rated. When I’m hungry enough to find an unplanned restaurant, I want closest, then best. But the bottom line is that I use the food pictures posted by the reviewers to make the final decision. Pictures are equivalent to a thousand reviews, and I can quickly find something close by accommodating my needs.

 

An Opportunity Missed

I didn’t realize this was possible until my arrival in Punto Arenas for the flight back to Santiago. For those of us that strive to visit every continent as a bucket list item, a trip to Antarctica, however short, is on our to-dos as we travel. Having done some research on taking a cruise to Antarctica, I was uncomfortable with the heavy seas crossing the Drake Passage, uncomfortable to the point that it was no longer an option on the list. But there’s a plane-only possibility for visiting Antarctica from Punta Arenas. Unfortunately, this was something that needed to be planned and scheduled well in advance, and couldn’t be done on the spur of the moment as the thought struck me. There are no regularly scheduled flights one might be able to find through google flights, for example. So, had I to do it all over again, I would schedule a round trip plane ride from Punta Arenas to Saint George Island, Antarctica, and cross the seventh continent off my bucket list. Maybe next time.

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Click for visual trip details

 

 

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