Planning a Trip to Europe - London and Paris Part One, The "Bones", When, where and for how long

9:56 PM AirplaneFoodCritic 2 Comments

Have you always wanted to visit Europe? Are you like me and are terrified to do it wrong? I have to know every little detail before I do something that "BIG". There are so, so, so many questions that need answering. How much will it cost? Where should I go? How do I get there? When should I go? What do I need to bring? What, if any, languages do I need to speak? What kind of food will I have to eat? What if I get lost? I am having a panic attack just writing this.

I am lucky, VERY lucky. I have been to Europe several times because a portion of my family is in Switzerland. The first time I went I was two years old. If you are reading this then you probably also know I just went last Spring. That trip was the first time I went on my own, without family. Over the years I have had a bigger and bigger hand in planning the trips but the next trip I am taking I will have done absolutely everything all on my own. And I will tell you, it is still scary.

I managed to figure out the Underground system and get around relatively easily using it.

I thought I would post a bit of the process of planning a trip like this for those of you out there who are as afraid if the unknown as I am. I will start by saying I am turning 40 this October (2014). I am sick with many illnesses but it can be summed up by saying I have Chronic Lyme Disease. This means that I am too sick to work because I am too sick to walk, run, jump, clean, dress, or any other normal daily activity for any extended period of time. I was getting an income from disability but that ran out. That ran out the DAY AFTER I decided to go to Europe for my birthday. THE DAY AFTER I purchased non-refundable plane tickets and hotel reservations! But that is not YOUR problem, it is mine and I want to turn it into something that might help someone else who is on....a budget...which I am now on....SERIOUSLY.

London and Paris is Easy:
The trip I am planning is a simple one. A great first timer. I am going for only 10 days but anyone reading this and using it as a guide can extend it out to at least a couple weeks and I recommend you do so because if you are paying a couple thousand per person on plane tickets, you want to spend as much time over there as possible.

Paris on my birthday

Why do I say London and Paris is easy? First of all, you do not have to rent a car, so it is easy and cheaper too. When you are not driving you do not have to worry about driving laws, reading another language, reading maps, accidents and more. London and Paris have so much to do that you can spend a lot of time without traveling from one town to the other to the other. You can get a feel for two whole countries by only staying in two different hotels. Staying in the same hotel for a few days in a row is helpful because you can have a home base of somewhere you can become familiar with. You can hang your clothes up. You can make friends with the staff who will speak English to you without being rude. They can get to know you and give you suggestions too. Another reason London and Paris are a great starter pair is that they are close to one another yet they are worlds apart. They are an inexpensive, few hour train ride apart but they are two COMPLETELY different countries. You say, duh Steph, we all know they are different countries. But they really, REALLY are. I have friends in London who were born and raised there and have never, ever been to France, let alone Paris. The English and the French are not what you would call, BFFs. This will give you, the tourist, the experience of two very different countries with very different cultures, very close to one another but not affected by the other at all. So it's like you went much, much further.

I chose a quick trip to London and Paris for my 40th birthday!

Another reason London and Paris is easy is because they are big cities and as such, you have a lot of modern amenities. I love staying in small, European villages because they are off the beaten path and often full of charm but there are downsides to them as well. Many small towns will not have many English speakers so communicating is very difficult and often people will get frustrated or even mad at you for not understanding them. If there is any sort of emergency or even if you need something simple like toothpaste or a Band Aid, it can prove very difficult to get what you need. In a big city, you will find enough things similar to home that you can be comfortable but of course you still get the vibe, look and feel of being in another country. People usually speak and understand English, there are pharmacies and large grocery stores. You can find restaurants that have food you are familiar with too. My boyfriend is a vegetarian and he has loads of trouble finding food to eat in small towns. France has a hard time understanding vegetarians. In this case, despite being a big city, Paris has trouble providing a variety of food beyond salad for vegetarians. If you have any other food allergies or diet restrictions, or if you just don't want to eat weird, foreign to you food every single day, this is a great option.

Among many other reasons London and Paris is easy is the fact that everything is basically at your fingertips. Sure, both London and Paris are massive. They are even bigger to me, coming from San Francisco which is a tiny city comparatively. I am sure to people who only know small, rural towns it is totally massive. But still, the museums, attractions and sights are all compacted into one general area so you won't end up driving 3 hours the wrong way on a country road with no help in sight. I have never been to a city that didn't have nice people to help when you are lost too. I have been in small towns where they will ignore you when you try to get help but in a city, you can always find someone who can be understanding, and in most cases, they will find YOU. I have had many expereinces where I am totally lost and it shows on my face or by my gestures and someone will come up to me and offer help without my asking. This includes cities famous for being rude like Paris and New York. Of course, practice caution in those situations as well. Don't get out your map and look like a lost tourist in a bad neighborhood. Research what the bad places are before you go and make sure you avoid them if at all possible. Don't go out at night to places that are not heavily populated. These are common sense things to do. If you are in broad daylight and aren't flinging your purse or money around, you are perfectly safe telling someone you are lost and asking for help. In New York I found so many helpful people I was totally shocked. Most of the help I got was using the Subway which I had heard was dangerous and rough. I had heard New Yorkers are in their own world and don't have time to stop for a dumb tourist. Not true in my experience at ALL.

Right off the airplane I managed to figure out the tube system and get to our hotel via public transportation. I was very proud of myself for that.

Which brings me to another point, yes, research where you are going and understand the customs and where the good and bad neighborhoods are and all that...but also don't necessarily believe all the rumors and stereotypes. Before visiting Paris for the first time, my boyfriend had preconceptions that it was full of rude people. This came from first, we were in France for one day last year and the people were very rude to him because he said the dreaded, taboo phrase that you should avoid at all costs if you can: "Do you speak English?". Most Europeans and in my experience, all the French, dislike it when you don't even TRY. When you act like a privileged American who owns the place and you are owed communication on your terms. If you just try a little bit, if you stumble through just a couple words, again, the French especially, will either get tired of hearing you butcher their language or be happy you gave it a shot and speak English to you. So the boyfriend had a bad experience in our one day in France from a server whom he asked the question to. The other way he got is misconceptions was from his coworkers and friends. They were all telling him how rude the French are and that they smell because they never shower. He was told that the whole of Paris has a bad odor because of bad hygiene. This, of course, is ridiculous and not true. Once he arrived in the City of Lights he realized it was not true and it became one of his favorite cities despite his horrible trepidation before visiting. I mean I had to force the guy to go. Now he can't wait to go back. He realized that his problem from our last trip was not The French but a disgruntled waitress. We had a few encounters with unhappy people in the service industry. I imagine they are not paid enough to put up with so many bumbling tourists from not just the US but all over and it shows in the way they treat patrons sometimes.

I did some research and found a Doctor Who Museum. This costume is from one of the best episodes involving Vincent Van Gogh

OK, back to planning a trip. Once you have decided you want to go to London and Paris you have to decide when and how long you want to go for. This usually will depend on when you get time off work or when a special occasion is. In my recent case, I went to celebrate my 40th birthday so I wanted to make sure I went in the time surrounding October 8th. Once I decided that, I began checking various flight options to see what was cheapest. I learned that, in my case, flying into London and out Paris was FAR cheaper than the opposite. I learned that by using Kayak and several airline websites and typing in scenario after scenario of flight options. I kept in mind where weekends fell and what was closed when. For example, when traveling to Europe, many places are closed on Sundays. This is most obvious in smaller towns but also rings true in the bigger cities so you don't really want to land or take off on a Sunday because you may need things that aren't available to you. I also wanted to maximize the boyfriend's vacation hours so he was missing minimal days of work. I decided on leaving on a Thursday, spending four full days in London, split a travel day between London and Paris then four full days in Paris. I made sure we flew home on a Saturday.

There are many fun things to discover when you are walking around Paris.

That is something I learned the very hard way. Always give yourself a day of rest when coming home from a European vacation. Traveling East is always more difficult than traveling West but that doesn't mean that you will adjust right away coming home. The worst jet lag you will experience is when you arrive in Europe because you traveled East. I don't know the science behind it but it knocks me on my butt every. single. time. I am a blithering idiot for at least 24 hours after traveling East. Coming home is also difficult but not so much for the jet lag as the acclimation back into the real world. One time, I went to Ireland for two weeks and didn't give myself the proper resting time of at least a day. I flew home on Sunday and was working that Monday. I worked at a company that provided a database to winemakers and the first thing I did was erase the entire database from the records because my mind was groggy and still in another time zone 9 hours away from where I was. If you were worried, we were able to reset the database to the last time the computers were backed up but we lost a few days and my boss was livid. I never heard a man's voice make that sound before when I made the dreaded call to tell him. So, for you, your sanity and your job, make sure you plan a buffer day before you go back to work or responsibilities. That may mean taking an extra day off despite being back in your home town. Trust me, it is worth it for everyone involved.

Once you have the where, how and when of your trip, you have the bones. The next step is finding a hotel and planning your activities. That is when the real fun of trip planning begins. I will share that in another blog.

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  1. Simply awesome. A lot of people would find this post really helpful. Congrats for making your dream come true!
    how to plan a European vacation

    1. Thank you, Aeldra! I was so afraid for so many years because it seemed daunting with so many unknowns. I really hope I can help someone get over the same fears I had. I am happy to help anyone one on one as well.