SWMBO is so flattered that a reader has written off-line to request some travel planning help. Because the traveller’s situation brings up some useful points not previously addressed on this blog, I have decided to answer that traveller here, in the form of a blog post. I have thrown in some completely random photos for no particular reason.
A middle aged couple from Ottawa with a 15 year old child. They want to visit London, Paris, Amsterdam for 2 weeks in August 2014. Other travel wishes for the trip are Cardiff (Wales), Vimy (France) and Apeldoorn (Netherlands). They are thinking of travelling by train and staying in quaint city centres that allow them to walk. One member of the trio is celebrating five years of being cancer-free and so this is a very meaningful trip for them.
The Ottawa area is home to a million people but for some reason, there are only two direct routes to Europe: Ottawa-London and Ottawa-Frankfurt. These book up very quickly with civil servants on business, people using air miles and leisure travellers.
Seems people from Ottawa are forced to go via Montreal or Toronto. Toronto has the most options but I can’t believe you have to fly away from Europe to get there. Dumb.
Planning your flight does take some work but it can be made painless. First, take a deep breath and remember that you are going on a trip, you lucky devil! Next, don’t waste your time with Expedia, Farecompare, Flighthub or any of those meta-sites. If you really feel you have to use one, try Cheapo Air. But frankly, they are a waste of time – you will spend hours on there and still be none the wiser…
Instead, try KLM. KLM is partnered with Air France and together, I think they have the most competitive prices out of Ottawa but KLM has the more user-friendly website. You can choose to fly from Ottawa to Montreal with them (more expensive) or the better option, in my opinion, is to hop on the KLM/Air France bus that leaves from the Ottawa Train Station. The bus ride is included with your Montreal-Europe plane ticket. The ride takes 2 hours and the bus has a washroom and is rarely even 1/2 full. The best part is that you don’t have to arrive early the way you do if you are flying and there is no security to clear.
I believe that KLM/Air France consistently offers the best price but they also allow you to do a free stop-over in Paris or Amsterdam on your onward journey to another city. What does that mean? Well, if you buy an Ottawa-London ticket for $900, you will have to change planes in Amsterdam. But you can stay as long as you want (up to a year!) there. In effect, you get two vacations for the price of one.
I purchased my Canada-Singapore return ticket for $1600 (all inclusive) departing on February 4 and returning on October 10. However, for that price I received the following flights: Ottawa-Singapore (February 4), Singapore-Paris (March 11), free stopover for 7 months!!!, Paris-Ottawa (October 10). The same price for an 8 month holiday as one to Singapore for a week. [On occasion KLM also offers a free car for a week or inexpensive stays in luxury hotels upon purchase of two tickets.]
When booking, choose “multiple destinations” rather than return or one-way. Then type in Ottawa – London – Amsterdam – Ottawa with your dates. The price will be the same as if you selected Ottawa-London return but you will get a free trip to Amsterdam out of it.
You can also try Air Canada. Air Canada flies direct to both Frankfurt and London as well as to other destinations via Toronto and Montreal. Also check Air Transat for comparison purposes. You might lucky with them in August.
Open jaws is an excellent choice for travellers. Much like the above, open jaws allows you to fly into one destination and out of another. You can fly from Ottawa to Paris. Travel overland from Paris to Amsterdam. Fly home from Amsterdam to Ottawa. This often costs the same as travelling return to a destination but can be tricky to book online. Try using the “multiple destinations” tool when booking.
Airports collect fees from airlines. Some airports are very expensive to fly in and out of. London and Frankfurt are among the worst. Oh wait. Those are the only two destinations with direct flights from Ottawa. Shoot.
Best airports? Milan (Italy) and Porto (Portugal) are always cheap but maybe not the most convenient. But Amsterdam and Paris are good mid-price options. Are you noticing a trend here?
If you an air miles collector, you will know that any free travel you collect is still subject to fuel surcharges and airport taxes. For fun (and a real education), try selecting various destinations for “free” travel just to get an idea of the discrepancies in price. I used to book based on availability and convenience alone but now that I see that it will cost me several hundred dollars more to travel via Frankfurt, I am much more savvy in my selections.
As an aside – why not make Milan or Porto your destination – they are both marvellous cities with a lot to offer…
TRAVEL SECTION OF NEWSPAPERS
If you are a newbie to travel or just want to get a sense of things, consider buying a Globe and Mail on a Saturday and perusing the travel section for the ads as well as the articles. You might get some ideas. Remember that the target audience will be people with a lot of disposable income willing to pay dearly for convenience. Proceed with caution. For fans of the New York Times, yes the travel section is great but for Canadians, the ads are less useful.
Yikes. This is a tricky one. The couple is concerned about the weather in August. The weather will be perfect. Best weather of the year. The problem with August is that it is the national holiday month in much of Europe. For example, tolls on many roads around Lisbon are cancelled for August. Paris is void of Parisians in August. What does this mean for our couple? Paris will have a different feel for sure and many small businesses will be closed. August is probably not the month to select for a Paris vacation but if that is when you are able to travel, you should not let it deter you. In fact, take advantage and find a cheap Airbnb from a Paris family who want to escape the city for a few weeks.
Yikes! Another tricky one! Just kidding. There is much to interest a teen in each of the cities our travellers plan to visit. Museums, fashions, “wee fee”, metro travel, buskers, and much more besides. Remember to keep a realistic pace and not be disappointed when your teen shows no interest in “noteworthy” sites. They are noting their own worthy sites. If your teen can tolerate meat, gluten and dairy – go to the Esmeralda for a crepe!
I preface this by saying I have not been to Vimy. BUT, everyone I have ever spoken to who has been there has said it was a highlight of their trip to France. I believe it is a very moving site and we plan to go when we return to France. Vimy is the only National Historic Site of Canada located on foreign soil. The memorial commemorates the Canadian soldiers killed there during the First World War. It is accessible by TGV (high speed train), then taxi. Considering travel time and visit, going to Vimy Ridge will be a full day’s outing. Absolutely worth doing if our trio decides to focus on Paris and forego London and/or Amsterdam.
Ironically, we will be spending a month in Wales after never having had any desire to visit it before! Funny how life turns out… For our travellers, I would say, save Cardiff for a future trip. I hear it is beautiful. For now, it is too out of the way for you.
Okay. I had never heard of Apeldoorn. But upon investigation, it is 1 hour by train from Amsterdam. I would definitely think this a feasible destination for our travellers if they decide to focus on Amsterdam and maybe forego London and/or Paris. It sounds like a less touristy locale that has meaning for our trio which makes it perfect in my books.
ROMANCE AND ATMOSPHERE
The couple would like to stay in quaint and atmospheric parts of town and would like to walk a lot. Perfect. They form a small contingent so I think this is the best strategy. They can easily find places right in the heart of the city on booking.com. Selecting an apartment with kitchen will allow them to have breakfast in their accommodation, keep snacks in a fridge and have space to sprawl out at the end of the day. It will also give them a feel for living in the city they are in.
SWMBO is in love with train travel. Expensive but such a nice splurge. I think train travel between European cities is a great idea. Especially if staying right in the centre of town. I think that rail passes normally aren’t worth it. For the most part, you are better off just buying tickets as you go. Remember to try to plan your air travel to get in a free destination and you will save money by not having to take the train.
London is a city that I am less familiar with than others. However, I have spent some time there on several different trips over the years. London is a vibrant and exciting city with a lot to offer – both historical and cutting edge. It is also a shockingly expensive and potentially exhausting city. One of my favourite trips to London was when we arrived without reservations during a very busy travel time and had to stay in Richmond Upon Thames. Richmond used to be a separate town but is now a borough of London. As such, it has its own “high street” and retains a lovely small town atmosphere while still being connected to the heart of London via Underground. Lovely pubs and shops. Richmond, in the south-west of the city, is handy to Heathrow Airport by public transport and has so much to offer in and of itself. It is the home of Kew Gardens, Hampton Court Palace, Ham House, and Richmond Park.
Having recently spent a month there, I have blogged a lot about Paris and accommodation. Check Paris entries on this blog.
Amsterdam is a great city. I love it. Travelling with a 15 year old, our couple should research Amsterdam to make sure they are staying in an area they are comfortable with. Amsterdam is a very liberal city with respect to smoking, drugs and sex, and can be shocking to North Americans. Our couple may want to consider staying on a houseboat in the heart of the city. There are many wonderful neighbourhoods in Amsterdam to stay. I would research Amsterdam (Red Light district etc) as some of it can be quite sleezy. I would then pick something on booking.com based on preferred neighbourhoods.
I am going off spec now and will offer a few nuggets. Much like finding one’s way in homeschooling or parenting, it may not be that useful to lay this info on the table as it might be something one has to discover for oneself. But if our travelling couple will permit me, I would add that they might consider:
1. Paring it down a little. Three major cities in two weeks is highly ambitious. Travel is addictive. You may well have never done it before and want to get it all into this one trip but I guarantee you that, if done properly, travel is something you will come back to again and again.
2. Amazing but lesser known and less expensive destinations. Porto (Portugal) and Dubrovnik (Croatia) are good starter destinations. You may well have never considered either but both are absolutely worth investigation.
3. A combination of city and country. Again Porto hits the nail on the head with a great city experience followed by an unforgettable journey to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Douro Valley. Or Amsterdam in conjunction with a trip into the countryside.
4. Taking a leave of absence and extending their trip by a month or two. Ain’t I the baddie?
I would ask the travellers to consider scaling back and either choosing two of the three cities or one city in conjunction with a country visit. I would recommend that they check out KLM, Air France, Air Canada and Air Transat for flights and find accommodation on booking.com.
If you have a travel question you think I might be able to answer or a topic you wish me to explore, please let me know!