Join Me Backpacking in August!

Looks like planning.
Looks like planning.

Random Observation/Comment #201: Over the past 6 months, I’ve become a travel guru. I wonder if I have to wear any special attire.  In boy scouts, the badge I sew on would probably be of a guy wearing a backpack with a hiking stick.  In real life, my uniform would probably include sandals and the same badge, but with me also fighting a tiger.  I could always use that huge Europe Lonely Planet guidebook as my weapon – that’s pretty much the only use I have for it anyway.  FYI, everything in a guidebook can be found online.  I think you’re just paying for the binding.

When I first started planning, there were many – well, I guess they can’t be labeled “mistakes,” but I’ll call them “miscalculations.” It was very – what’s the word I used? – Oh yes, Anal.  The way I did it before, I basically saw everything there was to see through other people’s blogs and photographs.  I used Google Earth, Google Maps, and Street view to actually walk through the major cities to the point where I recognized the exits to the underground stations in London.  Everything about the city was mapped out in my mind before even arriving to a detail that made me wonder why I even needed to go.  It was definitely a lot of work, but it was quite comforting for me (but mostly my parents) knowing that every step was planned along the way.  Since then, I have learned a great deal about traveling and created my own refined methodology.  I’ll try to stay on topic this time and write about this travel-planning process with the results for this August.

Knowing the Givens

It’s very difficult to plan a trip without at least some major givens.  For example, it is essential to at least know: 1) Time allotted, 2) Budget, 3) General area of travel (a continent would be nice), and 4) Personal preferences of you and your travel buddies.  The last part is the most important because you will not be able to make any decisions without at least having some opinion about the place.  If you have a list of dislikes towards weather, cultures, or certain parts of the world, then it will be easier to narrow down your travel location.  If you already have a list of must-sees, than that’s even better.

In my case, I have all of August with a tight budget and the general area of Northern Europe.  I bought a Eurailpass for Germany, Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg), France, and Spain for this month so I am much restricted.  Although restriction may sound bad, it is necessary for making these tough choices.

The Eurailpass is suggested for non-EU travelers because you’ll save a lot of money and you don’t have to worry about buying and printing tickets ahead of time.  A spontaneous traveler will appreciate this freedom.  I bought a 10-day 4 country select pass for August.  This means that the two months after activation, I can use any 10 days and take any train (including ICE) for free.  Great deal for only 310 EUR considering some one-way tickets can easily cost 125EUR.

Narrowing Down the Location

Based on your personal preferences, your travel time, and budget, the list of locations for your vacation should start to look a little more manageable.  I personally spoke with friends that have been abroad, or who are from these countries, to get a better idea of the sights that are most famous and most “underground.”  To get this advice, I suggest going to parties and bringing up this travel aspiration.  Surprisingly, everyone loves traveling and has their own little suggestions for places to go and things to see.  The guidebooks can give you this historical background and a few good tips, but I think locals and friends with your common interests can give you a little bit more relevant advice. Plus, if these friends live in the area and have a place for you to stay, it’s a little hard to resist adding this to your itinerary.  For people traveling in Europe, you will probably be using the super-efficient railway system.  Planning your route with this based on the travel flight should also give you a good idea of what you can see.  Remember not to be too ambitious and maintain within the area to reduce time spent on overnight trains.

In my case, I felt the need for a change of scenery.  I had visited so many old European museums and German places that the thought of a sunny beach makes me want to weep in joy.  Not only has Germany weather been overcast for most of the days, but I also haven’t gone body surfing for almost two years.  Yeah, there were those times in Japan, but I didn’t count them because the waves were so boring.  I miss those summers with huge waves and constant fear of jelly fish or crabs stinging me or clipping off a toe.  Good times.  Anyway, I will spend the bulk of my time in Spain and pass through Amsterdam, Belgium, and Paris.  This was partially due to my Spanish group of friends at Hamburg passing their advice on the main attractions.  I originally planned 10 days in Spain, but it kept expanding to more cities and more must-see locations.  Now, I’m thinking 20 days will let me see San Sebastian, Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, and Ibiza.

Creating a Broad Itinerary

I used to write these itineraries in a word document, but I found that making revisions and seeing multiple overlapping itineraries were quite difficult.  The much easier solution is to keep an excel sheet with the columns: Date, Day of week, IT1: Country/City, IT1: Transportation details, IT1: Activities, IT1: Sleeping location, IT2: Country/City, IT2: (etc.).  With the time available for travel, you could just write out a few different itinerary plans and see which one works best.  To help with this decision, it is important to know exactly the length of the commute and the prices.  If you take all of your desired locations as nodes in a network, you can assign the weight to the line connecting these nodes as the travel time and then use any of the famous algorithms to solve for the best path.  Too complicated?  Just make a circle.  I would suggest flights from major airports like London Heathrow or Paris because the flights are more frequent and therefore cheaper.  Once you’re in the heart of Europe, I would suggest finding an itinerary that maintains the shortest travel times by train.

For example, if you have decided you want to see France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany and your flight is arriving and leaving from France, I would suggest a broad itinerary like: 3 days in Paris, 3 days in Amsterdam, 2 days in Berlin, 4 days in Munich, 2 days Brussels, and 1 day in Paris.  Although Brussels and Amsterdam are close to each other, it makes more sense to have a stop between Munich and Paris to reduce the travel time.  This becomes much more relevant for my particular case because a train from Hamburg to Spain takes around 16 hours. Without a stop in Paris, not only would I spend a whole day on the train (which I will probably have to do anyway), but there would also be a problem with the length of usage for the eurailpass (if the train ride is from 8AM to 4AM the next day, you will need to use two days on the eurailpass).

For my case, I will be starting in Hamburg, going through Spain for 20 days, Paris for 5 days, back to Hamburg for 2 days to get my stuff, Amsterdam for 2 days, and then London to return home.  The cities of San Sebastian, Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia make a weird rhombus on the map of Spain so it’s a little bit difficult to decide which way to go.  I decided to see San Sebastian first because it’s the closest to Hamburg and I really want to jump right into the beautiful beaches and scenery.  After 2 or 3 days there, I’ll go to Barcelona for 4 or 5 days before the locals start their vacation.  Next is Madrid for 4 or 5 days for some culture, museums, and a cheap place to stay.  Lastly is Valencia and Ibiza for some relaxing beaches and party islands for the rest of the time.  This may sound like most of the work is already done, but research on accommodations and activities can change the broad itinerary.

Where to Sleep?

There are loads of cheap hostels in major cities with incredible free tours and maps that tell you all of the major attractions.  I found that, even though I did all my research before hand, I wound up “winging-it” when I arrived because I wanted a local tour guide’s opinion.  I would often arrive to the hostel, walk around for the night to get a feel of the city, and then just go to a free tour the next day to hear some history and ask some questions about places to eat or specific museums to see.  In fact, I think it’s enough to go to Frommers [www.frommers.com] or Wikitravel [www.wikitravel.com] and look at their attractions highlights.  Full-on itineraries are available, but you’ll find that these are completely unrealistic to follow.  Walking around the city with a full path planned and exact places to look makes it seem so robotic. I rather just use my sense of direction to guide my way around the city first.  It’s interesting how getting lost and then looking at the map later after finding your way back makes you more aware of how the city fairs in size.  Anyway, I won’t make generalization because I know some people who are just terrible with directions.

Another option is to use couchsurfing.org.  This is basically a community built on a trust that backpackers and hosts will follow the rules of conduct and provide a place for someone to stay in exchange for some stories and hopes that they will grow their network to allow more couchsurfing opportunities in different countries.  It sounds sketchy, but I can attest that it’s quite safe if you do enough research on the right person and make contact with an open mind and transparent itinerary.

In my case, I know a few people in Spain, so I should be able to save some money on my trip.  To accommodate these people’s time schedules, I also needed to adjust my own itinerary accordingly.  For other cities, I used hostelworld [www.hostelworld.com] to pick the best rating and price.  Since August is peak season for travelers, I would suggest: 1) exchange your money earlier (rates go up in the summer), and 2) make bookings to your hostels earlier (to ensure you get a room).

Refining for the Final Itinerary

To reiterate, the main factors that determine your final itinerary include (but are not limited to): personal preference on weather, festivals/activities in specific places, friends’ accommodations, friends’ preferences, type of transportation (eurailpass), transportation travel times between cities, and whenever you run out of money.  The excel sheet of choices really helps.  Below is my itinerary:

Date

City Details Sleeping Railpass stuff

Sat Aug-1

Hamburg – San Sebastian 16 – 22 hrs need to take day train because eurailpass does not work otherwise Sleep on train Railpass3 (3)

Sun Aug-2

San Sebastian hostel

Mon Aug-3

San Sebastian hostel

Tue Aug-4

San Sebastian hostel

Wed Aug-5

San Sebastian – Barcelona 5 hours Barcelona hostel Railpass3 (4)

Thu Aug-6

Barcelona Barcelona hostel

Fri Aug-7

Barcelona

Sat Aug-8

Barcelona

Sun Aug-9

Barcelona

Mon Aug-10

Barcelona – Madrid 3 hours Railpass3 (5)

Tue Aug-11

Madrid

Wed Aug-12

Madrid

Thu Aug-13

Madrid

Fri Aug-14

Madrid – Valencia 3.5 hours Railpass3 (6)

Sat Aug-15

Valencia

Sun Aug-16

Valencia

Mon Aug-17

Valencia

Tue Aug-18

Valencia Take boat to Mallorca or Ibiza

Wed Aug-19

Valencia 15 hrs from Valencia to Paris, 9 hours from Barcelona to Paris – need to take 6AM train

Thu Aug-20

Valencia – Paris (Natasha will be here) Railpass3 (7)

Fri Aug-21

Paris (Natasha will be here)

Sat Aug-22

Paris (Natasha will be here)

Sun Aug-23

Paris (Natasha will be here)

Mon Aug-24

Paris

Tue Aug-25

Paris – Hamburg 8.5 hours Railpass3 (8)

Wed Aug-26

Hamburg

Thu Aug-27

Hamburg

Fri Aug-28

Hamburg – Amsterdam 5 hours Railpass3 (9)

Sat Aug-29

Amsterdam

Sun Aug-30

Amsterdam – Brussels – London EUROStar, 5.5 hrs Railpass3 (10)

Mon Aug-31

London

Tue Sep-1

London – US LHR – JFK Leave @ 3:35PM, British Airways, Arrive in JFK @ 6:10PM Plane Underground

I haven’t booked the hostels yet, but after some feedback from some friends, I can refine this itinerary some more and start making some last minute plans.  It’s important to print out the booking information and relevant maps to get to the hostel.  After that, you can pretty much wing-it.

Many of the anal planning has been left behind.  Based on the research I’ve done, I already know I’ll have an amazing time at each of these places, so I don’t think it’s necessary to list all of the specific activities (and definitely not plan the itinerary down to the hours in a day).  Damn, I was nerdy.

~See Lemons Guru-Travel

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