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Planning a trip to Europe | 5 lessons I learnt planning my trip

Having spent the last few months planning and organising my first trip to Europe, I thought I would share some of the lessons I learnt during this process so that hopefully you can avoid some of the mistakes I made and save some money and/or time in the process.

1. Don't book your flights too early

One of the first things I did was to book my flights (Auckland to London via Los Angeles and Amsterdam to Auckland via London/Los Angeles). The assumptions I made was that the cheapest fares would be made available early on with the price rising as the number of available seats dwindles closer to the departure date.

With this in mind I used a couple of travel booking/flight comparison websites (Webjet and Skyscanner) to have a look at all the flights available for my travel period, and ended up deciding on Air New Zealand. It wasn't the cheapest airline available (middle of the pact in terms of pricing), but it had one of the shortest flight durations and would allow me to minimise the time I spend in an airplane or airport.

Having bought my tickets 7 months in advance of my departure date, I continued to track the price via Yapta and made the following observations:

  • 1 month after purchasing my flight tickets, the price of my Auckland to London flight dropped by about NZD$300 as Air New Zealand was having a big promotion. (Unfortunately the cancellation fee combined with the fact that flights are not refunded at the purchase price meant cancelling and rebooking wasn't a viable option)
  • During the months after purchasing my flights, I also noticed regular fluctuations as the price moved up and down.
Flight Price History NZ2 Auckland to London
Price history of Air New Zealand Flight 2

Although I haven't seen a hard and fast rule yet of the best time to buy flight tickets, I think it is worth pointing out that it would be wrong to assume that you'll automatically get the cheapest tickets by buying your tickets very early.

2. Opening of international train sales varies from one country to the next

photo credit: HST near Finsbury Park via photopin (license)
The next significant task on my list was to book my rail transport to get me between cities/countries in Europe. (I did consider buying a rail pass to give me some flexibility, but I found it wasn't significantly cheaper for my scenario). What this process taught me was that rail tickets from different countries opened up for sale at different times. This means you need to plan accordingly to ensure you can buy the tickets at it's earliest point.

  • England (Eurostar) - 6 months
  • France (Voyages-sncf) - 4 months to most destinations such as Switzerland, but can vary. Check out their website for more information. 
  • Switzerland (SBB)  - 1 month
  • Italy (Trenitalia) - 4 months
  • Germany (DB Bahn) - 3 months

3. Buying rail passes will not always be cheapest from the national railways websites.

Two Tracks
photo credit: Double track via photopin (license)

In most cases buying directly from the national railway websites would be the cheapest option. But sometimes it would be wise to check out rail booking sites such as Rail Europe. In this example, I was having trouble buying the online ticket option of the 1 month Swiss Half Fare Pass for 120 CHF (187 NZD) from the SBBwebsite, and checking back again on the website indicates they have removed online ticket as an option.

The alternative option was to have the ticket posted to New Zealand for an additional 85 CHF (133 NZD) DHL shipping charge (Is that crazy or what?).

Checking in the Rail Europe website, I was able to buy the same ticket and have it shipped to me for 190 NZD. That's a pretty big savings !!! (If I was a bit more adventurous, I probably could have bought the half fare pass in the first Swiss train station I arrived in).

4. Foreign exchange is unpredictable

photo credit: Creating A Global Status Symbol Post via photopin (license)

The fourth item on my list was to convert some local NZD Currency into Euros to lock in the exchange rate for my trip. Having researched some of the local travel cards available in New Zealand, I settled on Air New Zealand's OneSmart travel card as it allows you to have 3 free ATM withdrawals per month.

Early on, all indications were that the New Zealand Dollar was going strong and the Euro was weakening, so I decided to hold off on doing the conversion so that I can get a better exchange rate. Unfortunately I was proven quite wrong as the New Zealand Dollar weakened whilst the Euro remained consistent (and at times actually strengthened).

At it's most favorable point, the exchange rate was 0.71 EUR to 1 NZD whilst it is now running at about 0.59 EUR to 1 NZD. So you can imagine my disappointment at "losing" out on the opportunity to lock in the exchange rate when it was at it's most favorable point.

5. Packing for one carry on bag is not easy 

photo credit: Mobile Edge ScanFast Onyx Backpack top view via photopin (license)

The last major activity on my list was to pack my stuff for my trip, and for this trip I decided I wanted to only bring one 7 kg carry on bag with me. Seeing as I didn't have a good carryon backpack, I bought myself a Kathmandu Litehaul Pack - 38L. (I'll try to do a review of how well this bag worked for me during my trip in a few weeks.)

The main reason for travelling with just a carryon was really for me to have the flexibility and portability when traveling between cities and countries. The following benefits really appealed to me: 

  • I will not have to wait for your checked in bag in the airport baggage carousel, and go straight to immigration.
  • Although I'm not using flights to get me around Europe, I wanted to keep that option open so that I can book budget flights and not have to pay extra for a checked in luggage.
  • I can keep my bag with me in trains and not have to worry about any checked in bag being stolen from the baggage storage part of the train
  • I can explore the city whilst waiting for my hostel to open for check in without lugging around 2 bags. 

Unfortunately the packing process did not prove easy, and there was a lot of re-adjustments and concessions in order to get the weight down to the carry on limit of 7kg. In general, I found:

  • I could only bring about 4 to 5 days worth of clothing
  • I had to swap out much of my initial clothes clothing for lighter alternatives e.g. jeans and cotton based t-shirts for lightweight pants and shirts using synthetic materials
  • I needed to sacrifice some of the nice to haves, just in case items or items that could be bought easily in my destination e.g. no extra shoes, minimal electronics, toiletries, umbrella.....

Next Steps

Check out my travel resources page for more links to travel information and tools that I've found useful.

Do you have tips and gotchas on planning a trip to Europe? Please share them in the comments below.

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