Tuesday, June 20, 2017

travel diary: is it possible to visit three cities in one week?

When we began planning our London/Amsterdam/Dublin trip, the first question we had to ask ourselves was: can we do this all in a week?

Somewhere over London, en route to Amsterdam

The short answer is "yes," but it requires a lot of planning and understanding that you might not be able to do it all. (Check out my previous post on what we did/what we ate.)

I'm also an anxious traveler, so some of these steps and tips might seem overkill to you, but I found they worked best for me and helped us do (most of) what we wanted to do. And as Kristen just said to me: "It's smart to spend time worrying earlier instead of there."

Step 1: Use Google Flights.
Set your home airport and then move your mouse around the world with Google Flights' interactive map that shows you how much it costs to fly to various cities. This helped a lot in figuring out the order of cities to travel to, and I also love that it gives me a ton of options when it comes to airlines, time, and stopovers.

Being able to set notifications on specific flights helped too so I could get alerts on when prices went up or down dramatically.

Kristen and me at the top of De Oude Kerk in Amsterdam

At first, Kristen was worried that I had already been to both Amsterdam and Dublin, so I'd get bored, but those two cities are never boring! I also enjoyed my trip so much and knew I didn't get to see nearly half of what I wanted, so the opportunity to go back was really exciting. It also helped that I'd been there before because I knew what to expect when it came to getting around and also what areas to stay in.

Step 2: Research your airlines.
When it comes to flying budget airlines like Norwegian and RyanAir, there's a lot of fine print you want to make sure you don't gloss over. While the flights are cheap, there's a reason: the baggage restrictions might be tighter, or you don't get to pick your seat in advance. Those things weren't a big deal to us (we were able to buy food at the airport before our long-haul flights since the Norwegian tickets we chose didn't come with meals) and the compromise was worth it in order to pay a lower fare. We were also incredibly efficient when it came to packing our luggage (I'll probably do a separate post on that later about what's in my travel bag!).

Step 3: Research your hotels.
TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, and Booking.com are life savers for any time I want to look for a place to stay, especially in another country. We knew we'd have super busy days, so we were really just looking for a place to sleep (with free wi-fi, of course.) The way we planned out our trip, we arrived in London on Sunday afternoon and left Monday morning for Amsterdam, so we knew the first hotel we'd be staying at was out by Gatwick airport. It wasn't too bad considering that hotel airports have lower fares since most visitors don't want to stay that far out. (I was also able to pay for our first hotel, the Hampton by Hilton London Gatwick Airport, using the bonus points I got from my American Express Hilton Card.) But the Gatwick Express into London gave us plenty of time to visit around the city for the half-day we had.

When it came to booking a place to stay in Amsterdam, we chose the Best Western Premier Hotel Couture, which is hands down the most upscale-looking Best Western I've ever seen. We opted to stay further out from city centre because it was less expensive, and I think we chose well: the tram stop was literally right outside the hotel lobby. (We booked this one through Booking.com, which had a special price for the days we wanted that was lower than other booking sites.)

The first of two cheese museums we visited

In Dublin, we stayed in a more central location at the Dublin Central Inn. The city is quite walkable, and I knew this would be the best way to get the most bang for our buck, considering it was scheduled to rain the whole time we were there. Hotels.com came in handy for this one, as the photos looked unimpressive on a Google search. However, reviewers told me it would be exactly what we needed: a place to sleep with decent amenities and a stellar location, although I'm not entirely sure I'd stay here again because the shower was absurdly tiny.

TripAdvisor helped me figure out where to stay around London as a first-time visitor, and we chose the Regent's Park area based on the proximity to several Tube stations . After that, the Holiday Inn London was our choice, based more on price than anything. At first I was skeptical because, on the map, it didn't look as close to a lot of the things we were planning to do, but the public transportation in London is great and I'm glad we stayed somewhere we weren't planning to spend all our time so we could see more of the city.

All of the hotels we stayed at, by the way, had a free luggage storage option in case our room wasn't ready when we arrived, but we only had to store luggage at the Holiday Inn London because every other place let us check in early.



Step 4: Research your transportation options.
There's nothing worse than getting to a new city and realizing you have no idea how to get from Point A to Point B – especially if you have anxiety like me! For each city, we made sure we knew what the public transportation system was like (i.e. Was it all one system with one fare/pass?) and whether it would be more efficient to pay a daily/multi-day pass or pay by ride (also, how to get to/from airports!). For London, the Gatwick Express tickets were easy to purchase at the gate (we could've done it online beforehand for a discount, but it can be tricky to book everything on your schedule online – more on that later...), and we discovered that using an Oyster card was incredibly cost efficient because the Tube applies a cap based on your travel each day (we stuck to zones 1 and 2, and each day we didn't pay more than £6.60!).

Of course, each city is different: in Amsterdam, it was cheaper to get the 48-hour unlimited pass; in Dublin, we mainly walked everywhere and only took Luas a couple of times, so we paid per ride. (As I noted briefly in my last travel post, we had an issue at the Amsterdam airport where the machines weren't taking cards and we unfortunately were not prepared enough with coins to pay for our fare, so we had to wait in the really long ticket line, which ate up some time.)

Also, pro-tip: utilize Google Maps' "save offline" feature! Neither Kristen nor I planned to use international data when we were abroad. I had activated Verizon's International TravelPass option in case of emergencies, but the primary goal was to rely on wi-fi. However, even without data, your GPS still works. If you save the map of the city area you're visiting "offline," then you can at least read what the street names are you'll be encountering. 

Pro-tip #2: organize your travels in a Google Drive folder. Kristen and I had a folder that had all our essential travel information (flight info, hotels, etc.) in a Google Doc, and we also had Google My Maps for each city that pinpointed all the places we wanted to visit. That can all be downloaded offline to your phone too.

Pro-tip #3: at your hotel when you have wi-fi (or wherever you have wi-fi), map out the route you need to take to get from one place to the next, and then screenshot it. Also, save a map via Google Images to your phone of the city's public transit system, just in case you end up going the wrong way or the line you want to take re-routes you.

Step 5: Know your travel partner(s) habits, interests, and likes/dislikes.
Kristen and I determined pretty quickly that we both were early risers while on vacation, and we both enjoy the nerdier side of traveling (museums, learning things, history) – oh, and food. Lots of food. We also had different things on our lists we wanted to do and discussed how we could split our time so we could do a little bit of what the other wanted. Kristen was also really understanding when it came to my "no alcohol" policy this year (I cheated a little on this trip when we went to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin), which I appreciated a lot.

A tiny glass of Guinness

Step 6: List out everything you want to do first, then organize.
Like with writing, sometimes the best thing to do is just word vomit, and then clean it up. On our shared Google Doc, we each listed out what we wanted to do based on TripAdvisor/Tumblr/Pinterest/travel blog & vlog recommendations, and then organized it afterwards based on location and (for some) availability of tickets.

Which goes into my next thing about reserving tickets: unless it's a hot item that's likely to sell out, you might not want to book everything in advance. One of the reasons we didn't book our Gatwick Express tickets in advance, for example, was just in case something went wrong with our trip in or we took an alternative route based on a million circumstances out of our control. The same went for things like visiting Westminster Abbey (which we didn't get the chance to make it to), or the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin or the Tower of London (both which we booked online the night before once we knew what we would and wouldn't have time for).

In the Great Hall!
We did book tickets for things like the Anne Frank House, Kilmainham Gaol, and, of course, the WB Studio Tour. Having those set in our schedule helped us plan the rest of our schedule too because we would just look at the map and see what things were closest to it that we wanted to visit.

We also had to cut a few things from our list, but we made sure to list options in case we found ourselves with more time than we expected too. (All of this logistics-y stuff might not be that interesting, but I can dive into it more in later posts too!)

Step 7: Don't forget about food.
In the rush of planning all of the things you want to do and see, remember that you've gotta eat too! Yelp wasn't always the most helpful because different countries and cities use different versions. For instance, Zomato seemed to be more popular. But also don't feel lame about just Googling "things to eat in ______." Our searches turned up some fun BuzzFeed lists with great recommendations (like the Cereal Killer Cafe!).

I have so much I still want to say about this trip! But if you have any specific questions, you can always ask since I don't want to bore you with my entire planning process. (Still to write about: what's in my travel bag + a more in-depth look at some of the things we did!)

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