Half the fun of traveling is the planning...
Updated: May 13
We read that line recently and were like, yes! That's totally true!! We love planning our travels and there's been a lot of it going on the past year as we prepare to move abroad for our Quattro 90 plan. We've compiled a notebook with tabs and a calendar for every month so we can keep track of where we're staying, what we're doing, how we're flying or driving...you name it, it's in there. It's planning on steroids.
In case you haven't gone ALL the way back to our first post, Quattro 90 is what we're calling our next multiple-year adventure because we'll be traveling around Europe and be in/out of the Schengen zone for 90 days on a rolling 180-day basis (or, every quarter, hence the "four ninety"). Basically, all of the EU countries that share a border are part of the Schengen zone and, unless you have a residence visa, you can only stay in the zone for 90 days out of a rolling 180 days.
That's why our planning has been so meticulous - the last thing we need is to over-stay our allowed time in the zone and be banned from visiting in the future. Fortunately, we found an amazing app that helps calculate the days in/out of Schengen so we always know how much time we have left and have planned accordingly through May 2023 (so far). That said, we thought it might be fun to share how we plan for our travels to make sure they are as awesome as possible.
So here we go, our Top 8 planning tips for travelers.
1. Check local event calendars for your destination. When visiting a new location you'll probably do all the things visitors typically do...check out the must-see sites, experience the must-eat local cuisine, etc. But we've learned the hard way that there's another must-do: find out what's going on before you get there! Why? Because that way you can plan to do things that are once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
For example, when we visited Taormina, Sicily we discovered that the night before we arrived, Brit Floyd (a Pink Floyd tribute band) played a concert at the Teatro Antico. Can you imagine sitting under the stars in an amphitheater from the third century BC, overlooking the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea while listening to Pink Floyd? Well, we missed it. If we'd known ahead of time we would have arrived one day earlier. Another missed experience? When we were in Athens, Greece we were hanging out with a cool group of people in our hotel bar one night, turns out it was Florence and the Machine, and they'd just finished playing a show at the Odeon of Herodes Attitcus, a stone Roman theater on the slope of the Acropolis.
We're not huge Florence and the Machine fans, but we sure would have enjoyed an outdoor concert in one of the most historic places in the world! We've learned our lesson, though, which is why as we embark on our move to Europe we've checked out everything going on in each of the places we'll be visiting. We already have our tickets to see the opera Aida in July at the Arena di Verona - classic Verdi in an open air theater from AD 30. This time, we don't plan to miss anything!
2. Watch and take notes. YouTube has become a great source of information for us as we plan. We can search for anything and suddenly we have lots of videos to help us make travel decisions. Best parks with waterfalls to visit in Montenegro? There are videos for that. Best off-the-beaten-path towns along Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way? Croatian islands with vineyards? Day trips in Provence?
It's all there. We've learned to watch these with paper and pencil (or in Joe's case, iPhone) in hand to take notes. You can discover great little back alley restaurants that would be missed, deserted beaches to stay away from the crowds, and even what to avoid. Some videos aren't great, so it does require a little trial and error, but we usually open a nice bottle of Italian wine and before we know it we've explored new places, found new things to do and not do, and added to our travel knowledge. It's painless and fun. Another great resource is Rick Steves, who has tons of videos to lots of great places. He's typically where we start and then go on from there.
3. Know the local schedule. No, we're not talking about trains or busses, we're talking about things as simple as...shopping and eating. Coming from the always open US, failing to know the hours of your destination can result in serious disappointment (and hungry stomachs). Example: Italy. Want to browse shops or enjoy a late lunch? Well, be prepared to find out you're the only one. Especially in small towns. Businesses close around 1:00 and don't open again until around 3:00 or later. It's the afternoon riposa, a little similar to a siesta in Spain. Italian people just need a break, and so everything comes to a standstill (as you can see here on the Amalfi coast...not a soul in sight).
And, yes, this happens every day. Sundays? Wow, that's even harder because most shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays. So, that adorable seaside town you wanted to visit on Sunday? Closed. Shut down. Deserted. Even tourist attractions, such as museums, can be closed or have limited hours. When it comes to dining, we prefer not to eat too late, which isn't ideal in places like Barcelona where we felt like the earliest of early, early birds for our meals. Awkward.
We also have a terrible habit of failing to stop to eat until we feel like it, only to discover that there's nowhere open - we've unintentionally skipped lots of lunches this way. Then we're just cranky. That's why, after an apres ski afternoon that went way later than we anticipated, we found ourselves eating at McDonald's in Zermatt, Switzerland for a late dinner. At least they served beer (and no, that's not a picture of the Zermatt McDonald's, it's an awesome place called the Hexen Bar...part of the reason we forgot to eat that day!).
4. Buy ahead. See that Roman statue looking at you? You know what he's thinking?
"Hey, you, down there...have you really been waiting in line for over an hour to see some old stuff when you could have waltzed in long ago if you'd just planned ahead?" If you're planning to visit the most popular sites (the Louvre, the Colosseum, the Duomo in Florence, La Sagrada Família, etc.) there will be lines. Long lines. And, in the summer, hot, sweltering lines. And, if you're like us, you don't like lines. They are bad and a horrible way to spend a vacation. Fortunately, a little prior planning fixes this. All you have to do is buy your tickets in advance. Sure, it means you need to commit to being somewhere at a certain time because, more often than not, your ticket will have an entry time window, but it's so worth it. It's easy to just get tickets online and have the tickets sent to your phone, then it's a little click and scan and you're in. I'll never forget the pit in my stomach when we walked to the Musee d'Orsay right after Christmas only to find a line of about a billion people snaking around ropes toward the entrance. Thankfully, we'd purchased our tickets months before and after just a few minutes we were staring at great Impressionists instead of the backs of strangers' heads as we cursed the line.
5. Know your holidays. Imagine trying to get a table at a beach restaurant on July 4th overlooking a harbor that is known for having the most spectacular fireworks ever. Think you'd get a place to sit? Good luck. Well, there is no July 4th celebration in London, but there is Boxing Day on December 26 and that means that train schedules are different (or eliminated all together) so if you were planning to take the train from the airport to the city, you'd be out of luck.
How do we know this? Well, we happened to fly into Gatwick on December 26 and if we hadn't checked ahead of time we would have been stuck at the airport trying to figure out what to do. Not a great way to begin your vacation. Fortunately, a little pre-planning meant we discovered the Boxing Day dilemma and hired a car in advance to pick us up and take us to our hotel. Disaster averted. Want to see Paris in the Springtime? Then you better know when Ascension Day is that year because it's a public holiday and most things are closed. Spring in Copenhagen? On General Prayer Day shops and most supermarkets are closed. There are lots of holidays that businesses close for and that can generally change the vibe of an entire city, from vibrant and bustling to quiet and deserted. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but know what you're getting into.
6. Take advantage of unglamourous time and money savers. Want to look like a tourist? It doesn't take a camera around your neck and a fanny pack, just grab a seat on one of the Hop-on Hop-off busses that every major city has roaming the streets these days. Get on a big red (or green or yellow or blue) double decker bus that screams TOURIST? No way! Until...well, we did. And it was actually a great idea.
First of all, it's an easy way to get around, no underground train systems to navigate, no taxi meters ticking away. Just pay one price and get on and off wherever you want - let the bus driver battle city traffic while you bask in the sights around you. I have my sister-in-law to thank for this revelation, when she suggested we give it a whirl in Paris (thanks, Kelly).
Best idea ever. But it has its limits - make sure you know how many busses are running or you’ll be left spending your day waiting for the next bus instead of enjoying your vacation.
Know what else is great and very high on the tourist meter? A city museum and site pass. These give you admission to multiple places (and help you avoid lines), so that's always a good thing to check out before you get to a destination.
7. Prepare for the worst. Well, maybe not the worst. We (and by we I mean Joe) learned this, again, the hard way. We were on a beach in Split, Croatia and he decided to wade into the water, only to come out with a foot that looked like a pin cushion. He'd stepped on a sea urchin. Painful, yes.
Deadly, probably not, but it did take up a considerable amount of our time later on when we had to go find some rubbing alcohol and bandages, not to mention removing each little quill with the tweezers I fortunately had packed. As we enjoyed some fresh oysters at a bar that night we started listing all the things that we'd put into our own small first aid kit for future trips. Now we have a great convenient pouch with Band-Aids, single-use alcohol pads, a small tube of Neosporin and other little things that will, hopefully, help us better recover from scrapes, injuries, and blisters (like these blister plasters that helped Joe after an especially crazy day of skiing).
8. And, finally... don't plan! Yes, there are times when the best plan is not to have one. After all, if you're running around trying to squeeze everything into your trip, that's exhausting.
And this is supposed to be a vacation.
We always leave plenty of time to just wander and take advantage of random things. In Dubrovnik, Croatia we happened upon a Marc Chagall exhibit that was amazing. A private collector loaned his collection to a tiny little museum tucked away inside the historic city walls and we were lucky enough to stumble upon it. The air-conditioning was also welcome during an especially steamy day.
Rather than take the fastest way along the main streets we also love to explore tiny little alleys and winding paths that take us to places we couldn't possible plan for in advance. When we were in Laglio, on Lake Como, we found a little stone stairway beside the road we were walking on and decided to see where it would take us.
We ended up on a beautiful stone path along the side of the hill, complete with laundry hanging outside on lines, lemon trees dotted with bright yellow fruit, and the most spectacular view across the lake. Not exactly the fastest way to get to our destination, and it definitely wouldn't have been on any planned tour map, but it was a beautifully unanticipated walk we were so glad we didn't miss.
The thing about planning is that it can make your trip way less stressful but it can also leave too little to chance. And it's the unexpected places, people, and things you come across when traveling that make it special - like stopping to linger and listen to street musicians or grabbing a cocktail at a sidewalk cafe and just watching what's going on around you.
Sometimes we even make new friends in these unforeseen circumstances (like the couple we met at a bar in Sicily and ended up drinking with way into the night... when the owners finally told us it was time to leave we invited the couple to our wedding renewal ceremony the next day - and, totally surprising us, they actually showed up to help us celebrate). And making new friends in new places is always way better than anything else we could have planned for in advance.
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Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.