Planning an all-out, full-scale trip to a place you've never been before is a big deal. Planning it for several other people as well is an even bigger deal. All the months I (and a couple of others) spent researching areas, neighborhoods, transportation, flights, languages, must-see spots, itineraries, house rentals, metros in London and Paris, and whether or not I needed an international drivers license to rent a car really paid off, but even so I missed some things and had to learn a few others along the way. It's not possible to figure it all out without having studied each country for about a year in advance; you're always going to miss something. Just the way it is, so here are a few of ours.
1. Hidden Fees in Credit Cards
This one made me feel really, really dumb. Seriously. I got a new card for the trip, double and triple-checked on whether or not any of my credit card companies charged me a foreign transaction fee but never once thought to check and see how much it would cost me to withdraw cash using the cards. I had gotten burned using a debit abroad before and I wasn't going to lose another $900 that way (thanks Panama) so I determined to use credit for more protection. That was a good enough decision, but I should've withdrawn one lump sum in each country and not small amounts every few days. I didn't discover until the end of the time in London that they were charging me $10 for every cash withdrawal. Ouch. Baby steps in travel.
Note: It doesn't make much of a difference to use a debit card in developed countries, but I discourage it for second and third world countries. When my bank heard that the money was withdrawn in a place out of their jurisdiction and I was there at the same time they wouldn't do anything to help me. I just decided it wasn't worth that hassle again and exclusively use credit now.
2. Check for Holidays
This was something I had heard about doing, but disregarded as a small detail and in retrospect still think of it as a relatively small thing. It did cost us money and hassle though, so I decided to go ahead and include it.
I had bought Regional Eurail passes for the France - Italy segment of the trip. Eurail's system is out-of-date, which was my biggest gripe with them, but as a whole it still worked really well for us. It wasn't convenient because I couldn't book reservations online but had to muddle through half-French, half-Italian conversations at stations, but on the other hand if you weren't planning on taking a fast train you just hopped on and showed your pass to the conductor, and then noted it.
Where we ran into trouble was trying to leave Annecy, France on a holiday weekend. Our reservations were already booked in Verona and they were non-refundable, but I had the dickens of a time reserving seats for the segments from Annecy to Milan that wouldn't take nearly 20 hours getting here plus include layovers at a train station in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't the middle of nowhere that bothered me, but the hours of wasted time we could be exploring Verona. Anyway, because of that holiday we ended up spending about $40 more a person for tickets that weren't on a fast train. Not terrible, but we were budget traveling and it felt like money better spend elsewhere, like on crepes. Also, because we were in Annecy over a holiday hotels were jam-packed, the cheap hostel we had planned at staying had no vacancy, and we ended up paying an extra $110 total (approx) for the hotel that did have a vacancy. This came to about $150 per person that we wouldn't have had to spend with a little different planning.
For the record, Annecy is worth visiting.
3. Each destination you add costs a bundle extra
I don't count this as a mistake because we deliberately choose to go to all the places, mostly because we were looking for more of highlight reel with plans to return and possibly spend more time in specific areas. This is more of a point from someone who has done it before; keep your expectations realistic when planning a trip. For example. To get from London to Paris on the fast train was $105 a person, and while this is totally doable, consider that to hit all the destinations we did vs picking one place and sticking to it cost us approximately $600 extra. Once again, not bad at all, but extra nonetheless. In other words, if you are just so barely fitting inside your budget you may want to consider cutting out one destination because incidentals will come up to push you over it. For instance, I scraped the wheel of a rental car on a small roundabout which cost me an extra 40€. Add that to the $150 from #2 and other things like my cash withdrawal fee and the sum extra is already pushing $300. There are others I'm not mentioning for sake of space and ego (think forgetting to read rental car contracts) and by having extra destinations along with incidentals, I was well up to a $1,000 extra.
4. Let not Pinterest be Thy Guide
I'm a Pinterest fan, and I unashamedly say this. I think primarily in images and this makes Pinterest an ideal platform for me to use. I can sort through many things simply by seeing an image of it/reading and applying common sense, so therefore used it heavily to plan the trip vs. Trip Adviser which quickly bogs me down. If I wanted reviews I'd find a blog post or article of people gone before and got what I need that way, or through friends that had already been to that particular spot.
All that is to say Pinterest is not the most reliable source. Here is my proof.
a. I read an article on London fashion (because I'm a great believer in fitting in at least a little and being culturally respectful) and they proclaimed that no one in London uses umbrellas. We didn't take umbrellas more for the sake of space, but I laughed out loud in the business district of London when a spot of rain coming on whipped up a hundred umbrellas. In fact, it is safe to say that with the exception of maybe three people aside from our party, we were the only people on that bloomin' street that were not carrying umbrellas. Dunno who wrote that article, but they obviously hadn't been in London.
b. I really wanted to see the colorful streets of London, but didn't take the time past pinning a nice shot captioned "Covent Garden, London" and running it by the others to make sure they were fine with that taking up an afternoon. We got to London, and headed out on our third day to see these colorful works of architecture, but strangely we found ourselves in a shopping district. Beautiful, to be sure, but not exactly it. By now our itinerary was pretty full and I found a day late and dollar short that the area was actually in Chelsea, London and one or two other streets. Thanks for nothing, Pinterest. My advice is to check areas of interest against Google or Google Maps, because it is (duh) much more reliable.
This is actually Covent Garden, below.
5. Mistakes happen
Some things are all part of the adventure, and this is for which reason you should have a buffer. By all means figure out your trip, but then expect sweet serendipity, or rotten luck, to interrupt the proceedings now and then. Our little trip to Covent Garden may not have been planned, but it was there we had the best Nutella crepe in London and close to there a little pub with some killer fish and chips that were on our list to try. It was also there we found the souvenirs of London and got to see a wonderful evening/night view of London.
Also, I don't regret Annecy, despite the extra cost. We're all country girls and it was wonderful to get to a place that felt less city-ish after about 2 weeks in big cities. The views were spectacular, the food wonderful, and we spent a few glorious days just soaking in Autumn in southern France. After all, travel is life in another place: mistakes, learning curves and all.