Nearly a year and a half ago, my wife and I discussed the destination of our next trip. Our choice for this trip is France. We have been to France once before, but that was only a one-day visit along the Mediterranean coast as part of a cruise we were on. This trip will be different from any of our previous trips. We decided we would do a river cruise with Viking River Cruises from Paris into the Normandy region of northwestern France. The decision to make this trip began what has been more than 17 months of preparation, the longest preparation period for any previous trip I’ve taken.
Planning the Trip
Whenever we take a cruise, I always schedule our arrival in the cruise departure city at least 1 or 2 days before the cruise departs. Arriving the day before a cruise departs allows for dealing with travel delays. If there is a problem with the outbound flight itinerary, we wouldn’t miss the cruise. Another advantage, with a trip to Europe, is to allow a day or two to become accustomed to the new time zone. With Paris being 9 hours ahead of us on the west coast of the United States, jet lag is an issue to be dealt with. For this trip, we decided to arrive in Paris 3 days before the cruise starts. We don’t want to travel the distance to a city like Paris and not be able to spend some time seeing the city.
Our trip to Venice was at the end of August, when it was very hot and it seemed like a lot of other people were visiting Venice at the same time. We chose April for this trip to Paris because the weather should be comfortable and crowds should be manageable. I had to wait several weeks after we decided on this trip because, at that time, Viking River Cruises had not released their itineraries for 2013 yet. In the first week of December 2011, the 2013 sailing dates for the Paris and the Heart of Normandy itinerary were posted.
At some point in April, the cruise prices increase for the start of the busy travel season. I chose the last sailing with the lower early spring cruise fare. I called Viking River Cruises and, with a $1,000 deposit, we had our stateroom reserved. We had our choice of staterooms since the 2013 sailing schedule had just been published. Our cruise consultant asked if we wanted to include airfare or a pre-cruise extension. I settled for only the cruise reservation.
Others Join Us
My wife and I were eager to share our newly scheduled trip with several of our friends. We were a little surprised when some of these friends started asking detailed questions about our trip. I found myself becoming the clearinghouse for information about France and Viking River Cruises. Before long, we had 8 other people committed to join us on this vacation to France.
Part of my travel enjoyment is the planning and preparation for a trip. The trip itself lasts such a short time. By immersing myself in the planning of a trip for months before the actual trip, I get to extend my enjoyment of the trip beyond the trip itself. With 10 of us going on the same trip, I thought it would be more efficient to share information with the other travelers on a series of pages on my blog. This also provided me with a location to organize all of my research for the trip.
In December 2011, I started building pages that covered various aspects of this trip. I have pages that show my planned itinerary, including the sightseeing we plan to do while in Paris, hotels, transportation, attractions, restaurants, weather and cruise information. The mini travel web site grew to 16 pages of information. It has been a great resource for organizing the details of this trip for me and my wife.
I had hoped that I would get a lot of interaction from the other travelers, but that never happened. As a group, we’ve met twice since this trip was organized. We’ve had some good discussions during these meetings as to the various aspects of everyone’s itineraries. But once we were away from these meetings, few people have visited the information pages I built. These pages have been a great tool for my planning. But, it’s obvious that many people don’t spend much time in the planning of a vacation.
I recently spoke to a friend, who likes to travel. She told me that she plans a trip and then doesn’t think about it again until right before she’s ready to leave. She throws things into a suitcase at the last minute and that is the extent of her preparation. That might be enough for most people, but it’s not my style.
When I started looking for a hotel for our first 3 days in Paris, I was a little overwhelmed by the number of hotels to choose from. Having never been to Paris, I wasn’t even sure what part of Paris we should choose. Since Viking River Cruises docks at the Quai de Grenelle, which is close to the Eiffel Tower, I decided to choose a different area. The cruise ship stays in Paris for a day and a half before cruising to Normandy, so there would be time to explore that part of the city once we were on the ship.
There is a web site that I have found to be invaluable for vacation planning, TripAdvisor.com. They have listings for hotels all over the world. I had a similar dilemma when I was planning our trip to Venice. Which hotel to choose? The reviews of the 2 hotels I chose in Venice were quite accurate. So, TripAdvisor was my starting point this time around.
As I looked through the list of over 1,000 hotels, I centered my search on the area of the 5th and 6th arrondissements, in an area known as the left bank. There is a lot to see in this area of Paris. Regardless of where one stays in Paris, it is easy to get around by using their subway system, Le Métro.
My list was narrowed to 4 hotels. The hotel that was at the top of this list was located near Jardin du Luxembourg. The rooms looked very nice and the reviews on TripAdvisor were good, but it was the elevator that sold me. My wife hates elevators. When we stay at hotels, we usually have to use the stairs because she will not use the elevators. This is not a big problem unless you’re on a floor that is more than about 5 stories up. There is an exception to her refusal to use an elevator. If the elevator has glass to see out, she will use it.
While looking at the web site for the Hôtel Luxembourg Parc, I noticed they have a glass elevator that overlooks a courtyard. Elevators in Europe are notorious for being small. So, there would be no chance of my wife using an elevator if she could not see out. This is probably an unusual criteria for choosing a hotel, but I know it will make our stay more enjoyable.
When I first contacted the Hôtel Luxembourg Parc, it was more than a year before our planned arrival date. The response I got back from the hotel was that they were completely booked for the dates I had requested. I thought this was a bit odd, considering my request for a reservation was more than a year in advance. I wrote back to them one evening, Pacific time, expressing my sadness at not being able to get a reservation. I asked them how far in advance a reservation would have needed to be made for April 2013?
The next morning, I had to rise early for work. At about 6:00 AM, I noticed that I had an e-mail response from the hotel. It was an apology for the misunderstanding about my reservation dates. Since I was making this reservation in March 2012, the person dealing with my request thought I had asked for a reservation for April 2012. At about 6:30 AM, my phone rang and it was a lady from Hôtel Luxembourg Parc. She apologized again for the misunderstanding and said they would be happy to accept my reservation for the dates I had requested. I was quite impressed that the staff would take the time to call me by phone to make sure I was satisfied.
When to Buy Airline Tickets?
After the hotel reservation was made, I started to consider what to do for airline flights. Buying airline tickets is a lot like going to Las Vegas. There’s no telling if you will get a good deal or not. I once believed that you could get a good deal by watching the fares for a period of time and buying when they appeared to be at a low point. The trick is knowing when a low price really is the lowest price.
If you’re flying domestically and don’t have specific dates to fly, you can watch for some really good fares in the short term. If you’re flying on specific dates or you’re flying internationally, my best guess is to buy sometime between 3 months and 6 months before departure. The one sure thing is that prices will rise within 3 months of departure. In that time period, the closer you get to the departure date, the more likely it is that fares will be higher.
I had a couple of options for our flights. I could choose the least expensive route, which were not direct flights. At the time I was pricing flights, Finnair was flying from San Francisco to Paris with a stop in Zurich, at a cost of $900 per person, economy class. If I added a $300 flight from my local airport to San Francisco, we would be at $1,200 per person. That’s reasonable for flights from the west coast of the U.S. to Paris. However, I wasn’t interested in the least expensive way to fly.
Something that was very appealing to me from the start of this search was the possibility of flying on an Airbus A380 super jumbo jet. The type of plane we would be flying on became a more important consideration than ticket price. In June 2012, economy class on the Air France A380 from Los Angeles to Paris was about $1,250 per person. We would have to get to Los Angeles to make the flight, but we would have only the one flight each way. Since my wife doesn’t like to fly, one plane ride each way is much more appealing to her.
I decided to spend a little extra and upgrade to premium economy, which was $1,900 per person. I had watched the fares for several weeks before buying and it appeared that the prices wouldn’t go any lower. Two weeks after I purchased our tickets, economy was still the same, but premium economy dropped by $250 a ticket. Premium economy tickets are refundable, but they have a change or refund fee of $250 per ticket. There was no sense in trying to change the tickets. As I said, buying airline tickets is just like gambling. I don’t feel so bad because, right now, premium economy seats on our flights are selling for $2,700 per person.
One couple in our group chose to let Viking River Cruises book their airfare. Unless you’re willing to accept whatever itinerary a cruise line picks for you, booking airfare through a cruise line is not a good idea. Eight in our group will be flying non-stop from Los Angeles to Paris, a flight that takes 10 to 11 hours. The couple that booked airfare with the cruise line found out this week that their flight itinerary had been changed. Their route of flight is from our local airport to Los Angeles, then to Newark, then to Munich, and finally to Paris. Their total travel time to Paris will be about 22 hours. They are not happy with the flight arrangements, but there is nothing they can do to get better flights. They should have checked with me before they booked their flights.
When you’re acting as your own travel agent for a trip to Paris, one of the most difficult things to schedule are the transfers from and to the airport. I’ve read a number of reviews from others who have made their own arrangements. Many people have found the transport companies in Paris to be unreliable. It seems that, if you make a reservation for a van to meet you at the airport, you’re lucky if the van actually shows up. One item of advice I read was to never pay for a Paris transfer in advance. That sounded like very good advice. After I tried 2 companies that didn’t seem to be able to respond to my inquiries in a timely manner, I settled with a company call Elysées Shuttle. They were the only ones that responded to my inquiries within 12 hours and did not require pre-payment.
I’m not that concerned with reliability of the shuttle that will meet us when we first arrive in Paris. If the van is a no-show, there are other options available. We could take a taxi or we could take the RER to a station that is a walk of about 15 minutes from our hotel. My wife wouldn’t be crazy about walking to our hotel with her luggage, but when you’re on the road, you have to be flexible.
Since we will be staying in a hotel for 3 days and then transferring to a river cruise ship, I decided to arrange transportation from the hotel to the ship when we need it. That might be by taxi, or perhaps the hotel will have an option for us. That transfer is also not critical because we could always walk to the nearest Métro station and make it to the ship on our own.
For the final transfer from the ship to the airport, I decided to rely on Viking River Cruises. Since we didn’t book our airfare with the cruise line, they require an additional payment of $120 for 2 people for the one-way transfer. The earlier transfers on this trip are not critical because there is no specific time that we have to be anywhere. However, the last transfer is different. If we have a no-show for the last transfer, it might result in us missing our flight home. Viking River Cruises will have to get most of the passengers from the ship to the airport on the day we disembark the ship. Hopefully they’ll get us there in plenty of time.
Tickets in Advance
When I’m planning a trip, I like to take care of as many tasks as possible in advance. During our time in Paris, we plan to visit the Louvre, the Orsay, and the Eiffel Tower, which all need tickets. We will also stop at the Hard Rock Cafe, where it is best to have reservations. For a little extra, you can buy tickets to the Louvre in advance and have them mailed to your home. Tickets to the Orsay and Eiffel Tower can be purchased online and the tickets can be printed on your printer. Reservations for the Hard Rock Cafe can be made online up to 30 days in advance. Since we will be making extensive use of the Métro to get around, I will have tickets for the Métro delivered to the hotel to be waiting for us when we arrive. The additional cost to have the tickets delivered is 12€. The cost is worth not having to find a place to buy Métro tickets, since the ticket machines do not take most American credit cards.
Packing List – Packing Light
For a trip that spans 2 weeks and goes to another continent, having a packing list can give you piece of mind. If I don’t have a checklist before I leave on a long trip, I usually leave the house with the feeling that I forgot to bring something I need or I forgot to do something before I left. Preparing a checklist and packing list several weeks before departure will assure that you remember everything you want to take and that you remember what needs to be done before you leave.
On previous trips, I usually packed things that I end up not using or needing. For this trip, I decided to see how light I can pack. I’ve planned the clothes I will pack, taking into consideration that I don’t have to wear something different every day. Underwear is something that can take up a lot of packing space. I found travel underwear that can be washed in the bathroom sink and is quick drying. Having 2 pair for 2 weeks will save a lot of packing space. I’m limiting myself to 2 pairs of shoes, one pair I’ll be wearing and another pair of dress shoes.
A laptop or netbook has always been with me on long trips. This time, I’m going to get by with just a tablet computer. I have a Kindle Fire HD that can access the Web, works with my e-mail, has video programming, and has lots of books and magazines if I want to read. It takes up very little space and it will not have to be separated from my carry-on when going through security at the airport.
Recently, I went to my bank and ordered some Euros for my cash-on-hand during the trip. The exchange rate I got was not as good as using an ATM in Europe, but there are advantages to getting the cash in advance. I don’t have to worry about whether my debit card will work in a foreign ATM. I also don’t have to worry about theft by someone watching people using an ATM. The minute I arrive in Paris, I’m ready to go.
All Systems Go!
For so many people, their workload increases as they approach departure on a long trip. That isn’t the case for me. I have spent the past year and a half planning this trip. Now, everything is in place and all that is left is to count the days until departure day arrives. This is the way travel should be; stress-free, fun.