A European holiday is one-third planning, one-third being there, one-third memories. Photo / 123RF
In our new column, The First Timer’s Guide To … seasoned traveller Ewan McDonald answers your questions about holidays
Q. We’re in our mid-60s and desperate to see our children, both married and living
in England. We’ve been to the UK once and obviously family’s our priority this time, but we’d like to dip our toes into Europe for the first time. We don’t fancy the idea of a package tour as we prefer to go at our own pace and choose what we want to see. What should we be taking into account, given the difficulties around world travel right now?
Unless there’s a crucial reason to get on a plane tomorrow – grandchild on the way, maybe? – consider waiting and planning ahead for next year instead. It’s going to take some time for airlines to restore their fleets, to recruit and train staff, for airports and government agencies to get their teams back up to speed, and for accommodation, hospitality and attractions to cope.
Time, too, for that first crazy rush of pent-up demand that’s packing out planes and museums to ease a little. By next northern summer-autumn, we’ll hopefully see a wider choice of carriers and routes, and prices could have relaxed too.
Don’t waste this time, though. A good rule of thumb: a great holiday is one-third planning, one-third being there, one-third memories.
First things to budget are your time – two weeks? six? – and your expenses.
Then decide what sort of trip you want – cities and culture? food and wine? golf? Do your research and make a long, long list to whittle down between you.
Tip: Focus on quality, not quantity – don’t try to see every one of those wish-list cities and monuments in one trip. Sure, you might not get back to Europe to see places you’ve missed, but you’ll have much better memories of the ones you’ve enjoyed.
Plan your route as a loop – that is, pencil those major must-sees on a map and make sure you’re only going in one direction – clockwise or anti-clockwise – and not retracing your steps. In Europe, use the superb rail network to get around rather than hiring a car and driving yourself (and your partner) to distraction. Greener, too, and you’ve already racked up quite a few air miles.
Use some of this time to make sure you’re reasonably fit and active. When in Europe, you’ll want to be up early and probably out and about all day, rather than chilling or recovering in your hotel/Airbnb. Even in a relatively compact city like Paris or Florence, you’ll put in quite a few kilometres each day, and those pavements can be hard on your feet. Happily, gelato!
As with any holiday, your major expenses – apart from getting there – are going to be sleeping, eating and getting around. You’ve said you want to go at your own pace, so that means making your own accommodation arrangements, and each style has its pros and cons.
You might prefer a chain hotel for its comfort, security, dining room and English-speaking staff – but you probably won’t meet too many locals or get too many suggestions for cool local bars or cafes. You might prefer Airbnb, but is that a long way from a night at home in front of the TV?
Personally, I prefer small, often family-run hotels, at which Europe still excels, in cities or villages. You’ll engage with locals (yes, most speak English), get into conversation and learn about their way of life, and get those bits of insider information.
Thanks to staying in those, I’ve ended up at a Grande, Grasso Italian Wedding on a Saturday night in a tiny mountain village, drunk ayran almost straight from the goat in a Turkish farmhouse and been taken to a Spanish first division football match.
Eating and drinking depend on personal preference, of course, but generally, Europeans take it seriously and your experience will be richer if you follow the “when in Rome …” rule.
Avoid chain establishments and anywhere with a menu outside that’s written in six languages, has badly shot photographs and uses Comic Sans font. Remember, there’s a reason that champagne comes from Champagne, pizza from Naples, paella from Valencia and Caesar salad doesn’t come from Rome.
Lastly, don’t get sucked into big-city syndrome. Consider staying in small towns a few clicks further out and getting the train to the Eiffel Tower or Sistine Chapel, returning to the pension or B&B in the evening. Villages don’t see as many tourists so prices are lower and people are way friendlier.
The First-timer’s guide to … is a new fortnightly column where we’ll answer your travel-related questions – anything from roaming around Rome to reining in roaming charges. Send your queries and travel tips to email@example.com with “First-timer” in the subject line