Driving the German Autobahn: Where are the potholes?

Hooray!  Husband and I have arrived in Frankfurt, Germany at the start of a new 12 day trip that will take us to several destinations:  the Rhine Valley region,  a short stop on the Romantic Road,  Munich for Oktoberfest, a daytrip to Salzburg, Austria, and the Alsace region of France.  We rented a car for the entire trip.

We rented through a US company called Gemut.com, which specializes in  European and particularly German vehicle rentals for US citizens.  I liked the idea of having a US 1-800 number to call in an emergency, with the promise of an English speaker on the other end of the line.  Plus,  the price was good –  really good. Gamut books German rentals through a consolidator called Auto Europe, for a car rental with Europcar. The price was 10-20% less than booking directly to either of those websites.  I also priced out Sixt and Hertz,  two other big providers.  Gemut was also very responsive when I had questions prior to the trip. 

Side Note: I’m a Hertz Gold Club member through ownership of a Marriott Vacation Club property, and their prices are just never, ever competitive.  Why is that?

We found the Europcar desk and because we had arrived early,  the car I had reserved, a 4 door sedan with automatic transmission in the Premium category (BMW, Mercedes, or Audi) wasn’t available yet.  I’m not sure I believe that one would have suddenly become available in the next 45 minutes, but whatever.  The major difference in what we got was that it was not a sedan, but a station wagon.  Maybe not as “sexy” from an American point of view, but as the Europcar agent noted,  Germans looooove their station wagons.  This proved true –  there aren’t many SUVs on the roads here, but a plethora of high-end wagons.  My guess is they are more aerodynamic than a behemoth SUV. Also, the agent waived the usual charge for a second authorized driver –  we knew we both wanted to drive here. So,  no harm no foul.  5 doors instead of 4. All good.  I neglected to take a good photo of our actual car, but here is the general idea (credit bmw.com):

I declined the CDW insurance,  after reading and rereading the terms and benefits of my Sapphire card –  we were clearly covered as primary insurance,  this saved us hundreds of dollars.  Always read the fine print though :  there are exclusions,  such as not having the primary cardholder as the renter, super high-end exotic cars,  and tires and windshields. In contrast to experiences I’ve had renting cars in the US, the German Europcar agent did not press us to buy any insurance.

We spent a good 15 minutes in the rental car garage, figuring out the car’s menu, setting up bluetooth, and getting the navigation, etc. to work in English rather than German:

Eventually we got it set up and entered our first destination,  tiny Oberwesel on the Rhine River, about an hour from the airport. I don’t like to plan a long drive after a sleep-deprived overnight flight,  so I always try to keep the first destination within an hour. 

The car ended up having a “pop-up display”,  visible to the driver only, displaying the vehucle’s speed, speed limits, and navigational information including directions onto the lower windshield.  This ended up being very useful.  We drove over 1800 kilometers on this trip – about 800 miles – and experienced road closures,  border crossings, lots of construction, small cities with narrow cobblestone streets, and widely varying speed limits. 

I was impressed with the car’s technology. In addition to the pop up display,  parking sensors, and lane deviation/ correction capability, we were frequently rerouted around traffic,  and the car seemed to know where every speed limit change occurred.  On the highway,  speed limit changes were numerous and frequent, and it wouldn’t have been easy for the driver to notice every sign.  This car not only  displayed the limit,  but on both the dashboard and the pop up window,  our speed would display as red if we were over the limit, white if under it.   

Things you see on German highways, part 1

I was also impressed with German highways – the “Autobahn” in general.  Here, an important side note/ question:  am I the only American who thought there was ONE Autobahn? If so,  feel free to laugh at me.  “The German Autobahn” turns out to be any major highway starting with “A”.    And many, many miles of these “A” roads indeed have speed limits,  especially through construction zones and congested city areas. But –  then you see a speed limit with a line through it,  usually in a wide open, rural area –  and there it is – the limitless Autobahn of lore. *tingle*

Things you see on German highways, Part 2

We did experience a fair amount of traffic,  especially around Munich (Oktoberfest brings in 6,000,000+ visitors so this was hardly surprising)  and often there were brief slowdowns caused by construction.  It seems as though every 10-20 miles,  lanes were closed.  Bridges, tunnels, open stretches.  Germany is spending heavily on road infrastructure.  The result, over our 800-plus-mile journey ?  NO potholes.  And NO accidents.  The highways are correctly graded,  with minimal intersections and wide exit and entrance lanes.  We dealt with a lot of rain, but no ponding of water on the road. These roads are well maintained. 

Things you see on German highways, Part 3

So, want to hear about our little bit of adventure in the limitless Autobahn?
Both Husband and I kind of like to drive fast. We are from New Jersey, after all. But,  we also consider ourselves to be safe drivers,  never tailgating ,  minimizing lane changes, and keeping with the flow of traffic.   We’re just unlikely to be driving in the right lane,  content behind a tractor trailer. 

When we hit the limitless areas,  we typically enjoyed driving along with most of the other left lane vehicles at 150-170 kilometers per hour ( in the 80-90 mph range). It was rare, however that we could go much faster than this –  due to rain, wet roads, and congestion, we hesitated to really test out the BMW’s potential.  But , over the course of the trip,  each of us got the golden opportunity we were looking for –  a wide,  3 lane road ,  dry conditions, no cars in front of us, and a straightaway with long forward views.  When we got that chance …. yep, we punched the gas pedal. 

It should be noted that drivers in Germany are much more vigilant about the ‘keep right, pass left” laws that also exist in the States, but are rarely followed, at least where I live.  Trucks are almost never seen out of the right lane.  And when in the left lane,  if a driver sees a faster approaching car in the review mirror,  they move to the right.  How refreshing !!  

Our  top speeds were only maintained for a few seconds each, and then we returned to the safer, slightly slower speeds.  

Wheeeeee!

The display in kph added to the rush we experienced –  seeing “200” on the gauge.  Yikes!  Husband won the top speed award, hitting 219 kph (136mph!). We were both more than thrilled by the experience. 

One final note for those who might be considering driving in Germany, but traveling across country borders. In either Switzerland or Austria, a vignette (toll sticker) is required, and must be purchased either before entering the country, or immediately thereafter in the case of Austria / at the border in the case of Switzerland.

Austrian vignette on top; Swiss vignette on bottom

Vignettes are available at most gas stations and convenience stores near the border. The Austrian sticker cost about $10 for a 10-day pass; the Swiss sticker was only available for the year, and cost about $40. It will be a lucky day for any future drivers who rent the same car and want to drive into Switzerland in 2019, I guess… We were glad we purchased our vignette before crossing the Swiss border, because there was a long line for cars waiting to purchase their stickers.

Our German/Austrian/Swiss/French driving experience was, at times, all of the following:

  • Enlightening
  • Exhilarating
  • Rainy
  • Scenic
  • Fun
  • Exhausting?
It’s a good thing Husband trusts my driving…

Singapore Air Business Class: Expectations = Sky High

Hi friends!  It’s been awhile since I’ve posted – life intervenes! – and I have so many things to share with you.  In addition to our spring 2019 trip to Costa Rica,  Husband and I recently  returned from Germany and France,  achieving  a lifelong goal of attending  Oktoberfest!  I’ve also spent time with Oldest in Chicago and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and with family and friends at our new home in nearby Lewes. Delaware. We managed to squeezed in a work-related extended trip to San Diego as well.

In the interest of getting back into the writing habit as quickly as possible,  I’m going to start with our most recent trip to Europe first, before sharing highlights from prior trips such as Costa Rica (she says hopefully). 

This post will detail our departure experience on Singapore Airlines flight # SQ25 from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany in Business Class. 

Although JFK is not our most convenient airport, often the best value-for-points flights to Europe originate there.  As I’ve noted previously,  I really REALLY prefer a lie-flat seat on an overnight flight.     For me, actual sleep is important, and  I’m saving a whole day of vacation by landing with at least some semblance of my consciousness intact on that first morning.    So,  we bit the bullet, paid the $100+ Uber fare, and headed across Manhattan at rush hour to catch the 8:55pm flight. By the way, the late time of this flight is what I usually look for when traveling to Europe – the later the flight, the more chance I’ll be tired enough to sleep shortly after takeoff.

My very first trip over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge!


It may seem odd to have a flight on Singapore Airlines that has neither an origin nor destination anywhere near Singapore.  It turns out,  this is a rather unique itinerary known as a “Fifth Freedom” route, allowing Singapore to pick up and drop off passengers on what is essentially a stopover in JFK. You can read more about Fifth Freedom flights here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffwhitmore/2018/05/30/what-you-need-to-know-about-fifth-freedom-flights/#2270a7b63c85

I booked the flight using Chase Sapphire Reserve points, transferred to Singapore’s KrisFlyer program.  Singapore has a vaunted reputation for service,  and it’s easy to get excited about their beautiful suites when you click around on their website.  So much space!  So comfortable!  See, here’s the thing –  the suites are only available for First Class, not Business Class.  They would have cost a sizeable amount of additional points. So, nice,  but no.  More trips > one trip , amirite? 

So what DO you get in Business Class? Pre-flight lounge access. A short but wide, angled flatbed capable seat. Free alcoholic drinks.  Professional, courteous service. Dinner, and/or breakfast, and/or the right to be left alone and skip dining in favor of sleep (I chose the latter, Husband chose dinner only). 

We arrived well before the flight, and our tickets granted access to the King David lounge at JFK.  I was surprised,  because my research told me that the typical lounge for this flight is Swiss Airlines’ lounge, as part of the Global Alliance.  However,  the Swiss Lounge was under construction.  The King David Lounge, sponsored by El Al,  appears to seat about 85-100 people, and every seat was taken. People were sitting on the floor and window ledge.  The majority of the passengers were headed to Israel, so when that earlier flight boarded, the lounge felt much less crowded.  I’m fairly certain that the food was  Kosher, although I didn’t actually see any signage to this effect. The well-stocked buffet included mostly cold foods, such as lox and bagels,  tuna  and egg salads, and a Greek-style salad.  The wine was a very tasty red blend from Israel.  We were lucky to find an outlet to charge our devices – I would estimate there was one for every 10 or so passengers in the lounge.  I didn’t take photos in the lounge.  Lounge grade:  B-, due to being overcrowded initially with little hot food available.  

Now let’s get to the plane. Singapore flies a two-decker A 380 on this route. The Business Class seats are all on the upper deck; unlike the 747s of old, you don’t climb stairs on the plane, you simply embark on the upper level. The boxy style of the seats reminded me of the Commodore 64 computers that adorned my college computer lab.

Someone at Singapore Air really likes beige.

As to the seat itself:  I don’t claim to be the world’s most experienced overseas flatbed seat traveler,  but I’ve been on Aer Lingus, United, Virgin, and Lufthansa.   Singapore’s bed was easily the worst.   Husband and I were in middle seats (both aisles, the configuration is 1 – 2 – 1) so we could be next to each other;  seats next to the windows were singles.  They appeared to have the same dimensions as our center seats.  The seats are wide,  but the space available to lie flat is made for people 5’6” or less. 

Husband settles into the Business Class seat.

It’s not every day that my vertical challenges are an advantage, but today was that day.  The seats are in a pod style format ,  with a footwell in the seat in front – but angled toward the middle of the plane.  The “bed” is created by folding down the back of the seat toward the footwell –  you have to get out of the seat for it to become a bed.  I prefer the seats that simply recline all the way to a flat position –  it’s just easier.   A flight attendant is ready to assist, but I didn’t want to wait for that – I had taken my sleep aid and was ready to go down as soon as the plane was in the air –  so I struggled a bit but eventually figured it out by watching like-minded passengers set up their beds.

The bigger issue was the length of the bed. I am almost 5’3 and I just barely fit.  Taller people, including Husband, had really no choice but to lay in a fetal position – and due to the angled footwell,  they had to stay on one side.  I don’t know about you, but I usually move at least once or twice in a 6 hour period – middle age creeping in, after all.   I knew what to expect from reading other reviews, but I was still surprised by the discomfort.   In addition,  when upright (even when somewhat reclined) ,  my short legs barely reached the footwell –  because the seat doesn’t shift forward,  there’s nothing supporting your legs if your feet don’t  reach.  

stretching so my toes reach the footwell – not so comfortable


Husband reports that his filet mignon dinner was tasty enough, and he enjoyed a few cocktails as well.  He doesn’t need as much sleep as I do,  luckily,  because he didn’t get much. 

Also, the bed was very hard. And it would have been nice had the center console lifted up –  we both would have benefited from more space that way and could have better utilized the angles. Plus, a little snuggly time. Overall seat grade:  C+.  Only because flat was technically possible. 

The flight and service were timely, well-coordinated, and smooth,  we actually arrived in Frankfurt a full hour ahead of schedule –  a mixed blessing when jet lag looms.  Flight grade was an A.

Overall:  lest I sound like a whiner or unappreciative, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Singapore Business Class experience.  It was good. I’ve certainly suffered through more uncomfortable flights (and more uncomfortable situations, but that’s a story for another day….).  We arrived, early, in one piece and with a little sleep to boot. Germany, here we come!

Dingle All the Way

From our base in Killarney, Oldest and I next headed to one of my favorite spots in Ireland:  the Dingle Peninsula.  While it’s definitely worthwhile to spend more time here by staying in Dingle Town, about 1/2 way out the peninsula, it would have been too many overnight destinations for us on this trip. The drive from Killarney was a surprisingly easy and uncomplicated day trip.

Just past Inch Beach on the R 561 (“R” roads are very  narrow,  twisty, and “interesting!”, only to be surpassed in treachery by “L” roads),  we had to slow down for this lovely lady and her baby, who can barely be seen behind mama:

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Farmers mark their sheep with different shades of paint

Since my primary goal was to show Oldest the Slea Head Drive, at the peninsula’s tip,  we set our Google Maps directions straight for Dingle town, where one of the first sights we came upon was …. a dog … sitting on top of a donkey. Hey, why not?

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We wandered around the busy town for a bit,  enjoyed an early lunch, and downed a pint of Crean’s, the local beer.  Crean’s is named after Tom Crean, an Antarctic explorer who hailed from the Dingle Peninsula.

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Heading to the Beer Garden at Danno’s

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Glad it wasn’t Monday, but this sign is cute!

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Only one, though,  because I was back to driving –  and now the roads became quite narrow.  While it’s possible for two cars to pass,  it’s not necessarily advisable:

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Oldest took this one from the passenger side.

Slea Head marks the end of the peninsula, and, like many points on the west coast, the locals will tell you when looking east “The next stop is America!”.   We continued to benefit from nice weather, so we were fairly active in our exploration of the peninsula,  first walking from the parking area down to Slea Head Beach, at sea level:

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View of Slea Head Beach, from above. The “arrow” in the sand must be pointing to buried treasure.  Right?

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This sign did not stop the swimmers

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Then we hiked back up,  and further up, to Dunmore Head promontory. Nearby signs told us that some filming for Star Wars took place here, although it is not the more famous Skellig Michael island,which is off the coast to our south.

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Walking up to the Head required climbing over an old stone fence,  which didn’t work out so well for yours truly,  who lost her balance and skinned my knees in a pretty gruesome way (I’ll spare you the yucky photo).   It was still worthwhile, though, just for these photos, looking back at the peninsula.  It was my 3rd trip to this spot, and each time I want to lie down and never leave these soft, rolling, green hills.  Although I imagine I might feel differently in, say, December.

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Oldest with one of the two “Devils Horns” at Dunmore Head

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Beautiful, even when seen with bloody knees

In three trips to Ireland, I have managed to make it to the Slea Head drive on the Dingle peninsula every time.  It is truly one of the most peaceful places I have ever visited, and I truly enjoyed sharing it with Oldest.  I have no doubt I will return again.

Planning a trip to Costa Rica: A very wordy explanation of how (and why) I plan trips

Are you interested in hearing more about how I plan my trips?  If so,  read on, and I’ll describe the next major trip I am taking with Dearest Husband.  I’ll let you know when and how I initially researched each trip,  what and when has been booked, and what my next steps will be to complete my trip planning process.  By the end,  you will be certain that my blog name should be CrazyBankerChickTravels.net.   If not, cheers and Happy New Year, you just got 30 minutes back!   I’ll be back to writing about actual travel experiences shortly.

Timing

The seeds of my 2019 travel plans were planted well before 2018.  For several years,  I have maintained a list of most-wanted destinations, on a spreadsheet that also includes whether I see the destination as best with a group,  with kids,  with  husband, and what months/seasons would be best to visit  (generally:  I prefer the “shoulder seasons” unless a destination is really weather dependent).  However, I also need to factor in our kids’ schedules;  for example,  this summer we will be sending one off to college, but we won’t know the dates for several months when she decides which school to attend.  Hence,  the entire month of August is off the list for major trip planning in 2019.  Other key dates such as graduations, weddings, Husband’s trade shows, etc.,  can also be a factor in choosing travel dates.

flat lay photography of calendar

 

Since I’m still tied to an office,  I also need to plan out my time away from work –  unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to travel as much as I want and still have my banking career.   Generally,  I allocate between 13-17 annual vacation days to up to two major trips.    There are typically a few long-weekend,  1-2 day trips as well,  but these are handled a lot more spontaneously.

When I Book Flights and Lodging

Since I’m a confessed “obsessive travel planner”,  my significant trips are generally booked, at least on a skeletal basis (required flights, maybe a hotel or two),  9-12 months in advance.   I then utilize the intervening time to plan an actual itinerary.

So right about now you are probably saying  “OMG Banker Chick  you must be kidding me!  I don’t know what I want to do or if I’ll be available that far in advance!  So many things can happen!” While this is true,  I’ll attempt to make my case in a Q&A format:

Q: Why should I start booking so early?

A: Three reasons:

  • In my experience, the best opportunities to book a long-haul flight, hopefully using points,  is just after a flight becomes available.  On most airlines,  seats are released  11-12 months before travel.  I only pay actual $ for an overseas flight if it’s an exceptional bargain (which is tough to do at the last minute, for a popular destination, in a nice weather season).
  • While it’s unusual for hotels to fill up that far in advance, for certain destinations and timeframes,  choices become limited as the date approaches.  I like choices,  so knowing my dates early means I can research and choose from literally any lodging.
  • I’ve found that committing to the dates early makes it more likely that I’ll actually travel. It is far too easy to talk about a trip,  discover that the price is prohibitive or the best hotels booked, and say “eh, maybe next year”.

Q: But what if something changes and I can’t make the trip?

A: Yep, this is a risk.  There are two ways to manage this risk:

  • Carefully read the terms & conditions of all travel bookings. In most cases,  points-based flights can be changed or cancelled with very minimal change fees. The airlines don’t mind getting that free seat back to sell.  Similarly,  most hotels do not require upfront payment, or if they do,  may offer free cancellation up until a certain date closer to travel.
  • Buy trip insurance.  While certain travel uncertainties, such as trip delays and lost luggage, are covered by a good travel credit card, full trip insurance packages such as those offered by Insure My Trip also cover cancellation of a trip due to illness of the traveler or a primary family member, and medical costs while traveling.   Many policies also offer a “cancel for any reason” or “cancel for work reasons” rider,  for an extra cost.  Per the bullet point above,  carefully read the terms & conditions.

Costa Rica, March 2019

Costa Rica has been on my “most wanted” list for years.  It’s billed as safe, friendly,  and most of all, beautiful with a diverse landscape that is dramatically different to my own.  So,  why now?

This one came down to timing.  Husband and I will celebrate our 10th Anniversary in March, 2019, and want to spend this special day in a special destination.   March can be chilly in most of the Northern hemisphere,  and anticipating time spent in a sunny climate is the best antidote to a chilly East Coast winter. We also considered Aruba (where we own a timeshare), but decided we would rather explore a new locale;  Hawaii,  where we spent our honeymoon in 2009; and Australia,  but decided that this year, we didn’t want to dedicate the full 2 -3 weeks really needed to justify the long flight and expense.

Step 1: Initial planning and Research for Costa Rica

Once I’ve identified a likely destination candidate, it’s on to my bookmarks menu.  As I research trips or come across interesting travel sites pertaining to my “most wanted” list,  I make sure to bookmark interesting sites under a detailed “Travel” menu, by country.  Once I decide to book a trip,  the destination gets its own top billing on the bookmark menu until the trip has taken place (then, the bookmarks return to the general “travel” category).

For Costa Rica,  two travel/blog sites stood out:   Pura Vida, eh? and Two Weeks in Costa Rica,   written by avid travelers who have permanently relocated from North America to Costa Rica.

Step 2: Determining what we want to see, possible overnight destinations, and booking flights

Utilizing these sites and others, the next step was to determine exactly where in Costa Rica we might want to go.  Quickly recognizing that the country’s climate and topography is extremely diverse, and that we would be comfortable driving our own rental car, I realized that we would want to stay in more than one overnight destination. Whenever this is the case,  and when there is more than one major international airport,  I look into the possibility of an “open-jaw” flight:

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Sample open jaw flight

Open jaw means flying into one airport, and out of another.  Although there is a cost of transportation between the two airports (in this case,  a one way car rental fee),  I like the possibilities and time savings of not having to backtrack.

At this point,  I spend a lot of time with my favorite mapping tools.  I look at the various destinations mentioned in the travel sites I’ve previously saved,  as well as Tripadvisor, Fodor’s, and other general travel sites.  I Google images of various towns and cities to see if they look like they match what I’m looking for.   I print a map and mark potential destinations,  to get a sense of their proximity to the various airports.

Since booking the flights usually comes first,  I determined that an open-jaw itinerary utilizing two  Costa Rica’s major airports, Liberia,  and  San Jose,  which are about 3 – 4 hours apart by drive time,  could work.   Then,  I research the best flight options. Into A, and out of B?  Into B, and out of A?  on what dates?  Can I cover a weekend?  Two weekends? In this case, we wanted to enjoy Costa Rica on the actual date of our anniversary,  so I worked around that.  I was able to secure First Class seats from our local airport, Newark,  to Liberia,  returning form San Jose to Newark. We are paying for the flight down,  with a very reasonable mid-3 figure fare,  and utilizing points for the return. Happy with the overall travel cost and getting some First Class pampering for our big anniversary, I booked these flights in early June 2018.

Step 2 1/2: Buy Trip Insurance.  If I’ve paid for flights,  presumably utilizing a nonrefundable fare,  now is the time to buy the trip insurance. If all flights are booked using points,  this can wait until I’ve made a significant cash payment for some element of the trip, for example, an AirBnB stay.

Step 3: Finalizing overnight destinations and # of nights in each place

OK, phew.  Flights are booked.  Now,  I take another look at my potential destinations.  What is there to do in each place? How far is it from each airport, and how far are the destinations from one another?

My definite preference is a minimum of 3 nights in a given location,  with the small exception of an airport hotel sleepover prior to an early flight. 3 nights give you two full days where no travel is required, to fully explore a destination.  Of course,  more can be better,  but I start with 3. I also prefer to keep travel time between overnight destinations to about 1/2 day. This gives time for a leisurely pace.

In Costa Rica, I realized that while we will never be able to enjoy the whole country in the 10 days we have allotted to the trip,  we should be able to spend time in two of Costa Rica’s most reknowned climates:  the Pacific coastal beaches,  and the Arenal Volcano/ rainforest region in the northern central part of the country. My goal on a first trip is to sample some of the more popular locales first.  Who knows when we will return? Highlights and generally highlights for a reason.   Maybe that’s not too adventurous of me, but I also want to make sure that I’m spending my hard earned money, and 10 precious travel days, in a worthwhile manner.

Once I’ve centered on my overnight destination(s), I begin researching hotels or other lodging options.  To choose a hotel,  my primary sources of information  are direct hotel websites and TripAdvisor.

A note on TripAdvisor:

While I utilize its “Traveler Rankings” as a general guide,  I do not believe that a hotel rated #2  of 20 is infinitely better than one rated, say, #9 of 20.   It’s probably a better choice than the ones rated 19 and 20,  so to save time I generally only dig deeply into the top 40-50% of ranked hotels for my desired destination, and within that group,  the ones that fit  my budget.    I look at price,  overall star rating,  and then I do the real dirty work:  I read traveler reviews.  The most important thing here is not to let any single review make your decision.    Here are the types of reviews I make sure to read:

  • Most recent –  here I quickly look at the most recent 15-20 reviews.  If more than a couple are less than 3 star,  that may be a bad sign. But not necessarily.
  • Worst reviews –  those with 1 and 2 stars.  How recent are they?  What are the actual complaints?
    • are they extremely subjective? (i.e. the food stinks, the beds are too hard)
    • is it clear that the traveler had reasonable expectations ? In this category are those complaining that their Costa Rica resort was “too hilly” and it was hard to walk around.  Um,  did you look at a map/ photos?
    • typically at least 30% of these are related to booking issues:  “they didn’t have my reservation”.  Unless this is a frequent complaint,  I tend to believe that in the age of computers,  resorts that are otherwise well-reviewed do not just “lose” a reservation.
    • Another 30% or so are typically dedicated to a service rant regarding a particular individual.  I usually disregard these, unless it’s a frequent or recently repetitive complaint.  But if it was that frequent,  the hotel wouldn’t have an overall 4 star rating.
  • Reviews from the season I intend to travel – for obvious reasons
  • “Average” reviews:  those with 3 stars.  I find that these reviews usually include a lot of good information and “pros and cons”,  and are generally not written by someone with an axe to grind.   Your con, might be my pro  (ie, “it was too quiet, and there was nothing happenning at night”  or “too many children”).

I will comment here that I’m less of a TripAdvisor fan now that it seems to be more focused on being a travel booking engine than a traveler review site.  So,  I also read reviews on Booking.com and Hotels.com for good measure. Hey, it’s still better than relying on the hotel website’s own reviews.

Step 4: Exploring destination options and booking activities that require booking.

Now:  I know where I’m staying and for how many nights.  By this point, I’ve also created a running, stream-of-consciousness set of notes on the overnight locations, including activities specific to the hotel.   These might look something like this:

Guanacaste – Papagayo

beaches, small towns  dry & dusty in March

river or national park, wildlife

waterfall or white wtaer rafting a possibility

one small casino in Tamarindo 1 hr drive from Papagayo

shuttle to Four Seasons or sunset catamaran

mixology class

Arenal – La Fortuna –

Mud baths, volcano hike, hanging bridges, hot springs **bring bug spray**

spa, cooking class on site?

zip lining available but bumpy car ride

coffee and chocolate plantations

There’s a lot more –  my notes pages for a 10 day trip are typicallly  4- 5 full Word Doc pages of this rambling, and at the end I include general tips and a packing list.

Again,  for this I utilize TripAdvisor,  focusing primarily on the now VERY HARD TO FIND (are you listening, TA)?  destination forums.  Again,  comments on the forums are taken with a grain of salt,  but it becomes clear pretty quickly who the real destination experts are.

A key at this point:  do any of the activities we really want to do,  require prebooking?

You may not believe me,  but although I’m an obsessive planner, I would rather NOT prebook every activity down to the last minute.   Instead,  I prefer to prebook only activities that meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • can’t miss,
  • unavailable without a reservation, or
  • will have to wait in a 3 hour line

For example,  the Sistine Chapel during Easter week.   Otherwise,  I create a set of options that we can review each day and decide what to do based on the weather,  our energy level, or what someone at the bar told us about the previous evening.

Step 5: (optional) Create itinerary balance view calendar

For long trips,  I think it’s important to ensure that the itinerary includes a balance of busy days,  travel days, and rest / optional days.  As I already noted,  I like to spend several days in a location,  rather than traveling day after day after day,  with a trip that ends up being no more than the view of a car or train window.  I have found the best way to visualize the “busyness balance” of a trip.

A snapshot of an early itinerary balance view calendar from my recent Scotland-Ireland trip (I ended up changing this a bit,  but you get the idea):

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 5.37.39 PM

 

As you might imagine, the color codes have a meaning:  Green = unplanned free time or very minimal time requirements, explore options;  Red = booked;  Blue = travel.

I did not feel the need to create a balance view calendar for Costa Rica, as there will be a plenty of downtime on this trip,  on purpose.   It’s more important for a sightseeing-heavy itinerary.

Step 6:  Create Detailed Itinerary

This is my piece-de-resistance, and the result of all this effort.  For each trip, I create a word document (actually, I’ve been using Pages lately),  day by day,  including every booking:  flights, hotels, reservation #s, contact info, website links, and pictures.

I’m currently finalizing this for my March trip,  and my goal is to have it completed 1 month before travel.

The average document is about 10 pages long, and can be longer depending on the trip length and number of destinations.  I use large font and lots of photos, so this isn’t as much as it seems.  But it allows us to take a quick look, and visually see our days and options.  I also include a list of restaurants in each location, from reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and TA forum mentions.  I don’t always stick to these restaurants,  as I love to stumble upon a place,  but sometimes it’s nice to just say “I’m feeling like pizza” and not have to go to far to find a decent one.

These itineraries function as my own personal guidebook for my trip.  They are uploaded to icloud and downloaded to my iPad so they can be visible even if I’m offline.

Since this detailed personal itinerary document maybe be hard to picture,  I’ve added a link here to the first 5 pages of my Scotland & Ireland 2018 itinerary –  I hope you’ll get the idea!  Scotland Ireland 2018 itinerary

Step 7: Upload Itinerary and reservation confirmations / emails to icloud.

We’re almost there!!!   This is where the excitement starts to really build,  and the trip is close.  During the last few weeks prior to the trip, I will create .pdf documents of all confirmation emails, and related documents.  These go in specific folders in my icloud drive labeled Flights, Lodging, Car Rentals, Trip Insurance,  etc.    If possible,  I carry no paper –  occasionally, though, a reservation will specify that I need a printed copy.

Step 8, which may overlap with steps above:  start planning the next trip.  

This is  arguably the most important step of all.  Step 8 should be started preferably before the prior trip,  so there is ALWAYS something to look forward to, even on the last day of an amazing trip.   In this case:  Prost! to Oktoberfest in Munich,    September 2019!

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my process, and maybe picked up a tip or two.  Maybe you completely disagree with my process, and prefer to just wing it:  if so, more power to you!  There’s room for every travel style –  I just like mine best 🙂 .