Friday, June 16, 2017

Planning a EuroTrip - Paris & Switzerland

Ever since I watched the movie Euro-trip, I have been wanting to plan something similar. However I couldn’t do it because of the vicious cycle of time vs money. When I finally had both time and money, I was told it is time to get married and I cannot be “wasting” money on travel. That is when I decided that my first travel after wedding (popularly known as honeymoon) will be to Europe. Now this is challenging because there is a wife involved and you need to have a good plan. That is where package tours come in but since I have traveled “quite a bit”, I was stubborn enough to plan the whole trip myself. In this blog I will outline how my fiance and I planned the whole thing. Some of this might not apply if you are backpacking across Europe (not the way Joey in Friends does it) but most of the information here should be useful in general.


Which countries to visit?
The answer depends on you and the number of days you have. You need minimum of 3days/2nights per city (one day can overlap when you travel). You can travel between countries in flight if you are short on time or take the trains/buses. Between two cities you have high speed trains. Not to forget it takes 12hrs on an average to fly between India to any European city with transit. My initial plan was to do Switzerland alone but then thought that if I am spending so much, I might as well visit 2 countries. So decided on the most romantic city in the world (Paris) and Switzerland as per plan. Spent 4 nights in Paris and 5 nights across 3 cities in Switzerland.


How do I come up with itineraries or plan it?
Once you have countries figured out, the best place to start is to check the online packages offered by travel websites. Make sure to check all packages and see if you can optimize the countries/cities chosen by you. Then start reading blogs and travel forums such as TripAdvisor or quora or backpacking related websites to see the places that these package tours might have missed. Now build your own itinerary keeping the original package tour as reference. It will work out cheaper for you because the package tours have a lot of exclusions. Also you will have flexibility in terms of kind of stay and food. We also had a Plan B if something didn't go as per plan giving us more insight into the countries we were visiting. This is a lot of work and a lot of headache but my fiance and I learned a lot about each other while we were planning.


How is the weather there usually?
Summers in Europe start in June and Winters are from December. During summers the sun sets at 10pm and rises by 6am. It rains in Summer but is also the tourist season. The weather changes on a daily basis but google predicts weather quite accurately so check accuweather before planning your trip.



What about Visa?
You can visit all European Countries (except UK) with a single Schengen Tourist Visa. This costs Rs 6000 including the VFS fees if you decide to apply on your own. An agent will charge you more. Visa can be applied starting 3 months before your scheduled travel. It will take you a week to get an appointment and max of 2 weeks to get your visa stamped provided all documents are in order. The following documents are required (also can be found on the VFS checklist):
  1. Round trip flight tickets from your city of origin and reservation documents for train/flight in case you are traveling to more than one country
  2. Hotel booking receipts for all the nights of your intended stay in Europe
  3. Medical/Travel insurance for the duration of stay in Europe (Religare or Reliance would work cheaper)
  4. Proof of Income - 3 months bank statement, last 2 months payslip, 2 yrs of ITR and NOC letter from employer stating they know about your travel and have no objection to it (if salaried). If someone is paying for your expense or if you are taking dependents with you then a signed letter will be required accordingly with details.
  5. A covering letter detailing your entire trip.
  6. Since I was not married during applying of visa and my fiance and I were applying for visa together, she was asked to produce a NOC from her parents stating that they know about the travel plans and had to produce an ID proof copy of her parents. This was a weird requirement which is not mentioned by consulate for visa but VFS wants this to accept your applications. If married, marriage certificate will come handy.
  7. Bangalore VFS office is through appointment only so you need to book a slot online or by phone and can pay the fees online too.
Now if you are visiting more than one country then there are guidelines as to where to apply for visa. Though it is all the same Schengen visa, you need to apply it at the country where you will be spending the most number of nights. In case you have more than one country with the same number of most nights then you need to apply at the country where you will visit first among them.


Which flight to choose?
If you are doing just one city/country or if you are entering and exiting EU through different cities (with train/bus travel between cities) then flight with transit in any of the middle east countries will be cheaper. If you are planning to travel inside Europe on flights then choosing multi-city itinerary on any of the European flights will work out cheaper. Also book the tickets 2 months in advance for best rates. We did Bangalore-Paris-Zurich-Bangalore on Air France and we got the entire itinerary for 48k per person. You will have immigration at the point of entry which can take up-to 2hrs so make sure you have sufficient time for transit.


What about hotel stay?
You can choose between airbnb, booking, hostelworld or any other Indian travel sites to compare and book rooms. Rooms for 2 cost between 5k to 30k per night depending on the star rating you choose. Book using the pay at hotel option which lets you reserve a room without paying. This is useful because you can cancel anytime without any penalty if you find better deals elsewhere. We paid 23k for our 4 nights stay in Paris and spent around 8-14k per night in Switzerland (all 3 star with premium breakfast)
For cities, staying near key landmarks can be costly so you can look at outskirts which are well connected by public transport. In such cases, the hotels might give you the pass for the duration of stay for free travel in buses in that particular zone. Check with the hotels for perks offered before you confirm booking.

How do I travel in Europe?
For intercity travel, you can use trains. Eurail pass for whole of Europe will work cheaper if you are using trains extensively through you trip (http://www.raileurope.co.in/). Sometimes flights work cheaper than trains. For travel inside Switzerland the Eurail pass is not valid on all routes so for days you are traveling in Switzerland I would recommend the Swiss pass (https://www.swiss-pass.ch/). These passes also give you free travel in buses/trams/ferries across Europe. Few places across Europe have privatized tourist destinations which do not accept these passes but give you discounts on tickets when you present these passes. I would recommend checking direct train prices for your entire trip vs buying this pass to arrive at what works best for you.


All cities have hop-on-hop-off bus service for tourists which are convenient but expensive. Using the public transport works cheaper. As mentioned earlier, the hotel you stay in might give you a local travel bus pass. I will explain about the transport we used in Paris and Switzerland in the respective posts that I will write next. All cities have their own transit information apps which you can download and use offline.

Do I need a local sim or can I use roaming?
We did not feel the need to buy a local sim though we were prepared to if required. All hotels provide free WiFi and you get public WiFi in train stations, coffee shops and restaurants. So you can download offline maps or take screenshots of your routes when you have WiFi. With Whatsapp and Skype calling, you don’t actually need a SIM card. All service providers give free incoming SMS on international roaming. So in case you need to get OTPs then you can enable your network couple of minutes before you need to request for OTP.

What about Food?
Vegetarians will surely have a problem. Most places have Indian restaurants but they are freakishly expensive. If you eat egg and mushrooms then you get some choices to eat. The good part is that all restaurants have a menu kept at the door so you can check and decide if you want to enter or not. The bad part however is that most menu’s are not in English. You may have to look at the leaf symbol and then go in and ask for an English menu. From my experience every place will have at least one veg dish but you don’t get to be choosy. Carry some ready to eat stuff with you just in case. You will have hot water dispenser at the hotel or you will have kitchen access or water heater.

What about the currency?
Euros are accepted across all EU nations however some countries trade in their own currency. For instance Switzerland uses Swiss Francs but when you want to pay in Euros they do a 1euro = 1franc conversion. The problem with this is that you lose money because actually 1euro =  1.10franc. All places accept cards so it would be wise to buy a multi-currency card from Matrix or ICICI and preload it with cash before you leave India. These cards don’t levy transaction charges unless you withdraw or swipe in a different currency. If you swipe your personal credit card then you will have to pay transaction and conversion charges for every swipe.

What all do I carry?
If you are visiting many cities during your trip and staying for a shorter time in one place, then carrying a backpack is definitely preferred over trolley bags.Check the weather conditions during the duration of your visit and carry clothing accordingly (The warm weather there i.e., 14 degree Celsius is cold for Indians)
Pack smartly:
  • Carry sachets of toiletries instead of bottles based on the duration of your visit
  • Carry clothes that could be worn more than once and mixed and matched easily
  • Carry a laundry bag for all your used clothes
  • Invest in buying a good jacket with a hoodie (preferable), should be all season and light
  • Carry a good pair of boots, shoes and bathroom slippers 
  • [ Yup, this section was written by my wife ]
I will go over the Paris Itinerary in my next post and then Switzerland in the post after that. If you have any other questions about this post, leave a comment and I will answer them and update this post accordingly :)

Next Post: Euro Chapter - Paris

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