(Photo by Clever Dude – Canals of Brugge, Belgium)
As I first discussed in my article “Giving the gift of a European vacation“, I paid for both my wife and my parents to go on a 10 day vacation to Europe (5 countries). The “paid vacation” included plane tickets, car rental and some other transportation (e.g. train into Amsterdam and Paris from their respective airports) and lodging, regardless of whether they stayed in a separate room or we were all in a single apartment-style lodging. While it wasn’t a totally free vacation for my parents, I don’t think anyone would complain too much about going to Europe for a fraction of the total cost.
The “little” things for a big trip
My parents had to get their passports and some other documentation for the application, and they put a rush on it, so in total, they spent about $400 for the pair. They already had luggage, but we loaned them one of our larger pieces of luggage so we could reduce the number of bags (and it all worked out perfectly).
Also, we borrowed an array of mainland Europe power adapters from friends who lived in Germany recently including a 3-prong (for grounded plugs), 2-prong (e.g. phone/iPad charger) and a USB charger. I have to say this saved a lot of concern because of so many choices on the market for all-in-one adapters and so forth. Also, American hair dryers will burn out an adapter so luckily they loaned us a German hair dryer as well. Not all hotels had a hair dryer, and we didn’t want to waste money on a power converter or a European dryer for a 1-time visit.
One item that I did buy for the trip, but knowing it will be very useful as I travel for work was an awesome travel power strip: Monster Outlets To Go 4 Outlet Travel Power Strip. It has ranged from $8 (as of this writing) to $11 (what I paid for it), but for the size and portability of a 4-port power strip, it is AWESOME! The first use was at the airport when we needed to charge 2 devices, but there was only 1 port available on one of those charging towers. I had the idea to charge $1 per use, but I opted against it (as airport security might not like that). If you travel, or just want a small, convenient power strip, I highly recommend it.
Anywho, outside of making sure we had our documentation in order, the proper adapters and decided what luggage we would take, it was on to the “bigger” things, like booking the flights.
How I booked the flights
I can attest that you have hundreds of options for trying to find the best fares, and you can easily get “paralysis by analysis” or overwhelmed by all the options in front of you. I think we focused on the main sites like Kayak and Travelocity to gauge our options and tweak the number of days and dates to see how different pricing became. It became apparent after a few days of research that we could get a direct flight to AMS (Amsterdam) from IAD (Dulles-Washington DC) for about the same price as flights with 1 or more transfers. If I can get a direct flight, ESPECIALLY on an international flight, I will spend a little extra to get it. After seeing the horror of customs in Newark, NJ a couple years ago when returning from Germany, I want either a direct flight or at least 3 hours for a domestic layover.
We found that the last week of March was the best time to go if we wanted to save money but still get into a bit of “peak season”. If we went even 1 day into April, prices shot up. We could have saved by going in earlier March, but we weren’t prepared for it, and some of the garden attractions wouldn’t be open anyway. While we ran the risk of hitting cold weather and not seeing the tulips my wife so longed to see, we couldn’t ignore the giant savings by going in this timeframe.
And just so you know, the weather was in the 30s-40s the entire trip, with snow falling in some form in every country we were in. The first few days of the trip were the worst while we got used to the cold and wind, but the wind eventually died down and the sun came out more often. But even if we pushed the trip out 1-2 weeks, the tulips still wouldn’t be up yet. So it worked out in hindsight. (As I write this, it’s close to 80 degrees outside now and the tulips here still have a few days before blooming).
Surprisingly, the cheapest flight to the Netherlands was not with KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines), but with United Airlines. This was perfect because I’ve been earning miles domestically for work by trying to stick with United/Continental (even though people say it’s the worst airline, I haven’t had big problems). But the real clincher on booking with United was the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card (not an endorsement). By opening an account with this credit card and booking my flights on it, I got:
- 30,000 bonus miles
- 2x bonus miles for United purchases, so 4000X2= 8000 more miles (not counting the 8000 I would earn for my roundtrip flight)
- 5,000 bonus miles when my wife used her authorized card
- Priority Boarding (only when you book with that card)
- $0 fee for the first year ($95 afterwards, so I’ll need to see if it’s worth it)
- 2 United Club passes (free drinks, food and wifi! I didn’t use them on this trip though)
There are other benefits, but as I must use my work AmEx to book flights, I don’t get to utilize some of them except for personal travel. So for this trip, I earned roughly 51,000 miles thanks to this card. Plus, we got priority boarding so we didn’t have to wait in line in the aisles or run out of luggage space in the overhead bins. But will I continue using the card? Probably not as I like the cash rewards I get from my other cards, and they offer 5% promotions, whereas this card doesn’t.
I mentioned we went through the ordeal of trying to figure out how we would get around all the different locations via rail and bus while in Europe, but then I decided to look into pricing on a car rental. In the end, we all agreed we’d rather have the freedom of a car, and it would be less stressful than figuring out train schedules and rushing around with all our luggage. And I was right. Also, it helped that my parents kicked in half the cost of the car rental when we couldn’t decide.
We chose to rent from the Amsterdam (Schiphol) Airport rather than within Amsterdam because of lower cost and larger selection. There are about 5-6 different agencies there. I have special status with National through my job, but that didn’t help much. We got quoted on a “van”, but note that there are two types of vans there: an “MPV” and what we would consider a minivan. We were looking more at what I would call a station wagon (with a taller roof I guess), which was half the cost of a true minivan.
I first called National and got quoted a reasonable price, but then found out it was only a max of 1200km. And when I cut a day off, it went down to under 1100km. After doing some math on our rough route, we would have ended up spending at least $200 extra on mileage alone. I was downtrodden, but that’s when my parents said they would help out on the cost, just so we could get a car. But then I did some investigation into SIXT auto rentals. I found that they have locations all over the place, and I got a quote for LESS than National on the same exact vehicle (including navigation, 1 additional driver and increased insurance) and with unlimited mileage! I ended up booking with SIXT and now that the trip is over, I can say I definitely recommend them if you’re going to Europe. I’ve also rented with Europcar in Ireland twice, but for some reason, I didn’t get a quote from them on this trip.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, we got a SEAT Altea XL. It was a manual transmission, and fit our luggage perfectly under the sliding privacy cover behind the 2nd row (2 large suitcases, 2 small ones and space in between for other goodies). It even had a stop/start engine when you had it in neutral and left off the clutch (assuming it didn’t need the engine for the heater or electronics). Excellent car and makes me rethink U.S. cars, which is good as I’ll be testing out a Mazda5 soon for this site.
If you’re driving in Europe, you have a few options for navigation:
- Your phone (if you have a data plan that can cover the map downloads…aka an unlimited plan)
- Your own American device (probably have to spend about $100 or so on the Western Europe maps)
- Rent a European device (or get a car with it built-in)
- Use paper maps. Blech.
A few friends, one being my former manager, gave horror stories of getting lost or getting sent an insanely long route when using their American-made devices with European maps. I checked the internet forums and confirmed. The best recommendation, which we followed, was to rent a European-made device from the rental agency when you get there. There’s just something majorly different between the software and maps, and I know our Garmin wouldn’t have handled roundabouts and the streets outside Paris or in Brugge nearly as well as our in-car unit. And in the end, I think the GPS rental was maybe $20 more than buying the Europe maps for our own Garmin (not counting having to buy an SD card to put the maps).
Lodging and our Itinerary
I won’t say exactly where we stayed, but here’s how we determined lodging. First, we determined we wanted to know where we would stay for the first 2 nights. We then figured out days 3-4 and that, at some point, we would visit Paris, Luxembourg and somewhere in Germany. It was a rough plan that took shape both here in the states and during the actual travel. I’ll summarize at the end of this section what type of room(s) we got for each location.
Once we figured out we would hit Amsterdam on day 1, and then Keukenhof Gardens and Haarlem (we saw Queen Beatrix!) on day 2, I opted to get a hotel near the airport. From traveling in the US, I knew that airport hotels would be cheaper than city hotels due to location and the type of traveler. Also, I knew that the Amsterdam airport was also the train station for many destinations, such as central Amsterdam. Since the hotel had a free shuttle, we used it as free transportation to first drop off our bags then get back to the train station. We paid for the train into Amsterdam (and subsequently got on the wrong (mislabeled) train, but we corrected by a friendly fellow passenger just one stop along, right as the ticket-checker came to us). We walked all around downtown Amsterdam and took the train back when done, and the free shuttle back to the hotel.
So for day 1, we didn’t need to rent a car, so I saved a chunk of money (and stress of driving/parking in Amsterdam). On day 2, we went back to the airport, picked up our rental car and drove around Holland, finishing up back at the hotel where we parked for the night.
The next morning, we traveled through Hollands and down to Brugge, Belgium to our pre-booked (in the US) hotel near the heart of the small, medieval city. We parked the car for 2 days as we didn’t need it and hoofed it all around this amazing city. I HIGHLY recommend visiting Brugge, Belgium if you like 1) chocolate, 2) beer, 3) history and/or 4) scenery. There’s a decent enough movie called “In Bruges” (not for kids) that was filmed there, shows some of the main sites, but also has some good extras like a real canal cruise.
While in Brugge, we realized we left a night open between Brugge and Paris (we pre-booked a hotel near CDG airport to use the train to get down to the city center), so we decided to visit Versailles. We found an amazing (and inexpensive) apartment for rent and wished we could have stayed there for the whole duration in Paris. Alas, we had committed to another hotel for the next 2 nights, but we did make sure to visit the town of Versailles, pick up some groceries and have a wonderful dinner “at home” in the apartment.
As mentioned, nights 6 and 7 were spent in a hotel outside Charles de Gaulle airport, using the hotel shuttle and train from CDG into Paris for a day trip. Once in Paris, we opted for the tourist route and did the hop-on/hop-off bus option right outside Notre Dame Cathedral. It served us as our day-long private transport and tour guide. It makes me consider being a tourist in my own home city of Washington DC for a day to learn about the city I’ve lived in for over a decade!
While in the Paris hotel, we booked night 8 in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. Again, we got an amazing hotel, even if it was a bit of a walk to central Luxembourg. For night 9, we opted to stop in Aachen, Germany, near the intersection of the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany borders. The city had a few nice sites, the hotel was comfortable, had a good bar and beer selection, and we found a nice, little bakery within walking distance (and it snowed overnight to make for a wonderful sight the next morning).
For the final night, we chose to spend extra to stay in a hotel within walking distance to the Amsterdam airport, so we turned in the car early (not early enough to save a day) and enjoyed the shops, bakeries and dining in the little mall within the airport/train station. Funny enough, this final hotel was the single most expensive, yet it lacked a hair dryer of all things. I guess location matters!
While I stated where we went and stayed overnight, here are the actual bookings I did (without the hotel names), I know a couple of the hotels charged parking, and some had an extra city tax, but I’ll just state the amount in converted dollars, without parking:
- Nights 1-2 (first night was really on a plane, but we ignore that) by Amsterdam airport. I got 2 rooms at the airport hotel for 2 nights for $316 total
- Nights 3-4 in Brugge, Belgium. I got a room for 4 adults (2 rooms separated by a pocket door. My wife and I chose the bunk beds while my parents got the queen bed). For 2 nights, total cost was about $418.
- Night 5 outside Versaille, France. We stayed in a converted farmhouse and I think we got upgraded, but only paid $195! That’s less than each of the next two nights by an airport. If only we had known it was so nice…
- Nights 6-7 by Paris airport. I got 2 “budget” rooms that actually slept 3. Interesting arrangement, but the hotel was clean and served its purpose very well. Total cost for 2 rooms for 2 nights was about $397 (plus about $22 in parking)
- Night 8 in Luxembourg. I got 2 rooms for a STEAL considering how nice they were, AND we got upgraded on one room with a free, complimentary mini-bar (some beers, sodas and waters). Total cost for 2 rooms, 1 night was about $188.
- Night 9 in Aachen, Germany. Got 1 room, which was actually 2 totally separate rooms with a large, shared bathroom. I think the hallway into the place could have been its own bedroom by the space it took up, but it was a nice, quiet place. Total for the night was only about $150
- Night 10 just outside the Amsterdam airport. My parents wanted to stay in the closer hotel, so they chose to pay for their own room, but I booked both under my name. Total for 2 rooms for 1 night here was $430, but then we also got hit with another $24 in city tax when we got home, so it was really $452. Consider that was 1 night, 2 rooms by an airport and compare it to the 2 nights in Brugge, 1 night in Versaille or any other night, but location, location, location, and I agreed I didn’t want to deal with a shuttle the next morning.
Total cost of lodging came out to roughly $2200, depending on whether I captured city taxes completely, plus any parking. That comes out to $61 per person, per night, which actually isn’t too bad. About half of the mornings, we had breakfast, the rooms were all unique (and I’d say nicer than the typical American hotel) and the staff everywhere was very accomodating, even in France where they get a bad rep 🙂
Was it worth it?
YES! Not only did I get to experience these countries for the first time, got some amazing food and even better beer (and chocolate and pastries and man I’m hungry), but I got to see my wife and parents also experience it all in their own way. Outside of shorter trips to amusement parks like Busch Gardens in Williamsburg when I was young (20+ years ago), I don’t think I’ve spent this long together with my parents. Outside of my mom’s continual fear of a fiery death at every roundabout I drove through (and my mom finding out Andouillette sausage is nothing like Andouille sausage here in the US), I think my parents had an amazing time. And that was the whole goal.
Outside of trying to plan this trip efficiently and cost-effectively, the greater goal was THE EXPERIENCE, and I think we all enjoyed ourselves. I’m glad I got the chance to give my parents a trip like this that I know they never would have taken otherwise, and now it’s on to planning the next big trip. Now, where should we go this time???