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Planning an Invasion

Sunday 26 June 2016

One of our favorite series of travel guides, The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland, likens planning a trip to Disney as planning an amphibious invasion. I took that to heart many years ago, and because I’m an OCD engineer, of course I was going to plan a long trip to Europe as though we were personally going to re-enact the entire Allied European campaign from Operation Mincemeat through the Liberation of Paris on our own. There would be flights, trains, buses, subways, possibly ferries, certainly taxis as our transport; hotels and maybe apartments; cafés, bistros, tea shops, diners, grand restaurants; and every manner of entertainment for all the hours not spent sleeping, eating, or travelling.

In the original concept for September 2015, we would spend three weeks abroad: start in London and recover our jet lag there (and take in a few sights), take the train to Paris, stash some luggage, then to Vienna, see that, then to Switzerland for a few days, then train to Rome, see that, then back to Paris, then to London, then back home. There was a strategy here; the concept was that we could ditch luggage for each place at a local left luggage company, pick it up as needed, and so have fresh duds no matter where we were, while minimizing how much actual luggage we needed to tote in each location, especially the train over the Swiss Alps.

Please stop laughing.

The plan was solid, from a logistics standpoint, assuming that we wanted to avoid doing bathroom laundry (a requirement for me) and the need to use hotel laundry services. I had wound up doing laundry (coin-op) on prior trips and it was a pain in the a** to have to find the laundry in some foreign city, go there, waste time waiting for the laundry to be done, and go back to the hotel to fold etc. Even laundries with drop-off/pick-up service felt like an intrusion, a loss of time better spent on other activities. I’d also had less than stellar experiences with hotel laundries in the US, who had failed to remove simple spots from shirts. So “no laundry” was high on my list. We already had several large pieces of luggage, and were traveling mostly business class, so checked luggage limits weren’t a huge consideration.

Stop laughing.

Martha was big on hotels and not so much on apartments, AirBnB, VRBO, and other non-traditional housing. London would be our first stop for several days so that we would have time in a country where we mostly understand the language while we un-jet lagged. Sounded like a good plan. After many revisions, the plan was set: fly to London, several days there, Eurostar to Paris, ditch luggage at CDG, fly to Vienna, a few days there, train to Switzerland, then train across the Alps and down to Rome, several days there, fly to Paris, retrieve luggage, a week in Paris, train back to London, a few days there, then fly back to the States. Only the luggage needed for each forward stage would be carried forward, so we would have less and less as we went towards Paris (from Rome) and then start collecting it back up for the return trip.

Stop. F*cking. Laughing.

As I mentioned, real life intruded, so we pushed the trip first to all of May of 2016 (where the trip expanded again a bit; I’ll skip that) and then to three weeks from late May through mid-June. In the process, the available flights (using frequent flyer miles on Alaska Airlines, partnering with British Airways) prevented a clean round-trip through London, and we cut the itinerary to London, Paris, and Rome, so we ditched the store-the-luggage concept and went to the more conventional steamer-trunks-and-sherpas plan (i.e. bring it all and let bellmen and taxi drivers schlep the luggage). This was better and worse all at once.

So now we have a plan: three weeks, nine days in London, 4 in Rome, 7 in Paris. No trains, just flights.

Since this was Martha’s first trip to Europe, I wanted everything to be extra comfortable, so I booked a large suite with an excellent view in London, both for the wow factor of the view and to have an additional retreat in case of jet lag sleeplessness. In Rome (stop two), I went with TripAdvisor and Booking.com ratings and picked a nice-looking place sort of between the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain. For Paris, we found a little hotel in St. Germain near Notre Dame. So that was set.

The change in lodging from September to May/June was not painless; we had a reservation for September through VRBO with what looked like a great apartment in Paris. However, when we tried to cancel (“fully cancellable 30 days in advance”), VRBO completely took a powder on supporting us, claiming that only the owner had the ability to refund the substantial deposit; the owner claimed that she could not figure out the VRBO website and/or that we needed to have VRBO make the refund. After much back-and-forth, I sent a very well-documented claim to my credit card company, who quite promptly refunded the deposit. So we don’t do VRBO (or HomeAway, their parent company) any more.

However.

As the trip got closer, I felt underwhelmed by the Paris hotel. It’s nice, very nice in fact, but I wasn’t feeling the wow factor. So I went online again and looked for apartments, and hit pay dirt.

Back up.

Part of my “image” of being in Paris was finding a small café on Île Saint-Louis, reading a good book and sipping tea (not a coffee drinker) and eating macarons while Martha went to all the perfume shops she could stand. While it wasn’t strictly necessary to stay on Île Saint-Louis, certainly there was an attraction to being there. While looking at the various hotels, I came across a listing for Guest Apartment Services, a rental agency that focuses on apartments on Île Saint-Louis. They are a little spendy, but they have some amazing properties under management, and had great responsiveness during the online (mostly email) reservation process. So we picked a place with a killer location and views. More on that later.

Let’s talk flights. I have been accumulating frequent flyer miles on Alaska Airlines for decades, both through flights and through charges on our Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa card. Alaska partners with British Airways, American Airlines, KLM, and Air France among others. I had been saving them for a cruise, but that’s a different story.

Because we were re-booking well after the 12-month opening of flights (we cancelled September’s trip in June), everything in First was booked, and Biz class was getting harder to find (first world problems, don’t judge, you would do it, too). I found a routing PDX-DFW-LHR and a return CDG-LHR-SEA-PDX, in first on the way out and biz on the way back, so that was good.

Except that Martha was worried about the 3-hour layover at DFW; Alaska has like one flight a day PDX-DFW, so if there were a problem we might be able to get to LHR, but probably in coach, That would not make for a Happy Martha. Back to the computers.

After a few weeks, a couple of tickets in biz PDX-YVR-LHR opened up, same day. Couple of things about this: one, the layover was like 9 hours; two, Martha had been convinced, based on a couple of bad experiences, that Vancouver Wanted Us Dead.

She had a point about VWUD. We had been there many times over (US) Thanksgiving and had a good time, but we had been more recently tried going in summer and it had not gone well. Like, mild pneumonia and a burst eardrum that kept me from flying for a couple of months. Plus generally hot and humid weather, and we have lost all our Midwest-ingrained tolerance for heat and humidity. So getting her to go through YVR was a challenge. However, the long layover (an advantage for getting checked bags correctly transferred), multiple additional chances to get there if our first (early) flight went inop, and removal of the short layover in DFW won her over.

So we had flights (AS/BA PDX-YVR-LHR outbound, BA LHR-FCO, AF FCO-CDG, and AS/BA ORY-LHR-SEA-PDX), lodging, a bunch of restaurant reservations, a few events (Great Dixter, Chelsea Flower Show, a couple of tours in Rome), and a few days off planned. We had test-packed the clothes (two large bags, two roll-aboards, on-board “accessory” bags with iPads, phones, Kindles, etc.) and everything fit. We felt ready to go.

So the post-mortem on the planning stage:

The trip itself–itinerary, flights, hotels, event–was not over-planned. What was over-planned was the luggage and clothing; we found that we could get into the best restaurants (3 Michelin star) anywhere in London, Paris, or Rome with a jacket, smart trousers, and maybe a tie (although I skipped the tie). The hotel laundries (and apartment laundry in Paris) were efficient and not as expensive as even one large piece of luggage (very good hotels, YMMV). We didn’t pack enough spare luggage for souvenirs, which was a problem later. The big camera that I thought I would want for certain situations (better optical zoom) was not as useful as hoped. I would skip the iPads next time, and lean on Kindles (smaller, lighter) and phones. I didn’t use my big trench coat once, and the two suits were almost a total waste of space. Next time, we will bring  less gadgetry and clothes, and rely more heavily on our phones and hotel and apartment laundries.

I think we are both more comfortable with apartment rentals at this point, so we will probably use those more often. We really liked the ability to spread out in a private space. I would (again) read reviews closely and stay away from anyplace that seems even a little shady. It’s likely more expensive that way, but still miles cheaper than equivalent hotels, and no one wants to dread going back to their lodging. We had travel insurance for the Paris apartment, so we felt reasonably comfortable that we could bail on it and not be out everything if the apartment was bad.

That’s it for this post. More to follow.

Update:

I just found this photo, taken at MFR on our way to PDX (we stage long trips out of PDX; it’s just easier). A double rainbow, often believed to be a good omen. Works for me.

IMG_4822

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Elaine Plaisance permalink
    Sunday 26 June 2016 10:12 AM

    So true, so true! Brings back memories. A trick that I use that you didn’t mention is to bring along some clothes or other things that you wouldn’t mind leaving behind. That way, you can toss out the ballast and fill the space with souvenirs. Absolutely loved your account. Sounds like a great trip.

    • Friday 1 July 2016 12:47 AM

      I think my hoarding procilivities prevent that, but it’s an interesting idea for others. Thanks!

  2. bamasteve permalink
    Sunday 26 June 2016 4:47 PM

    You need to be a writer to earn money and even become famous. I throughly enjoyed this post (as well as most of your past ones). Thanks for continue to write.

    • Friday 1 July 2016 12:47 AM

      Thanks!

  3. bamasteve permalink
    Sunday 26 June 2016 4:48 PM

    And another thing. How about getting your blog on iTunes. I’ll be the first subscriber. Steve

    • Friday 1 July 2016 12:48 AM

      Maybe. I’ll think about that. I’d like to get a few more readers here first. Tell your friends!

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