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An Idiot Abroad

Hey, Internet, I need advice!

For her 60th birthday, I’m taking my mom on a trip, and she picked the Loire Valley in France. Great! Awesome! She is armed with many guidebooks and we have more or less figured to use Chinon as a base of operations, spend a few days checking out castles (woohoo, research trip!) and old leper colonies and whatnot. There’s a few other places we want to hit if possible, like Chartres.

This is not the problem. Please, please do not suggest more places in France that we HAVE to see, because as far as I can tell, you cannot swing a dead chat in France without hitting something historic or nifty, and we have had a hard time just narrowing it down to these!

But now that we have a vague idea what we’d like to see, what do I do to make this happen?

Do people still use travel agents?

If so, how do I find a travel agent that isn’t awful?

Should I just book flights and hotels on-line and pray?

I’ve never done a long vacation in a foreign country before, and I’m not sure how I go about it. If any of you know a really good on-line travel agent, I would be delighted to hear it, if, on the other hand, we now all just use Travelocity and pray a lot, I would love to hear that, too.

(We’re shooting for some time in September…which reminds me, I have to deal with my passport thing this week…)

Anyway, advice on how to set this up welcome!

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

How much international travel experience do you both have? What kinds of things do you both want to see? The answers to those questions will help determine the answers to yours (I was in the travel business for nearly 20 years and may be able to point you the right direction).

ETA: More specifically, how comfortable are you two in finding your way around on your own? Or do you need stuff organized?

Edited at 2012-07-14 05:57 pm (UTC)

Mom had a lot twenty years ago. I have none and routinely get lost in the backyard. That said, we'd probably enjoy visiting the various sites more on our own rather than as part of a tour group, since we can spend three hours in a garden or a leper colony and get bored in five minutes at a military history site.

My family mostly operate on the 'book online, have guide books and try and keep things flexible' method. Be prepared for stuff to go wrong. Have backups. In Turkey, we did a good bit of booking once we were already going, one or two places ahead. My father swears by Expedia.

I'm with aella_irene up there, my folks spent several weeks in France a few years back and they Expedia'd/Priceline'd/Travelocity'd the whole trip to great success. But then, my parents absolutely cannot allow other people to plan their activities, so they basically had a vague idea of what they wanted to do each day and just woke up and said "So where are we going today? Pisa? Okay, let's go." They got lost a lot, but I don't think they've ever had such a good time together doing it.

Edited at 2012-07-14 06:19 pm (UTC)

Reminds me of my trip to England, I knew which city I wanted to visit each day, but I didn't plan ahead at all. I bought a rail pass and used the advertisements at the train/subway stations to find lodging as I went. It worked out rather well, no miracles but no disasters either, and I had a great degree of freedom.

I suggest avoiding Travelocity honestly. A guild mate in WoW had a hellish time dealing with a massive screw up they made. They booked the wrong reservations for one thing, then when she called to let them know, they canceled the one that was right for another, then refused to fix any of it.
They kept giving her a run around over the phone for several days as well, refusing to let her talk to a manager. Kept saying he was busy and would call her back, then when she did get a phone call it only rang once before the person hung up.

As someone who works in the hotel industry, I can second this. They're ranked pretty low on the 'third party websites' that book with us.

Most such online sites can get you a decent deal, but you're better off actually calling the hotels in question. Now, given language issues, this may be more complicated than it needs to be, but it's still possible.

Frankly, for something this complex, I might actually just check and see if there's a brick-and-mortar travel agency somewhere near you.

If you already know what you're doing, and are just looking for flights/hotel, Expedia that shit. Inter-city travel is super easy throughout Europe, so you don't really need someone to plan your bus/train rides, unless you (the collective 'you' lol) function better under a strict schedule.

Have fun!

A second recommendation for Expedia. Have used them before with no problems.

Also check out hotel/accommodation reviews on tripadvisor before booking.

(Deleted comment)
I get the impression that this is a French relative of Motel 6.

Rick Steves has amazing guides with advice and information!

And I've never gone wrong with his food recommendations!

Some friends of mine and I went to Germany and Switzerland a couple years ago. One of my friends did all the planning and went through AAA, which may also be an option for you.

If you're a AAA member, they offer vacation services and help with travel planning, so I'd start with them.

I wish I could give you the name of my grandfather's travel agent who did our amazing trip to France and Sweden last year, but she just retired -- I will see if her agency still exists, though.

Okay, I found the agency my grandfather worked with: World Travel of Portland (OR). They booked a trip for my grandfather, my mother, and I to go to tour Normandy as he wanted to see the WW II battle sites, which included flying to Paris, a train from Paris to Caen, a rental car pickup in Caen, our hotel accommodations in Caen, a train back to Paris, and then a flight from Paris to Gothenburg Sweden to see relatives there (and subsequent flights from Gothenburg back to the US). They didn't book any of the tourist-specific stuff for us only because my mom is a French teacher and she was able to do all of that for us online or on the phone or in person. (If you don't have a fluent-in-French person, a travel agent might be helpful there, although most people at touristy places do speak English.)

One tip: If you are flying into Paris and continuing onward to your final destination, DO NOT DRIVE IN PARIS if you want to live. That's why we took the train to Caen. French trains are awesome!

AAA and AARP are worthchecking with for discounts on attractions, public transit, car rentals that may not be available once your plane leaves the ground.

fodors.com can be good for finding B&Bs and restaurants and such, sorted by price point. Cheese and bread and fruit from the tiny shops makes a great meal too, of course.

fodors also has some great phrasebook stuff that used to be free online. (I haven't looked in years.) Then there are your mother's guidebooks.

If your cells have sims and are Europe compatible, that's easy. If not, there are pay as you go phones for sale and probably for rent. I think there are some decent phrase book apps out there, too.

Um, if you are staying a day in Paris at the start or end, the Basilica De Sacre Coeur on Montmartre has tiny rooms for rent, and is very near the funicular. Also, online.

Ziploc bags are handy for organizing sdtuff in luggage and security likes that they are see-through.

Don't know about vacation planning per se, as my formal plans usually end with the air reservations. Enjoy!!

Oh, and as you'll mostly be in one area, it may make sense to rent a house or condo for a week, unless you can find rooms somewhere cooler! Loads of web sites for this.

I recommend Lonely Planet guides. Check their website for recommendations for anything and everything!

I'd suggest renting a car and have fun, ok you'll get lost [even the natives there get lost, winding country roads you know.] but you'll have fun and find places not in the tour guides.

This. Though I would decide on an itinerary beforehand, and make sure the hotels are booked (through the internet, of course -- hotels that can't be booked on the internet are not worth it) but that's just me.
Perhaps you can also arrange a navigation unit in the rental car -- getting lost in a foreign country can be fun when you don't have to go anywhere, but can get old very fast when it happens all the time.

I've traveled in France several times without an agent and my sister and her family lived there for a couple of months last year (two towns, many side trips) with no agent. Lonely Planet (book and website) is my friend! I also like to compare sites for tickets, not forgetting the actual airline, because you never know who'll be cheapest. September is a lovely time there, but book now!

Also, I've always found that even at the height of summer, I could book trains within a day or two of travel, often on the day, and get a seat without problems.

I don't know whether you speak French, but basically, if you just try a little French to show that you know which language should be spoken, most people will speak much better English and will switch to that. But then your French may be excellent.

I imagine you both have passports, but if not, get them Monday! Also, for money, use your ATM--exchange rates are usually better. But notify your bank that you'll be traveling (for ATM and credit). You'll need more cash since credit cards aren't used as much there, especially in little towns.

Food and wine and olive oil, oh, my!

^This^ is all VERY good advice.

One of my friends is currently enjoying a vacation in Iceland arranged by the Great Canadian Travel company, which she said was a breeze to work with. (My attempts to look at their website (on Firefox on a Mac) results in Firefox crashing, so I recommend you google it.)