Perhaps you just got your first post-MBA job offer. Or you just got a break from an intense first year at your business school and you want to unwind for a couple of weeks before the second year madness starts. If you are thinking of travelling on a short vacation, there has never been a better time to visit Europe. The Euro is down nearly 20 per cent in INR terms in just a year which means you get more for your money.
For millions of Indians over the last decade, big tour operators like Thomas Cook and Kesari have brought Europe within easy reach. Travellers have to do no more than fill out a few forms and pay the amount upfront — and the tour operators take care of the rest.
But for many, especially younger adventure seekers, conducted tours place needless limits on the travel experience. The itinerary is packed with popular attractions whether or not they appeal to you. Perhaps you want to stay at a location a little longer, or you want to skip an attraction entirely. Or, you want to add an attraction not on the itinerary. Such deviations are often not permitted and even when they are, come at some inconvenience and a huge cost.
My wife, 12 year-old son and I just visited Paris for four days on our own, exploring places that were not on a tour operator’s standard Paris menu. We then rented a car to drive through Germany, Switzerland and the Italian Riviera, capping it all by taking in a full day of tennis at the Monte Carlo Tennis Club.
Naysayers to this approach come in all shapes and sizes. Language is an issue in Europe; what if we can’t communicate with the locals? Getting vegetarian meals is a major problem, how do we survive without our favourite roti and dhal for two weeks? (Answer: Just stop at a local grocery store and live on bread, cheese, fruits and snacks). And, how would one even know what to visit and where to stay? Finally, what if we get lost and can’t find our way around?
A little bit of advance planning, patience to research options, use of basic technology and a spirit of adventure can go a long way to addressing these concerns. The obvious question is where do you want to go? We are a family devoted to tennis. So we wrote to the organisers of the French Open Tennis tournament in Roland Garros, in Paris, and booked an English-language tour. There we knew we could savour little details such as seeing the lockers that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer use when they play. And we wanted to see the world’s best tennis players in early-round action on clay courts. What better place to do this than in Monte Carlo, probably the world’s most beautiful tennis club? So, two cities had automatically selected themselves.
First, we started with Google Flights to find the best week to travel. Fares in the second week of April were much steeper than the first week, so we finalised Bengaluru departures on April 6, to arrive in Paris. But the Monte Carlo tournament wasn’t starting nearly a week later. So we consulted Google Maps to explore how we could essentially kill 10 days between our arrival in Paris and stay near Monte Carlo.
Next, we had to settle on a car rental provider. We decided to stick with the big American brands such as Hertz, Avis or Budget because we did not want any hassles with a local European car rental company even if it was less expensive. The most economical period to rent cars is always measured in weeks, so this meant that we had to spend three days in Paris (without a car) with the remaining seven days in a rental car. As we were booking our car nearly two months in advance, we locked in on an amazing deal with Hertz for a big standard diesel car with unlimited mileage. The only restriction was that we had to pre-pay, which we gladly did.
To our itinerary, we decided to add a place deep in Germany’s Black Forest area to stay overnight so that we would experience driving on its Autobahns during the day. All we needed was a clean hotel and we chose Mannheim, where hotel rates are much less than the big German cities. Hotwire was a great site to book our accommodation at amazing discounts for 3-plus star hotels.
Having lived in Switzerland in the late 1990s, we knew of an amazing natural wonder called Truemmelbachfalle (an internal glacial waterfall), so we added the Interlaken region of Switzerland to our itinerary.
Priceline gave us a cottage nestled in the hills of Saxeten for a deal nearly 70 per cent less than the major Interlaken hotels with a hearty Swiss breakfast to boot. From our room, we could literally reach out and touch the Swiss Alps.
Monte Carlo is on the Mediterranean but completely overpriced. So we chose San Remo, on the Italian waterfront about 50 kms away, as a destination. For about a third of what we would have spent in Monte Carlo, we booked a gorgeous resort on the riviera with private access to a garden overlooking the beach. Breakfast included.
Back in Paris, we decided to skip the over-priced and cramped downtown hotels in favour of 3-star fare near Charles De Gaulle airport. If we stayed so far in Roissy, how do we commute to Paris each day? We Googled and found that we too could do what the locals do. We bought a Navigo weekly train pass at the airport that allows unrestricted, unlimited travel on all RER trains (the regional rapid train service) and the amazingly efficient Paris Metro, for only 35 Euros for an entire week. This compares to 10 Euros for just one ride on the RER if you bought retail at a ticket machine.
Getting used to the RER/Paris Metro system was a breeze. By the second day, we were roaming around Paris like Parisians. Our 12-year old was the master at it — he even remembered complex French names of station stops and directed us to correctly navigate confusing subway tunnels.
When you are on your own, having maps at your disposal is essential. The standard remedy is to use a popular map application such as Google Maps on your Android or Apple phone. Google Maps relies on both GPS and a mobile signal for more accurate triangulation requiring you to obtain a local SIM card in each country you travel in (or sign up for an expensive international data plan with your Indian mobile service provider). But buying a pre-paid local SIM card is often a nuisance requiring you to fill out extensive paperwork to prove that you are not a terrorist and getting it may take several hours. And it can be expensive too.
Mapping it right
A much better and zero-cost alternative is the Navigation app from Mapfactor. When we were still in India and had access to a WiFi signal at home, we downloaded this amazing open-source map app from Google Play Store (also available on the Apple App Store) on three of our devices just to be safe. We downloaded offline maps for all the countries we planned to visit and created a backup on an SD card. And for additional safety, we created a driving directions map in Google Maps with Street View — 1,811 miles, 61 pages, all saved as pdf files on three devices.
Before our flight departed Bangalore, we carefully removed our SIM cards from our phones denying our Indian service provider the opportunity to charge us outrageous international rates. Every hotel we stayed in had free WiFi access, so for two weeks we communicated with our families in India largely by Whatsapp and email.
After three nights in Paris, we got a free upgrade at Hertz’s pickup location — and the big Ford C Maax came with so many features that we simply ignored most of them. Once on the road, we found that the turn-by-turn navigation features of Mapfactor were world-class. Using GPS alone did not limit accuracies a bit. Even remote cities are well mapped out so that we rarely got lost. Sometimes, the exact number on a street address was not available but we found our destination by using a cross street with which the desired street intersected. Or, when we were already on the street, we found our destination the old fashioned way — by simply looking out the window.
Having a car with us meant that we could pack all that we wanted. We had access to our favourite music all the time. Multiple charging ports meant that our son could lose himself in his tablet when driving long distances and our two phones were always fully charged. A huge hatchback meant that all of our luggage was in the back. We just needed to pack a small bag for the three of us to check in to each night’s hotel and leave everything else behind. And best of all, we could stop anywhere to take in an unplanned local attraction.
On our pre-final leg from Switzerland to Italy, Mapfactor took us through picture-perfect Swiss villages but as the road climbed, we began to get suspicious that we were headed in the wrong direction. It turned out that we were correct after all but the road ahead was closed because of the winter. As we got out of our car to turn around, we heard a rumble and just beyond where we stood, we saw an avalanche start, pouring cascades of snow. Nature’s drama lasted for nearly 45 seconds in this desolate Swiss wilderness and is a scene that we will never forget.
Back home, when we added all of our costs, we found that we had spent much less on our grand European vacation than our fellow travellers may have on a conducted tour but our experience seemed vastly more luxurious. And best of all, we loved every minute of our adventure. Game anyone, for a low-cost holiday?