Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In the Beginning or Travel 101

I feel I need to preface this column with a quick economic discussion. Yes, David and I are planning on visiting Europe again this year. No, we don’t have a crystal ball that warns or informs us of what is coming down the pike for us or the country financially. What we do know is that after 4 years of post – graduate work, David Phillips has earned his doctorate. We think that auspicious accomplishment deserves some recognition, like visiting our favorite continent. One thing does differ this year from any other year, we do not live in a vacuum, we understand the reality of the global economy. The reality of the situation is, when planning this vacation budget needs to be at the top of our pre-planning requirements. It means we’ll not only need to stretch our travel dollars like never before, but we need to be conscious of the fact we are a desired part of the travel industry, potential customers. According to Rick Steves, online blogs and other resources, bargains await the intrepid traveler. So, if we are going to go ahead with this year’s vacation, we will need to gather as much information as possible prior to making any travel commitment.
The first time we went to Europe the one US Dollar was worth 8 French Francs, 3500 Greek Dracmas, 2000 Italian lire, and 7,000,000 Turkish pounds. Life was good, and all things travel if not cheap, were affordable. Then came along the Euro in 2004, the first year at par it lulled us into a false sense of security. As the Euro continued to surge against the dollar we changed our travel time from the peak season of summer to off peak November/December. During our 2007 trip to Athens and Venice at $1.57 US to 1 Euro (the Dollar had dropped $0.13 cents on the flight from Detroit to Amsterdam). With the economic downturn of 2008 we had to face facts our favorite travel destination was quickly becoming cost prohibitive.

Financial realities forefront in my mind, as soon as we returned from our 2008 vacation I hit the internet hard. I surfed the usual travel websites, read every travel article and scoured the forums at Trip Advisor dot com. My research indicated a cruise where our expenses could be locked in at the current US Dollars value would be our best bet. Here's where the wheels came off the apple cart. One of the Usual Suspects cannot join us for this years trip. So, now our usual group of 6 became an odd numbered 5, eliminating traditional tours or cruises.

Because I ignored my own advice, I was back at square one. I respect professionals. A dentist takes care of my teeth. Our local CPA does our taxes and usually I put my money, faith and time in the hands of a travel agent. A good travel agent, with their travel industry knowledge, agent exclusive computer software and contacts could have provided the same information in 5 minutes. Lesson learned, I've handed our travel planning over to D'Ann Schweihofer. D'Ann is the owner of St. Clair Travel and is an agent with 20 years experience.

After determining a budget, D'Ann helped us narrow our options down to: Paris, France, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast, Italy. Paris was quickly eliminated when we realized to stay in budget we would only be able to stay for 7 days as opposed to 9 for the other locations. So now the field is narrowed down to Figline Val D'Arno, Tuscany or Sorrento, Amalfi, Italy. Olives or Lemons? Wine or Limoncello? Hillside Tuscan towns or the seaside villages of the Amalfi coast.

One of the most important ways we found to stretch our traveler dollars is to begin with the type of trip. In our case, we quickly realized in Italy we could rent a car easily and stay in a reasonably priced villa or hotel. There are five of us and one car (or private guide) can work to combine funds. Wine is inexpensive and a product of of the region. Breakfast is included at both venues we can and make lunch the "big" meal of the day and have local wines, cheeses and meats for dinner. We can choose day trips in a fuel-efficient car and conserve funds. We also buy local crafts and products of the towns and villages we visit rather than choosing the touristy t-shirts and trinkets. These are only a few of the tips we learned over the last few years of travel to Europe.

We'll announce our final decision in the next post.