By Chris Briggs
The key to any vacation is enjoying yourself and ensuring you have planned out enough details to do just that. For my husband and my 50th birthday celebrations we decided to take a 2-week trip to Europe. Our first stop was decided upon when my husband won a raffle for a week-long stay at a 3-bedroom condo next to the Eiffel Tower. Since Paris was where he really wanted to go, it was up to me to find a place that we had never been to and would really make an impact. After researching Switzerland, I decided the mountains and countryside around Interlaken is where I wanted to go. Our third and last stop was to pass through London to see our very good friends who would just be returning with their newly born surrogate baby boy.
To start any trip, we booked our flights, looking for business class, to get from San Diego to Paris and then coming home from London. British Airways has a direct flight from San Diego to London, so we knew that would be the airline of choice. Once we researched Kayak.com and the British Airways website, we decided to expand our search and found the cheapest flight on www.businessclass.com. Our flights had us flying to Paris through London from San Diego, and on our way home we would fly from London and connect through Dallas Ft. Worth (DFW) on our way back home. This last connection saved us over $1,000 and allowed an extra day of staying in London.
With our flights booked and the Paris condo dates confirmed, it was time to book the hotels in Switzerland and London. For Switzerland, my choice to stay in Interlaken was more about seeing the mountains and countryside, so when it came to selecting a hotel, it was imperative to find a place where we could enjoy our evenings outside but be gone most of the day. When searching for hotels in Europe, it is best to use hotels.com or another website that specializes in international hotel chains. We narrowed our search to a handful of choices but when the final decision was made it was a bit of a splurge to treat ourselves to a magnificent hotel, the beautiful Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa, booked through hotels.com. In London we stayed at the London Marriott Hotel County Hall using only points to pay for our stay made possible by using our Mariott Travel credit card to pay for most of the trip. One benefit of being a loyal points member for a single hotel chain is that we were upgraded to a beautiful suite with a balcony overlooking Big Ben, Parliament, and the London Eye.
With locations, flights, and hotels confirmed, the next step was to figure out how to get from point A to point B in each location. The bookends of this equation were getting there and home from San Diego, so with that figured out it we just had to plan out getting from Paris to Switzerland and then to London. The question was whether to fly or bestow upon a train ride from Zurich to Interlaken; of course, the train was the best choice. There are some helpful websites to book railway transportation and we used RailEurope.com. It is important to note that in Europe train tickets can only be reserved about a month in advance. We decided to take the high-speed TGV rail from Paris to Zurich, which took about 2 hours and then the train from Zurich to Interlaken. This was an amazing ride and took us from the center of Paris to walking distance from our hotel in Interlaken. For Interlaken to London, we decided to ride the train back to Zurich, and then take a 2.5-hour flight on British Airways to London City Center, which is much closer to our hotel than Heathrow would have been.
With all the travel details flushed out it was time to focus on which tourist attractions and activities to partake in. For Paris, we had been there several times, but this time was special because we had a group of friends sharing the 3-bedroom condo with us to celebrate our 50th birthdays, so we knew we had to plan for a group of 6 people anywhere we went. The middle of April is the best time to go as we wanted to see the blooming spring flowers and it is also a slower tourist time in Paris. The key to many locations is making reservations ahead of time to lock down your schedule well before you get there, but this limits your flexibility, so I really tried to cut down the number of reservations we had. The other key to Paris is you can get a city pass, which is valid for a certain number of days, and it includes entry for over 70 places to see. We were there a week, so we purchased the 6-day City Pass, and I reserved Versailles and the Louvre ahead of time. The rest of the time there we coordinated our wish list with what others wanted to see which took us on a cruise down the Seine, to the top of the Eiffel Tower, to the Catacombs underground, and many others. Dining can always be decided the day of with plentiful options Paris.
For Switzerland, we booked the 3-day Swiss rail pass, which got us around the area on trains, boats, and lifts. Again, we reserved some attractions ahead of time and then allowed a certain amount of flexibility while we were there. I booked Jungfraujoch ahead of time and the rest of Switzerland was based on what we had researched we wanted to see and what was available. The funny story about this portion of the trip was that I watched a travel documentary on Interlaken and the area which gave inspiration for what to see and how to get there. However, once we arrived in the area, we found out that all the transportation had changed and we were between seasons, so many attractions were closed. Fortunately I was able to utilize several of the notes I took and knew of many places I wanted to see from watching the documentary. The lesson here was to be flexible and able to move with last minute changes. We were able to see both the towns of Thun and Brienz, as well as the Lauterbrunnen Valley, which really was the most amazing place I have ever seen in my life.
Our last stop was London, one of the cities we have traveled to the most. As chance would have it, our friends were not back from Cyprus with their new baby, so we really had to pivot on what we had planned to do while there. We explored Oxford University to see where Harry Potter movies were filmed and inspired by. In London itself I looked for the rare sites we hadn’t been to before and found ourselves visiting the likes of the Sherlock Holmes Museum as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum, which had an amazing Broadway musical exhibit. Our time in London also coincided with London preparing for the coronation of a new king, so that made getting to the airport the last day challenging, but also gave us a great view of the city preparing for the parades the night before we left.
European trips can be exhausting and overwhelming, but you can make it exhilarating and wonderful. In the two weeks we were in Europe we walked over 140 miles and climbed over 300 flights of stairs, but it is always well worth it to us. We love to explore the history and different cultures and see new parts of the world or revisit those that we just cannot get enough of. The key is to stay mindful that you are there to enjoy yourself and a little planning goes a long way.