Planning a trip to Europe

Going to Europe in the summer is about as much as you can ask for out of travel. Most people will tell you to stay away during the tourist season, but if you want to be there when the weather is great, you’ll have to put up with some other Americans making you want to wear a Canadian flag pin.

Planning diary

Before we get started you should get setup with Yahoo! Trip Planner. While I am openly a Yahoo! employee and sometimes an evangelist, I can say that there is nothing on the market that compares to Yahoo! Trip Planner for scheduling a trip. Now that their maps support European addresses, it’s the easiest way to keep track of all the information you’ll be accumulating. Even if you don’t use any of the journal features (blog, Flickr integration, etc.), this is the best way to create an itinerary.

You can see my working trip here: Sonar 2007: techno, tapas and tanning.

Finding the best flight

The most important piece of your planning is finding a flight to your destination. Unless you’re extremely rich or lucky, you’re unlikely to find a flight to your destination. Stop with the long face! Getting there is still well within reason using a few tricks.

Finding a good flight to Europe is ALL about the discount airlines. First you fly cheaply to any major hub, then you hop to your destination on El Cheapo Air. Here are the steps in more detail:

  1. Skipping point
    Find a cheap flight to a city you want to visit; this is your skipping point. Any city will do, just make sure you feel good about staying a night or two in this other location and that the price is nice. Use the major booking tools to find a good deal:

    You can verify that you’re getting a good deal by looking at the average prices on one of a few travel indexes:

    In my case I found a flight to Dublin for around $500, which is well within the range specified by Hotwire. I love Dublin. This is a perfect skipping point.

  2. Destination
    Find a flight from the skipping point to your destination. There are many, many discount airlines in Europe, and all of them have completely crazy destinations. You’re going to spend 45 minutes just finding the airlines that have routes from the skipping point to your destination. There’s no centralized search engine, so you’ll have to work through each airline’s website.

    Start with the list of discount European airlines provided by Wikitravel. If your skipping point is a low-cost hub, start with the airlines stationed there.

    Adjust your travel days on either end to find the best price. Typically you’ll end up staying 1-2 days in your skipping point, which is just enough time to explore the city and check it off your list. It’s possible that you could take a train from your skipping point to your destination, but I’d bet against it. These airlines are so cheap that Eurorail typically runs 2-3 times the price. Expect to pay €40-100 each way.

Once you find a suitable flight scenario, book it. The rest will follow, and the discount airlines change their prices almost daily. In my case, I secured a roundtrip on Clickair for €120. The total for my flight is less than $700, which is almost half the price of any flight I found through standard travel search tools.

Finding the best room

This is where strategy is important. There is a lot of money is hotel booking, so just about everyone will be trying to make money by arbitraging you. Be careful where you book and which tools you use.

  1. Hotels and B&Bs
    First, don’t type “destination B&B” into your favorite search engine as it’s not going to do any good. You’ll be barraged with search results that provide almost no information.

    • TripAdvisor: Good coverage of B&Bs and hotels, along with some useful user reviews
    • Venere: European search engine, good coverage of hotels and B&Bs
    • Orbitz: Major hotels
    • Expedia: Major hotels, only partial overlap with Orbitz.
  2. Apartments
    Your best deals are going to be apartments in the city you’re staying in. Some of these may be listed in TripAdvisor, but it’s unlikely unless the owner owns quite a few. Local vacation rental owners will typically market to a local audience only, so if you know someone who speaks the language, use one of the local tools owned by European Craigslist competitor, Kijiji:

    Craigslist will also work if there are expats renting to Americans (I find it uncommon, but it does happen). Using Loquo, I found an apartment in Barceloneta for €100/night for two people, which is expensive because it’s Sonar weekend. Any other part of the summer I could find something in the range of €40-€60/night, about half of the closest hotel.

Finding things to eat

Ok, you’ve got your flight and you’ve got your lodging. Now the fun part! Time to find some places that will make other travelers jealous. There’s no better way to do this than with Chowhound. If you’re not familiar with it, Chowhound is a community of food lovers that generates the best restaurant recommendations on the web.

Find the local board for your destination and start searching. Typically the recommendations will come from expats who have spent some considerable time in a city, so don’t expect to see people with the same edition of Lonely Planet sitting next to you. Most of these will not be in Trip Planner, so you’ll have to add them yourself, but it’s worth the effort for an amazing meal, right?

If you use Chowhound, give back. When you return, make sure to give a short review of your thoughts on the restaurants you chose.

Finding things to do

This part is actually surprisingly easy.

  • Upcoming: this collaborative events site actually has quite a few European events, but the quality of the content will vary greatly from city to city.
  • Wikitravel: using hte same software as Wikipedia, this collaboratively edited travel guide contains pretty good overviews of most cities and lists of suggested sites.
  • Yahoo! Travel: this offering from Yahoo! actually has pretty good coverage for tourist attractions and outings, plus it offers one-click adding to Trip Planner.

After this point, you’re pretty much done. Print out your itinerary from Trip Planner and execute as planned. Go! Experience! And when you’re done, write up some of your thoughts to make the process easier for future travelers.

How to win your Oscar pool

Oscars posterI do this every year, and I feel really guilty about it. Also, I don’t have a party to go to tonight, so I’m a little bitter I won’t be making $50. There are other sites that claim to help you win, but this surefire technique works every time (until your opponents find out about it).

Four steps to taking money from people at Oscars parties

  1. Suggest a pool. In fact, print out some pool ballots before you leave for your party. Make enough to cover all of the hapless fools whose money you will take. Make sure to give extra points for the major categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, et al.), which will come in hand later.
  2. Take HSX’s choices verbatim. The Hollywood Stock Exchange has an options market for the Oscars, and every year gets almost every one right. It covers all of the major categories, but not the minor ones, but you remembered to give them extra weight, right?
  3. Make obvious choices for lesser awards. Many sources offer predictions, so just take the average of these and you’ll do pretty well.
  4. Win money. You have the wisdom of crowds on your side. You will, believe me. I do it every year. If you don’t believe me, check the statistics.

There you go. Yes, it’s unethical, and yes, it takes the fun out of the game, but it works. And if you don’t do it, someone else will. Good luck, and Godspeed.

Curating RSS feeds with NetVibes and Pageflakes

There are a number of personalized portals out there that help aggregate your personal world in one place: My Yahoo!, Windows Live, Google Ig, Netvibes, Pageflakes, and others. I use none of them; instead I prefer the venerable about:blank. But lots and lots of people do, and if not for the first generation of personalized portals, I might not have a job.

I have played around with Netvibes and Pageflakes thanks to the amazing amount of coverage they have both been getting across the internets. Both applications support the quick and dirty construction of personal pages from content components. They feature nice WYSIWYG editors for laying out these pages and finding different content providers. For the person with time and energy, you can construct a highly personalized start page in a matter of minutes. The only problem is that people don’t take the time to customize their applications1.

However, this doesn’t prohibit other people from customizing things for you. This is the case with these new start page startups: both have recently created functionality for users to share their customized pages. I think this is very powerful, and I think an example will communicate this best. Suppose you have an idea for a portal; something that doesn’t exist. You have domain knowledge that means you know the best blogs, news sources, and delicious tags that define this space. Instead of going through the work to make an entire portal and/or create a blog around the topic, you can simply curate the same experience using Netvibes.

For instance, I want to create a page based on the idea of social weather. I collect the RSS feeds of all of the different social zeitgeists from across the web, and put them on one page. I use Netvibes to lay this content out in a meaningful way, and shizam, I have a social weather station. By clicking the following image, you can add my social weather page to your Netvibes:

Social Weather page

Taking this a step further, imagine that you could brand these pages and that you can embed them anywhere on the web. The local IT guy for any small company could create an intranet portal for employees; a neighborhood organization could create their own view of the world; moderators of groups can make customized pages for their members; in short, anyone who takes the time can create a portal that other people can use.

Right now these pages are trapped within their respective sites, but I would guess they will break out sometime soon. Only then will you see how big my social weather station really is! No seriously, it’s going to be huge.

1.   It’s rare to never that I agree with Jakob Nielsen, so rare, in fact, that it deserves a footnote. In this single, isolated point, I think he’s right. People don’t take the time to customize web sites, on average.