Sunday, September 28, 2014

Prague - Vienna - Budapest: Day 1, Planning and Getting There!

Our traditional leaving on a jet plane
airport drink and snack.
 I don't think Glen and I have ever looked forward to a trip more. Our lives the last few months have been so busy and stressful, we had no time to think or unwind.  A manuscript to finish, our home of 26 years to pack and sort, a move to a new house and Vancouver Fashion Week all hit at the same time. We both lost weight and honestly, the day we were to leave, we worried we wouldn't be able to relax and enjoy our time away. Even our son who was supposed to drive us to the airport ended up with a dental appointment. Fortunately our daughter's boyfriend happened to be in town working and offered to fill in.

It's important to take your time planning any international trip. I started in January to travel late September. That means you don't rush a decision. Look at several different travel options if you like doing a self-directed tour. They vary widely. If you prefer a more structured holiday, talk with a travel agent you know and trust. Someone who is an experienced traveler that can give you sound recommendations. Make sure whoever you book with knows the area intimately - when are attractions opened and closed is particularly important.

Stock image

When Glen and I travel to new places, we aren't very good at following the crowd, being up by a certain time to get on a bus or waiting for others. We love walking all day at random, exploring off the beaten path and setting our own pace. The solution for us has always been to find a self-directed tour that suited our needs. Most are really flexible and you have the power and knowledge of an agency behind you to answer questions or deal with problems. Yet you still have the freedom to pick and choose what you do each day. The package of information provided usually has tickets or travel vouchers to get your tickets for travel within the country - boat ferry or train usually - which they will have prebooked as well as intricate instructions on how to get around. There is always the option to have a few activities pre-booked. 3 years ago when we went to Norway we used Authentic Scandinavia and it was excellent.

Image from Go Real Europe website
Our original plan for this holiday was Florence, but our youngest son loved Prague and we discovered that Prague-Vienna-Budapest was a common tour that gave us a chance to visit 3 countries without spending a ton of time travelling.  It was only by accident I lucked into the perfect tour company for this trip - Go Real Europe.

In surfing around the internet I saw many self-directed and semi-directed options for this tour, but nothing quite popped. Then I found Go Real Europe and was instantly impressed. Owner David Manley specializes in this part of the world and has an excellent knowledge of what is available. You could get a sample itinerary right away that gave you an idea of what there was to see and do. You put in the length of time, where you want to go and an idea of the focus - history, active, arts, etc. Bang - there was a suggested way to spend your time in each city.

When we decided to move forward, David sent us a few questions.  What do you want in a hotel - bathroom in room, elevator, wi-fi? Do you like old historic hotels? What kinds of activities do you like - museums and art galleries, active pursuits, history? Do you want to stay the same number of days in each city? From these answers, a custom suggested itinerary is created which can be fine-tuned.

Our Prague hotel - U Suteru
Lobby door on right, Green door
on left for access after 8 p.m.
I love the architecture and history of a place, so decided to ask for a guided tour on the first day in each city to orient us - he set up with a one on one guide so we didn't have to follow a crowd or have trouble hearing. Perfect.  Glen loves biking, so we had 2 wonderful bike rides set up - one in the Prague countryside and one in Vienna.  The rest of the itinerary offered us suggestions of where we could go each day and what there was to see.

A driver was scheduled to pick us up at the airport on arrival - a true gift when arriving in a new country - and if something arose that the driver didn't make it, exact instructions on how to get money and what a cab should cost. WOW! Fortunately our driver did show up. He was a ex-pat American living in Prague and was full of suggestions for what to do and see. I asked his favourite Prague meals and he offered a few suggestions.

When you use self-directed tours, you book your own air travel separately - so that was next on the list. The flight I found was purchased through Air Canada, but was actually run by Lufthansa.  It left late afternoon from Vancouver for a 10 hour leg, made a short stop and quick change of planes in Munich and then a 40 minute hop to Prague where we arrived at our hotel by 4 p.m. The beauty of this schedule was that we didn't have to rush to the airport in Vancouver and had time once we arrived in Prague to have a walk, a chance to unwind, to settle into the hotel and a bite to eat before we headed to bed.

Stock image of what our airline meals were like
I can't say enough about how great it was flying on Lufthansa.10 hours to Munich is a long time. However, the seats we had in economy had the most leg room I had even seen (Note - the return flight did not have this same leg room). Even in economy, our seat had a blanket, a pillow and a set of headphones waiting. They had a large staff taking care of us.

We were offered a pre-dinner drink with 4 attendants and 2 carts working each aisle (Note - coming back, the perks were the same but less attendants working the cabin). Dinner was served quickly in the same fashion with additional wine offered to those who wanted it.  After dinner we were offered cognac,  Baileys or coffee. The movie selection on the individual back of seat televisions was large and we were given breakfast and coffee the next morning right before landing. All this was included in the ticket price. When booking my next international flight, I'm checking what this airlines has to offer first. A good travel agent should also be able to help you select an airlines that offers great service.

Loved this big old hotel room in the Hotel U Šuterů. The building itself dates back to the
1400's the reason for the arched ceiling. It was a construction technique to support the roof. We saw this
detail in many older buildings in Prague. The bathroom, however, was very modern.













Turns out David from Go Real Europe actually lives in Prague - no wonder he is so knowledgeable about the area. His detailed itinerary is literally 120 pages long because he tells you exact details for navigating the city, riding transit or dealing with anything that might arise. In addition, we had a package waiting on arrival at the hotel - the U Suteru - with tickets for the local transit as well as a lovely sweet treat to munch on and he's popping by our hotel Monday night to say hi. Service doesn't get any better than that in my opinion.

Because we were at the Hotel U Suteru by 4, there was time for a short nap.  Then we headed out for a walk. Only a few blocks away was a large thoroughfare with one entire section pedestrian only - Václavské náměst. It was bustling with people, shops, lights kiosks and live performers. All the building signs were lit up. It was a great welcome.  We bought a bag of freshly made potato chips and wandered through the festivities munching away.


Left Goulash - Right Svíčková














Then it was back to the restaurant attached to our hotel for our first Czech beer and to try the 2 specialties recommended by our driver. Glen ordered Czech-style Goulash (very different that what I had before) and I ordered Svíčková which is beef sirloin, cream and cranberries (our driver called it Thanksgiving in a blender). Both came with "dumplings" but they not the same as what we think of in North America. They were round slices of a soft doughy bread - very interesting. Both were delicious.

So ends the planning and day one of our trip to Europe.  So far it's amazing.

2 comments:

  1. I always fly Lufthansa or KLM when flying to Europe. They have the most direct flights, offer the best in-flight service, usually offer a choice of meals, and the individual seat-back screens are a great bonus (though most airlines have these now). I know with KLM you can pre-order your dietary restriction meal ahead of time when you book your flights online. If you do this, you get served first before the rest of the passengers.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback. Think we flew KLM last time we traveled to Europe and enjoyed that flight as well.

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