There are two kinds of people: Those who like Pretty Little Liars and those who haven't seen it yet.
Wait ... that was for this blog I'm writing for ABC Family. By the way, how messed up is it that a show about young girls embroiled in a plot masterminded by a shadow figure hell bent on kidnapping, torture and murder is on ABC FAMILY?
There are two kinds of travelers: Those who research their trips, and those who don't. I fall firmly into the former camp. I look at trip research as an integral and enjoyable part of the actual vacation. I spend hours looking up flights and lodging and activities, combing through forums and flipping through travel guides - basically making it my part-time job in the weeks and months leading up to the trip. That's half because I'm an anal-retentive control freak, half because doing that research amps up the anticipation factor for me, and half because if there was a third thing here that would be too many halves.
Just making sure you were being a careful reader.
My wife would argue I research TOO much. I know she would argue this because of the many nights I asked her to turn on an episode of House Hunters International after dinner while I quickly looked a few things up, only to wake up on the couch at one in the morning to find me typing away in the dark like a pervert or the minority tech whiz on every cop show.
But my carpal tunnel and frustrated spouse is your travel gain! Because I've separated the tip-laden wheat from the time-waster chaff. I've got a list of five items - books, podcasts and websites - that are essential to any trip planning. These are the absolute essential tools for helping you plan the perfect European vacation.
GOOGLE: This may seem like I'm cheating or being lazy. But, honestly, you could plan an entire trip via this search-engine monster and come away with a hell of an itinerary. Search strings like "XXX on a budget" or "XXX frugal" or "XXX travel tips" will get you started nicely. Just make sure to replace XXX with your destination, unless you want to see some freaky shit. Ask it a question like "What's the best time to visit the Vatican Museums" and watch it lead you into forums discussing that very question. Change your search options to only include results from the last month to make sure you're getting up-to-date information. Come back to it often to check out potential lodging on Google Maps, loading street view to get a real feel for how close the place is to where you want to be, and even get a rough idea of the neighborhood. Hell, Google Flights will even help you cross-reference your flight options to make sure you're getting the best deal. It's a monster, but it's a kind, giving monster. It's vital. Use and abuse it.
LONELY PLANET: This travel-guru brand has you covered in both guidebook and website form. Their guidebooks are smart, savvy, and full of easy-to-comprehend info spelled out in a succinct, straightforward manner. The Lonely Planet guidebooks are the hands-down winner when it comes to travel in Asia, but since this blog series is about planning a trip to Italy, I can't not mention Rick Steves. He's the other guidebook behemoth on the market - a complete media package with a website and a TV show. But, since I'd rather not take advice from the human embodiment of Rick Moranis' audition for Indiana Jones, I prefer Lonely Planet.
While planning our trip I read both, multiple times (plus Frommer's and the DK Eyewitness books - which are full of pictures and maps, but short on info) but if I had to pick one book to take with me, it would be Lonely Planet. I also prefer their forum Thorn Tree to the forums on Trip Advisor. To put it simply, Lonely Planet's website and forum is full of advice on how to get there and what to do when you are there. Trip Advisor is full of Americans complaining about how there's no eggs in Italy.
EXTRA PACK OF PEANUTS PODCAST: I love podcasts. I listen to them while walking our dog, at the gym, mowing the lawn, disposing of dead ... um ... anyway, podcasts are great. And if you're looking for a travel podcast that will get you excited for your upcoming trip while still giving you tips, this is your go-to. Travis and Heather - a married couple - somehow have figured out a way to travel on the cheap and do it for a living. While they've got a higher tolerance for roughing it than I do - I'm pretty sure they sleep on floors and eat bugs, while I got upset in Italy because I kept overdoing it on pasta and never had room for tiramisu - they are an endless source of essential tips for planning a trip. I mean, honestly, you could stop reading this blog now, head over to their site and take it from there. But don't do that. I need the validation. I should mention that Rick Steves has a podcast, too, but we've covered that nerd burger. I swear to Christ you can hear his mom jeans through your earbuds.
KAYAK: Most travelers already know about this flight-aggregator site, but it's so good it bears mentioning. It's got a lot of competition in sites like SkyScanner, Momondo and Google Flight Search, but I give Kayak the edge for ease of use, breadth of deals, and their awesome mobile app. I tend to use it just to find my flight, and then book my flight via the actual airline's site. Do what you like, but you can find the same deal at the same price most often via the airline once you know what criteria to put in, and I always feel more comfortable booking direct for airfare.
MAN IN SEAT 61: Skip this if you're not planning a trip to Italy, or Europe in general, but if you are, it's a must. It is, quite simply, the most useful travel site I've ever visited. Focused like a laser on train and ferry travel in Europe, and run by a lone traveler named Mark Smith, The Man in Seat 61 is a treasure trove of info, tips and tricks. Train and ferry travel in Europe isn't easy, simple or user-friendly, and if this site didn't exist, our trip to Italy would have included a lot less gelato and a lot more screaming into the void. I could have figured out how to fly into Venice on my own. I could have gotten us out of Rome without trouble. But this site is the reason we were able to see a dozen spots in Italy over the course of two weeks. I can't sing the praises of this site enough.
- Seat Guru: Want to know the best and worst seats on the airplane? Want to know seat pitch, width and how long it will take you to go from take-off to panic attack? Visit Seat Guru.
- Elizabeth Minchilli: She's one hell of a food writer and her website is stuffed full of recommendations. And her apps, Eat Rome, Eat Florence and Eat Venice will help you find the perfect meal by neighborhood, price or type of food. Having used her app on the ground in Italy, I can vouch for her knowledge and her taste buds. She knows her shit and her apps are worth the tiny cost.
- TripIt: The only travel manager app you need. Forward your confirmations for flight, hotel and attractions to TripIt and they'll auto-populate your itinerary for you. Then just login to your account on your computer, tablet or mobile phone, and have all your info at your fingertips. Because fuck paper.
- Anthony Bourdain: Watch every episode of everything he's ever made. If you don't have time for that, focus on his visits to your upcoming travel spots. He's got a unique take on travel, and his advice pays off time and time again. He's the closest thing the travel world has to a rock star, and I'm certain he could kick the shit out of Rick Steves.
After months and months of research, we finally had our itinerary. Two solid weeks in Italy. Basically the trip of a lifetime. I knew where we were staying, how we were getting there, what we were doing there, and where we were eating. And I got it all from - basically - the sites, books and podcasts mentioned above.
Starting with the next blog post, I'll take you day-by-day through our trip. Covering all the successes, failures and stupid shit I got us into - and out of. It won't be pretty, but it will be funny. And helpful. I hope.