I love to plan our trips myself, wether they are just a weekend break or as is the case with the trip I am currently planning - 16 days away.
I haven't used a travel agent for years, and in fact the last time we did quite a few things went wrong and they always happened when the travel agency was closed so we had to deal with it ourself.... I vowed never to use them again... and to be honest when it is so easy to do everything online myself I can't see a reason to use them again.
Also, in my experience, if a flight is delayed or cancelled it is a lot easier to get re-booked onto another flight if you are the person with the credit card and the reservation number.
First things to do is of course book the flights..... I always do this directly with the airline. I've rarely seen a better deal online and as we have good status with Swiss - Senator (Star Alliance) and British Airways - Gold (One World) I think booking direct is better. Whenever I've missed a connection because of a delayed flight I've been taken care of and put on the next available flight, often before I have disembarked the flight that we delayed. Also, I like to be able to see easily if I can upgrade with miles, which I often find is often the best use of them.
So flights booked, whats next....
For the particular trip I am currently planning we will fly in and out of Stockholm and drive a big loop taking in all the towns and cities in the image above. I used Google Maps as a tool to help me decide where we would spend the evening... I tried to keep the number of driving hours down to under 4 hours as hubby will do all the driving and although he enjoys it, I want him to relax too.
I've also used the Trip Advisor forum to ask questions and to read about other peoples experiences of the cities and towns we want to visit. There is nothing like local knowledge to help plan a trip. You have to take into account that people have differing taste and expectations but the info I got from TA was invaluable in the planning stages.
After deciding where we would be stopping overnight I started the process of finding hotels, B&B's and Air B&B's.
If there is a Starwood hotel in a city I want to stay in then I check their rates first. We are lifetime platinum members and so we quite often get a good upgrade and more often than not lounge access and breakfast as a perk. As long as the rate isn't a HUGE difference from the other places in town then I book it... the perks often make up for the price difference...and lets not forget the loyalty points you can earn that all add up to free nights too....
Next, with my city map on my screen I have a little read through Trip advisor reviews, only really paying attention to reviewers who have at least 20 reviews under their belt. I also read a few of the other reviews people have written too.... If someone rates a Premier Inn as luxury I have to seriously question wether they are on the same page as I am. Likewise if someone complains that the Ritz Carlton was basic I'm not sure I trust their opinion either.... This logic extends to reading restaurant reviews too.... I'm sorry but in my opinion anyone who writes a review saying Olive Garden is a great Italian Restaurant can not be trusted.
When I have decided on a few places I'd like to stay I then have a look at Booking.com or Trivago.com and also the hotels own website to see what the best rates available are.
The rates on some of the hotel booking sites are not always the best available.
Alongside this I have a look at Air B&B to see if there is something available in the same area at a competitive rate. Since using Air B&B for the first time this April in Amsterdam, I plan to use them more especially for long trips as the accommodation often gives the convenience of being able to do some laundry half way through the trip.
OK, so accommodation booked now its on to major attractions and restaurants.
I have a good network of friends who travel extensively for work and pleasure and it almost never happens that I am visiting somewhere that none of my friends have already been to.
This is where I turn to Facebook. I post an outline of my trip and ask for suggestions from the people who know me. Anyone who knows me is never going to suggest Pizza Hut as somewhere I might like to go for dinner....
I also google newspaper articles on new restaurants and if Time Out have information I have a read of that too.
I'm happy to stumble upon restaurants, but often some of the best restaurants with hot new chefs or recent Michelin stars need to be booked weeks in advance - especially in the big cities. Also at this stage I buy online timed tickets for major attractions to save any queuing when we arrive. I HATE to have to stand in a queue for tickets for an attraction and then queue to get in... I'm an early morning person so like to have big gallery visits over with before lunch so I can relax over lunch and enjoy a city on foot if possible.
I think when you break a trip down into small sections like this it becomes manageable. I don't do all the planning at the same time, that would feel too much like a chore, and I often save links to newspaper or magazine articles so I can read them at a more leisurely pace when I am on the train into Zurich or relaxing in the bath for example.
Planning doesn't cost anything and I get a good idea of the lay out of a city centre just from a few hours preparation beforehand.
If you normally use a travel agent, why not try planning a small trip yourself. Its not nearly as scary as some people think, and who knows what interests you better than you yourself??
Do you already book all your own trips? Do you have anything to add to this?
I'd love to hear about it.
We went up to Inverness to meet with some of my husband's colleagues to enjoy a spot of 'corporate hospitality' and decided to spend the weekend before so we could have some relaxing time, play a round of golf and do a little sightseeing around Inverness. I have been to Inverness before but it was for work and a long time ago so I was quite excited to go back and actually enjoy being there.
We stayed in an apartment, which gave us a bit of flexibility and included a washing machine so we didn't have to take too much luggage too. I am looking more and more for apartments and air b&b's for trips longer than 4 days as i do enjoy having the ability to make my own breakfast.
We ate at a few local restaurants but one particularly special one was at Chez Roux at Rocpool Restaurant.
The restaurant is in a boutique hotel a short walk from central Inverness. We booked in advance online but actually on a Monday evening in April it was fairly quiet. We were offered beautifully presented amuse bouche in the bar where we enjoyed gin and tonic before dinner..
My started cheese souffle was very tasty, the cheese had a beautiful flavor. My main dish of lamb with sweetmeats ravioli was just delicious. My husband's asparagus starter and rabbit main were also declared to be perfect. We shared a cheese plate for dessert as we were both so full that a dessert wasn't an option... The cheeses were as you would expect mostly local and served with a nice basket of crackers. All the staff were exceptionally friendly but professional.
The wine list was good, and not at all overpriced. In fact the whole meal including wine was very reasonable.
Chez Roux at Rocpool
Culduthal Road Inverness
We played a round of Golf at Castle Stuart Golf Club to get us warmed up for the games we would play with my husband's colleagues. I'm not an especially good golfer so I was worried that I might crumble under pressure. We LOVED Castle Stuart. The staff were VERY friendly. The pro shop was well stocked (and even had a great sale when we were there).
The course is VERY challenging. The fairways are very open but the greens were very fast, very wavy and quite challenging. A great game of golf, It wasn't cheap, but I'd go back again. Oh and the hotdogs in the halfway house were very good too.... I'd love to go back and play again....
The golf that was organized by my husband's colleagues was at Royal Dornoch Golf Club. I played twice and both days it was quite windy. The fairways on the course were quite easy and I didn't loose a single ball, but the greens were tough to read. There are a lot of brambles so if your ball does go astray you are not going to recover it.... As happened to my husband a few times.
The staff were very friendly in the pro shop. There is also a good halfway house where you can enjoy a small shot of whisky too.
There are some beautiful views of the sea and beach too on the way around. I'm definitely looking forward to going back again.
The whole group of colleagues stayed at Links House in Dornoch. During this time we ate breakfast and dinner in the hotel restaurant which was closed to the public for the whole of our trip. We were treated like royalty.
They even raised the Swiss flag in honor of my husband and I being there.
Everything was absolutely fantastic. The staff were fabulous, nothing was too much trouble for them..
The food was amazing. Lots of local produce and fantastic flavours.
The menu changed daily and on the third day we had a BBQ with a big selection of items from the grill including salad.
The rooms were lovely, we stayed in Beauly which was a good size with a big walk-in shower. The bed was extremely comfortable with crisp cotton sheets.... It was difficult to drag myself out in the morning... There was a good supply of toiletries and fluffy towels.
We had an absolutely fantastic time, gained several pounds, but can't wait to go back again.
All the guys played golf for the whole 3 days but the 'partners' were offered the option to sightsee and do some touristy things in the area. I opted to take one day out and see some of the local sights and I fully enjoyed it. I had a driver who took me to Cawdor Castle a small but lovely castle to visit. Not too big that it became boring and it is still used today as the owner lives in a apartment inside the castle.
The gardens are beautiful too, I could spend hours just sitting and enjoying the sounds of nature and the smells in them. If you are in the area is definitely recommend spending a few hours here.
Lunch was arranged for me at the fabulous Culloden House Hotel.
All in all we had an absolute blast. It was a lovely place to visit, we ate amazing food, stayed in a fabulous hotel, played fairly good golf on great courses and were with an extremely nice bunch of my husband's colleagues.... Someone mentioned that they might repeat the event every two years..... I've already got the dates in my diary.
This was a trip of firsts for me. It was my first time to Amsterdam and The Netherlands and also my first experience of Air B&B.
My friend an I had an absolutely fabulous time. We loved everything about Amsterdam. The people were incredibly friendly, everybody chatted with us and appeared really relaxed. Maybe because they cycle to work and have a good work/life balance? I have no idea, but it made for a great trip.
We arrived on a Wednesday and left on the Saturday. We wanted to avoid the weekend tourists and if the amount of people we saw arrive on Friday afternoon was any indication - I'm glad we did. We did a few of the 'must see' tourist things but also spent a lot of time wandering along the canals and just enjoying the city.
Here are my thoughts on a few things that we did...
First opened in 1800 The Rijkesmuseum is the national Museum of The Netherlands dedicated to Art and History. The Art collection is huge with Paintings from Old Dutch maters such as Hals, Vermeer and of course Rembrandt. The building that houses the museum is beautiful and the museum is very well laid out, with lots of room around the exhibits for everyone to get a good view. It does get very busy so I'd advise getting there early. Even the cafe had a queue at 11.00am
The admission price was 17.50 euro, and I would recommend buying the tickets online to avoid queuing.
Museumstraat 1 Amsterdam
Van Gogh Museum
With the world's largest collection of Van Gogh paintings all under one roof The Van Gogh museum is a must see on any trip to Amsterdam. The number of 'recognisable' Van Gogh paintings here is just staggering. It was also really interesting to read about Van Gogh's letters to his brother and learn about his family life and a bit more of his history.
Tickets are 17.00euro each for adults and I definitely would buy them online in advance and try and get the 9.00am ones. This gallery was VERY busy when we visited on a Thursday in mid April (not the school holidays). There was a massive queue to buy tickets when we arrived at 8.30 and this was even longer when we left.
1071 DJ Amsterdam
Moco Museum - Banksy and Salvador Dali Exhibition
This was my absolute favourite thing in Amsterdam. I love the work of Banksy and to be able to see the HUGE collection here was a bonus. I had no idea the collection was here and we literally stumbled upon it as we walked to the Van Gough Museum. The tickets were only 12.50 euro and when we went there wasn't even a queue. Maybe not everybody knows Banksy ? Possibly people didn't know the exhibition was here ? I have no idea, but it worked to our benefit.
Museum Square - between the Rijkesmuesum and the Van Gough Museum.
Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in The Attic Museum)
This Museum was suggested by a friend and it was quite a surprise. In 1663 when people weren't allowed to celebrate Catholic mass this church was built hidden in the attic of one of the canalside houses. Before we got there I really thought it would be like a one room shrine, but its is an actual church.... quite amazing.
Keukenhof - Tulip Fields.
We were lucky to have some friends who live nearby Amsterdam who offered to take us to the tulip fields. You can get a coach, and there were LOTS of them, either online or through a hotel concierge. Its about a 40 min drive outside the city, but if you have time its certainly well worth doing. Its quite staggering how many tulips are here (apparently more than 7 million.
We visited for about 3 hours and didn't see everything.
Its 16 euro per adult to visit and then you are free to wander and relax in the beautiful grounds. There are plenty of spots to enjoy a snack or a coffee.
Its only open for the tulip season between March and May so check online.
So thats the touristy stuff out of the way.... where did we eat ??
We arrived into Amsterdam around 8.30 pm and so after we got to our houseboat it was quite late. We were tired and wanted to be able to eat quickly and get to bed early. We had dinner in Bar Mash which was very close to where we were staying. They serve Thai food and the Thai curry was delicious. We ordered a red curry and a penang curry with a couple of beers.
Service was speedy (just what we needed) and the food was as good as any I have had in Thailand. We got great service from very friendly staff.
Located in a very 'local' area De Pijp which is buzzing with restaurants and bars.
La Purete coffee
Fabulous little coffee shop in a beautiful building. We noticed it as we were photographing the buildings nearby. It got very busy with a local crowd taking their coffee to the office. The Vietnamese coffee was excellent and their apple muffins were scrummy too. .
We stopped in for breakfast, It is very close to the flower market.
The Lobby at Nesplein
I booked online a week or so before our trip and I'm glad I did as the whole restaurant was packed with tables turning over quickly. Most of the diners were locals, which is always a good place to be.
Service was very good - until after the starters were cleared away then it slowed down considerably. This wasn't a problem for us as we were happy to enjoy the atmosphere.
The food was excellent. The menu isn't huge - which is something I always like. I'm happier if restaurants offer fewer dishes and cook them well. The Lobby did just this. The food was tasty, well prepared and not too expensive.
I'd recommend this restaurant to friends visiting Amsterdam.
Tunes Bar at The Conservatorium Hotel
Our friends took us to this bar in the Conservatorium hotel and we had a fabulous time drinking gin and chatting to the bar staff. They had lots of knowledge about gin and made excellent recommendations based on our gin preferences. They were frienldy and chatted to us about Dutch gins and even gave us a great recommendation of where to buy local gins before we returned home. There was also a nice supply of nuts at the bar.
De Silveren Spiegel
In a 17th century building De Silveren Spiegel looks like it could collapse if there was a strong wind... We had a late dinner here with friends who live in Amsterdam. They only offer a set menu on Friday and Saturday which I think is good value for the quality of food, however there didn't appear to be much flexibility. The first courses were excellent, Service was also very good. Its quite a formal setting and the tables are laid out beautifully. For us things went slightly downhill with the meat course. We didn't feel the standard was as high as the fish courses, and the service also went slightly downhill... maybe it was too late, I'm not sure. I don't like rhubarb, which was the dessert and so I had to pay a supplement for a cheese plate instead (no alternative) and to be honest the cheese plate was pretty miserable. It was served with the same rolls we had when we arrived, but at this point in the evening they were really hard.
I would recommend this restaurant to friends - however I would suggest making a reservation on a night when the a la carte menu is served.
We stayed in a house boat I booked via the website Air B&B.
As I mentioned it was the first time I have used this site and so I was equally nervous and excited. Everything went smoothly so I had no reason to worry.
We arrived and Anne Marike was there at the house boat to meet us and give us the keys.
She explained how everything worked and gave a couple of tips for the evenings in Amsterdam. The boat was in a more residential area than the chaos of the main touristy streets and was a great location to start sightseeing and visiting the museums I wrote about above. The houseboat on Air B&B I'd use Air B&B again and I have just booked for a trip to Vienna and Budapest.... I'll update with a blog all about that trip in a few months.
I booked a room and table at Schloss Schauenstein as a present for my husband's 50th birthday. It is pricy. Its not an everyday kind of thing, but it was absolutely spectacular and the best meal experience we have had to date.
I use the words 'meal experience' because I really felt that from the moment we arrived to the moment we left the next morning we ate and drank such high quality delicious treats as well as an amazing meal that to simply describe it as 'dinner' somehow just isn't enough.
Andreas Caminada is the chef at Schloss Schauenstein and he has 3 Michelin Stars and 19 Gault Millau points. I'll be honest and tell you that I had never heard of him before a friend suggested this as a gift for my husband, but now I am firmly a fan.
Everything about Schloss Schauenstein was just perfect.
We were greeted warmly when we arrived and our car was parked for use whilst our bags were carried up to the 'Luft Suite' in the tower where we were staying. There was a lovely welcome note on the table for us with two beautiful chocolates.
Our suite was AMAZING. a great view of the local countryside and a bathroom stocked with Molton Brown toiletries, big towels and bathrobes. The hairdryer even had a diffuser...
After settling in (and eating the welcome chocolates) we decided to have a glass of champagne on the terrace. As a nice surprise this was complimentary as was a platter of delightful small snacks that arrived alongside it. The terrace was a lovely spot to wind down after the drive and to enjoy the beautiful sunshine that we were lucky enough to experience that day.
A lovely bubble bath followed the champagne before we descended the stairs to the bar for pre-dinner drinks.. and delicious amuse bouche from the kitchen.
Here are a few photos from the interior of the Schloss...
Dinner was 3, 4, 5 or 6 courses with the option to add 2 surprise courses... As it was a special occasion we opted for 6 courses and the 2 surprise courses.... and we couldn't think of a good reason not to...
From the moment we started eating the amuse bouche in the bar to the final plate of petits fours which were served with tea back in the bar EVERYTHING was delicious. In fact the word delicious doesn't really do justice to it.
At the table in the restaurant there was a little packet of cards with a description of each course printed on it. Anyone who has eaten in this type of fine dining restaurant will appreciate how much this really helps when actually eating the food ( and especially if you aren't giving the waiter 100% attention when he is describing each plate)
I have added lots of photos of the food as an album. I'm not going to bore you with descriptions of each dish, and I think the photos are enough to convince anyone how spectacular the food was...
At the end of the meal Chef Caminada came into the restaurant to greet the diners and spent several minutes talking to every table effortlessly switching between German, Italian and English. He is charming, friendly and deserves every bit of praise he gets. I can not say enough good things about Schloss Schauenstein.
The evening ended with fresh peppermint tea and petits fours in the bar..... which was just about as much as we could manage before we rolled up to bed......
The next morning we walked over to a small building alongside the castle for breakfast... which as I am sure you can guess was scrummy. We has champagne (we I did since I wasn't driving) a selection of juices, pastries, breads, cereals, cold meats, cheeses, and fresh fruit before being served perfectly cooked eggs. It was a truly perfect ending to what was an unforgettable experience.
If you get a chance to go to Schloss Schauenstein TAKE IT - you will not regret it!!
It is not easy to get a hotel booking as they are snapped up, but there are often cancellations so it is worth checking back on the website.
Schauenstein Schloss Restaurant Hotel
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