Thursday, September 24, 2009

Basics 'On Your Own' Questions To Ask

With so many choices available for planning a Chateau Holiday abroad you first need to determine how much time, effort and money you are willing to spend, with a big emphasis on ‘effort’.

Like anything, the more you put in to it, the more you will reap the rewards. If you really want to get the most for your money a prudent traveler must make serious efforts to research all the available options. Unless there is no other way, don’t plan an ‘On Your Own’ European trip for less than fourteen days.

It is also important to recognize that travel agencies can offer great assistance to you, despite the dozens of online options. Many tour operators sell their packages exclusively through travel agencies but some can be purchased direct. They even offer ‘On Your Own Tours’ but you can’t find the accommodations that I am trying to promote. With the Web at your fingertips the world is surely your oyster.

This Alternative Guide, is in no way meant to discourage travelers from seeking out travel agencies for their services. By all means stick with an agent you know, or one that comes highly recommended.

Now that you know Europe is your next vacation destination there are several questions one might ask to help narrow your plan of attack;

• How many days do I have to travel? Consider you will typically leave the US in late afternoon or early evening arriving in the morning, hence loosing a day of your holiday.

• Do I want to visit more than one country? If so, do you want to fly in to and back home out of the same airport?

• If one of your destinations is England how will you cross the English Channel?

• Keeping in mind this Guide is specifically written for “On Your Own” travel, do you wish to shop the numerous car rental agencies for the best rates or do you want a fly-drive (and maybe hotel) package? Another reason to call a travel agent.

• Keeping in mind that this guide was written to encourage and promote ‘alternative hotel accommodations’, do you 1) want to experience Chateau or Manor House living for some or all of your stay, or 2) try one of the many other offerings provided herein? Or is Holiday Inn what you are looking for?

• Do you want to prepay all costs prior to your trip (airfare, car rental, hotels) or just the airfare up-front? Prepaying hotel stays as much as six-months in advance can often get you a better rate and is something I do when negotiating rates. There is more on this subject further in this chapter.

• Might you have interest in utilizing the vast railroad system Europe has to offer? An American can find many terrific plans in the US for such travel. This author suggests visiting your local library and check out some of the brilliant travel books available on rail travel.

• Does a family member belong to a corporation that wouldn’t mind your utilizing their corporate account number? This can offer significant savings if you have a limited budget for hotels and car rental.

• If France is one of your destinations, do you plan to visit more than two museums while in Paris? A museum pass purchased in the US (though they are available in Paris) is the best way to experience as many museums your feet can stand.

• Would you prefer traveling in the spring, summer, fall, or winter? Pricing is drastically different during low seasons versus traveling from May to August. Are you prepared to negotiate your room rate? If yes is your answer, you need to know what other rooms are selling for in the same area, not to unlike purchasing real estate in the US.

Having traveled to Europe during the months of February, March, April, May, August, September and October, we have never traveled during the winter months. Most people however, want it reasonably warm when on vacation unless Skiing the Alps. You might also keep in mind if you’re visiting different climates on the same trip, you will need to bring clothing for both climates. This is especially important if planning to visit the Alps. To avoid that, travel from late-April to mid-September and should find that bringing a sweater or two (and maybe a light jacket) is all you’ll need for warmth.

These are just some of the questions you need to ask as you begin to make plans for this unforgettable holiday.

Copyright 10/16/2001 by Peggy S. Baker

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Passion of Chateau Travel

From the first moment checking-in to a Chateau for a three-night stay I knew I was profoundly changed forever. I knew holidays abroad would never be the same again. I knew that I had to continue working hard in order to retain the privilege of spending more nights in such wonder. Never did I imagine that someone like me could experience such splendor and history without going broke in the process.

When we first began this Chateau odyssey the Internet wasn’t in existence. Today, one can find most of the information they need on the Internet. Having spent the last twenty-27 years cataloging mountains of information, most of which was collected during our travels, I felt compelled to share things that have been most helpful during our travels, including my personal picks of as many accommodations that could be found.

For those choosing what is referred to as a “private residence” Chateau accommodation, it is crucial to remember these are not hotels (or public Chateaux) but private family homes who take in paying guests. This is not considered bed and breakfast, merely due to the status of the owners and your surroundings.  When staying at one of these private family homes please do not loose sight that you are in someone’s home. Room service may not be an option in many cases the freedom to roam just anywhere could also be limited.

Furthermore, making oneself ‘at home’ in some of these offerings is dictated solely at the discretion of the proprietor. You may not have access to the entire house/Chateau.  We personally do not prefer such accommodations, as we thoroughly enjoy room service and want to always feel welcome wherever we stay, especially when a paying guest.

My husband and I found this out first hand when staying at a Chateau in Montlouis-sur-Loire, France many years ago, when we were still green in our travels.  Further details of this adventure are posted a little further in this chapter.   This Chateau would ultimately be introduced to America via an MTV production called the ‘Real World’ followed a few years later by ‘Joe Millionaire’ which also took over the Chateau for one season. 

With the large number of stately residences scattered throughout Europe, these ancestral homes have become too costly to maintain. Though owners strive to keep these homes in their families, it has become more and more difficult for them to maintain on their own. There is a vast real estate market out there for manor houses, castles and chateaux primarily due to the maintenance costs. In order to supplement their expenses many private homes accept paying guests for the spring and summer seasons.   Most are not open during the winter, as many are not heated.  For those who like to boast you can even stay in the home of a Count, Countess, Baron, Princes and alike!   This however was not what inticed us to these surroundings, but history, and our appreciation of architecture as well as decorating and design.

During a stay at Chateau de la Bourdaisiere in the Loire valley several years back we were shown to our room by a Prince, whose own bedroom was right across the hall from ours. What was really uncomfortable to us there were no locks on the door to our room.   And not know who these people were from 'Adam', we did feel compelled to block our door when we went to sleep.  Think about it, as you are in someones’ home, most people don’t have locks on there inside doors. You certainly will not run into any crowds staying in these places. You might even be the only guests as we were.  One can feel very awkward and intimidated in this ‘family-home’ environment and personally feel it is more enjoyable staying in Chateaux that are not necessarily family operated.  Because of this one experience, we never chose private residences for our travels, as I don't want to go to bed frustrated when I am on a holiday abroad.

Though suggestions are will be offered throughout my posts, all of the accommodations included were previously published in guides available to anyone. You will also be provided with general information about the countries featured, along with as many suggestions as possible for “On Your Own” travel.

I feel it is imperative for serious travelers to obtain more than basic knowledge about the country they are visiting. In light of this authors opinion I have included abbreviated histories on the countries included in this guide. Not meant as a history lesson but to further your respect and appreciation of your destined vacation spot. To visit a country or castle with no knowledge of its historical significance seems a waste. To visit places that have been written in history books will most definitely plant rich memories for years to come.

Better-yet to experience an overnight accommodation in a 17th century French Chateau or 18th century manor house in England, or some of the other unique hotels mentioned is a vacation within a vacation. Your children can see where knights lived, and know they too have also slept there.

Speaking of children, throughout the years of our travels we have seen many families on European holidays. Those with infants and junior high or older don’t seem to have so many difficulties, however families attempting to see Europe with toddlers in strollers and young children in constant need of parents attention is not what I would call a stress-free vacation. Smaller children cannot appreciate the significance of so many European treasure’s, whether a museum, or monument or shopping or whatever... and not a great idea for parents trying to survive through a European vacation. This author’s personal suggestion is to use 5th grade as a “right to passage” for such an expensive vacation. You want your children to remember where they were, and give them hope for the possibility of returning someday with their own families. A trip abroad for a child of junior high age or older is an education in itself and could spawn many years of interest and discussions with peers for years to come. It could also spawn the desire to learn foreign languages that will potentially benefit them when they become adults.

As one cannot travel in this day and age without the concern for safety abroad, without attempting to dictate how one should act when out of the country, I have but a few comments to make.

We have spent significant time with the British as well as Europeans to learn precisely what they think of us.  Most of it has been good over the years, and not untill 911 and government policies enforced since that time has opinion become critical.   We have also learned first hand what they thought of our all of our elected government's going back as far as the Reagan years, which unfortunately, wasn't really respected to any great extent.
Over 25 years, politics (US and the World) have been through some critical times, and they aren't getting any less complicated.  We have personally found ourselves in some hairy situations over the years, that were outright intimidating and scary to us.  We never look for trouble abroad and is better to leave American politics and opinions at home when visiting another country. It is one thing to discuss politics when you have friends on foreign soil, but to raise a political conversation on your own you are most likely setting yourself up for confrontational experience which I don't believe most people intend to do when taking a pleasure holiday.

American foreign policy (especially since 2001) does not sit well with a majority of Europeans (or the British) and they will not be shy in telling you so.  They will not be shy in telling you that after a major conflict is fought on our soil (the U.S.) then we’ll talk again about who is right and wrong. Then, in the next breath they will thank you for saving their country in WWII.

As I never imagined the power of that little blue American Passport, when traveling through customs or through borders, one can still be a proud American without wearing a flag on your chest.  Just be careful of what you might say and who you say it to. The world is not the same thanks to 911.

Copyright 10/16/2001 by Peggy S. Baker

Chateau Holidays For A Lifetime - The Beginning

My ‘alternative’ European travel-blog guide is somewhat unique as it primarily features Chateaux, Castles, Manor Houses, Villas and some highly recommended luxury hotel accommodations, that we have personally experienced. Those featured aren’t limited to a specific hotel chain or corporation. Fine hotels are found easily these days on the Internet, but those suggested here are several notches above your ‘typical’ hotel room. We merely brush the surface into the ocean of accommodations that don’t get advertising in the US, or suggested by travel agencies.
The reality of it all may have something to do with the fact that agencies aren’t compensated (commissions) from chateau offerings, and as such isn’t profitable to suggest them and I don’t blame them. I still however utilize my travel agency for airfare and car rentals if at all possible as these travel professionals are most beneficial especially for those traveling for a living.

What this guide will not explore is the “Escorted Tour” vacation. Simply speaking for us, this is not the way we want to travel.   For some this is the way to go, but Guided tours will whisk you from city to city in a large coach bus and you’ll be herded in and out 4, 6, 8 times a day and see many beautiful cities. For seniors this is a great way to go (or not) but for the “normal working person”, in search of a relaxing but cultured experience, we feel these tours are not what they’re cracked-up to be.

During our travels we have met numerous American tourists at major attractions all over Europe taking these ‘cattle’ tours. Their stories are often similar, i.e. the sites have been great, hotels are okay but not always excellent. Coupled with an itinerary that is typically so rushed you need to rise at 5:30 a.m. in order to eat breakfast and make it to the bus on time so they don’t miss the next destination. Most people we’ve talked to would travel ‘on their own’ the next time. For those thinking they might sleep in a day or two when on an escorted tour abroad can just forget it. Please refer to your travel agent for such vacation packages.

In the many years my husband and I have been traveling we have learned much. We have concluded that without experiencing the numerous mistakes made along the way, we would never have gotten to the point we are now. I only wish the economy could return and give renewed confidence to spend money on travel NOW.  It is my sincere desire to share our experiences, good and bad, and to provide some basic common sense information to those in search of alternative ways to enjoy England, France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy to the fullest.

I have been so thoroughly impressed by some of the Travel Blog’s out there, so lovingly created, that adding one more, as primitive as it is, I sincerely hope to not disappoint those taking the time to read this.

I will soon be posting personal accounts from our many years of traveling with my husband along side, with exception to my first trip to England in 1981, when I felt the need to finally break free from youth and begin to experience travels I had dreamed of my entire life.

Copyright 10/16/2001 by Peggy S. Baker