Spreadsheetin’

First off, today is one of the BEST days of the year. It is the first day of fall which means we are now at the furthest point from being in summer again. YEAH!!!!!!!!

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I have to move to Vancouver one day. I want a “hot” day to be 80 degrees.

Moving on. This is crazy long, but a few of you asked about how I use spreadsheets and about my binder when I travel, so here you go! I use spreadsheets for every aspect of my life and I honestly don’t know how people keep up with life without them. Meal planning, race training, assignments at work, to do items at work, grocery lists, weekend errands I need to run and what I need to get at each stop, emails I need to send, packing, and specific things I need to do when I get home (unload the dishwasher, find X item, order a replacement card, pay a bill) all get spreadsheets They are my everything.

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Planning Spreadsheets

After we went to Europe, I wrote a trip planning post that talks about how I plan our trips, but this section will cover how I use the spreadsheets to make it happen.

Once you’ve set your overall agenda (as described in the above post) and the big things that are your “must see” places, then I start getting the details down of each day. I start with an overview agenda like this (the Overall Agenda Sheet).

capture1I research when things open, what requires a ticket with a specific entry time, how long it takes to travel between places, and what attractions are closest together and make the most sense to see on one day. I spend weeks on this. I move things around a lot, and often find that a lot of things have to be cut. I am constantly in contact via email with my travel group with questions like “Would you rather see 2 HP filming locations or Stonehenge,” “If we do Borough Market then we need to cut the British Museum,” or “How important is Notting Hill?”

I try to find the things that make the most sense logically (so we aren’t wasting a lot of time traveling all over a huge city) and are things that are important to the majority of people. Anne was desperate to see Borough Market, so it was easy to make that decision because it was a top priority for her. You have to make sure people are brutally honest about what is important to them so you don’t accidentally cut the ONE THING someone is most excited to see.

Once I get an overall daily schedule nailed down, then I start really getting into the details of the day (the daily agenda sheet). I figure out what is the logical order to see things in (based on what opens earliest and what is open latest), and start nailing down timing.

captureYou will see that I have the time to leave the apartment each morning and how long it will take us to get places. It made it easy each evening when my group would ask what time they needed to be ready to leave because I could give them a definite answer. It also helped with planning because we could have a conversation about whether it was too early each day (and if we needed to cut some stuff). We agreed that we could sleep at home, but if they had said “It’s my vacation and I don’t want to be up before eight,” then I would have made that work. Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t take a trip like this with someone who wanted to sleep in a lot. To me, it’s too much money spent to sleep the morning away (because by the time you get and get out the door it’s practically lunch). And I LOVE to sleep, but I am not spending $1000 to fly to England to sleep. To me, traveling is an incredible privilege and I never want to waste a second of it (this is different than planning a trip for the purpose of relaxing and recharging – like going to St. Thomas for a week to chill on the beach).

I send the daily agendas multiple times to people for feedback. I want to know if it seems like too much or if someone has changed their mind about doing something. It’s important to me that we are all on the same page and in agreement because we are all paying a lot of money for the trip and deserve to see the things that are important to each of us. Once we have all agreed to the daily schedule, then I send a budget (see below), and I start buying tickets online for everything I can. There were several places that we avoided long lines by having tickets in advance. I also liked that so many places had specific timed entries which also prevented waiting in a long line to get in somewhere. I never want to waste time waiting in a line or having to hang around a few hours until we can get in.

I take the daily agenda with me each day we are on the trip, and I will often set alarms on my phone (because I get totally wrapped up in what we are seeing and forget that we have a schedule). It does sometimes suck because you have to be the person to hurry people along (and tell them to eat faster) to get to the next thing, but that’s the choice we made when we decided to do as much we could.

I know that this is not everyone’s preferred method of travel, but I don’t know how else to fit everything in when you have a group, a small amount of time to see things, and a lot to see. When we have more time in a city, then I will try to get all of the “must do” things in at the beginning so we have the last part of our time there to wander around and explore without any time restraints. I don’t always schedule every city to this extent (in Oxford, the only thing on the schedule was the tour and the rest was just exploring).

Spreadsheets for Budgeting

The second most important reason for the spreadsheet is keeping track of costs. Once we have nailed down the daily agenda, and before I buy tickets, I send a cost estimate (see Cost sheet). This includes everything (except airfare) so that the group can see an overall estimated cost of the trip. This does not include gas, food, cost of public transportation, and souvenirs. Sometimes, we vote not to do something just because the cost is too much for how little time (or how low on the list) it is for us.

It is also helpful because I started booking this stuff this past spring, so it gave people plenty of time to pay for things. It also gives the group a chance to talk about if the places I’ve found to stay are too expensive. Sometimes you want a fancier place, but then you see the cost figured in with everyone else and change your mind.

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Having a plan and being able to buy tickets online not only saves money (there is usually small discount for buying in advance), but you start the trip having paid for almost everything already. When we arrived in London, all we needed was money for was food, gas for the car, and souvenirs. It made it much less stressful to plan financially because I had months to pay for things and didn’t need much when I arrived.

Again, this is not for everyone, but I have found it to be much easier to travel when I spend months slowly paying for things instead of worrying about saving for a big chunk a change upon arrival. It’s easier for me to swallow financially. I also recommend having someone look over your math. Doug always has to check my math when I plan our trips (he’s a banker, so his math skills are top notch) because I sometimes make mistakes.

The Travel Binder

When I traveled to Alaska many moons ago, I posted a picture of my travel binder:

img_2891 img_2893My binder isn’t full of women, but contains all of the information I might possibly need while on the trip. I print off all confirmations emails for everything we are going to. This includes any hotel reservations, tickets to places or shows, and air reservations. If I’ve booked anything at all, then I print that baby off. I also print off any special instructions or directions from their websites. My phone has not worked at crucial moments too many times to rely on it for information.

I also print of the descriptions of all hotel, AirBnB, or VRBO rentals. The hotel info helped me get a refund when we arrived after a hotel had closed in Germany because nowhere on their Hotels.com page did it list a time that you had to be checked in by. It also helps in case the amenities listed aren’t available (like that damn washing machine!). I print the AirBnB and VRBO listings on the day I book them so that I have a record if anything changes (because a web listing can quickly be changed to reflect that the thing you complained about never existed).

In addition to those thing, I also print off directions to places we will be traveling. It wastes paper, but, again, you can’t always rely on having solid service for navigation. I printed off directions between places like Oxford to Gloucestershire, as well as directions in London to navigate to the play from places like the Tower of London. Thankfully, it was super easy to get around London, but I am still wary after the struggle we had in Paris (so many types of trains!). Anyway, I would rather have too much information than not enough. It also helps me estimate the actual amount of time it will take us to travel between places. I usually tack on 15-30 minutes of extra time to what the map route tells me because life happens and sometimes you get lost, someone needs a snack, people need to hit the bathroom for an extended period of time, or you can’t physically fit your body on the first train that comes because it’s 5:30 PM on a Tuesday.

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The travel binder also contains all of the daily agendas and overall agenda (see above). I don’t always use a binder because it can take up too much space. For the last couple of trips I’ve separated the travel documents by city (or by day) into large brown clasp envelopes. This makes it easier for me to grab the info I need by day and stick it in my backpack. I then throw them away once we’ve finished that city and I don’t need the information any longer. I am frequently surprised by how often the printed confirmations are necessary. I’ve gone to pick up tickets that don’t exist on more than one occasion, and the confirmation saves me every time!

Packing

When it comes to packing, I use a spreadsheet to list everything I need. I honestly don’t know another way to pack. I’ve been using this method since middle school, and it’s never done me wrong. I change it based on where I’m going and what I need specifically, but a lot of it stays the same. I print it out, cross items off as I pack them, and highlight the things I will pack right before I leave (so they stand out more). Then I check over it one last time before I leave my room to make sure I got everything. You can see my list here.

captureFor the medicine, I don’t take a full box or bottle of those things. I usually take one sheet of the pills (like Mucinex) or put a few pills in a tiny plastic baggy (with a label of course). I keep them all together in a small bag so they are easy to find. I keep the Excedrin, Pepto, and Tums in my day bag so that they are always on me. I never want a day to be ruined because I’m sick to my stomach while out and about, so I try to be prepared. When I went to India I didn’t take Mucinex with me and I had a bad cold that I couldn’t shake for two weeks. I will never travel without it again.

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I will also make another list of things by bag. I list what I need to load in my backpack for the plane and what needs to go in the backpack during the day once there (water pouch, camera, extra battery, portable charger, rain jacket, medicine, sunglasses, confirmation emails for the day…). I take the backpack list with me on the trip and it makes it a lot easier for me to get everything together each night on the trip when I’m tired and not thinking clearly. I don’t want to waste time scrambling around trying to remember what I need for a day in London.

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So, I hope that answered it. None of it is innovative, so if you have ideas, please feel free to share them!

Travel Debrief

I did some things differently this trip, and Sari suggested I write down all the lessons I learned and put them in my backpack for next time. She has no faith in my ability to learn and remember.

1. The backpack was AWESOME! I still packed way too much stuff and took two pairs of shoes I didn’t even wear (my pack weighed 44 pounds and Sari’s was 17 on our way home), but it was so much easier to travel with. When I was schlepping up the cobblestone street in Windsor, I was SO THANKFUL to not be dragging Big Sheila.

I do need to figure out how best to carry my in-flight essentials instead of using another backpack (it was like a heat sandwich when I was wearing both), but otherwise I was very happy with it. It was also way easier to fit our bags into the limited trunk space in our rental car because our backpacks were much more flexible than the rolling suitcases. Also way easier when climbing the four narrow flights of stairs up to our apartment in London. Never underestimate the misery of stairs or cobblestones with a rolling suitcase!

IMG_7584.jpg2. Sari told me I needed a cover to protect my backpack if I checked the bag (she uses a cloth laundry bag from summer camp when she was 9), so I bought a nice Osprey rain cover. When I excitedly showed her, she noted that it doesn’t usually rain in the airport and that it would be a pity to have a nice cover ruined. We did end up checking our bags on the way home because we had no need to hurry upon landing, and I used this mesh sports bag to put the pack in. It was a perfect fit and kept it protected. Endless thanks to Sarah for leaving a comment suggesting it!

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3. The packing cubes were also great. I was so glad to have them. When we were in the canal boat there was very little room for stuff (obviously because it’s a narrow little vessel), but I was able to pull things out and pile them up without it being a crazy mess.

I organized my bags by “type of item,” so I had a bag for undergarments, electronics (cords and such), socks, jeans, jackets, pajamas, medicine (I will never travel without Mucinex and Tums!), sleep necessities (glasses, eye drops, ear plugs, fan, night medications, and eye mask so I could just grab it to take to bed with me), shoes, hair tools…. I used my label maker to label them and it was super easy to dig and find stuff. It also made packing in a hurry easy because I could just shove it all in there without having to worry about folding. I think I packed some of the bags too full, and next time I will put less in them so that they are easier to shove into tight spaces.

I was also impressed with how well the Pack-It Garment Folder kept my shirts from wrinkling, especially the sweaters (I still don’t know why I thought I needed a sweater other than my Slytherin cardigan, but my foolish ways surprise me not).

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4. I bought a little travel fan after our last trip to Europe! I have a bigger one I take on trips with the family (because we don’t fly and I have more room), but this little guy was perfect to travel overseas with. Some of you may remember me complaining from our trip to Europe in 2014 when I had such a hard time sleeping because the rooms were so stuffy, and the windows didn’t always open. I NEEDED AIR. I used it every night (and any time I was sitting using my laptop because there was NO AIR FLOW) and I didn’t need to change the batteries, so that was nice.

5. I also bought a little backpack to carry during the day. I looked at hundreds of backpacks and ordered at least 10 to look at before I found the one. I wanted that was small enough that I wouldn’t have to check it when we visited places, but could carry a water bottle, my camera, and a rain jacket. I had too much stuff crammed in my cross body purse when we went to Europe last time, and it gave me a lot of neck and shoulder pain. This one from North Face carried everything I needed (and more), and maintained a slim profile. It also had several smaller pockets which were perfect for holding little items.

6. Since my camera was jack up and I had to use my phone to take all of my pictures the last few days of the trip, I was thankful to have this portable charger on me. I had a smaller charger I took on our last trip, but it was only enough to charge my phone once. There were several days were my phone was dead again before dinner. I was thankful to have this one in my little backpack since I constantly had my phone on for the map, pictures, and Snapchats (Were there too many? I feel like I can never see enough Snaps when someone travels.). It charged my phone multiple times as well as the phones of my travel companions. It was also slim enough to carry in my small cross-body purse on the days I just used it (because we were in and out of the car and I didn’t need to carry much for a two hour walk around a cathedral).

Insignia™ - 15600 mAh Portable Charger - Black/Gray - Front Zoom

7. Before we went on our Alaska trip in 2011, our mom gave Sari and me each one of these foldable water pouches. We’ve traveled with them ever since! When they are empty they fold up or lay flat, and they are so easy to carry when you are out and about. I always carry mine with me during the day because water is not always as easy to find as I would like it to be. The clip also makes it easy to attach to a bag in case it won’t actually fit inside it when full. Sari demonstrating how to drink from it like a proper lady:

8. I’ve mentioned this multiple times, but I LOVE this thing. I have often found that bedrooms in Europe have only one outlet (if that). This thing is nice because it is small, but it has two USB ports in addition to the regular plugs. I can charge my computer, the little charger above, and two phones on it overnight. I don’t go anywhere without it.

9. Someone left a comment about sleeping on the plane and two people emailed me about jet lag. I don’t really have any especially innovative advice other than to just power through. I usually don’t sleep well the night before going on vacation because I’m too busy worrying about all the things that can go wrong, so once I get on the plane I can usually get some solid naps in. I take my eye mask and ear plugs, and do my best to sleep. If the flight is over eight hours, I have taken something like Simply Sleep (I did this on the way to Munich in 2014 and I got a solid sleep in).

My flights overseas have always landed in the morning thus far, so I do my best to stay up the entire first day after we land. It’s usually not hard because I have a packed schedule and am super jazzed about being there, but I will take caffeine tablets or get a coffee (as a desperate last resort) to make it happen. It’s not always the most fun, but I’m so tired by that first night that it’s pretty easy for me to get into the new schedule and fall asleep. I also usually take some Simply Sleep just to make sure I’m able to stay asleep that first night. I have gone to bed at 9 pm only to be wide awake at 2 am for hours. That is not what I want.

On the way back home, I just try to sleep as much as I can. I’m usually so exhausted from going non-stop on the trip that I fall asleep before the plane takes off. It’s not great sleep, but it helps me get back on track when I get home. We got home Saturday night, I took a Simply Sleep to make sure I slept, then I forced myself to stay up all day Sunday until bedtime. It sucks, but you have to stay awake as long as you can!

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We are taking another trip in a couple of months, so do you have any travel tips you’ve figured out that we can all benefit from?

That Trip Planning Post

Several of you asked the same kinds of questions, and although I am clearly no expert on this, I am certainly happy to share how I planned our trip. So, hopefully someone finds this helpful in some small way. This is so long. So long. ALL THE ADVICE.

1. Decide where you want to go.

I know, such great advice, but you have to do it. When we first started talking about trip we wanted to do Belgium. Then we added Germany. Then we wanted to go to Amsterdam and then we wanted to go to the Normandy beaches and Paris. Then, all the places.

2. Determine how much time you can actually be gone.

Two weeks.

3. Figure out where you really really really want to go because you only have two weeks and you don’t own a time turner. Yet.

I looked at all of the areas we discussed and sent Sari and Doug a list asking them to rank places based on how absolutely important they were to them. We all agreed that the following were our top priorities:

Eagle’s Nest/Bavaria
Belgium
Normandy Beaches
Paris

4. Look at flights.

Since we had very specific dates that we had travel on because like most adults we all have jobs with varying constraints, we didn’t have the flexibility which might have saved us money on our airfare. We figured we would have to fly in one city and out another, so I looked at various combinations between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, and Salzburg just to get an idea of what was most logical and cost efficient.

5. Talk to people who have been there.

We were exceptionally lucky to have so many great resources for our trip in people we know. Doug’s cousin is married to a man from Belgium, so he gave a lot of advice about what to see and what to skip. We initially planned to spend most of our time in Belgium in Brussels. He advised us to check out Bruges or Antwerp and to be sure we didn’t miss Bastogne. Bastogne was in our “maybe” list and I honestly had never even thought about Bruges (what regret I would have had without his advice).

Additionally, Jenifer’s cousins had just returned from a trip to Germany and Belgium, so hearing their experiences was very helpful in our planning (They also emphatically endorsed Bruges). I also reached out to people who read this blog and live in that part of Europe. Gretchen from Eat More Carbs is an American living in Germany with her husband which was a very useful perspective to have. She answered a ton of my questions about how feasible it was to drive over there and gave us great advice such as making sure we had a lot of cash as few places take credit cards (and thank God for that because my credit card worked on very rare occasions even though I got one with the chip and told my bank where I needed to use it).

The information we received from people really helped us narrow down what we should see and what we should expect in different areas (such as planning for a lot of extra driving time because of construction).

6. Decide on a basic route.

This was the point when we compared flights and realized that flying into Munich and out of Paris made the most since in terms of flight times and arrivals. We would leave Texas on a Saturday and arrive in Munich Sunday morning and fly out of Paris on Saturday morning. Our flights were about $1300 each. There were cheaper options, but many of them had layovers of 10+ hours or left at odd times that would have wasted that entire Sunday. It was worth it to us to pay a little more and gain an entire afternoon and evening in Munich.

DSC_0052.jpgThe flights were the deciding factor for us in where our trip would begin and end.

7. Determine your pace of travel.

I asked Sari and Doug if they wanted the trip to be fast-paced with us seeing as much as we could by covering a lot of ground quickly and spending little time in each location or something more in-depth where we would spend several days at a time in fewer cities. We all grew up traveling with parents who prefer the fast-paced “power through and see as much as humanly possible” style of travel, so that is what we chose.

I think it is imperative to be on the same page with this. I have been on trips with friends whose ideal vacation is shopping and relaxing. To me, that seems like a huge waste of time when there is so much to see whereas they see the entire point of a vacation as chance to rest and relax. It has ended in massive arguments where we didn’t speak for weeks after. So, be on the same page for the sake of your friendship.

8. Find a map.

I opened Google maps and started trying out different routes and itineraries. I used a spreadsheet and created different routes in their own tab. The routes not only had differing locations (such as going to Amsterdam versus Berlin), but they had different numbers of days in different cities.

It didn’t take me long to realize that if we went to Amsterdam we were going to give up almost all of our time in Belgium and have very little time in Normandy. I told Sari and Doug this and we agreed to cut out Amsterdam. It was sad, but it was just too far out of the way this time. Sophie’s Choice.

9. Pick a route.

Doug and Sari both wanted a few days of flexibility where we could decide as we went (my nightmare), so I changed some of the plans to reflect that. After reviewing the different options we agreed on a general plan of Munich > Eagle’s Nest > Neuschwanstein Castle > several days of mystery in Belgium > Normandy > Paris.

10. Hotels

I wanted to book as many hotels as possible before we arrived because I wasn’t sure how easy that would be to do over there without cell service and I was afraid the reasonably priced rooms would be gone. Our goal was to stay under $150 a night and in many cases we had completely lovely rooms for under $100.

I used hotels.com (not sponsored) because I find their website to be the cleanest and most functional. I like to find hotels by looking on the map and selecting them so I can find the best price closest to where we want to be. Telling me that something is 2.2 miles from the city center is pretty worthless. I have to see it.

Then, I read all of the reviews and made a decision based on that. Complaining that a room is tiny or that there wasn’t an elevator is pretty useless in my opinion. You are paying $100 for a room in a major city in Europe, the only option is small. I am more interested in information like cleanliness of the room, proximity to the metro, loudness of the area, and if it was a sketchy area.

When booking the rooms I didn’t pay much attention to the amenities outside of free parking. I didn’t pay attention to the offer of a free breakfast because I almost never eat the continental breakfast in the U.S. We were pleasantly surprised to find that everywhere we had a complimentary breakfast was a delicious buffet of fresh and wonderful foods (CHEESE). I would certainly advise you try to get hotels with that option because we were never disappointed. Also, free wi-fi (or “wiffy” as they call it hahahahahaha) is nice. It was free most places, but when we did have to pay, it was not cheap.

The only hotel I would say was sketchy was the one we stayed in on our first night in Paris, but we were desperate for anything under $200 at that point. Everywhere else we stayed was clean, in a nice area, and had a very hospitable staff. So, based on that, I would say their reviews seem to be reliable.

I also like hotels.com because you can book a lot of the rooms without paying for them at that point. This relieved a lot of my stress because I could book something, but still had the flexibility to change my mind as I learned more about the various areas or we changed our minds about what we wanted to see.

My biggest advice about booking rooms in the countries we visited is to make sure you read the fine print regarding check-in times.

I tried to find places that had a late check-in because I knew we were going to be on the road past dinnertime on several nights, but we only had a problem in Füssen. I still claim not guilty on this because they did not have any information about a check-in time anywhere on their page (and still don’t). I would advise you to call your hotel if you think you will be arriving after 6 pm. Better safe than sorry and locked out in the cold rain at 10 pm in a foreign city.

The other resource we used was vrbo.com. Doug has several friends who use that for booking places to stay on vacation and love it. I had never heard of it, so I was really skeptical. If we had stayed more than two nights in another city we would have used it more, but as it was we were only able to use it in Paris. We booked our apartment there through them and we were very happy with the experience. I will definitely use them again and the prices were significantly less than if we had booked a hotel (in Paris at least) and the location was wonderful. It was also fun to be in an apartment in a neighborhood as I feel like we got a more authentic experience (I know that’s cheesy, but it’s true). Our hostess gave us a lot of information about where she does her grocery shopping, great little restaurants, and the best places to get a drink. I thought it was lovely.

11. Things to do

Other than the advice we received from friends, I mainly used Trip Advisor for information about what to do. From their forums I got ideas for things to do in Munich, which tour company to use for Eagle’s Nest, advice on visiting Neushwanstein, information about Bastogne, and tips for the Normandy area. I have not found a better source than that and there was information on everything (such as how to take the train from Munich to Eagle’s Nest).

For the ease of financial planning and to avoid long lines, I purchased as many tickets in advance as I could. I also prepaid for hotels when we had a concrete plan in place for that destination. Sari and Doug could then pay me and not have to worry about making sure they had money for those things on the trip. We were able to skip a lot of long lines thanks to having tickets in advance. It limits flexibility, but to me it’s worth the time saved.

12. Method of travel

The last major decision we made was about our method of travel. If my sister and I had gone alone, then we would have traveled by train for the entirety of the trip. But, since we had a competent driver with us, traveling by car was a fun and relatively easy experience (except in Paris). It was a lot easier to navigate in Germany when I had a German SIM card, but our car GPS got us places eventually. Driving in Germany and Belgium was much easier than in France. I realize this is somewhat offensive, but drivers in France DNGAF. If you have someone who is a capable and patient driver (I am neither of those), then I highly recommend it. It was great to be on our own schedule and to stop when and where we wanted.

IMG_2003.jpgOverall, there isn’t anything I would have done differently on this trip. There were a lot of places we wanted to stop at, but we just ran out of time. That’s to be expected, but it just gives us more of a reason to go back.