How to Tell If A Tour is Good Value or Not


We break down an $850 11-day tour of France, Switzerland, and Italy — its real costs, pros and cons — and discuss the questions you have to ask before signing up for any tour.

Descent_Venice_02

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Yesterday, a friend asked me to take a look at a tour he was considering going on later this year. I’m hardly a tour expert but, from experience, I think there are basic questions we need to ask before we decide to take a tour or not.

First, a few points:

  • On the road, I’ve met people who proudly say they “never do tours” and I think that’s a shame. There are good tours and bad tours, and even good tours have their pros and cons. The trick is to figure out whether a tour’s pros outweigh its cons far enough to make its price worth it.
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  • I usually go DIY because I have to stick to a certain budget and because when it comes to itineraries, I’m often fiercely independent to a fault. That said, I have loved many of the tours I’ve joined; there is a lot to be gained by listening to a local or an expert. A few favorites come to mind:
    • The tour with an archaeologist at the Colosseum in Rome — fascinating, plus signing up for a tour gets you through the mile-long lines much more quickly
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    • The Louvre tour with an art historian a/k/a how the French feel when people go to their museum only to see an Italian work of art 😀
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    • The tips-basis walking tour we joined in Munich, learning about the Beer Hall Putsch and the Kristallnacht and standing in a square where Hitler had marshalled his army
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    • Our Highlands tour with Andrew MacDonald which brought up a lot of surprising parallels between Scotland and the Philippines and touched on a lot of the things that I personally value very much, like freedom and loyalty and family
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      UK_05_c1

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Now back to the topic. 🙂

How to dissect a tour

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Below are the basic questions that will help you decide whether a tour is good value or not:

  1. What does the tour include? What doesn’t it include?
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  2. How much does the tour really cost when you add the “hidden” charges?
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  3. What are the tour’s stops? How much time do you spend in each stop? Is the time per stop consistent with your goals for the trip?
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  4. What are the tour’s advantages and disadvantages?
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  5. Given all of the above, is the tour worth it for you? If you don’t take the tour, do you have the time or resources to come up with an alternative itinerary?

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Continue reading

Paris. Is. Possible.

On the third anniversary of my first ever European trip, I thought I’d go back to the basic, underlying message of this blog: you can do it too. And what better place to feature than Paris, where this love affair with travel (and writing about it) all began.

Paris_Gaya_SGMTIt was exactly three years ago that I first stepped foot in Paris. Before that day, I’d thought European trips were only for rich people so I hadn’t even dared to dream of Paris or Rome or Venice. But one day my sister found a seat sale to Paris and, on a crazy impulse, we decided to go for it. In the months between the day we bought the tickets and the day of our departure, we scrimped and force-saved every extra cent we had. The day after every payday, once the bills were paid, I would literally have no money left for non-essentials. It was difficult to give up the little luxuries that had made ordinary life more enjoyable but in the end it was worth it: I was there, in Paris, on the 6th of October, breathlessly climbing up the steps of Champ de Mars station, and catching my first ever glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.

If there’s one thing I would like to share with anyone who also dreams of going to Paris, it’s this: it’s possible.

And not only is it possible, it’s very doable.

It starts with a dream. You have to tell yourself that you are going to Paris. And you have to set a goal date for it, otherwise it will remain one of those dreams that are always dancing just beyond the horizon of reality.

Next: you have to start. Now. Start saving at least for the airfare, which will probably take up the biggest chunk of your budget. Save for your airfare first because airlines regularly have seat sales and the best way you can snap up cheap tickets is if you already have the means to pay for them — luck favors the prepared. Once you have the tickets, you can slowly pay off or save for other travel expenses: this month, accommodations; next month, food; etc.

And then…you just gotta do it. Once you spot an opportunity, go ahead and grab it. Say YES to the dream and, if necessary, figure out the details of how you’ll do it later.

one week paris_php50000

The budget

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Some people say there’s no point in going to Paris if you’re not going to spend freely and enjoy — as if happiness is measured by the price you pay for it. Other people say that PHP 50,000 will only cover hotels — that it will not include food and certainly will not include airfare. And that’s fine if they think that way. (Ssshhh…the benefit of some people having that mindset is that the rest of us have less competition for the low airfares. But don’t tell them.)

However, if you’re willing to open your mind a bit, and you’re not too particular about the thread count of your bed sheets or the number of Michelin stars in your food, a 1-week Paris vacation is possible for only PHP 50,000.

Here’s the breakdown:

7 days in Paris for php 50000_updated 06Oct2015

The details

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Airfare
. As mentioned above, airfare will be your biggest expense and you will have to keep your eye out for promos and seasonal price drops. What I do is I check Skyscanner every now and then for low fares. Right now, for example, Skyscanner shows flights from Manila to Paris for only PHP 21,169 (via Oman Air). You can’t book flights on Skyscanner but they will give you links to the booking websites — such as Expedia or the airline website itself — that are offering that price. (See this article for other ways to stay updated on seat sales and promo fares.)

Skyscanner prices as of 06 October 2015

Skyscanner prices as of 06 October 2015

Schengen visa fee. This is a standard fee that the French embassy charges for processing your visa application. (See this article for a step-by-step guide in getting a Schengen visa at the French embassy.)

Travel insurance. This is required to get the Schengen visa you will need to enter France. The price of PHP 1,135 for a 7-day trip to France is offered by Blue Cross, which I personally use because it’s so easy to get (see details here). Other travel insurance companies might charge more or less for the same coverage.

Schengen travel insurance_Blue Cross_as of 06 October 2015

Blue Cross prices as of 06 October 2015

International travel tax. This is standard as well. Sometimes the travel tax is even incorporated into the airfare so that’s one less thing you will have to budget for.

Accommodations. It goes without saying that you can’t expect a 5-star hotel for this sort of budget but if you’re not too choosy, you can find fairly decent lodgings at this price. (A friend stayed at the OOPS! Hostel for only 30 euros per night, including breakfast.) What I do is I search for accommodations at Booking.com and filter the results based on my budget. Low-priced options with fairly good reviews include the Generator Paris and the St Christopher’s Inn Paris – Gare du Nord. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, I can personally recommend the Grand Hotel du Loiret, the Hotel Terminus Lyon, and the Hotel Le Notre Dame Saint Michel.




Booking.com


Food. Again, you can’t expect multi-course meals at Michelin-starred restaurants at this budget but you can still eat reasonably well. Of course, you’re in France and it would be a shame if you don’t get to try classic French cuisine at least once. What I usually do is I splurge on 1 or 2 good meals and eat frugally for the rest of the trip. See this article for tips on how to save on food while traveling. (Hint: supermarkets are your best friend.)

Transportation. Ideally, you should stay near the city center so you can walk to most of your destinations for the day. When you must take the Metro, you can save by buying a “carnet” — a book of 10 tickets — for €14.40. (A single ticket costs €1.80 so you save €3.60 when you buy a carnet.)

Miscellaneous expenses. You’ll notice that the PHP 50,000 budget does not specifically include things like admission to the Louvre or the fee for going up the Eiffel Tower. You can use the miscellaneous expenses budget for those costs. Do keep in mind, though, that there are many free things to do in Paris. Even the Louvre is free on certain days. (See: 3 Things That Will Surprise You About Paris.) A simple Google search could save you tons of money.

Entrance to the gorgeous Notre Dame cathedral is free

Entrance to the gorgeous Notre Dame cathedral is free

And that’s it

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…a one-week PHP 50,000 budget for Paris. Of course, it’s a very basic budget so it would be great if you can save more than PHP 50,000 for your trip. But definitely you don’t need to be wealthy to fulfill your Paris dreams. If you want it enough, and you’re willing to make a few sacrifices for it, Paris is definitely possible. Happy travels! 🙂

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Paris is possible: 1 week in Paris for only PHP 50,000 | This is an updated version of an article previously published in this blog. | © Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.  

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Sample Cover Letter for Schengen Visa Application at the French Embassy

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A cover letter is one of the requirements when applying for a Schengen visa at the French embassy. In the letter, you’re supposed to explain the purpose of your trip and your proposed day-to-day itinerary. If you’re applying for a visa and you need some ideas for what to say in the letter, how long the letter should be, et cetera, here’s what my 2011 cover letter looked like:

Slight cheesiness alert

Slight cheesiness alert 😀

The itinerary in this letter is only an overview; I submitted a more detailed one as an attachment.

A sample cover letter is included in our Schengen Visa Pack. Other incredibly helpful contents include:

  • A sample Affidavit of Support, which you can use if someone else, like your parents or your boyfriend, is paying for your trip
  • A detailed itinerary template, which includes a budget column to help you prove financial capability for your trip
  • Tips and things you need to know about “show money” requirements for visas

You can learn more about how to get the Schengen Visa Pack HERE. (We accept payments through Cebuana Lhuiller, PayPal, and BPI deposit/transfer, so it’s very easy and convenient.)
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The checklists inside the Schengen Visa Pack are based on the official checklist of the Italian embassy but most Schengen countries have similar requirements anyway so I’m sure you will find them helpful, even if you’re applying at the French or another embassy. (Do make sure that you check with the official embassy/VFS/VIA websites for any new/special requirements they might have.) The sample cover letter, the itinerary template, and the sample Affidavit of Support can definitely be used for any Schengen country.

Also available:

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Good luck and happy travels!

 


 

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Immigration officer tips

 


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paris php50000

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© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. Thanks to Jasmin of Artistitch for the post inspiration!

 


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The Paris river bus

Paris Batobus sights 000

Paris is beautiful from a boat.

Well, it would be beautiful from anywhere, I suppose, but a boat is a good way to see the sights along the Seine river in relative comfort.

Paris Batobus sights 02

There are various boat companies running sightseeing tours. A 1-hour cruise on Vedettes de Paris — the boat pictured passing under the gorgeous Pont Alexandre III bridge above — costs 14 €. Vedettes du Pont Neuf is currently running a spring promo, with erstwhile 14 € cruises now only 9-10 €. Cruise tours by Bateaux Parisiens also cost 14 €.

But for just a couple more euros, a one-day Batobus pass (16 €) will allow you to get on and off as often as you like, or stay on the boat the whole day if you should feel like it. The two-day pass is an even better value at 19 €. Batobus has 8 stops along the river — including ones near the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, the Hotel de Ville, and the Louvre — so it’s a great way not only to see the sights along the river but also to get from one Paris attraction to another.

Paris Batobus stop

The hop-on hop-off Batobus in Paris

Paris Batobus sights 01

In our case, we were staying at the Grand Hotel du Loiret, only a stone’s throw away from the Hotel de Ville and a short walk from the Batobus stop of the same name, so we found being able to hop-on and hop-off very convenient.

The Batobus is especially invaluable during inclement weather. It rained constantly the last time we were in Paris, so sometimes we would just stay inside the boat and sightsee from its dry, warm seats.

Paris Batobus sights 04

Paris Batobus sights 05

Paris Batobus sights 06

Pretty good deal, right?

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The Paris river bus” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 

 


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The Road to Chateau d’If

View from the grounds of the Chateau d'If

View from the grounds of the Chateau d’If

While waiting for a boat to take us from the Chateau d’If to the rest of the Frioul islands, my sister and I fell into conversation with a Taiwanese lady named Sophie, who was in the south of France to select wines for her F&B company. When she learned we were from the Philippines, she proudly told us she had two Filipina friends who were working as domestic helpers back in Taipei.

Sophie expressed a deep respect for her friends: whereas most people would whine about how tired they were from work, her friends slaved without complaint and even prayed for side jobs so that they could send more money back home. From their example, Sophie said, she learned to appreciate what she had. Her job might sound heavenly, but in exchange for getting to visit chateaus and vineyards, taste delicious food and sip the world’s best wines, she has to live out of a suitcase and never stay in one place for long. Because of her Filipina friends, though, Sophie has learned not to complain; as it is, there were so many people in the world who did not have enough to eat. And my sister and I were very lucky, she pointed out: her two Filipina friends had to work hard to support their families, while there we were in the south of France, basking in the Mediterranean sun.

Sophie and Lei, waiting for the ferry

Sophie and Lei, waiting for the ferry

To a great extent, we really are very lucky. I won’t apologize for it: our parents came from poor families, but they have worked very hard to give us a good start, and we ourselves have studied hard and worked hard to get to where we are now. At the same time, no matter how hard we work, we will never be on the same level of comfort as the Zobels or the Henry Sys of this world, not even if we win the lottery ten times. And there are people who work harder than we do and still will only have enough to get by, one day at a time. So to a certain extent, there is indeed some luck involved. In the great lottery of life, we relatively lucked out; we worked with what we had, and life took us somehow, through twisted paths, to Chateau d’If on a warm October afternoon.

Entering one of the cells in Chateau d'If

Flowers in memory of Edmond

Funny to be contemplating about life and fortune in this rocky island off Marseille, where the fictional Edmond Dantes had his life and fortune unjustly taken away from him for countless years. The world isn’t fair, we know that now. Many of us have troubles of our own: challenges, hurts, many of them richly undeserved. But if The Count of Monte Cristo tells us anything, it’s that we won’t always be down and out; the wheel of life will turn. Maybe all we need to do is hang in there for a bit; count our blessings. (Also, it probably won’t hurt to start chipping away at the rocks.)

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The Road to Chateau d’If” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. Parts of this post were previously published in the post “The Lottery of Life.”

 


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7 days in Paris for PHP 50,000

1000w_paris_seine_01

Over a year ago, I wrote How Much Does A European Trip Cost, where I advised people to budget PHP 10,000/day of their trip. That estimate was largely based on a 10-day trip my sister and I took a few years ago and included everything from:

  • Airfare (Cebu-Manila-KL-Paris-KL-Manila-Cebu)
  • Hotels (all double/twin en suites in central locations)
  • Sleeper trains: Paris-Venice, Rome-Paris, and Paris-Nice
  • Daytime trains: Venice-Rome, Nice-Marseille, and Marseille-Paris
  • Ferry trip to Chateau d’If and the Frioul Islands
  • Batobus (Paris) and vaporetto (Venice) passes
  • Admission fees (Louvre, Orsay, the Colosseum, etc.)
  • Food and local transport

…and other miscellaneous stuff. (See: 10 days in Europe: A sample itinerary for France and Italy)

People who actually lived in Europe — ie, people who knew better — told me PHP 10,000/day was too much, but I figured it was a quick, memorable, reasonable rule-of-thumb, and explained:

If I had to describe my travel style, I’d say it’s frugal but comfortable. There are travelers who like to compare trip costs — the cheaper, the better — but I don’t. My personal goal is not to have the cheapest vacation, but to have the best vacation within a reasonable budget, and I tend to be willing to pay a bit more for something if it means I would be happier during my trip.

(Like, you know, centrally located twin en suites.)

But then, this month, I had to write this Rappler article, and I challenged myself to come up with a budget that wouldn’t take an extremely long time or an extremely frugal pre-trip lifestyle to achieve.

So — apologies for the needlessly long intro! — here it is:

7 days in Paris for php 50000

As you can see, the airfare gobbles up half the budget and is a lucky, low-season rate at that — you’ll have to keep an eye out for seat sales or periodic low rates to get that price. But it’s entirely possible: I’ve posted about a P23,700 fare and even a P21,500 fare that I found through Skyscanner/Expedia (and which is why I would encourage you to subscribe to this blog HERE to get the latest news and updates). Plus, there are 30-euro centrally located hostels (thank you for the tip Jasmin!) with free WiFi and breakfast, tricks to save on food and still have your fill, and other ways to not spend so much, even in an expensive city like Paris.

Of course, there’s the valid line of thought that says: you don’t get to be in Paris often, might as well spend more. PHP 50,000 is really just the baseline (and not even the basest of baselines) and you’re absolutely free to spend more if you have more to spend. What this frugal budget tries to prove is that if Paris is really a dream of yours, there’s no reason you can’t make that dream come true. I’ve done it, and you can too.

 

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7 days in Paris for PHP 50,000” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 



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