Monday, May 3, 2010

Working with a travel agent

Today marks the kick-off of "Teacher Appreciation Week" (I use the quotation marks partly out of sarcasm, yes), and I have to say that one thing I appreciate about being a teacher is the summer. Don't get me wrong, I love teaching and I really enjoy working with my students. Like any job, though, you need a break, and a definite lifestyle perk of teaching is our amazing 10-week summer vacation. Matt and I make the most of this by taking one big trip every other year, and laying low during the years in between (while still totally relaxing and generally loving life in the process).

Ladies and gentlemen, the year of the giant trip has arrived, and the trip is BOOKED!

As of yesterday evening, we have scheduled our three-week trip to Spain and Italy, leaving in late June and returning in late July, just in time for our friends' wedding. Planning this trip was kind of weighing on me because of all the options available to us, and I'm glad we've gotten the big stuff out of the way.

For the first time ever we worked with a travel agent, and I'm glad we did. Here's why:

1) As I mentioned, we had a lot of options for this trip. When two people have virtually no commitments for nearly 10 weeks, it creates some challenges because of all the possible travel dates and itineraries (trust me, I am not complaining about this!).

2) We are traveling during an expensive time of year. We kept finding online deals for spring and fall travel dates, but as teachers that obviously does not fit into our schedules.

3) We are visiting eight cities during our trip, so in general it just requires a lot of coordination.

Here's what we did while working with our travel agent:

1) Finding an agent: First, we had to find her. We went with a lady who is based in California and helped Matt's brother and his wife book their month-long Asia trip. They had positive things to say about her, so we figured that was a good starting point.

2) Setting our vacation parameters: We explained to our travel agent what we're looking for in our vacation. We're not people who need to stay in a resort, and we will even go so far as to say that as long as a hotel is clean and has its own bathrooms for every guest room, it could generally meet our standards. We are pretty easy travelers, seeking to see the sights and sit at cafes rather than gawk at the awesomeness of our hotels. We would pick a hotel in a great location over a hotel with amazing architecture or "character" (a term I tend to despise).

3) Booking a flight: We had been searching the web for flight deals for about six months. We hadn't found anything awesome, and Farecast (now apparently the Bing travel link) kept telling us flights would decline in price, but we weren't seeing that happen. Our travel agent found us a flight from D.C. to Rome, and then from Venice to Barcelona, and then from Barcelona to Seville, and then from Madrid back to D.C., all for cheaper than anything we could find on our own, even when you factor in the agency fee (which, in the scheme of things at about $70 is pretty small). She wins, we win, we booked it.

4) Booking hotels: This was trickier than the flight. Our agent sent us this totally awesome itinerary with amazing hotels. We were tempted to just call her back, after clicking on all the websites she sent us, and say, "Done! Book it all!" but we couldn't bear forking over that much money. So, we went to work deciding which hotels we'd keep from her recommendations, and which ones we needed to reevaluate. We consulted TripAdvisor (whose ratings we take with a grain of salt because many of the travelers seem way more picky than us) as well as our Lonely Planet guidebooks and the Orbitz customer reviews. We found affordable hotels near the locations of the hotels our agent suggested. We wound up sticking with her hotel choices in Florence, Seville, Granada, Cordoba and Madrid, and we selected our own hotels in Rome, Venice and Barcelona, and we booked those three through Orbitz. Basically, the theme here is that we selected our own hotels when the hotels she found us were well over $100 per night.

We still need to work out transfers, and we need to make lists of the sights and eating establishments we'd like to stake out, but now the big stuff is set for our late-June departure. We are not the type of people who like to plan the details of our vacations, so we won't book much else in advance, unless there's some insanely popular tour or show that we must see.

So, here's the breakdown for our trip:
Depart D.C. and arrive in Rome
Rome -- 4 nights
Florence -- 3 nights
Venice -- 3 nights
Barcelona -- 3 nights
Seville -- 3 nights
Granada -- 2 nights
Cordoba -- 1 night
Madrid -- 2 nights
Depart Madrid and arrive in D.C.

No doubt there will be more updates as our departure date gets closer.

In the meantime, dear readers, could you please recommend sights and places to eat in any of these cities? Gracias and grazie!

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