Sunday, February 12, 2012

Euro2011 Spring-Summer Holiday

Early last year, we thought of having a European holiday. We plan to visit my sis-in-law (and her husband) who recently moved to Belgium, and her husband's parents in Germany. We still had plenty of time since our usual planning period is 6 months to one year. Only this time we won't be travelling (and planning) alone but with the company of in-laws from Hong Kong. That would mean 4 adults and 4 children plus 2 adults (already in Europe) equal to 12 people gallivanting around Europe! 

It was a big challenge during the planning stage. We had to check with each other when was the most convenient (and free) time to travel. We also had to consider flight schedules and cheap hotels which can accommodate families. After several date and itinerary revisions (I think more than 5 "final" revisions), and almost not pushing through with the vacation at all (tickets getting more expensive, almost opting to just go to US), we've finally settled on the date, list of countries to visit (6 in total), as well as the final daily itinerary (which was of course semi-flexible taking note we were tagging along 4 kids).  

Next on the agenda was to get cheap airline tickets. We have been monitoring Emirates for a few weeks but since we have only finalized the dates in Feb, we were not able to get the best flight with less waiting time during connection. We were hoping to get the non-stop flight from Singapore to Dubai, Dubai to Singapore, but settled with the one with one stop at Colombo (the best flight available during our time of booking). Another draw back with our flight is the long connection on the return flight from Dubai to Singapore. We have to wait for 7 hours at Dubai. But that's ok since we still saved on the airfare which was less than $5k for 2 adults and 2 children. We compared the airfare with the promos they have during travel fair and we got a good deal :)

Once we got our tickets, we prepared our documents for visa application. Since we were flying in/out Frankfurt, we decided to apply visa at the German Embassy. My SIL also suggested the German embassy as she has experienced applying a visa here and it was easier (in terms of procedures) compared to the embassies of the other countries we were visiting. Our very accommodating hosts in Germany (my SIL's in-laws) sent an official invitation letter as support to our visa application. Although this doesn't guarantee 100% approval of the visa, it gave us higher hopes of a positive result. Once we got hold of the document thru mail, we scheduled our appointment date online. We chose the date during a school holiday in March so the kids could come for personal appearance without being absent from school. The embassy official I spoke with informed me that the kids need to be present either during submission of application or during visa collection. We prepared the following documents as required by the embassy (both originals and photocopies):

  • application forms with photo according to biometric specifications
  • passports, IC, valid REP 
  • letter from employer (confirming employment, the beginning of employment, monthly salary, the beginning of vacation and resumption of work)
  • for our kids, letter from school
  • proof of sufficient  financial means of support (bank statement of the past three months)
  • printed e-ticket (return ticket Singapore-Frankfurt-Singapore)
  • rental car reservation
  • birth certificates of children
  • marriage certificate
  • official invitation letter from Germany
  • other financial documents
I suggest to print out the Tourist Visa checklist for a more organized arrangement of your application documents. Do take note that they indicate the visa fee in euros so better check with the embassy before going to your appointment date what is the equivalent in Singapore Dollar (or whatever your local currency is). Children pay lower visa fees. During our application we paid a total of SGD352 for 2 adults and 2 children ($106 per adult, $70 per child).

Day before the appointment date we purchased our travel insurance from NTUC Income. They offer cheap travel insurance with competitive benefits. We got the Classic plan, worldwide coverage for 21 days, for group of 4 persons which had a 15% discount.

During our appointment date, we brought all our documents, neatly filed. We headed to the German embassy which was at the Singapore Land Tower in Raffles Place a little bit earlier. Got our visitor pass from the security/information desk and took the lift to the 12th floor. They have a metal detection machine at the entrance. The security guard at the embassy also has a list of all the appointments for the day. There were about 10 people waiting - some to get their visas, some applying for visas. I was a bit nervous (as usual during visa application), getting myself ready for any questions the embassy officials would ask. It was a local Chinese lady who was receiving the documents not a German official though. She was very thorough. I was observing, and listening to, the applicants before us. She was questioning every document, discrepancy in dates and other information. One of the applicants was sent to another embassy as the Chinese lady embassy employee deemed it was not logical for the person to apply in the German embassy because it was not his main destination. Another applicant was asked to produce additional documents. Then our names were called and we approached the counter (first one on the left is where documents are submitted). I prepared myself for a battery of questioning as we have a very long holiday scheduled. Good thing we weren't asked anything at all. I think the invitation letter helped a lot. We signed the kids' application forms in front of the official (as specified in the requirements page). Then we were given half an A4-sized paper for the collection date. It didn't specify though if the visa was approved or not. We didn't want to be too over-confident.

When we got our visas approved and our passports collected (end March), we started booking our accommodations, mostly through It has a good selection of cheap accommodations with free cancellations (please do check conditions). By second week of April, after changing one or 2 hotel sights, all of our accommodations have been reserved. Here are the accommodations we have:

  • 5 nights in Gelnhausen, Germany - care of our very accommodating hosts (parents of brother-in-law)
  • 4 nights in Brussels, Belgium at my sis-in-law's place
  • 5 nights in Paris, France for Euro90 per nite for a family (1dbl + 2 sgl beds) - GIS Hotel at Neuilly-Plaissance (Zone 3)
  • 2 nights in Thonon les Bains, France south of Lake Geneva for Euro66 per nite for a quad room (1dbl +1 sgl bed) - Le Relais du Fontany
  • 2 nights in Interlaken, Switzerland for CHF140 per nite for a family room (1sgl + 1 dbl bed, shared bathroom) - Katy's B&B Lodge
  • 2 nights in Sulz-Glatt, Germany near Black Forest for Euro90 per nite for family room (1dbl +1 sgl bed) - Zur Freystatt am Wasserschloss

Hubby also constantly checked, and revised the booking of our rental car. We booked with Hertz. We got a cheaper rate in the end (around Euro 511 for 21 days). Pick up and drop off point at Frankfurt International Airport. We initially thought of not getting a car when we are in Paris but found out that there is additional charge (around Euro100 depending on location) for different pick up and drop off points. So we decided to just rent the car all throughout the trip.

With all of the major travel reservations done, we finalized the daily itinerary. My SIL and BIL were in-charge of the Germany, Belgium and Amsterdam sight-seeing, while I planned for  Paris, Switzerland and Black Forest. We tried to include the more popular tourist attractions for each country but lowered our expectations on what we could actually cover during the trip. By end of April, we were ready for the long-awaited dream vacation.

There were still some hiccups in the planning stage though, personally speaking. I almost didn't want to travel out of frustration until the very last minute. When going on a holiday I normally start packing 2 weeks before departure date. On this trip though, I didn't. I was gravely affected by my son's school results (I guess I expected too much). I was in no mood to pack. I was consoled by a close friend as well as by hubby. Well, there were right. I have been planning for this trip for one year, I shouldn't let all my hard work just go to waste. So I decided to make a big mental turn around, convinced myself that I could enjoy this whole trip without actually thinking of the not-so-good academic results, and focus on packing stuff and looking forward to a great holiday. I didn't discuss the results with my son and told him we will talk about it when we come back from the holiday. I didn't want to go on a holiday with a heavy heart, it might jinx the trip!

After last minute buying of necessary stuff (toiletries, gifts, etc), we were finally ready for our vacation. We left for the airport Thursday evening for our flight at 12am Friday.

Here is our 21-day itinerary: 

Day 1 - Gelnhausen, Germany
Day 2 - Legoland, Germany
Day 3 - Heidelberg, Germany
Day 4 - Cologne, Germany
Day 5 - Frankfurt, Germany
Day  6 - Luxembourg then Brussels, Belgium
Day 7 - Day trip to Amsterdam, Netherlands
Day 8 - Brussels, Belgium
Day 9 - Brugge, Belgium
Day 10 - Paris, France
Day 11 - Paris, France
Day 12 - Paris, France
Day 13 - Versailles, France
Day 14 - Disneyland Paris, France
Day 15 - La Vallee Village, France (outlet shops) then to hotel south of Lake Geneva
Day 16 - Montreux, Switzerland
Day 17 - Geneva / Lausanne / Bern / Thun / Interlaken, Switzerland
Day 18 - Interlaken, Switzerland (Jungfrau - top of Europe)
Day 19 - Luzern / Zurich, Switzerland on the way to Sulz-Glatt, Germany
Day 20 - Black Forest day trip
Day 21 - flight back to Singapore

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