Travel Tips

Beginner’s Guide to Planning a Trip to Europe Part III: Preparing your “Brain”

"Brains" are little packets we build for each city on our trip. Each one contains specific, personalized directions, details and recommendations for our journey.

“Brains” are little packets we build for each city on our trip. Each one contains specific, personalized directions, details and recommendations for our journey.

So, you’ve decided where you’re going and started doing your research. Along the way, you’ve no doubt dog-eared pages, highlighted notable entries or bookmarked websites that caught your attention. Now it’s time to make sense of all those scraps of info … we’ll collect them in something we refer to as a “brain,” dubbed as such by friends of mine on a grad school documentary shoot in Ohio.

The concept behind a brain is simple: it is the central nervous system of your trip. Yes, you’ll have guidebooks and your memory to help you along, but a brain is personalized to you and your trip – it’s a cheat sheet, essentially.  Carrying a heavy day bag full of books, cameras and other essentials gets really old after a week or so. The brain allows you to leave volumes of paper back at the hotel and just bring a slim folder of need-to-know details.

A selection of brains from our 2010 trip to France and Spain.

A selection of brains from our 2010 trip to France and Spain.

Obviously, you’ll need to adapt this to your personal organization style (mine is pretty nonexistent in general), but I’ll give you the steps involved in how I approach the process to give you an idea.

I generally start anywhere from three to six months out. I use individual slash pocket folders for each city that we’ll be traveling to, and add one for general trip information (passport and credit/debit card copies, emergency contacts, plane tickets, etc.).  I always leave a sealed copy of the general packet, along with our itinerary, with my parents and a trusted colleague at work in case of a real emergency.

We make sure to include all the basics, such as hotel name, address and how much we owe upon arrival, right at the top of each sheet.

We make sure to include all the basics, such as hotel name, address and how much we owe upon arrival, right at the top of each sheet.

I label the top of each sheet with the city, dates of our stay, hotel name and contact information, and directions from our point of arrival to our accommodations. I also note how much money we owe them and whether they accept cards or if we need to stop and get cash before we arrive.

****NOTE: paying cash is frequently expected at smaller hotels and hostels across Europe; however, this can be inconvenient if you’re staying for a long time and need to access more cash than your bank will allow you to withdraw in a single day. Make sure you call your bank in advance to determine what your limits are and to let them know what countries you’ll be traveling to so they don’t mark your card as stolen and freeze your account.

In addition to the basics, I make sure to write directions to all major sites we plan to visit, including metro lines, landmarks, etc. I also keep valuable tidbits of information relevant to each city, including what times the metro runs, which cab lines are best, and if there are any eccentricities about the city we’ll need to remember. Another tip: make sure to list a few simple phrases (yes, no, thank you, where is the train station) in the language of your destination so that you’ll have them at your fingertips while you check in.

Consider adding other details, like which restaurants/bars you’d like to visit, pharmacy and embassy locations, menu decoders and much more. If you have specific dietary restrictions, I’d suggest noting where grocery stores are located that fit within your needs. We also usually include directions to lesser-known sites around the city, things that we might find out organically, not through guidebooks.

If you start these early, you’ll have a substantial amount of valuable data personalized to your specific trip. The folders themselves are useful for carrying paper souvenirs like labels, brochures, maps, etc., and provide a scrapbook of sorts when you return. The stack of folders stays in your main suitcase, with only the destination folder in your day bag. Simply rotate them in/out as needed. We usually keep the general info folder with us on the flight out for easy access, but then it goes back into the suitcase with the others for safekeeping.

While traveling, I generally refer to the brain several times each day. It’s a central reference point to jot notes, move forward and reflect back. I honestly don’t know how we’d travel without ours.

What do you think? Is your system similar or very different? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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One thought on “Beginner’s Guide to Planning a Trip to Europe Part III: Preparing your “Brain”

  1. Pingback: Five things I never travel without | The Continental Cajuns

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