I had planned a trip to Europe with my family last April but had to cancel due to COVID 2019 Pandemic, in the final hour. I had booked Turkish Airlines flight from Kathmandu, Nepal to Istanbul for our onward journey to Greece. My spouse’s Uncle is a Greek citizen, so he provided us with an invitation letter for the VISA process.
From Greece, we planned to go to Rome, Italy and proceed to France after three days in Rome. Our final leg was Istanbul, Turkey, finally returning to Kathmandu.
I have tried to list my experience for the Schengen VISA process, as well as how I went about booking the Air Tickets and hotels for the trip. I hope this will be useful, especially for the South Asian travellers, and may apply to many other nationalities as well while planning a trip to Europe.
I applied for the Schengen VISA through the VFS Global Office in Kathmandu. Since the Greek embassy is not present in Kathmandu, I had to process our application through VFS. They sent all our documents to the Greek Embassy in New Delhi for processing. I wanted to apply through the Greek Embassy since our Uncle sent us the invitation. We promptly got our VISA in a week as well.
I could have also applied through either German, French, Swiss or any other Schengen Region state embassy here in Kathmandu since Schengen VISA allows one to travel to 26 member countries. For more information: https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/.
Download link for Schengen VISA form: https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/download-schengen-visa-application-form/.
I have uploaded the Schengen VISA checklist for Embassy of Greece in New Delhi. It should be more-or-less similar for all the Schengen Region countries. It is a pre-COVID 2019 checklist. Hence, few more requirements may be in place for future applications.
While planning a trip to Europe, one needs the following documents for the VISA purpose
- Recent Passport size photographs.
- Passport with three months validity, after VISA expiry/end date.
- Travel Medical Insurance with min EUR 30,000 coverage (maybe more going forward).
- Proof of means of transport – Round Trip/Return Flight Reservation. Some Embassies may require confirmed round-trip air tickets, but mostly flight reservation from a licensed Travel Agent/Airline Office would suffice. One can finalise the flight reservation once the VISA is approved.
- If travelling to the several Schengen States, as we planned to do, one needs to show flight reservation, train booking, Car rental etc. for the concerned countries as well.
- Proof of Lodging – either hotel booking, or a sponsorship letter, if staying with a family member or friend.
- Proof of Financial Means – Attested Bank statement showing the movement for the previous three months & Tax Return for the last two years.
- If the applicant is a Businessperson, as in my case, Company Registration Certificate with the two-year Tax Return is mandatory.
- For Employed personnel, Employment Contract, Holiday Approval & the last three-month pay-slips are necessary. My wife just included a letter from her office stating her monthly salary and did not include the pay-slips. So, it may also be possible.
- If one has travelled abroad in the past, previous VISA photocopies should increase the chance of the application getting through, especially for countries with weak passports, such as South Asian countries. For us, we have travelled to the UK, Europe & the US before. Hence, there was a better chance of our application getting approval.
- Even if one has not travelled abroad previously, if the above documents are in order, there is a minimal possibility for the application to get rejected. After all, most of the European countries heavily depend on high-spending tourists for the bulk of their revenue.
- It is also a good idea to include a Cover Letter stating why you want to visit a specific European country/s. In my case, I have studied in the UK and visited France, Belgium, and the Netherlands during my stay. I have never been to the Southern European countries like Italy or Greece. So, this was a good reason for my interest in visiting these countries.
- For Turkey, once the Schengen VISA is approved, one can apply for their E-VISA for US$10, I guess. Turkish Airlines did the process for me since I purchased the air tickets from them.
These are the primary documents required, which are listed in detail in the attached checklist. If any more documents are required, the Embassy or the VFS Office, as in my case, will ask you to furnish those.
Of course, a well-reputed Travel Agent can assist in all these processes as well as book your airline tickets and hotels for a fee, with minimal hassle to you. You still need to furnish all the documents and go to the Embassy for Biometrics and sometimes an interview. If you have never travelled abroad before, or do not want to waste time looking for suitable airlines and hotels while planning a dream trip to Europe, it is best to hire a trustworthy Travel Agent.
You can, however, save a ton of money and, also learn in the process, if you plan everything yourself. You still need to use Online Travel Agents, OTAs, here and there.
Flight bookings while planning a trip to Europe
Coming back to our topic, after the VISA is approved, now it is time to confirm the flight bookings. In my case, I had booked our flights with Turkish Airlines from Kathmandu to Istanbul departing on 11 April 2020, departing the same evening to Athens, Greece. We planned to leave for Rome on 15 April from Athens, and then to Paris on 18 April from Rome. We planned to visit our final destination, Istanbul, on 22 April, before returning home on 25 April. The whole plan has gone for a toss now due to the pandemic.
We got our VISA in the first week of Feb 2020. The COVID 2019 was already at its peak in China by then, with no cases still reported in Europe. Hence, most flights departing through China were getting cancelled. Thus, by the time I paid for our tickets, immediately after VISA approval, the prices had gone up significantly for the European sector.
For our flight from Athens, Greece to Rome Fiumicino Airport, I booked Greek Aegean Airlines since we were getting a hot meal and 20 kg check-in luggage per person, included in the price. Most of the Airlines charge extra for short-haul European intra-region flights. For instance, for Air France flight from Rome to Paris, Charles De Gaulle, I had to pay US$30 extra per person for 20 kg check-in baggage. There was no hot meal either, with only a light snack provided.
Hotel bookings while planning a trip to Europe
I booked the hotels in Rome and Paris with Expedia.co.in portal since I could pay in INR with my Valid in India and Nepal Credit Card. That way, I was not wasting valuable hard currency that would better serve once in Europe. I like the range of hotels available in the website, and the price is also competitive from the likes of Booking.com.
I am thankful that I booked the hotels with Expedia.co.in since the hotels across Europe started shutting down once the COVID 2019 pandemic began to take hold first in Italy, then Spain, France, and so on. Once my booked hotels shuttered down one after another, they sent me an email directing me to cancel the bookings and refunded the amount in my card within two weeks of my cancellation.
I highly recommend in choosing Cancel My Booking option while booking hotels with any of these platforms even if they charge a little extra compared to a Non-Refundable fare. I did not opt for this option for Paris hotel – Holiday Inn Express Paris-Canal de la Villette while booking since I did not anticipate the cancellation.
However, Expedia.co.in refunded my full amount given the extraordinary circumstance, kudos to them. I did, however, choose this option while booking a Boutique three-star hotel in Rome, Al Viminale Hill Inn & Hotel.
While planning our trip to Europe, I chose Holiday Inn Express Paris-Canal de la Villette in Paris. It is a three-star hotel, in Paris suburbs and is around 20-25 minutes by Paris Metro and not that far from the city centre, with affordable price. There is a direct metro line to Paris City Centre, the Louvre Museum, from two metro stations near to the hotel. It is 5.3 to 5.8 km away depending on the route.
Taxi fare from the airport to the hotel is around EUR 60 and makes sense if you are 3-4 people, with luggage. There is a metro line that goes from the airport directly to the city centre as well and is a cheaper option if you are travelling alone with a backpack.
If one is travelling with a family with small kids, it is better to look for a hotel near the city centre. However, boarding will be quite expensive here in the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Arc De Triomphe area. There are affordable options like IBIS Budget (2 Star) and IBIS Styles (3 Star), however, nearer to the city centre.
The hotel I booked in Rome, Al Viminale Hill Inn & Hotel, is centrally located, close to the Trevi Fountain and Colosseum. The Taxi fare is around EUR 40 from the airport to the hotels in the city centre.
The new Istanbul International Airport is nearly an hour-long drive from the city centre, and there is no metro link to the airport from the city as of now. As per my research, Taxi Drivers in Istanbul are notorious for duping tourists. Thus, it is advisable to arrange private transport beforehand. Most of the hotels should arrange it if you inform them in advance. Private Taxi is not cheap in Istanbul though. The local metro system is the best option to get around Istanbul.
Activities in Athens
While planning for the Europe trip itinerary, our first stop was supposed to be Athens, Greece, since our Uncle was providing us with accommodation at his place. We planned to stay three days in Athens before departing for Rome. Hence, we could visit sites in and around Athens only. I was eager to see the Acropolis, the Olympieion, the Panathenaic Stadium, and so forth. I was most eagerly waiting to sample the world-renowned Greek Cuisine, and of course, the famous sun-soaked beaches around Athens.
Santorini, the most visited group of Greek islands in the southernmost part of Cyclades, is around an hour by flight from Athens and takes around 8 hours by boat/ferry. One also needs to get to the airport 2-3 hours in advance. Hence, it was out of the question. Most people also feel that the place has been over-hyped and over-tourism has ruined its natural beauty. Local people think that the COVID 2019 lockdown is the best thing that has happened to the islands in decades.
Activities in Rome
Most of the touristic spots such as Trevi Fountain and Colosseum are near to the hotel I booked in Rome, Al Viminale Hill Inn & Hotel. It is also near the Roma Termini Train station for easy access to the city.
For site seeing in Rome, I purchased English Guided Tour- Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peters Basilica online that cost EUR 149 for two adults and one child. It is a jump the queue access to the above monuments and is a three-hour-long tour with an English-speaking guide.
For the rest of the sites, we planned to take a hop-on-off buss and walk since most of the attractions are nearby in the city.
Activities in Paris
For site-seeing in and around Paris, I purchased the Paris Museum, 2-day Pass for two adults for around US$ 60 per person at the time. Most of the Paris Museums do not need a ticket for youth under 18 years (Non-EU), and under 22 years, for EU nationals. Since my daughter is 15 years old, I did not need to buy the pass for her.
The pass covers more than 60 of the top museums and monuments in and around Paris including the Louvre and Versailles, Arc de Triomphe, the Centre Pompidou, and many more. Eiffel Tower ticket is not included in the Paris Museum Pass and needs to be purchased separately.
One needs to book a time slot online for Louvre through their website though, even with the Paris Museum Pass since there is a long queue all the time, at least before COVID 2019 pandemic. Hopefully, the crowds would return soon.
While planning the Europe trip, I was especially keen to visit the Palace of Versailles. It is a full-day trip outside of Paris and accessible with an RER train system from Paris. RER is a train system which serves Paris and its suburbs. A round trip to Versailles by train costs 7,1€ per person, all included, and is the cheapest way to reach the castle.
Activities in Istanbul
I did not purchase any tickets in advance for the attractions in Istanbul. Most of the attractions and monuments such as Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Galata Tower, Topkapi Palace Museum etc. are centrally located and easily accessible from the hotel I booked, Pera Luna Residence. The hotel front desk could also arrange the day trips in Istanbul if required. Time permitting, One should try the Bosphorus Boat Cruise to visit and see the Asian & European sides of Istanbul.
Thus, while Planning a trip to Europe, I had done thorough research on our itinerary and, also booked all the flights and hotels myself, without relying on local Travel Agents. The entire process was quite gruelling and frustrating at times, but immensely rewarding as well.
Planned trip to Europe gone awry
However, due to the wildly unexpected arrival of this COVID 2019 pandemic, my hard work has gone completely astray, at least for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, I now have the additional job of going after the various airlines for the refunds for our cancelled flights.
Since all the airlines involved cancelled the flights starting late March, I am assured full refund but have not received any refund till now, end of July 2020. Thus, I keep calling the airlines and sending-off emails now and then, just to keep them reminded. I am assured of the refunds every time, but till I see the actual transfers in my Bank account, I am naturally anxious.
Hopefully, the situation improves drastically, or the cure or vaccine is available soon so that the travel bugs like me could get off our burrows and start exploring the world again.
Note: All the photographs in this blog are Royalty-Free, courtesy, https://pixabay.com/.
Author: Anup Narsingh Amatya