So, I've got one of those few times in my line of work where I'll be transitioning from one major project to another, which provides an opportunity to take a "significant" (for me, 8-10 day) vacation without having 8-10 days of work pile up while I'm gone.We're strongly considering Italy.Dates of travel are mildly flexible (a couple of days either way). June 1 - June 10.
Departure city: We live in Huntsville, AL, but can easily fly from Huntsville, Nashville, Birmingham, ATL, St. Louis, and Louisville.
Destination: Italy. At this point, we're really that open...details to follow below.
# of people: Me (36) and wife (33).
Budget: $2k-$5k. I've got 149,800 miles on American that are burning a hole in my pocket, so I'm hoping to use those and keep cash cost down.
Activities: Would like to see historical cities, buildings, art, and the like. Nature is good, we're fit enough for hiking, biking, etc. Food. Culture. Beach/sea. Fishing. All of these things are good, so any combination thereof is acceptable.
I'd like to hear from folks with experience on a couple of fronts. During my searches here, I've stumbled upon airbnb.com. Anyone have experience using this service? There seemed to be some amazing little places with very, very decent rates. We were considering maybe doing a few days in one of the bigger cities (Rome, Florence, etc.), then finding a good spot on airbnb in one of the smaller coastal towns (Amalfi, Positano, Capri??), to get a more relaxed, localized experience. Also, with regard to a trip of this construct, what are the transportation options? I'm assuming mass transit or taxis in the bigger cities would be feasible (true?). What about getting from the city to the smaller towns? And navigation once there?Also, last time I went on a significant vacation, I used a travel agency who was able to get a better deal on the trip I had in mind than I could price, and also offered some valuable insight into were to go and where not to go. That trip, however, is my only experience with travel agencies. Would they be able to (or, open to) helping to plan a trip using airbnb (or some similar set of potential lodging options)?Lastly, I'm certainly willing to hear any general comments on "do this" or "don't do this".Thanks, folks.Edit: Insight on how to get the best bang for my buck on the AA miles is appreciated as well. Best to call AA since I have so many departure options (after I figure out a destination airport or two)?============================
============================Some asked, so here's where we ended up...Primarily due to the most effective use of AA miles and in an attempt to have more time in Europe than in airports, we decided to pass on Italy and instead made it from Huntsville to London, Brussels, and Amsterdam.We flew to London, arriving at 0600. Of course, using AA miles, we got bounced around the county from HSV to ORD to YYZ to LHR. The transatlantic was on British Airways, which was much, much better than AA on almost all fronts. We arrived on Friday, June 1 in London. We were able to leave our bags at our hotel before check-in with no issues. We powered through that first day without a nap to try to shorten the jet lag effect, which was a great thing to do.We were in London for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, leaving on a 8pm flight to BRU, so we basically had 3 full days. The tubes in London were very easy to negotiate, even for people like us with zero public transport experience. We were, by chance, there for the Queen's Jubilee and just prior to the Olympics, so the city was noticeably clean, with lots of police, so we felt safe the entire time.We got to see all of the "big stuff" in London without too much difficulty, although another day wouldn't have hurt. British food is as bad as you've heard. Other than fish n' chips, we stuck with ethnic foods (Italian, Asian, Greek, etc.). The British Museum is absolutely ridiculous. Each of the 80 or so rooms had enough significant historical artifacts from around the world to have been a museum of its own. By the end of our four hours there, we were blowing through rooms that were filled with amazing pieces; to be honest, our brains could no longer effectively process the history we were seeing...it was a weird feeling. If you are into world history, plan a full day there.Westminster Abbey was also very impressive. We did several other walking tours from the TripAdvisor London App (Android). By the way, having a wifi tablet was priceless for the whole trip. Google maps for public transport directions from site to site, Skype-ing the kids back home, TripAdvisor Apps specifically for London and Amsterdam, general TripAdvisor App for restaurant and activity reviews, etc., etc.We flew to Brussels on the night of the 3rd (Sunday). Contrary to what we read, Brussels is not as English-friendly as we had expected. Many people had passable English, but many did not. Almost all of the public transportation information was in French (thanks, again, Google Maps). Brussels was a nice enough city, but unlike London and Amsterdam, I'm not strongly drawn to return. Speaking in a sweeping generalization, the people in Brussels were not as welcoming as our other two destinations. Food was good; they don't call 'em Belgian Waffles for nothing. Chocolate was delicious, too.We arrived at 10pm, which was a little too late. Since all of the train/tram info was in French, the public transportation ended at 11pm, we couldn't find anyone who could speak English and wanted to be helpful, and we didn't have WiFi in the airport, we ended up taking a taxi to our hotel, which cost about $60USD. Taxis over there are very different: well-dressed, well-groomed men in Mercedes, driving 60-70 mph down empty downtown streets. It was an adventure.There obviously weren't as many great attractions in Brussels as were found in London, so we were able to take a day trip to Brugges, which is a very nice trip. Some good things to see there, and lots of free wifi. We stayed at the Hotel Centrale, which we would not recommend. It wasn't terrible, but left much to be desired, other than location.We had not prearranged our train travel from Brussels to Amsterdam, but knew we would leave on Wednesday, June 6. We wanted to be able to get a feel for Brussels and decide if we wanted to spend most of the 6th in Brussels or in Amsterdam. As it turned out, we did about 50/50, leaving via train at about 1:30pm.Amsterdam was great. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is fluent in both Dutch and English, and they are generally welcoming and helpful culture. One or two folks below had suggested that we look into airbnb.com for lodging for this trip. I was into it, but wife had read some horror story reviews, so she wasn't into it. To avoid the possibility of being one of those horror stories and having to live with the "I told you so" scenario for the next 20 years, I decided to not book anything through airbnb...I let her book all of the rooms. For Amsterdam, she booked an apartment in Leidsplein, which was very nice. After she booked it though TripAdvisor, I subsequently found it on airbnb. After we checked in, and she liked it, I pointed it out on airbnb, so maybe we'll give that a shot next time.Anyway, lots of cool stuff to do in Amsterdam. We were there from the afternoon of the 6th until our flight out on Monday, the 11th at 6pm. It was our goal to have a longer stay in a relaxing city for the end of the trip, so it didn't feel like an exhausting Amazing Race for the whole trip, and we met that goal with 5 nights in Amsterdam. We bought the Museumkaat (a card that gets you into 400 museums in Holland) and used it quite a bit. This time of year, sunset is at 10pm and it gets dark around 10:45, so we had a lot of daylight hours to walk around. We bought passes for the public transportation which was nice and necessary. It was not as user-friendly as the tubes in London, but after a couple of days with Google Maps helping us out, be got the knack of it.Lots of old churches to tour, canals to walk down, and museums to see. Windmills were few and far between, but nice little cafes and pubs were plentiful. Although hookers and weed aren't really our thing, a couple of strolls through the Red Light District were enlightening. We did almost everything suggested by the TripAdvisor Amsterdam App over the six days.We flew from AMS to LHR, then on to Boston. We stayed in the airport overnight in Boston (from 10pm to our 6am departure). It sucked, but was better than shelling out $300 for a hotel near the airport for what would have been four hours of sleep. Went from Boston to ORD, then ORD to Huntsville, arriving yesterday (June 12) at 10pm. A day later, we're still waiting for all of our luggage that somehow got stalled in Chicago.All-in-all, the flights cost 140k miles + a ridiculous $1425 in taxes/fees.We were glad to get home to ice (if you get two small cubes over there, you're lucky), American-sized drinks (a "large" coke at McDonald's over there is equivalent to our Medium with no refills), and free toilets (it costs between $0.30 - $0.60 to use a toilet over there, even at McDonald's). In all seriousness, we really had to work to not become dehydrated; drinks are tiny and expensive. We carried a couple of water bottles, but it sucks to pay to pee, so you're in a bit of a Catch-22. We were sure to pound water each night before bed that we could unload for free in our room in the morning.If we had to do it again, I don't think we'd change much. Maybe be more open to airbnb. Maybe replace Brussels with Luxembourg, which may or may not be an improvement.Thanks again to those who gave advice below. It really helped to make this a great trip on short notice by a couple of international rookies.