The crown jewel of my independent travels would be the 16 days spent as a family unit in France and Italy in late spring 2009. These are some useful knowledge I have gained over the three months planning for the trip. Hope it helps you too!
|Package or DIY?
|Sightseeing & Activities
Three factors determine choice of destination – interest, timing and airfare. Italy is easily an attractive destination with its rich historical background, architectural trove, fine cuisine, football mania and good-looking men. April/May and Sep/Oct is a good time to visit the country when it is not too cold or crowded with summer vacationers. Monitor the trend of airfares to various cities in Europe so you know when a good offer arises. During the economic downturn, we flew to Paris with Singapore Airlines for SGD 1,200 which was about 25% off the normal rate.
There are two aspects to travelling independently – planning and executing. Choose to plan your own journey if you enjoy the process and are confident of drawing up a full itinerary. You will acquaint yourself more intimately with the destination and acquire new knowledge. One way to begin the process is to check out tour packages to have a cost estimate and an idea of well trodden routes and activities.Sources include Wednesday’s and Friday’s The Straits Times Classifieds for deals and promotions offered by local travel operators.
The reason I don’t like going on travel packages bought locally is that most of the time, these tours are conducted by companies based in the destination country. With a bit of web savviness, it would be more cost effective to source for packages offered in the destination country so as to avoid paying the go-between fees.
Insight Vacations is a good provider of premium escorted motor coach tours and their colorful brochures provide many destination ideas but their packages can be pretty pricey for the budget conscious. Meals are not 100% provided and many of the optional activities have to be paid for separately. If travelling in comfort and style is not your priority, you can save a lot taking your business elsewhere.
If your child has yet to develop adult-like adaptability, it is unlikely that he/she will be pleased with scheduled departures, mealtimes, long hours on coaches and mandatory sightseeing stops.
The second part to independent travel is guiding yourself through your own itinerary. A certain competency in navigation is helpful, as is a huge dose of optimism and spirit of adventure. Be open to cultural differences, be flexible to accept changes to plans and be brave to build bridges with other people. If all this is too much, you can also acquire the services of travel agents at your destination to help you meet your objectives.
Since the creation of the EU, it is possible to country hop across the entire European continent quite conveniently without the hassle of immigration laws and visa requirements. While it is tempting to take the opportunity to build your list of ‘been to’ countries, there is also wisdom in the saying ‘less is more’. By limiting your scope, you can expand your perspective of the destination.
The best place for research in Singapore is the public library where you can borrow up to date travel guidebooks from every possible publisher free of charge. Have a map of the country/region on hand in order to mark places of interest on them. This way you can have an immediate feel of where one destination is relative to another. With limited resources, it is impossible to cover the whole of any country so choices have to be shortlisted based on the appeal of each attraction and connectivity to the other places you want to cover.
Here are some suggestions for France and Italy.
- Paris, France – latest fashion, Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, one of the world’s largest art gallery.
- Champagne, France – visit to the vineyards which produce the 80% of the world’s bubblies.
- Loire Valley, France – drive through the countryside and visit the chateaus that dot the landscape.
- Rhone Valley, France – picturesque medieval villages rich with Roman ruins.
- Provence, France – the natural beauty of Provence and its lavender bloom in July.
- French Riveria, France – the hang out for the rich and the glitzy along the Mediterranean coastline.
- Venice, Italy – who can resist the romantic city of Venice?
- Milan, Italy – other than the lure of AC and Inter Milan, shopping for the latest fashion.
- Cinque Terra, Italy – the French riveria counterpart but much less developed, rowdy and pricey.
- Tuscany, Italy – the infamous Tuscan landscape and to fulfill your wildest farmhouse fantasy.
- Pisa, Italy – to see the architectural phenomenon The Leaning Tower of Pisa.
- Florence, Italy – the heart of the Renaissance and site of Michaelangelo’s David.
- Siena, Italy – lauded as one of the most beautiful medieval towns in Italy.
- Rome, Italy – the heart of the Roman empire.
Our itinerary took us to parts of Provence and Tuscany and the cities of Venice, Florence, Rome and Paris over 16 days, which in execution was actually pretty ambitious.
The only real advantage of a joining a tour is having the transportation aspect taken care of completely. Navigating through a country on your own is a pain for the directionally-challenged. Choosing the appropriate modes of transport is also an extremely time-consuming process. Thankfully Europe has a long and established history of train travel so getting around by the locomotive is quintessential although budget air travel is slowly taking flight.
Air vs Surface Travel
In spite of the comparative prices and deceptively shorter time travel, the train remains appealing for several reasons.
- Locations of most budget terminals are relatively inaccessible and require additional expense and time to get there.
- The mandatory check-in at least an hour before departure should be factored into the time consideration.
- Airfares do not include baggage cost and other necessary frills.
- Trains offer the option to station hop with an open ticket or railpass.
- Surface travel offers great views of the country and is definitely more environmentally friendly.
Depending on your plans though, budget flights do come in handy. Ryanair, Vueling and Easyjet are some budget airlines that offer flights between Paris and Marseilles, Nice and Venice, and Rome and Paris. The latter being the most viable option. Instead of cramping on an overnighter and wasting a day feeling unrested, you could splurge on an additional night stay at the hotel with a proper bed and bathroom.
European trains while lacking the modern facade are efficient and punctual. Trains arrive on the dot and do not stay at the stations for more than a few minutes. Seats are wide and comfortably cushioned with ample leg room. Each seat comes with its own foldable table and powerpoint outlets are available in first class.
Trains are air-conditioned, but some open the windows to let in the cool spring air. Every coach has a basic toilet cubicle but don’t count on it being clean. There is a cafeteria coach for your dining needs. TGV are exceptionally fast and quiet which also explains the premium it charges.
Railpass or Point-to-point
It is not apparent if a railpass or a series of point-to-point tickets is the better option. While there are obvious cost savings and conveniences with a railpass, you are still liable to pay supplements on premium trains (e.g. TGV), reservation fees and couchettes for overnighters. On the other hand, attractive discounts can be obtained on point-to-point tickets with advance bookings.
For our itinerary, a 4D second class France/Italy flexi pass cost 574 EUR. The total cost of my tickets for five journeys approximates 600 EUR. While it is not compulsory to get a ticket for a child below 4 years old, on a fully booked train, he/she will need to share the seat with an adult. Point-to-point tickets purchased at discounted rates have restrictions on refundability or exchangability so you need to be pretty sure on your schedule to take advantage of this.
Trains are operated by SNCF in France and Trenitalia in Italy. Dynasty Travels, through their dedicated web channel, offer a convenient local alternative for procuring train tickets and railpasses.
However you can easily save up to 30% on train fares by being a little adventurous and buying them direct from the French and Italian websites. The only hindrance is overcoming the language barrier on the SNCF website and submitting repeated purchase orders until your non-european credit card is accepted.
On the SNCF, special Prem fares are available three months in advance. I missed the opportunity to grab a Paris – Avignon ticket for only 22 EUR and ended up making do with a 99 EUR option just a week later. Prem fares are very hot!
For a child below four years old, you do not need to purchase a full-priced ticket. Instead choose the ‘forfait bambini’ option and you will just pay a nominal 10% of the adult fare to get a seat for your child. The cost of travelling between countries seems to be artificially deflated. For example, Nice to Milan for only 15 EUR and 25 EUR for Paris to Brussels.
On the Trenitalia website, book your tickets using one of the many promotional fare options which are not available with Dynasty. Mostly I chose the Amica fares which gives 20% discount for reservations made at least two weeks in advance. You do not need to be an EU citizen to enjoy this. Take note that discounted tickets are usually non-exchangeable and non-refundable so double check your travel dates before committing.
Renting a Car
There is no shortage of car rental outlets in Europe offering all categories of vehicles. You do not need to produce an international driving license to rent a car. They can be picked up from one location and dropped off in any other place within the EU, at additional cost naturally.
Check that your quote covers the mandatory VAT (about 20%), road tax, mileage limitation, premium location fee for pickup and dropff and Collision Damage Waiver and Theft insurance. You will be required to return the car with the same level of petrol or incur a penalty.
Car rental booths operate on normal working hours but there is usually a 24-hour garage nearby. Make sure you are informed of its location if you intend to return the vehicle late. Payment is charged to your credit card only upon the its return.
Continental Europe follows the left-hand drive rule. Highways comprise of only two to three lanes but traffic is smooth outside the cities. With a good map, traversing through the country is relatively easy with its well-marked roads and exits. This is with sharp contrast to navigating through the cities. The Europeans seem to be very fond of roundabouts. Direction signs at these junctions are extremely confusing and unnecessary detours amidst the heavy traffic and narrow lanes is inevitable.
Avoid driving into Italian cities (e.g. Florence and Pisa) where limited traffic zones (ZTL) abound. We paid the price of not knowing the rules with hefty fines in the hundred of euros charged to our credit card (yes the T&C of our car rental contract allows that). Cameras at these limited zones captures a photographic image of your vehicle plate.
An offence is then sent to the registered owner of the car, i.e. the car rental company, and they are required to furnish your details to the municipial. The car rental company actually charge you an administrative fee for this. The authorities then have 360 days from the time they receive this information to send you the summons notice.
Our cars, Peugeot 207 and Citroen C3, were pretty economical in their fuel consumption. Petrol prices average 1.10 EUR per litre but we needed to top up our tanks only once during each of the 3 days. Parking at attractions cost between 2 – 5 EUR. Enquire with your hotel if they offer parking facilities and how much it will cost.
We were fortunate to find free overnight parking near our accommodation. My hubby particularly enjoyed his experience with the Peugeot as the drive was smooth and powerful and the interior well-maintained.
The metro system in Paris serves almost every part of the city so it is a very convenient mode of transport. The multi-colored route map may be daunting at first sight but is easily comprehensible after your first experience.
Simply follow the route from your origin to destination, making the necessary line changes as you go along. Escalators are only available at selected stations which is quite the hassle for those with a pram or buggy. Stations are not great hang out places as it sees its share of shady characters.
In Rome, the metro system is less useful as it doesn’t pass through a large part of the inner city probably due to the presence of massive underground ruins. However this does not really matter as it would be a waste not to simply wander through the amazing city on foot. The cost of each metro trip is 1 EUR with a validity of 75 minutes. In Paris, per ticket cost 1.60 EUR regardless of number of changes but it is highly advisable to buy a carnet of 10 prepaid tickets for 11.60 EUR as it is more economical.
In Venice, the vaporetto replaces all land transport since vehicles are not allowed onto the island. Vaporettos are motor-powered boats that travel at moderated speeds through the Grand Canal and the perimeter of the city. Seats are limited so most people content with standing while taking in the magnificent and unique sights. Per trip cost 1.10 EUR which can be purchased before or after boarding from the attendants. If travelling with luggage, the fare hikes up to 6.50 EUR.
Start hunting for accommodation only after settling on the transportation. Hotels make better sense than dormitories if travelling as a family. Searching for accommodation is easier through the use of online search portals such as Hotelscombined.com which enables you to limit your options based on cost, distance, quality, amenities and reviews.
My deciding factors are reviews, amenities and cost in this order. On hindsight, distance should be factored especially if you have a morning train to catch. Before placing a reservation through the portal, check if the hotel has its own website where you can book direct with. This offers the potential to haggle for a discount or at least give the proprietors their full cut to support their business.
Most establishments do not charge upfront, requiring only credit card details to make a reservation which can be cancelled or amended up to a 4 days before arrival. This gives you alot of flexibility in the planning, unlike transportation arrangements. Full payment is collected at check in or upon checking out depending on the hotel policies.
This can be paid via credit card or cash depending on one’s preferences. With the card, there is no need to carry around so much cash. On the other hand, it means having to use the bank’s less favorable exchange rate. The average 2-3 star hotel cost about 60 EUR per night.
If you have your own transportation and will be hanging around a particular area for several days, gites (France) or agriturismo (Italy) provide a cheap albeit remote alternative. These are family-run farms or rural establishments that let out some of their rooms for guests but primarily depend on their farm produce for a living.
For 62 EUR a night, we stayed in a house complete with its own living room, bedroom, kitchen and dining area coupled with Italian hospitality limited only by our language barrier. Our agriturismo allowed us to partake in their farming activities too.
Most travel guides advise to plan no more than two activities a day. After factoring in packing, travel, navigation and meals, the time left for real sightseeing is surprisingly limited coupled with the fact that most attractions close as early as 5pm in Europe. Pay close attention to operating hours, entrance requirements and special events/public holidays.
For example, churches close their doors to visitors as early as 4pm and will not admit visitors who are inappropriately dressed. Popular stops like the Uffizi Gallery and San Marco Basilica require advance booking or you may end up joining the queue for several hours wasting precious time. Take note that unlike Singapore, public holidays are real rest days so most attractions and department stores are closed.
The annual Italy Culture Week is planned about two weeks after Easter when all state museums and historical sites are open to public free of charge. This includes the San Marco Campanile, Uffizi Gallery, the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatino Hill etc. just to name a few. We noted that within Italy itself it is not widely publicised but for foreigners like us, it is a blessing from God.
The Paris Museum Pass will save you money if you intend to visit any of 60 museums and monuments covered by it. With a two day pass that cost 32 EUR, we visited the Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Sainte Chapelle, Chateau de Versailles and Centre Georges Pompidou without having to queue for the tickets.
With young children, schedules have to make way for meals and naps or you might end up with a very grumpy kid (even adults) throwing tantrums at the most inconvenient time. Children love wide open spaces so make sure they have opportunity to run about and expend their pent up energy. Parks are there for this reason.
Grocery shopping especially for bottled water should be planned early as supermarkets close promptly at 8pm. Be readily flexible if a stop proves to be inconvenient or unattainable. It is better to enjoy the trip in its entirety than stressing on an objective. Sometimes a change in plan brings pleasant surprises. Don’t bring your concept of efficiency to France or Italy. While developed, people there have a different notion of time which may sometimes frustrate you.
Travelling independently means you are 100% responsible for hulling your own luggage. Pack lightly for the adults but be more lenient for the children. France and Italy in spring can be chilly, rainy, windy and hot at times so prepare clothes for different kinds of weather.
Toys, books and healthy snacks to entertain your child on long flights or train rides is a necessity. Crayons and an empty notebook serves as both a journal and a drawing board where activities are only limited by your imagination. Allow the child to bring one item of his/her choice.
For young children, a stroller is essential unless you relish the idea of carrying them when they start complaining of leg aches every few metres. They also act as a good trolley to carry water bottles, coats and guide books. As pavements are mainly cobble-stoned and bumpy, make sure wheels are durable. For ease of handling, a lightweight buggy which can be easily folded is preferable.
While it may be excessive, you may want to consider preparing a bag of instant everything – noodles, soup, beverages, porridge and oats. They proved to be useful when we were simply too tired to hunt for a place to eat. All you need is boiling water to enjoy a nice warm meal in the comforts of your hotel. The best part is having available an empty bag to stock up on French and Italian delicacies as provisions are used up.
Bring a waterproof file containing important documents like passport photocopies, travel insurance, train reservations, hotel addresses and maps. Guidebooks are helpful add-ons but don’t sweat too much on it as there usually isn’t much time to refer to them on the road. A preferable alternative would be to compile important facts and historical background of places you are visiting in a folio.
Phrasebooks on the other hand are essential. While it is unlikely you will start chatting with a stranger in fluent French or Italian, attempting a few basics endear yourself to the locals and they become more partial to you.
A debit or credit card is necessary for big purchases and to withdraw money from the ATM using the Cirrus or Plus network in local currency although you need to be aware of the bank charges concerned. You may want to track the EUR exchange rate several weeks before departure so you do not end up making do with the rate offered on the last day.
Have a budget so you roughly know how much cash to have on you each day. Split your cash holdings into several portions hiding them in various compartments of your luggage so you only carry small amounts on you.
This was our sample itinerary for 16 days in France and Italy travelling mainly by train and car with a child. I made slight modifications here as the time we had spent in Tuscany was quite horrible due to poor planning and anticipation.
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|Arrival in Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. Transit to nearby hotel by shuttle bus.
|Board early morning TGV to Aix-en-Provence, 650km south of Paris.
|Pick up car from Aix-en-Provence gare. Head into town and then north-westwards towards Salon de Provence and Arles. Check into hotel in Arles. Spend rest of the day exploring the town’s Roman relics and van Gogh legacies.
|Spend the morning enjoying the laid back and peaceful town. Get freshly baked bread and pastries from the boulangerie, explore the alleys for hidden treasures and relax at the park with your children.
|Drive north-westwards passing the castle towns of Tarascon and Beaucaire. Lunch in Remoulins. Head to Pont du Gard, the tallest aqueduct built by the Romans still standing like it did many centuries ago.
|Enroute to Arles, stop for a short visit to St Remy de Provence where van Gogh spent his last days. From St Remy, ascend the Alpilles range to reach the impressive medieval chateau and village Les Baux de Provence.
|Check out of hotel. Prepare for a long and scenic drive eastwards through the Provencal towns, stopping in Riez or Moustiers St Marie for lunch. This is the heart of lavender production where you can buy local produce. From Moustiers, go southwards to Aiguines and follow the road ascending the Verdon range. Stop as many times as you wish to capture the magnificence of the gorges du Verdon, the biggest in Europe.
|The final viewing point is at Pont l’Arturby, after which the road starts to descend towards Comp and Grasse. Grasse is world renown for its perfume production and if time permits, you can opt for a visit to one of the perfumeries. Continue towards Nice. Stop by multi-color pebbled beach to catch a whiff of the Mediterranean Sea. Check into hotel.
|Check out of hotel and return car. Board riveria train from Nice city center crossing the France/Italy border to Milan.
|Transit in Milano Centrale, the largest train station in Italy. Take the connecting train towards Venezia St Lucia station. Check into hotel and dine at one of the many cafeterias or restaurants. San Marco Square is your destination at night – be dazzled by the lights and mesmerised by the symphony of music that fills the air.
|Hop on a vaporetto that will bring you through the Grand Canal towards the Rialto bridge. Visit the local pescharia which has been conducting business on the same site for the last several hundred years. Cross the Rialto bridge towards to relatively modern boutiques and shop to your heart’s content. Don’t forget to grab your own Venetian mask.
|Back at the San Marco Square, join the queue to visit the St Mark’s Basilica where the body of St Mark is rumored to be kept. Thereafter climb the campanile for a bird’s eye view of Venice and its surrounding lagoons. Spend the evening relaxing in the piazza or along the water front as the sun sets behind the domes of San Giorgio Maggiore.
|Check out of hotel and board vaporetto no. 1 for your last glimpse of the city built on water. Back at St Lucia station, board train leaving for the Renaissance city of Florence.
|Arrive at Santa Maria Novella station. Check in hotel. Join the large tourist crowds at Piazza della Signoria admiring the marble sculptures, particularly the replica of Michaelangelo’s David. The Uffizi Gallery is your obvious first stop if you have made prior reservations.
|The Duomo with its awe-inspiring copper-colored domes and the baptistry’s bronze panelled doors are exemplary masterpieces. From within the duomo, you can ascend the dome to fully appreciate the murals that cover the ceiling. Head to Ponte Vecchio to chill by the river Arno or pick up local souvenirs.
|Check out of hotel. Pick up car and make a stop at Piazzale Michaelangelo for a panaromic view of Florence. Drive south out of the city on the SR2 autostrada. Exit at Tavernelle and ascend the undulating narrow roads through the rolling Tuscan landscape. Head west towards Certaldo which should take you about 2 hours of leisure drive.
|From Certaldo, the hill town of San Gimingnano with its 11 towering pillars is your next destination. Stop for lunch and a climb up one of the towers for a view of the surroundings.
|After leaving San Gimingnano, the town of Poggibonsi signals the entry into the Firenze-Siena autostrada. Follow it till you reach the beautiful town of Siena. Check into your hotel. Spend your evening with the locals basking in the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo encompassed by the artistically designed medieval buildings.
|Spend the morning combing the steep hilly streets of Siena and shopping for local delicacies. Visit the duomo and compare its architecture with the duomo of Florence. For a simpler treat, the San Domenica is a pleasant sparsely decorated church dedicated to the saint Catherine.
|For more breathtaking scenery, Le Crete Senesi begins after leaving Asciano heading southwards for several kilometres, treating you to a unique clay landscape. Head towards Monte Oliveto Abbey, a serene Benedictine church surrounded by avenues of cypress trees. After the abbey, head back to Siena.
|Check out of hotel. Follow E78 east till it joins the A1 autostrada for a 2 hours drive straight to the eternal city of Rome. Check into hotel and return car after making a trip to Stadio Olimpico, home of AS Roma and Lazio, if you are a fan.
|After lunch, make a beeline for the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill, the heart of the ancient Roman Empire. Completing the visit to these historical giants will take you the better part of the day. Spend the evening roaming the lively streets of the city.
|Visit the church of San Clemente to have a better grasp of the multiple layers underneath today’s modern city.
|Walk to Capitoline Hill and be awed by the overwhelmingly huge statue of Emanuele Vittorio. You can visit the national museum for a better understanding of the country’s political past. Then onto the Pantheon, the oldest surviving Roman relic. The occulus still amazes after so many centuries. From the Pantheon, end your day in Piazza Navona with the locals.
|Take the metro to S.Pietro for a visit to the Vatican City. St Peter’s Square with its columnade plaza is imposing. Join the queue to enter St Peter’s Basilica as security is pretty tight. The basilica houses enclaves honoring the various popes as well as masterpieces dedicated to the worship of God. The Sistine Chapel ceiling is a must-see to embrace the brilliance of Michaelangelo’s genius.
|Check out of hotel and head to Termini Station for the overnight train back to Paris.
|Arrive in Paris Bercy. Navigate the confusing metro system to your hotel. Rest and freshen up.
|After lunch, make a stop at the Eiffel Tower. Join the tourists to ascend the prominent landmark or simply relax in the Parc du Champ des Mars admiring the monument. Hop onto a river boat cruising the Seine River for an overview of the city.
|Take the metro to Arc de Triomphe which was build to commemorate Napoleon’s war victories. Purchase a 2 day Paris Museum Pass and climb the stairs to the top of the arc for a view of the twelve avenues radiating from the arc to various parts of the city. Stroll down avenue Champs d’Elysees for a shopping spree or simply to people watch.
|Continue down the avenue to place de la Concorde where a 3,000 year old Luxor obelisk rest. Enter jardin des Tuilleries and you will arrive at the infamous glass pyramid sited in the center of the Louvre and entrance to the art museum. Spend the rest of the day immersed in thousands of art collections classified according to the time period and region they were created.
|Take the metro to Ile de Cite, an islet formed in the middle of the river Seine. Two famous cathedrals grace this location – Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame. The former used to host the royal family for weekly mass and is encompassed by impressive stained glass windows depicting scenes from all the books of the Bible. The Notre Dame and its bell tower is the rumored home of the hunchback in Victor Hugo’s novel.
|The Chateau de Versailles is 45 minutes out of the city on the RER line where the remnants of the defunct French monarchy is open to public. Visit the various rooms of King Louis XIV, his queen Marie Antoinette and the royal family. There is a extravagantly large park/forest in the compound where hunting parties used to be held.
|Back in the city, choose either to shop along Boulevard Haussman where you can find the department stores Galeries Lafayette and Printemps or end your day at centre Georges Pompidou, a modern arts museum with an equally contemporary architecture.
|Check out of hotel and head to Gare Montparnasse or Gare de Lyon for airport shuttle to CDG Airport.
This is a sample budget for a family of 2 adults and 1 child (less than 4 years old) on a 16 days trip from France to Italy. All amounts are quoted in EUR unless otherwise stated.
|Singapore Airlines economy class return airfare
|Average 60 euros/night for 2 – 3 star hotel/B&B * 15 nights
|2nd class tickets for point to point journeys – Paris to Aix-en-Provence (TGV); Nice to Milan (Intercity); Milan to Venice (Eurostar City); Venice to Florence (Eurostar Italia) and Rome to Paris (Artesia 6-bedder couchette)
|Total 7 days rental (3 in France and 4 in Italy). Includes extra charge for different pick up and drop off point, CDW, insurance, unlimited mileage, diesel consumption and parking
|For vaporetto rides in Venice, metro in Rome and Paris
|700 – 900
|Breakfast is provided at the hotel or bought from the local boulangerie which cost no more than 5 euros; estimate 20-30 euros for each family meal (lunch and dinner); for meals in restaurants expect total bill to be approximately 50 euros; include small budget for bottles of mineral water
|100 – 200
|2 * 2 days Paris Museum Pass (32 euros each) and some sights in Provence. As our visit coincided with the Italy Culture Week, all museums and monument that are state-owned are free of charge