Kelly (and Bill’s) Pointers for Traveling to Europe:
1. Spend as much time; or perhaps even twice as much time; planning as you intend to travel. Going to be gone for two weeks? That’s at least around 336 hours (had to find my calculator).
2. Check out travel sites like TripAdvisor, Fodors, Lonely Planet, etc. Read as many travel blogs as you can. Eventually you’ll stumble across someone whose travel style is similar to yours as we did with Paul and Diane. Don’t be afraid to pick and choose. Remember: you are writing your own travel story.
3. Check out places ahead of time. Same website and others. There’s no excuse for staying in a dive. You can get solid recommendations for most nights if that’s important to you. It is to me. I have to know where I’m going to lay my head.
4. Learn some of the language. Everyone will tell you that you don’t need to. Ignore them. You do not need to be fluent, but the most poignant, memorable conversations we had (with two elderly ladies in Austria and another on the train to Schafbergspitze) required some basic understanding of the language. Our entire experience was enriched by learning some German in our car. We utilized a $200 Simon and Schuster’s Pimsleur approach to language that we purchase nearly a year ahead of the trip. (Oh, how I miss my music CDs!) There may be better or cheaper but this worked fine for us. You’ll learn enough words to piece stuff together as you go and folks will appreciate that you’ve made the effort. Trust me. One exception may be waiters. A waiter suggested to us that we always talk to waiters in English because that way they’ll know we could benefit from an English language menu.
5. Remember: A smile is universal. Smile a lot. Smile to yourself. Smile at others. Smile when your heart is lonely… You get it.
6. Less is more. Consider traveling with a back pack. Luggage with wheels is kind of noisy on cobblestone streets. Lay out all the clothes you think you’ll need and then take away half. You can easily do a small batch of laundry while you’re in the shower or scrub socks and undies out in the sink. We purchased a rubberized clothes line we hung in the car to dry stuff out. Worked great.
7. You will catch a cold. That advice is more for me than for you. Always seems to be the case when we travel. If you think you will and you don’t, you can be pleasantly surprised.
8. Bill says, “If possible avoid the Frankfurt Airport.”
9. When packing consider eliminating as many of your “liquids” as possible. A small travel sized solid deodorant will do just fine for two or more weeks. You and the rest of the WORLD do not need to smell your perfume. Please. I beg of you. There are also some solid sheets sold for breaking down into laundry soap. We bought them. Not bad, but I think a little shampoo would have worked just fine.
10. Speaking about shampoo, don’t expect any in your room. Take along a little hotel freebie from home and you’ll be fine. Same thing with washcloths. Maybe you’ll get one. Maybe you won’t. More often we did not. Hair dryers 50/50.
11. Maps. Buy them before you go. Pull up pictures of places you think are beautiful and then see where they might be on the map. Figure out if that’s an area you can or want to visit. Maps should not be in English! That will do you no good. You need maps in the correct language or else you will be very frustrated. Germany is Deutschland. (Makes me feel not so badly that they say USA, oo-es-ah. We really screwed up their name.) By the way, our maps already had holes in them from use by the time we left.
12. Guide books can be destroyed. Not that you won’t use them or that they are not valuable, but don’t bother taking the whole thing if you’re really only going to need a couple sections. This is painful for me but thinking about carting around all my books was even more so. Since we focused primarily on the southern part of Germany, my guidebooks were “revised” to reflect this. I gleaned what I needed from my prettiest ones then left them home. Couldn’t bear to torture them. Most guidebooks I bought, I bought used so that deadened my pain. I had purchased a Rick Steve’s Germany/Austria book (2008 a little outdated but it was sufficient) and did the same thing.
13. Talking about sufficient, you really don’t need 3 meals a day. We usually buy enough peanuts to fill two quart sized bags and take them with us. I guess we’re used to traveling on cheaper airlines. Usually around lunch time, or late afternoon, we only need a handful of nuts to get us by. Sometimes, that’s all we need aside from breakfast. Every place we stayed served some kind of breakfast food. It wasn’t bacon and eggs, but it was sufficient.
14. “Ziploc bags,” I say that with reverence. You can never have enough. You need to stash your liquids in them to get on the plane. You can put your wet washcloth in one and if you take a gallon sized bag it might even carry your soggy clothes out to the car to hang. Since I wanted to keep track of our spending, one of my bags began to be the collective receipt receptacle. Can’t beat ‘em. Also good for taking left-overs out of restaurants if you are shy about asking for doggy bags. Um, that would be me.
15. Be prepared for your mind to expand. Your stereotypes and preconceived notions may have no room left in your expanded brain. You’ll see that perhaps we Americans don’t have it all figured out better than everyone else. We saw little evidence of poverty, homelessness, and littering. We visited countries that provide healthcare for all and we saw; for the most part; a very healthy looking populace. Being from Michigan, we also noticed how few abandoned homes and “for sale” signs were apparent.
16. Liquor may be quicker but I don’t recommend it. Be careful as well with the beer. It’s stronger than what you may be used to. The festival we attended had a great amount of schnapps; only it was higher proof than any schnapps I ever had here. If you feel you must accept (and of course you will) consider taking a sip and leaving the rest on the table. Someone else might really want it. Not that there’s anything wrong with drinking liquor but did you really save up this long to sleep an afternoon away in blissful ignorance? Probably not.
17. Ditch the shoulder sling bag and get yourself a little day-pack backpack. The sling bag bumped into people, but was handy for hauling stuff around in for day trips. Besides, in some places it seems like everyone is wearing a backpack. Kind of like noses; they come in all shapes and sizes and most of us have one.
18. Bill says, “Take comfortable walking shoes with a good grip.” We both got by with one pair of shoes but were glad they were on the “sensible” side.
19. Do not worry about being constipated. I’m just saying…
20. Electronic Cash is your best friend. Figure out what the ATM machines look like and then do not exchange money before you go. There are abundant E/C machines and they give a better rate of exchange than the banks. You’ll be fine. Trust me. Just remember the cash comes out of your checking, not your savings account.
21. For that matter, get a credit card with zero foreign transaction fees. Many, if not most credit card companies tack an extra charge on for you to use the card overseas. The dollar to Euro rate is not so good at the moment so why hurt yourself anymore. VISA and MasterCard are readily accepted. We used Capitol One because I think their commercials are funny. Be sure to let your bank and credit card company know where you are planning to visit.
22. If you’re tempted to buy a new camera before The Big Trip buy it sooner rather than later. Nothing more frustrated than hitting the “off” button when you think you’re hitting the “take the stinkin’ picture!” button. I speak from personal knowledge.
23. Take too many pictures. Digital cameras make too many pictures nearly impossible. You can easily pitch the ones you hate.
24. If you travel to a large city and plan to be there a while, seek out and purchase a pedestrian map of your surroundings. We found one very easily in Munich and it was most helpful. All other maps we had only served to confuse us. With map in hand and a couple of useful landmarks (all cities/towns have church steeples or high buildings) you are good to go.
25. Consider instituting a “Don’t ask/Don’t tell” policy with friends and loved ones. If your best friend should happen to (God forbid) die while you are on The Big Trip, what good is it going to do you to know? This is hard to request tactfully, but do it. My policy is, “If my kidney can be useful within 48 hours, let me know. Otherwise, please consider keeping everything on hold until my return.”
26. Take along a small 4x6 photo book with a picture of the good ol’ USA, some pictures of your home, and family. It’s great to use for showing people where you live. People in Europe generally don’t “get it” when I hold my hand up to show them where I live in Michigan. It’s also good for conversation. People will gladly point to places on the map where they may have also visited.
27. Be prepared to love something you never imagined you would, like yodeling. We still have yodel songs stuck in our heads. Who would have thunk?
28. Do not pack those jeans that you almost fit into (your skinny jeans) because you don’t think you’ll like German food so surely you’ll lose a couple pounds. You won’t. Apparently pizza is a universal food.
29. Bill says, “When ordering pizza things you think you understand, you probably don’t.” For instance, pepperoni is not a meat; salami is the equivalent. If you order pepperonis you will get some fairly mild (though they will say “hot”) yellow peppers. Paprika is red peppers as in red, orange, or yellow green peppers. There’s a word that looks like chicken but it’s really ham.
30. Save your money, skip the cell phone. We managed fine without a phone until our second to last day. Then we had to rely on the kindness of a stranger. We discovered that kindness thrives, by the way.
31. Internet. Well, you might get a connection and you might not. Or you might have to pay for a connection. Still, I think it’s the best way to keep in touch although we went a week in the WiFi wilderness at the end of our trip. We could have checked into an internet café if we really felt like we had to.
32. Be flexible and remember; it’s the journey, not the destination. You won’t be lost forever. Relax. Look around for what you were supposed to see that you otherwise would have missed.
33. Be flexible #2. If you are traveling with other people or a companion, be ready for your best made plans to change. You need to be able to “let go” and not allow little glitches to ruin an entire day or trip. The only way to avoid compromise is to travel alone. If that’s your plan, great! Otherwise, be ready to alter your plans if necessary.
34. Avoid hanging out with people from your own country. No offense meant here, but if you really want to “experience” not only the scenery but some genuine cross-cultural moments, you need to ditch your fellow Americans (or Canadians, or Britains, etc.). When you “group up”, no one is going to jump in and start up a German conversation with you and 10 of your best new American friends. Be brave. You will be able to speak English and hang out with Democrats or Republicans or American football fans, or social workers; when you get home.
35. Remember when color TVs came out and your folks said they were frivolous? (Okay, that is really dating me.) How about microwaves? Would you be without either one now? Then don’t be without a GPS when traveling overseas; especially in countries where English is not the primary language. We’ve gotten by without one in Ireland but I’d never try this trip again without one. It may take you on the roads less traveled (there were times we thought we were pulling into someone’s farm) but it’s money well spent and no longer just a luxury.
36. Be sure to look up the postal codes for the towns you plan to visit before leaving. Just like there are over 250 towns in the USA named “Fairview” there are multiple towns in Germany/Austria with the same name. Germany is also divided into states (so to speak). You need to know in advance, to which one you want the GPS to take you.
37. Decide you are going to have an amazing time then make sure it happens. Be amazed.