Here are some things that I am learning. Or, that I would do differently now that I know what I know. If you’re a US citizen thinking you’d like to go to Europe sometime, please pay attention: This is for you.
- Do the research ahead of time… there was not time made to research such important things like lodging, visas, costs in varying countries, and the Schengen. Who knew?
- Let’s talk about the Schengen, shall we? The Schengen is basically the European Union, plus a few other countries such as lovely Switzerland. An American can visit any country within the Schengen without having to [or getting to] have ones passport stamped. This may be both a blessing and a curse, because if you would have liked your passport to look like Jason Bourne’s various passports all full of little stamps from worldly places, forget it! However, it means you can skip over border lines as if you are playing hopscotch in the yard with your neighbors kids, no worries! You can decide if it’s a plus or a minus, but you’d better realize that you get 90 days. You get 90 days over any combination of a consecutive six months. The end. That’s it. Now, I presume this wouldn’t affect most American travelers as such, because who on earth can take more than three months to travel abroad??? After all, there’s family, mortgage, work, bills, and then work! Ahem. So the Schengen is a problem for us since we had planned to be here for five months. No major heartache, just that we have to revamp the original plans a bit. Stay tuned for that one, these plans are still in the making.
3. Euro-rail. If you actually do the research ahead-as suggested in #1 above- of where you might like to go and you can narrow down your ideas enough to predict more or less a direction, and you want to travel for as little cost as possible, then make it happen and purchase a euro-rail pass. Apparently you cannot purchase this once you’ve left the US. No matter how badly you might want to after hearing what screaming deals others are getting. And, you have to consider it far enough ahead that it can be mailed to you in the US. Otherwise, paying full price for train fares between longer destinations is a drag. We met three other American travelers who planned far enough in advance and purchased their euro-rail passes. They paid $650 dollars for approximately 11 weeks of travel. We had already paid at least that and we’re not done traveling. Ay!! Duly noted for next time.
4. That said, if you end up caught paying full fares for transportation, then renting a car for two or more people may end up being a comparable price for your travels. We ended up renting a car in a few places and it has been mostly good. You’d better have yourself a very hot-rod driver who is not intimidated by some crazy-ass driving in the big cities and along very small roads that in the US would be considered sidewalks. [I’m not exaggerating. Anyone willing to back me up on this? Please comment below!] Being a passenger can be difficult, but at the end of the day we have much more freedom to go where we wish and do not have to rely on being near a train or bus or subway station. Note! You still need to choose where you will pick up and drop off your car in advance if possible. Be sure that this is an option where you pick up! For example, we drove from Calais, France to Paris, France. No problem. Later we wanted to rent a car to drive from Paris to Amsterdam, no good: car cannot be dropped off in different country. Ok, check. Recently, we spent over two hours wandering around downtown Milan, Italia with all our baggage in tow to three different rental car locations before the fourth one rented us the smallest car ever. It’s a FIAT 500 and it’s perfect for driving on Italia’s unforgettable tiny streets. And I do mean that literally.
5. Hostels. It seems that in the off season it is easy enough to find these open and available. We have been mixing airbnb, couch-surfing, and hosteling. Join Hosteling International. This way you can have online access to accommodations as you plot your route.
6. Speaking of off season, if you can at all take your trip during or overlapping with off-season, DO IT. I cannot recommend this enough. We have had very little problem finding lodging. For example, recently in Pompeii at a very busy tourist area we drove into a campground literally across the street from the entrance to the Archeological Ruins. We were among about four others there. Never ever would that have happened in the height of summer! Now on the flip side, this also means that pools are starting to be closed [boo!] as well as some other services [such as the small sundry and market on site] and some hours are changed, so you’ll need to double check things like that for your intended destinations. Or, you can do as we are doing and just take it as it comes. [in Japanese, oh my Gotu]
7. Take an afternoon at least weekly to plan a rough-itinerary for the following week. The first two weeks or so it felt like every night we had no idea what we were doing the next day. Every night some time had to be taken to consider options and it quickly became tiring. Later we found that it was nice to sit down with a map, Google, and other online information and plan some sort of route. At that time I contacted possible couch-surfing hosts and hostels to find out about vacancies. This was much less stressful than the first method. But it was all new, right? So we just didn’t know. And, for the record, it’s still a work in progress! I am sure there is an update to this~
8. Speaking of not knowing, it turns out there was actually quite a bit of useable information in the Lonely Planet guidebook we are toting along with us. “Europe on a Shoestring” and in a mere 1368 pages! Intimidating, that. Purchased back in probably June [we left in September] we hardly made time to look at it. Bad idea. Turns out there was information on visas, Euro-rail, the pinche Schengen, hostels, sights to see, and a few of the other things a traveler needs to consider.
As my hot-rod driver has been safely escorting me and our baggage from one place to the next, I’ve had more time to peruse some of those 1368 pages and made the executive decision that it’s actually a very useful -albeit incomplete- book! [ps on this: not my idea, but a good one at any rate. As you travel, go ahead and pull out the pages from the book that you’ve passed through and/or are not using, to lighten the load, so to say. Just FYI… ]
- Speaking then, of useful resources, let’s talk about a handy app from TripAdvisor that is free on our nook device. I would like to preface this with: Let it be known that I am not a city person. I don’t love big cities in any country, even my own. However, apparently when you go to other countries seeing the large and famous cities is something a person must do. Now, this app should not be considered as the only reference when you are going to a large city, in my opinion, especially because it is merely that, opinions! Those of readers and contributors [like myself, actually] which are all collected by some TripAdvisor committee and then they put together this free app for travelers to use when in a larger metropolitan area. We have used London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Rome. I’d say that the information is helpful -in conjunction with other sources-to figure out what things you’d like to see and/or do while traveling. Worth a look-see, at any rate. Again, it’s only useful if you actually read it, which I hadn’t done until Amsterdam where I was like “The Ann Frank House is here, in Amsterdam? Why didn’t I remember reading that in high-school? We have to go!” [and we did, and it was awesome! Intense! Memorable! Amazing!]
- Budget your time, but don’t rush through things that you love! I have found that I feel much more comfortable when staying at a place for at least two nights. That provides one full day in between to do laundry if needed, to relax a bit, to upload or catch up on computer stuff, to sit in one spot and breathe, or to really go at it and dive into the location. If you have more than a month to travel then I recommend planning to move-move-move for a few days and do each night in a different spot for 5 or 6 days if you want to cover some ground. However, be sure to figure out a place where you would like to go deeper and stay for two or three or even four nights. For me the breather has been ideal. I can relax, sleep in, and even purchase groceries that I would not otherwise want to cram into my backpacks to carry around to who-knows-where-next! Also, speaking for myself, I like to have the more profound connection to an area that calls to me. It helps me center in a bit. I am able to get into something familiar, even if that means something as familiar as doing laundry, chopping garlic to prepare dinner, doing dishes, and waking up in the same place a few nights in a row. I’m not sure but this may have something to do with getting older [and wiser?], and it might be connected to the fact that we really do not have a home right now, per se. It doesn’t really matter why, it just matters that I noticed this preference and we’re able to enjoy doing it this way!
- Choose some things that you’ve “always wanted to see”… and then also allow some free space and time to meet people and find out what other gems are waiting for you without the crowds that popularity brings. [I have spent hours “planning” for this or that, and while those opportunities turn out well, some of the best things have been those that I did not plan at all but those that “just happened” by listening to people met along the way -and followed!- But that is for another blog, so I will leave you with this. Where do you want to go?