Lessons learned from my first (and tenth) trip to Europe, part 3

IMG_7692Sydney Opera House at sunrise

Hello and happy Friday! I hope all my USA readers had a Happy Fourth of July. This is the third and final installment in my “Lessons I’ve Learned from Traveling” series – I’d love to hear if you’ve enjoyed my stories! If you missed the first two installments, read them here and here!

Make jet lag work in your favor – When we traveled to Australia, our body clocks were all messed up.  We took advantage of being wide awake at 5 am and scheduled an early morning backstage tour of Sydney Opera House. My daughter, who is a stage manager, loved getting a peek at the backstage workings and hearing the stories of things gone wrong during shows. It was a great chance to experience something I normally might miss. On a normal day, I never see the sunrise; but seeing sunrise at Sydney Harbour was spectacular! If you know you’ll be awake earlier than usual the first day or two of your trip, make full use of those mornings to enjoy sightseeing with fewer crowds or to schedule a special tour that you wouldn’t otherwise consider.

adult-1868988Picture courtesy of Pixabay

Shoes must be comfortable – If you’ve ever gotten horrible blisters on the first day of a trip where you are walking 10-15K steps a day (or more), you’ll understand this one! When forced to choose, prioritize comfort over style – sometimes you can find the holy grail and get shoes that are comfy AND cute, but sometimes you have to settle for shoes that are cute ENOUGH in order to get comfort, which is key. I have learned through trial and error to always pack blister bandaids, moleskin (pack scissors or precut pieces sized for heels and toes) and a pair of flip flops. 

Try to learn a few basic phrases in the language – Anywhere I’ve traveled, people have appreciated my efforts to say “Hello” “Please”, “Thank You”, “Where is the toilet”, “May I have” and “Where is” in their language. Even when I butcher it, I laugh and smile and try my best and generally get smiles and help in return.

**When traveling by bike, I also learn “Please help, my bike is broken”!**

IMG_2340Our hotel room in Austria

Beds may not be what you expect – In some countries, you will get a bottom sheet and a duvet, with no top sheet on the bed. I’ve found this particularly in the Germanic speaking countries. You will also sometimes get two twin beds pushed together for a double, with a space between the two mattresses which can make it hard to cuddle if traveling with a significant other.

Yes, we have no bananas – Many hotels with a breakfast buffet in Europe have stopped serving bananas. I’ve been told this is because Americans take them for later in the day. In Europe, hoteliers generally expect that you will take what you need for that specific meal, not stash extra food for snacks.

IMG_7961Making memories!

Pictures of you and your travel companions will provide better memories than pretty pictures of landmarks and scenery – so make sure you get pics of yourself and your loved ones!

Currency – the best place to get currency is the ATM at a bank. I used to always get cash at the airport ATM’s, but lately the airport ATM’s seem to be connected to the currency exchange booths (which are horrible places to get money) so I’ve started bringing a small amount of the local currency from home. I generally bring enough to get me from the airport to my hotel, plus the price of one meal in case I want to check in and eat before finding a bank. Another tidbit – when given the choice between paying in dollars or the local currency at a store, choose local currency for a better exchange rate.

IMG_1636One of my favorite restaurants in New York City

If you find a place you like, make a note of the address/location so you can go back – This lesson was reinforced  for me on our last trip, when we spent several hours wandering around Venice looking for a restaurant that we thought was “right around the corner” from our hotel! Try to grab a business card or jot down the address when you find a place you like, to make it easier to find if you decide to go back.

Always carry your hotel name and address with you – So you can show it to a cab driver or use the street name to ask for directions if you get turned around in a new city.

IMG_8416First time in first class!

Don’t fly 17 hours straight in coach if you can help it – three years ago, we flew from Dallas to Sydney (17 hours nonstop) in coach, and I will NEVER do that again – it was absolutely miserable! We broke the flight up on the way back into 8 and 9 hour flights with an overnight break in between…so much better!

IMG_2161Windows that open are a wonderful thing!

A/C is not as prevalent in Europe as it is in the USA – If you are traveling in the summer, and air conditioning is important to you, make sure you confirm that the hotel you are booking has air conditioning. Also, in winter, many hotels and restaurants will have the heat blazing. In your hotel room, you will sometimes have a radiator which is adjustable – on our last bike trip, my friend spent an entire night hot and uncomfortable, only to find in the morning that her radiator had been on full blast all night long!

IMG_2412Who says you can’t spend an afternoon reading at an outdoor cafe?

You don’t HAVE to spend every waking minute sightseeing – it’s perfectly valid to sit at an outdoor cafe and read for an entire afternoon. I’m just saying – it’s YOUR vacation, so do what makes YOU happy!

Keeping a trip journal is so worth it – even if you just make short notes about best/worst thing each day, where you ate, etc. I used to try to write several pages each night, but found that impossible to maintain; so now, I jot down best, worst, good restaurants, best quotes, funniest mistake, etc. Super quick notes but they are so fun to look back on and even short notes jog my memory!

Be wary of over scheduling – Try not to jam pack your itinerary. Traveling between attractions will take longer than you  think, and you may not have as much energy as you anticipate. If you’ve been moving a mile a minute and just can’t stomach one more museum, change your plans and sit at a cafe for an hour instead. Allow time for bathroom breaks, coffee stops, and spontaneity. I like to travel slower than some…I break my schedule into morning, afternoon and evening segments, with only ONE planned activity per segment. I do, however, jot down lots of notes about nearby sightseeing options in case we have extra time.

 

Rental cars are usually manual – When renting a car, you must request an automatic if you want one and it will often cost extra. And not all manuals are created equal; I once got stuck in a rental car lot in Pisa because the manual I was driving had a funky trick for getting into reverse! Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the rental car attendant. When driving, it’s also nice to know the city names along your route, as road signs in Europe often point toward towns rather than route numbers.

IMG_2216 (1)This detour sign led to a great day – and gave my blog its name!

Above all, roll with the punches and be flexible – You WILL experience frustrations, hiccups, and giggles. My husband and I stayed in a hotel in Heidelberg where the light over our bed fell down on us, so we slept with our feet at the head of the bed and our heads at the foot of the bed. We’ve gotten parking tickets because we didn’t understand the payment system and the signs. We‘ve made five circles through a roundabout because we couldn’t figure out which exit we needed to take. I told a policeman at the Eiffel Tower “I have a little stink” when I was trying to say “I speak a tiny bit of French”. But if you think of it all as a grand adventure and bend to accommodate these unexpected hiccups, you’ll end up with great travel stories and meet amazing people along the way.

**As my dad always used to say when things went wrong…”we’re making memories!” Here’s wishing you incredible memories!**

 

Lessons learned from my first (and tenth) trip to Europe, part 2

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Thanks to everyone who liked and commented on Part 1 of this post! It was great to hear your thoughts…I’d love to hear what you think of this next group of life lessons!

For those of you who may have missed part 1, I’m posting lessons I’ve learned from my travels, whether my first trip to Europe or my tenth. I’ve made lots of mistakes over the years…I’m sharing them here so you can avoid them!

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There are times when the best decision is to throw money at the problem and make it go away – you will invariably run into problems that can be easily solved with a reasonable amount of money.  In my last post I mentioned that my husband and I spent 24 hours in Germany not speaking to each other; we got into a HUGE fight over the 5 euro charge for the funicular at Heidelberg Castle. I was exhausted and did NOT want to hike up the 315 steps to reach the castle; my husband said there was NO way he was paying when we were perfectly capable of taking the stairs. Guess what happened? We hiked the stairs, and I was so exhausted and mad by the time we got to the top that I didn’t speak to him again until we were at the airport the next day! On the flight home, we realized I should have paid the 5 euros and met him at the top, but in that moment, we were SO tired that our brains were not working correctly. Our fight also illustrates that “reasonable” means different things to different people. When I went on my bike trip across Austria with friends two years ago, we discussed this issue ahead of time. And after two days of biking in second-day stinky biking clothes because we hadn’t found a laundromat after six days of searching, we decided it was worth the 75 euros our hotel charged us to do an overnight load of laundry. Was it a lot of money? Yes.  Would we rather have found a laundromat and done it ourselves? Yes, of course, but we split the cost three ways and felt SO MUCH BETTER with clean bike clothes! With no laundromat available, it was our best option at that moment. We made the decision and moved on with no regrets.

**for more topics to discuss before traveling with friends, read this post**

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Don’t be afraid to split up – My husband and I don’t spend 24/7 together at home, but when we first traveled, we stayed together ALL. THE. TIME. Over the years, we have gradually come to the realization that because we have different interests (plus I need alone time to rest and recharge), there are times when it just makes sense to split up for an afternoon.  Florence Nightingale was my childhood hero, so when we went to London, I was super excited to see the Florence Nightingale Museum. My husband had zero interest, but wanted to spend more time at the Imperial War Museum than I did, so I went to the Florence Nightingale museum alone and met up with him a few hours later for a quick look at the highlights of the Imperial War Museum. 

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When walking alone, listen to your gut – You know that gut feeling that something is not right? Maybe the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, or you get a weird feeling in the pit of your stomach? LISTEN TO THAT FEELING!!! On my way to the Florence Nightingale Museum, I walked through a slightly sketchy area of London. I was on an empty street when two men came up and started walking behind me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I got a VERY strong feeling of danger. Luckily, there was a convenience store on that block, so I dashed in and stayed there for several minutes. I told the clerk about the men and that they gave me the creeps; he helped me check to make sure they had gone before I continued on my way (looking back, I should have called a taxi to get the rest of the way to the museum, but luckily, I had no further issues). That’s probably the most scared I’ve ever been when traveling. Sometimes we (women, especially) discount that feeling, thinking we are just being silly, but I’m a firm believer in listening to your gut!

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It’s amazing how much you can communicate with smiles, nods and pointing – My aunt mentioned this one, and she was so right! My favorite travel stories are of people we’ve encountered along the way, like the man who came up to my husband in Salzburg and commented on the fact that my husband was wearing shorts and a winter coat in December. We understood nothing he said except “lederhosen” and “BRRR”, but when he wrapped his arms around himself and faked a shiver, it was obvious that he thought my husband was a little nuts for wearing shorts! In Berchtesgaden, we stayed at a Bed and Breakfast run by a husband and wife who spoke almost no English. Despite this, we were able to understand the directions he gave us to the Berchtesgaden Salt Mine, through gestures and pointing left and right. A smile and a nod, along with a quick game of charades, can get you a long way!

Most people are basically helpful (except for the ones who are trying to scam you) and how to tell them apart – Over and over again on our travels, my faith in the goodness of people has been reaffirmed. When our rental car broke down in the Lake District of England, our  Bed and Breakfast host drove us a half hour to the train station. When my friends’ luggage got lost as they were about to start a 100 mile hike along the West Highland Way, their Bed and Breakfast host took the hiking boots off his feet and gave them to Jeff to use until Jeff’s gear arrived. We have experienced countless examples of kindness, but have also been the victims of a few scams. How do you tell them apart? Scammers will usually approach you in a busy tourist spot (train station, ATM, crowded plaza, etc) asking you to sign a petition or hand your money to them as they ‘help” you. A favorite scam at a train/metro station is to offer to buy the tickets for you at the ticket machine. The scammer wants you to give them your money and they will buy you the one week pass, for example. When in reality, they buy you the one-ride ticket and have just made a profit.  **Someone who is truly trying to help, however, will usually just point to the right buttons on the ticket machine and let you do it yourself.**

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We learned the hard way to be particularly wary when the currency is unfamiliar to us, and to NEVER let a stranger give you change at the ATM. In the Czech Republic, where the currency is the koruna, a man came up to us at the ATM and offered to make change (the ATM’s there spit out 1000 koruna bills). He gave us two 500 unit bills, which turned out to be Hungarian currency and worth WAY less than the 1000 korunas we gave him. But the money was very decorated and unfamiliar to us, and we were busy trying to get to the airport to go home, so we didn’t realize the switch until later.  We also learned not to sign any “petitions” in touristy areas. We did ONCE and congrats, you’ve just given your email, name and address to scammers who will then send you “phishing” emails and steal your credit card number!

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A bottle of wine, cheese and dessert on your balcony can be dinner – Some nights, we’re exhausted after a long day of sightseeing. Other times, we’re traveling with a pretty strict budget and choose to spend it on activities rather than food. For whatever reason, we are perfectly happy picking up a bottle of wine, some cheese and bread, and a small dessert at the local market and having a picnic dinner on our hotel bed or balcony. You can find really fresh ready-to-go meals in the local supermarkets and save tons of money on food – we also love exploring the outdoor produce markets for fresh fruit.

I still have a long list (it’s amazing how many things I thought of once my mind got going), so part three will be coming soon! In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a line in the comments section below and let me know which of these resonate with you! And as always, thanks so very much for reading….

My Travel Bucket List

Rome Pantheon

Pantheon in Rome – Photo by Evan Qu on Unsplash

Hello! I don’t know if everyone has a travel bucket list, but I definitely do. It seems the more I travel, the longer my list gets…does this happen to anyone else?  I meet other travelers, and they tell me about cool places they’ve visited, and wham, another place goes on my list! 

I thought I’d share mine today…I’d love to hear about yours as well!

Watch snow fall through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome – This one comes straight from the book Four Seasons in Rome, a travel memoir written by Anthony Doerr. As it only snows in Rome about once every four years, this one will be tricky to accomplish – I’d have to basically watch the weather forecast and then grab a last minute flight! Starting to save my pennies now…as it snowed in Rome last month, I should have a few years to save up. **Alas, I was woefully unprepared last month to take a last minute trip – you can bet I won’t miss that chance next time!**

Ride bikes along the Danube in Austria with my daughter – I did this trip two years ago, with two girlfriends, and I’m super excited to return and share the adventure with my daughter!  I took lots of notes about the towns I liked and didn’t like, so the second ride should be even better logistically, and I love spending one on one time with my girl.

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Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Iceland

Drive Iceland’s Ring Road with my husband and two sons – My daughter and I went to Iceland a few years ago, and I kept thinking how much my husband and sons would like it! I would love to go back with my men and explore even more of Iceland by driving the Ring Road all the way around the country.

Rent an apartment in Paris by myself for two weeks – I love Paris, I’ve been to Paris a few times, and want to go by myself next year. I want to explore at my own pace, on my own schedule, and sit in a cafe and read for six hours without worrying that my companion is bored. 

Take a summer road trip entirely planned around library book sales – my family and I are total book lovers.  We can spend days in used book stores. Last summer we were visiting our oldest son in Upstate New York and found a library used book sale. We happily spent a couple of hours browsing and went home with two boxes full of books. At some point on the drive home, we said “Wouldn’t it be fun to plan an entire road trip and just go from one library sale to another?” So one of these years, the Debrecht Family Library Book Sale Road Trip will happen – though I’m afraid we would have to rent a moving truck to haul our purchases home!

Explore Slovenia – It’s been on my list for years, but I haven’t made it yet! I keep seeing photos which make me long to go explore – I don’t think 2018 will be the year, but who knows!

Visit a Southern Living Idea House – every year, Southern Living magazine features their idea house. These houses always look so beautiful, and I’d love to actually visit one at some point. Maybe this year, since I live in the South right now?

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See all those people? That’s what I want to avoid! Photo by Melissa on Unsplash

Hike an uncrowded section of the Great Wall of China – I’ve never been to Asia, but would love at some point to hike the wall where there are not ten million tourists all walking at the same time…surely, with thousands of miles of wall, I should be able to accomplish this, right?? There’s even one section lit up at night for a night hike!

Spend Christmas in Europe – I’d love to travel with my family to Europe for Christmas one year – wander the Christmas markets, enjoy ice skating and holiday decorations, and experience how other countries celebrate the holiday. I don’t have a particular destination in mind and would be happy to let my family choose! **Hubby, if you’re reading this, I think Christmas of 2019 would be perfect!**

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Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah – Photo by Ganapathy Kumar on Unsplash

Visit the six states I haven’t seen – Courtesy of my 20 moves and love of travel, I’ve visited 44 of the 50 United States. I’m only missing Alaska, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Vermont (I know, Vermont’s the outlier here – somehow, despite the fact we lived in Connecticut for five years, we never made it to Vermont). At some point, I’ll make it to these six and will be able to say I’ve seen all 50 of our beautiful states! I still remember the huge argument I had with a Texan when I was in college…he said that Texas had the most interesting history of any state, and I argued that each state had its own unique story and that they were all fascinating. Can’t wait to explore the last six and learn their stories!

What places and experiences are on your travel bucket list??? Maybe I’ll add a few more to mine….

As always, thanks so much for reading and have a great weekend!

 

8 Topics to discuss before traveling with friends

amigas on trail

The Amigas on the trail!

Happy Sunday everyone! I’m writing this from my happy place – my swinging chair on my front porch, with my dog keeping me company.  I LOVE my front porch – it’s my favorite place for morning coffee, meditation, afternoon tea with friends, watching the rain, or just to curl up with a good book. My husband and I sometimes eat dinner out here as well!

Two years ago, I cycled 240 miles through Austria along the Danube River with two friends. We are currently training for our next trip (biking through the Czech Republic in the fall) and this got me thinking about topics we discussed ahead of time that helped make our travel smoother. So here’s our list, in hopes that it might help someone else have a better trip! My assumption here is that you value the friends you will be traveling with and want to nurture those friendships…if not, maybe ask yourself why you’d want to travel with them in the first place!

How to share expenses – If you only talk about one thing before booking a trip with friends, talk about finances.  Are you a budget traveler or do you like to stay in luxury accommodations? Are you on a super tight budget while others in the group have a bit more to spend? Money issues can cause a lot of friction if you don’t hammer out details ahead of time! For our trip, we agreed we were good with mid-level lodging except for one night of the trip when we upgraded to a hotel with a spa (after six straight days of biking, that massage felt really good)! And at our first meal, we realized we hadn’t talked about how to share food expenses. We decided that since we all eat about equally, we would put money into a communal pot from which we would pay for all meals and sightseeing. We put in 100 euros at a time, and when the pot was empty we added more. At the end of the trip, we split what was left. This system worked well for us but if you have a group where people have different budget levels, (or if one person doesn’t drink and others have three drinks every night) it might work better to have everyone pay individually. There are also all kinds of apps now which allow you to track expenses throughout the trip and the app calculates who owes what at the end of the trip. The key here is to talk about it before you leave!

**We did set rules for alcohol consumption – our rules were 1. No more than two drinks from the communal pot at dinner and 2. If someone started ordering six drinks at dinner, the other two were supposed to slap some sense into the person over-imbibing!**

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Coffee in Cesky Krumlov – paid for with our communal dining fund

Temperature preference – another important topic if you will be sharing hotel rooms.  Elizabeth and I like to have it cold when we sleep – Jenn likes it warm. Knowing this ahead of time, and knowing that we would be sharing two out of three nights, Jenn brought sweats to sleep in, and Elizabeth and I packed the lightest possible sleep clothes, so we could set the room to a mid-cool temperature.

Each traveler’s need for alone time – You might need time by yourself every day; Sue might be looking forward to spending every minute with you. If you address this need beforehand, Sue won’t be hurt when you want to retreat with a good book after dinner. My friends and I each require alone time in order to function well, so we booked one twin room and one single room for our trip, and rotated roommates each night. We each got a night by ourselves every third day and shared with a different person on the other two – this kept it fun (like sleepovers!) yet gave us our valuable solitude. At the end of our trip, we spent four nights in Vienna, and reserved a three bedroom apartment for those nights. After ten days of traveling together, it was heavenly to have our own bedrooms for the last few days! We recognized that we needed to be proactive on this issue, so agreed to speak up if we wanted to be by ourselves – it does no one any good to hold back and then get resentful or cranky! We ended up with a comfortable flow during the days as well…sometimes two of us would chat on the bikes while the other rode a little ahead or behind, just enjoying the scenery and the peacefulness of the river.

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Sometimes we all rode quietly and just enjoyed the peace on the trail

Travel styles – Do you like to get up early and fill every minute with activity, or do you like a slower pace? Are you imagining short, quick meals or leisurely lunches? Do you like to shop or are you all about the museums? How do you feel about seeing ten churches in one day? This is another area where conflicting styles can cause tension. We knew sleep and fuel were important since we were biking six-seven hours each day, so we planned for adequate sleep and a full breakfast each morning, with a break for a sit-down lunch. The three of us enjoy wandering through shops together but also had a few “must see”  attractions we scheduled into our plans. Another important agreement was to stop for bathroom breaks, photos or snacks any time one of us wanted, no matter what. On the rare occasions when we could have felt resentful (I stopped us once not 30 seconds after we had started back up from a 20 minute snack break because I saw some rock “people” on the side of the road and wanted to take a photo) we just reminded ourselves of our agreement and it helped us reset our patience. We also saw some fun details that we might have missed if we hadn’t stopped! And it became a running joke that no matter what, we’d have to stop twice within our first 15 minutes of biking each day – once for me to adjust layers (I was experiencing major hot flashes during this trip) and once for a restroom stop (we drank a LOT of coffee and water before setting out each day so we could wake up and stay hydrated).

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Rock “People” on the side of the trail

Sleep needs – some people can thrive on 6 hours of sleep a night; others need a full 8-9 to be good company. Let your traveling companions know that you want to be in bed by 11, or if you can’t function before 8 am. If you are one who needs more sleep *totally raising my hand here* bring what you need to make that sleep possible! My sleep kit includes an eye shade, ear plugs and melatonin. All three of us like to read before bed, so we brought kindles, which let us read without having to have an overhead lamp on.  Also consider snoring in this category – if you snore and Sue’s a light sleeper, this can cause very disrupted sleep for Sue. It might be well worth the money to get separate rooms in that case!

**Seriously people…sleep is so important when traveling, anything you need to ensure a good night’s sleep is worth every penny.**

Transportation – How do you plan to get to your destination, and around town once you arrive? Will you be walking, using public transportation or do you want to Uber/taxi everywhere? What about getting to and from the airport? Talking about this will avoid that last minute surprise when you come out wearing good walking shoes and your friend shows up in four inch stilettos and wants to take a cab. This can also fall under the financial discussion, as transportation costs can quickly add up for those on a limited budget.

Packing – Are you a diehard light packer and refuse to check a bag? Does Sue like to bring ten pairs of shoes and a huge suitcase? Are you going to be frustrated waiting at the luggage carousel or while Sue takes an extra ten minutes to haul her heavy suitcase up the stairs in the subway? Will you be resentful if you pack lightly only to have Sue ask if she can put her souvenirs in your suitcase “since you have extra room”? Will you have any group items to bring (we had bike repair equipment, but your group might have a tent and air mattresses if camping)? If so, divvy up the common gear so each person carries a little and the load is shared. Discuss luggage expectations and set the rule that everyone carries their own stuff.

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One day’s shopping haul – our luggage got heavier as the trip progressed!

And last but not least – how will you handle unexpected problems or issues that arise? Safety falls into this category – we agreed that we would stay together after dark when wandering outside of our hotel. A group of singles might discuss what to do if one of the group wants to stay out all night after meeting someone. We also agreed that if an unexpected problem arose that could be solved with a little bit of money, we would “throw some money at it and make it go away” – this agreement was very handy when we couldn’t find a laundromat for five straight days and had to pay 55 euros for our hotel to do an overnight load of laundry. After two days of biking in day old bike shorts, it was well worth that money to wake up and put on fresh clothes!

Have you ever traveled with a group of friends? What types of things do you wish you had talked about in advance, or were glad you did talk about?