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….

Lessons learned from my first (and tenth) trip to Europe, part 1

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My daughter and her boyfriend went to Barcelona this week, and were surprised to find that their AirBnB rental had no air-conditioning. Even though they live in Miami and are used to the heat, they still had a hard time sleeping at night without the comfort of A/C or even a fan. That got me started thinking about surprises I’ve encountered and lessons I’ve learned while traveling. On my first trip to Europe, for example, I was flabbergasted to find that our bed and breakfast in England’s Lake District did not supply washcloths! When we asked for one, we were told that in Europe a washcloth is considered a personal item. Who knew?? I certainly hadn’t seen that information in any of the dozen guidebooks I had combed through before our trip. For me, discovering the differences between cultures and countries is part of the fun of traveling. Some of the lessons I’ve learned, however, have been about myself and what I need to make a trip enjoyable. And while I’m certainly getting better at it, I still learn something new on every trip! So without further ado, here is a random list of lessons I’ve learned during my years of travel; which has become such a long list that I’m going to split it into multiple parts. Check back over the next couple of weeks for the rest of the list…

An adapter and a voltage converter are NOT the same thing – A plug adapter only makes it possible to plug your electronic device into the wall socket; a voltage converter adapts the current from 110 (which the USA uses) to 220 (which Europe uses). Luckily, most phones, tablets and laptops are dual voltage these days, so if you’re only bringing these types of electronic items, chances are you won’t need to bring a voltage converter. If you are traveling with a single voltage electronic item, you will need BOTH a voltage converter and an adapter.

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Don’t bother bringing a single voltage blow dryer or curling wand/straightener – I read this advice online, but didn’t heed it, and learned firsthand how accurate it was when I fried my curling iron in London, even with a voltage converter. **how many of you are out there raising your hands right now in “fry the hair appliances” sisterhood?**  I have since invested in a dual voltage curling wand, one of my best travel-related purchases. I never bring a blow dryer from home, however, as most hotels supply them these days.  When I stay at a place without a blow dryer, I let my hair air dry and then just use the curling wand to fix any funky spots. I know many women just let their hair do whatever it wants while traveling, but my hair has just enough wave to get all frizzy and funky without a little help, and I do like to look pretty in my travel photos!

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Logistics are stressful – This, I think, is one of the major reasons people sign up for guided tours. Navigating your way around a country when you don’t speak the language is harder than I anticipated. I once spent a day on my own in Germany where ALL of my plans went awry due to the difficulties of figuring out logistics in a foreign language.  That day deserves its very own blog post, which is coming soon, but remember to allot extra time and patience when trying to figure out train schedules, subways, airports, ticket machines,etc. I never schedule any fixed activities on a day when I’m transitioning from one location to another anymore, as I’ve missed a few due to transportation delays. When all else fails, it is worth every minute you stand in line to get help from a real person!

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Do whatever it takes to get enough sleep – I am constantly reading statements like “you can sleep when you get home – you’re in Europe so make the most of every moment”.  I learned the hard way that this rule does NOT apply to me! If I don’t get the sleep I need, neither I nor my companions will enjoy the trip; just ask my husband! We once spent our last 24 hours in Germany not speaking to each other because we were so exhausted we had hit the wall and got in a huge fight over 5 euros. I cannot rise at dawn and spend an entire day sightseeing; I need to get a solid eight hours of sleep to be pleasant company and enjoy myself. I may see fewer sights each day, but I thoroughly enjoy the ones I do see. If you know you can’t function well without sleep, do whatever it takes to get the sleep you need, whether that means taking a 20 minute power nap on a metal folding chair in Westminster Abbey or going to an air-conditioned movie midday so you can rest (and nap, if you’re like me)! A well-rested you will enjoy the trip way more than an exhausted, cranky you!

Don’t pre-book too many activities – On my first trip to Europe, I had our entire itinerary planned out ahead of time. I laugh now when I look back, because we actually only saw about half what I had planned. Again, logistics came into play; it took longer to get from place to place on the tube than I had anticipated, and we were tired from navigating the city and being on our feet all day, so often didn’t have the energy for the night time activities on my schedule. On our last night in London, I had booked tickets to see The Gypsy Kings in concert at Hampstead Heath. The tube in London was not air conditioned, and we were tired and hot when we arrived back at our hotel after a full day of sightseeing. With only a 30 minute window to freshen up and change before getting back on the (non-airconditioned) tube for the 90 minute journey out to Hampstead Heath, we ended up staying in and having a picnic dinner on our bed, losing the money we spent on the tickets. Now, I choose carefully when pre-booking activities.  Some attractions, like the Vatican Museum or the Anne Frank House, are absolutely worth booking online ahead of time, as they have super long lines all the time. But I try not to book a night activity unless we’ve got a light day of sightseeing and can plan some rest time during the day

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This is just the beginning…I’ve got enough material for at least two more posts! How about you? What lessons have you learned through travel?  Do you have great stories from a time when something went wrong?? Leave a note in the comments section and I’ll include your tips in my next post!