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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Twenty One Days in Europe, Now What (Part 1): 13 Tips + 2 When you Travel to Europe

As I move forward to my next level in my transition from the military after 23 years, why not take a break with your family out of the country while we can.  After our first Europe tour last year (Italy, Switzerland, France and Germany), we all decided to save up some money and do it again but we learn traveling the hard way, every time.  So we want to share this to our friends to save them some pain and bucks so they don't have to experience much bad but more good in their adventure to Europe.

Here are 13 Travel Tips to Europe with Sam, Myla and myself visiting 8 countries in 21 days in cities such as: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Malmo, Copenhagen, Berlin, Prague.

  1. Ask yourself:  Am I adventurous enough to travel to a country and appreciate all the bumps in the road and culture shock you are going to get? If so, enjoy the ride, you don't need the rest of the tips.
  2. Do your homework and find the best deal online.  Before and during your travel, post a public question on Facebook pages of the agency to get you answered fast and connect with them in your entire trip such as:  Eurail, Ryan Air, RailEurope, rental car, regional rail stations 
  3. Pack light.  Invest on a good carry on luggage that you can maneuver on and off the train or airport.  Checking in luggage not only delays you while waiting for it to load but takes extra effort to carry them on and off air, planes and automobile (my favorite movie by the way).
  4. Get a reliable phone preferably an open line. Don't rely on the promises of your local service provider that they have Global services.  TMobile was not recognized by local counterpart in France or in Brussels nor in Amsterdam.  Europe is not united as in the USA.  Get a SIM card once you arrive in each country.
  5. Don't be afraid to ask - in their dialect.  Always start to ask in their own language specially in France or Germany.  They are very proud of their language and all they ask is a courtesy to acknowledge that.  After you greet them with "Bonjour, puis-je poser une question" then ask them if you can speak in English then they will open up and assist you. Always carry a map or phone contact of your host or hotel, just in case.
  6. Be flexible.  People who are anal about planning always ends up disappointed and so it ruins their vacation.  Be open to new ideas such as changes in itinerary and last minute visit to special deals.  You may end up more disappointed later because you decided not to do things because it was not part of your plan. Early booking is not always a good idea, you may find a better deal when you book late on hotels and rail reservation.  In Europe most reservation are not refundable or exchangeable. Use the app Hotel Tonight if you want to stay in a big city hotel for last minute booking.
  7. Use the following reliable smart phone or tablet apps:  
    • - Rick Steves Europe for Audio Guide tour.
    • - or for those who wants to stay in hotel.
    • - AirBNB for lodging which I highly recommend because of unlimited option of renting a room, a house or villa at a  fraction cost of a hotel.
    • - Trip Advisor Guide  are user review site so it is reliable and very user friendly and does not need a WiFi to use when you download each specific city.
    • - Get Your Guide - this app can reserve you a free walk tour provided by Dept of Tourism in some major cities.  You can book them here in a snap, the hard part is to show up on time in designated location.
    • - Rail Planner - this will give you the best accurate time on when the next National, regional train  and tram is available to your chosen destination.  Other apps:  DB Navigator, Europe Map Guide, National Rail.
    • - Couchsurfing -  if you are single or couple and want free lodging (better than hostels), check  out some host who are willing to give you a room.  Most Europeans are very sociable, open minded and friendly.  This will be hard for those with kids.
  8.  Carry local coins.  We had problems in France and Prague because we traveled late or on a holiday.  Machines don't take bills when the customer service counter is closed.  Not all European country accepts Euro such as Czech Republic, Sweden or Denmark.
  9.  Use your credit card instead of cash.  Not only for convenience but you don't have to pay them with cash that you convert by paying a commission.  But be wary that some establishment requires that your card has a chip (USAA, Bank of America, NFCU don't have those) so we end up paying cash.  
  10.  Watch out for the commission when you exchange your dollar to Euro.  Ask local immigrants where they exchange their money.  In France, we happen to  be in Chinatown and most people exchange there  for the best deal.  Tourist area are notorious for giving you the worst deal for your buck, avoid them if possible.  Better yet, withdraw from a bank ATM (never use a store ATM for security reason).
  11. Go where locals go.  Shop in shopping mall or flea market for souvenirs.  We got our Germany and London shirt in a department store on sale for 3 Euros vice 15 Euros if you buy them on tourist squares or tourist shops.  But unfortunately if you collect magnets or bells, that is the only place you can get them.  Don't eat in square every dinner, ask your host or concierge where he or she eats for dinner and go there.  Locals like to to go to American fast food, not a bad idea specially if you want a free WiFi or cheap food.
  12. Take the Hop On Hop Off but not always.  Some places specially in Berlin and Paris, they have local buses (200/100 for Paris & 214 for Berlin I think) can take you to all tourist spots.  For those who likes to seat and just enjoy listening to the history and trivia of every sight the Hop On Hop Off (average of $30 in most places) are worth it to summarized your trip on your first day.  It's also a good crash course to start to know the city you are visiting.
  13.  Don't be timid to ask your friends or family or in our case fellow Filipino who lives in Europe who may be able to assist us in our entire stay for the best deal in travel, food, shop and future networking when you return to the country.
 Since I've used my benefit as military using space available onboard military plane, the last  2 applies to military or veterans only who plans on using space available flight which  saved us $4,500 round trip fare to Europe without getting bumped (luckily after 6 flights, the only time was when flight was delayed or canceled in Hawaii in 2011 and this time going from Dover to Germany):

1.   Plan and monitor each air terminal.  For Europe, Norfolk and Dover is the main hub to fly to Italy, Spain, Germany or England.  Travis for Asia Pacific including Hawaii.  Sign up via email as soon as you have your leave papers approved.  For veterans, sign up as early as 30 days.  Like their individual Facebook page to track everyday flight but always contact them by phone to verify any changes.  Each terminal has different reliability, some uses social media more than updating their recorded flight information.

2.   Use tools or phone app like Take A Hop to streamline your registration.  Remember, you must register to every possible places you might end up getting bump into.  Make sure you get a confirmation email on the date of your sign up because this makes a difference in your priority.

Until next time, hope you visit my blog for the 2nd part called:  10 Things We Learned About Life from Europe That We Never Knew Before.