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Thursday, September 4, 2014

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10 Things We Learned from Our 21 Days in Europe (Revised)

Last month, my 10 year old Sam, Myla and I traveled to 8 different countries through Eurail and stayed about 1-4 days on each of the countries and stayed in local homes through bed and breakfast booking every place using our smart phone.

We've been through these scenario last summer of 2013 but it gets better every year because it helps to express some lessons learned and I hope that sharing them will save you some pain and gain instead but some would surprise everyone because it corrected some of the myth or conventional wisdom of travelling:

1.  Don't over plan or at least be flexible.  Most of the most enjoyable places and people we saw and met where unplanned.  If we stick to the plan we would not meet different people using AirBnB.  When you plan and did not happen you may end up disappointed.  With over planning, you may carry too much "baggage of ideas" with you and may add stress to your travel.  Enjoy the adventure.

2.  Don't bring everything that you usually use everyday.  You always think ahead and prepare like the scout so you can use the shampoo or different underwear everyday.  You can buy cheaper soap or wash your clothes and hang them dry.  Save the space in your luggage for souvenirs and most importantly, if you want to explore more traveling in Europe, you need to be on the go everyday carrying your luggage.  The less is more you can enjoy your train rides.

3.  Carry your Smart Phone & Charger at all times.  How many would say that if you are on vacation, shut off your gadget and enjoy the scenery.  Turn on your phone and internet and use them to find out the history of where you are.  Check-in using your phone apps, you never knew, someone in your social radar may be able to help you in your trip.  Embrace the changing time:  social media, smartphone, WiFi, apps like AirBNB, etc.  If you think Smart Phone is expensive, think again, your current phone may actually be more expensive to maintain - invest on one.

4.  Carry a backup camera, batteries, charger and don't be embarrass to ask someone to take your photos.  There are moments you want to capture and the saddest part of most trips was I was I captured that.  So be prepared.  Thanks to fast technology and we don't need a tripod or someone to take our pictures but sometimes, most pictures look great when taken on certain angle and most front cameras have less pixel so ask as stranger politely to take your picture learn the native language (see #6), so if in France say: Pouvez- vous s'il vous plaît nous prendre une photo.  I usually seek the perfect timing who is carrying a professional camera, they take great pictures.  Don't ask someone who is carrying a toddler or eating an ice cream, that is just simply rude.

5.  Share your trip in real time.  People want faster information in any levels and sharing your vacation through video clips and photos is like bringing your friends with you.  Don't care about what other people think like:  "Oh he's bragging",  "How can they afford to have such vacation every year", "How insensitive are these friends, too much feed - Unfriend".  What you are doing is documenting and appreciating the opportunity that you work hard for and what God has given us to enjoy and share them - telling everyone:  Hey, if we can do it so can you.  If you wait a month later because you want to make touch up your photos (or what I call fakify it) and beautiful, you lose some of the beauty of reality.

6.  Talk to the locals by asking question in their native language first.  Most countries are proud of their language and in Europe be ready to learn at least 5 languages, at least short greetings.  Talking to them in English right away will just turn you away. But once you pass the one greeting like Excusez-moi peux vous m'aider s'il vous plaît or excuse me can you help me please - explain that you only speak English.  So remember to learn this in 5 different language if you are going to 5 countries:  Excuse please, can you help me.

7.  Don't eat or shop where tourist buy even for souvenirs.  We bought a lot of our groceries and normal food at many chains to at least feel the real people plus it is much cheaper.  We bought our German and London souvenir shirt at the department store for 5 Euros that is usually 15 Euros in most tourist shops.  Most tourist restaurant adjust the taste according to international standard but you lose the beauty of exploring the culture if you are trapped to taste what a tourist should like to taste.

8.  Drive if you like to stop by farm or out of the city but tram, rails and bus is the best way to capture the real beauty of the country. Last year we figured we have more freedom in renting a car from Naples to see Italy, we drove to Rome and it limited us to see much of the city because of time consumed in parking and confined inside the vehicle.  It was good when we drove from Geneva and stop by castles and nature trip to Berne in Switzerland but once we arrived in the city, we couldn't find a parking spot and if we did, the price is enough to get us a fancy Swiss dinner.

9.  Take the Hop on Hop Off bus all day tour but not always.  Review each of the city that you go to and see what experts say about it.  If the local bus will take you to all the highlights, get the all day bus pass instead and know where to get off while carrying your tourist map or phone app like Trip Advisor.  We've tried Hop On/Off in London and Copenhagen but not in Paris or Brussels because of proximity of each of the highlight (like Louvre, Eifel, Elysee are all in one place that you can walk or just take a bus which stops in all the main spot).  London's highlight is scattered but also concentrated in few area like Buckingham Palace is too far from London eye or few buses can take us there.  Check out blogs and bus schedule for details.

10.  Use credit card but carry cash & coins always.  This would simplify the payment and documents how you spend and track your expenses and usually exchange rate is favorable to you. But most establishment requires chip in their card that American credit cards don't so we use the card only on certain places and just draw Euro in our ATM instead of bringing a dollar pocket money to exchange later.  Call your credit card company before you travel to give them a heads up and extra insurance.

There are few more things I'd like to share but so far these are the 10 lessons learned that I hope will make your next trip overseas, not just Europe  more memorable, enjoyable and affordable.

Until next time, please give me your comment and extra advice we can use for our next trip maybe next year.