May 18, 2013

Travel Tips: What I learned from our trip to Europe

I'm no travel expert, but in preparation for our trip I did read a lot of what the experts say about travel to Europe.  This was my third trip to Europe, but it was the first time I had to do any planning for it.... someone else did the planning for me in the past.  So, I learned a few things I thought I might as well share what I learned. 


Ideally you would spend a whole week in a major city, but that's not always possible.  In a week you can see all the major sites without feeling rushed, and have time to relax and do more of the non-tourist things and get off the beaten path.  I recommend doing no more than 2 "touristy" things a day, and spend some time each day doing other things, like people watching in a park, strolling, shopping, exploring, etc.  If you only have a few days then just pick a few highlights; choose what most appeals to you, not necessarily what is most popular, since opinions vary on what the "must sees" are in each city.  We spent 3 nights in each city and hardly scratched the surface!

I highly recommend choosing an American hotel chain, such as Marriott.  You will get good service and have comfortable accommodations.  The staff will speak English, the beds will be normal, you will have a nice bathroom, and they sometimes have American power outlets as well (or have adapters you can borrow). 

Big cities usually have good public transportation.  Use it!  Buy 1-day unlimited passes.  But also be prepared to do a lot of walking.  Underground trains are very efficient, but you miss a lot.  Make sure you take time to walk around so you can SEE the city you are in.  Just balance your transportation between the trains and your feet.  Buses can be a great option... they aren't as fast (traffic can be pretty bad), but you can see more as you travel. 

See the major attractions... if they appeal to you.  But if they don't, skip them.  There is no reason to feel guilty for not visiting the most popular museum or castle or other attraction in a major city if you aren't interested in that particular kind of thing.  Unless you have unlimited time, or you already saw everything else, don't waste you time seeing something just because it's popular.  It's not worth it!  Every city has it's major museums, but there are always lots of smaller, lesser-known museums, which are often quirky and very interesting.  Find what appeals to you!  The museum passes you can get in most major cities including all the main attractions plus lots of smaller ones, which is a great way to discover something unusual that might appeal to you more than a major one. 

Get off the beaten path.  Find the hidden unique places.  Ask the concierge at your hotel.  Take time to just explore.  Don't be rushed. 

Dress in solids and neutral colors so you don't stand out.  Wear a scarf to blend in with the Europeans, even in summer (just make it a lightweight one).  Don't wear sneakers, but do wear comfy shoes... I recommend Ecco or Crocs (not the ugly original style... the cute ones!).  I wore Crocs ballet flats the whole time and they were perfect!  They are super light and comfortable, and they are water proof.  Jay wore Ecco leather lace up shoes the whole time and said they were perfect.  Jeans or black/dark pants are perfect, and always wear layers.... the weather changes quickly.  Even in summer you will want a light sweater.  For 2 weeks I took 1 pair black pants, 3 pairs jeans, 1 skirt, 7 shirts, 3 cardigan sweaters, 4 scarves, 1 coat, 2 pairs shoes.  I took enough underwear for every day (I did not want to do laundry) but I wore shirts twice.

We each brought a wheeled carry-on suitcase, and a shoulder bag carry on.  It was nice to not check any bags on the way over (a few in our group ended up having their checked bags delayed a couple of days), but we did check out suitcases on the way home... they were just full of dirty clothes by then so we didn't care of they were delayed, but we had extra stuff to bring home.... a bag of souvenirs and gifts in a reusable shopping bag I had stuffed into my purse.  I highly recommend bringing on.  It came in handy when we were out shopping during the day, especially if you get items from a grocery store... they usually don't provide bags, or will charge you for one. 

Other items I brought along in my day pack that I thought were helpful:
- a small flashlight
- small ziploc bags
- a few rubber bands, twist ties, paper clips and safety pins (all in a zipper bag)
- Tide to Go pen (you will inevitably spill something!)
- lip balm
- ear buds (for listening to audio tours)
- credit cards (2, just in case one has a problem.... make sure they don't have fees)
- debit card (for getting cash from ATM's, or for when vendor's require a PIN... see below)
- copies of your passport (leave the original in the hotel safe in your room)
- Advil or Tylenol or the inevitable headache
- a water bottle.... a Bobble is great because you can fill it anywhere and it has a built in filter
- small umbrella
- small notebook and pen

I recommend you only use cash when you have to.... street vendors or small shops.  Otherwise you plastic.  First choice is a no-fee credit card.  Capital One does not charge fees, nor does the Marriott Rewards Visa, so those are the two I took.  Debit Card fees depend on your bank.  Make sure you check.  You don't want to be withdrawing cash frequently and running up fees, so try to estimate how much you will need for your whole stay in the country... if you have a little leftover make sure you use it up the last day so you don't have to change it back to US currency..... you will lose a lot.  Using a credit card gets you the best exchange rate and is the most secure, so use a card any time you can.  For cash, you always get the best rate from a bank ATM (make sure it's affiliated with an actual bank).  Never go to an "Exchange" place.... they charge huge fees and you don't get the best exchange rate. 

I was told that we wouldn't be able to use our American credit cards to buy subway tickets from machines because they don't have the chip technology, but that wasn't true.  We used them just fine in all the machines (both debit and credit) in London and Paris.  There were a couple of small shops that wouldn't take American credit cards, or that would only take debit cards (because you have to have a PIN if it doesn't have a chip), but most places will allow you to sign for a credit card if you don't have a PIN.  It's a good idea to always ask first when you enter a shop or restaurant, "Do you take American credit cards?"... just in case.   

Also, before you leave home inform your bank and credit card companies that you will be traveling outside the country.... otherwise your cards will be declined because they will think it's stolen. 

You really need a smart phone while traveling.  My husband only has a basic phone so he just left it at home and we relied on my iPhone.  He has an iPad that he used to check his email when we were in our hotel room.  

If you want to communicate with people back home you can pay through the nose for international cell service (assuming you have a phone with the capability), OR you can do what we did.... use email and text messaging using wifi.  We used "WhatsApp" which uses your regular cell phone number for doesn't use any data or cell service... only wifi.  The app costs $1 but you have unlimited texting for free, anywhere in the world.  You can also use iMessage using wifi to contact others who use iMessage. 

The other app I used frequently (and which saved my hide plenty of times!) is Pocket Earth offline maps.  Before you leave on your trip download the maps to the cities you will be visiting.  They work offline (using GPS to track your location) so you can see exactly where you are even when you don't have wifi.  It was super helpful!  Google maps is helpful when you have

I also downloaded Rick Steves' Audio Tours app.  You will want to download at home the tours you plan to use and then just listen to them for your personal guided tour, usually just hitting the highlights of major attractions.  These are really good.  And they are totally free! 

The only other app I used was British Airways, since all our flights were with that airline.  I was able to easily check in for all our flights as check in became available (when we had wifi).  I could have done it without the app, using Safari, but it's just so much easier using the app.  So, I recommend you download the app for whatever airline(s) you will be flying.  If you are flying on different airlines you can use an app like TripIt to track them all in one place (and your hotels too).... you just email your confirmations to it and it puts them all in an itinerary for you.  It's pretty slick.  I also downloaded the Marriott app since we stayed in Marriott properties (all but one) but never ended up needing to use it.  I would have come in handy though had I had to make any changes or needed info. 

There are a million other travel apps out there and I downloaded a whole bunch, but these are the only ones I really used.  Ones I downloaded but never used include Fodor's City Guides, London Tube Map (handy, but the small cardstock version I got was handier), the London Pass App (I did use it as a general reference at one point), XE Currency (exchange rates, but needed wifi so it wasn't very handy). 

I didn't plan this part of the trip... my parents planned it since this was a celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary, and we were the beneficiaries!  I had never considered going to Copenhagen before, but I loved it and now I want to go back!  It's a really cool city, the people are friendly, and everyone (I'm not exaggerating) speaks excellent English.... most hardly even have an accent! 

We stayed in the Copenhagen Marriott, which was beautiful, right on the canal bank, within walking distance of the Central train station and several bus stops, close to Tivoli, and had an excellent breakfast buffet. 

Get the COPENHAGEN CARD!  Not only does it include the major museums and attractions (including Tivoli!), but transportation too!  It's an excellent value.  We used the trains and bus system, both of which were excellent. 

- Frederiksborg Palace (houses original Karl Bloche paintings)
- Kronborg Castle ("Hamlet" castle)
- Vor Frue Kirke (original "Christus" and 12 apostle statues)
- Open Air Museum (like a Danish version of historic Williamsburg, VA)
- Tivoli Gardens (oldest amusement park in the world, beautiful gardens)
- Canal Boat Tour (fascinating and informative tour)
- Nyhaven (cool area with shops and boats)
- Trinitatus/Round Tower (cool church with attached tower with cool views of the city)

I loved this part of the trip, but I'm not going to really give tips here because most people wouldn't even think of traveling.  My family did just to visit where our ancestors came from.  It was fascinating, and it's beautiful.  There are lovely small towns with cools shops, beaches, forests, historic churches, etc.  It's mostly a resort island for Europeans, particularly Swedes because it's so close. 


If you can swing it, stay at the London Marriott County Hall.  Not only is the hotel gorgeous and elegant (in an historic building) with excellent service, the location can't be beat!  It sits in Westminster, right on the Thames, next to the London Eye, looking across the river at Big Ben and Parliament.  It's right next to the Westminster Bridge where you can catch the Tube to pretty much anywhere in the city, but it's also within walking distance of many sites.  Seriously, save money elsewhere and stay here!  We were lucky enough to have all 3 nights covered by our Marriott Rewards points.  If you are planning a trip to London in the future, I recommend getting the Marriott Rewards Visa and charge everything to it (just pay it off every month) to rack up the points you need (lots!).

Traditional English food is not particularly exciting, and food in London is pretty pricy (like everything else).  Indian food is extremely popular in London, and plentiful, which is a great option if you like it (I love it, but my husband... not so much).  Surprisingly, one of the best options we found is a local chain called "EAT."  They are located all over the city and it's very affordable and quick.  They have a variety of sandwiches, salads, soups, tasty desserts, and other snacks, such as yogurt with granola.  You literally grab it from a shelf and pay at the counter, but they will toast your sandwich for you.  We ate there several times (at different locations) and it was always very good.... nothing fancy or extraordinary, but fresh and tasty.

It is hard to say what the "must sees" are in London because it really depends on what you like.  Several of the main museums are free, which is great, but other major attractions, such as the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul's Cathedral (to climb the tower) require entry fees.  If you want to see those 3 then I recommend you purchase the "London Pass" which include entry to those... plus a lot more... but it will pay for itself even if you only see those 3.  It also includes the Thames River boat tour, which is informative and fun (the guides are usually very witty), and a nice way to relax for a bit (it's not too long). Another great thing about getting the London Pass is that it means you don't have to wait in lines to buy tickets at the major attractions, and there is sometimes a "fast pass" type entrance.  Purchase your London Pass in advance online

Tower of London:  It's extremely popular so it's always crowded.  It's also huge so it takes several hours to see it.  Go first thing in the morning.... be there when it opens.  If you have the London Pass you do not have to stand in line for a ticket... just go to the main entrance. 

St. Paul's Cathedral:  It is amazingly gorgeous and huge.  The climb to the top of the tower is really hard.... lots of steep narrow steps... but it's totally worth it.  The views are amazing.  However, I don't recommend it if you are claustrophobic. 

Hop On/Hop Off Bus Tours:  These are big open top double-decker tourist buses (not to be confused with the double-decker city buses) that provide transportation along with recorded information along the way.  It's a nice way to get an orientation of the city, however it's very time consuming because traffic is terrible, so don't use it as a means of transportation (too inefficient) unless you are spending more than a few days in London and don't mind spending most of a day just looking and listening rather than doing.  These tours usually include a boat tour too... the same one as the London Pass, so you don't need both.

British Museum:  This is free and focuses on ancient history and culture, not art.  So, if that's your thing, then go!  If it's art you are interested in, skip it and go to the National Gallery instead (also free). 

National Gallery:  It's free and has some wonderful art.  They also have free wifi in the lobby.  Bonus! 

Portobello Road Market:  Go early on a Saturday morning, when most vendors are out.  Go hungry and grab breakfast from one of the carts and eat while you browse the amazing market.  Super fun!

Parks:  Take time to enjoy the lovely parks.... walk leisurely, people watch, etc. 

Theatre:  Go see a show!  There are TONS of options, so everyone can find something that appeals to them.  Unless you are into going to clubs at night, the theatre is where you want to be!  Either order tickets online at home (and pick them up at will call) or risk it and go to the half-price ticket location (just like in NYC) on the day. 

Other:  Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, etc., are all cool to see, but you don't have to spend a lot of time there... just look, take photos, etc.  Be prepared to do a lot of walking so you will see more!  Explore!

The Underground ("Tube") subway system is excellent.  Either get an "Oyster Card" that you refill as needed, or just buy a Travelcard (1-day to a week, depending on how long you are there) which gives you unlimited travel on the Tube and bus system. 


Again, I recommend Marriott properties.  Location is always important, especially in Paris because there are some scarier areas.  We opted to stay in a Courtyard in Boulogne-Billancourt near the southwest edge of the city.  It is a newer property (only a couple of years old) and it got rave reviews on Trip Advisor.  It was affordable, clean, quiet, and the staff was excellent and spoke English well. The neighbor felt very safe... lots of families.  In fact, there was a cute park right in front our hotel where we enjoyed watching the locals play with their children.  There were several cute neighborhood patisseries and cafes nearby, and the Metro 10 line station was just a short walk away.... it takes you directly to the heart of the city, so even though it's out of the way it was very convenient.  I would definitely stay there again. 

We ate mostly in cafes, bakeries and bistros. They were all good and generally affordable.  Avoid places that look like they cater to tourists... they usually aren't as good.  One day we got a baguette, Nutella, and a couple of bananas from a neighborhood grocery store and enjoyed that for breakfast... it was our cheapest meal for sure, and possibly our favorite... probably partly because we ate it in the park while enjoyed views of Paris!

Get the Paris Museum Pass which covers all the major sites with the exception of the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Couer.  We ended up not doing either of them, mostly because they are time consuming and expensive.  The Eiffel tower has great views, but frankly I prefer the view OF the Eiffel tower (especially from the Trocadero area across the river), which is free.  Enjoy the view of the city from the top of the Arc de Triomphe instead, which is included in the Paris Museum Pass.

The Musee du Louvre (close Tuesdays) is huge... unless you love museums and ancient art is particular, just hit the highlights, or skip it altogether (gasp!).  I know, that sounds crazy, but if you are pressed for time you might be disappointed.  Most people can hit the highlights in less than 2 hours and be satisfied.  The Mona Lisa is small and disappointing (covered in dark glass and heavily barricaded), but just beyond it is the best stuff.  Stick to the Sully and Denon wings.  If you prefer 20th century art then save your energy for the Orsay. 

The Musee d'Orsay (closed Mondays) is fantastic.... it picks up where the Louvre leaves off; impressionists, post-impressionists, etc.  You can see all of it in about 4 hours, but if you only have 2 hours you can still see a lot.  I highly recommend starting from the top (the 5th floor) and work your way down.  The best stuff is at the top and you get to see it while you are fresh in the beginning, rather than at the end when you are tired.  Then you finish on the bottom floor and are ready to exit from there.  

Don't forgot the Musee de l'Orangerie at the west end of the Jardin des Tuileries... it's small so you can see it all in about an hour.  This is where Monet's Water Lilies are.... see that first (main floor) and then go downstairs for even more lovely stuff. 

Take time to walk down the Champs-Elysees... this is perfect to do after leaving the Arc deTriomphe.... and walk through through the gardens (Tuileries). 

Notre Dame Cathedral is amazing, but Sainte-Chapelle is gorgeous for it's stained glass windows.  If you can get tickets to a concert at Sainte-Chapelle then do!  

If you have an extra day (which we didn't have) go to Versailles (or another day trip outside the city) but that takes a whole day.  I would also have loved to go to Giverny (Monet's home).... next time!  :)

The Metro is excellent, like the London Tube.  Buy a "Mobilis" pass each day (unlimited use) for the best value.  You just get them from the machine in any station.  

Don't worry if you don't speak French.  Contrary to popular belief, Parisians are nice and willing to help... they are just a bit reserved and proud.  They want you to try speaking French, but you only have to know a few basic phrases.  Always be polite and a bit formal.  Just begin with, "Bonjour madame/monsier.  Parlez vous anglais?"  They will generally reply in a very humble way indicating that they speak very little English, but it's usually more for the sake of modesty, and they are embarrassed by their accent.  But they know more than enough to communicate with you.  Just speak slowly, use short sentences, and avoid slang.  Don't be too overly friendly or smiley.  The only other phrases you need to know.....
- merci (thank you)
- sil vous plait (please)
- pardonnez moi (excuse me)
- au revoir (good bye)

So, those are my travel tips, in a nut shell.  I'm sure there is lots I'm forgetting, so if there is something specific you want to ask about then feel free.

Bon voyage!

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