As of August 4th we have been on the road for an entire month, or should I say “rail” since all travel has been by train since we arrived in London. In touring Iceland, England, France, Monaco, Italy and Vatican City, we have had the opportunity to visit Reykjavic, London, Paris, Monte Carlo, Eze, La Spezia, Cinque Terre, Pisa, Rome, Vatican City, Naples, Pompeii, Praiano, and Bologna and are currently on the train to Interlaken, Switzerland. I have shared a variety of articles about where we have been and what we enjoyed, but there is always another side to the story. We have certainly hit a few bumps in the road and learned a few lessons in our first month. Of course, we are not any sort of experts on travelling, but have some experiences and tips that may help the next traveler avoid the same mistakes.
Whitney and I took time to come up with a few lessons that we have learned so far in our travels. After reading our prior articles discussing packing and planning you may have gotten an idea of our expectations, however, it hasn’t been nearly that simple. In the planning stages, it’s easy to say I’ll just figure it out as I go and it will all work out. Sure it does, but not necessarily in the best way.
Lesson 1) Plan ahead in summer, many things sell out and others are closed.
We had booked only travel and accommodations for the first 2 weeks of our trip, but did not look into any excursions in detail. So when we arrived in Paris expecting to check off the number one tourist attraction by reaching the top of the Eiffel tower, we ended up disappointed as they were sold out maybe a month or two before we arrived through a couple months after we left. It did work out that we bought tickets to climb the stairs to the second observation level for 7 euro, but it wasn’t the top. Another example was the Colosseum in Rome when we had to book a guided tour just to be able to get inside without standing in the horrendous queue for tickets. This one actually turned out to be worth it in our opinion, but still I wouldn’t want to leave it to chance again. Lastly, many businesses take vacation in late July and most of August. I can’t tell you how many places we would arrive to with a notice on the door stating that they will be back August 21st or 28th, or even September 1st. Going back to Planning without a Plan, that works for most of the year, but the summer in Europe is very busy so make sure to book the most popular tours and sites well in advance.
Lesson 2) Wear the right clothes, comfort should come before style.
When I asked Whitney what she has learned so far, the first thing she said was wear the right clothes! We have already experienced a small variety of climates, from the cool air of Iceland to the really hot and humid southern Italy. Our packing list really had just a little of everything and depending on location we would be limited to a couple outfits as expected. The lesson though is to wear what is most comfortable…a loose t-shirt is much more comfortable than a tight tank-top in the unbearable heat and humidity. Jean shorts are probably not the best to be wearing on a sweaty day of touring. Lastly make sure to pack a layer or two for the surprisingly cool evenings in northern Europe, just to be prepared.
Lesson 3) Wifi is often hard to find, and much slower.
I have become reliant on internet living in the USA with my iPhone connecting at any moment I need it, but I don’t have this luxury anymore. Yes, there are ways to get data plans in Europe, but nothing is free and might be quite pricey. We have learned to download all maps, apps, and guides before you lose signal, such as the audio guide for Versailles in Paris (sure beats renting one for 5 euro when you arrive). The weak internet of most of the places we have stayed has been enough to get what we need downloaded prior to walking out the door. The problem is that I have to change my routine to include a quick download session instead of arriving at the gate of a museum and getting it then. Some of my favorite apps with offline maps and information are Visit a City and Ulmon; there are many others and many museums have their own apps for free, so look them up when you can.
Lesson 4) Train travel can be an inexpensive and probably the easiest way to travel.
We have only used trains to get around since arriving in London aside from a few local buses in Monaco and the Amalfi Coast. We have learned that the train stations are usually near the city center, thus making it easier to get to our accommodations. Also, there is not traffic as we could experience on a bus, and the schedules are usually close to accurate…unless the Italian national rail goes on strike like they did when we were in La Spezia and the Cinque Terre. Additionally, try to book regional trains rather than the express trains to save at least 50% or more and they actually don’t take that much longer to get from A-B. Keep in mind that the quality of regional trains is much lower i.e. the AC may be lacking.
Lesson 5) Saying hello and thank you in every language goes a long way.
Beginning in Paris, Whitney made it a point to say bonjour before trying to ask any question in English. She would then finish every conversation with Merci. Again in Italy I picked up this habit and have found that the people are much more willing to assist and seem much nicer and friendlier when we showed this bit of respect. Think back to that international tourist that stood in front of you at the cash register and started speaking their native language and how difficult it was to connect or pay them their due attention. Then imagine the other tourist that offered a “hello” to show even the smallest attempt at understanding English before slowly trying to ask for help or pay a bill. These moments are clear to me now that I am on the other side and without a doubt it makes a difference.
Lesson 6) Pack a lunch and cook dinner to stay on budget.
We do consider ourselves foodies and have eaten at some of the best restaurants when we were in New York City, but we wouldn’t be travelling long if we continued that. Beginning in Iceland we would go to the supermarket on our first day in each city and prepare for our stay. Of course we have eaten in many restaurants, but not every meal. By making our own pesto Genovese pasta or spaghetti Bolognese in Rome or our very own baguette sandwich in Paris, we have enjoyed the local cuisine and saved tremendously especially when the average meal comes to about 10 euro a person even at the cheaper restaurants. Naples was an exception though; we split 3 euro marinara pizzas for nearly every meal and grocery store prices probably couldn’t beat that.
Lesson 7) Our personal favorite, hiking is Free
Whitney and I have discovered a new hobby, we have become avid hikers. I’m not really sure what avid hiker means, but we are surely enthusiastic about it. From the trails we walked in Iceland, to the medieval town of Eze, to the coastal walks of Italy in Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast, we have put in some miles together. Each hike gives us not only the incredible views, but has allowed us to keep up a new exercise routine. (I think Whitney wants to see 20,000 steps on her iphone pedometer before she is satisfied). When we don’t have trails to hike or mountains to climb, we simply see the city on foot. Every little bit helps when we are saving even just a few euro on subway or bus rides and we are feeling so healthy these days.
Long term travel is not a vacation it’s a new way to live. We have had to adjust what felt like a vacation taking off from JFK airport to be as close to our settled life back home. Before setting off on the trip around the world, we would plan our trips, weekends and time off, grocery shop regularly and only eat out occasionally, use public transportation to get where we needed to go, and always remain kind and cordial to everyone we meet. Now we are doing our best to keep these things up in our new life on the road.