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Archive for July, 2008

 

Some things are too heavy to carry.

Some things are too heavy to carry.

Having the right things with you can make or break a trip. Every pound matters when trekking between train stations and hostels, especially when you find yourself with four hours before the hostel opens for checkin. I prefer traveling with only one carry on bag. In that bag I fit a messenger bag for the day and all of the clothing and supplies I need for the entire trip. Many websites and guidebooks say not to bring jeans due to their weight, size and slow drying feature. I scoffed at this advice and took a pair with me to Europe (in early spring so I needed warmth), I also brought a pair of lightweight quick-dry pants (or trousers) and some long underwear. I wore the pair of jeans for the entire trip so I never had to pack them away. 

No matter where a trip is going to go clothing is an important decision. Everything from weather and local custom influences what to pack. An example is white socks in England. Short white socks are normally worn for sport and exercise only and not for day to day activities. I had been living in Scotland before my trip to Europe so my clothing did not make me look like a tourist (the backpack gave that away), I wore relatively plain brown shoes, blue jeans, long sleeved shirts (dark blue and green) and if it was cold or raining black gloves and a black rain jacket. I did not have any bright colors or t-shirts with prints on them. For particular countries guidebooks are handy for helping with ways to blend in.

Weather also plays a role in what to wear. While a wool scarf helped greatly in Copenhagen in December it would have just taken up room for Ireland in May. My best friend in all my trips no matter the country or season was a small, thin, bright green umbrella. It easily fit into bags and jacket pockets. A bandanna also helped as a very utilitarian item: tablecloth, hand towel, small sack, packing cushion, sweat rag and I suppose it could double as a head band as well. Flip flops are good for sketchy hostel bathrooms.

Other items that are useful:

  • Locker lock – needs to be thick enough (3/8″ or 1 cm)
  • Security cable – a discreet cable to lock bags to bed frames (make sure the bed frame is secure!)
  • Fabric wash – Small bottle or a solid to get through airport security
  • Clothesline – Clothes need a non-dusty place to dry
  • Ziplock bags – For leftover food, preventing leaks or to keep papers dry
  • Alarm Clock – I forgot this on my first trip, I never did again
  • Flashlight – For searching through bags in a dark hostel room
  • Reusable water bottle – Save money by drinking tap water, I use Klean Kanteen (Can carry on airplanes if it is empty).
  • Money belt – Never worry about your bag if you have your passport and credit cards with you at all times

Of course you don’t need any security items if you don’t bring anything worth stealing. The only valuables I had were on my in my money belt, with the exception of my camera. I have seen some people bring laptops with them and I could not imagine ever doing that. I can only see the need for a laptop for two reasons: downloading photos and e-mail. It would be cheaper to either buy more camera memory or utilize photo download services, there are kiosks and stores everywhere that will download all your photos to a CD or DVD for you for a small charge.

As for e-mail internet cafés are in every city if not in the hostel. Many hostels have a free internet terminal, some tourist information centers (Rothenburg is one) have free internet, public libraries are a great place for free internet (Amsterdam has a good one) or pay a few euros to use the internet every few days. The only exception for cheap internet was a small town in the Swiss Alps, that was not cheapest but still cheaper then lugging a laptop around with me.

Another packing tip: bring enough socks and underwear for at least four days, then wash and dry while wearing the last pair. Any sink will work for washing clothes, use a drain stopper or a rolled sock to hold the water in. I suppose a laundromat could work but I see no reason why a bathroom sink would not function just the same. Though be prepared to miss a laundry day or two if there is no place to do laundry, while wearing the same underwear and socks more then a day or two in a row may seem odd, no one will know (unless you wear socks for three days or more days in a row, then someone might notice).

Now what to put everything in. I have been using the same bag for the past thirteen years, a durable green Jandd bag. I prefer soft-sided bags with should straps without an internal frame. Waterproofing or at least water resistance is important, rain can strike at any moment (notably in Scotland). I also use a messenger bag from Timbuk2 as my day bag, it is less obvious then other means and holds just the right amount of stuff: camera, water bottle, guidebook, journal and some food. For my camera I used a small plain black case, but as my travels went on I just threw the camera into the bag. Recently though I upgraded from a superzoom camera to a Nikon D60 DSLR camera, for this new camera I am going to get a camera bag from Think Tank Photo (I also currently work there, mostly for organizing inventory).

A final tip I picked up from a travel site or a guidebook: pick up every item and think whether if it is worth bringing or if you can buy it abroad if the need arose.

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Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

Staying in a great place can turn a mediocre place (maybe due to weather) into a good place while a stay in a bad place can ruin a perfectly good city. Except for Cinque Terre I have always stayed in Hostels, some have been excellent while others were disappointments.

For most booking I used Hostelworld, I found that any place with a rating over 75% was a good place to stay. I also used the Hostelling International for several hostels that were not on Hostelworld or the alternatives were fully booked. I have had mixed results with HI, while they are clean and well located they lack the community and closeness of the smaller hostels. Some hostels are not listed on any websites, rather they have their own. Especially in Switzerland I found that city websites helped me find hostels, my favorite hostel of all time being being Valley Hostel in Lauterbrunnen. 

Because it is so easy to find places to stay online and book a day or two in advance you can either book all of your accommodations ahead of time or book only one or two nights stay ahead. I booked everything ahead of time (especially places where you cannot book online) but I was able to change several hostels between my initial round of booking and the end of my first week traveling. I met many other travelers who booked a day or two ahead. This has the advantage of learning from other travelers where good hostels are or you may find yourself headed to areas you never considered before.

If you find yourself looking at one or more hostels belonging to Hosteling International I would recommend becoming a member of the Youth Hostel Association (if you are eligible). A year membership costs around $30 in the US (I think) but if you are living or studying in another country it could be free. As a student at Edinburgh University for a year I found that students in Scotland can join for free

Two other options for budget travel (I suppose camping is an option for some, but not for me) are night trains and airports. As I mentioned before Night Trains are a good way to maximize time on a trip. Airports can also serve as a place to stay if travel requires an overnight layover. Before planning on sleeping in a terminal consider looking at airport reviews at Sleeping in Airports. I decided to stay the the night in the East Midlands Airport on the first night of my trip, while it was an experience it was a once in a lifetime experience.

Here are few of the interesting places I stayed during my trip:

Try to balance hostels between interesting and relaxing. Sometimes you can find both in a hostel and unfortunately you may encounter some that are neither interesting nor relaxing.

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Maybe not the fastest method

Maybe not the fastest method

Choosing how to travel between cities and countries on a trip will determine what order you will go to those places. I planned on doing my three week trip solely by train (excluding the first flight) and so I then always moved north to minimize time on trains. If on the other hand I chosen to make use of cheap flights then I would have planned my destinations around where those flights came in and left from. 

The first plane ride will be the one to get to Europe (assuming you leave from North America), this flight should be booked as soon as possible. For transatlantic flights I have the best luck with STA Travel (but this could be because I was a student). This can either be a round trip flight or an open-jaw flight. Round trip would work best for trip in one country, exploring a particular area (say Paris and its surroundings) or a circular journey. An open jaw flight is one where you fly into one city, say London, and then out of a different city, say Rome. These flights work for trips that traverse more then one country. 

Once inside Europe there are three ways to get around: train, plane or automobile (it had to be done). I have no experience with driving in Europe so I will casually gloss over it. Continuing with planes a fast cheap method to travel in Europe is to use budget airlines. While exploring the best methods for myself I found these airlines for cheap flights:

Keep in mine that the cheaper the flight the more an “experience” it can become. I’m looking at you Ryanair.

Instead of flying around Europe trains are also a viable alternative, in fact I prefer them. While a plane flight may be faster and cheaper that is usually before adding in the cost of getting to and from the airport (in terms of time and money). Especially for some of the cheaper airports. When Ryanair flies to Glasgow it actually goes to Glasgow Prestwick, a good hour outside of Glasgow. Trains also allow you to carry more and even carry liquids between cities. The stations tend to be more centrally located with connection to local subways if there are any.

There are two ways to pay for trains. Either buying each ticket on its own or buy a railpass. Railpasses come in consecutive day passes (like 21 straight days) or a certain amount of travel days per 3-6 months. I liked having a railpass because I could just hop onto any train I wanted without worrying about having a ticket (except night trains which need reservations). This map is very helpful for estimating how long it takes to travel between major cities, I am not sure how updated the prices are.

For more accurate times and prices I found these three websites to be helpful:

  • Virgin Trains – Good for prices and times in the UK
  • SBB – I prefer the Swiss SBB for planning train times and routes
  • DB – They can give prices for the trains as well as times and routes

If planning on a specific train (like you need to be at a hostel in a new city by a certain time) check to see if there are backup trains in case the first is delayed, full or just does not come.

Night trains are a good way to move between two cities without spending a day traveling, it also saves on accommodation to boot. But it is not the best night of sleep I have had. If you are young or adventurous I would recommend at least one night train journey, it builds character.

    There is also the environmental issue to consider when choosing how to travel. While planes may be a faster way to travel they produce a much higher amount of carbon emissions per mile then a train.

    Also keep in mind that European trains are much much better then the American system of Amtrak. Way better.

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    Money Matters

     

    Monies

    Monies

    Tied with Time as the most important factor to consider when traveling is money. While planning the trip I recommend to carefully consider how much everything will cost and find the best deals for getting around and housing. Once out in the world and traveling just stick loosely to a budget initially set out and don’t worry about it. Otherwise the entire trip will be spent looking up the best exchange rate and counting foreign coins (unless you collect coins in which case it is fun to do).

    After a time and duration of a trip is set then buy transportation over as soon as possible. If you are in the U.S. then getting over to Europe can be the most expensive part. This may put you off to airfare within Europe but inter-country flights can be cheaper and faster then other means (more on this tomorrow). 

    Make a budget based on how much you will spend each day, averaging out large transportation costs and accommodation. Let us say that the trip is fourteen days in Germany with a side trip to Switzerland. Given a total budget of $3000 the first things to do is subtract off airfare to make it, lets say, $2000. You now have $142 dollars a day to spend on food, attractions, transportation and a place to sleep. Once you have this number I would recommend converting it to the local currency (euros) and working with it from there. So $142 would become €90.

    With a daily amount I would suggest you make pessimistic estimations of daily expenses. For food I would say €20 for dinner and €20 for the rest of the day. If hotels/hostels are picked correctly you could have breakfast included which would result in roughly €30 a day for food instead of €40. Since my experience is exclusively hostels I would say €25 – €30 a night, some places could be as low as €8 a night (like East Berlin). This leaves €20 a day for day trips, museums, or whatever looks interesting as you walk around that morning.

    Try to keep at least a rough count of how much you spent in a day, that way at the end you can look and think: “I only spent €70 today, that lets me spend €110 tomorrow”. Creating a rough guide of daily expenditures helps manage a budget, if there are large expenses you can plan for those separate of the daily expenses.

    Traveling in hostels at the age of twenty I found myself spending roughly $100 a day. Since I was based out of Edinburgh and not the U.S. I did not have to factor in the transatlantic airfare. 

    Another money issue; how to get it there. I used a mixture of ATM card, Credit Card and Travelers’ Checks. In retrospect I did not need the travelers check (I got them from my Dad). There are plenty of ATMs everywhere and every one I used had an option at the beginning to switch to english. For a credit card I was a Capital One card since there were no transaction fees for exchange rates so I get a good rate. If you are planning to use a card a lot I would only use it at large stores or hostel/hotels, small stores have to pay for the card or may pass their fee onto you. Besides every small business owner loves to be paid in cash anyway.

    For converting prices on the go I find two methods work best. The first is write down some benchmark numbers, say €5, €10, €20, €50, €100 and use those to gauge prices. The second was pioneered by my grandmother (an avid traveler) she priced everything in the local cost for beer. So a €15 train ride would be about four to five beers. Choose an commonly bought item figure out the cost of it in the new currency and then use that to gauge prices while working through cities.

    The dollar may be at a low point right now but if you start waiting for it to recover you may pass up your chance to travel and it is hard to pay back regrets.

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    There is no one "travel season".

    There is no one "travel season".

    With destinations in mind it is now important to figure out how long the trip will be and what time of year to travel. The length of the trip could be determined by how much vacation time is available (be it from a job or from a school) or by how much money is available. When I traveled I was limited by time, I left after classes finished and had to return when final exams started. Others who I met (mainly Australians and New Zealanders) were traveling around until they ran out of money. I am writing mostly to those constrained by a time limit more so then a monetary limit but I will write about it towards the end of this series.

    When you place your trip could already be determined or slightly flexible. If it is already determined then the direction of the trip becomes important. My trip through Europe started on Easter and ended in April. I could have started in the north and worked my way down to Italy except that I had two seasonal events determine the flow of my trip. The first was that I wanted to be in Italy (Florence in particular) for Easter and the second was that I wanted to be in The Netherlands when the tulips were blooming (mid April). So these seasonally dependent events determined the flow of my trip. So when picking out destinations look for festivals or holidays in those locations and plan the trip to follow those events.

    Some events to consider:

    Those are the ones I can recommend from going myself of being there near those dates. Since I was not in Europe during the summer I don’t know good events around then.

    If you are able to pick when your trip will take place then seasons and weather patterns might guide when you go. Since I did not have much choice of when to go I could have had bad luck but I almost always had good weather. Any weather can be good weather if you are prepared for it. I visited Copenhagen in December, it was 1 degree Celsius (34 degree Fahrenheit) the entire time. It rained the entire time I was in Italy and Florence in March. I was rained on at St. Andrews. But I was prepared for bad weather in each case and still had a great time. I have never really had the opportunity to travel “in season”, I have mostly gone out in the shoulder or off seasons. With the right clothes and maybe an umbrella or two traveling to Europe can be done any time (though some places do close in winter due to snow). 

    In some countries, such as Scotland, the possibility of rain does not really change at any point during the year. Weather also changes faster then normally expected (for me at least). So if the day starts of clear and sunny rain may still be on its way. Every day for nine months I carried a small umbrella with me just in case, I never regretted it.

    The best tip I received was to have militant optimism while traveling. Everything is an experience.

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    Start Planning

     

    Need Directions?

    Need Directions?

    Last spring I took a three week backpacking trip starting on Good Friday and ending in April. It took me a while to plan my trip and figure out all the details. I want to share the steps I took to plan and have an excellent trip through Europe without spending precious travel time worrying about the big picture. After however many segments I write in this I hope the end result is a good solid itinerary for a trip lacking in regrets.

    I feel a good place to start is in planning the trip.

    The first and most important questions to ask is: where do you want to go? This answer could be specific with a small german town where the family came from as the destination or even a general “Italy sounds lovely”. But in either case it is an important question to ask.

    In my case I wanted to travel through Europe for three weeks. That was my answer to the question. So I bought a guidebook for Europe. I tried using online travel resources such as wikitravel, though I prefer to have a real paper book in front of me. A side bonus is the book (or the main book) used for planning the trip can go with you in case plans need to be changed. Plans will likely need to be changed.

    For books I have found that those by Rick Steves to be excellent. At least for destinations. I only used the books for city guides and to find destinations; not all my destinations though.

    After finding some cities or countries that are interesting write down an itinerary. It can be rough. My first one only listed countries and approximate days. This gives definition to a trip and allows it to be shaped instead of remaining as floating ideas and “I always wanted to go to…” phrases. 

    Remember that an itinerary is always flexible, even during a trip. I had initially planned to go to Haarlem in The Netherlands, after talking to fellow travelers a week into my trip I changed it around and decided to stay in Brugge, Belgium for the last few days of my journey.

    For an example here was trip itinerary after working on it for a month (not full time of course) and changing it on the fly (destination based on where I spent that night):

    • March 20: East Midlands Airport 
    • March 21 (Good Friday): Rome
    • March 22-24 (Saturday through Easter onto Monday): Florence
    • March 25-26: Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy
    • March 27: Night train to Munich
    • March 28-29: Munich
    • March 30-31: Rothenburg ob de Tauber
    • April 1-3: Bacharach (Rhine River Valley)
    • April 4-7: Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland
    • April 8-10: Amsterdam
    • April 11-12: Brugge, Belgium

    A quick note, I started and ended my trip in Edinburgh, Scotland because I spent last year studying abroad at Edinburgh University. Also some days were day trips out of the areas or spent traveling by train if need be

    Tomorrow I hope to cover budgeting for the trip, both time and money.

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    Travel Knowledge

     

    Sparkle Sparkle

    Sparkle Sparkle

    I have learned many things while traveling, some more important then others. Today I would like to share the tidbits and scraps of knowledge I have gathered that are not in the least bit important.

    • The Eiffel Tower lights up at night and sparkles.
    • Copenhagen is always 1 degree Celsius.
    • Pandas defy survival of the fittest.
    • Easter in Florence is celebrated with fireworks (as more holidays should be).
    • Hell’s Angels Bars play “Look on the Bright Side of Life”.
    • Belfast has a ferris wheel next to city hall.
    • Edinburgh Castle has a Cemetery for Soldiers’ Dogs.
    • The Stirling Mel Gibson Braveheart statue is locked away for the night.
    • Cannons are always pointed at monuments.

    I hope that some of this very useful knowledge will one day help at least one person. Especially pandas, they need all the help they can get.

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