After ten weeks of being on the road, here are a few “detour signs” I have learned:
Give in and check a bag – Whenever possible, take the train. But if you do need to fly to your next destination, there are many European airlines that offer incredibly inexpensive airfares. However, their carry-on baggage allowances are stricter than North American airlines. Just give in and pay the extra for checked baggage. It is less expensive to buy it online before going to the airport. As these are flights in smaller airplanes going shorter distances, usually it is only a matter of minutes before your luggage is ready to be picked up and then you are on your way to explore a new city!
English is truly the international language – It is normal to feel a little nervous about traveling to foreign countries. The things that make it very exciting can also make it a little stressful; different culture, food, currency, language. But even if you have just a little bit of a command of the English language, you will do just fine because most signs have English and most people speak a little bit of English. And of course there is always Google Translate and travel apps like Triposo which have common words and phrases. I used this with a fellow passenger on the train from Vienna to Prague. I showed her the Czech phrase for, “Where is the bathroom?!”
Be willing to share a table – Traveling as a single person opens up the possibility of sometimes being seated with other people at a table. We usually think of “breaking bread” only with family and friends. But what might be an uncomfortable situation can actually be rather fun. More often than not you will be seated with other tourists who may have already visited some of the local sights and can give you some helpful information; which was what happened to me at a restaurant in London. Or as in the case of my recent trip to Florence, Italy, when my cousins and I went to a famous trattoria, we were seated at a table for four with a local who had been eating there once a week for 35 years. He shared lots of information on the history of the restaurant and advice on what was good to eat there. It just added to the whole experience!
Chat with other tourists – This goes along with the point above. I was on a train going to Cinque Terre. I overheard a couple discussing whether it was a direct train or if they had to change trains at another station. I apologized for eavesdropping and explained to them that they had to change trains and that I was going in the same direction and could show them. They were very appreciative of the help. We ended up having a fun discussion about our travels. They had just come from Florence to where I was going next. They recommended a roof top restaurant with one of the best views of the city. I went and they were right!
Stay with locals – Today staying in a real neighborhood of a city instead of in a hotel in a tourist district is very easy with websites like Airbnb. It takes a bit of research to find the right location, but in the end it is worth it. It enriches your wallet by saving you money, but more important it enriches your experience of the city and your soul.
As quickly as possible get a map and walk the town – Every new town is an adjustment. The sooner you get your bearings and discover where things are, the sooner you will feel comfortable and excited to explore your new “home”.
Always carry a pen and have a snack with you – As with my experience visiting Abbey Road in London, the pen I was carrying came in very handy for all of us there at the time! You will also want to mark your tourist map with an “X” or little notes. As for the snack….food is food! Hunger pains can attack at any time, especially if you have been exerting energy walking up and down staircases and streets. By having a snack handy, you can stave off the hunger pains when they hit. Which is ideal while standing in a long line to see a tourist attraction. You can eat and still not lose your place in line.
Take every opportunity to use a bathroom and do laundry – Most cities in Europe have public bathrooms, sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee, – use it (make sure you have spare change)! You just never know and there is nothing worse when you need to go and can’t! Clothes need to be washed more frequently whilst traveling light, so when there is an opportunity to use a washer – use it! You may even end up having your clothes nicely folded and put on your bed when you come home, like I did by my Italian “mama host” in Cinque Terre!
There is always a solution – The romance of travel can be exotic and exciting, but sometimes there will be something you don’t like. It could be the passenger in the seat beside you, or the city itself, or the people, or the food, or the accommodation isn’t as nice as you thought it was going to be. But there is always a solution. In Europe train seats are generally not assigned, so you can always get up and change your seat. If you don’t like the city, the people, or the food, you can always leave for your next destination sooner than you had originally planned. If you don’t like your accommodation, you can always change it, like what I did in Milan. I was to stay there only one night, after I arrived, for various reasons, I decided it was just not the right place for me. So I walked down the street and into a hotel and asked what kind of rate they could give me for the night. I ended up getting a fabulous rate that included drinks and a meal. The Airbnb host understood and refunded me my money. It couldn’t have worked out better!
Traveling is not vacationing – A vacation is usually a 1 to 3 week period. If we aren’t lazing on a beach somewhere, we are often going full tilt to make sure to do everything we want done in the short time we have. Traveling for an extended length of time is different. It is having a home in a different location(s) and at times it is almost feels like a job; deciding and coordinating the next place to go, researching transportation options, researching accommodation options, packing and unpacking every few days, figuring out a new town and the best place to get currency, get groceries, get documents printed, deciding if a transportation pass is necessary or not…. It is important to have a “weekend”. Take a day off from being a tourist; put your feet up! And believe me you will need to literally! Taking breaks every now and then will allow you to last for the long haul.
Still looking forward to getting a little lost and taking more detours…..!