My wife and I have just returned from a trip to visit our son and daughter-in-law in Germany. Sandwiched in between the weeks we were with them, we visited several countries and cities in Europe on our own. I have to be honest with you and tell you that this isn’t something I thought I would ever get to do. Aside from the finances, taking the time off from work and making the plans just seemed impossible. Somehow it all came together and thanks to my wife’s awesome planning, we were able to enjoy the trip of a lifetime.
Not being the “world traveler” and basically a rookie at doing this, I want to give you my amateur insight to traveling and the places we visited. I’m not Rick Steves or anyone that knows much about travel but I want to share my experience with you. None of the YouTube videos could have prepared us for what we experienced on our amazing trip to Europe.
First, let me give you a brief personal ranking of the places we visited:
#1 – Paris, France
After our trip, we both emphatically rank Paris as our top experience. It was everything we had hoped it would be and more. Nothing really compares to seeing the Eiffel Tower first the first time with you own eyes. It was amazing. Notre Dame was an amazing sight too. Yes, I know it is known more for that hunchback character, but it is also said to be the home of the crown of thorns. Yes, I’m talking about THAT crown of thorns. Unfortunately, it wasn’t on display when we visited. We also learned that there aren’t many thorns left because some of the them were given to other kings and dignitaries over the centuries. Saint Chapelle had some of the most amazing stained glass windows I have ever seen. Of course the romantic folks have heard about the Love Locks bridge. This is where lovers attach a lock to the bridge as a pledge of love to each other. The bridge is still there but the locks have been removed due to safety concerns. My wife and I still managed to find a bridge in Paris to place ours and within view of the Eiffel Tower. The Louvre was a seemingly endless museum of art and sculptures. We only scratched the surface as we hit the highlights like the Mona Lisa, Venus and several others. One of the best decisions we made was to take a river cruise on the Seine River to see a lot more of Paris than we would see otherwise. If you want to see a major palace of former French kings, the nearby Palace of Versailles was definitely a huge residence for them. Again, like the Louvre, we were only able to get a small experience of it. Finally, any Disney fan would be lost without a chance to visit Disneyland Paris. Some said it would be a waste of time to do but it was a good experience. No, it isn’t like Disneyland or Walt Disney World but it was a nice combination of both. I rode the Ratatouille ride which was pretty appropriate with it being in Paris.
#2 – Lucerne, Switzerland
Beautiful just can’t adequately describe this place. This city which is situated near Lake Lucerne and surrounded by mountains is just an amazing real-life portrait for the eyes. We never got tired of the view. We took a boat ride to Wegiss which is a small city near Lucerne. This was an unplanned visit and we were glad we went. Wegiss is absolutely the most amazing place with spectacular views. It is easily my newest favorite place in the world. I will have to admit that Rick Steves convinced us to add Lucerne to our trip and we are glad we did. I will also tell you that Switzerland was the most expensive country we visited. The currency is francs and things were very expensive there so be prepared for that if you decide to go. Other than that small negative, I would highly recommend Lucerne to anyone.
#3 – Como, Italy
This was an unplanned visit at the beginning of our trip. We had a floating day and we decided to stop in Como overnight on our way to Lucerne. Again, the word beautiful doesn’t adequately describe it. After leaving Venice, Como was a welcome change. Como was not over populated with tourists and sitting on a bench looking out over Lake Como was very peaceful. We only stayed overnight but we wished we could have stayed longer. If you are debating on whether to go to Venice or Como, I would choose Como every time.
#4 – London, England
Before our trip if you were to ask me where I would like the least it would have been London but after visiting there I have changed my mind. London was a unexpected surprise. We really needed more time here too. Once you master the Tube (London’s subway system), you can get around to the various places you want to see. It was awesome to see Westminster Abbey and the centuries of history in this place. We also visited Buckingham Palace which was every bit of royal as you could imagine. My wife and I listed as Windsor Castle as one of our “must see” places when we got to London. It wasn’t an easy venture but we navigated the three trains to get there and glad we did. To stand in the very spot where Prince Harry and Meaghan Markle were recently married was just mind blowing. At the end of our trip, we took a boat cruise and saw the Tower Bridge.
#5 – Germany (Weisbaden/Frankfurt/Kassel/Rhein)
If you love German villages and castles, Germany is a good place to get a dose of it. We visited several castles along the Rhein. Except for the hike to get up to the castles, it was worth it to see the beauty and architecture of these ancient buildings. We were also able to find a spot to view a spectacular fireworks display on the Rhein. Our son and daughter-in-law took us to see some towns that were almost too much to believe. They were straight out of a movie set. We also didn’t spend enough time in Germany.
#6 – Rome, Italy
Rome was exactly what you would think it would be and certainly met and maybe exceeded our expectations a bit. My wife and I were awed by the Trevi Fountain. In fact, we went to it three times during our visit. Our last visit was early in the morning on our last day in Rome. As for me, the Colosseum wasn’t as much for me. Actually it looked quite smaller than I had always imagined it to be. We also visited the Vatican and saw the amazing Sistine Chapel. St. Peter’s Cathedral was pretty impressive too. I am not Catholic but it was very spiritual to be there and be in the place where St. Peter is buried. Now that’s something. We didn’t catch the Pope but it was something to see the place where he speaks to thousands. The food in Rome was probably the best on the trip. I have had the best lasagna and eggplant parmesan I have ever had.
When we left Rome for Venice, we made a stop in Florence to see the David statute which was made by Michelangelo. We couldn’t help but to be amazed by the detail of another masterpiece from one of history’s most famous artists.
#7 – Venice, Italy
I have to tell you that I am surprised to see Venice at the bottom of this list. Before the trip, Venice was the place we wanted to visit the most. It did not meet expectations. I know that we all fall for that romantic image of Venice and gondola rides but the heat along with excessive crowds pushed Venice to the bottom of our list. My wife and I did have our romantic gondola ride (except for when the gondola operator answered his cell phone) and we enjoyed some of the romantic locations there but I wouldn’t want to go back. Locals are very rude to tourists and they really have no reason to be nice because of the mass volume of tourists. Venice was a disappointment.
Best/Worst of Trip:
- Best OMG Moment: Seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Nothing can prepare you for this.
- Best Tech purchase: Ainope 10000mAh Portable Charger with LCD Display external charger. This helped us many times when we needed to charge our smartphones.
- Best Clothing Purchase: Shoes. I found Saucony Kineta Series on the clearance rack. You have to have good shoes.
- Biggest Surprise: London
- Best Un-Planned Stop: Como, Italy and Wegiss, Switzerland
- Most Expensive: Switzerland
- Worst attitude toward tourists: Venice
- Most friendly locals: Paris
- Best Hotel: Art Deco Montana, Lucerne, Switzerland
- Most awkward moment: Train trip from Rome to Venice where passenger seated next to me took his seat and mine.
- Best food: Rome
- Best scenery: Switzerland
- Best train ride: Como, Italy – Lucerne, Switzerland
- Most challenging language barrier: Italian
- Most annoying part of travel: Getting correct directions and information
- Best money spent: Upgrade flight back home
- Number of miles walked on trip: 144 miles (7.5 miles per day). Highest day was in Rome.
- Best Smart Phone App: Moovit. My wife found this app while we were in London. This app will tell you what forms of transportation you need to get to where you are going.
So as an average person going on a trip to Europe, here are some of the things I found that “they” tell you in travel videos that are not true:
- “There is free Wifi everywhere” – There IS Wifi in many places but it isn’t always free and it isn’t always dependable. Don’t plan on having a lot of access to your cloud on a trip.
- “Train travel is easy” – While it is much better than in the U.S., it can be quite a challenge. It was very helpful to have RailEurope or GoEuro apps on our smartphones.
- “Venice is the most romantic place in the world” – Not with oppressive heat and masses of tourists.
- “Romance is in the air in Paris” – Yes, Paris is romantic but don’t foolishly think they are actually playing an Italian music soundtrack everywhere you go. You would be surprised how much American music you will hear.
- “Air travel is cheap” – This is true BUT only on no-frills/budget airlines and with several connections. Cheap doesn’t always mean easy.
- “Nobody every said they wished they had packed more” – Totally not true. I wished we could have brought more but when you limit it to carry on luggage you really have to be creative.
So now that I am back from Europe, what are the top ten tips I can give you about traveling:
#1 – Wear comfortable shoes
I am very lucky to have picked the perfect shoes for our trip. They were very comfortable and lightweight. They lasted the trip and my feet are in great condition. Don’t think you have to buy the most expensive walking shoes like Ecco or some other brand. Also don’t buy hiking shoes unless you’re really going hiking.
#2 – ASK questions
I am hesitant sometimes about asking questions but when you go on a trip like this, you really can’t survive without asking. There is always someone to ask and you will have to do it while you are traveling.
#3 – Stay hydrated
We were always buying water everywhere we went and all through the day. You have to keep hydrated our your body will wear out. There is a LOT of walking involved so you need to take care of your body.
#4 – Learn some phrases in other languages
While it is possible to survive by not speaking the language of the country you are visiting, it is still very helpful and courteous to the locals. They will appreciate it.
#5 – Pack smart
Pack only what you will NEED, not what you want to take “just in case”. Forget the “just in case” items. You can buy what you want when you get to where you are going. Also, if you are intimidated by the TSA rules for liquids, don’t take any. Just buy them after you get through security. Yes, it will be more expensive but it will save you the stress. You also don’t have to pack clothes for every day.
#6 – Be patient
Oh man, this is a big one. You will need to pack some patience because you’re going to get frustrated, confused and stressed many times along the trip. Just remind yourself to keep calm and navigate your way through the unexpected situations. The travel part can wear you down with the customs, security and getting from one place to another.
#7 – Foot massages
This is something my wife and I agreed to do each night when we got back to our hotel room and it is amazing how this helps to keep your feet rested and rejuvenated for the next day.
#8 – Spend more on your trip to/from Europe
If you are on a tight budget like us, you will be tempted to purchase the cheapest tickets for your flight to/from Europe. While you don’t have to go first class, try something more than coach such as Delta’s Comfort+ option. Believe me, you will be glad you did.
#9 – Don’t plan every minute of every day
My wife planned our trip and she did a wonderful job in NOT planning every minute of every day at various stages of our trip. Rushing to one thing to another will wear you out and you won’t be able to appreciate it.
#10 – Be alert
Travel videos warn you about pickpockets as well as security. I honestly felt safer in Europe than in any place in the U.S. You still have to be alert and mindful of your surroundings.
Tech for the trip:
Okay, I am a geek and I need my tech with me. I agonized way too much about this before the trip. I ended up taking my iPAD with keyboard along with my smartphone. This worked out good. With the inconsistent access to wifi and my documents in the cloud, I purchased a USB flash drive which connects to the lightning port for all of the documents I would be working on. This worked out really well. Next time I think I will just take a travel keyboard and use it with my smartphone instead of taking my iPAD.
If you are taking your phone with you…..
This is something else you have to think about. You have to check with your provider on the International plans they offer or else you will get stuck with a huge bill when you return. It’s still going to be expensive and you need to plan on it. Since we are with Verizon, we opted for the “travel pass” where we can still use our phones as we would here for $10 per day for the days you use it. The only hitch we had was that we both took our phones; however, we had one using the travel pass while the other phone was in airplane mode and not using cellular data. For us, this worked out okay and we managed our use.
What would we do differently next time?
- Spend more on airfare to/from Europe
- I would change my day bag to a small backpack instead of the Waterfly bag.
- Stay longer or at least more than one night (travel days are rough)
- Do a better job with carrying water/snacks with us
- Get a better translator app
After three weeks visiting five countries, sorting through four different currencies, four languages, seven airplane flights, seven trains, six boats, several taxis (some rides which would challenge any Disney thrill ride) and even a pedi-cab it was physically demanding but it was worth the experience. The world seems a lot different to me now.