Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How to Travel in Europe for 3 Weeks


Traveling for three weeks was no small feat. We planned for months, researched locations and prepared as much at home so we could just enjoy our trip. I've been asked about our best travel tips, so here it goes.

Pack Light

Yep, those are our suitcases. I'm just as surprised as you are.
Even on the way to the airport my dad asked where our other suitcases were.

We ditched traditional suitcases because I couldn't imagine pushing through bustling European train stations as I wheeled a mammoth suitcase behind me. These North Face backpacks gave us the ability to be assertive in crowds and forced us to pack light.

Pack Smart

As a notorious overpacker, this was really tricky for me. But somehow we pulled it off.

7 Shirts and 2 undershirts
4 bottoms (jeans, shorts, skirt, leggings)
1 dress
1 swimsuit
1 hoodie
2 scarves
1 belt
2 pairs of shoes: Keds
and a pair of Sanuk flats


Toiletries (but not hairdryer or curling iron)
Snacks (granola bars, oatmeal, gummy bears)
Books (travel and leisure)
Garbage sacks (for dirty laundry)

(I bought a couple of shirts and a blazer while traveling that I wore as well)

The key here was to a) mix and match everything b) not look too touristy. My entire pack weighed less than 25 pounds, so minimalism was key. Every item MUST mix and match.

How I would have packed differently:
  • Ditch two of the shirts in favor of a warmer jacket. Paris was soooo cold when we went! And bring a more waterproof shoe.
  • Only take one book (or just my Kindle). We chatted and made friends on the train so I didn't have any time to read. 
  • Bring a hair dryer. I didn't bring any styling tools and I wish I would have at least done the dryer. My natural hair was just too poofy.

Research

Read everything you can get your hands on. We didn't plan out every detail of our itinerary, but we knew enough that we never had to worry if we had a place to stay or if we missed out on something.

Favorite Travel Resources
  • Library. Books upon books on almost any subject. Perfect for travelers.
  • Podcasts. Favorites include
  • Guidebooks. We preferred Rick Steves' Guide Books because of the "inside scoop" feel and personable prose. I loved his advice on everything except for the food recommendations. Those were only so-so.
  • Friends who have traveled or studied abroad. Incredible insight and real advice.
  • Anything else you can get your hands on. Historical sites or artifacts mean more if you already know a little about them before visiting.
  • Blogs. Through a blog we learned about Italy's train system and how there was a private/public train price war. Not reading Italian, we would have never figured it out on our own. With that help we got most of our train tickets in advance for at least 50% off. Ultimate score. 
Best Tips We Learned...
  • Skip the lines. We snagged museum passes in Rome and Paris. Not only does it cover the entrance to many museums, you also get to skip the line. I am shocked more people do not use them. 
  • Escape town. When we got sick of Milan, I had remembered the name of a town nearby I wanted to go to. With just a city name, we hopped on a train and fell in love with Lake Como.
  • Get reservations. Viewing The Last Supper in Milan is RESERVATION ONLY, and often books up well in advance.
  • Know when things are open. Museums are not open every day. What a bummer if you are in Florence the one day the museum housing The David is closed. (That happened to a girl we met. So sad.)

Spend Money Well

A three week vacation is not cheap. Since we aren't millionaires, we had to make sacrifices. My advice: figure out what is important to you.
  • Don't skimp on sights. This was the main reason for our trip, so we didn't skimp here. Grab a city or museum pass to save money, or look for free or reduced price days at museums. Prioritize on the must sees and go from there.
  • Eat smart. We had a simple breakfast, sandwich for lunch (infinitely better in Europe for some reason) and a killer dinner. I would rather have two cheap meals and one killer meal than two mediocre meals.  One thing we didn't sacrifice was gelato.
  • Renting apartments rocks. It got us out of the tourist areas, plus we felt like we actually lived there, at least briefly. Many of the places we stayed had a kitchen and an actual resident who could give us priceless advice. My favorite place for apartment and/or room rentals is airbnb.com
  • Be realistic. Plan ahead so you do not stress out on your trip and be realistic about what you will spend.
  • Also, prepare to pay in cash. Most places will not accept credit cards, even some hotels.

Best Souvenir: photos 

I'm not a photographer, but I do have one philosophy: photos are your best souvenir. Here are my best tips.
  • Don't forget about the details. 
  • Put yourself in the photo. A picture of the Eiffel Tower is just a picture of the Eiffel Tower, unless you are in it. Make an effort to be in the photos or else it could be anyone else's pictures.
  • Take an extra memory card/battery. Getting the dreaded "card reader full" warning is a nightmare on a trip. (Happened to a girl we met. She was forced to choose pictures of Croatia or new pictures in Italy. Sad.)






Embrace Culture

Culture shock index in Italy and France is really quite low, but things are different. 

Restaurants in Italy don't serve tap water, only bottled water (for an arm and a leg). Picnicking is forbidden near many monuments. Cash is king as many places will not accept credit cards. Everyone wears leggings as pants. Bigger isn't better. Portions are smaller, dinner is eaten way later, and not everyone will speak English. 

It is absolutely wonderful. Don't expect it to be like home. It won't be. And that is the point.

And my biggest culture advice is to not expect everyone to speak English to you. Many people do as it is a universal language, but we had a much better experience and response from the locals when we tried to speak in the native language first, no matter how dumb we sounded. It is not only smart, it is respectful.

Write Everything Down

My notebook that I kept detailed notes in during our trip is almost as valuable as the pictures we took. I spent our train rides journaling (hence my decreased need for books).

And all of those ticket stubs, train tickets and museum brochures now have a home. I took a disposable tape dispenser and taped those in as I wrote. It spices up the journal, plus those items won't collect dust in a shoe box.

Even after a few months, there were details that I forgot: names of restaurants we ate at, names of people we met, how many times we ate gelato, etc. This was the smartest thing I did.

Miscellaneous
  • Don't try and "see" Europe in three weeks. It just can't be done. Pick a couple of countries (we chose Italy and France) or a region and immerse yourself. The more ground you cover the more time you spend traveling in a train and away from the real sights. My husband did a whirlwind European tour years ago (8 countries in 21 days) and kept saying how much better he enjoyed an independent trip. It is tempting to cram it all in, but resist.
  • Safety: Europe is generally safe, but somehow people do strange things when traveling. All of the sudden they start petting stray dogs and following strange men down an alley to get a knock-off purse.  My safety advice is to just be smart, keep your purse close to you and always have an eye/hand on your bag. I also used a money belt just for peace of mind. 
  • Travel books: I cut the spine off our travel books and spiral bound only the pages we needed. Why lug a 500 page book on France if you only need 100?
  • Give yourself free time. There is such a thing as museum fatigue. Visit heavy hitters in the morning when your energy is high and see what you have time for in the afternoon. Sometimes a relaxing picnic is more memorable than seeing another so-so museum or cathedral. Find your balance. 
  • Fake eyelashes. I got eyelash extensions right before the trip. I'm not sure if I endorse them or not. But I did love waking up on an overnight train and looking put together instantly. Mine were cartoon-ish long and it was misery when I took them after six weeks.
  • Take a great travel partner. My favorite memory was Jacob and I laughing to the point of tears on the train. (Laughing even harder because we were trying to be quiet.) A great travel buddy is a must. 
If you have any questions, shoot me an email at stephaniefbenson{at}gmail{dot}com.

Read about our adventures in Italy and France.

Our Itinerary & FAQs

I am delighted by how many people are interested in our trip (welcome, Pinterest friends! I love you already!). For our detailed itinerary and FAQs, visit the Europe FAQ tab.


I'd love to hear about your trips! If you have blogged about your adventures, send me a link.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing all of your adventures! It has been so much fun reading about all the great experiences you guys had!

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  2. Great read! What itinerary did you follow?

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  3. @niveousmoon We created our own itinerary! We spent three weeks total: two in Italy and one in France. The short breakdown is that we started in Rome and ended in Paris. There is a map at the top of this post about our itinerary. http://www.stephaniefleischer.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-trip-when-in-rome.html Please let me know if you have any questions! I love to talk about it.

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  5. Thanks for the recommended itinerary. I think I will only have three weeks too and I'm thinking now to visit only two to three countries rather than my original dream of fitting in everything in three weeks... Europe's not going anywhere!

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  6. Really enjoyed your blog ~ my husband & I go to Europe every year & completely concur with your findings ~ we especially enjoy Karen Brown & her B&B recommendations ~ thank you for your suggestion to embrace Europe & the wonderful differences ~ this is the best part of travel ~ happy travels!!!

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