42 Days in Europe, Postmortem Part 1 – Travel Tips

With my 42 days in Europe this August to October drawing to a close, I’ve decided to write a series of postmortems on the trip. It’s been a long trip and, as such, there’s a lot to write about. I’m breaking down my writings about the trip into three chunks:

1) Travel tips: The most practically oriented of the posts, the present post will discuss. For the more naturally utilitarian and travel-experienced readers, these pointers will likely be obvious, but I hope some people find them useful.

2) City reviews: My general thoughts and perceived pros and cons of each city/country visited on my trip. The depth and breadth of my review of each location is likely to vary with how long I spent there.

3) Closing reflections: Akin to my blog post reflecting on my trip to Paris, this will be more of an emotional send off, with more pensive writing on what I feel like I learned and realized and thought about during my trip.

So here we go! In case it needed to be said, the below is purely my opinion, I make no guarantees as to what would work and won’t work in your situation, ultimately you do you. I may also be making tweaks and additions to this post as I get closer and closer to the actual end of this trip. Also, though they’ll be discussed in detail in the second part of this series, so as to not leave it ambiguously hanging, the cities I visited were: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Nice, Monaco, Vienna, Salzburg, Berlin, Venice, Florence, Rome, Vatican City, Barcelona, and Lisbon.

Practical Travel Tips

Book in advance*

This should be especially obvious to anyone who isn’t made of money, but booking in advance saves you a lot of money. Whether planes or trains, booking in advance generally costs you a lot less than trying to book last minute. Yes, yes, it takes time and energy to hammer down the logistics and plan it all out, but if I can do it, so can you.

A good example is the following. My one mild financial blunder on this trip was having bought a direct Amsterdam-Paris ticket, going through Brussels; I would arrive in Paris, a city I had been to before, early in the day. The Thalys high-speed rail ticket, purchased four months in advance, was 35e. The day before I was to leave Amsterdam, I realized what a mistake it was to not spend at least the day in Brussels (and add to my country count!) and decided to eat the cost of that ticket to book a new AMS-BRU, BRU-PAR itinerary. Now, had I booked it that way at the beginning, there’s literally no way I would’ve ended up spending more than 70e, and that’s assuming the two tickets would’ve both been 35e, even though they would’ve probably been more like ~25-30e (so 50-60e total).

As you would expect, the story was entirely different trying to book this new itinerary the day before the trip. I spent 69e on the first leg of the trip and 57e on the second leg, a total of 126e. It killed me a little bit knowing how much money I was burning, but given that for all I know I might never get a chance to visit Brussels again, I got over it.

*also see last section.

Trial gear

Before long trips like the one I’ve been on, it gives a lot of peace-of-mind to have pretested your travel gear and setup. Knowing that I wanted to make this big Europe trip happen in the summer/fall, I bought what is my now well-worn travel backpack (Kelty Redwing 44) prior to my Paris trip back in March. I was able to trial the bag on that trip as well as a Prague trip in May, and for a more extended stay in LA over the summer. This gave me a good feel for what I could fit in the bag and its interplay with my smaller messenger bag (for laptop, camera, etc.) in terms of what I would carry in which bag so as to optimize ease-of-use in transit. Also with backpacks, you never know when you might be forced to stow it in checked luggage, so it’s good to practice securing the straps on your bag – wrap the main and waist straps around backwards, with the goal of creating a single clear grip – so they don’t get torn off behind-the-scenes during handling.

Optimize inventory – don’t be afraid to toss

I always carry a  wireless USB mouse with me when I’m not traveling, and my standard wall charger at home is also a 3-port USB charger. I packed both of these for the trip, but I wish I hadn’t. Realistically speaking, I wasn’t going to be doing any work while traveling so significant as to necessitate a mouse, and my travel power adapter has two USB ports on it that I could easily make do with. Between those and a handful of smaller items, there were some things I seriously pondered shipping back stateside to reduce load, if not for the exorbitant cross-Atlantic shipping prices. Travel forces you to have micro-come-to-Jesus moments with regard to your stuff and helps you get a better sense of what you really need versus what you can get by with not having.

Relating to the above, I left bits and pieces of myself in landfills all across Europe. The first casualty was my “me-bag,” a $25 canvas messenger bag I had bought off Amazon 4 years ago and sewed various patches onto. I hadn’t been planning on discarding it, but emergency measures had to be taken when  the flap on the main bag body onto which the strap connected began to tear at a visible rate. By the time I made the decision to toss the bag, the strap was connected to the bag by merely half of the flap. I cut the patches off the bag and sent it on its way, to be replaced by a new leather bag I hope lasts a while (well, I needed something to carry my laptop/camera in!).

The second KIA was a pair of USC shorts that was one of my very first Trojan gear purchases ever. My parents had suggested I throw it away years ago, but I held onto it out of sentiment – it had a few holes in the outer lining, and I couldn’t put small items in my left pocket because it would fall through into the space between the inner and outer linings. Out of a desire to make up for room taken up by a pair of pants I had bought at H&M in Vienna to attend the opera, I sent these shorts off in Berlin.

The final KIA was one of my very first Penn gear purchases, a nice quality and airy polo shirt. The logo had kind of stretched out of proportion a while ago, but the decision to discard came about on this trip when I noticed small holes and fraying in the underarm area – i.e. I could count the number of threads that the sleeve was attached by. So as to avoid throwing away a clean shirt, I wore it on my Florence-Rome transit day and saw it off.

This isn’t to mention the two pairs of Puma sneakers I burned through on the trip, aided by generally 5-12 miles of walking on a given day; I’ll be returning stateside in a pair of 16euro sneakers I bought from the Primark at Alexanderplatz (Berlin). Bottom line is, things wear out. This is true even on a day-to-day basis, but I really feel like travel accelerates the aging process for your apparel and gear. Don’t hesitate to let go of what has clearly seen better days – the lighter you can travel, the better.

Be prepared to go mobile

I get the feeling that Europeans are a little more ahead of the curve than Americans in using electronic tickets and passes on their phones rather than printing everything out – it’s not the worst practice especially for travelers, since you likely won’t have any kind of regular access to a printer on your trip. That said, for things like key flight itineraries, it doesn’t hurt to bring along hard copies, you can always toss them as you go.

On the whole, make sure you’re very comfortable with your phone, its capabilities, and runtime on a single charge. The thing I did that made me feel like I was almost cheating was buy a prepaid SIM card that works all across Europe off Amazon before I left for the trip (Orange Holiday). You get 10GB of data and minutes and texts to start, just use it for up to 14 days, and even longer once you register it with your passport. You can top it off with additional minutes online using your credit card. Super convenient, not too expensive, and the data is generous enough that you can use it as your internet access point without too much concern when, for example, your hotel or Airbnb has slow wifi. I registered the SIM once I arrived in Europe and topped it off with my credit card multiple times.

One thing I feel like a lot of people who at least have the fore/hindsight to buy a prepaid SIM while abroad aren’t aware of is the variety of radio bands on cell phone networks. Different carriers in different countries use different bands for their services, and even if you have a prepaid SIM, if your phone doesn’t support the band the carrier in a particular country uses: you’re SOL. I’ve dealt with this problem during visits to Seoul, where my past AT&T-based Galaxy Note 5 didn’t support the bands used by carriers for LTE in Seoul, so my internet access was never as fast as it could’ve been. I got around this during my Europe trips by getting a Google Pixel 2 beforehand – though I don’t have the Google Fi plan as AT&T’s prepaid pricing works better for my usage stateside, the fact that the Pixel 2 is Fi-compatible means it’s able to connect with a wide-range of carrier bands no matter where I am.

Also, your phone being a central item in your arsenal means that you have to have the means by which to keep it charged. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be slamming your phone all day while traveling, mainly for navigation but also to fill the time while waiting in line or for your food, etc. One important thing to keep in mind is that battery packs that are 100Wh (watt-hours) and higher are not allowed on planes, so before you go about getting the biggest battery pack available, make sure you check the watt-hour ratings.

Keep your banks and cards in line

I’m a bit of a personal finance dork, as one of my other posts can attest, but be on top of your finance game when you go abroad so as to not waste money needlessly. A key element of your finance arsenal when you’re abroad is your debit card. Short of countries where the ability to withdraw from ATMs using US-based debit cards is in question (e.g. Cuba), your debit card will generally be the most efficient way to obtain cash while abroad, with no middle-man to take a cut in the form of exchange fees – this is especially true if you have your checking account with a bank that doesn’t charge external ATM fees (e.g. my bank, Schwab). For both debit and credit cards, make sure you call your banks to place travel notices so that they don’t unexpectedly get blocked while you’re abroad.

The second key element of your travel finance arsenal is your credit card set. Figure out via Google or phone which of your cards don’t have foreign transaction fees (FTF), and take those with you – don’t be the fool paying to spend your own money, and if your rebuttal is that you get cashback, I feel comfortable saying the FTF rate is higher than the cashback rate on most cards. Visa and Mastercard should be your go-to, merchants abroad are still hesitant to accept American Express on many occasions and likely won’t even recognize Discover. I’ve yet to have any issues with using American chip-and-signature cards in chip-and-PIN countries (Europe), but it also gives some reassurance having a chip-and-PIN capable card if possible – my Barclays Uber Visa fills this role, and I’ve used it for a handful of PIN-based transactions.

Balance peace-of-mind and saving

It’s easy to try to skimp on things like transit passes out of a desire to save. Furthermore, in a lot of these European cities, transit passes aren’t too necessary because the cities are super walkable – for example, Copenhagen, I could probably get anywhere in the city on foot within 45-50 minutes. And even in the bigger cities, if you enjoy walking, you still might not feel like transit passes are worthwhile. But in my opinion, it’s worth a couple of bucks to get in some cases just for peace of mind. You never know when you might decide you want to try to make it to a museum before it closes, or how tired you might feel after trekking on foot to the other side of the city – and how unexpectedly short on cash you might be in such scenarios. An Uber/Taxi ride or two in such scenarios would instantly blow a chunk of, if not all, savings from your decision to not get a transit pass.

I didn’t get a transit pass in most of the cities I visited, but I did in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Venice. In Amsterdam, I must admit, I just kinda did it without much thought as the pricing was totally fair. I only ended up using it three times, but I didn’t feel too bad about it. In Berlin, I was super glad I got the Berlin Welcome Card (which includes a transit pass for your chosen duration) because that city is huge. I definitely used it for a few return trips to my Airbnb in addition to my airport trips. In Venice, the transit pass was just straight up worth it, because the cost of my 48 hour pass was already basically recouped by the time I had taken the water bus 3 times. Plus, Venice – walking only takes you so far, like I couldn’t have walked to Murano or Burano if I’d wanted to.

Arguably, this peace-of-mind vs. saving principle applies to other things besides transit passes, but it was the most every-person scenario I could think of and the context in which I pondered over it the most. Don’t take it too far because then you’ll just end up using “peace-of-mind” as an excuse to justify obnoxiously fancy purchases.

Addendum (9/30/2018): But Seriously, Book in Advance

I left out a crucial element of the Book in Advance bullet in the original post. I made it sound like the only things this principle applied to are flights and hotels when in reality, it also absolutely applies to major tourist landmarks. You might think you can get by with buying tickets day-of at your destination every time, but best case, you’ll often end up waiting in line for forever, or, in surprisingly common worst case, you just won’t be able to go. Period.

A great example of this happening on my trip was the Anne Frank House (AFH) in Amsterdam. I’d heard a word of caution from one of my friends that the venue sells out super far in advance, but I clearly hadn’t taken it seriously. By the time I got to Amsterdam, tickets to the AFH were sold out til three weeks after I left town. Damn.

I got similarly blasted in Florence. I had planned to go to some combination of two of the Galleria dell’Academia, Uffizi, and Duomo. But guess what? All sold out until a few days after I left. Granted, at this point I was pretty western-art-ed out, so I wasn’t crushed, but still. It would’ve been nice to be able to visit these. I took this time to book by tickets my subsequent city, Rome, so that I wouldn’t face similar problems.

You often receive advice suggesting that you prioritize your target landmarks into must-see, great-to-see, optional. I would recommend booking your tickets in advance such that you aim for one must-see each day, two if you’re in a crunch, then work around that.

Anyways, I hope you guys find these travel tips useful. Look forward to the Part 2 postmortem coming up!

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