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  • Merrilee MacLean

Travel Tips II - Four More Suggestions from the Road

Queen's Guards awaiting arrival of Queen Elizabeth
Queen's Guards, awaiting the arrival of Queen Elizabeth to open Parliament - savvy travelers should be on the lookout for similar special events

After more than two months on the road, traveling from the Baltics and Scandinavia to the Balkans, Turkey and Greece, from the northern tip of Scotland to the eastern border of Poland, with London and Paris in between, here are four suggestions (in addition to those identified in previous posts) that might make your own trip more enjoyable. These tips are generally directed to European travel; I expect they apply to travel in other parts of the world, but since that's not my area, I won't presume.

Don't be Too Tied to Your Itinerary – Be Open to Unexpected Opportunities

If you are on a tightly scheduled two week journey, or on a guided tour with every minute scheduled, this may not be possible, but if you can, try to keep an eye out for unexpected opportunities. This means that you watch the local news, google “things to do today in (wherever)”, check in with the local tourist information office, or just watch for signs identifying a special event. We were in London on a recent Sunday, and saw in the local papers that Parliament was opening the next day, which meant the Queen Elizabeth II would be riding in a golden horse-drawn carriage from Buckingham Palace through the streets of London to Parliament. So we got up early the next day, discovered that not many people were paying that much attention to this event, and had a ring side seat as she went by. Here is the video. Pretty cool.

A few days later, a major march was planned regarding the pending Brexit deadline. We were scheduled to leave town just as it was starting and so couldn’t join the march (the crowd was later estimated at one million people), but it might have been an interesting experience. Of course, not everyone likes crowds, and there are times when such crowds are a security risk, but the point is that if you are so scheduled in advance you may miss something that doesn’t happen very often.

Lauterbrunnen cow parade
Cows on parade in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

It doesn’t have to be major events. Earlier on this trip we were walking down the street in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland and saw a handwritten sign that said the cow parade would be happening that day at 2:00 p.m. It was 1:15, so we decided to just hang out and see what that meant. It was in fact a cow parade, one of many that happens in Switzerland in the early fall, with people in costume, cows dressed up with flowers and a truck hauling rounds of cheese. Another time, in Prague, we noticed a gathering of people in the Old Town Square, all dressed in chef’s garb. We decided to skip the tour we had planned and see what was happening. We ended up following a parade of chefs to tables set up along the Charles Bridge, where they were handing out goulash in bread bowls, free, to anyone walking by. Prague had suffered some serious floods earlier in the year, and this celebration was to inform the world that Prague, and its restaurants, was back. And, of course, there was the Great Ely Potato Race, in Ely, England, where racers compete carrying 44 pound bags of potatoes as part of the annual Harvest Festival. Who would want to miss that? There are lots of similar examples – just keep your eyes open and see what may be there.

Great Ely Potato Race finalists
Finalists competing in the Great Ely Potato Race

There are also the less happy unexpected events that often occur – several have occurred on this trip. Arriving in Piraeus for the ferry to Santorini, to find that due to high winds all ferries in the Aegean are cancelled that, and probably the next, day. Arriving for the connecting bus from Finland to Sweden, to find it didn’t exist. Trying to buy a reservation on the night train from Berlin to Warsaw, but finding that all seats (of every class) were already booked – in late October. Trains running late – sometimes more than two hours late, creating concern about making connections or getting into a lodging well past the agreed time. It’s all just part of traveling. When this happens, you sit back, remember it isn’t the end of the world, and come up with an alternate plan.

Empower Yourself – Get a Map and Learn the Public Transport System

Even if you are on a guided tour, it is very helpful to get a map of the city or town you are visiting – it will all mean so much more, and give you a flexibility that is empowering. Most hotels will provide maps. Tourist information offices have them, though sometimes they charge a fee. Your phone has a map, though it won’t provide the big picture that is available with a physical map. A map will show you what the city or town looks like, the major features, and where you fit in to those features. The map will be helpful when you are there, and will help you remember places you visited once you get back home. It also enables you to venture away from the group or tour or hotel and explore a bit, with some confidence that you can find your way back.

Standing on the right on the escalator
People standing on the right on the escalator - be sure you do the same.

Europeans use public transport to go everywhere. Subways are very common in larger cities and easy to learn. Once you understand them, you can go pretty much anywhere – again it is an issue of empowerment. You are not limited to the tour bus, or the hop-on-hop-off bus, a taxi (and how they might cheat you – a common complaint) or uber, or how far you can walk. Subways (whether called the Metro in Paris, the Tube in London or the U-Bahn in Berlin) all operate pretty much the same way as the ones in New York, San Francisco or Washington D.C. The secret is figuring out which lines you want to take and the end stop on that line so that you go the right way when you are underground. Then just get off when you reach your stop. The tricky part can be how one pays, and that can vary significantly. As with many other tourist activities, machines are replacing people that you can ask, but one benefit is that most machines will have an option, signified by a British flag, to speak English. The machines are in fact quite user friendly, and will usually provide step by step instructions on how to purchase a ticket, what your options are, etc. You can also use google to get instructions in advance, e.g. “how do I buy a ticket on the Paris metro?” Be aware that the rules keep changing, as technology develops new systems. Indeed, recently Paris adopted a new system, replacing the individual tickets that had been in use since the early 1900’s. With buses, historically many cities required that you buy a bus ticket in advance at a kiosk – it wasn’t always real clear. That practice, too, seems to be succumbing to technology, with multi-language ticket machines at bus stops.

Signs instructing people to stay left
The Brits REALLY want you to stay left

There are some other rules you should be aware of if using the subway systems – on escalators, always stand on the right, with your bag behind you, so you don’t block access to the people on the left that want to go up, or down, faster than you do. The same applies to those moving sidewalks. This rule is pretty universal, except in England, where they want you to walk on the left and can be pretty adamant about it (but escalator etiquette is the same). Also, if you aren’t sure where you are going, want to slow down to look at your phone or map, or want to stop for any reason, DON’T just stop; always move to the side, out of the flow of traffic. The people behind you will appreciate it, and you are less likely to be knocked over or mown down. This rule actually applies everywhere you walk. Just try to be aware of where you are walking or standing – and if you are in a tour group, please don’t block a sidewalk.

Batobus in Paris, on the Seine
The Batobus, on the Seine in Paris - a great alternative to the Metro

Also, keep in mind there are alternative modes of public transport that may be more enjoyable. Personally, in London I prefer the big red double-decker buses to the Tube when the routes work out. It is much more scenic; is actually less expensive than the Tube, and you avoid those endless connections with long tunnel-like hallways and multiple stairs going up and down. Get a bus map and see if the bus option works for where you are going. In Paris, one of my favorite modes of transport is the Batobus, a sort of hop-on-hop-off boat that goes up and down the Seine between the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. It has stops at most of the touristy places you might want to visit, and is much more enjoyable than the Metro, particularly on a beautiful day. Tickets are sold for a 24 or 48 hour period and you can use it without limitation. You can even just take the batobus for a cruise (for much less money than one of those dinner cruises), doing a circuit or two before getting off. It’s a great way to enjoy the view and rest your feet.

Finally, do be careful when crossing the street, particularly in Great Britain and Ireland. They drive on the left side and so traffic comes from a direction that you are not used to. In London you will see “Look Right” written on the street at crosswalks – it’s better just to look both ways and be very alert at all times. And do follow the local culture at stop lights – if everyone disregards the sign (and no one is coming) go ahead and cross. But if everyone is waiting for the light to change, be a good traveler, and wait as well. It’s a cultural thing – no reason not to observe it.

Don’t Try to Do, or See, Everything

There is just too much to see when traveling. Don’t try to see it all – you will exhaust yourself and won’t remember what you saw. Also, identify what is important to you – not what people say you should see or do. If you really don’t care that much about seeing a small painting of a girl, don’t stand in line for hours to see the Mona Lisa. Follow your own interests, do a bit of research (google is definitely your friend), and find something that you really care about seeing. It will be much more meaningful to you than ticking off boxes of famous places everyone else has seen. There are wonderful walking tours focused on specific topics; there are food tours that will take you to the markets and then show you how it’s all done; for historians like me, the options are endless. The challenge is picking what is most interesting to you, and not worrying about doing something someone else recommends, but that doesn’t sound so good to you.

Which brings us to travel companions. I have been extraordinarily lucky in my travel companions, but that is partly due to the understanding that we don’t all like the same things, and there are times when you go different directions and share the stories later. Many solo travelers choose solo travel because they are tired of compromising and doing what other people want to do. Just check out Over 60 Solo Women Travelers. That said, you can learn interesting new things by being open to someone else’s interests – just don’t make it at the expense of your own. Finally, and most important, build some “downtime” into your schedule. It can be a couple of hours in a café, staying in the hotel on a rainy afternoon, or even sleeping in. Your feet, brain, and soul appreciate it.

Be Sure to Prepare for an Emergency or an Interaction with Thieves

It can happen to anyone. Rick Steves has reported that he was pickpocketed in the Paris subway, and so was I a few days ago. I still don’t know how they did it. I had my wallet and passport at the Eurostar passport control in London. They were in my cross body bag, which was on me the entire time, zipped up. Three hours later, after riding the Eurostar to Paris and taking a fairly crowded Metro to my hotel, the wallet and passport were gone. Luckily, I had done what I always do, and secreted an envelope inside the lining of my bag containing a photocopy of my passport and drivers license and a list of all the credit and ATM cards I was carrying and the phone numbers to report them lost. The list also has my emergency contact information, my medical insurance and travel evacuation insurance info, my blood type, allergies, and doctors' names. The envelope also contained a back-up credit card and ATM card (with Capital One, which doesn’t require advance travel notifications), plus some U.S. cash. What could have been a disaster was handleable, because I was prepared.

I spent the next several hours on the phone (thank you Google Fi for making that process so easy) calling the various credit card companies and banks (two credit cards and two ATM cards were taken) and fielding texts and emails from those same companies asking about charges that were being made in Paris on my cards. I was able to get all the cards cancelled and all charges were credited back. Luckily I did not have to wait for replacement cards to be issued and sent to me (which was offered by the companies) since I had the back-up cards available to use immediately. This was on a Saturday night, and I could do nothing about my passport until Monday morning. Fortunately, we were in Paris, and in Paris the consulate provides same-day passport replacement service. I filled out the notice of lost/stolen passport and application for new passport online, and had my hotel print the forms out so I could take them to the consulate first thing Monday morning.

line waiting for Paris consulate to open at 8 a.m.
Line of people waiting in the dark outside the Paris consulate, waiting for it to open at 8 a.m.

The consulate was scheduled to open at 8 a.m. We were in line outside in the dark at 7:40 – there were ten to twelve people in line before us. The doors opened promptly at 8. Security was tight – our bags were searched and we were frisked outside in a tent before we entered the consulate building. Inside the consulate building there was more security, with TSA style metal detectors and all electronic devices (including phones, cameras, camera batteries and flashlights with batteries) being removed and retained to be returned on our departure from the building. The people inside the consulate were very organized – they have the system down cold. There were two photo booths to take the necessary passport photo (I had taken a photo in a booth that said it satisfied the U.S. requirements, but it was rejected) and several computers and a printer for those that had not been able to do their paperwork in advance. A representative reviewed my paperwork, gave me a number, and there was a place to sit while waiting. I got called to a window, answered some questions, went to another window and paid the $145 fee (with the credit card that was in the envelope), then waited to be called to another window, where I swore that the information I had provided was accurate. I sat down again and waited until I was called again, and the nice gentleman handed me my brand new emergency passport, which is good for a year. However, I was informed that for some reason France doesn’t recognize U.S. emergency passports, which is a bit of a problem since my ticket home is out of Paris. But France doesn't check passports of those leaving the country, just those arriving, so coming back to Paris I can’t fly into France or take the Eurostar, since both require passport inspection, but I can take the train since there is no passport check between Schengen countries on trains. Again, another crisis averted. I was back on the street with my electronics retrieved and my new passport in hand at 9:15 a.m. How lucky I was. Alas, there is nothing that can be done regarding my drivers’ license, so no rental cars for me for the rest of this trip.

So, for anyone traveling, it is important to have your backup emergency envelope in a safe place, away from what you normally take with you on a daily basis. It is also a good idea to give a copy of the information to a trusted travel companion, just in case. You can also email a copy to yourself or save it on One Drive or somewhere similar on your computer so it is accessible online in an emergency. I used to simply make a photocopy of my credit and ATM cards. For this trip I actually typed out the numbers and phone numbers, and that was actually much easier to read than photocopies. Having a photocopy of my passport and drivers license, with the photos, ended up being important as identification for using my back-up credit card to pay for my replacement passport. Most important, having a backup credit card and ATM card meant that I could continue traveling with no delays or issues. The other information, related to medical and travel insurance and medical issues, is important for any travel companion to know about in the event of illness or accident. The importance of having travel medical and evacuation insurance, particularly for grown up travelers, has been discussed in previous posts. The availability of that insurance changes as one ages, and varies depending on how long one is planning to travel, so be sure to do your homework in advance to make sure you have insurance in place in case of a medical emergency. Smarter Travel has had some good articles recently on travel insurance in general and medical and evacuation insurance that provide guidance on the issue.

There are surely more travel tips that will be forthcoming, but these will hopefully make your travels more fun and less stressful.


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