This is part 2 in a series about my three-week trip to Europe in December/January 2015. Read the rest here.
Ask me what I would do differently for my second trip to Europe and I’d say: Plan harder, pack lighter.
Hyper-planning definitely isn’t for everyone (a friend warned me that the best vacations are the ones you don’t plan) but in my case it worked because, for one thing, it prepped me to enjoy each city and each country more richly, and for another, I wasn’t married to the plan. I stayed (uncharacteristically) nimble and ready to rejig our strategy at any moment, which I had to. More than once. Sometimes because we had no choice, other times because we did have a choice and we opted to forego an entire city to stay safe—a flexibility that just might have saved our lives, as you’ll see when we get to France.
As for packing, I can’t say this enough: Pack light, then pack lighter, then cut out half your stuff, and you’ll still end up shedding things throughout your trip. I obsessed over packing light and still brought double what I needed. Even if you think you need it for emergencies (umbrella), don’t bring it. The best adventures happen when you aren’t immaculately prepared, so don’t be such a boy scout. (I abandoned my umbrella in the hotel in München; I can only hope the maid really needed one.)
Now let’s say you’re like me. I had never orchestrated a trip before, never taken any vacation longer than a week at my grandma’s, and never visited even the English-speaking portions of Europe, yet here I was planning a three-week tour of Ireland, Germany, a spot of Austria, and France. Where to even start?
Here are 9 tips.
1. Travel Buddy
Unless you’re doing a solo jaunt, your travel companion is the number-one most critical thing to get right. Doesn’t matter how many beautiful places you see; if you’re a pebble in each other’s shoe, you won’t enjoy anything. And doesn’t matter how snafu your journey gets; if you’re both upbeat, patient, and ready to roll with it, you’ll love every minute.
Find a compadre with whom you can be 100% honest (and vice versa). By this I mean you should be able to exchange opinions easily (without railroading each other) and also apologize at the drop of a hat, because you’ll need to. You will stress out over missed trains, cellular data that doesn’t work, and suitcase wheels that jam between cobblestones. Your goal should be to leave as friends and come back as family, which means double helpings of generosity and forgiveness all around. I was extremely lucky to have Grace as my fellow adventurer—a wise, caring, intrepid friend with limitless patience and kindness.
2. Location, Location, Location
Here’s the deal. Confident (or not) that you know exactly where you want to go, you may not commit until you’ve explored Rick Steves’ recommendations. That’s why he’s here. He has mapped out both country-wide and regional tours (usually 1-3 weeks) that highlight major cities and historical attractions. I shamelessly purloined ideas from his Best of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 14 Days Tour, especially since the region and timeline so closely matched mine, and discovered a myriad of destinations I would have kicked myself for missing. Like Zugspitze and Schwarzwald (the Black Forest).
Grace and I knew our options. 1) We could focus on a scant number of cities with the sip-and-savor technique. 2) Or we could drink from the fire hose and digest later. We chose the second. We’d power through on adrenaline. Fortunately, knowing ahead of time that we’d be punch-drunk by the end helped us pace ourselves mentally so that we didn’t mind. Packing 16 cities across four countries into 18 days (not counting bookend transatlantic travel days) bestowed on us a whole bushel of memory gems that we’re still polishing, savoring, and discovering anew. Unless you have mono, toddlers, or bad knees, power-walking through Europe is totally the way to go.
Day-to-day: Plan a main activity (like “tour Neuschwanstein”), then add another “maybe” that isn’t crucial. If you cram too much, you won’t care about any old awesome castle; you’ll just be a crab who wants her pillow. Be okay with not seeing everything. Do count on some down time. Coffee shops are invaluable for quick breathers where you snag Wi-Fi, get a bite to eat, and recharge in the midst of all the go-go-go.
For each city, double check the various museums and touristy hotspots to make sure they’ll be open. We missed a number of high-value targets (including the Book of Kells in Dublin!) because so many places were shut down for Christmas and New Year’s.
The million-dollar question: How much will your trip cost? Depends on where you’re going, for how long, and how generous you want to be with your cash. London will make you a pauper overnight while Dublin seems built for the tight-fisted. (As a rule, the bigger the city, the more you’ll spend.)
A friend of mine managed a three-week stay in Ireland on $3,000—a phenomenally thrifty budget, but doable. I was bouncing all over the place, so I got my airline total, calculated $60 a day for food ($20/meal), tallied the exact price for each hotel, ballparked all shopping expenses (DO NOT GO TO EUROPE WITHOUT SHOPPING MONEY), researched the price of every single attraction and museum I wanted to see (even knowing I couldn’t do them all), and reached an estimated total of $6,175 for 20 days—an extremely generous amount. I could have shaved off at least $1,000 by sticking to cheapskate lodging and saying no to souvenirs, but neither sounded appealing and I was happy to spend my money. In the end, food cost less and souvenirs + intercity transportation cost more than I’d expected, so it balanced out, and my estimation was off by just a couple bucks. Points for precision!
The rule: Get out your calculator. It’s worth the math. If you plan nothing else, plan your budget, stick to it, and leave a bumper in your bank account just in case.
Check out my detailed budget here.
Invest time looking up the right spots, especially if you know which city you’ll be in each night and are interested in scoring cool, historical hotels on the cheap. Booking.com is splendid and I’ll never look back (though I’ve heard TripAdvisor and Air B&B are also good). It’s slick and easy to navigate and the more you book, the more deals land in your inbox.
I bagged some truly memorable places—among them the former headquarters of the Stasi, East Germany’s terrifying secret police; a 700-year old inn located 650 feet from Mozart’s birthplace; and an almost unbearably darling medieval guesthouse that barely escaped the Allied bombings (owing to the serendipitous surrender of a German commander who clearly loved his country more than his Führer and ignored his orders that every city be defended to the bitter end). All thanks to Booking.com.
Scouting for hotels (whatever website you use), don’t forget to factor in their proximity to everything you want to see and do. A city-center hotel might be more expensive than a room on the outskirts, but you’ll also save valuable transportation dollars—and time. Time is expensive when you’re traveling and not to be wasted on shuttling to and from your bargain-basement hostel in the boondocks.
5. Trains & Planes
Inter-Europe flights have the worthy reputation of being inexpensive, but as one of my friends put it: “These aren’t American planes. Your ticket will buy your butt in a seat, nothing else.” Get ready to pony up for additional luxuries like luggage, snacks, staying hydrated, breathing oxygen, flushing the toilet, looking out the window…. I might be exaggerating, but it won’t feel like an exaggeration when you’re just trying to get on the dang aircraft and they keep demanding dough for additional features.
Hopscotching from country to country? Find the cheapest way into Europe, then catch a plane or train for the shorter routes. We made Dublin our point of entry (I spotted Spokane > Dublin tickets for as low as $700) and then flew Ryanair or Aer Lingus (can’t remember) to Berlin before taking trains across Germany into Austria and later France, plotting our routes carefully to avoid double backing between cities.
Honestly, trains were the biggest hurdle on our trip. Legendary though the efficiency of the German railway system might be, try cracking its mysteries ahead of time and you’ll blow a brain fuse. My advice: Download the DB Navigator app and leave yourself time (and pack an extra sense of humor) to worry about trains once you get there. No use figuring out exactly how it works or what time you should leave each city right now. Just ballpark it: “Take a mid-morning train in order to arrive in Salzburg by early afternoon…”
While we’re on the subject of ballparking, here are two things that you can (and should) do before you go. Especially if your itinerary takes you from city to city on a tight timeline, use Google maps to estimate travel hours in a day to avoid an over zealous agenda. We had two train marathon days: cutting south through much of Germany from Berlin to Rothenburg, and angling across the south from Füssen up to Offenberg near the French border. Besides the blur outside our windows, zero sightseeing on those days. Important to know ahead of time! If had counted on time for any shopping or castle tours, I would have been as bummed as any American upon missing shopping and castle tours.
Second, use the DB app to see which routes will require reservations. For many trains, hopping aboard is all it takes. For others (like Offenburg > Paris), we had to reserve seats, which we did the day before.
A final secret: Get a Eurail pass. So much cheaper than buying tickets one at a time. And here’s another plug for planning that itinerary early: Picking the cities and countries you want to visit helps you buy the most economical pass. One country? Two? Four? The whole globe? The Costco rule applies: Buy in bulk and save.
6. Become Bilingual (Or At Least Pretend to Be)
Whoever said “You don’t need to learn the language because everybody over there speaks English” is probably the same person who came up with “It’s just like riding a bike.” WRONG. Both times. WRONG.
Yes, plenty of folks speak your language better than you speak theirs (especially in the large cities), but at least half the time, my knowing just a smithereen of German boosted our collective sangfroid and saved us real stress and hassle. And it’s only polite. You’re a guest in their country; be courteous.
At the very least, learn the following:
I’m sorry; I don’t speak [whatever]
How do I get to the hotel/airport/ train station?
You are very kind
and, for good measure,
I’m just a stupid American
We have the reputation for being loud and obnoxious (Europeans view Yanks the way the rest of Americans view Texans), so soften this impression by beginning every conversation in their language, then switch to English if you must.
When you do speak English, drop the American accent. Don’t fake a British one (for all our sakes), but go for a more European sound: clear consonants, taller vowels. Sorry to be so vague, but your ear will adapt once you’re over there and you’ll hear what I mean. Grace and I got so accustomed to speaking English with this accent that the Germans thought we were merely practicing our English. Win!
Learning enough German to get around was my responsibility while Grace assumed French. I had already turned the language settings to Deutsch on gmail and Facebook, which imparted helpful knowledge like papierkorb (“trash”) and gefällt mir (“I like this”), but for more systematic study I purchased the highly economical Speed Learning German, developed by the US government for diplomats to download the language onto their brains basically overnight. I can’t compare it to any other program like Rosetta Stone, but it worked for me. The biggest downside is that it relies more on your motivation than on nifty software; no fancy-pants vocab drills here. I created a PowerPoint presentation to rehearse words and phrases on my own.
Also, keep your ears open. Collect random bits like a fiend. My friend Char was fluent in German, and I badgered her almost daily for new expressions and pronunciation tips which I then added to my PPT collection. (My second day in Berlin, I texted her a frantic question about how to say excuse me, discovering to my horror that it was none other than the nimble entschuldigung. I almost swallowed the word three times trying to pronounce it. Ent-SHOOL-dee-goong. Now say it like you’re attempt to politely interrupt a focused, unsmiling German on the street to ask for directions.)
7. Read About Your Destinations
I knew I couldn’t rely on my memory of my high-school flyby tour of world history fifteen years earlier. Appreciation for all that I was about to see demanded I dig deeper. Since most of my time and interest was invested in Germany, I focused on WW2 and a bit of the Cold War, but every country got at least one book (though France only incidentally). Time-consuming, yes, but so worth it.
Here are recommended books, including links to my reviews on Goodreads.
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
The First World War by John Keegan
The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
The Second World War by John Keegan
Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan.
Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose
Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper’s Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich by David Webster, one of the Band of Brothers
Germany/German Democratic Republic
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton
Hitler by Albert Marrin
From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany by Richard Weikart
Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Bartoletti
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
Ich Bin Ein Jude by Herb Brin
Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau by Bernard Jean
Night by Elie Wiesel
When Truth Was Treason: German Youth Against Hitler by Blair Holmes, Karl-Heinz Schnibbe
Countdown to Valkyrie: The July Plot to Assassinate Hitler by Nigel Jones
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Stalin: Russia’s Man of Steel by Albert Marrin
Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder
Witness by Whittaker Chambers
8. Watch Movies
Here’s an easy to-do. A fatter list would be possible if I included every related film I’ve ever seen, but these are just the really good ones related to the places we visited. The links go to any reviews I’ve written so far.
The Secret of Kells — Fascinating story of the Book of Kells, animated in the two-dimensional medieval style.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley — Irish republicans wage guerrilla war against the British in 1920. Features Cillian Murphy at his most sympathetic.
The Sound of Music — A classic must-see.
Schindler’s List — Flawed but powerful, just like its eponymous hero Oskar Schindler who saved over a thousand Jews during WWII.
The Pianist — True story of Władysław Szpilman, whose performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor was the last live broadcast on Polish radio on September 23, 1939, and the first broadcast six years later. The movie is long and slow but worth it.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas — The young son (Asa Butterfield at his precocious best) of a Nazi officer befriends a Jewish boy through the fence of a concentration camp. One of my favorite WWII films.
Defiance — Based on the true story of the Bielski brothers who led a virtual exodus of Jews into the Belarussian forests.
Band of Brothers — No praise is too high for this monumental series chronicling the feats of Easy Company from D-Day to V-E Day.
Saving Private Ryan — The opening scene (a brutal, prolonged close-up of the June 6 assault on Omaha Beach) is rightly famous. I was grateful I’d watched it before visiting Normandy.
Valkyrie — Easily in my top 5 movies. Amazing story of an amazing man, Claus von Stauffenberg, and his near success in assassinating Hitler on July 20, 1944.
The Monuments Men — Comparatively pleasant story of the men who determined Hitler simply couldn’t steal all of Europe’s best artistic treasures for himself.
Fury — Brutal, ugly, fictitious (but realistic) tale of a US tank crew in the last days of WWII. Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman make a fabulous duo worthy of an encore.
Unbroken — Not as good as the book, but just about as good as a two-hour movie of Louie Zamperini could possibly be. Check out Coldplay’s “Miracles” during the end credits.
The Company (2007 mini-series) — Not top-notch, but still an interesting story of real-life CIA operatives in a fictional story that spans from the beginning of the Cold War to the Cuban Missile Crisis and beyond.
Bridge of Spies — True story of an American lawyer who facilitates the exchange of a Soviet spy for a US pilot. Solid Cold War drama; great work from Spielberg and Tom Hanks both.
Google “how to pack for Europe” and you’ll hit a gallimaufry of great advice, but here’s the cliff’s notes version: Pack light, pack neutral.
One key to packing light is not to bring anything fat (leave those chunky Irish fisherman sweaters behind!) or any piece of clothing that you can’t wear three separate ways. A loose, drapy cardigan, for example, can go over a shirt, over a dress, or belted over anything. I’m naturally bad at this creative wardrobe thing, so if I can concoct ways to live for three weeks out of two small suitcases, you can too. And remember, traveling in cold weather means your coat will usually hide your outfit anyway, PLUS you don’t stay in the same city for very long, so nobody knows or cares if you repeat some items.
Packing neutral (yet classy) is important if you don’t want to stick out as a gaudy American. Over there, they just don’t parade the colors like we do. You can’t go wrong with black/gray/cream and a vibrant scarf for contrast. “But I like color, and I want to look like myself!” Nope. Once on the streets of a centuries-old city, you’ll wish you could blend in with all the achromatic Europeans. They make bland look elegant. I chose black, white, gray, and pink/cranberry, and felt plenty conspicuous.
When in doubt, dress up, not down. Your clothes should fit (neither baggy nor cutting off blood circulation), jeans should be conservative (no rips or bling), and for gosh’s sake, no fanny packs or sneakers.
Ladies, one pair of shoes. (Make sure they love your feet.) That is all. Yes, even if you’re going to Paris.
Also, check the weather. I plugged all the major destinations into the weather app on my iPhone where I kept regular tabs on temperature, precipitation, and even wind and humidity to determine my outfits.
Most of the clothing I packed was a good idea:
- 2 pairs pants (jeans & black slacks—I swear by Banana Republic’s Sloan fit)
- 1 pair fleece-lined leggings
- 1 black skirt
- 1 sweater dress
- 8 shirts/blouses (I could have done with 5, especially since I shopped the after-Christmas sales in München and had to ship clothes back to make room for new stuff)
- 2 cardigans
- 1 pair jammies
- 4 pairs socks
- 2 belts (The one I’m wearing above took up too much space. I wore it once and shipped it back, keeping a basic black belt.)
- 1 gym outfit (I did Zumba in our hotel room twice—purely so I could handle French croissants for breakfast!)
- 2 pairs of boots (1 pair basic, 1 pair snow boots. Silly me! I should have taken one pair of boots that looked nice but could also manage snow. Luckily, I bought the perfect pair in Germany and mailed the others home.)
- 1 black pea coat (Down parkas are ubiquitous in Ireland and Germany, but not France and especially not Paris. A black pea coat, however, will pass muster anywhere.)
- 4 scarves
- tiny bit of jewelry (I wore basically one necklace and one pair of earrings the whole time. The simplicity was wonderful.)
Keep non-clothing paraphernalia to a similar minimum. Here’s what I brought, including rubbish (crossed out) that I shipped back to the states (or abandoned) ASAP. Some of these too obvious? Wait till you forget deodorant. (I didn’t. Because I wrote it down.)
- shampoo, conditioner
- mini blowdryer (this Barbie-pink pygmy dryer was cheap and realiable)
- 1 extra pair contacts
- contact solution
- plastic bag for dirty clothes (Grace also brought little packets of liquid detergent for hand-washing small items like socks and underwear)
- rail pass
- Mastercard (most widely accepted); AMEX (less common); Visa (also widely accepted)
- driver’s license (in case I needed to rent a car)
- computer + charger (I go crazy if I can’t write on the go, but others may prefer an iPad or nothing at all)
- phone + charger (My iPhone 6 doubled as both camera and iPod. All my pictures were taken by this phone. If you want to see what it can do in the hands of a real pro, check out Austin Mann’s photography adventure in Iceland.)
- dual plugs for Ireland and Germany/Austria/France (Without these, none of your electronics will charge over there!)
- protein bars (I’m gluten-fussy and fall apart without protein, so Costco’s fabulous Stabilyze bars were worth the space they hogged in my suitcase. Obviously, they dwindled throughout the trip, creating more room for souvenirs!)
Countdown to Valkyrie(I read a couple pages on the plane but was too keyed up to enjoy. Shipped this back in the first box home.)
- dual voltage travel carafe (Tea is my elixir of sanity, since dehydration ambushes me rapidly and without warning.)
- tea bags
- hand warmers like these (never used them)
umbrella(Chucked it. Got a little wet, but survived.)
- data plan for my phone (Not a physical object, but still crucial; I used AT&T’s 30-day passport package)
All of this fit in two over-night bags and a roomy purse, and I should have downsized to just my purse and a single large-medium suitcase.
The rule: Forcing oneself to pack light for Europe, it’s handy to remember that Bilbo left his handkerchief behind but came back loaded with treasure and story.
That’s it. You’re ready. Whatever you plan, whatever you pack, remember that you are off on an adventure, and any adventure worth having is ultimately out of your control. Go get a story!