Travel Tips from The Café - Join Chris and Scott from The Café Sucre Farine as they share travel planning, packing and other practical hints and tips. Make your dream vacation more of a dream and less of a nightmare!
Are you considering a travel adventure, but don't know how to go about it? Perhaps you're unsure of how things work in a completely different part of the world, or think a trip to another country would be way too expensive. If you're like us, you've probably created some "stories" in your head about, "What do I do if this happens... or this ... or this?"
Building stories in our head, is one of the reasons many of our "dream trips" never happen. We often weigh what we think is going to be "out of our comfort zone" and conclude that taking the chance is not worth it. It's true, there are lots of things you encounter when traveling that are out of the ordinary, everyday realm. But Chris and I have found over the years, that some of our most exciting and mind-expanding experiences have occurred when we've packed our bags and set out on a new adventure!
We've loved sharing our recent travel to London and Provence, and know, from comments, emails, etc. that many of you are also planning, contemplating or dreaming of a future trip. We thought it might be helpful to share a few of the "stumbling blocks" that threw us off in the beginning, as well as ways we've learned to travel more economically. Our travel tips will be general in nature, with an emphasis on England and France, since those are the countries we've had the opportunity to visit.
Putting together a travel plan can be an adventure in itself. Over the past five years, with our daughter and her family living in London, UK, Chris and I have had the opportunity to explore parts of England as well as venturing into France. The last two times, we've used the "travel base" method of discovering a region. We've rented a flat or an apartment for a week and have used that as our "home" for exploring the area.
We've found this method to be very enjoyable, and love that it gives a more authentic experience than staying at a hotel for a night or two and then moving on. Not living out of a suitcase makes us feel more like a "local" versus a tourist.
Also, and this might sound unbelievable, it's usually less expensive to rent a home, apartment or flat! We found it to be cheaper (or similar in cost) to the price of a hotel room in the same area. Sources for renting homes and apartments abound on the Internet. Two we've used recently are, Paris for Rent (when we spent a week last spring in Paris) and Airbnb, which we used recently in Provence. Both apartments were excellent, centrally located and well-equipped. Another site that we've used in the past (in the US) with success is VRBO
In addition, when we rent an accommodation with kitchen facilities, the overall cost goes down because we don't have to eat every meal out. In almost every European city, town and village, there are wonderful little pastry shops, delis, meat markets, produce shops, outdoor market days, etc. We don't do elaborate cooking while traveling, but it's easy to find yogurt, bread, croissants, fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh greens, quiches, tarts and delicious prepared entrees that simply need warming.
Lots of times, for lunch or dinner, Chris makes a salad and we add a locally prepared entree along with fresh bread and, of course, some kind of fun sweet treat. We get to enjoy the local foods of the area and yet, stay on a budget. Most rentals are equipped with a coffee maker, microwave, refrigerator, dishwasher and range, so putting together a simple meal is easy. The picture below is a wonderful lunch we enjoyed in the little courtyard of our apartment in Provence.
And a very "French" breakfast in our Little (very little) Paris Apartment. (A pretty bouquet of flowers always brings a personal touch to our home-away-from-home.)
When we do go out to eat, it's often for lunch, as it's generally less expensive than evening meals out. We use Yelp, Trip Advisor and travel experts like Rick Steves to help find the best restaurants, cafés, bistros, etc. If a restaurant has lots of good reviews, we can be more confident that our money will be well spent.
If you like everything planned in advance, your best bet may be a tour group, and there are lots of wonderful agencies that offer organized trips with all the details arranged. We tend to be a little more flexible with our itinerary. Chris and I secure the airplane tickets, car rentals and apartment reservations well in advance. Much of the rest, we sort of figure out as we go, depending on weather, our energy levels, and, most importantly, what we find when we get to a new area. Case in point: The first day we arrived in Provence, we took a walk to acclimate ourselves to our new surroundings. As we moved around the city that first day, we bumped into what looked like a nicely paved trail, just minutes from our centrally-located apartment. Curious, we walked part of the trail, and discovered that it was a European Union-sponsored renovated railroad path called EuroVelo 8. We learned that this rails-to-trails path will eventually allow bikers to travel from Spain to Cyprus, through eleven countries for a total of 5,888 km!
Armed with this fun discovery, we recalled seeing a bike shop earlier that day just blocks from our apartment. We stopped by the store and rented bikes for the rest of our stay. These totally unplanned events allowed us to discover lots of things we would have never experienced, had we locked ourselves into going from one tourist destination to another.
We rode through hill towns, over ancient Roman bridges, and visited quaint shops and restaurants, but we did it like the locals do - a la bike!
We even had a herd of sheep and goats cross the trail in front of us one day! Chris did get "spoken to" (quite firmly) in French when she jumped off of her bike and left it right in the middle of the bike path to get a video of the unusual sight. Oops, not good trail etiquette - in any country!
On Sunday, we biked over 40 km and saw what many French people love to do on their time off; ride bikes with spouses, grandparents, children and friends through the gorgeous Provencal countryside!
For airline tickets we use a website called Kayak to help us find the best price. Airline ticket prices fluctuate wildly, sometimes from one day to another. With Kayak, you can request a daily email alert and they'll send one everyday with the current price of a ticket to your destination of choice. They include a graph showing the price trend, so you can make a smart decision about when to purchase the ticket(s). Over a two month period, we saw the price for a round trip ticket to London seesaw between $750 and $2,000!
In a nutshell, the rule is: Just the basics mum! Light is right! When packing, we ask ourselves three simple questions:
- Do we really need this? I can't tell you how many times we're come back from a two to three week trip, pulled something out of our suitcases and realized that we didn't use the item once! Many things that you think you need are often provided by the host home (like bathrobes and hairdryers) or easily obtainable at local shops, (like hair products, coffee and small electronics.)
- How many times can I use it during the trip? Pants, dresses, sweaters, etc. that don't wrinkle when smushed up in a tightly packed suitcase are worth their weight in gold. The secret to traveling light is to find clothing that can be easily used a number of times, without having to go through the laundry. It also helps to bring clothing that can be dressed up or down; classic things that can be worn for casual occasions, but can easily be accessorized for dressier occasions. Have a pair of super comfortable, yet stylish shoes and then some practical walking, exercise/hiking shoes. Look for shoes that are lightweight too. It's amazing how much some shoes weigh compared to others. I always wears my heaviest shoes on the airplane (you can always take them off when you're flying), so the added weight doesn't add to the overall suitcase weight.
- Does it's weight outweigh it's worth? Like a bike racer likes to shed as many unnecessary pounds off his bike before competing in a race, travelers need to be aware that each pound of "stuff" that we pack, adds to a lack of mobility, back and neck discomfort and just overall wear and tear on us and our travel equipment. People who travel for a business know that traveling light and simple is definitely the way to go to increase your enjoyment of the experience! And, in the end, you'd be surprised at how little you really, truly need to be happy while traveling. (Could you ask Chris to read this part?)
- And for sheer enjoyment! A seldom thought of, but wonderful (and inexpensive) item to bring overseas, is a small Bluetooth speaker for entertainment while staying at your temporary residences. We have been bringing this little beauty on trips recently, and it's been moved up to the "essentials" list. It's small, rechargeable and wraps neatly up in a T-shirt in your suitcase. Combine it with the music library on your iPhone or iPad and it's a miniature home entertainment center! It even makes watching a movie more enjoyable. Another great item that's on our "soon-to-purchase list" is a set of "noise-cancelling" fold up headphones, for the 16 hours we have to spend in the airplane going back and forth. As you may well know, aircraft aren't the poster child for peacefulness, and these beauties will keep your nerves from being frazzled at the beginning and end of the trip. You may even get some sleep!
This one confuses even the most experienced travelers! Power in the U.S. is 110 volts, with larger appliances like ovens and dryers running on 220 volts. In Europe, all outlets are 220 (by the way, they can pack quite a whollop, so be careful!).
Many electronic devices are now dual power 110/220 (in other words, capable of converting from 110 to 220 volts), and are intuitive enough to accommodate for these different voltages.
Computers, iPad, cell phones, Bluetooth speakers - all these things are usually dual power now, so they can work on both continents. Hair dryers often have a 110 or 220 switch on the handle - if you have one of these, don't forget to switch it before you plug in and then switch it back when you return to the US. Trust us! On one of our first trips overseas, I forgot to check Chris' hair dryer, and, we'll let's just say it was a smoke filled morning in the bathroom!
If your electrical device is dual power, all you will need to operate it is a power adapter. A power adapter is a small and inexpensive piece of equipment. It does NOT change the voltage, but simply allows you to plug any (American) dual voltage device into a European style socket.
If your electrical device from the U. S. is standard 110 and not dual voltage, you will need a power converter. A power converter is larger and more expensive. It actually converts the voltage from 110 to 220 volts or reverse. We don't recommend buying or traveling with one of these, as they're often heavy and, for the most part, not necessary. If your hairdryer (or other small electrical device) is not dual power, you're better off just purchasing one that is in lieu of using a power converter. Sometimes higher voltage appliances (like hairdryers) can "fry" when plugged into 220 volts, even with a power converter.
Another thing to be aware of is that power plugs and outlets vary from country to country. The UK power plug is a rather large, clunky looking three prong plug. Compared to US plugs, it looks absolutely huge, and a little bit menacing! Not to worry - it still works just like our little plugs.
If you're traveling to the UK (or Ireland), look up US to UK power adapters on Amazon and buy a few. They don't take up much suitcase space and are relatively cheap. Remember, you probably won't need one for every device, unless, of course, you plan on plugging everything in all at once. (By the way, the switches in the middle are to turn the outlet nearest it on and off. Since we don't have that feature in the US, don't forget to turn on the outlet, or you'll be standing there thinking your electrical device broke!)
The rest of Europe is a little different, yet much the same as the UK. The European AC plug has two round prongs, and looks much sleeker, instead of the UK's three big whoppers. The third pin (ground) is hidden in the outlet (if the adapter doesn't go in the first time, turn it upside-down to accommodate the ground prong). Again, go to Amazon and pick some European AC plugs. They're inexpensive, but life-savers when you travel. Hotels and other types of travel accommodations generally do not provide these adapters.
If you have any questions regarding what type of plug is used in a country you'll be traveling to, here is a comprehensive list.
- Aware - When I was a school administrator, I was constantly keeping my eyes our for dangerous situations and risks around the school. Maybe it's just in my genes, but as I walked through my school, monitored the kids on the playground or supervised at dismissal time, I would always take quick, regular scans of my surroundings. As a tourist, it's really important to do the same, not being paranoid, but rather, having the perspective of a smart traveler.
- Alert - When I spot something (or somebody) that looks out-of-place, strange or potentially dangerous, my "personal security" antennas are up full. Most of the time, after a few seconds, I can see that the situation is not danger-related, so the old antennas go back to the standby mode, but just having that level of alertness helps identify potential dangers. Many times making eye-to-eye contact with someone who's actions are a little questionable, changes the balance of the situation. I discovered this when I first taught high school. As an "adult" in a high school setting, I kept noticing that when I would walk down the hall not making eye contact or connecting in some other way with the students, they would feel emboldened to say or do things that they normally wouldn't do around adult authority. But, as soon as I looked up and noticed them, acknowledged them or actually spoke to them, they totally regarded me differently; much more of a adult-to-youth relationship. It's the same when you travel. Look and act confident and aware - even when you don't know where the heck you are!
- Active - I've got two small, inexpensive things I've learned to carry any time I think I need to take a few extra precautions. They don't cost much, yet are important deterrents to would-be criminals.
So that's a bit of what we've learned through our travels. We'd love to hear other tips you have, as we're aware this is just a smattering of travel wisdom. Feel free to share things that have been helpful for you in your travels. And if you're planning, or getting ready to head out on your own adventure, Bon Voyage!
P.S. Oh, there's one other very important travel tip you definitely need to know; how to find the best bakery, sweet shop, patisserie, boulangerie, bäckerei, etc. in town. - Always look for the one with the longest line!
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