Lessons Learned in Europe

16 01 2007

For those of you considering an extended jaunt in Europe, or the merely curious, I’ve been pulling together a list of lessons learned from my journey. I wanted to travel light (to enable flexibility and mobility) and see a lot of places in the few weeks I was there. However, I didn’t want to move around so much that my memories would be of travel rather than new places, people and cultures. As it was, I chopped a couple places off my itinerary and still felt I moved around too much. Overall, I had a wonderful experience and can’t wait to do it again – better. Here’s a general idea of how I’d make it better.

I regret not bringing…

  • better language skills
  • one of my prescription medications
  • good international cell phone service (tip: bring an unlocked GSM phone and put a prepaid SIM card in it.)

There were moments when I wish I had…

  • additional lenses for my camera (specifically a wide-angle and a telephoto.) But these are bulky, heavy and only occasionally useful. So, I’m glad I settled on my good-for-most-situations Nikkor 18-70.
  • a tripod
  • a comprehensive map of wi-fi spots in each city I visited.

I am glad I brought…

  • my Doc Martens – comfortable for long walks, can pass for casual or dressy. These were the only shoes I wore – all day, every day. Highly recommended.
  • my super-heavy, long Ralph Lauren leather jacket. I actually left this in my car as I departed for the airport and then went back for it. This was such a great move. My original concern was that it would be a useless heavy thing to carry, but I ended up wearing it almost every day (this was mid-Autumn.) It has a bunch of pockets (many that zip or snap closed,) and it turned out to be an ideal travel jacket. The added bonus is that it makes me look like a badass mofo when wandering lost and drunkenly through alleys in cities where I do not speak the language.
  • three great pairs of jeans (remember: pack very light, do laundry)
  • a Kensington All-In-One Travel Plug Adapter
  • my Nikon D200
  • my iPod
  • my MacBook Pro
  • USB cables to charge my cell phone, iPod and Jabra JX10 headset through my laptop (much lighter than AC chargers)
  • Skype
  • my manners and some extra humility
  • DK Travel’s Eyewitness Travel Guide to Europe and their European Phrase Book (note to publisher – please offer an electronic version of these, especially the Travel Guide; wonderful but heavy books.)
  • my Maine State Credit Union Visa (had to dust it off) and Fidelity Visa debit card – two rare pieces of plastic that don’t charge fat premiums for international transactions.

Knowing what I know now, I would not have…

  • spent three (rainy) days in Budapest
  • moved around so much. I loved the flexibility and mystery – but I did pay a price in efficiency and enjoyment. (Tip: consider picking a city as a travel hub and find a short-term apartment/room rental there.)
  • brought a jacket and a few shirts that I never wore
  • done the whole rail pass thing. If you’re a 20 year old student on a budget, fine. But if you’re a little older and have some money, I don’t care what they tell you about flexibility, first class travel, and the like – don’t bother. When you want to take a train somewhere (and I highly recommend it in many circumstances) just show up a little early and walk up and buy the ticket. Also, don’t rule out short-hop flights around Europe. They are often very reasonably priced, even without an advance purchase.

I’m also happy that I….

  • traveled alone
  • blogged a lot along the way
  • made a lot of photographs
  • connected with locals, through friends and through the ‘net, who were willing to meet me, show me around, and generally take me under their wing.
  • stayed away from tourist areas as much as possible. I realize sometimes it’s almost unavoidable (Eiffel Tower, etc.) – but you will get zero sense of a regional culture by congregating where the traveling masses do. For example, I doubt you’re going to meet a single local within a half mile of Amsterdam’s Centraal Station – but many Americans I’ve spoken to who’ve been to Amsterdam never left that area (and still think they have experienced it and have a well-informed opinion of the place.)

My favorite places were…

I was also told numerous times that I did not “look like an American,” which I took as a compliment even prior to seeing what American tourists in Europe look and act like (sorta like they do at Disney World, only much more confused and exasperated – and if that doesn’t help you pick them out, just listen for loud people.)

Long and short of it: do it – go. Prepare, pack very light, open your eyes, go off the beaten path and be polite. You’ll be glad you did.

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