Saturday, January 17, 2015

Travel Tips

In case anyone wants this girl's opinion or advice regarding traveling, especially on your own, here it is!

Packing for the Trip

First thing, pack light, or at least as light as possible. I learned this the hard way after hauling two 50 pound bags through Italy with Nicole while carrying a 30 lb. backpack. Yeah, we SO didn't need half the shit we brought.

I always pack a pillowcase and my own towel for the shower (just because) but those are the only non-essentials that I bring. When traveling abroad, you must have a converter for the outlet plugs. You may want to purchase an adapter in case you need to charge something with a higher voltage - like a straightener or laptop.

I advise that you try on all clothes, and especially outfits you plan to wear, before packing them. It's just smart to make sure everything fits and looks good in advance. Keep in mind that if you forget something, such as toothpaste, over the counter meds, or even a coat, you can more than likely buy it when you arrive at your destination. Don't stress out over forgotten or overlooked items. No good will come of it!

Be smart about what you choose to bring. Keep your wardrobe simple (unless you plan lots of fancy outings and nights on the town) and get comfortable shoes if you plan to walk a good deal of the time. Nothing brings a vacation to a screeching halt like the inability to move. Day two in Antwerp, Ashlee and I were in such pain that we couldn't put on shoes and we hardly left the sofa. We recovered by the next morning, but that killed an entire day of our week in Belgium.

Airbnb vs Hotels

I prefer to stay at places using Airbnb rather than hotels. I like feeling like a local and in my opinion, Airbnb offers way better deals than any hotel chain. Staying at Michel's in Antwerp with Ashlee was especially perfect because he had a washer and dryer and two bedrooms. This allowed us to pack half the amount of clothes and we each had our own space at night.

When looking for a place using Airbnb, I always make sure to read the reviews left for the host, as well as the host's profile, and all the details and rules for the stay. Trust your instincts and if the host's photo looks like they may very well be insane, they probably are. If they have a photo of themselves that looks like it would be in a pamphlet announcing them as the newest "escort" then you may want to think twice. This is, after all, a business exchange. I also avoid hosts who have spelling and grammar mistakes. Hey, I mean, I make plenty of mistakes when I'm writing, but if this person wants me to take them seriously, they need to take some pride in their page, ya know? Another thing I like is to make sure that the photos of the rental place are Airbnb approved. That way you know that Airbnb's photographers were the ones that shot the photos. Also, most of the hosts will have things that hotels have, such as an iron, hair dryer, fresh towels, and sometimes even shampoo. This will usually be stated in the Amenities or perhaps the description. Don't hesitate to ask questions and get a feel for who the host is before you sign up. I always reach out to them first and kind of introduce myself before I book the stay. I just think it's more polite.

Prep Work

I like to take tons of notes of all the places I want to check out well in advance and keep them in a journal. I include prices for museums as well as addresses, hours of operation, and a little blurb about the place. It just makes it that much easier once I've reached my destination to go back and pick what to do first.

Since I walk nearly everywhere when I'm abroad, I also Google map things before I leave and write down the path in a tiny pocket sized notebook. That way I don't need to pull out a huge map on the street and look like a tourist. 

Maps - most people prefer to use their phone or GPS to get around. I roll old school. I like to have a map of the places I'm going. Streetwise is my favourite, but those bastards have yet to make one for Antwerp, but I guess I'll forgive them for now.

Be prepared. Leave little to chance and it will make your adventure as stress free as possible. Know the weather conditions of the region in advance and pack accordingly. Double check and locate possible areas of the city you are to visit that may have a high crime rate or even just neighbourhoods to avoid. I had zero desire to go anywhere near the red light district in Antwerp, so I Googled it, located it on the map and steered clear.

For the Plane

Thirty-One bags had to have been designed with travel in mind. Their Zip-Top Organizing Utility Tote is ideal for air travel. The side pockets are great for holding passports, IDs, and boarding passes, as well as your liquid bag, jewelry and belts. That way you don't have to dig around for it at TSA. It makes the whole experience that much less stressful. Also, it fits under the seat in front of you and leaves enough room for you to stretch out during the flight.

This kinda goes without saying, but before you fly, make sure to know what you can and cannot bring on board. There's a great search box on the TSA site where you can enter things like Lighter and see if it's allowed or denied. 

Random Odds n Ends

Originally I had a ton of new playlists on my iPod for walking around or visiting museums, but once I got there, I realised that I would miss out on the sounds of the city. Also, it's kinda important to hear the bells for cyclists that are speeding up behind you or car horns while crossing a street, for safety sake. Plus I didn't want to miss a single opportunity to hear the language. 

Have a list ready of addresses to mail postcards as well as the people you need to buy a souvenir or gift. For the kids in my life, I usually buy them toothpaste. They love it because it's a different brand and everything is in a different language.

Luggage - I have Samsonite. I bought it in a dark teal colour that wasn't too obnoxious but could still be easy to spot at the baggage claim carousel.

Credit Cards - For traveling outside the US I use my Visa Sapphire card. I always call a few days before I leave and alert the company of my travel plans. When using credit cards in the E.U. you'll want to make sure to bring one that has an EMV smart chip, preferably one that doesn't charge transaction fees for going from the dollar to pound or Euro.

Research - Remember, Google is your friend. I Googled "vegan places to eat in antwerpen" and found a blog called A Vegan in Antwerp that had some good suggestions. Also, an Airbnb host, whose place wasn't available for the times I needed, hipped me to this site - Use-It Europe. Let me tell you, it was a find. So many fabulous tips. It even led me to the This Is Antwerp app and corresponding website.

Guides - Few people come across as classy and as sweet as Rick Steves. His books, website, maps, guides, videos, and more are a wealth of information that I highly recommend.

Camera - I like to use my iPhone so I can text my pictures or upload them to Instagram. Sometimes I'll bring my fancy schmancy Nikon or my old Pentax 1000, but my Canon Elph is really great for snapshots and fits right in my back pocket. Clearly I'm no expert on photography, but I like my Elph. And sometimes, I get so caught up taking the perfect shot with my Nikon that I forget to take a mental picture. Don't let your need to have a photo on your wall take away from the memory of the moment.

Journal - I am clearly a gal that likes to reminisce, so when I travel, I always bring a small journal and write every possible detail from each day. There are so many small instances that slip away from your memory and writing them down allows you to look back and experience it all over again. Bad Books makes wonderful travel journals that are worth every penny.

When traveling abroad, it's good to know that when riding an escalator you stand on the right so others may pass you and walk up on the left. In busy cities, look out for sections of the sidewalk that are meant for bicyclists and steer clear of them! 

Well, ladies and germs, that's about all I've got for youse. Most of this information is not anything new or that you might not figure out on your own, but I hope that maybe someone will read this and gain at least one tip that will help make their next adventure that much easier. Have fun, be polite, revel in the cultural differences and enjoy every damn moment!

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