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Some Lessons Learned from Travel in Europe

There's much more to Europe than the big cities (Mont Sainte-Odile)
There’s much more to Europe than the big cities (Mont Sainte-Odile, Alsace)

I was talking to some friends about an upcoming trip they have to Europe and got super excited for them. In talking to them, I was kinda flooded with a bunch of memories and experiences that Jess and I have had that I’ve never really written about on the blog. The reality is, I’d say at least 50% of our travel has been to Europe, but I’ve blogged very little about it because most of it was pre-blog and pre-miles obsession. But in honor of my friends’ pending trip, here are some things we learned on each of our Europe trips. And of course, I know people have different views on travel, so if you disagree or have thoughts contrary to my own, I’d love to hear them! These are just my own silly thoughts.

1: Honeymoon in Spain and Italy (2009): Watch your pockets!

Renting a boat in Amalfi was amazing - Jess just swam over to her own private beach (thanks again, sis!)
Renting a boat in Amalfi was amazing – Jess just swam over to her own private beach (Somewhere between Praiano and Positano, Amalfi Coast)

Believe it or not, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to Europe for our honeymoon. I was kind of whatever about it, but Jess convinced me. We had a lot of “debate” about whether we should be active or take it easy. We settled on a compromise – we hit four cities, Seville, Madrid, Rome, and Barcelona, while spending a week in a rented apartment on the Amalfi coast so we could take it easy. Of course, while on the Amalfi coast we got this brilliant idea to do a four hour hike from one town to another in the midday sun – so we still kind of forced it. Special shout out to my sister who sponsored a boat rental for us – we rented the boat for a day (Jess didn’t trust me to drive, but too bad!) and got to swim to our own private beach.

Retiro Park
Bonus tip: build in time to take siestas, preferably in your hotel (Retiro Park, Madrid)

Anyway, there were so many memorable things from that trip, but what lesson did I learn? Watch your pockets – especially in Barcelona! Since I am such a cool guy, I have been traveling with my Nintendo DS for years and our honeymoon was no exception. After our flight from Naples to Barcelona I had it in my pocket in case I wanted to play it on the subway. In fact, I may have been playing it while I was sitting on one of our suitcases waiting for the train to show.

Guidebook in pocket: OK. Nintendo DS: Not OK (Pantheon, Rome)
Guidebook in pocket: OK. Nintendo DS: Not OK (Pantheon, Rome)

Well – after we got onto the subway, I remember suddenly being surrounded! It was weird to me because the subway didn’t look that crowded in the mid-morning, but I was totally pinned up to a wall in the subway and all I could see was some dude’s t-shirt. I started panicking and then felt something slipping out of my pocket. I looked down to see three fingers sneakily pulling my DS out of my pocket. Thinking quickly, I took my TWO fingers PLUS gravity and pushed the DS back in. I wish I wasn’t writing this so you could hear my sound effects for this little transaction (it goes, “doooooooooot”).

Soon thereafter, the seas parted and I saw three guys walking away on the subway platform as the doors closed, they seemed pretty pissed that I had THWARTED their shenanigans. “QUE PASA, BRO!?”…is what I wish I had said. OK I’m pretty proud of the whole thing, though Jess still thinks I’m an idiot for having the thing in my pocket in the first place. Our wallets and passport were in my money belt, which is the real lesson here – don’t have anything important in your pockets, especially when you have luggage to worry about.

Token gelato (well, helado) photo from Giangrossi in Madrid - LEGIT
Token gelato (well, helado) photo – AMAZING (Giangrossi, Madrid)

2: London (2010): There’s nothing wrong with visiting in the off-season

The next February, Jess and I bought a hotel and air package last minute from Orbitz and visited London for the first time as a couple. We had a lovely four night stay at the Grand at Trafalgar Square and I really fell in love with the city. Of course we went to tea almost every afternoon because Jess loves that stuff.

Not the best photo, but a lovely nighttime stroll (London,
Not the best photo, but a lovely nighttime stroll (London Eye, London)

This was our first visit to a city in the off season but definitely not our last. There is something about being in a city when it’s not completely packed that I really appreciate. For starters, you can save a lot of money. But I think what I love most is just seeing a different culture be itself, which is what it’s like in the low season. I guess I think about it the same way I think of Boston; the winters are dark and dreary but some of the experiences you can have here are the most authentic. Plus, having high tea makes a lot more sense to me when it’s cold out!

3: London and Paris (2011): Traveling with friends can be fun – especially with good communication!

I loved London so much we planned a trip to go back a little over a year later, in April (still kind of off season with the added benefit of blooming flowers!) We decided to meet some good friends in London and Paris for a week. In yet another example of my vast intelligence, I failed to properly communicate with my friend the order we’d visit the two cities and he ended up booking opposite dates! So we ended up in Paris while they were in London and vice versa. Jess: “You two are a couple of geniuses.”

Nothing like Paris in the spring (Palace of Versailles, Paris)
Nothing like Paris in the spring (Palace of Versailles, Paris)

So um, yeah, don’t be a goofus like me. Thankfully, we overlapped in Paris a few days and got to spend time together. We stayed at different hotels, so we communicated via email and met at designated landmarks. We spent time together but also made it a point to spend time apart which is important. There are just some things that your friends won’t want to see: why drag them there? In the end, we shared some wonderful meals together and those were the most precious times.

Bonus tip: the Eiffel Tower closes at 11 pm except for in the summer. I misread the guide book and we got there at 11:02 on our last night in Paris. So. Disappointed. I literally said, “please sir, please…” to the ticket guy – to no avail. I think he told me to come back, so we did: ten months later.

4: Madrid (2011): Visiting a city a second time is like seeing an old friend

Jess and I love Rick Steve’s guidebooks (to a fault). One of his major points is that you truly begin to appreciate European cities on subsequent visits. How true that has been in my experience.

When there was a crazy fare sale in March of 2011 we booked a three day trip to Madrid over Veteran’s day weekend for under $400 round trip per person! (Never hesitate on a good fare.) We spent three nights in Madrid for the second time in three years and appreciated it much more.

Second visits to cities mean second visits to favorite helado establishments (Giangrossi, Madrid)
Second visits to cities mean second visits to favorite helado establishments (Giangrossi, Madrid)

Why? Quite simply, the second time in a city is like seeing an old friend. I don’t feel the stress of getting to know the city or trying to see as many of the major sights as I can. Instead, I slow down, drop by the big sites I love and the places I want to eat, while taking the time to visit some of the second tier sights and sounds. Even though we were in Madrid for only a weekend, Jess and I just relaxed and soaked it in. No stress, no major rushing, just taking it easy and enjoying the city. Plus, the Prado is still amazing on the fourth visit and remains my favorite museum anywhere. Don’t worry, it’s free after 5 PM! Aside from Madrid, we’ve doubled down in London, Paris, and Rome – all three were well worth the second visit.

This street band is one of our favorite memories in Europe (Madrid)
This street band is one of our favorite memories in Europe (Near Puerta del Sol, Madrid)

5: France (2012): Renting a car in Europe isn’t as scary as it seems

One of my favorite trips ever was our trip through France in February 2012. We flew into Strasbourg (with a five hour layover in Amsterdam), drove around Alsace and then through Burgundy, a little self-guided wine tour. After dropping the car off in Dijon we took a train to Paris where we spent two nights and I finally fulfilled my dream of being up in the Eiffel Tower at night, totally worth it!

Jess was a huge fan of this cheese plate (La Cloche a Fromage, Strasbourg)
Jess was a huge fan of this cheese plate (La Cloche a Fromage, Strasbourg)

This trip was our first car rental in Europe, and aside from driving in Dijon, it was a lot of fun. It helped that we were visiting in the off season again, so the roads were empty and in some of the small towns in Burgundy we literally just parked in the square. Since I drive a stick shift there was no real learning curve and the GPS we bought at home with Europe maps came in handy. So, renting a car in Europe isn’t as scary as it seems – you just need to do your homework ahead of time because in some countries (namely Italy and Ireland) your credit card might not cover insurance so you have to buy it. Driving around little towns in Europe is definitely a wonderful experience that I recommend; even though there might not be as much English spoken we met some wonderful people in both Alsace and Burgundy and I’d love to go back some time. Oh, and the wine was excellent, too!

6: Munich (2012): Don’t skip out on something you might regret later (including new foods!)

In 2012, en route to Asia, Jess and I made a 12 hour stopover in Munich. We had enough energy thanks to our flight in Lufthansa first class and a day room (a benefit that no longer exists unfortunately) to explore the city. One issue I have when traveling is I’m not as spontaneous as I’d like to be – and Munich was one of the few cities where I regret that. We were wandering the city and walked through what felt like a giant mead hall – dark wood, large beers, and bratwurst all over the place. Jess said we should stop but for some reason I turned all that down, probably because it wasn’t on the mental itinerary in my head. Well, I learned a pretty important lesson from those 12 hours in Munich – if you see something cool and want to stop, do it! You never know when you’ll be back.

This turns into a beer garden at night - too bad our layover was during the day! (Madrid)
This turns into a beer garden at night – too bad our layover was during the day! (Munich)

That goes for food too. You’re in a different country, try something new! I’m notoriously picky but I tend to branch out a little bit overseas – the risk is worth the reward (most of the time).

7: Ireland (2012): Meeting locals is fun (even if you’re an introvert)

Funnily enough, the Points Guy just wrote a post yesterday on why he loves Dublin. Veteran’s day weekend 2012 we visited Ireland to say goodbye to our travels without a baby. It was one of the most picturesque trips we’ve ever taken.

Ireland has beautiful scenery and friendly people (Inch Strand, Dingle)
Ireland has beautiful scenery and friendly people (Inch Strand, Dingle)

I’m an introvert, but what I love about Ireland is everybody is so friendly. In fact, I find that much of Europe is super friendly and willing to strike up a conversation if you are. So whenever I am up for it or have the chance, I really like just chatting with locals, or other travelers, or whomever. That’s part of the fun of traveling internationally – meeting new people, learning about different cultures, and just getting out there and experiencing things!

8: Italy (2013): Take your time in Europe to eat, drink, and enjoy – you won’t regret it

On Baby M’s first trip to Europe, we took things slow – since any parent knows you always have to take things slow with a baby! And really, that’s the beauty of countries like Italy, Spain and France: so much of the culture revolves around eating, drinking, and just enjoying life, so you’re really doing yourself a disservice if you’re just trying to rush from tourist attraction to tourist attraction.

In Italy, I’d recommend just taking your time to enjoy your meal, drinking a glass of wine with it, and when you’re feeling particularly hungry, order pasta, secondi (main course), and dessert. Sure, you’ll be in a food coma, but you won’t regret it. Oh, and of course don’t forget pizza margherita!

Just make sure you take your time and enjoy yourself (Rome)
Just make sure you take your time and enjoy yourself (Rome)

In Spain, as much as you can, I think it’s great to eat according to the locals’ schedules. Big lunch, siesta, and then dinner around 10 PM. Honestly, if you’re coming from the east coast your body is used to eating dinner closer to 10 PM Spanish time anyway! But everything doesn’t get going until 10 so you won’t get to truly experience the local Spanish culinary scene if you eat too early.

If you’re going to France, make sure you book some time to just sit outside at a cafe and people watch. Or sit on a bench outside and people watch. Some of my most enjoyable times with Jess in France have been when we just walk the Champs Elysees, have dessert and coffee at a cafe, or just picnic at a park. These things seem to be something ingrained in French culture and I think you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t take the time to just relax and enjoy the scenery.

View of the Champs Elysees  at sunset (Arc de Triomphe, Paris)
View of the Champs Elysees at sunset (Arc de Triomphe, Paris)

Above all else, people in Europe just take things a bit slower than us here in America, and that’s a nice thing. When you get back, you’re probably just rejoining the rat race, so why not just sit back and enjoy yourself while you’re over there? That’s how I view it at least.

Final Thoughts

Thanks for indulging me, I’ve really enjoyed just taking a trip down memory lane. The “lessons” that I share here are just things I’ve learned help me to enjoy my travel in Europe more, maybe you completely disagree and that’s great! I’d love to hear what you enjoy about Europe in the comments. Bottom line: Europe is a great continent to visit, so what are you waiting for? 🙂

Just an average joe trying to fly his family for less

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