Archive | October 2013

Post Trip Thoughts

Ok. The trip is over and done so I thought I’d write down my thoughts on what worked and what didn’t so that I don’t forget and so I can use the information on the next trip to make it go a bit more smoothly. Actually this trip went off without any problems and it involved visiting six countries over a 2 1/2 week period. That’s a lot of travel and a lot of possibilities for things to go wrong but they didn’t. There were things that were annoyances though and things that used to work for me when I was younger but don’t quite work for me now. Here are my thoughts on this trip:

Places Visited:

  • Prague – I liked Prague but am not sure if I would return. The old part of the city was beautiful and there was a lot to see there but the surrounding area doesn’t seem like there is much to explore. The people were ok but seemed more reserved & weren’t the friendliest. The food was average and so was the beer.
  • Munich – On this trip we didn’t get to explore the city much. We visited Dachau and hit up Marienplatz and the Hofbrauhouse a couple of times but that was about all we did in the city. We did two day trips from Munich. One to Innsbruck and one to Garmish-Partenkirchen. Both were beautiful places and both Joyce & I love the mountains so these were great to visit. There is more to explore down in the Bavarian Alps with Lake Konigsee & Berchtesgaden, the Eagles Nest, Neuschwanstein Castle, the White Church , the Romantic Road & Rothenburg and many others I’m sure. I’d like to one day fly over with camping gear, rent a car & drive through the area camping on the way. There is also a lot more to see in the city. Prices were reasonable in Munich for food as well as for public transportation. I’d go back to Munich again without hesitation.
  • Innsbruck – I love Innsbruck. It is insanely beautiful and it is a great city to wander in. The food is good and there is plenty to explore both in and outside of the city. Public transport was reasonable and was included with the Innsbruck Card if I remember correctly. I’d go back to Innsbruck again no problem. As stated above in the Munich section I think it would be great to rent a car & camp through the Bavarian & Austrian Alps.
  • Venice – Having visited Venice before I thought one full day in the city would be plenty but we loved the city and could have used another day. Joyce loved the shops there and there were plenty of those. It is a very unique city that probably deserves two full days to explore & soak in. While it was extremely crowded and on the expensive side it was still fun. I’d go back there without hesitation as well. I would look into possibly staying on the mainland and commuting in daily to explore on the next trip. The public transport passes were on the expensive side so maybe it would be best to buy tickets as you need them. It may not be as convenient but it may be materially cheaper. We didn’t take that many water buses since the city is small and easily walkable.
  • Rome – We had a great time in Rome. Three full days with one being a day trip to Florence was about right for seeing most of the must-see sites in Rome. One day for the Vatican and one day for Rome itself was about right. The city seems less dirty/seedy than it was the last time I visited. We didn’t see any gypsies who typically tried to pickpocket you in the past. There were really great streets to walk along & explore where there was little to no traffic. The food is good and there are plenty of options to choose from. Food was mainly Italian so if that’s not your bag you are somewhat limited there. The public transport was reasonable and there was also great food available for reasonable costs.
  • Florence – The galleries in Florence are great as is the Duomo. I have had some great food there in the past but this trip the food we got was just ok. Prices seemed reasonable. We didn’t use public transport as the main part of the city is walkable from the train station. Outside of the galleries and the Duomo I’m not sure if there is much left to do here. Possibly use the city a jumping off point for a visit to Tuscany and Pompeii? That may be equally easy from Rome. We didn’t get inside the Duomo on this trip and I’d like to see it again but I’m in no hurry to go to Florence again.
  • Paris – We both loved Paris. With four full days there we didn’t have enough time to see everything and we could likely do two weeks just in Paris and not be bored. We stayed out by Pere Lachaise cemetery where I have stayed before and I love the neighborhood. It is very diverse ethnically and there are lots of small food places to check out. There was one pastry/meat pie place that was very unique near our hotel that we hit almost daily. Great food can (and was) found for reasonable costs. We ate at a lot of very small local ethnic eateries and really liked their food. Public transport was very expensive I thought. Around $70 US per person for an all-zone pass is a bit high. We used them constantly though so maybe it was worth it. We bought five day passes and it seems that they work on whole days & not partial days. We used ours for the first time in the early afternoon of our arrival date and it seems like it counted that as a whole day. I thought that it would start when we first used it and would be valid for 5 days from that point but it seems that it counted that first day as one whole day of use so since we came in on a Tuesday and left on a Sunday we were one day short and our passes didn’t work for us on Sunday so we had to jump a few barriers. There is not only a lot to see in the city but there is also a lot to see outside of the city including Normandy & Chartres. I’d go back to Paris again without hesitation and would like to rent a car and travel to the rest of the country including the Alps.
Planning:

Joyce likes to plan things out as much as possible while I prefer to have vague plan and then adjust as the trip goes on. This allows for a bit more spontaneity which I like. We met somewhere in the middle and had hotels booked before we left so we knew what cities we would be in on what day and also where we would stay. We also had a general idea of what we wanted to see and do but we left that open so we could change things as we saw fit.

With the ridiculous crowds that we experienced this trip a little more planning would have likely been beneficial. Since Joyce hadn’t been to Europe before we needed to hit all of the big attractions like the museums in Florence & Paris, the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, Vatican, etc. We likely could have had tickets in hand if we knew what days we wanted to go and bought them from the comfort of our easy chairs at home. As it was we spent hours in line when they likely could have been avoided or at least minimized.

We used booking.com for all of our hotel reservations which was great. The have an iPad app that keeps track of all of your bookings so that they are all in on place. We consulted this a lot during the trip in order to get information on the hotels we were going to next.

We took our trip in September due to work schedules. That was about the only time both of us could get 2 1/2 weeks off together. We thought that the summer crowds would be gone but we were wrong. Very wrong. The crowds were insane at most of the popular tourist spots. Wall to wall people. Tour groups out the wazoo everywhere. Most museums were so packed you had to fight to get anywhere. It was pretty miserable if you don’t like crowds (like me) but you get used to dealing with it. I would not recommend going to Europe in September unless you go off of the beaten track.

Eurail Passes:

  • Eurail Passes are extremely convenient and allow you to hop on most intra-country trains without a reservation. They usually offer very scenic routes so it is a great way to see Europe. It also allows you to mix with the people of the country you are visiting which going by car would not.
  • Most routes between big cities now require a reservation which involves an extra fee. You also need to stand in the same lines that you would need to in order to buy a ticket so the time savings is nil in these cases. It seems that the reservation fees have gone up and we paid up to 20 Euros per person in reservation fees for some trips. The reservation fees are on top of the money you spent for the Eurail pass itself. While it was once a way to save money if you used the railways a lot on your trip it may not be so now. The fact that you need to stand in line to make reservations also isn’t good. Next time I may book trips prior to leaving the US and have tickets in hand. This would take some of the spontaneity out of the trip but may save money as well as time in the end.
  • Trains travel is still my favorite way to get around Europe. The trains in France & Germany were always good but the Italian trains we took this time were the best of the trip. The even passed out drinks & snacks to those in first class (our Eurail Passes allow you first class travel). On my past visit to Italy the trains were the worst. Your seats were always taken up by locals & people who had second class tickets always took up the seats in first class so you had to kick them out of your seats most of the time. Trains were typically late as well. Not so this time at all. Italian trains were great all around this trip.
 
Luggage:

  • On my first trip to Europe I took a towable suitcase and when I walked into the first hostel with it people looked at me like I was nuts. I wasn’t sure why that was but I noticed that everyone else has backpacks. I wasn’t sure why that was either. I found out as the trip went along that European sidewalks, roads, etc. are not the best surfaces for rolling a suitcase over. The cobblestones & other uneven surfaces are a pain and the crowded subways & sidewalks are tough to tow something without getting tangled up with other peoples legs. The next trip I switched to a backpack which was more convenient for me.
  • This trip I again used my backpack but this brought new issues with it. Europe was extremely crowded this trip and many times the subway cars, trains, boats, etc. were jam-packed with people. Walking into those crowds with a big-ass backpack on your back is kind of a pain both for me as well as the people who got it jammed in their faces. I also got asked to remove it on the Venice boats so after getting it all strapped on I had to remove it, carry it off & then re-strap it on again. Any time we had to eat while we were commuting between cities also required me to remove & then re-strap it on. It takes time to put on which annoyed Joyce and I’m getting older so the contortions required to get a big-ass backpack strapped on your back is getting more difficult as the years go by.
  • Next trip I will be looking at the hybrid type of luggage. Basically a backpack with wheels and a tow bar as well. This way I can wear it when I want & then tow it around when the situation call for going in suitcase mode. The best of both worlds. I’m sure there will be compromises since there always are with hybrid designs but I’m going to see what’s out there when I get back home.
  • For my carry-on bag/day bag I took a bicycle messenger bag. I use thes all of the time for work & love how comfortable they are and how much they can carry in such a small bag. I also like the fact that you can swing tha bag around in front of you to get into it without taking it off. The bag I brought was basically one big compartment with a few small slot pockets for phones, keys, etc. This worked well for me but more pockets would have been better. I may take my Osprey hydration pack next time. It would be better for separating stuff into separate pockets so they are easier to find & I could carry water in a bladder instead of fishing around in my messenger bag for water bottles. It wouldn’t be as easy to get into it though.
 
Packing:

  • I pack too much. I know I should wash clothes as I go along which I did do (had to do) on my longer trips but for 2 1/2 weeks I thought I could get away with not doing laundry. I didn’t pack enough clothes to get by without washing them in the hotel sink but I almost did. This is the reason my backpack was so big & heavy. I have big feet as well so taking an extra pair takes up a lot of space.
  • Next trip I WILL pack less and will pack clothes that pack down smaller which I did somewhat this time. My toiletry kit is somewhat large as well due to bringing large bottles of sunscreen, Dr. Bronner’s soap, Listerine, etc. Most of these things we found in the local grocery stores we frequented so I may just buy it when we get there unless we’re going to places it isn’t availabe

Clothing:

  • I like wool both for its comfort & climate versatility but also for the fact that it can be morn multiple times without stinking. I wear wool bike clothing so I have tested this out extensively.
  • I tried knickers/manpris or whatever else you want to call shorts that are between shorts and pants in length and I love them for cycling. The length keeps them out of the chain, they keep sun off of more of me and they look more normal off of the bike than spandex which is important since most of my riding these days is commuting & errands so I often have to go into stores while on a ride. I packed about six pairs of knickers on this trip and they are about all I wore. They are super comfortable, lightweight and show people that I’m comfortable embracing my feminine side. They also confuse the Europeans so that is also a plus. I’m old enough not to care how I look so I plan on taking these on future trips.
  • Since our trip was in the fall it was forecast to be anywhere from sunny & 80 to rainy & 60. I didn’t pack anything special for the weather but took a couple mid-weight long-sleeve wool shirts and my cycling wool jacket & thin rain shell. I also packed an umbrella. I used the umbrella more than the rain shell during the rainy days here. Next time for the temps we experienced I need fewer layers. One good wool mid-weight layer would suffice.

Electronics:
 
Traveling used to be easy before the advent of cell phones, tablets and internet everywhere. You used to travel to get away from it all but these days you take it all with you. I definitely took too much electronic stuff so here is what worked and didn’t work for me:
 
  • Cell phone – I took my BlackBerry and bought a SIM card from GoSIM with prepaid minutes/data. My plan was to get a SIM card for Joyce’s iPhone and one for my iPad. That way we could email if we got separated and we would have one device that could make calls. I didn’t read the fine print & the SIM card that I got for her phone did not fit the iPhone 5 which, as is typical with Apple products, used a different SIM card just to be different. The SIM card I got did fit my BlackBerry so it wasn’t a complete loss. The problem was that getting data/email on the BlackBerry didn’t work due to fact that the BlackBerry servers wouldn’t allow it. So we could make calls but were not able to send or receive emails. We also couldn’t text which was no big loss. I was able to get emails on the phone while on wi-fi in the hotels. We did make a few calls on the phone so it was useful but not a must-have thing for us. Joyce was able to take great photos with her iPhone and upload them when we got back to the hotel and the wi-fi. We are on Verizon and per them all 4G phones are unlocked so you are able to put a SIM card in & use it without unlocking the phone. 3G & below phone would likely need to be unlocked.
  • iPad – I have an iPad with Verizon cellular service & after searching the web determined that my model is unlocked from the factory so I bought a data SIM card from GoSIM and installed it prior to leaving to make sure it worked. It did so I was good to go. We used this fairly often and usually to open Google maps to find out how to get to our hotels. In a new city it sometimes took a while to connect but after the first time it would connect quickly when I turned on cellular service. One thing I did wrong was to keep my work email coming in on the iPad. When I would turn on cellular service my work emails along with all of the attachments would come through & eat up my prepaid data. Some files were large Excel files so I was -$10 before I knew it. I reloaded $30 more & I was good the rest of the trip with work emails off. I was able to get data as well as email on the iPad with both cellular service via the SIM or via wi-fi at the hotel. I also used the iPad with a card reader to backup my camera SD card daily. This worked great and saved my bacon when my SD card had a read error after a backup of Day 1’s pictures. You can choose to only backup new pictures and can delete or keep the files on your camera’s SD card. I kept them on the camera so I would have two copies in case once device failed. The iPad worked great for storing daily photos. I also used the iPad, along with my Logitech bluetooth keyboard, to keep a daily journal of our trip. I have kept journals of all of my trips typically in a written journal. I really want to get them in digital form but haven’t yet due to the fact that I don’t want to type them up and they are in leather journals so I can’t easily scan them. This time, knowing that I wanted digital copies, I kept my journal on a blog using BlogPad Pro. The app cost $5 if I remember and it worked perfectly with a ver small learning curve. I was able to add photos to my Blog as well. I resized the photos for the Blog so I need to check when I get home if it modifies & re-saved my original files or created copies. It it overwrote my original files with smaller photos it would be a serious flaw in their app. Original high-resolution photos should always be saved. I have full-size copies on my camera so I’m ok except for Day 1.
  • Camera – I had a couple of digital cameras on hand but wasn’t happy with either. I had a Canon SureShot as well as Panasonic Lumix. The Canon was old & clunky and the Panasonic, despite being a 12 megapixel camera, had crummy picture quality due to its small sensor size. After reading countless reviews I bought the Sony RX100 which ended up being a fantastic camera. Many photographers use one when they don’t want to lug a big SLR around. I have a lot of learning to do on it even after taking over 2,000 pictures on this trip but I couldn’t be happier so far. You can go fully manual but even in the “point & shoot” mode the pictures are usually great. Low-light performance is stellar and I was able to get quality shots in dark cathedrals without flash and without a tripod. At $600 it isn’t cheap but it is small enough to fit into a shirt pocket (it is somewhat heavy though), has a ridiculous amount of shooting options, shoots at 20 megapixels in JPEG and in RAW and has a very large sensor for a compact camera. It also shoots very good high-def video. A couple of complaints would be that the body of the camera is slick and is easy to drop. I kept the strap around my wrist as mush as possible. The flash pops up from the top right where your left hand like to sit and there is no optical viewfinder which was an issue when the sun made the LCD hard to see. The zoom is rather weak as well but there is a digital zoom option that I have yet to play with. Battery life was great especially with the Sony battery. The aftermarket batteries didn’t last quite as long. I never needed to carry more than one spare battery. I’ve carried big SLR’s with me before and I do miss the lens options at times. I do see another SLR in my future but when I want to go light this camera will do 85%-90% of what I would get out of an SLR.
  • GoPro – I brought my GoPro camera along but it had issues from the start so It may need a software update. It sucks that I wasn’t able to document my epic trip properly and upload it to YouTube but the world will recover from this loss in due time. It ended up being a waste of space. 
  • Chargers & Batteries – With all of the electronic gear needed these days to document your lifestyle it becomes a problem carrying all of the chargers and spare batteries to keep your battalion of devices charging on. I had a gallon sized Zip-Loc bag about half-full of chargers, batteries and outlet converters. Thankfully most chargers for devices these days accept either 110 or 220 volts so at least I didn’t need to also carry a power converter. With Apple going their own route with the lightning charger I was stuck with having at least two different types of charging cables to bring along as well as spare batteries for the Camera & GoPro along with their proprietary chargers. It was too much and I’ll need to try & simplify this with a universal charger of some type.
Advertisements

Day 19 – Homeward Bound

The alarm went off at 7:00 and we got up & got ready to leave. We ate the plain Chinese pancake type things we picked up last night and then checked out and walked to the Metro. We got car quickly and got off at the La Chapelle stop where we walked to Gare du Nord & hopped on the RER B line to Charles DeGaulle airport. Looking at the B line stops on the map in the car we noticed that there were two stops for the airport. We planned on getting off at the first stop but nobody else did. While we were discussing whether or not to get off the train some other Americans on the train asked us which airline we were flying & when we said American Airlines they said that we should get off at the second since they were smart & checked which terminal they needed prior to leaving. We should have done that but didn’t. They were on the same flight into Chicago as we were and had checked the flight status & they said that the flight was delayed & that it was currently scheduled to leave at 13:00 instead of 12:10. Bummer since we have a connecting flight to catch & we only have 2 hours to pick up our bags, clear customs, drop our bags back off & get seats assigned for the next leg of the flight. They couldn’t get our seats assigned for that leg for us in Paris for some reason. The B train made very few stops so we were at the airport in maybe 20 minutes or so.

Once at the airport we headed for terminal 2A since the smart people on the train had checked that as well and told us. We got to American Airlines after a long walk & hopped into a long line to check in when an employee told us that the line actually started on the other side of the aisle. It was a pretty long line but it went pretty quickly. We had to go through an interview concerning what countries we travelled to, who packed our bags, where we bought our cell phones, etc. before checking in. Once we were checked in and our bags were checked we went to customs to get our form stamped & mailed. There was a long line there too but it went relatively quickly as well. With that finally taken care of we headed for our terminal where we went through another passport check as well as the scanners. We passed and the headed towards our gate & stopped in a Starbucks for some coffee while we waited for our delayed flight. It was probably 11:30 by this point so we lounged in there & sipped coffee. I picked up a scone & a muffin to snack on during the flight in case we don’t get served anything.

At around 12:10 (the original time our flight was supposed to leave) we started heading towards our gate. The gate where our plane was to leave was in a circular area accessed by a narrow glass-walled walkway. It was all silver colored the outside so it looked like a giant mylar balloon. Our flight was just about to start the boarding procedure so, of course, everybody starts crowding around the front even though they always board in a particular order. Not sure exactly why people need to hang out in front when it’s not their turn to board. It’s the same at the luggage carousel when everyone lines up right next to the conveyer carrying the luggage so that people whose bags are there need to push them out of the way in order to grab their luggage off the belt. We were in Group 4 so we were the last to board. When we entered the plane the line was stopped up in first class and we were in row 41 so we had a long way to go. It took a while to get back there since people always have issues getting their bags put away. We got to our seats and we were in the last row but we got two seats together with a window plus we were close to the bathroom so it was ok.

The flight was delayed and we left at 3:00 instead of 2:15 as planned not a big deal as they would likely make up a bit of time in the air. The flight went fine and we were served a decent meal of either chicken or pasta. I got the chicken & Joyce got the pasta. Both were good but mine was better. They also were generous with the drinks by giving us full cans of soda and also served us a snack of a small deep dish pizza. We arrived in Chicago at around 2:30 and the went off to get through customs which was a bit of a pain. All lines were huge and the didn’t move that fast. There were machines where you scanned in your passport & answered questions on the touch screen and then were given a printed receipt to give to the customs agent. We passed customs fine and then we had to retrieve our bags from the carousel and drop them off again with the airline. I believe this was just in case we got tagged for inspection we would have our bags with us. Since we were not tagged for secondary inspection it was just a pain in the butt. Once our bags were dropped off we had to catch the shuttle train to terminal three in order to get to our connecting flight. We had to pass through the security check again and then get to our gate to get our seats assigned. We hurried and actually got there with 40 minutes to spare. We got assigned seats that were one row apart but we were in seats directly in front/behind each other so it wasn’t bad. We should have been boarding right about when we got there but this flight was delayed as well. Instead of 4:45 we were delayed until 5:25.

We started boarding and were on the plane when we were greeted with more bad news. There was a mechanical malfunction that they needed to fix before we took off. Something about a fuel pump issue. I talked a bit to the young guy next to me who had just done Oktoberfest. Sounds like he had a good time & that things still work about the same as when I was there. Joyce talked to the guy next to her who was here from Sweden. Sound like he was a native South African who now lives in Sweden. He generously offered to switch seats with me so Joyce & I could site together. It was a nice gesture. The stewardesses doled out water while we waited and people started getting fidgety after an hour or so sitting on the plane going nowhere. We finally got the word that the issue was fixed and we took off at 7:10 Chicago time. About 2.5 hours late. One bonus of the late departure was the fact that we got to take off right at sunset and got a great view of the deep red sky near the ground with the blue sky above. It was great and we chased the sunset West as we flew so we got to see quite a bit of it.

Sunset over Chicago

 The flight back home was uneventful and we arrived in San Diego about 9:00 pm and we called a neighbor to pick us up from the plane. Our bags arrived without issue and we retrieved them and then waited outside for our ride to arrive. The airpost was packed but we were picked up without too much of a problem. We arrived home asfely and so did the Belgian cocolate as well as my liter glass and the two Belgian beers I brought home. It was a good trip. It was go, go, go all the time but we saw a bunch and had a lot of great expeiences.  I’m already looking forward to the next trip wherever that may be.