Observations from the Road. Stuff I Noticed While Backpacking Around Europe.
Living out of a backpack and communicating to the world via cellphone internet taught me some things. A bunch of it was really common sense stuff, but some of it was stuff I wouldn’t have considered (until I found myself needing to consider it).
Either way, this blog post is kind of dedicated to the odds and ends of traveling abroad. Not visas and shot records, but laundry and toothpaste. I hope you find something useful in it that makes your trip better or you’re at least happy to laugh at my pain.
Pay attention to details when booking online.
I got into a habit of booking my hotels and flights a jump in advance as I was going along. I found that having the next leg already planned out took a lot of the stress out of going from one country to another.
Of course, this meant that I had to project out where I was going to be in advance. This projection required a lot of flipping between Expedia/Booking and the calendar on my phone.
This flipping back and forth that I mention here lead to a couple of occasions where I looked at the wrong date and made bad reservations. Made them for the wrong week, or the wrong day. With most of them being non-refundable, my lack of attention to detail became stress-inducing.
My suggestion is to double check all of your info before you book online. Definitely do it if the reservation is non-refundable. I was fortunate and most all reservations were turned around without extra charges, but I was definitely lucky here. I could have easily paid for reservations that I ended up not using. Definitely check your data!
Using your airport downtime.
See, I get bored pretty easy. It’s life, I guess. It usually leads to bar time.
When I left for Europe, I decided that I was just going to make it all up as it went along. Take the train, take the plane, whatever was easy and cheap would be fine. I wasn’t in a hurry anyway.
This led to a lot of airport downtime and long train rides. What to do with 8 hours to kill at the airport? What to do with a 9 hour train ride?
I have two thoughts for this dilemma: movies on my iPad, and books on my iPhone. This was the first time I carried an iPad in my travels. It was extra weight while on the Camino, but it was the best thing ever for the rest of the trip. Movies kill downtime. Books on the phone kills train travel.
One of my best ideas. I just downloaded new books as I went along, and added a movie here and there. I will definitely bring my iPad on the next trip!
Understand how to use train tickets, before you try to use train tickets!
So I left America with two EURail passes in my bag. One good for five days, and one good for fifteen days. I validated the five day pass in Spain, after exiting the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage. The man at the service counter in Lagrano, Spain, was super cool and helped me with both the validation and seat reservation. That was the good example.
After landing in Bucharest, Romania, I decided to go back to the ways of train travel. So, with a smile on my face, I walk down to the train station and searched out the service counters. Hmm, I don’t read Romanian, but window number one says special something on it. I decided to try that.
Nice old lady number 1 spoke no English, and had never seen a EURail pas before. She told me some stuff in Romanian, and pointed me to another window. Lady number 2 told me in broken English that she didn’t do that and to go to window 3. The super nice old lady in window 3 didn’t speak English BUT had actually seen a EURail pass before. She pointed me back to the special stuff window. By now it was break, and lady number 1 went on break. Nice old lady number 4 had a cross-window conversation with nice old lady number 3. The pass got stamped and validated. After, I had to point at the computer screen (think old green dot matrix screen) to indicates the train reservation that I wanted.
As I walked out of the service area with my train reservation, all 4 ladies were smiling politely and looking at me like I was an absolute idiot! It was probably warranted.
(Should of had them both stamped in Spain!)
Utilitarian affairs. I need toothpaste!
So I’m standing there in this Spanish grocery store with a tube of what I think is toothpaste. I can’t read the Spanish label, and no one working at the store is nearby. It looks like toothpaste, but then again, it also looks like it could be some nasty tasting cream or something? What to do? Frankly, I buy it and hope for the best! (Turns out it was toothpaste.)
While I was preparing for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage I spent a bunch of time on YouTube watching videos from other pilgrims about packing and such. Every one of them said not to pack any big amount of personal hygiene stuff.
Now, they definitely meant keep using hygiene stuff. It was more of a nod to the fact that you could pick it up along the way, so there wasn’t any point in carrying the extra weight.
I halfheartedly believed this advice, so I packed about enough volume for a week. When that week came and went, I had to go out one night and go shopping.
Just as advised, Europe has all the necessities, same as America does. Granted, individual brands and styles vary wildly, but it’s all there.
Following this realization, I spend the remainder of the summer shopping as need be. It cut the weight in my pack by a small amount and left more room for souvenir t-shirts. Plus changing from planes to trains as I did, I found myself with less stuff that wouldn’t go through the airport scanners.
Shopping on the local economy is a great way to get a completely different feel for a location. And, it’s actually good fun. Definitely try it!
Talking politics with locals.
Though a time-honored and well-established travel no-go area, I find talking politics with the locals to be very informative about the true local situation, and it can be great fun.
In a wold where the mass media outrightly lies to the public as a general matter of business, the only real way to understand world affairs is to engage them for yourself. This situation I undertook recently with my hotel’s desk man in Athens.
Over the course of two different interactions we had a thoroughly engaging conversation regarding the state of Greece in the E.U. I was interested in the state of Greece as a country. He was interested in the U.S. perception of the situation. It was a great political exchange, as he had commuted onto the mainland from one of the islands to find work, and I was traveling around in search of knowledge (inspiration, joy, creative spark, awe, whatever).
I have done such in Greece, Israel, Australia, and Ireland, to name a few. Always, I have found people to be genuine, engaging, and interested. I usually always come away with views unheard on any tv network, and information that rings much truer to the ear. I highly suggest you try it on your next trip.
Having a monetary backup plan.
I stumbled off the plane in Tel Aviv, and attempted to find an ATM at the airport. There was one prominently located in arrivals before you walk out the door. I grabbed some cash, and my debit card worked fine.
The next day, kinda broke (Israel is expensive!) I trudged out to find another ATM machine. I stopped at two different banks and a general street corner ATM, and none of them would take my card! Ugh!!!!
This forced me to call my bank on the other side of the planet and inquire what was going on. They were quite happy to explain that just because my debit card had a visa logo on it, all banks didn’t do business with all banks. I should just try another bank.
But, I could just use my credit card anywhere. I thanked them for the help and hung up the phone thinking to myself; that would be awesome if I knew what my PIN number was! Ugh!!! Number 2.
If you’re going abroad, know the PIN number for your credit card. It will save you a bunch of grief, and walking. I ended up trying out two more banks before I found one that liked me. Got a good walking tour of Tel Aviv in … I guess.
Don’t stress too hard over a little wasted money. Don’t stress too hard about a little wasted time.
Just cool your jets a bit, and take things in stride. Craziness is going to happen when you travel. It adds a little spice to your adventures. And, it gives you good stories to share at your next bar stop!
Now, get out there after Corona! Make some travel mistakes, and have a great time!