We’ve been traveling for just over four months now, so we thought it would be interesting to bring together some tips and tricks, our traveler “life hacks,” that we’ve picked up so far. We expect this topic to be one we’ll revisit in the future to see how these tips change over time.
Here are some suggestions and pointers regarding issues we’ve encountered so far.
Don’t Plan Too Far Ahead
At the beginning of our trip, we had rooms or AirBnB accommodations booked for about three weeks in advance. However, at least twice within those first weeks, we ended up having to change plans unexpectedly. As a result, we ended up losing part, if not all, of the fee we had paid for those reservations. If you really need to book far out in advance for some reason, then be sure to book places that offer free cancellation, if possible. But we’ve found that booking a night or two in advance, at most, is usually just fine.
Booking.com has lots of options that include free cancellation.
Check Multiple Sites / Apps to Find Accommodation
We prefer private apartments or houses with our own bathroom and entrance. We use Airbnb a lot, followed by Booking.com. In general, you can find great accommodations on both websites for a lot less than other sites such Agoda, Expedia, Hotels.com, etc. (But if you’re stuck, you can definitely check those other places too.)
One thing to watch out for is add-on costs, like cleaning fees and booking fees, which can increase the price of your stay quite a bit. Also, double-check the location of the place and the dates of arrival and departure; we’ve made mistakes booking places far from the center of town and on the wrong dates, so make sure you look twice before submitting payment.
Pro Tip: Don’t just look at the ratings, read the reviews. (Edit: A good tip from the comments — read the recent reviews!)
We prefer Airbnbs with Superhosts and lots of reviews: This way, we know we’ll get an honest depiction of what we’re getting vs. what the owner writes in their description. Sometimes owners aren’t honest, but the people who stay somewhere usually don’t have any reason to lie!
Aim for the Shoulder Season, Not the High Season
The shoulder season is typically four to six weeks before and after the high season for tourism. If you’re like me (and to a lesser extent Connie), you hate crowds. Avoiding the prime tourist season as we travel to each new location has worked well for us so far.
For example, after leaving Montenegro, we had planned to go northward to Croatia. The number of tourists in the streets of Kotor made us rethink that, though, since Croatia is known as a big summer tourist destination within Europe. Having no desire to be surrounded by thousands of loud, sometimes rude people, we instead went to Serbia, which is inland (and thus less of a tourist hotspot). We’ll still go to Croatia, but we’re waiting until the shoulder season, in September.
In some less-traveled places, it has been very easy to find nice, reasonably priced accommodations, even on the same day. Better yet, we’ve largely managed to avoid the massive crowds — and, knock on wood, the pickpockets and other frustrations that come along with them. Still, the weather and the sights have still been excellent, aside from the odd rainy day you might get anywhere.
Bring a Few Extra Bags
Bring along a few plastic or cloth bags. Get some sturdy ones with good handles that won’t rip and won’t deteriorate quickly. They’ll roll up tightly to fit into a larger bag or pack, and you’ll find tons of uses for them. You might want to carry groceries. You might have to buy something at a shop to send back to friends and family. You may pack some lunch to take with you on a long train or plane ride.
There’s another use for plastic bags, too, although it’s not glamorous. When you spend the day walking on dirty streets and slimy cobblestones, dusty paths, and slick public bathrooms all day, your shoes will get dirty and probably smelly, especially when you’re wearing the same couple of pairs for weeks and months on end. You’ll be thankful you brought some plastic bags to wrap those stinky SOBs up every time you’re repacking your bags to move on to the next destination. (Resealable bags would probably be best, but any old plastic bag will do in a pinch.)
Pro Tip: You’ll probably find it best to bring a single bag for each shoe, not one for each pair; it may not seem necessary, but sealing them up individually will make packing a lot easier.
These things are the bomb. When we traveled to Ireland and Scotland last fall, Connie bought some packing cubes for her suitcase. I laughed the notion aside and opted for the tried-and-true layered packing method. And then, lo and behold, almost every time we packed up to move to a new location, she was able to get organized and out the door much faster than I. And I am a reasonably fast packer.
I was proven very wrong. Now, we both use packing cubes for nearly everything in our kits, and they make life a great deal easier as we move around.
Bring Some Diversions
Sure, you’re surrounded by new sights, sounds, and smells all the time, and you’re traveling in the old world. Nonetheless, you will get bored at some point. Unless you have the patience of a saint and you’re easily and endlessly absorbed in watching the passing terrain (or clouds), you will want something to watch, read, or listen to while you travel. Maybe a deck of cards or some good ol’ six-sided dice. Whatever you need to take up spare time, make sure you come prepared.
You might like to read or maybe you’re a film buff, but packing a bunch of paperbacks or CDs is impractical. Thankfully, it’s 2018. It’s easy to download some movies and books to your phone or tablet. You might also want to keep a readily accessible music library on hand. (And make sure you download at least a few of them locally, so you don’t need an internet connection to access them!)
Don’t Buy Multi-Day or Multi-Trip Passes
We’ve found, generally, that we lose money buying the multi-day / multi-trip pass, whether it’s for the metro, the bus, or for networks of tourist sites and locations. If we just buy individual tickets or passes for each trip or venue, as needed, we don’t waste anything. You’ll be tempted to think, “We’ll be traveling around the city a lot, so we’ll get the full value of this three-day public transit pass.”
In our experience, more often than not, you’ll end up spending the day in some part of the city and barely using the bus or subway to get around. Many of the cities in Europe are easily and conveniently walkable anyway. In Rome, for instance, we took the bus to get from our Airbnb into the city, and then we walked to each site.
If you know you’re going back to the airport at the end of the stay, then sure, buy a round-trip rather than a one-way ticket. But unless you absolutely need to, don’t buy the multi-day pass.
Get the 24- or 48-Hour Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour Pass
This is one exception to the multi-day pass rule above. First off, taking a hop-on, hop-off tour is about the best way to get an initial, general overview of the city and its major tourist sites and famous places. That way, you can see what you want to visit more closely later in the day or on the next day.
Plus, the tour bus doubles as city transit when you want to get around to major points of the city and you don’t feel like walking all the way, waiting for a city bus, or paying for a taxi.
Pro Tip: The hop-on, hop-off bus — usually a double-decker with an open top deck and a covered bottom level — also lets you avoid the rain while getting around if the weather turns ugly (as it did for us in Marseille, right), yet enjoy the sunshine while sightseeing if it’s nice out!
Take Public Transit, Not a Taxi
You’re better off relying on public transportation, i.e., bus, tram, metro, which in most European cities is superior to that of most North American cities, in our experience. If you have to take a cab, as will occasionally happen, negotiate the price before you get in. They can be expensive and uncomfortable, drivers may try to rip you off, and they (the cars, I mean, but maybe also the drivers) sometimes stink, literally and/or figuratively.
Pro Tip: Download and install good travel apps. Using them, we have found it relatively easy to take public transit everywhere, with only a couple exceptions. Download apps such as Moovit within major European cities. We’ve also heard good things about one called HEREWeGo, but haven’t really used it much ourselves.
You can also just use your Apple or Google maps, but these other apps like Moovit literally tell you what bus line to take, how to get to the bus stop, when to get off, and so forth. You can easily search for how to get from point A to point B, and the app will give you several options and ways to get you there including walking, public transportation (with all possible route options), taxi or Uber, etc., all with time estimates, directions, interactive maps, and so on. Super handy.
Choose Private or Small-Group Tours
Big tours with 15 or more people can suck big-time, especially at large, crowded sites. Inevitably you’ll have some slow and/or bitchy people in your group, and loud, annoying people will almost certainly ruin your tour. Then you’ve just spent money to visit somewhere you’ll likely never see again, only to be annoyed and disappointed. Not worth it.
Make sure you read reviews here, too, and pick a tour that is fairly small (maybe up to half a dozen or a dozen, depending on your tastes and pain threshold) — or just suck it up and go with a private tour. We took a 4-hour private walking tour of the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum for 50 euro each, which was really great and totally worth it!
Don’t Wait for “Something Better” to Come Along
Carpe diem! (Or maybe carpe rem? Facite!) In the early part of our trip, we’d walk by a restaurant, grocery store, pharmacy, etc., somewhere we wanted or needed something, but we would walk past and say, “oh, we’ll find another option / more / better later.” After doing so multiple times and then spending many hours (and lots of footsteps) not actually finding “something better” — or in a few cases, any alternative at all — we made a pact to “see it, get it.”
Don’t wait: Whatever it is, just get it when you see it.
Talk to Other People
We thought we’d make a lot of new friends throughout our trip, hanging out with the locals, other travelers, etc. We also figured we’d be sharing all sorts of tips and observations with them about places we’ve been and places we’re yet to visit. This imagined community hasn’t really materialized thus far. We’ve met and had nice conversations with some folks, but those occasions have been the exception and not the rule.
Maybe we are unsociable or unfriendly? Maybe we are just a little too paranoid that people will try to cheat us or rip us off? Maybe we’re moving too quickly from place to place? Whatever the reasons, with a few notable exceptions, we haven’t easily made new friends in many places we’ve visited. We’re tourists, and it seems folks know it. Things can feel very brusque and shallow when it’s just “hi,” “bye,” and “how much for the <thing I’m pointing at>?” In the first three weeks of our trip, we only talked to about two other people in any depth at all.
Since then, though, we’ve done a bit better. You just have to seize the opportunity when it arises.
Pro Tip: Make sure you go on a long-term adventure like this with someone you enjoy spending all your time with. And even if you do, there absolutely will be days when you just want to be left alone, so be prepared to spend time off doing your own thing once in a while.
Ultra Pro Tip: Making friends with kitties (or puppies) is never a bad thing.
Eat the Food, Drink the Booze
Most often, the noteworthy local dishes are the best thing on the menu anyway, so you might was well order it up! We have had many delicious meals made entirely from local ingredients — too many to count at this point, frankly. We have enjoyed trying everything, including even spleen sandwiches in Palermo (which were fantastic)!
Also, buy food/wine/beer at the supermarket/mini-mart/patisserie/etc., and eat in a park, by the water, or in your accommodations. It’s super cheap, and you can eat like the locals do. We’ve had amazing cheeses, olives, charcuterie, breads, and wines in all the countries we’ve visited. The best part? It’s pretty easy to carry around… and you won’t have to cook anything!
Carry water and sunscreen (and toilet paper… and snacks).
Water and Sunscreen: Not everyone can be a ginger, sadly, but most people still have to watch out for the sun. Getting dehydrated and sunburnt can turn even the most beautiful day or amazing adventure into a nightmare. Be smart, be responsible. You can (and should!) do this and still be environmentally conscious: Bring a sturdy, reusable water bottle or two with you everywhere you go, and refill every time you have a chance — even if they’re already nearly full! (Remember: “See it, get it!”)
Toilet Paper (and Hand Wipes): In some parts of Europe, you may be unpleasantly surprised at the number of bathrooms you’ll encounter while traveling that don’t have toilet paper. And keep some sanitary wipes handy. You never know when you might need them.
Food: Bringing some snacks with you is usually a good idea, especially if you’re the kind of person that gets “hangry.” Worse, having to buy an unexpected meal at a tourist-heavy location can be costly, not to mention disappointing.