This is the first of many installments documenting my travels, decisions I made, and what I wish I would have known..
It’s 8:47am at a coffee shop in the City Centre of Dublin, Ireland. I’ve never been here before. In fact, I’ve never been to Europe before. This entire concept both frightens and fascinates me, and I’m surprised by how these are the two words that describe how I’m feeling right now.. From the entire spectrum of what I could be feeling, I have fear and fascination. (As I double-check the definition of fascination, I realize I may just be fascinated with the use of alliteration.)
I’m always kind of surprised when I feel fear or hesitance to do something.. especially when it’s something exciting that I know I want to be doing. I guess this whole new concept (at least for me) of being more open to my mind/heart is revealing a wider range of emotions that I’ve previously been suppressing. I often feel like I live in a bit of a fantastical version of Life where I believe everything works out, I’m confused and devastated when things don’t, and my way of preserving this image of Life is to downplay the negatives.. (think Wolf of Wall Street and how Belfort narrates his Life in this unrealistic fairytale where the reality moments are just two-sentence, quiet narratives, and the exaggerations are as Hollywood huge and unbelievable as his ego would have us believe)
I am excited for what is to come, as I am entirely unsure of what may unfold over the next three weeks. We (traveling companion, Bosen) haven’t planned out our day to day activities. We have a general idea of what cities we would like to visit, but have not limited ourselves with pre-booked flights/trains/buses that force us to leave a city on a particular day. All we know is that we’re in Dublin today on September 2nd, 2014 (started travel yesterday) and we fly back to Dublin from Copenhagen on September 20th (with flight back to the States on 9/21). We have a number of friends we would like to see along the way, and we have several cities where we don’t know anyone there or the main language that is spoken.. With an open mind and an open heart, I welcome this adventure and hope that I have enough money left over at the end that I can start facing the decisions that need to be made when I get back to the States. Until then, FIWIE.. This ought to be interesting. Let’s have fun.
The above was written when I first arrived in Ireland and took a bus to a coffee shop in the Temple Bar area. In an effort to stay grounded with myself and my experiences, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my travel, my decisions, and the notes I wrote along the way to come up with this advice for anyone wanting to go to Northern Europe. In future posts, I’m going to break down specific countries, cities, and personal experiences, but for this first installment, here is a general Overview of Travel Tips:
(if you’re interested in specifics, here are my thoughts on Ireland and London.)
Tips from What We Did:
Credit Card with no Foreign Transaction Fees: The week before I left, I realized that my credit card was charging me percentages for all of my foreign transaction fees. It adds up very quickly, so one way that we saved so much money was by calling the credit card company and double-checking if our cards had foreign transaction fees, and then choosing to sign-up for a card that doesn’t. Since I’m with Chase, I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, and I’m so happy that I did. As an additional note, often when you use your card in Europe, they’ll ask if you want to use $USD or whatever currency they use in the country you’re in (Euros, Pounds, Kroner, etc), ALWAYS choose the currency for the country you’re in. The exchange rates are murderous.
Stay with people you know, people you meet, couchsurfing, hostels (in that order): We saved so much money by staying with friends we knew before traveling and friends we met along the way. We attempted to couch surf, and though we didn’t actually get to stay with anyone (mainly because of our flexible schedule), we were still able to meet up with a number of people who were amazing company while in those places. Now, your money options: hostels, hotels, Air BnB, vacation rental, etc. Unless you are looking for a private, romantic getaway, I strongly suggest going with hostels. Yes, it can be strange staying on bunk beds with 6 other people, but it is the easiest way to meet people and find things to do. It’s like being in the Freshman dorms in college all over again, full of people who are traveling and wanting to experience the city and make new memories. Also, the hostels in Northern Europe(on average) are really nice. Bosen has traveled in Central America and myself in Southeast Asia, and these particular hostels we saw in Europe were all significantly nicer than what we expected. Consider this over isolating yourself in a hotel.
Meet people! (Get everyone’s contact info)
Everyone. I specifically used WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. I would grab contact info from other travelers at hostels, tourists from our day trips, friendly bartenders and servers along the way, random people we’d “cheers’ in pubs, helpful strangers we’d ask directions from on the street, and anyone else who seemed positive and fun. Some of these people I may never talk to again. Others I hope to remain friends with that I would love to have come visit or go see again! Regardless, these connections provide opportunity and experience, and I was surprised at how much more “at home” I felt as I made more connections. This comfort really eased any uncertainty I was feeling, and ultimately, made me feel more connected and enjoy that city even more.
Smile a lot
I can’t stress this enough. Language, culture, customs, style all vary from country to country.. but genuine positivity and smiling is understood across borders. I smile because I love to smile and it makes me feel good. It opens lines of communication and offers opportunity for interaction. From smiling and positive vibes alone, we met countless new friends, got invaluable travel advice, received several discounts, food and drinks, and even free places to stay. Do it for free stuff. Do it for your soul. SMILE!
Attempt to Speak the Language
Do it horribly. It’s okay. Say whatever polite phrase you learned and follow it up with, “Do you speak English?” It was surprising how much more receptive people were when we would stumble through simple statements. We made a point to always try to learn “Hello”, “Cheers”, and “Thank you”. From there, we also learned all sorts of other ridiculous phrases, and made a game out of asking locals to do their best American accent with whatever they think an American would say.. haha, more on the European general opinion of Americans in another post. Anyway, at least learn, “Hello” and “Thanks”.
Accept the Fact that You’re a Tourist
It makes such a difference. And to be fair, we would say that we are travelers and not tourists, but the point remains the same.. we’re not from here. And there were many times early on (especially in Ireland) when I found myself trying to talk a certain way or act a certain way, trying not to be stereotypical loud Americans (which you still shouldn’t) or reconsidering how I was dressed, until I finally had to make peace with the fact that YEA, I’m not from around here. Everybody knows it. The way I walk, how I dress, when I talk, when I move, how I interact, even when I laugh, and that unsure look on every tourist’s face when they’re looking for somewhere.. it’s all a dead giveaway. Once you accept it, then you can just enjoy yourself and own it. Maybe a small percentage of people will be rude (much less if you do the above two tips), but it was very surprising how friendly and helpful people were everywhere we went. Just Be You (unless you fit the European’s stereotype of an American jerk who yells and makes fun of other cultures.. in that case, don’t be you. Be someone nicer. Or at least tell them you’re Canadian).
Tips from What We Should Have Done:
Bring a Water Bottle
We were often dehydrated. Not just from drinking, but just from all of the walking and traveling and non-stop sightseeing. It’s so simple to just carry a water bottle and fill it up when you can. We wasted so much money buying water when we should have had a water bottle. Also, water is expensive in Europe! Like everywhere. The old joke everybody says, “Beer is cheaper than water, so you may as well drink the beer!” Which is true, but not because the beer is cheap, it’s because the water is also expensive! So yea, bring a water bottle.
Know the Day of the Week
Haha, I laughed at myself when I came up with this one. Seriously though, every day we would ask each other what day it is.. and we would never know. Normally, I wouldn’t care about silly things like what day it is, because on vacation, everyday is a Saturday, or Sunday, or whatever day it is that you do whatever you want. However, since we were booking all of our lodging and travel last second, knowing the day of the week would have drastically helped us prepare for how busy hostels are on the weekends, travel deals that happen during the week, changing bus/train schedules, and drink specials at bars (in order of importance). I imagine better planners would have been on top of this, but had I found this blog before I left and had this advice, then I would have been more on top of it!
Plan a Little Bit
If you know me, I tend not to be the best at planning.. I’m more about preparing, but I’ll talk about this concept in another post called Preparation > Planning. However, if you want to cut your costs a bit, planning can drastically help that. This mainly pertains to transportation, whether flights, ferry, train, bus, taxi, Uber, bikes, whatever.. had we at least known which cities/countries we wanted to visit, we could have better planned out the cheapest options for how to get to each(and booked them earlier for cheaper). Obviously, the only downside for planning is the direction correlation with flexibility to stay as long (or as short) as you want in each place. We were happy that we could stay longer in Brussels because we made such amazing friends and had a free place to stay.. I’m also glad that we chose to stay a shorter time in London because of how expensive it was. However, our largest single expense after flights was a night train from Amsterdam to Copenhagen because we booked it 3 hours before.. had we booked it 3 weeks before, we could have saved over 200euro. So, plan a bit.
Know Who You’re Traveling With
I suppose I could have titled this, know what you want to do, but after chatting with other travelers and seeing how smoothly Bosen and my trip went, knowing who you’re traveling with is makes for a much more enjoyable trip. We met with a number of groups of travelers (typically female) who were annoyed with one another for any number of reasons. Typically, this always stemmed from everyone wanting to do something else.. specifically, it’s most important to know that everyone is on the same page about spending: Do we want to stay in hostels or hotels? Do we plan on eating out at nice places or stay cheaper? How are we traveling between cities? Are we here to sightsee or party or take pictures of buildings or what? I was fortunate because Bosen and I have traveled fairly extensively in the States from going on tour together.. and after multiple several week trips with each other in the car all day playing gigs at night, you pretty much learn about each person’s general habits. Where I should have been different for the trip is knowing what I wanted to do/get out of the experience. I didn’t really know much about any city, therefore, I didn’t really have an opinion on where to go or what to do. This, I’m sure, got annoying like asking a date where they want to go eat and everyone keeps saying “I dunno..” So, know who you’re traveling with and know what you want. (Thanks for being patient, Bosen)
There are so many more great tips out there about travel, so as more come up, I may consider making a second “Overview” of European travel. Also, this is an ongoing guide to traveling Europe, Suede Style, so I’ll add more of the tips/tricks and specifics for some of the places we visited like Ireland, London, Belgium, Amsterdam, and so on.
Make Experiences and Travel, Friends!