Monday, July 12, 2010

2010 Europe Trip: Planning and Traveling Alone

As many of you know I went on this trip alone. Two of reasons I decided to go alone were 1) I was going to do research for my novel and I wanted time to think, linger, explore, and take lots of notes without having to worry about whether someone else was having a good time and 2) I was going to see some of my favorite artists and paintings and I was really looking forward to having time alone to sketch.

People tell me how brave I am but I wasn't being brave. Not really. First off, I'd reconned Nuremberg previously and I knew I could be there alone and feel safe. Second, I purposely chose places I knew were safe for a woman traveling alone. I also chose places weren't too large and where I wouldn't have a problem with the language barrier. I made sure I stayed in a very central locations.

The only time I felt uncomfortable was when I was changing trains in Brussels to get to Bruges. When I arrived at the station everything was in French, I couldn't find my connecting train, and I only had 20 minutes to transfer. I couldn't even figure out where to ask for information. I finally found the right information desk and just managed to find my train. The second time I went through Brussels I had no problems.

I never got lonely. I talked to plenty of people in Amsterdam and Bruges. When I got to Nuremberg and Ansbach, I didn't talk to anyone because I was so focused on my research but that was how I wanted it to be.

My only mistake was that I overpacked. In Bruges, I mailed a bunch of clothes home because my suitcase had gotten so heavy I couldn't lift it. Mailing my clothes home was crazy expensive but I'm still glad I did it. Next time, I'll pack for four days and do laundry or stay in places that will do laundry for me. Paying for laundry has to be cheaper than mailing your clothes home.

As for planning I tend to go from macro to micro (yes, I plan almost everything in advance, I do this for some measure of security since I'm traveling alone):
  • Make sure there's nothing major going on the days you'll be visiting unless it's an event you want to participate in. You might want to be in Munich during Ockoberfest with 100,000 other visitors but you might not want to be in Amsterdam during the first stage of the Giro d'Italia (a major bike race) when roads will be cut off and thousands of people are in the street watching the riders go by.
  • Start with booking the flight then make a list of the days you'll be there.
  • Create a table showing each day and plug in how much each item is going to cost such as the hotel room, train travel for a day, meals, etc.
  • Decide how many days you'll need to be in each place and book your hotels.
  • Decide how you'll be getting from place to place (train, bus?) and how you'll get to and from the airport (subway, cab, bus?). Book anything major such as train travel. Find out information for how you'll get to and from the airport.
  • I took daytrips to Ghent in Belgium and Ansbach in Germany. I verified that the trains run every two hours or so and bought my tickets the same day since it was so easy to get there and back.
  • Decide how many meals you'll be eating and prepare a budget.
At this point, the major planning has been done. My next steps are:
  • Read online, in guidebooks, and ask people for places you want to go and things you want to see and decide generally what days you want to do those activities. Take into account that you might be jetlagged and plan accordingly. In Amsterdam, I chose to see the two major museums the first full day and took a canal cruise/saw the zoo a different day but I left plenty of time for wandering around neighborhoods, shopping, taking pictures, and exploring other people's recommendations.
  • Be sure to research any regional food specialties wherever you're staying and ask the hotel folks for recommendations.
  • Also research any interesting nightlife going on that you want to see. I went to the opera in Nuremberg and saw three plays when I was in London. You might be interested in pub crawling or going to a famous dance club or hanging out in an area known for its famous bars and restaurants.
  • Check to see how much daylight you'll have. It didn't get dark until 10:30 pm in Amsterdam and 10:00 pm in Bruges and Nuremberg. This will affect your planning.
  • Read online and guidebook maps to get familiar with the city. Look for landmarks, neighborhoods, parks, squares, the train station, airport, and public transportation stops. It's useful for orienting yourself and will cut down on the time it takes to get a feel for the place.
  • Walk everywhere and use public transportation. I love public transportation but I always make sure it's safe to use by consulting guidebooks and making sure I know which places I shouldn't be in.
  • Check for those all-in-one cards. Amsterdam and Nuremberg had cards where you pay one price and it includes public transportation for a certain number of days as well as museum admissions and attractions. These cards are available in the tourist office. You can also check online at the city's public transportation website which usually mentions if there's a tourist card. Hell, I think we even have something like this in San Francisco. Just take the time to run a quick calculation to see if it's worth the amount you're paying. My cards paid for themselves quickly since museum admissions were so pricey.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to sit and relax. Relaxing in your hotel room, at a cafe, in a restaurant, in a park, in a square is so nice and lets you do some people watching.
Some other tips:
  • Always bring your iPod or similar device and keep it charged. You never know when you have to shut out a conversation on a plane, excessive noise, or when you'll be waiting for a long time (like on the runway for the plane to take off) and don't feel like reading.
  • Reading fun books is always a good idea while traveling. I rarely read anything new unless it's an "airport" book I can discard later. Instead, I usually bring a book I'm particularly fond of and will read my favorite sections while traveling.
  • Try as much as you can to reduce weight. If you must bring something heavy, make it something important like your excellent camera. I brought my basic point-n-shoot but if I had the digital SLR I'm going to buy myself someday I would have brought that instead.
  • Check the weather. Yes, check the weather. For some reason, people don't check the weather before they leave and they're all bend out of shape when it's not warm and balmy even though it's in the middle of freakin' November. As for me, I planned for the weather to be a lot cooler but it turned out to be unseasonably warm. Bring layers in case this happens. If you're traveling during the "shoulder" season bring a pair of cropped pants and a couple of extra t-shirts a well as a warm sweater, jeans, and a jacket that can stand up to the rain.
  • Bring super comfy shoes that have already been broken in. Also, if you're traveling in the countries I really like to be visit, check for cobblestones. As charming as they are, they're killer on your feet and it can take almost a week for your feet to get used to them. I had to switch from my cute black clogs to my white sneakers my second day in Amsterdam. I spent the rest of the trip wearing them and looking like a tourist...Okay, I look like a tourist anyway but you know what I mean.
That's all I can think of now. Let me know if you have suggestions of your own.

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