European Travel Logistics as of 2015

We’ve been traveling around Europe for a month now (about to fly home), and I had some thoughts about the practicalities of how we’ve been traveling that I thought would be useful to share.

Packing and luggage

We both used travel packs for the trip, which allow you to either carry your stuff on your back, or zip the pack straps up so that the airlines won’t mangle them. These worked well, but if you go this route you really want to pack light! Actually, that’s true no matter what type of luggage you use, unless you plan to rent a car, or to take taxis between train stations and hotels at every stop. We both also had a small day pack. I had space in my main pack to put it inside; Zach’s came with his travel pack and attached to the back. Either way is OK.

One drawback of using a day pack to carry around your water bottle, sunscreen, emergency snack food, and other daily necessities, however, is that nearly every museum or historical site we visited required people carrying day packs (even small ones like we had) to check their bags at the cloakroom, while people carrying much larger purse-shaped bags could carry them around if they wanted to. So, that might be something to consider… on the other hand, it wasn’t terrible to wander around a museum without packs either, and no one charged for the bag check service.

Another note: roller bags would be really difficult to drag around in a lot of the places we visited! There are a lot of cobblestone streets, curbs without ramps, stairs, etc. to navigate. We were glad to have packs instead of roller bags, and actually the wheel assemblies and handles of roller bags are pretty heavy too, if you do have to carry them. Both of our packs were under 20 pounds, packed, when we set off, so we didn’t mind carrying them for a while if we had to (such as on Sundays when local buses might not be running).

Speaking of packing light… pack light! We each brought 3-4 short-sleeved and 1 long-sleeved shirt, a light fleece, light windbreaker, thermal shirt, 2 pairs of pants, a few pairs of underwear and socks, a pair of shorts (Zach had pants that convert to shorts), a pair of flip-flops, and 1 pair of shoes to wear every day (something good for walking). That meant we were doing laundry, so I brought a small bottle of dish soap (for hand-washing) and a clothesline; most of our clothes were fairly quick to dry. We used washing machines twice, and otherwise hand-washed everything.

We kept other items to a minimum… toothbrush and other toiletries, pocket knives (useful for picnic lunches), camera (if you prefer that to your phone), water bottles, something to read, sunglasses, sun/rain hats, some games on our phones, and a mini deck of cards. Oh, and some travel adapters… most chargers these days will allow you to feed in 220 V European electricity, so all you need is a lightweight plug that will adapt a US plug to a European adapter, to go with your phone charger. I was also carrying an ultralight laptop, since I went to a Drupal programming conference, and cables to connect camera and phone to the computer so we could look at photos and upload them to the blog. We also carried guidebooks for the areas we were visiting, but donated them to the lodging when we moved on.

Communications

We use T-Mobile for our cell phone service in the US. Currently they’re offering a great deal, at least on the plan we’re on: when you travel to Europe (and some other places), you can text for free, call the US for free if you use Wi-Fi calling, use mobile data for free (not very fast, but adequate), and make other calls for 20 cents per minute. Both of our phones have some European frequency bands on them, and they worked OK. So, we didn’t have to bother with getting a SIM card in Europe. I was able to call my dad in the evenings from lodging with WiFi, we could text each other and our family and friends, and we could use Google Maps and other apps that require data connections. The WiFi in our lodging was often flaky, and the phone data was slow, but we managed OK. Zach’s phone had problems with WiFi calling; mine was much more reliable.

If your phone carrier has a similar service, you’ll want to check the frequency bands on your phone and see if they will work where you’re going. First off, you’ll probably need to have a GSM phone, which in the US is only if you’re on T-Mobile or AT&T. Then you’ll need to see if it has at least some of the European frequency bands on it. See the links section at the bottom for some resources.

Languages

The places we traveled (Barcelona, Spain; Montpellier and Arles, France; northern Italy) were mostly pretty tourist-heavy, and you could probably get by with just English, or English supplemented by learning Please, Thank you, and a few numbers. That said, I speak both Spanish and French, and that definitely came in handy a few times. Zach was on his own for a week in France, and found it difficult, even knowing a few words of French. In Italy, almost everyone in businesses spoke English, and usually knew on one look that that would work better than Italian for us. That said, I had done a little self-study of Italian, and this came in handy to talk to a few people now and then, although what I could say was mainly “I don’t speak Italian very well, but I can understand it a little”, and then hope they could understand pidgin Spanitalian or Frenitalian. It worked out fine.

The fact that we had Google available on our phones also helped with the language barrier. For instance, instead of trying to ask someone a fairly complicated question, like “Where can we put our packs with pocket knives in them while we visit St. Peter’s Basilica, which doesn’t allow you to bring them in, and doesn’t have a cloakroom service?”, we could do a quick web search and find a Trip Advisor page telling us to leave our stuff at the Vatican Museum (which worked fine by the way).

Money

For money, we used a combination of ATM and credit cards. It pays to research ahead of time the international fees associated with your existing debit and credit cards, and apply for new ones if necessary.

During the trip, we would periodically withdraw cash with the ATM cards as needed. We had no trouble finding ATM machines and they all worked well with our regular US debit cards; most have an option for English language menus. We didn’t get any foreign cash before we left either, figuring we’d find ATMs easily once we arrived; this proved to be true. Since there are sometimes fees per withdrawal, we usually withdrew a fairly large amount each time. The vast majority of expenses (such as food, exhibits, etc.) were payed for using this cash.

Credit cards are kind of a different story. The rest of the world has adopted new technology, which embeds a chip in the credit card, but these cards are still rare in the US for the time being. Also, there are two versions of this: some cards support “chip and PIN”, while others are only “chip and signature”. Many machines (such as the ones in train stations to buy tickets quickly) require chip and PIN cards. So, Zach researched and obtained a special chip and PIN card just for the trip. This card was designed for world travelers so it also had no foreign transaction fees. We used it for things like buying train tickets and paying for lodging; if you already have booked all your transportation and lodging (and paid for it), you may not need such a card, but with our style of travel, it sure came in handy.

One other note: It’s really useful to have a few euros in change in your pocket for toilets, which are often not free in the areas we travelled in Europe!

Transportation, lodging, and planning

We didn’t make very definite plans for our trip before we left, because we enjoy having flexibility when we travel. We’d booked a place for the first few days, and we had lodging for the week when I was at a conference in France, but other than that all we knew were our arrival and departure flights at the start and end of our trip. This worked out fine:

  • We often showed up at a train station, bought a ticket, and traveled. Usually we checked schedules ahead of time, using the national rail web sites for Spain, France, or Italy, or an app. Once or twice we bought tickets a day ahead, when schedules were limited. For one leg of our trip, we used a ride sharing web site, which was fun. Regional trains in all three countries do not accept reservations anyway… but don’t forget to validate your ticket before you get on the train or you’ll get a fine!
  • We booked our lodging about 1-3 days ahead, using several different sites, when we figured out where we were going next and when we planned to arrive.
  • We used Google Maps to navigate around the towns and cities we visited. This worked well. Jennifer tried the OSMand (Open Street Maps) app, but Google was easier to deal with, although the OSM app theoretically allows downloading the maps ahead of time so you can navigate without a data connection. In some big cities, we made good use of Google’s transit directions, but that didn’t work everywhere.
  • Some places we contemplated going, we decided not to because we were travelling by public transportation, and either the train and bus connections were too tedious, too difficult to understand, or just plain didn’t exist. That said, we had a great trip and didn’t feel too bad about missing out on a few possible side trips. We kind of missed having our bicycles though!

Web sites and apps

We both have Android phones… some of the apps may be available for iPhone too, I don’t know. Anyway, here is a list of some web sites and apps we used to make our flexible style of trip possible:

Transportation

  • Bla Bla Car: Ride sharing web site, where you pay a small fee to share the costs of a trip by car. We used it once, and it worked out fine.
  • Trenitalia: Italian state train company
  • Italo: Commercial Italian train company, sometimes with good deals on the routes it serves
  • SCNF: French state train company… note that regional trains in France are on separate sites and do not come up in the main site’s search results. Search for “TER” and the name of a city or region to find these sites.
  • RENFE: Spanish state train company. They have separate sites for Spanish trains in metro areas (the main RENFE site will not search for the metro area trains)
  • Apps Zach used for trains: SNCF Direct (France, excellent!), Trenit! (Italy, didn’t work), Train Timetable Italy (Italy, better)

Lodging

  • Trip Advisor: Our favorite site for finding hotels – searches many other hotel sites and shows you the best deal. We also ended up on their site quite a bit when doing Google searches for local travel information.
  • Air BnB: We booked several times through them, and had good experiences. These tend to be a bit cheaper than hotels, less commercial, and involve more interaction with the owners (which can be good or bad depending on what you’re looking for). Their app was also useful.
  • Couch Surfing: We used this once, in Carcasonne, to stay overnight at someone’s place. Even more interaction than Air BnB, and free. We used their app too.

Miscellaneous

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