I’ve watched enough Rick Steves on PBS to know when I need help with international travel. We just spent the holidays in Germany and we learned a few things. Perhaps you’ll see some details here that can help you on your next trip, especially if there are holidays involved.
Shoulder-to-shoulder with locals and tourists at the Frankfurt Christmas Market, we started our trip by drinking enough Glühwein to float a ship of sailors down the Main River. In contrast, we later felt that the whole of Aßmannshausen’s Hotel Krone was ours alone. Several songs (and at least one book) have been written about the Krone, so it was a treat to sleep there — even though it is haunted.
To be clear, I now live in the US, but I grew up in Germany. On our recent trip, my wife (Jennifer) endured my getting one last photo of “this view” or “that castle,” even though I’d already snapped forty-two other indistinguishably similar shots. In the end, as long as we trekked to the Cuckoo Clock Store in Wiesbaden, souvenirs would be acquired and marital bliss would be preserved.
So, listen — if you are going to Europe, you will need to know a few things, and here are some of them:
Know Your Roles. I generally do the overall planning, provide language skills, and execute on the travel plan. Jen collected this year’s awards for Best Packer of Suitcases in the World and Best Navigator of Germany. These skills are invaluable in a travel companion, for without a capable navigator the best laid plans fall flat. We shall discuss packing shortly.
Boots. If your feet are happy, your body’s chances of being happy are increased. Warm boots. Strong boots. Comfortable boots. You need them. I have these. Jen has these. Gauge your boot purchases based on the peaks and depths of your itinerary. If you will be around snow and slush, consider traction. During a snowstorm at Hohenzollern Castle, we saw a guy in slick streetshoes and a suede jacket, clearly reconsidering his wardrobe choices. Know that you will be doing some walking, and remember to pack your gloves and boots.
Gastronomy. Our trip was Germany-centric, hence the specificity to food here. Pace yourself to ingest the maximum amount of schnitzel, sausage, beer, and good German bread in the smallest duration of time. This usually means eating a hearty breakfast of bread, cheese, cold cuts, yoghurt, eggs, fruit, and your choice of unusual juices or common hot beverages. Your early meal should tide you over until dinner, when you will (of course) order your favorite style of schnitzel. Tailor this point to your target country’s cuisine.
Snacks. Pack snacks for the road. This prevents hanger. Hanger is a concept experienced by many, and which has been known to cause relationship friction. It can be defined as “anger exacerbated by hunger.” Woe unto you if your travel companion gets hangry.
Holiday Meals. Many restaurants will be closed on holidays, but hotel restaurants will typically be open for business. Secure your holiday restaurant reservations well in advance. You probably don’t want to find yourself hangrily glaring at Bratwurst and Bienenstich through a grocery store window with a brick in your hand.
Flights. In order to reduce risk and bookend your trip with positive notes, fly direct whenever possible. But unless you’re flying from a major airport – and this is true for any trip – you may not have direct flights. This means you will experience layovers between flights. Plan for these layovers. Consider whether an airline club membership would be worth your while. (NOTE: If you’re fortunate enough to be flying Business Class on an international flight, many clubs allow you free entry during your trip.) Also, understand that it’s a bonus if your flights depart and arrive on time. Be prepared for your flights to run late, but be sure you’re on time to the airport on the off-chance your flights are on time. Understand that you need to be at the airport at least two hours prior to your flight’s planned departure time.
Transportation. Well in advance of your trip, decide on your modes of transport (car, train, boat, or a combination thereof) while in-country. Comparing the US versus Europe, the US has extremely favorable gas prices. In Europe, plan on the equivalent of $8.00 a gallon for gasoline, depending on the strength of the US Dollar versus the Euro at the time of your trip. If you rent a car, understand the Rules of the Road; e.g., on the autobahn, know that it is illegal to pass on the right. Slower vehicles must stay on the right. For obvious reasons, you should become familiar with international road signs.
Google Maps. Yes, you will need paper maps, but Google Maps will save you untold amounts of time and aggravation on meandering entrance and exit ramps. Google Maps has legitimately saved 117 marriages in the third quarter of 2013 alone. This is a scientific fact.
Wireless and Other Electronic Devices. Change your call plan and data plan to international plans prior to embarking on your trip. Estimate your usage on the cautious side, and remember to turn on data roaming only when you’re using it. Use Wi-Fi whenever possible, as this typically will not impact your data usage. To keep your electronic devices juiced up, a battery pack is a must-have. I use the Jackery Giant 10400mAh. It holds a charge for a long time, so you can keep from draining your devices while you’re in the car figuring out how to navigate those long and winding European roads.
110 vs. 220. You probably know that Europe operates on 220-volt electricity. In the US, we typically do not use 220 – most of our hair dryers and electric razors are 110 volts. You will need a voltage converter kit with adapter plugs to ratchet the 220 down to your 110-volt devices. Get a kit that allows you to choose your wattage since your PC and your phone will probably require different wattage settings. When in doubt, select the lower wattage on the converter, otherwise you risk frying your hair-straightener. I use the Seven Star World Traveler Converter Kit.
Luggage and Bags. You will almost certainly need extra space in your case(s), so take an empty or half-empty case along with you – you won’t regret it. Double-bag your dirty laundry, as it tends to ripen over time. And on the off-chance you don’t need the extra suitcase room, use the case to segregate your dirty laundry from the rest of your belongings. This way, those souvenir Christmas ornaments and nutcrackers won’t have melted in the luggage compartment of the Boeing 767 on your flight home. Or wherever it is you’re going next.
Lotion. Central-European air is not terribly dry, but it can be quite cold at high altitudes. Lotion is a necessity, and even though your hotels will probably stock lotion, they may not stock the brand you prefer. It’s safer to bring your own. Use a three-ounce container for a carry-on bag, or pack a larger container in your checked luggage. Secure the top with strong tape, and pack the bottle in a plastic bag. Trust me on this one.
Lip Balm. You may not be prone to chapped lips. Still, invest in some lip balm. Somehow a lengthy plane trip causes chapped lips. This is another scientific fact.
Wear Black. Because it’s Europe. And because black is slimming.
Be Comfortable. Because you’re traveling. But bring along one semi-formal outfit. You won’t mind seeing yourself in “real” clothes at least once.
And finally – have a plan, but be spontaneous. Because it makes you a nice travel companion. Enjoy your time in Europe, and I personally wish you a gute Fahrt.