trip prep: the update

Warning: this is super long, but since I wrote all of my trip prep entries before I actually experienced the trip, I wanted to make sure I shared how well (or in some cases, not well) they worked. I’ve been so jet-lagged that I haven’t started working on photos yet, but I’ll be sharing them soon. It’s not too late to enter your guess (or, if you’re Erica, to enter another guess — 1723? really?) and win a package of trinkets from Europe.

Shoes, bag, and gear

These all ended up being excellent purchases. My shoes were always comfortable. Although my feet did still hurt from so much walking and standing, I never had any blisters or areas where the shoe rubbed wrong. I basically wore my Ecco shoes every day and only wore the TOMS twice. Those did pinch on the sides of my feet on the day that I wore them. So much so, that I had to return to the hotel room just to change shoes.

My camera bag was perfect! Well, mostly perfect. I have one minor complaint – when I adjusted the over-the-shoulder strap to a comfortable length, the buckle for the strap sat right against my neck and rubbed wrong. I ended up lowering the length just enough that the buckle wasn’t bothering me. But the size of the bag was perfect for me. It held whatever I needed – from cameras to shopping purchases to a towel for the beach.

Despite being mocked for carrying around four cameras, I was pleased with the camera gear I took with me. I loved snapping polaroids to stick in my journal. It even became a point of conversation with some Italian businessmen near the Eiffel Tower. They were fascinated by it and wouldn’t let me leave until the photo was finished developing. My little Canon S100 was so convenient to carry around. I kept it in my pocket most of the time so it was readily available. To be honest, I sometimes wondered if it was worth bringing my Canon Rebel. There were many times when preparing to leave for the day that I debated whether or not to bring it. I wasn’t sure if the weight of carrying it around all day would be worth it, and I often left it at the hotel. I was, however, terribly glad I had it on one day in Prague when I realized that the back-up battery for my S100 wasn’t charged and the current battery was out of juice. And I was really glad I had it when I got the dreaded lens error message on the S100. Miraculously, the lens error resolved itself somehow but I was glad to know I had a backup. I was also happy to have my Rebel in various dark cathedrals and when I wanted to play around with focusing and depth of field (I haven’t quite figured out how to work the focus on the S100). So altogether, I was glad that I had it, but I was also happy to have the more convenient S100.

Travel essentials, packing, and smart phone apps

My travel essentials mostly came in handy. We didn’t quite have enough time to explore all of the interesting places written about in the Herb Lester maps and were incredibly disappointed to find the one vintage shop in Paris closed, but I think they will definitely come in handy for future trips. I didn’t end up needing quite as many memory cards as I thought, but I was really glad to know I had them. I may end up selling them on eBay or Craigslist. As for my stashable tote – well, it never quite got stashed. I ended up using it the entire trip to carry souvenirs or whatever I couldn’t fit into my backpack or camera bag.

Let’s talk about the Travelex Cash Passport cards. All in all, I was very glad to have one of these for train and public transport tickets. It made it possible for us to use the automated ticket machines so we could skip the long lines to speak with a person. This saved us tons of time. However, the card didn’t work at all for the toll booths. Luckily we always had cash with us so we didn’t run into any problems. The only real complaint I have with the card is that their website is impossible to use. It is not mobile friendly at all, so I gave up trying to register my account on my iphone during the trip. This made it really difficult to check my balance. I tried using the website when I got home and kept getting errors and time outs and try again laters. That is frustrating, but I would still use it again.

I debated the benefits versus the pitfalls of using the Kelty backpack throughout the entire trip. I honestly still don’t have a conclusion. I’ll just present to you my pros and cons.

Pros:

It was awesome for stairs. And there are a lot of stairs in Europe.
It was also great for trains. And we took a lot of trains. It just made it easier to walk down train cars and heft it up to the luggage rack above. Since I get anxiety, I liked being able to keep it in sight on the train so I didn’t worry about someone taking off with it if I had to leave it at the front of the car.
It forced me to keep my packing light. In fact, if I were to use a backpack again, I would try to pack even lighter. I feel like I did a good job with packing, to be honest. I used everything I took with me, and then I washed it all and used it again. But I still think that next time I could pack smarter.

Cons:

It forced me to keep my packing light. I didn’t buy souvenirs that I now wished that I had because I didn’t want to carry it around and there wasn’t room for it in the backpack. I did have the stashable tote, obviously, but I really, really hated that stashable tote. It was the most annoying thing to carry around the entire trip. And I had to because I couldn’t fit everything into the backpack.
There are also lots of escalators and elevators. This isn’t a con for the backpack, of course, but a justification for a suitcase. Most of the metros and hotels had an escalator or an elevator so that it didn’t matter if you had a suitcase. Plus, there were many times that Cristen was able to simply roll her suitcase behind her while I was hefting an extra 30 pounds on my back. I’m thinking particularly of getting lost in a park on the way to our hotel in Hamburg. I really wished I had a rolling suitcase at that point.
People always helped with the suitcase. We stayed in a few apartments through AirBnB on our trip. These apartments were always up several flights of stairs. The owners of the apartments were very kind to help with our luggage. Guess who got help with her luggage (hint: not me). It was just easier for the owners to take the suitcase rather than transfer the backpack from one back to another, so when I was hiking up the 63 steps to our apartment in Berlin with a 30-pound pack on my back, I was cursing the backpack.
It needed constant repacking. Honestly, using huge Ziploc bags to organize my clothes was incredibly helpful, but I still felt like I was constantly repacking the backpack and it was harder to keep organized so I ended up with my stuff all over the place.

Even though it may look like the backpack has more cons against it, I think overall, I was still happy to have used it. I would be willing to do so again in the future, depending on the type of trip I’m taking, but I would probably pare down what I take with me so that I didn’t worry about space as much.

As for the iPhone apps, the best one hands-down was the All Subway app. It was so helpful to have all of the maps in one place and so easy to use. The most disappointing apps were the Best Travel maps and the Free Wifi Finder. As for the Best Travel maps, I was under the impression that the maps would find your location even if you didn’t have wifi. This didn’t end up being the case for me. It constantly told me there was an error finding my location. Plus, the maps didn’t always zoom in or out as needed. Or rather, they didn’t always load correctly. They did come in handy sometimes, but in general, we used whatever map we got from the Tourist Office. Those were much easier to use. As for the Free Wifi Finder, I had a similar problem. Because I wasn’t online already, the app didn’t know where I was at and thus couldn’t show me locations with free wifi that were near me. It required me to enter an address, but I rarely knew my address. Plus, the user interface was really awkward to use. I hated it. To find wifi, we usually just looked for a Starbucks or (in London) a Pret a Manger or we would just check our phones to see what networks appeared.

Writing it all down

Keeping a journal during my trip was probably the best thing I did. Cristen also kept a journal, so we would spend an hour or so at the end of each night writing our “dear diary” entries. I loved reflecting on our day and talking to each other about the funny things we saw or the differences between cultures that we noticed. It definitely helped me remember the small things in a way that I don’t think I otherwise would have. I will confess that there were a few nights that I missed writing. I came down with a pretty yucky cold the last week of the trip and there were a few nights that I just went right to bed. I was glad that Cristen had written in her journal, though, because then when I tried to catch up, she was able to remind me of our experiences. Before the trip, I imagined I would mostly be putting snapshots in the travel journal and not writing much. By the end of the trip, I didn’t want to waste space with snapshots because I had so much that I wanted to write.

Phew… sorry that was so long. Congrats on reading the whole thing! I hope that the series (and the update) was helpful for you.

trip prep: travel journal

We just spent a few days in Nice, hopefully soaking up some sun and visiting Eze and Villefranche-sur-mer. We’re probably quite exhausted and just relaxing by the beautiful waters of the French Riviera and maybe checking out a few Roman ruins. These are our last few days. We head home on October 6th, so we’re probably just soaking it all in.

Phew… last one. And it’s probably the best preparation, even though it’s something that I’ll be doing throughout the whole trip. I am a big believer in journaling, even if I haven’t been very good at it over the past few years. I think my blog has often taken the place of a journal. But rest assured, I still have my old-fashioned, pen-and-paper journal. I wouldn’t be me without one. Since I won’t be blogging on the trip, I needed some place to write down my experiences. I decided to create a travel journal.

I’m using a big Moleskine journal that a friend gave me for my birthday several years ago. It’s been on my shelf waiting for me to finish my current journal. But since I don’t write as often as I used to, it’s taking a long time to finish the current one. To create the travel journal, I counted the pages in the journal and counted the number of places we will visit, along with how many days in each place. Then I divided up the pages in the journal evenly. For instance, we will be in London for 3 days, so it gets 10 pages but we’ll only be in Normandy for 1.5 days, so it gets 6 pages. I plan on sticking the small instant photos that I take to it with some pretty washi tape I bought, and then just jotting down impressions and little moments that I want to remember.

I always think that I will remember things. When I’m in the moment, I often say to myself, “I will remember this forever.” But it rarely happens that way. I have always wished that I had a better memory for experiences. I can remember names and faces and I’m pretty amazing at remembering dates (I can tell you the anniversary of the parents of my best friend and probably the wedding anniversary of most of my friends), but I need help remembering the less precise moments of my life. So I keep a journal and I blog. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit how many times I have re-read old journals and scrolled through old blog entries and just remembered.

I will be home soon. I’m writing this exactly one day before I leave, so it’s strange to me to think about coming home already. Right now I have no idea what experiences will fill this travel journal. Even with all of the preparation, it’s impossible to tell. But I look forward to the journey, and I look forward to the memories. And most of all, I look forward to telling you all about it.

trip prep: handy apps

We spent the last two days driving the Romantic Road in Germany from Rothenburg ob der Tauber down to visit Neuschwanstein and along Lake Constance. This is one part of the trip that I am really excited about. When I studied in Innsbruck, Austria, one of my big regrets was that I didn’t have a car to go exploring Bavaria and Tirol. I’m excited to finally get a chance to do a little of that.

The last time I went to Europe, 4 years ago, I didn’t have an iPhone. In fact, I think they had just barely come out about that time. Now I am looking forward to all of the helpful apps I can use to navigate my way through Europe. I just want to share a few with you that I plan on using.

1. SNCF and Bahn: These are the apps for the trains in France (SNCF) and in Germany. I used them when planning the trip to figure out what trains would be available and how long it would take to get from one place to another. In Europe, I plan to use them to see if trains are delayed.

2. Airbnb: Have you ever used Airbnb? Basically, it’s a way to rent apartments instead of booking hotels or hostels. We are renting three apartments (in Berlin, Prague, and Marseille). Partly because it is less expensive, partly because it’s fun to pretend you are actually living in those cities, and partly because they provide some amenities that many hotels don’t (access to a washer and dryer was a big one for us). We haven’t used it before, but we’re really excited about the apartments we’ve rented. I used the app to look for apartments when we were still researching. In Europe, I’ll use the app to get in touch with the people from whom we are renting.

3. BestTravel: Best Travel allows you to download maps of different cities so that you don’t have to go online to find out where you are. You can also find nearby points of interest or food. The only problem that I foresee with this app is that the maps are rather large files. I’m not quite sure how beneficial this app will be, to be honest. I’ll report back on it.

4. Kayak: I use Kayak for all my fare-finding. And when I moved back to SLC form New Orleans, I used it to book a hotel a few hours before I was ready to stop for the night. I probably won’t use it much while in Europe since we already have everything booked, but it’s handy to have in a pinch.

5. XE: XE is simply a currency converter. I have a pretty good idea of how dollars convert into euros and pounds. However, when it comes to Czech crowns, I will definitely be relying on this app.

6. TripIt: I’m trying TripIt for the first time. To be honest, for most of my travels, I don’t need to use TripIt. They’re not that complex and I’m usually just staying with friends or family. But for this trip, we have such a complex itinerary that I hope TripIt will keep it all straight. To use TripIt, you forward the confirmation email that you receive from bookings and TripIt adds it to your itinerary. The problem I have run across with this app, though, is that I often get confirmation emails sent to two different e-mail accounts. However, from what I understand, you can only have one email account set up. So to add a confirmation to my itinerary, I had to forward the gmail email to my yahoo email (the one assigned to the TripIt account). That was kind of annoying.

7. Free Wi-Fi: I plan on leaving my phone in airplane mode, turning off any roaming data, and just relying on wifi to use the Internet. I know that several of the major cities we’re visiting already offer free wifi within the city, but it’s always nice to have a list of places where you can find it when needed. The Free Wi-Fi app allows you to download a database of free wifi hotspots so where you’re at, you can find some free wifi.

8. AllSubway: For $0.99 you can download all of the subway maps you can think of. Paris? check. London? check. Phildelphia? yep. Oslo? You betcha. Salt Lake City? Of course. Since it’s downloaded, you don’t have to be online to view the maps. Pretty convenient.

9. Dropbox: Do you have a Dropbox account? If not, please let me send you an invite so I get some extra space. 🙂 Dropbox allows you to save all kinds of files in your account and access them anywhere. In fact, all of the media from my old carbon copy site is now hosted on Dropbox (which is why I could use some more free space). Have you ever wanted to post mp3 files on your blog but you can’t upload the file type? Put them on dropbox and share the link. I plan on using dropbox in Europe to save backups of whatever photos I take with my iPhone. I’m also hoping it will be a good way to save some space. (I’m constantly running out of space on my 16gb phone these days.)

10. Skype: Even though I’m an independent woman in my 30s, I know my mom will be worried about me. That’s just how it goes, I think. So I will use skype to let her know that everything is a-ok. Or, you know, if it isn’t and I need some help.

11. Yelp: And last but probably not least, I’m hoping to get some good restaurant reviews on Yelp. I have had success with it (and Urbanspoon) in the past while traveling. I’m not exactly sure how much it is used abroad (or if the reviews will be in English), but we’ll give it a try.

Of course, I could list some camera apps I use (but they’re mostly replaced by instagram) or games that I like to play (also very handy for down time on trains and planes), but I think that’s good for now. Did I miss any?

trip prep: point of interest cheat sheets

We just wound up two days in Prague. We planned to visit the Old Jewish Cemetery and explore some of the winding alleys and streets. Maybe we climbed the steps up to the castle or watched a marionette show.

I’m the type of traveler who does tons of research before I leave. I like to figure out all of the points of interest that I could possibly see, even though I know it’s unlikely I will have time to see them all. But if I can gather all of the information, then I can make informed decisions about how to spend my time. I don’t usually schedule my days because I like to remain flexible. I know there are a lot of variables when you travel – weather, moods, health, and energy level. So if I have all of the options ready beforehand, I can easily select something that sounds appealing.

For this trip, I created cheat sheets for each city. They’re basically just a Word doc with a table. I wrote down what I wanted to see, directions to the place (mostly the nearest public transportation stop), hours, and the admission fee.

I also wrote down notes about public transportation or visitor passes. I almost always get a day pass for public transportation on all of my trips. I like feeling completely free to take the subway/tube/metro/etc. as needed. I think this is because of my first trip to London. It was at the very end of a 10-day trip over our Christmas break when I was studying in Austria. It was raining and cold, and I was exhausted. I had no money, but I was just too tired to make it back to our hostel. I decided to take the tube. And overdrew my bank account. Anyway, I always like to find out what transportation options are available.

I’d be happy to share my research. If you’re planning to visit London, Paris, Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, the Romantic Road, Nice, or Marseille, send me an email (katieelainearmstrong {at} gmail) and I’ll pass along my cheat sheets.

trip prep: pack it all up

We are currently in Berlin checking out the Brandenburg Gate and all the art museums, not to mention some Soviet era spy museums and the Berlin wall. Tomorrow we’ll spend the day in Dresden.

I never gave much thought to packing before other than what I was planning to take. When I have traveled abroad in the past, I was basically going to one location, so I didn’t worry about hauling around my big suitcase (or two of them, when I studied abroad). But this trip is a little different. We’re going to be packing up and going to different locations basically every other day. While researching online, I found out about the travel light movement. These people are hardcore. I’m talking two-pairs-of-underwear for a three-week trip hardcore. I’m talking laundry in your hotel sink and carrying your own drying line hardcore. I wasn’t quite ready to go that far, but it did inspire me to think smaller. Here are my two options:

My old medium-sized suitcase or my sister’s favorite Kelty backpack that she was kind enough to loan me. I really wanted to make the Kelty work because I thought having a backpack would be more convenient for all those train rides and apartments that may or may not have elevators. I honestly didn’t know if I could do it. I have been working on a packing list for the last month – adding and removing items of clothing. I decided to try and pack only blue and black tops just to keep it easy. I couldn’t give up all color, though, so I added two bright shirts. Altogether, I packed 2 pairs of pants, 3 skirts (I love skirts), 10 shirts, and a cardigan.

Plus I had my small clothes (as they’re called in the Game of Thrones) and pajamas and a swimsuit just in case the Mediterranean is warm enough. Do you think it all fit in the backpack? Take a look:

Ok… so as I write this (remember how I wrote them all before I left), I still have a few more things to squeeze in there. But there’s still room. Mostly, I worry that it might exceed the weight limit. Luckily, I have an easy way to get around that.

I bought some huge 2 gallon Ziploc bags and split up my shirts into two bags. I also put my socks and small clothes into separate bags, so if I have to unload something from my bag to help it meet the weight requirements, I can easily transfer one or two Ziplocs to my stashable tote or my camera bag. The hardest part will be the stricter weight limit for our flight from Strasbourg to Nice. If I have to, I am not above putting on lots of layers of clothes for the short flight.

trip prep: the essentials

Last night, I hopefully got a good night’s sleep on the night train from Paris to Hamburg. Now that we’re in Hamburg, we plan on visiting the cheesy but awesome-looking Beatlemania Museum and maybe riding on a ferry somewhere.

There are some essentials that I take on every trip: chargers, books (now via Kindle which is so.much.better), granola bars, and Excedrin. But for this trip, I’ll be packing a few additional items.


1. Herb Lester maps. I think I cam across Herb Lester on Pinterest, and I just love them. They are full of interesting and quirky places to visit. For example, the Paris for Pleasure-Seekers map mentions a shop called 20 sur 20 “a modest and wonderfully specialist supplier of costume jewelry from the 1940s to 1960s.” Yes please. And the Writing London map tells me where to find the bank where PG Wodehouse worked and from which he was fired because he needed a sheet of paper on which to write a short story.


2. Multiple Memory Cards. I think it’s clearly established that I plan to take lots of photos on this trip, but I won’t be taking my laptop with me, so I won’t have any way to unload my photos. In the past, I’ve gotten away with one 4gb memory card, but I knew that would not be sufficient. For my rebel, I bought two 16gb compact flash cards and for the s100, I bought two 32gb cards. Hopefully that is enough. (As an aside, I remember when I first went to Europe in 2004 and had to pay almost $100 for a 512mb card. How times have changed!)


3. A stashable tote like this one from flip & tumble. I actually got my tote at the e-learning conference I attended in NYC. It’s made from nylon and it’s pretty large, but it rolls up into a small little ball the size of rolled-up socks. I am using mine to carry some snacks (and some special requests) on the way to Europe. Then I can stash it in my bag for most of the trip. I’ll use it again on the way home to carry all of my souvenirs.


4. Travelex Cash Passport cards. Usually when I travel abroad, I just withdraw a large-ish amount of cash every once in a while or use a debit card to pay for things when possible. Europe, as you probably know, uses a different kind of card than we do in the States. They use a chip and PIN card. In the past, I haven’t had a problem using my card, even for tube tickets or mobilis passes in Paris. But since we will be driving on this trip and dealing with toll booths and gas stations that might be unmanned, I worried about my American card not working. I read about these Travelex Cash Passport cards and to be honest, I’ve also read some negative reviews about excessive fees. However, I decided to give them a try. I loaded the minimum amount on the card ($250 or 179 euros) to use just for emergencies. I ordered them online and then picked them up at a local bank. I was pleased to find that they no longer charge the fees that people online complained about. Anyway, I’m curious to see how well they work and if they end up being a benefit.

trip prep: camera gear

We just spent three days in Paris, ideally eating lots of crepes and pains au chocolat, and now we’re off to see some of the chateaux in the Loire Valley.

As I mentioned in my last post, photography is a really important part of this trip. I usually use a Canon Rebel XTi with a 50mm 1.4 lens and a 28-135mm lens, but after my trip to Kenosha over Memorial Day, I started rethinking what camera gear I wanted to take on the Euro-Adventure. The biggest reason was that the camera and two lenses are actually pretty heavy to walk around with all day. A secondary reason was that I wasn’t sure if those two lenses would give me the range that I wanted. Because I would be photographing mostly architecture and landscapes, I wanted a wider angle.

I started researching how much it would be to rent a wide angle lens (through lens rentals or borrow lenses), but then I realized that I would have to carry around the camera with three additional lenses and that would just add to the weight of my camera bag. Plus, I didn’t want to have to keep switching lenses all the time. I worried about this for a few weeks. Then one morning, I woke up with a genius idea. I could buy a small but nice point-and-shoot camera with a wider range. Then I could still take my Canon with the 50mm lens for low-light situations.

The benefits immediately became apparent. My camera bag would be lighter. I wouldn’t have to switch lenses all of the time, and I would have a backup camera in case something happened to either of them.

I went into full-on research mode and started reading review after review after review of different cameras. At first I purchased the Lumix LX5, and I took it to New York City with me to test out my idea. I liked the pictures from NYC, but overall, I wasn’t happy with the camera. I sent it back and started searching all over again.

After much thought and pros/cons weighing and long emails to friends, I purchased the Canon s100.

It’s really light and small (easily fits in my pocket), but it still has manual controls and I can shoot in RAW if I want. Once I got the camera, I made some comparisons using the s100 and my 28-135 lens to make sure I wouldn’t be short-changing my photos, and I thought the quality of the s100 held up beautifully.

And just for fun, I decided to bring along a Fuji Instax 25 mini.

Well, I also want to have some photos to tape into my travel journal. I’ve been wanting one of these instant cameras forever and decided the trip was the perfect excuse to buy one (it may already be apparent that I used the trip as the perfect excuse for several purchases). Originally I planned on buying the wide format version, but have you seen how big those are? I couldn’t imagine lugging it around Europe with me. The Mini 25 is much more manageable and the credit card sized photos will fit perfectly in my travel journal. It’ll be nice to have some tangible images right away to just help me realize that yes, I am really, truly there.