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: 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: the series

Today I left for a much anticipated trip to France and Germany with my friend, Cristen. We’ve been dreaming, preparing, and planning for this trip for almost a year. I’ve been saving up all of my paid time off and saving pennies for months and months. I’m so excited that it has finally arrived.

I have never spent so long preparing for a trip before. I’m usually more of a spontaneous traveler and will purchase tickets only a month or two (at the most) in advance. And while I travel fairly frequently, this is perhaps the most complicated trip I have ever taken. We will be visiting 12 cities in just 25 days. Crazy, right? I’m calling it my Highlights of France and Germany European Adventure. I think we may have been overly ambitious, but time will tell.

I’ve done a lot to prepare for this trip and learned a lot in the process. Rather than leave this little blog blank for almost a month, I’ve decided to schedule some posts detailing some of the preparations I made. I hope you find them interesting and helpful for planning some of your own adventures. In addition, each post also gives a little summary of where I am in my travels. Since I am writing these in advance and can’t be completely sure about how some of the preparations I’ve made will work out, I’ll also write a final post when I return to let you know what went well and what didn’t.

p.s. I won’t be blogging here, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be sharing photos. I’ll probably post some to instagram as wifi is available. If you have instagram, you can follow me there (@sharpandkeen). If not, you can follow me here.

I am a tourist.

I’m in the middle of planning a three-week trip to France and Germany right now (with a little London thrown in for good measure), and I absolutely love planning it. If I could do it all day long, I would. I get obsessed with train schedules and timelines and figuring out the best way to make the best use of my time. That’s not to say that I don’t want to spend time just relaxing at a cafe or on a park bench or that I have a strict itinerary that must be followed. My travel style is to plan and research as much as possible before the trip (down to all the fine details) and then when I’m actually on the vacation, I can be flexible because I have everything researched already.

During the research stage, though, I keep coming across well-meaning blog posts like this one from Cup of Jo about how not to look like a tourist. Or I read about “seeing the real (insert town/country).” Or about how to avoid tourist traps. Look, let’s get something straight. When you go on vacation, you are a tourist. By definition. And it’s ok. I want people to reclaim the word tourist and feel fine about it. Would you honestly go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower? or the Louvre? Would you really go to London and not see Big Ben? Or go to New York City and not visit… well, everything?

In fact, I find the idea of “seeing the real (insert town/country)” to be rather condescending. Can you really get to know the complex culture of an entire country, or even a city or a neighborhood, in just three, four, or even seven days? No, you can’t. You might see a jazz funeral or a second line on your visit to New Orleans. Or maybe you caught some beads at Mardi Gras, but don’t tell me you saw the real New Orleans after that. If you want to know “the real town/country,” you need to live there, buy groceries, walk the same streets, talk to people multiple times. You need to live there. And then you are a local, not a tourist.

So let’s look at some of the ways to not be a tourist (from the blog post) and my thoughts about it in italics:

1. Don’t stare. Even if a woman in a tiger suit crosses your path.

So basically, don’t engage with anyone or notice your surroundings. No thanks.

2-4. Dress appropriately for the situation.

I’ll probably dress the way I always do because it’s part of who I am, and I will wear comfortable shoes because I am probably walking a lot more than an average person going about their daily business. And also, since when is it so important to blend in? Did we give up the notion of creating your own distinct style?

5. Don’t stand in the way of other people while you’re doing your touring.
6. Know how to use your metro card.
7. Don’t complain about the prices.
8. This was a random compliment to tourists about how they “look up” and actually see the skyscrapers. So I guess it’s ok to do that.
9. Fold your pizza.
10. Don’t ask a celebrity for an autograph.

Basically, the rest of these could be summarized as: Don’t be a jerk. Be aware of the people around you. (And a random one about pizza. We get it, New Yorkers, fold your pizza.)

What people are really saying when they encourage you not to dress/look/act like a tourist is to not think the city/town/country you are visiting exists just so you can visit it. But that should just be called, “Act like a human being.”

So why not embrace being a tourist? Because really, it’s not all bad. When you’re a tourist, you are excited about seeing a new place. You look at everything with fresh eyes. When you are a tourist, you are sampling new food, going to places you’ve never been before, challenging yourself to try new things.

I believe in being a tourist, even in your own city. When I was in New York, I met a woman in her 50s at the conference who was born in Manhattan and had lived there her entire life. She commented, “This is nice. I’ve never been as far up as 116th Street before.” That just made me really sad. It’s so easy to get stuck in our normal, everyday routine and eat at the same restaurants, shop at the same stores, take the same routes, and never look with curiosity at all of the other options around us.

For me, I’m happy to be a tourist in my own city, and I can’t wait to be a tourist in France and Germany this fall.