Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Travel Tips - Erin's European Life Savers
Now that we've been living out of suitcases in Europe for over a week, I feel comfortable sharing a few of the things that have made our lives and traveling with the kids much, much easier.
1 - laptop - Having a laptop has made it easy to look up various destinations and maps. I love typing as opposed to tapping on my phone or iPad (although we brought those, too, and have used them extensively). The kids like looking up YouTube videos of their fave shows, too, when they're tired and need to veg out. Some people might balk at that - they're in Italy, for god's sake! But honestly, I think they've earned it since they've been cool with walking all over Barcelona and Rome with us. It's a treat... and it keeps us just as happy (no fighting = good, quiet siesta times).
2 - dropbox - About a month ago, I signed up for Dropbox (www.dropbox.com) so that I could upload and store all of my pictures and music in "the cloud" and access them from any computer or device at any time. I had no idea how awesome it would be for traveling! Of course, I can access my travel docs on my phone and iPad and laptop, etc., but I can also upload the pictures from my phone and my regular digital camera onto my computer and Dropbox will automatically upload them to "the cloud" so they are safe and sound. No more worrying about losing my camera or deleting pictures before I get home. My memories are safely and digitally preserved.
3 - tour guide - I've said it before, but I'm a big believer in paying for a private local guide to help you get oriented in a city, especially if you have kids. Some people (and I used to be one of them) love planning a trip and taking out their maps and guidebooks while walking around a city, but now I prefer walking and talking with a guide whose job it is to answer my questions and customize a tour around my family's needs and interests. If we want to stop for gelato, we stop. If we have a question about the ruins, it's answered. If we need transportation, they arrange it. Bing, bam, boom. Even a 3-hour tour once during the trip is enough to get familiar with a local's-eye view of a city and glimpse into the life of someone who lives here. Because of our tours, we've been able to see cities from the inside out, learning about specialty foods and customs and festivals. Often, we'll find ourselves far from the crowds, in spots where the views are spectacular and there are no other tourists in sight. It also ensures that we don't wander in circles trying to find a landmark or a Metro station or a taxi when the kids are tired, which is worth its weight in gold!
4 - adaptors - Buy your adaptors on Amazon for a few bucks before you leave for your trip. We got three adaptors this time and they have been invaluable for keeping our phones, camera, laptop, kindles and hair straightener working. We're lucky that most modern US appliances can convert to both 110 and 220 electrical outlets, so all you need is the right adaptor. When my family moved to Naples, Italy, when I was a teenager (about 25 years ago), we had to have a small converter that plugged into the wall, and then we could plug our appliances into that... but still, we fried our fair share of hair dryers... Needless to say, I'm glad it's so easy nowadays!
5 - go grocery shopping - Even if we stay in a hotel, I like to go to local grocery stores to check out snacks and get bottled water, fruit and picnic items. We've learned that you have to weigh your own produce at most European markets and the machine will give you a sticker to put on the bag (and if you don't do this, you'll get a stink eye from the cashier and the long line of locals behind you!), and you often are required to bag your own items in your own bag. Plus, I love the brand names of foreign products (case in point: Horniman's teas... hmmm...) and it's reason enough not to bring your own shampoo to try something new.
6 - rent an apartment - Sure, you won't have a concierge downstairs, but you'll be able to feel more "at home" in a foreign city if you have your own space. The drawbacks are that you can't call downstairs if you run out of toilet paper or garbage bags, but it's nice to have your own entrance and exit, and to spread out a little bit more than in a tiny hotel room.
7 - make yourself comfortable - We often find ourselves spending less on touristy activities and a little extra on the things that make our trip more comfortable or enjoyable. In Barcelona, we bought inexpensive beach towels, which we gave to the cleaning lady when we left; it may not seem like a big deal, but we used them over and over throughout the week! In Rome we've had mild weather, but even so, our apartment's A/Cs limp along. When I left the windows open at night, though, we got bitten by mosquitoes. The solution was to buy two cheap fans from an old guy in a little shop around the corner. We'll bequeath them to the apartment and to all the lucky travelers who rent it during the sweltering summer months, but the fans have made our trip that much better! And when I think about it, I'd much rather have a good night's sleep than a suitcase filled with cheap replicas of the Vatican or key chains.
8 - splurge-worthy souvenirs - Before I take a trip, I really think about the item(s) I'd love to bring home to remember my trip, besides pictures and these blog posts. In Barcelona, I took Emme and Serena to Lluis Manuel in the Gothic Quarter for espadrilles. In Rome, I found a beautiful leather purse and Raf bought a wallet. Emme and Serena asked to buy some make-up at Sephora, which they can buy in the US, but they wanted something they'd used every day that would remind them of Rome, so I said yes. Marlowe has gotten several toys and laser-lights to use at night. I also have my eye out for a gold ring to commemorate our 15th wedding anniversary. If it's a nice item that I will use all the time and makes an ordinary day feel special (like the purse I bought or Emme's new mascara), then it's worth the splurge to me. Boxer shorts emblazoned with the image of a marble statue's penis? Not so much.
9 - ziploc bags - I like to grab a handful of various sizes before I leave and tuck them into my suitcase. You never know what you'll need them for: protecting phones if it's rainy, holding the second half of a sandwich for later, carrying Euro coins, separating snacks, etc., etc.
10 - get into it - If all else fails, just "get into it," one of our favorite lines from "The Darjeeling Limited." Raf and I say this when we don't quite know where we're going or what we're gonna do, but we want to get out and enjoy the city. The line from Darjeeling is from a scene in which the oldest brother (Owen Wilson) is getting a shoe shine and the kid steals his shoe. He hobbles after the boy, then stops and says something like, "I nearly died, Jack's heart has been broken and Rubby's having a child. Let's get into it!" as a sort of battle cry, like there's nothing left to lose. It seems to cover everything.
Just get into it!