General Notes on Europe 2012

DH says that, in my last post, I did not sufficiently describe how crazy it is to be in another country, trying to find your way around, and having no phone or internet or GPS to assist you. (We did try using Google Maps offline maps, but that didn’t work. Don’t depend on that as your only option. Like so many things, it’s still in beta/labs state.)

In particular, maps in foreign countries are hit and miss. Rome’s tourist map often doesn’t label streets. Street signs are written on buildings, if they exist at all. There are alley ways which may or may not count as streets. Generally, while we had Rick Steves’ guides loaded up, his maps are terrible for finding your way around. DH, being someone who relies on maps for navigation, was very upset. I rely on landmarks and street signs, and I had studied the Google street view for the area around our hostel. I’m not going to say I knew exactly how to get there, but I knew I’d recognize it when I saw it, and I knew a vague direction to head in. DH, OTOH, was freaked because we couldn’t find the exact street name on the map. It is absolutely true that there’s a huge amount of stress in traveling. Once you do it, you have greater sympathy with contestants on The Amazing Race. Yes, those folks have what often seem to be ridiculous and stupid arguments and emotional breakdowns, but they’re dealing with the constant stress of being unfamiliar, of not knowing where to go or where you are, of jet lag, and of needing to do things with less information than normal. It is ridiculously stressful. Plus, when you’re not on The Amazing Race, you can add in that you’re always on guard, because you have little idea who might be criminal or when you might have stumbled into a bad area. DH doesn’t remember being stressed during our first week in Europe last year, but I do. I remember greatly the peace that comes with getting onto a cruise ship and knowing your stuff is tucked away, that most things are in English, that you know what to expect, and that people will be nice to you generally.

I should also note, in the category of that drinks throughout Europe are just crazy expensive in restaurants. It feels like, because tipping isn’t the norm, the prices on everything are jacked up to compensate, and the burden of that increase comes when they’re bringing you something small, like a beverage. I thought previously that the high price was because of seeking Americanized beverages, but really, it’s pretty much any beverage. In France, wine was cheaper (while still being more than we’d ever pay for a soda or tea at home), but in Italy, nothing was cheap. You couldn’t order tap water. The cheapest thing you could get was a bottle of either sparkling or still water, and prices spiked up from there quickly. What I found is that the cheaper way to get beverages is to go to grocery stores. Buying warm is cheaper than buying it cooled, but either way is less than half the price of buying it from a food stand, counter service, or sit-down eatery. I saw locals (or at least, native-sounding Italians) pulling bottles of water and soda out of their bags at one restaurant in Florence, rather than buying it from the restaurant. Unfortunately, though, grocery stores don’t tend to be marked on tourist maps (though Lonely Planet and Rick Steves both occasionally mention them), so you have to keep an eye out.

A constant question is how much cash to bring, particularly since you want to minimize your ATM visits to avoid commissions and fees. We ended up pulling out around 600 euros, and we tend to live cheaply and buy few souvenirs. We needed 100 euros per night for our hostel, so that’s 200 euros. We probably spent around 200 euros on train tickets (2 people) and probably another 20-30 on cab fare on our first night in Rome. The rest was food, which easily runs 8-15 euros per person for lunch and 13-25 euros per person for dinner, and souvenirs. Very few places take credit cards. Even fewer places will actually have credit card machines that work with your (crazy ass, insecure, American, chip-less) credit cards. So, make your euro plans accordingly. Also, keep in mind that your bank will measure your daily limit in dollars (including fees), not Euros. So, if your daily limit is $500, you can max at around 350 euros from the machine, maybe 400. We pulled out 200 euros on the first day at the Frankfurt airport, another 300 euros at the Rome airport, and on the next to last day, we ended up getting another 100 because we were running low before dinner. We definitely could have planned that better. Finding an ATM anywhere besides the airport is annoying. The guidebooks will occasionally mark them on a map, and locals can often point you to one, but it may or may not work with your (crazy ass, insecure, American, chip-less) ATM card.

Using public transit in Europe is generally awesome. It makes you weep for the paucity of public transit in the US. We ran into some issues in Barcelona with the trains that normally run every 15 minutes being more like every 60 minutes (and at Japan/India-like levels of “shove yourself in” crowded-ness) due to labor strikes. There was also a labor strike that shut down the rail lines in Rome on our first night there. The tourist offices as well as concierges in hotels can tell you about the labor situation on the day of your visit. (Don’t trust what cabbies say; they have ulterior motives.) We also ended up having to crowd into a packed train from Nice back to Cannes. Apparently, there’s a big market day on the Italy/France border in Villefranche every Friday, and people head home from it on Friday late afternoon, hence lots of packed trains. Getting from the airport in Rome to Termini Station and from Termini to/from Civitavecchia was easy-peasy. It’s a lot of walking (while dragging your luggage along), but the train stations feel safe and have lots of services. Perhaps the only exception to this was in Naples; the train station there was overly crowded, dirty, and sometimes felt a bit skeevy. The bus was standing room only between the train station and the port. However, the locals there were incredibly nice and friendly, with none of the tip-begging we saw in Rome.

As far as crime, we were lucky enough not to encounter it. We talked to a few people on the ship who did, though. Some factor there is probability and some factor is personal discretion and safety. We didn’t tend to be in touristy places for very long, and I’m very cautious about keeping my back to the wall or to DH when wearing a backpack (and having my real valuables either buried deep or latched to me) or using a shoulder bag that is double latched to me (strap and a carabiner) and worn around front. I also will switch my backpack to the front when in crowded situations. DH wore a money belt under his clothes that contained most of the real valuables (passports, big bills, credit cards). In Barcelona and Naples, two cities well known to be high on tourist crime, we were particularly cautious.

Wi-fi is easy to find. However, DH learned the hard way that, if you’re making your dining decision based solely on the wi-fi, ask to be connected before you order. (That is, sit down, then get onto wi-fi, then order food and drink. If the wi-fi doesn’t work, you can still leave without guilt at that point.) Also, he learned that you need to order gelato by the cost (e.g., a 1 euro cone), not by the size (e.g., 1 ball), lest you get suckered into buying a more expensive treat. But, really, is it that big of a deal to have bought extra gelato? 😉

Going back to that familiarity thing, our second time in Rome (at the end of our trip) was much easier and less stressful than the first day, which goes to show how much being familiar with your surroundings reduces your stress. We knew exactly where to find the metro vs. the commuter trains, how to find the schedules, where to buy tickets, etc. We also knew exactly how to find our hostel on that second go-round, which made me really glad I had done the extra effort to find a place with vacancy both before and after our trip rather than doing two different places. (Also, the hostel put us into a room with a lift on our second visit…I think they didn’t want to help haul our bags up and down those stairs again!)

I’ll talk more about the NCL Epic when I talk about our sea day on the ship, but I hope these notes help out other travelers in planning their trip. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, as always. 🙂

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