Monday, May 31, 2010

Travel tips and Paige's birthday

 Hittin' the road back in '99
I had an email conversation with a friend recently who will be traveling to Spain soon with his wife. He wrote me to ask if I had any tips about traveling in Europe.  Well, I'm sure my friend knew (or if he didn't, he soon learned) that I'm always willing to tell people what I think. (wink)

Hangin' in Ireland with Mahatma Candy
Europe is safe

The first time I traveled to Europe was when my brother, Calee, and I went for a quick five-day jaunt to London in February, 1997.  In my pre-trip research, nearly everything I read warned me to be on my toes against pickpockets and tourist scams.  When we arrived I half-expected to be stripped of all my belongings before we even reached our hotel.  Now, after having traveled extensively throughout western (and a little bit of central) Europe, I can state definitively that the stories you hear about thieves and scams are exaggerated.

The key to avoiding trouble is to not invite it.  Keep your passport, your ATM card, and your money in a travel pouch, inside your clothes, right next to your skin.  Be sure to keep them in a plastic bag so that they don't get wet if you sweat.  Leave your expensive jewelry at home.  Ladies, I recommend that you forgo carrying a purse.

Always count your change.  Once, in Paris, a bartender deliberately short-changed me and flatly denied it when I pointed it out to him.  In the end he got my money (it was about 50 cents), but I hope I at least shamed him to one degree or another.  Another time, a barrista at La Escorial outside Madrid tried to rip me off, but one of my travel companions, a Mexican woman, let fly with a string of invective that took a strip of hide off of him.  He meekly handed me the rest of my money.

Regarding violent crime, the most violence I ever saw was in Ireland, where I witnessed a couple fistfights in the pubs on weekend nights.  (I was present at said establishments only for purposes of objective observation, you understand.)

Um belo dia em Lisboa
Don't be afraid of the so-called "language barrier"

The truth is, in any major city in western Europe, from Lisbon to Stockholm to Berlin to Naples, you can easily get by speaking nothing but English.  There is no language barrier.  It is good manners, though, to at least learn one or two words in the local language.  Especially, "thank you."  You will find that the response you get from people is much, much better if you at least try to say something in their language. 

When speaking to someone for whom English is a second (or third, fourth, or fifth) language, keep your sentences short, clear and simple.  Pronounce each word.  Don't use slang. 

When my sister, Mia, and I were in Lisbon in spring of 1999, I witnessed a young woman organizing a tour of the city, directing tourists to various buses.  She was being peppered with questions from dozens of people in five or six languages.  She deftly fielded each question and replied in the language in which it was asked, effortlessly.  I asked her "How many languages do you speak?"  She looked at me and guffawed, "I tried to count once..."

In smaller towns, you may at times find yourself in a place where no one speaks English.  When that happens, you will quickly learn how easy it is to communicate with gestures and facial expressions.  Above all, don't worry.

Las paredes blancas de Grenada
Dealing with money

Don't worry about converting money before you go.  The exchange counters in the airports and train stations are rip-offs.  Go straight to any bank machine and use your ATM card to draw your money directly out of your bank account.  Doing it this way guarantees that you will get the best exchange rate available.  You will have to pay the ATM fee, which could be anywhere from $1 to $5.  But don't worry:  there are ATMs everywhere in Europe.  I've used them in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa.

As I gained travel experience, I found that the way it worked best for me was to go to the ATM upon arrival at a city and withdraw all the money that I thought I would need while at that city.  That way, I never had too much cash on me at any time, but I minimized the number of ATM fees.

Now that the European Union has converted to the Euro, things will be much simpler.  No need to run conversions in your head as you cross borders.

Grubbin' at the youth hostel in Copenhagen (Jason, Nelson, and Martín)

Youth hostels are a great way to go, regardless of your age. As a matter of fact, they are an excellent way to go. You will meet lots of fellow travelers from all over, and they can give you tips about things to see and good places to eat. Plus, you can often make friends. It happened to me many times when I traveled. Some hostels have private rooms, but most are dormitory sleeping. They have lockers where you can store your valuables.

The big advantage of youth hostels is that you are immersed in the travel life.  You learn much.  You get a much more immediate and intimate experience than you do staying in a hotel.  Hotel rooms can often turn into prisons from which it is hard to emerge.  My belief is that, if you're going to travel, get out there and mix with the people and the country as much as possible.  If you only come out of your hotel room to do a quick tour of a museum and eat at some tourist-elegant restaurant, you might as well stay home and watch it on teevee.

Pensiones also make for good accommodations. A pensione is a house with rooms that the owner lets out to travelers. Often, when you get off a train or bus, there will be people greeting you as you disembark, offering rooms. I've rented rooms that way several times and I've never had a bad experience. In San Sebastian, I rented a room from a matronly Spanish doña, who paid me the compliment of looking at me lasciviously.  I hadn't even noticed, but after she had handed us the key to the room and gone on about her business Jay, my Australian travel companion told me "She was checking you out pretty heavily."  Nice little ego boost.

Parisian cityscape
Get information!

The surest, best way to get up-to-date information is to contact the Tourist Information office.

Just about every city and town has a tourist information center where you can get great tips about what to see and do during your visit. You can count on them to be honest, too. They can even find you accommodations and sometimes sell you passes for the various tourist attractions.

Happy Birthday, Payee!

Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday, dear...
...little girl who would suck her thumb,
...and clutch her "manky" in her little fist,
...little Payee,
Happy birthday to you!


Eclectic Dilettante said...

We have found that calling our credit card companies is a must before travel.

We were denied credit in Manhattan because we weren't home to approve the charge!

Always let them know before you go lest they think that gift shop purchase is "irregular" and and shut the card down.

It's also a good idea to have credit card emergency phone numbers somewhere on your person/cell phone/laptop, etc. Lost/stolen cards without a contact number is a real pain to deal with.

Just my 2c :-)

UnitFour said...

Be alert to ATM skimming when overseas. "Skimming" is a type of identity theft, utilizing a device that is placed over the card intake slot on an ATM. The device records the contents of each card's magnetic stripe as they are fed into the machine. Card PINs are gathered either via a number-pad overlay that records entered PINs, or by means of a tiny camera aimed at the number pad and placed in an overhead light bar or brochure rack. Criminals use the magnetic stripe data to manufacture a counterfeit card (or "clone") which they use to make unauthorized withdrawals. I am aware of skimming incidents in England, The Netherlands, Italy, France, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, The Russian Federation and The Ukraine.