First timers in Europe – 10 Lessons Learned While Traveling to Four Countries in Ten Days
Last year I won a trip through Intrepid Travel in a Pinterest contest from Skype. It was a 9-day adventure in Central Europe starting in Munich, Germany. After one day there, we traveled to the Czech Republic for two days in Prague and two days in a small village called Cesky Krumlov. Moving on, another two days in Vienna, Austria and ending with one overnight in Budapest, Hungary. We extended the trip with one extra overnight in Munich to get ourselves adjusted to the 13 hours of air travel it took to get there.
Neither my husband or I had ever traveled to Europe. We were nervous and excited and apparently, still had a lot to learn. Here is what we discovered in our travels:
Lesson Learned #1 -Leave the heels at home.
Before the trip, I was envisioning in my head that we'd walk the city during the day, return to the hotel in the evening for a shower and to change into dressy evening clothes before hitting the town. Well, things didn't exactly go down that way. I packed pretty dresses and several pairs of heels to wear for dinner but only one night did I even wear a dress and never did I wear heels. Even though it was mid-August, the weather generally wasn't conducive to dress-wearing (it was too chilly) and I ended up just wearing my same ol' day clothes for dinner along with my hot pink rain jacket and walking shoes. "Going to dinner" either meant taking public transportation or walking long distances, so the heels never made it out of the suitcase. There was one reason for that: Cobblestones. The cobbled streets in Central Europe make it challenging enough for you to walk in regular shoes, let alone heels.
Lesson Learned #2 - The tap water is great...but restaurants still won't serve it to you.
I'd heard in advance that tap water was frowned upon in restaurants but I still was surprised to get the eye-roll when I requested "tap water" in a restaurant in Prague. "Still or sparkling", said the waiter, firmly. My only two options for water for most of the trip. Water was always pricier than beer and you only get a tiny glass, 8 ounces at the most! Restaurants averaged $2.50 a bottle for water. Only at our last meal in Budapest did the restaurant bring us pitchers of tap water to the table...I drank 6 glasses!
Lesson Learned #3 - Pack several pair of good walking shoes. I'd taken my slip-on shoes off on the plane trip and when we landed in Munich, I had to cram my swollen feet back into them! I didn't realize my feet would swell so much on the plane. By the time we reached the hotel, I had terrible blisters along the tops of my feet and heels and my newly-polished toes were broken from walking in too-small shoes. Next time, I would choose something with adjustable straps when we get off the plane to accommodate my puffy feet!
The constant pounding of feet on cobblestones kicked my butt. Seriously, by day two my feet were aching. I relieved that by changing my shoes every day and taking two Ibuprofen before bed to help with swelling. On Day 5, we were just walking into a museum when the plastic ring on my sandal snapped and my shoe was flopping off my foot. Fortunately my husband was able to rig up a decent fix with a piece of string. Might be a good idea to carry even a lightweight pair of flip-flops in your backpack as a shoe backup!
Lesson Learned #4 - No ice cubes. Not a one for ten days.
I am not even sure they exist in central Europe. I ordered a "Coke Light" and it came to the table in the tiniest of glasses, like a child-sized cup. It was chilled but there wasn't any ice. Water is also served cold but never iced.
Lesson Learned #5 - Know your currency.
We traveled to 4 countries. Two used Euro, one used Hungarian Forint and one used Czech Koruna. Each one, of course a different currency rate. We ate lunch in a cute cafe and not until we left the restaurant did we realize that the (very small) chicken Caesar salads we ate for lunch were $15 USD each. After that costly meal we started taking a closer look at the prices on the menu and figuring out the exchange rate before stepping foot in the restaurant. Good thing we didn't order the bread pudding with the sky-high meringue...it would have set us back $10 USD for one slice!
Lesson Learned #6 - Prepare to pay to pee.
Okay, so maybe it's okay to have a fee to use the bathroom at the metro station. And even at the McDonalds. But in the high-class restaurants? They still had either a dish near the door to place your payment or an actual bathroom attendant collecting the charge (while simultaneously playing a game of cards with a friend, really!). Generally the bathroom fees were around 50 cents. On a positive note, I never once experienced a dirty bathroom, in fact bathrooms in central Europe were always cleaner than the ones here. There was never urine on the seat or floor, there was always a scrub brush in every stall and only once was there no toilet paper (I was supposed to grab a wad of it after I payed my Koruna, oops!).
Watch your liquids...unless you have change to pay to use the bathroom![/caption]
Lesson Learned #7 - A Queen is two Twins.
In every hotel room we stayed at two Twin beds were pushed together to create a Queen-sized bed. I suppose that makes it easier for single travelers to separate the beds into two, but in the case of the hotel we stayed at below in Vienna, the headboard and end tables were built in and there was no room to physically separate the beds, so it didn't make much sense. Pillows were often enormous floppy feather bags that didn't serve much of a purpose. What we did like...the individual feather-stuffed duvets. My husband stated that he never wanted to leave the hotel in Prague, our bed there was heavenly!
Lesson Learned #8 - A sleep mask is worth it's weight in gold.
I used a sleep mask every night while we traveled and slept a perfectly solid eight hours every night. In several hotels the curtains were completely sheer and there was no drapery to close (what was up with that?!) so the room was not dark enough to my liking. The sleep mask blocked out all light, had a nice silky pad against my closed eyelids and was scented with lavender (ahhh!!) so I always drifted off quickly. I used the sleep mask on the plane and slept five hours straight and also on the bus when we were traveling to the next city. Get a sleep mask for your trip, you won't regret it. I've been continuing to use it at home, I love mine so much.
Lesson Learned #9 - The meaning of "Salad" changes around the globe.
In some locations, it was perhaps three small lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes and cucumber. In another place, it was dry spinach leaves sprinkled next to your schnitzel. In all cases salads were very tiny and were nearly always drowning in vinaigrette. In fact there was almost always a quarter cup of liquid at the bottom of my bowl.
[caption id="attachment_901" align="alignnone" width="550"] A lovely meal but technically, I wouldn't consider that a "salad".[/caption]
Lesson Learned #10 - Avoid jet-lag....if you can!
I'd heard about jet-lag but had never experienced it. Going there wasn't terribly bad. We flew overnight and were able to nap on the plane so that when we arrived at 8:30 am in Munich we were okay to start the day. We did take a brief nap in the afternoon, got plenty of water and sunshine, and went to bed at a decent hour and I think that helped.
Coming back, it was a completely different story. We awoke at 6am in Budapest. We spent 15 hours in the air and 6 hours layover (which was mostly rushing to catch our connecting flight and waiting in queue through customs). By the time we touched down at home, we'd been awake for 24 hours. I had 4 soul-crushing days of jet-lag to follow where I was foggy-headed and exhausted, akin to recovering from the flu. We'd wanted to stay awake so that when we got home we could go to bed at our usual time but maybe we did that flight home "wrong"? I'm not sure. In any case, we're still waking up at 4am, ready to start our day so our bodies are still not on U.S. time yet.
We did a lot of research before our trip but there are always things that you can only learn along the way through experience! That, of course, is part of the fun and adventure!
Rick Steves Europe
Conde Nast Traveler
Travel + Leisure
Follow my adventures on Pinterest - European Vacation Planning