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My Advice for Other First Time Europe Visitors

My Advice for Other First Time Europe Visitors

Old Jan 9th, 2003, 04:26 PM
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belinda
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My Advice for Other First Time Europe Visitors

I posted this thread last summer and during the re-indexing by Fodor's it was lost. I've seen several posts asking for advice for first-timers and so I thought I would re-post this. I hope noone minds. Even more, I hope someone finds something useful.
 
Old Jan 9th, 2003, 04:28 PM
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belinda
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We just returned (6/9/2002) from a glorious two week visit to London, Paris, Florence and Rome. Four of us traveling together. My first time. I planned the trip using this message board, assorted guide books and various websites. I booked our plane travel, train travel, hotels and museums in Florence via the internet. I think I learned a few things I can share with others who are planning their first trip. Realize that all these things are subjective and others may contradict me and that's fine. Everybody is different. Here goes:
THE JEAN THING: Jeans seemed pretty common in London and Paris. Less so in Italy, but casual pants were common. I only saw shorts on tourists, but hey if you're a tourist what's wrong with that? My advice is wear what you are comfortable in, but dress with respect for where you are visiting. If I had this trip to do over again, I would pack one pair of dress black pants, one pair of khakis, one pair of blue jeans and one pair of black jeans. But that's me. We had to pack for two climates, cool and warm, so we took a little more clothing than we otherwise might have.
THINGS I'M GLAD I TOOK: I packed my Swiss Army knife and wine bottle opener in my suitcase which proved to be quite handy during picnics on the overnight train and in our hotel room. In Paris we bought really good cheese from a stinky cheese shop, bread from the bakery guy and wine from the wine shop and ate it on the overnight train to Florence. We also bought pastries from the bakery guy. The French know how to do pastries. It went really well with the Eurostar coffee (espresso) served by the really nice lady in charge of our car. In Rome we bought wine, cheese, sliced bread, and assorted olives from a small grocery store before we boarded the train from Rome to Paris. The olives were a good call on our part. There were spicy green ones. Yummy. The guy in charge of our car, Alessandro, turned up his nose at our Montepulciano (sp?) wine, but brought us seconds of his sparkling Italian white wine. It was really good and started with a "P" which is all I can tell you. So you can see we needed the knife to slice the cheese and the bottle opener to open the wine.
The other thing I was really glad we brought was several packs of those antibacterial handiwipes that come in little flat packages. This is not because I think Europe is dirty or whatever. It is because they are incredibly convenient when you don't have the opportunity to wash your hands. I also had a little travel roll of toilet paper which I only had to use once in a bathroom at the Ufizzi.
SECURITY STUFF: We used leg wallet type "money belts" instead of around the waist or around the neck ones. They are a little awkward if you are wearing pants with narrow legs and they are a little awkward to get into when you want a credit card, but overall they were a good idea. I also bought a small men's travel blazer in black from LL Bean or somebody. It was a life saver. The interior pockets are zippered and one is long enough to carry all your travel documents. I wore the jacket anytime we were traveling on a plane or train because I could put our tickets, reservations and rail passes in the long interior pocket. We also bought little Master Lock travel locks for our suitcases. The ones that come with the suitcase are generally crap. The Master Locks survived the plane ride, multiple taxis and the trains.
I had a great time and can't wait to go back. We did the sort of "overview" trip, with 3 days in London, 4 days in Paris, 3 days in Florence and 4 days in Rome. Some people think this is a good idea, some don't. I enjoyed it although it was a tough travel schedule. In the future, we will focus on areas for a week or two at a time.
This was just the first installment. More later. I hope someone finds this helpful. Thanks.
 
Old Jan 9th, 2003, 04:29 PM
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belinda
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MONEY STUFF: I tend to be a little paranoid about preparation and this trip was definitely not an exception. I called my credit card companies to let them know I would be using my card overseas. This was a good idea. For the trip I carried a VISA, a MasterCard and an American Express. (Did I mention I tend to overdo things?) I tried to change my ATM pin from 6 digits to 4 digits, but my bank doesn't issue 4 digit pin numbers. I was able to use my card with the 6 digits as long as the ATM machine bore the same ATM network symbols as my card, ie Pulse, etc. I took $200 in British Pounds and $500 in Euro with me in cash, just in case. Also carried American dollars to pay the cab fare home, etc.
PROBLEMS AT THE TRAIN STATIONS: In Paris we were catching the 7:30 pm overnight Eurostar to Florence. We had a Rail Pass and reserved sleeping compartment tickets. As this was our first time to use the Rail Pass we needed to have the person at the ticket window validate it, or whatever exactly it's called. They write the date of your first trip on it. I had read that an overnight trip starting after 7pm counts as only one day on the pass and that the next day's date should be entered. Okay. Armed with that little bit of info I looked at my Rail Pass after the ticket window guy wrote on it and said, "Huh?" We were leaving Paris 5/31 and arriving Florence 6/1. He wrote "31/6/02" on two of the Rail Passes and nothing on the other two. (For those who don't know, the convention in Europe is to put the month first, day second.) I'm no genius, but I was pretty sure this probably wasn't correct. After checking with a traveling companion, I got back in line. When I got to the window I pointed out very politely what I believed to be the problem (same guy). He said "Oh, yeah" or something equivalent and promptly changed it to "1/7/02". Did I mention we were arriving on 6/1/02? So I politely pointed out that July 1st probably wasn't what we wanted either. He laughed, scribbled over the two wrong dates and corrected it. Okay at this point I'm totally paranoid that I'm going to be thrown off the train for having a scribbled on Rail Pass (was in fact not a problem). He correctly wrote the date on the other Rail Passes.
More train problems later.
 
Old Jan 9th, 2003, 04:31 PM
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belinda
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Yep. That's supposed to be "day first, month second."
 
Old Jan 9th, 2003, 04:32 PM
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MORE PROBLEMS AT THE TRAIN STATION: These are minor, but here goes. In Florence we had to catch a train to Rome at 7:00 a.m. We arrived early and were told that we wouldn't know the platform for our train until about 30 minutes before departure. We checked back and were told to go to platform 12. Which we did. Turned out we our train was at platform 12ES. Next door to platform 12. Our train was a Eurostar. Seems minor but let me tell you, one platform off may as well be twenty. It's still the wrong train. We discovered the correct platform by continuing to look at signs and ask questions of any and everybody who looked official. Everybody was very nice. Just not always accurate. The other problem we ran into was at the train station in Rome when we were leaving for Paris on an overnight train at 7:30 pm. We arrived in plenty of time to catch our train. Once again, you don't know which platform your train leaves from until about 30 minutes before departure. By the way, there was a poster with the schedule information. It said our train would be leaving from one platform, but it actually left from another. We just asked questions and watched the electronic signs until we figured it out. I'm sure Italians are much more relaxed about this process. Okay the problem in Rome was this. Before boarding a train you have to stamp your ticket. At the end of each platform there are these yellow machines mounted on poles or something. You have to stick your ticket in their and it gets stamped. One time it stamped some writing. Another time it just took a bite out of the ticket(this was the correct result). Well I couldn't get the machine at the end of our platform to stamp our tickets and it was boarding time. Other folks were using the machine successfully. So I had to track down someone who could tell me whether it was okay to stamp our tickets at any machine, not just the one at the end of our platform. Turned out it was okay. We got on the train just fine. It is also common to arrive at the train station and find no seats. We just found a secluded spot in the station, circled our luggage and sat down. No problem.
More later. belinda
 
Old Jan 9th, 2003, 04:34 PM
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belinda
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SHOES AND RELATED TOPICS: I was told I would do a lot of walking on this trip. Little did I know what that meant exactly. For about a month before we left I got up in the mornings and walked for a few miles. I also bought good shoes (Josef Seibel and Ecco). As insurance, I brought some Dr. Scholl's moleskin and a small pair of scissors to cut it with.
Boy was I glad. One night in Paris we walked 3 solid hours (10pm to 1am) after a day we already spent on our feet. I developed a sore spot on the balls of my feet. I was able to apply moleskin for a couple of days and wear the other pair of shoes and all was well.
When people tell you that you're going to walk a lot, they mean "more than you have ever walked in your life." Unless of course you're a postman or something.
I'm convinced that Europeans are skinnier than Americans because they walk so damn much. Which, by the way, I think is a good thing, even though I'm bitching.
We also climbed about a million stairs. Really. About a million. Be prepared.
And the walking is hard. In Rome there are a lot of hills. Seven to be exact. Everywhere there are cobblestones or some sort of uneven paving. If you're going to wear heels, be prepared to call a taxi.
One of my traveling companions was a 74 year old grandmother. She was incredibly resilient, but one night after a long day on our feet, I brought her some Ibuprofen tablets at the request of her son, who was another of my traveling companions. When I handed her the Ibuprofen she said "Can I put em on my feet?" Then she said "I'm glad we're going to be on a train tomorrow night because we can't walk anywhere." Okay, that was funny. Or maybe it's only funny if you've walked half way across Europe and you're tired.
Next installment: TAXIS. I know it's pretty exciting.
 
Old Jan 9th, 2003, 04:35 PM
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belinda
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TAXIS: In London we found it very easy to catch a cab. There were four of us with luggage. However, the ubiquitous Black Cab is neatly designed. The front passenger seat is missing so the driver can store luggage up front. The passenger compartment has two fold down seats which face the back bench. In our case, three of us sat on the bench and one on a fold down seat, and luggage was placed in the space for the other fold down seat. Taxi prices in London seemed reasonable. It was very easy to flag down a cab anywhere you saw one. When we needed to make an early morning train or plane connection, we were able to just walk outside our hotel and flag down a cab. Very easy.
Paris taxis. Not so easy. We had no luck flagging down cabs in Paris. We had to find a taxi stand. Then the cab driver in front of the Louvre was totally pissed when he realized there were four of us and he would have to remove items from his front passenger seat. When we caught a cab at the train station taxi stand, we had to stand aside until a vehicle big enough to carry us and our luggage came along. Even then we had stuff piled up in our laps in the back seat.
In Italy our luck with taxis was pretty good. In Rome we still had to look for taxi stands, but we were able on one occasion to simply flag a taxi down. All the taxi drivers in Italy were very nice. On a couple of occasions we had to take two taxis because one wouldn't hold us. We had no problems with the hotel calling cabs for us, catching cabs at the train station (look for the taxi stand or ask someone), or having the restaurant call us a cab.
One thing I would advise is make sure you have the address of the place you want to go written down somewhere. For our trip I had a small spiral notebook (4 X 5 or so). Each city had its own little tab. I just wrote the name on a plastic post-it tab and stuck it on the page. For each city, the first page was the name of the hotel, address and phone number. I would do my best to give the taxi driver the address in the appropriate language (using a phrase book) and then show him the page. Worked just fine.
In London and Paris we had great luck with the Underground/Metro. We were lucky enough to have people in each city who could kind of show us the ropes. I wouldn't recommend either if you have a lot of luggage.
When in Paris we took a side trip to Versailles. We went to the train station near Musee d'Orsay to catch the train to Versailles. I couldn't figure out how to read the overhead electronic signs and there was no one there to explain it to me. So I was standing there, turning in circles, looking perplexed when a very nice gentleman approached and asked, in French, something or other. I told him, in my really bad French, that I didn't speak French. He then said in English, "Do you need help?" I nearly hugged him. He kindly explained how to read the board and gave us the info we needed to catch our train to Versailles. We thanked him profusely. Remember, he approached me, unsolicited, to offer help. And he was French. And very nice. Okay.
 
Old Jan 9th, 2003, 04:37 PM
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belinda
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TAXIS AGAIN: I forgot to mention that in Paris and Italy, it's a good idea when ordering a taxi to tell them you need a big one if, like us, you need a big one. Some of the taxis were small station wagons and small vans which worked for us, but the cars would not have held the four of us plus luggage.
TRAINS AGAIN: Despite the minor problems we had with the train stations, I found train travel to be relatively easy. Some of the problems we had were self-imposed by my impatience and just plain not knowing what to do. I did find people working at the train station willing to help if they could. My job was to seek them out. So do your research. Read your ticket closely. Ask questions. Watch the electronic signs. Talk to the person at the door to what you believe to be the train car you are supposed to board. Almost everyone I encountered at train stations in France and Italy spoke some English. I had learned some Italian prior to our trip and one of my traveling companions spoke some French. Just smile, ask politely and people will help you. That was my experience.
 
Old Jan 9th, 2003, 04:38 PM
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belinda
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PHONE CARD: I forgot to mention the phone home thing. I bought an AT&T 600 minute calling card at Sam's for a little over $20. It worked great throughout our trip, but I only used it from our hotels. I had no problems except it took me a couple of tries to figure out that first you dial the local access phone number which is listed on the insert you get with the calling card and then you call the AT&T 800 number listed on the insert for international calls. Then you follow the instructions. The insert folds up the size of the card and I kept both in my leg wallet.
We did have trouble using pay phones in Paris and Rome. In Paris you have to use a phone card that you insert in the pay phone. So we went in search of a phone card which we bought at a wine shop as the tobacco shop nearby was already closed. We went back to the pay phone on the street, but couldn't use the phone card without some other card you have to insert into the pay phone first. A very nice guy waiting to use the phone offered us his card to use while we made our call. Someone who understands Paris pay phones can no doubt explain this better. My guess is we screwed something up.
The guy who loaned us his phone card was really nice and we later saw him again at the train station when we were leaving for Florence. How random is that? So we went over to thank him again. Turns out he was Italian and he was waiting for his girlfriend to board a train to Milan (I think). I had brought some little key chain souvenirs from my home state of Texas for just such an occasion and I was able to give one to him to thank him for his kindness. He was very gracious and we later saw him putting his keys on the keychain. It was a pewter finish key chain with an insert that spun around with a bronze colored armadillo on it and a bronze TEXAS emblazoned on the top. I know. Pretty tacky. He came over to tell us bye when his girlfriend finally arrived.
In Rome we used a pay phone at the Vatican museums. We had to purchase a Vatican phone card to use the pay phone. There was a machine that dispensed the phone cards. You have to tear off the perforated corner before you insert the card.
That's about all I have to say about phones.
Safe travels to ya.
 
Old Jan 9th, 2003, 04:40 PM
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belinda
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GUIDEBOOKS: Before we left I read a number of guidebooks, Fodors, Rick Steves, Michelin, etc. I now have quite a library. I decided to take the Rick Steves books with me as I like how they are organized and, because of the type of paper used in publishing them, they are light weight.

I used yellow plastic post-it flags to mark the key pages in each city. On the flags I wrote the key word, like, Louvre, British Museum, Restaurants, etc. That way I could easily turn to the page that I needed.

As we left each city, I left my guidebook behind. Sometimes donating it to the hotel library, sometimes to an arriving guest as we were departing.

In addition to the guide books I had purchased maps for each city. For Paris I had a really handy map book where I used the same procedure of flagging pages, Hotel, Eiffel Tower, etc. I can't recall the name of the map book, but it was extremely helpful. I'll try to find it and post it later.

I also compiled a small spiral notebook with key information. The front couple of pages were flight information. Next few pages contained train info - times, train numbers, station name, etc. Then each city had its own section beginning with hotel name, address and phone number.

Because we were doing so much in so little time, I thought it was important to make access to information as efficient and pain-free as possible. For the most part it worked.


 
Old Jan 10th, 2003, 05:52 AM
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lily
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Thanks for the info and advice Belinda.
 
Old Jan 11th, 2003, 03:20 AM
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topper
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topping
 
Old Jan 11th, 2003, 06:49 AM
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belinda
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You're welcome Lily. I also posted a very long-winded trip report under "Belated Trip Report - London, Paris, Florence and Rome" if you're interested. We had a great trip and I can't wait to go back. I'm currently planning a two week trip to Paris for next year.
 
Old Feb 16th, 2003, 05:12 PM
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belinds- thank you so much for your advice. I'm trying to get ready for a trip to Europe and reading your posts eased my mind quite a bit! Thanks!
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Old Feb 17th, 2003, 02:46 PM
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Although travel toilet paper was mentioned, I feel I must mention it again. I used it all over Italy on our month long trip last year. I don't think anyone (especially women) should go into a restroom without it. It saved me many times. (I like the travel size I bought through Magellan's).
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Old Feb 17th, 2003, 03:35 PM
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Thank you for all your great info - I'll share it with my classmates!
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Old Feb 18th, 2003, 12:21 PM
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Good advice for the novices, Belinda. I'd like to add a tidbit (& yes, this does appeal to the anal retentive personality).
LABELS FOR POSTCARDS: Print out mailing labels for your postcards.
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Old Feb 18th, 2003, 12:48 PM
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that was a good read...lots of info but not overwhelming at all! thanks!

Re travel toilet paper, they sell them at Target and Wal-Mart as well int the travel-sized toiletries section
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