Since the last bunch of posts were all travel-related (you missed it? Start here), I figured I’d share some of the tips we’ve learned in our travels. I realise the internet is chock-full of travel tips, but this is a roundup of the things that work for us.
Do Some Research
Before you book anything, try to read up at least a little. I’m not a planner when it comes to vacation, which is super weird if you consider I can’t function without a strict routine and detailed planning in my daily life. Crazy, but I like to be told where we’re going and what we’re doing when on vacations. This means I do the minimum of research before we go, a fact that’s bitten me in the butt before.
You don’t need to know everything about your vacation destination, but you do need to know the basics. What will the weather be like? And please, on this account, don’t believe the urban legends doing the rounds that Europe is never hot. I don’t know if this is exclusively a South African thing, but it seems everyone is shocked when it’s hot and humid in Germany, of all places. Folks. Europe has sunshine too. 😛 In the summer, that is. We have winter rains, so keep that in mind.
You also want to check how busy the tourist attractions will be in the time of year you’re going to be there (see the point about the attractions), what the dress code is in some of these attractions, and whether it’s kid-friendly. Have a look at the entry fees for your budgeting while you’re researching.
A last idea here, check out the anti-tourist spots too. Sometimes, the unknown attractions are just as awesome as the main ones. More on this when we discuss attractions.
If you’re booking online, you’re obviously going to read some reviews on the place you’re planning to book. We’ve learned that the reviews with the highest star rating are usually too positive and tend not to prepare you for the rental’s shortcomings, while the lowest star ratings don’t often list anything good about the place at all. Makes sense, right? People who have a bad experience will only see the bad, while those who look at life through glasses of the rose-tinted variety will focus on the great points.
Example. We booked a place with fantastic ratings when we visited Munich, and it was seriously amazing, except when it came to the kitchen. We didn’t have most of the basic utensils we needed to cook with, which isn’t really that great in a self-catering accommodation. We still recommend the place, but we could have packed a pan and spatula, had we known we’d need it.
The point of all this – if you want the whole picture, focus on the mid-range ratings. These tend to be most balanced, which means you’ll know about the good and bad points of the place you’re visiting.
Kids and Airports
Our recent travels included three kids under 6. So, you know, we learned a thing or two here.
You’ll be hanging around the airport before your flight, so take this time to feed the horde. They’ll be less bored and grumpy if they’ve got full tummies.
Most airlines will give the kids complimentary toys on the flight, which often includes colouring pencils or crayons and a small activity book. Since the activity book has only 6 or so pages, a good source of entertainment to pack would be a colouring book. You could also bring along a small toy or two, though we all know your carry-on luggage will be stuffed with your kid’s things anyway. Yay.
WhatsUp Moms have a really cool video with ideas for keeping your kids busy on a flight.
We didn’t put in this much effort. I know the sanctimommies are going to have a collective meltdown over this, but we let Kayla play games on a cellphone. This trick worked so well that the Groenewalds gave their kids a phone each for the flights too. All in the name of parental sanity.
Another important consideration is something for travel sickness. Experience has taught us that vomit on a plane is a pungent kind of torture. Remember to take the meds about half an hour before you board and land, depending on the duration of your flight.
Oh, and water. If your flight doesn’t include complimentary refreshments, pick up a bottle of water in duty-free. You’ll thank me later, when your toddler swears she’s dying of dehydration. 🙂
Keep in mind that you’re going to spend a long time in a queue to enter most attractions. And that’s even if you do the smart thing and book online. In fact, that’s the most important part of this point – book online. You’ll not only save money – especially if you buy the combination deals – but you’ll also save yourself waiting time, even if you don’t pay the extra buck for a fast track pass.
The fast track is point two. Paying extra to get in first doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get into the attraction immediately. The Colosseum, for example. The normal queue can be as long as a three and a half hour wait, while the fast track will still be over an hour in most cases. Other attractions (like the Van Gogh Museum) work with time slots, so you’ll go in at the exact time on your ticket if you booked it online. If you didn’t, congratulations, you’ll be queueing for a while.
Other attractions, like the Eiffel Tower, have a restriction on the number of people allowed inside at any given time. This will impact the waiting time, but could also limit your experience. We couldn’t go to the top floor of the tower, for instance, since it had reached the maximum number of visitors. We still went up to the second floor, which was good enough for us. If you have your heart set on the very top, though, you might want to BOOK ONLINE and get there early. 😀
All of this brings us back to the research point. For many of these attractions, the idea of peak and off-peak seasons are a myth. Some destinations are always insanely busy, no matter what time of the year you’ve picked to visit. If you have any kind of anxiety, you want to prepare yourself mentally for crowds.
Some attractions are better than others, even if they’re not as popular as the main ones. A good example here is Eltz Castle versus Burg Castle, both in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany. Eltz is the better-known castle of the two, so it draws more tourists (and is more expensive). The exterior is stunning, make no mistake. However, Burg is the better one to visit, IMO and is equally impressive. You can only enter a part of Eltz castle, and then only with a guided tour, during which you can’t take photos. Burg allows you to wander and explore on your own, and photography is allowed. Plus, it’s about a third of Eltz’s price and you have many fabulous restaurants to choose from.
In Your Backpack and Other Tips
Don’t travel with your entire budget in your wallet. Pickpockets are a thing, so be careful. Have some cash handy, but debit or credit cards might be better for the major expenses.
If you’re travelling to Europe, keep some loose change in your pockets for bathroom breaks. Most places in Europe will charge 50c for bathroom use. If you don’t have that on you, find the nearest McDonalds or Burger King. You can usually use their restrooms for free.
The shops and vendors in streets leading to tourist spots are often more expensive than the streets a block down. Save money and buy your water and snacks from those streets. 🙂 You can expect to pay as much for one bottle of water from a tourist-trap street as you’ll pay for a six-pack of waters from a grocery store.
The same goes for restaurants. Many of them will be notably less expensive if they’re just a block or two farther from the attraction.
Public transport is less expensive than taxi’s, but you’ll have to plan according to the transport’s schedule. In Venice, for example, the water buses cost under 2 Euro, while the water taxi’s average at over 100 Euro for the same trip. The same applies on land. For a normal European taxi from the airport to your accommodation, you can expect to pay anywhere from 50 Euro upward. A train ticket averages under 5 Euro. Don’t get ripped off.
Instead of an umbrella, a lightweight rain jacket might be a good idea. We learned this the hard way. Also, a plastic cover for your backpack might be a good idea too. Soggy passports are no fun.
Many religious attractions will require your shoulders to be covered. For Catholic venues, like the Vatican, your legs must be covered above the knee (male or female). If you visit Sikh venues, like the Golden Temple, your legs and head must be covered. I suggest you keep a cardigan or shawl in your backpack if you’re planning to visit religious sites. It’s an easy way to cover up when you need to, and to remove when your visit is over.
You might be required to leave your backpack in a locker when you visit many museums and religious buildings. The locker is usually provided by the attraction, but you’ll need a deposit for this. Keep some small change in your pockets.
Moody, tired kids can always be coaxed to keep going with ice cream. Adults too. What worked really well for us was treating the kids in between. It was their vacation too, after all. So, we’d do an adult sight-seeing trip one day, with museums and attractions they found boring, then reward them with something kid-oriented the next day, like petting zoos or indoor playgrounds. This kept moral high and tantrums in the low whining range.
And with that, I’m leaving you today. Thanks for stopping by and reading!