Hubs and I love to travel. We enjoy lazy, tropical vacations and we also enjoy the exact opposite–trips that have nothing to do with lying around and everything to do with exploring, site-seeing and learning. On our first trip to Europe several years ago, we decided to see as much as we could in three weeks, which meant a whirlwind journey through nine countries. The idea was to figure out which places we liked best. As it turns out, we pretty much loved it all. We’ve been back to visit some countries, but I also have this thing about seeing NEW places. Often I prefer the risk of going someplace completely new over revisiting a place I know I love. In fact, when we eloped to St. Lucia over 11 years ago, we said we would go back to that exact same resort for our 10 year anniversary. Instead, we couldn’t pass up the chance to visit a place we hadn’t been before–Acapulco. I feel like if we went back to the same places over and over, we would miss out on so much.
Recently, when we shared with friends that we booked a vacation to Budapest and Prague, we got the same response over and over–”Why?” After posting some beautiful photos of our trip on Facebook and reading all the comments about how beautiful it looked, I wanted to say, “That’s why!” Don’t get me wrong–I sort of get it. I mean let’s be honest, these Eastern European cities were once under communist rule and were actually not desirable destinations at all. But so much has changed. They are now thriving cities with so much to offer. Besides all of the magnificent architecture and amazing history contained in each of them, they are overflowing with culture–from food to art to shopping to festivals, you name it. Maybe you’ve heard of Prague referred to as “The Paris of the East.” It’s true. Only it’s considerably more affordable.
We have learned a few things in our years of travel together,
so I thought I’d share them with you.
These are tips that pertain mostly to traveling in the UK and Europe.
Use public transportation.
In America, unless you live in a very large city such as New York, you may not be familiar with public transportation. Don’t let this stop you from venturing out of your comfort zone. Public transportation is a way of life in Europe. From trains to buses to metros/subways to trams/cable cars, there are often multiple efficient, affordable ways to get from point A to point B. Yes, it’s confusing at first. Yes, you may have to look like a dumb tourist and ask for help. You will probably make a mistake or two along the way. But after just a day, you’ll be thinking you were crazy not to try it sooner. Once it clicks and you’re able to understand the maps, it’s all worth it. If you’re nervous about it, just do some web searches for public transportation maps for your particular destination before you go. Then you can see which stations/stops are closest to your hotel as well as which lines you’ll need to take to get to the various sites. If you plan on having a mobile device with internet service (see info below), there are some really great apps that make the process a cinch. Basically, you type in/search for your destination and it will give you step-by-step public transportation directions, from the walking path to the nearest station to the transfers you may need to make from line to line. We used a free app called Transit, which worked great.
Get cheap internet service.
Until our most recent trip, we did not take any mobile devices on our trips to Europe. We relied on free internet access at hotels and/or internet cafes, and that was mostly just for checking email and quickly updating our parents at home. As for finding our way around, we relied on guide books and good ol’ fashioned paper maps. Imagine that. We even made our way around a large part of Ireland in a rental car with no GPS–gasp!
But I’m a gadget girl and I embrace technology. So this time we took along an iPad Mini. In Budapest, our first city, we were 24 hours behind due to a flight cancellation. So we decided to hit the ground running, see as much as we could during our short stay and not bother with the whole internet thing. Besides, we had free wi-fi at our hotel. Side note: if you find yourself with limited time in Budapest and you want to pack in as many sites as you can, a hop on/hop off bus tour is a great way to go (plus it kind of doubles as public transportation). When we got to Prague, we found a Vodaphone kiosk in the Palladium shopping mall. For $20, I was able to purchase a nano SIM card with 1.2 GB of data. They guy at the kiosk was even kind enough to pop out my card and replace it with the new one (important note: safely store your original SIM card, you’ll need to put it back in when you get home). For those of who you aren’t tech-savvy, this basically means that I was able to have internet access while we were there. We used the GPS/maps, Transit app, email, Facebook, photos, etc., and didn’t come close to using up the 1.2 GB. I have to say, the speed was FAST and there wasn’t a time we experienced no availability (besides the subway, of course).
I don’t know if the card would have worked in any other European countries, but I suspect the answer is no. It’s likely that I would have had to purchase two different cards for Hungary and Czech Republic. If you’re traveling to multiple countries in one trip, you may want to check out a prepaid international SIM card such as MaxRoam.
Go out at night.
Some of the most amazing views are in the evening when the buildings, bridges and streets are all lit up. Not to mention, there are far less, if any, crowds. We first arrived to our hotel in Budapest in the late afternoon (after about 24 hours of travel). After a quick power nap, we decided to hit the town. We had no map and no idea where we were in relation to anything, so we just strolled around and got familiar with our surroundings. The funicular that carries passengers up the hill to Buda Castle had absolutely no waiting line and when we reached the top, there were just a handful of people strolling around. We had a gorgeous view of the city below and a great opportunity to explore the castle grounds without hundreds of other tourists all around. This same thing happened in Prague. We went out exploring our first night there and experienced far less crowds, no lines and stellar views.
Get off the beaten path.
It’s great to see the main attractions and all, but some of our best experiences have been the times we took the path less traveled. At times, we intentionally strolled about with no agenda and other times, we got lost. Often these are the times we made our best discoveries. Whether it’s a street festival or a darling little shop or a fabulous restaurant, you never know what you might find and isn’t it so much more fun to discover it on your own? In fact, this is why we are not tour people. We rarely ever purchase tour tickets because we prefer to explore on our own.
Get in the photo.
In the past, I was shy about asking strangers to snap a picture of Hubs and me. Now I just go for it (and I return the favor if they let me). When I look back at photos from past vacations, it’s a little sad that we have barely any photos of the two of us. Don’t make the same mistake. Do be somewhat choosy about who you hand your camera to, though. The last thing you need is someone running off with it.
BYO wash cloths.
I seem to forget this every time we go to Europe. Wash cloths are an American thing. You will not find them in most European hotels. So if you can’t live without wash cloths, you’ll either need to pack your own or bring along a pack of disposable towelettes.
A word about thermal baths.
If you go to Budapest, you really shouldn’t miss out on the thermal bath experience. Hungary is a land of thermal springs, and Budapest remains the only capital city in the world that is rich in thermal waters with healing qualities. It is also one of the few places where you can experience traditional Turkish baths dating back to 16th and 17th centuries. We chose to visit the Szechenyi Baths just before dusk. We used the outdoor pools and very much enjoyed the nighttime experience. There’s something special about soaking in thermal waters under the night sky. It was so relaxing (once we finally got in the pool). This is where I’ll dole out a bit of advice. First of all, take some flip-flops or water shoes for the locker room. The floors are wet and dirty. If you want to avoid the towel rental experience, which can be kind of a hassle, bring your own towel(s). Don’t forget to bring plastic bags for carrying your wet swim suits and flip-flops when you leave. There were loads of wall-mounted hair dryers, so no need to bring one of those. Besides the thermal baths, there are other services available. If you want to enjoy a massage while you’re there, be sure to check the hours online. This was something I was really looking forward to, but we arrived too late. Click here for additional helpful info.
If you have any great travel advice, please feel free to share in the comments section below! What’s your favorite travel destination?