Category: europe

How to Decide How Long to Visit a City

In conjunction with my European travel post yesterday, I was wondering if I might ask the hivemind a question. I’m looking at going to some new cities on this trip, but it’s always a balancing act, trying to decide how much time to spend in one city vs. trying to see multiple cities. What is your general approach?

I think it boils down to two different mindsets. On the one, it’s fun to go see new places, check out the “best of” and then move on to the next. With this route, you don’t get to really *experience* any of the cities. It’s more like you consume them, like when you go to a restaurant buffet and try a little bit of everything. After the meal, someone might ask you what you liked, but you can only give a cursory summary of what you tried, and how they compared. You didn’t commit to a single dish, and so you don’t know any one dish very well. But you know a little bit about all of them.

On the other hand, you can spend multiple days in a city and really get to know it. (Well, as much as just a few days in a city will let you. In my experience, if you really want to get to know a place well, you need to live there at least a year or two. But since we can’t all go around moving to a place for a year or two . . . ) This route, you get to see the city at different times. Eat at several restaurants. Check out different areas. You don’t just see the “best of” sites. You get to hopefully go to lesser-visited places.

I see the advantages of both. If you’re never going to go back to an area again, it sometimes makes sense to rush through as much of that area as you can. But on the other hand, some of my favorite stories come from telling people about places I’ve seen and things I’ve done that most people never will be able to. It’s all fine and good to visit Vienna and see the Hapsburg palaces. But my favorite Hapsburg estate was the one at Svaty Anton. It’s a place hardly anyone has been, and I remember it really well. It’s different than any of the other palaces I’ve been to.

Then again, if you’ve never seen a Hapsburg palace at all, maybe Svaty Anton wouldn’t be as interesting.

Perhaps in the end it depends on what you want to get out of your trip. Do you want to be able to watch movies and remember the time you were at that location? Tell other people about the cool cities you visited? Or would you rather talk about the interesting, novel things you did? Or remember the unique experiences you had that perhaps no one else (or very few) have?

I might be going to Poland or Eastern Slovakia. What do I want to see there? How long do I want to stay? So what would you plan to do if you were going to a country for the first time? What’s your approach been? Please share.


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European Planning

This summer will have been three years since our last trip to Europe, which means it’s high time we get over there again. If you’re new to the blog, Denisa and I try to get to Slovakia once every three years, so she can see her family and friends, and so the kids can be immersed in that side of their heritage. It’s not as often as we’d like, but it’s about as often as we can afford, realistically.

I love the initial planning stages of a trip to Europe. There are just so many possibilities. What if we fly through Madrid and do a stopover there? Or we could see Iceland, or Denmark, or Sweden. What if we do another big road trip, hitting some Eastern European countries this time? It can all get rather overwhelming, of course, as there are so many decisions to make, and so many unknowns to wade through. Will we be taking a car or the train? If we’re staying in new cities, where should we stay? How long? Who do we want to see when we’re over there?

Decisions, decisions.

So what I try to do is start nailing down a few specifics first. Exact travel dates for flying to Europe and coming home. Last time when we had my brother in law fly out to us, his airline (Air Berlin) went insolvent for the return trip, forcing us to buy a new ticket. Having been burned like that once, I’m now becoming more cautious with my flights. This time, I’m going to put them on my Chase Ink Preferred Card, which comes with $5,000 of free travel insurance. If something crazy happens, we can get that money back, so that’s a perk. We’re also looking at Denisa going with the kids earlier, and me following a week or two later. That gives them more time to just enjoy Slovakia without me having to take extra vacation days, which come at a premium.

Getting the specifics in place make other things easier to plan. For example, it’s looking (at the moment) like we’ll fly in and out of Budapest this time. If that’s the case, then I think we might do a road trip of Eastern Europe. We could show the kids Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava, Prague, Krakow, and Kosice, with maybe a quick jaunt up to Dresden, because it’s really hard to convince myself it isn’t worth going back to Germany, even for a day.

Of course, that leads to other questions. Hotels. Rental cars. How many days to give to each city. You’d figure with all those different variables, I’d get overwhelmed. But this is where the advice I give my freshman classes each year comes in handy: when you’re doing research, give yourself plenty of time. If you’re trying to wait until the last minute, it all gets to be too much. I have eight months to plan this thing now. Plane tickets first, since it pays to be on the lookout for them early on. Hotels and rental cars can come later. They aren’t as hard to get. Places to see can be filled in as we go. Passports, cannot. Denisa and I both need new ones, and I’ll be putting in those applications soon. (Really want to avoid the mess that happened three years ago.)

With enough time, any research project can be fun. But then again, I’m a librarian. It’s kind of my thing.

Anyway . . . anyone want to get a tour of Slovakia? August is looking lovely.


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Some Paris Travel Advice

Okay. I realize a lot of you readers out there might not be planning a trip to Paris anytime soon. But maybe you are. Or maybe you will be at some point, and you’ll remember this post. (Or maybe *I’ll* be planning a trip there again sometime, and I’d like to read this post.) In that case, I thought I’d give you a few pointers on what I learned traveling through Paris with a family this time around. Ready? Here we go.

  • Getting from the airport with public transportation isn’t difficult, but it will seem that way the first time you do it. You need to walk over to the train station (literally part of the airport), and buy tickets, either from automatic machines or from the ticket counter. (At the ticket counter, you can buy Metro tickets and train tickets. I’d go to the ticket counter and get all your tickets for your trip in one fell swoop.) Once you have the tickets, you have to get to the train. This is where it stops being fun. Paris has these automatic gates (similar to most big public transportation), where you put your ticket into a small slot, it scans it, and it spits it out a different slot. You then take it back, then gates open, and you go through. (You do the same thing to get out when you’ve arrived.) When you have no luggage, that’s fine and easy. When you have kids and luggage? Much more difficult. If you get lucky, there’ll be an attendant there who can open a gate for you to all walk through and avoid the whole thing. If you get unlucky, you’ve got to figure it out on your own. (Guess which one I got first?)
  • My plan to stay downtown worked like a charm. We were in a small apartment 100 yards from Notre Dame, right in the thick of things. The place had to be a few hundred years old at least. (Speaking as someone whose house is almost 175 years old, I should know.) There was no elevator, and the lights were sketchy at times (the light switches looked the same as the door bells. I didn’t really want to ring someone at 10 at night.) But we were close to mass transit to take us anywhere, and it was just a bit more expensive than a hotel room. Plus, it had a fridge and kitchen, and an extra bedroom. Go VRBO!
  • Buying food in the middle of Paris is a bit befuddling, mainly because the grocery store looks like a CVS. Seriously. Monoprix. You go in, and all you see are shampoo bottles and ibuprofen, plus a little nook that sells pre-made sandwiches. But you keep going in, and you find a magical escalator that leads downstairs to what I’m convinced is a primitive TARDIS. There’s a whole grocery store down there! Craziness. It saved us a bundle.
  • We bought metro day passes individually. It worked out cheaper than buying their fancy pants tourist travel pass.
  • We bought the Paris Museum Pass, and that was totally worth it. $42 euros for two days each, but kids are free. We got to see a whole bunch of museums, and got to cut in line everywhere we went. It probably saved us about 30 euros total, plus a bunch of headache and time. Very pleased with the buy. (For the record? We adored the Musee d’Orsay. So much awesome there, from Van Gogh to Monet. The Louvre? I could have skipped it and still felt fine. Much bigger crowds, and I’m just a bigger fan of Impressionist paintings. Plus, seeing the Mona Lisa from 10 feet away with a crowd of people pressed all over you? Not my idea of a fun time. That museum is massive. Not good for kids, for the most part. But maybe I was just in a rush by then, and tired out of museums.
  • Versailles is also very much like other palaces I’ve been to. It was like Vienna all over again. The gardens, on the other hand, were gorgeous. (They also weren’t included in the price of the Museum Pass, we found out.) Still worth the entrance. TRC was less than enthused about seeing gardens, until I came up with a game. Someone would challenge someone else in the family to mimic a statue in the gardens. Once that challenge was fulfilled, the person who’d been challenged got to challenge someone else. With the addition of that game, everyone had a great time.
  • If you’re going to go up the Eiffel Tower, reserve your spot online well in advance. Don’t wait until the last minute.
  • This is a general tourist tip: don’t stay in the same places where all the other tourists are. Take the road less traveled. If you’re looking for a bite to eat, head off to an out of the way spot. Not only will this show you cool things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, but it’ll save you a bundle. For example, when we got out of Versailles, it was hot, and the kids all wanted ice cream. But ice cream at Versailles and the places between Versailles and the train station was all inordinately expensive. 4 euros a pop at least, for small sizes. So I headed with the family the opposite direction–away from Versailles and the train station. Within five minutes, we got to a small store that had the same ice cream for 1 euro each. And we saw a bit of downtown Versailles. That’s a win in my book.

European Vacation: Where to Stay?

I’ve written about everything else having to do this trip. As a brief update to the rental car situation, after speaking to some friends about rental cars in Austria and Slovakia, we finally found one that just charges 30 Euros to go over to Slovakia, as opposed to 30+ Euros per day. So we’ll be avoiding doing the whole Vienna to Bratislava bus trip, opting instead to just get the car right in Vienna. (We even got a nicer, bigger car, on the theory that we want to be sure everything we have (children, luggage, stroller, car seats) actually fit into said automobile. Nothing worse than showing up and finding your stuff won’t fit into what you rented. That almost happened to us when we went to Germany at Christmas. Now we’ve got an additional family member . . .) Total cost for the car for two weeks? $475. Could have been better, but since I was expecting around $600, it could have been worse too.

On that note, I figured I might as well give you all an update and talk about how to select a hotel over in Europe or abroad. At least, this is how I do it. When I get hotels on my own or on trips where we have a rental car, the process is a lot different. I focus on some different things: price, and parking. For Paris, we wouldn’t be getting a car, which saves us money, but also complicates matters some.

The trick is, you have to envision exactly what you’re going to be encountering when you get over to your destination. In this case, we’ll be getting off in Paris with at least three pieces of rolling luggage, five backpacks, a stroller, and a carseat. With all of that stuff, we’re going to need to somehow get from the airport to a hotel without losing our minds.

So step one is to figure out what mode of transportation will work best. Hard to just hail a taxi, since we’ll have so much stuff. Also, some taxis have issues with babies and car seats. I don’t like leaving things to chance, so taxis were pretty much out right away. There are shuttle services, but they cost 20 euros/person, one way. Paying over $90 just to get to the hotel wasn’t too appealing, so it looked like we’d be going the public transportation route. Easy when you’re on your own. Harder when you’re loaded with luggage and little kids.

With this in mind, my main goal became to find a hotel on a direct route from the airport. Transferring between subway stations with all that stuff would be much less than fun. So I researched Paris public transportation to find out what the easiest way into the city is. Turns out it’s the train, which stops right at the airport and takes you right downtown. (And you can buy three day train/bus/subway passes, which will come in handy when we’re actually touring the city.)

With that in place, I needed to find out where the train would stop, and then look for hotels within easy walking distance of those stops.

See what I mean when I say it’s harder than just typing in a check in/check out date and your destination city? Sorting by price is also less than helpful. I’m all about location. Thankfully, most engines will let you view your results on a map. That’s the option I used for this. Doing that, I discovered a hotel right across the street from one of the main railway stations. It wasn’t a great hotel, and it wasn’t fantastically reviewed, but it was okay, and it was $200/night. (More than I’d like to pay, honestly, but doable). (I was using for this search.)

Now that I had a feel for hotel prices and amenities, I checked another source I’m fond of: Vacation Rentals By Owner. It’s how we got a place to stay in Quebec and Utah last year. You end up staying in someone’s actual house or apartment, which means a different experience than a hotel. Better in some ways, worse in others. I would never go to a place that hasn’t gotten a lot of good reviews, but if I could find one . . .

Which I did. A great one bedroom suite just across the street from Notre Dame, only 1 minute from the train station right smack dab in the middle of the city. It’s got a fridge, microwave, and beds for everyone. Not spacious, but neither was the hotel. And it only cost $206/night. Sold! (You can also use airbnb for this type of search, but I’ve found they sometimes end up being more expensive than vrbo, which is my first choice.) This way, we’ll be staying right in the heart of the city, which will make seeing the sights with a two year old ever so much easier. (When you’re in the outskirts and you need to go back to the hotel, you lose a lot of time heading back. Being in the thick of things is a ton better. And this was hardly any more money. Very pleased.)

Anyway. Almost everything is set for the trip now. We have the tickets taken care of, hotels arranged, car reserved. All that’s left is the fun stuff: deciding what to do while we’re there.

As always, if anyone has any questions about the planning process, you have but to ask. Thanks for reading!

Fun with Car Rentals in Europe

Le sigh. I’ve been hard at work figuring out how we’re going to get around Europe this summer, and each time I go through this, I find I’ve forgotten how tricky traveling abroad can be at times. Case in point: rental cars.

It seems like it should be pretty straightforward: I need a car for two weeks. I’m flying into Vienna. I’ll be going to Slovakia and the Czech Republic, both of which are very close to Vienna. All I should have to do is waltz off my plane, grab a rental car from a counter, and be off and running, right?


First up, I needed to figure out which place would be the best deal. And to do that, I needed to figure out what size of car would fit my family. Since they’re all European models, I needed to do some research to make sure I knew what it was I’d be getting. “Compact vs. Economy” isn’t exactly easy to understand, after all. So I look for things like trunk space (“boot size”) and passenger space, then compare the figures to American cars I’m familiar with. (Though I sometimes have to convert from liters to cubic feet, because yay math.)

This was easier when there was just four of us traveling. I knew I could get a car that seated 5 and then have some extra wiggle room. Now that there’s five of us, that assurance of wiggle room is gone, and I really don’t want to arrive in Vienna only to discover the car I reserved is too small. Nightmares like that can and should be avoided if at all possible.

So. The car model is generally set. Next up was to figure out which rental company had the best price. After no small amount of work, research, and comparison, I settled on Budget. They were a known quantity, and I could get a car for $530 through them. A fair bit more than some of the cheaper options, but the cheaper options looked like they typically tried to squeeze you for every little ding on your car after the fact, judging from some of the reviews on TripAdvisor. I made my reservation and thought I was done.

But then came the fine print.

After inspecting said fine print (having learned from rental mishaps in the past), I discovered that Budget wants to charge 10 Euros/day for people who take the car into Slovakia. They also require the renter to get Loss Damage Waiver insurance, something they don’t provide an actual quote for on their site. It looks like it’s anywhere from 10-35 dollars/day.

Ruh roh.

My “reasonably priced” car just went from $530 to $830 (bare minimum) to $1,180 (maximum). It’s true they say I can call and ask for details ahead of time, but my experience with these companies leads me to believe that what I’m told on the phone might be very different from what I’m told when I arrive in person, with the in-person experience trumping whatever some guy said on the phone.


The debate then shifted to whether I wanted to try a different car company in Vienna (risking one of the less reputable, but more Slovakia-trip lenient companies) or get on a bus in Vienna, take it to Bratislava, and rent the car in Slovakia. (It’s an hour drive, though traveling by bus complicates things . . .)

Which is where I am now. And the problem I’m having with the companies in Vienna is that, if I really don’t trust Budget not to price gouge me, how can I trust the companies that are known for gouging not to do it? But at the same time, catching a bus at the Vienna airport with three tired kids, riding it an hour to a different airport, and then hoping I’m not delayed significantly (because the car company at Bratislava’s airport isn’t exactly going to watching the flight arrival times of planes in Vienna) doesn’t sound ideal. But if I rent the car in Slovakia, then I can be sure it won’t be charging me double to drive it around the country.

This was all much easier back when I picked up my car in Germany. They didn’t care where I was driving, or it didn’t come up at least.

At the moment, I think I’ll be doing the road trip to Bratislava, and just allow myself some padding time to make sure I’m on time to pick it up. (It helps that Denisa is Slovak, since (in my experience) Slovaks tend to go much easier on each other than they do on Americans when it comes to doing business. Having a native be there to negotiate in the native language helps enormously.) It looks like I can get a pretty decent car for $331 at Bratislava airport (plus $50-$80 to get there by bus, round trip).

But wait! Thrifty’s at Vienna’s airport, and it looks like they (probably) don’t charge extra to go into Slovakia, and I could get a car there for $508. Except they’re serviced by Hertz at the airport, and Hertz is draconian with their rental policies. (Stare too long into the abyss, and the abyss stares back . . .)

Ain’t travel fun?

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