The trip of a lifetime is what my husband, Karl, and I nicknamed our recent vacation. We traveled to several countries within Europe in May of 2015. Our first destination was the United Kingdom, specifically London, Didcot, and Oxford. Our most surprising discovery was that Oxford is not 1 University but 39 Independent Colleges. All 39 are considered part of Oxford University. Our next stop was Paris, France via Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel from London. Paris is our favorite city, of all the cities we visited. Our last stop was Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the biking capital of the world. We took a Thalys train from Paris to Amsterdam.
No driving on this vacation! We used: Trains, Tube, Metro, Busses, Boats and Bikes. The only time we rode in a car was in Didcot, when we visited friends and once in a taxi in Amsterdam when we were lost (but I don’t need to talk about that…). Not having to drive was absolutely wonderful. The idea of driving in the U.K. on the wrong side of the road and using a stick is a scary thought…indeed! I know how to drive stick but I have never driven one using my left arm to change gears. This is definitely an important consideration when traveling to England. France and Holland drivers drive on the same side of the road as United States but both are very congested cities and they all have an extensive public transportation system. This makes the decision not to drive, a no-brainer. If you are headed out of the city a car will probably make more sense.
No hotels on this trip. We stayed in small studio flats and 1 houseboat barge. This allowed us to save money on pricey hotels and lodging taxes. Karl booked our lodging on VRBO, Vacation Rentals by Owner. Another popular site is airbnb. We saved money but it took more effort than booking a hotel room. We had to send a deposit to hold the studio and pay the balance in cash: Euros, when we arrived. We used Western Union to send a deposit, instead of our bank which would have charged significant International Transaction Fees. We prefer to stay in condos when we travel because they have kitchens. Breakfast is enjoyed in our room, saving us precious time and money.
No pressure schedules worked great for us. One of the most difficult decisions to make when planning a trip to Europe is deciding how much you are willing and able to do every day. We did not take any tours on our trip. We experienced a lot, on our own time and our own schedule. We don’t have anything against tours however…we wanted to sleep in when we felt like it. Jet Lag can wreak havoc on your mind and body. There were a few mornings when we slept-in really late.
Pressure to relax? We did feel a little stressed at a couple of restaurants waiting for the check. European servers and diners are typically not in a hurry to order, eat, or bring the check even long after the meal has been consumed. Karl and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a Café in Amsterdam. When we asked for the check the first time we still waited another 15 minutes before Karl stood at the counter and requested it again. Leisurely lunches and dinners are definitely the norm. Gratuity is a suggestion; it is a much smaller percentage than we give in the United States. Check out Rick Steves’ website and books for more details about tipping and more.
Research and planning is essential if you want a fun stress-free Holiday. Karl researched transportation, museum passes, entertainment, attractions, lodging and dining. My sister, Suzan, recommended Rick Steves’ books; they are awesome. In addition to Steve’s books he has a free App that we should have downloaded. We tried to find a couple of restaurants that were recommended in his books but they did not exist anymore. The most up-to-date information is on Rick Steves’ App. Trip Advisor is another great resource. The best advice for restaurants is to ask a local resident. We asked a store clerk in Oxford to recommend a restaurant for lunch. She recommended a great place, The Nosebag (picture below).
A few more tips:
· London: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre should not be missed if you are a Theatre Fan. Tickets were sold out online a couple months in advance but we were able to purchase tickets the night of the play (standing room only for a fraction of the price $10 per person).
· France: If you learn a little bit of French it will go a long way. Most Parisians do not speak English fluently so they are similar to United State Citizens (most of us only speak English). If you show them the courtesy of knowing a little bit of their language they will be much more willing to help you.
· London & France: Using Tube or Metro for several days purchase multi-use tickets to save money.
· Amsterdam: I highly recommend the Anne Frank Museum. However, we stood in line for 2.5 hours. Skip the line with online tickets. They sell out fast so book them right after your flight.
· Find out if your credit card charges International Transaction Fees. Capital One credit card does not.
· You will need cash in Paris and Amsterdam. Their preference is cash and many vendors and restaurants will not take a credit card.
· Need more cash while traveling? Save money by using a big bank’s ATM not a hotel or currency exchange Kiosk
· Call your bank and ask if they reciprocate with an International Bank in the city you’re visiting. This will save you a $5.00 transaction fee.
· Be prepared for all kinds of weather. We knew it would rain and one of our best days was a rainy day. We brought small umbrellas, lite raincoats and treated 1 pair of our shoes with the product, NeverWet. I applied this to a pair of Clark’s suede shoes and it worked great. It did leave a slight blue haze on my shoes. You can also invest in waterproof shoes.
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