5 Traveling Tips I've Learned the Hard Way

Anyone can travel. But to travel shrewdly takes time. If you do it wisely, you can avoid hassles, save money, and savor fresh pizza.

Here's how you can avoid my top five travel blunders along the way.

1. Sleep like a local.

Newly married and on our first European vacation, my husband and I had to learn the adage “you get what you pay for” by trial and error. London is notoriously expensive, especially with the currency exchange rate. Our solution to save money was to select one of the cheapest hotels we could find in a good neighborhood.

The fact that we will never forget the name of that hotel is not a positive thing. We will forever joke about the Lord Jim with its charming sewer gas smells coming up the drains and the desk that was shoved into a space so tiny that its chair could not be pulled out to sit in. Is it the worst hotel story? No. But if I knew what I know now, we would never have stayed there. (And perhaps never have seen as much as London...there were a lot of motivating factors to get us up and out early and retire to bed late at night.)

A much better option would have been to rent an apartment on Homeaway or Airbnb. Since then, I have rented a handful of apartments short-term with great results. Renting an apartment is a good option to save some money in a more expensive city, and the savings continue with a full kitchen and the option to eat-in. It also is a great idea when traveling with a few people. Not only does it save money, it provides communal space to enjoy down time with fellow travelers. 

It’s how we ended up sharing an apartment in Bordeaux with friends - complete with a balcony overlooking the city where we ate an alfresco dinner accompanied by a newly purchased bottle of wine from a vineyard.

And how we had a family vacation in Avignon with plenty of space for five adults: 

Michael enjoying all the space in this highly recommended apartment

The downside is it takes slightly more effort to coordinate the key hand-off on arrival and departure rather than walk up to a front desk at a hotel that is open 24/7. But as long as you read up on the apartment you select (which means reading prior guests’ reviews and understanding the location), it is a great way to have a decisively more local experience in a destination, not to mention more spacious accommodations than a standard hotel room. 


2. Follow the three month rule.

It is well known that travel throughout Europe is easy thanks to public transportation. The thing that is often overlooked is how expensive it can get.

The first weekend after I moved to Paris, I couldn't wait to start exploring France. Michael and I showed up at a train station on a Saturday morning for a day trip to nearby Reims. We were shocked when we discovered the price of two tickets round-trip was about 100 euros...for a destination only forty-five minutes away. We came back from that excursion and realized that if we wanted to be able to travel around more, we had to get savvy and learn how to do so for less.

Evidently it is best to plan well in advance for flight and train travel to get a good deal. But specifically in regard to SNCF (the French national rail system), the golden three-month rule should be applied.

Train tickets go on sale exactly three months ahead, so if you book exactly three months out, you can get great deals. Take it one step further, you could get in on the première minute deal. If you book a trip out exactly three months in advance, between 12am-1am (Central European Time), you can get this rate. Then wait until three months from the date of the return (if you are doing round-trip) and book that ticket between that early morning time slot.

What’s the difference? A round-trip ride to lovely Bruges, Belgium from Paris cost €152 per person booking a month out. It cost €63 round-trip per person using the three-month method. It meant that tickets for us and two friends last year was less than our two tickets the first time we went to Bruges. Think of what we could have done with those savings to first time around:

3. Leave your closet at home.

I am sharing this one with you because I want you to learn from my mistakes. Which means this one is admitting defeat publicly.

I used to insist on packing a huge blue suitcase on European trips. I can’t imagine what I managed to fill all that space with, but I did and it was all necessary at the time. It’s not an issue when you get out of a car and roll the bag a short ways to check-in at an airport. The problem is in, say, places on the other end of the journey like Rome. Where connections in the subway entail endless flights of stairs up and down, until you succeed at last to getting to the platform to get onto a quite crowded train. A train certainly not ready to encounter a suitcase big enough for a grown person to curl up into. Not that I am speaking from experience or anything.

As I traveled from city to city in Italy, I marveled how light Europeans could pack. I didn’t understand how they could possibly be traveling for as long or longer than me and have so little. It took moving to Paris and getting more practice before I came to the conclusion that Michael had made ages ago - somehow, we had to reduce our luggage to travel more freely.

This is only appropriate if you are moving to another country. 

You can rewear clothes, rewear shoes, and buy anything you forget that is essential. Things in Europe are often smaller and older, so fitting big suitcases on trains is difficult and carrying luggage up flight of stairs without the aide of elevators is normal. Packing as lightly and compactly as possible makes transfers go much smoother, which makes everyone involved happier. And who doesn’t want to be all smiles on vacation?


4. Pretty and pizza don’t always mix.

Pretty squares and piazzas are great for enjoying a drink or a light snack. It can be worthwhile to pay higher prices to enjoy sitting in a beautiful location.

However, my general rule of thumb is to avoid these very places for a serious meal. My very first pizza in Italy was on such a piazza. Clouded by jetlag, the menu translation in five different languages did not raise any red flags. But biting into that first taste of pizza made it all very clear. I was in Italy at last and eating an awful frozen pizza of all things. Not the best first memory, but it taught me an essential lesson. (And ignited a mission to find all the wonderful pizza in Italy - it is certainly there!)

Unless you do some homework beforehand, don't head to a really beautiful main square or prime tourist location (ie next to a huge museum, etc) and expect a wonderful, authentic meal.

Delicious pizza can come in unassuming places - like in Antibes, France

5. Value a guided tour.

I often prefer to do things on my own. When exploring a new place, I research in advance, read materials while I’m there, and go at my own pace.

Things changed when I booked tickets to Milan and realized three weeks out that is was impossible to book tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci's “The Last Supper” on my own. Tickets were sold out and the only way to see the masterpiece was to book a guided tour that included entry. I was annoyed at first, because it meant that I was paying at least three times what the entry fee was had I made plans well in advance. But something surprising happened. I enjoyed the walking tour segment a lot and wished I did it in the beginning of the trip and not on the very last day.

A walking tour furthered my appreciated of Milan and its stunning cathedral 

Since then, I often try to go on a walking or bike tour soon after arriving in a new city. It offers an orientation to the layout of a new place, and gives valuable insight and understanding to the identity of a city and its people. It’s how I learned the history of Nuremberg to understand how it became deemed by the Nazis as the “most German city” and how I biked into the Belgian countryside outside of Bruges. It also often connects you to a local who can give suggestions on what to later explore and guide those important food and drink recommendations. (Note that I don’t mention hop-on hop-off bus tours - if you want to get to know a city, it’s not going to happen by listening to a monotone audio loop in ten different languages.)

Quasimundo bike tours in Bruges got us out and into the beautiful Belgian countryside

What traveling tips have you learned through experience?