The picture above is a common scene throughout Europe: Tourists looking lost, tired and dazed. Images like these and stories from clients inspired me to write this post.
Americans traveling to Europe are often surprised, even disappointed, the first day (or two) of their arrival. They spend much of their time frustrated and questioning their decision to visit a foreign country. I know. . . it's hard to imagine sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Paris, or meandering the piazze (plazas) of Rome and being disappointed. But, I have found myself in the same boat from time to time. Let me tell you why.
It is usually because I packed a suitcase full of expectations--and not the good ones! Some expectations are good to travel with, some are better left at home. Knowing what to expect when you are expecting the perfect European vacation will help your first day be a little less disappointing, and less frustrating.
1. Expect everything to be different. Even with 12 years of European travel under my belt, I often experience culture shock the moment I land. Just this year in Granada, Spain, I spent 10 minutes fiddling with a bathroom door while crossing my legs in angst because I could not figure out how to lock it. Thanks to the help of another patron, I was able to get the job done (both of them!).
Things are different in Europe. Every bathroom is different. Every airport is different. Laws are different. The language is different. Hotels are different. The pace is different. Etc., etc. Figuring out how to navigate those differences can be exhausting and frustrating. By expecting those differences and embracing them the moment you land, you will certainly lessen frustration on your first day.
2. Expect normalcy among the extraordinary. Americans tend to romanticize foreign destinations. We imagine it to be like a movie we saw, or a book we read. We envision falling in love, developing some spiritual connection to the land, the food, or the people. Instead, we arrive finding locals going about their daily business, ignoring our momentous arrival. We commute from the airport through the most unattractive parts of the city where we thought we'd see glitz and glam. We find the hotel to be less romantic and culturally unique when the website promised otherwise. The historical site we've dreamed of seeing doesn't lie in the middle of an oasis, but instead, between a pharmacy and a shoe repair store.
Expect to see extraordinary monuments, museums and historical sites--that is, by all means, the reason you are there. Yet, realize that for hundreds of years (thousands, in some cases) people have built their normal lives around these grand structures. Expecting normalcy will help dispel unrealistic romanticism and often lead to a greater appreciation of the local culture.
3. Expect to be tired. Many flights from the U.S. fly to Europe overnight, arriving early in the morning. Most avid travelers recommend adopting the new time zone immediately. In doing so, you are awake for as much as 36 hours or more before your head finally rests on a pillow. The first day is tough. Feeling tired and cranky makes it difficult to navigate a new city, much less enjoy it!
Expect to feel a fatigue like you've never felt before and cut yourself some slack. Take the first day easy. Take a short nap. You will be more equipped the next day to tackle the city.
4. Expect to be lost. I am a navigating queen (pat, pat on the back). However, it doesn't matter how good my internal compass is, I know I will get lost, take the wrong train, or walk in the wrong direction the first day in a new city. I expect it!
The first day is all about getting your bearings. Many European cities are centuries old with roads that date back to horse and buggy (and even older) times. Some of these small roads and alleys rarely make it on to a good map. So, know that you, too, will struggle with navigation, particularly on your first day. If you know it's coming, it won't throw you for such a loop.
5. Expect the unexpected. Even the best laid plans can be macerated when it comes to a European vacation. Before leaving home, the Weather Channel may have called for 80 degrees and sunshine in Paris only to find it is 50 degrees and raining. The Venice hotel told you the water taxi would drop you off in front of the hotel, only he dropped you off two blocks and three bridges away. The hotel's website in Prague stated it is within walking distance of all the important sites, yet you find it is a very steep uphill climb away.
Surprises are common on the first day in a new country. And, those surprises can often leave you feeling frustrated or disappointed. It helps to expect the unexpected and land in the new city with the c'est la vie (that is life) European attitude. Besides, you're on vacation...why sweat the small stuff?!
6. Expect to have no control. Oh, this is a hard one for us mighty Americans! We are a control-freak society, aren't we? It usually takes me more than one day to completely overcome this one (but thankfully, I do!). We expect other cultures to behave like ours. We expect all foods to be to our liking. We want the same ease in transportation we find at home. We expect to be seated and served immediately as we are in our favorite neighborhood restaurant. We expect our vacation plans to be executed exactly as we planned.
Carrying these expectations, we lose the opportunity to truly relax and enjoy a destination. The sooner we let go of them, the sooner we enjoy the ride, receiving all the richness the new culture has to give.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but here goes: I've made not one . . . not two . . . but, many travel mistakes over the years! Some, very costly, too! There! Now that the cat's out of the bag, let me tell you about a few:
1. Failure to use the airline's online check-in service.
While catching a flight from Las Vegas to Dallas, I discovered firsthand how airline's overbook flights. Arriving late to the airport, an airline agent informed me my plane was full and I didn't have a seat. After a futile argument, my hopes of getting home on that flight were dashed. Lesson learned: a ticket doesn't promise you a seat. Your best guarantee is to check in online 24 hours in advance!
2. Placing valuables in my luggage.
This mistake belongs to my husband (but trust me, I felt the pain all the same!) In a mad rush to pack, he tucked expensive cuff links into an inner pocket of his suitcase, rationalizing that they were well hidden. When he unpacked the bag at home, the cuff links were gone! Lesson learned: place valuables into your carry-on bag and keep it with you at all times!
3. Tossing a cell phone and the baggie of 3-ounce liquids into the same suitcase pocket.
Chalk another one up for dear hubs (sorry, honey!). In a moment of chaos going through London Heathrow's security checkpoint, hubs tossed his IPhone into the outer pocket of his carry-on. Upon boarding our connecting flight, he threw the bag in the overhead bin, forgetting about it and the phone. Once we arrived to our destination, he reached into the bag for the phone only to find shampoo erupting out of its bottle (and baggie!), bathing the phone completely. Lesson learned: shampoo and technology do not mix! Duh! Now, I double bag my liquids, and I ask hubs (and myself!) repeatedly, "Where is your phone?"
4. Forgetting to pack an umbrella.
I am the proud owner of 6 umbrellas. There were more, but some have been put to rest. Why do I have so many umbrellas? Because I would forget to pack one and invariably get caught in a rain storm! Lesson learned: include an umbrella on your packing list.
5. Packing for fashion versus comfort or practicality.
My feet have the battle scars to show for this mistake! On one trip to Rome, I went through 3 boxes of Band-aids to cover the blisters caused by shoes that looked good! Lesson learned: Wear good walking shoes with socks. Your feet will thank you for it!
6. Failure to know about local time changes.
Who knew Italy followed Daylight Savings Time? I didn't. At least not until we showed up for dinner an hour before our reservation. It seemed strange that we were the only car in the parking lot of a popular restaurant. Lesson learned: Research time changes (and holidays, for that matter) of your destination prior to leaving home.
7. Packing too much.
For years, I got away with packing extra shoes and outfits for every occasion when traveling domestically. Traveling internationally, however, broke me of this habit forever! Lugging suitcases through cobblestone streets and hauling them up flights of stairs in hotels with no elevators, taught me to pack much lighter! Lesson learned: It is not only easier on the back, it is also cheaper to pack light. Airlines and other baggage handlers (e.g., taxi drivers) often charge for excess baggage.
8. Trusting the photos on a hotel's website.
The little cabin by a beautiful New Mexico river looked like the perfect vacation spot. I could hike with my dogs while hubs fished to his heart's content! Photos of the cabin showed it was cozy, quaint, and decorated with loads of charm. Image my surprise when we arrived to a dirty, bug-infested and moldy shack! I'm getting the heebie-jeebies just writing about it! Lesson learned: Never trust a website's photos. Spend time researching online for user photos and reviews. If possible, get a personal reference. And, at the very least, have a Plan B to fall back on if the place you booked is not fit for human or beast!
9. Insulting a local in Italy.
In restaurants, my husband (yes, I'm tattling on him again) has a habit of asking if the food is good. Little did he know that this seemingly innocent question would be considered insulting to other cultures. While looking at a menu posted outside a restaurant in Italy, the owner prompted us to come inside. When hubs asked, "is the food good," the owner huffed at us in all sorts of unknown Italian words and stormed off. At that point, we felt obligated to eat there--good or not--and suffer the consequences of the man's wrath! Lesson learned: prevent unnecessary embarrassment by learning basic cultural do's and don'ts of a country before visiting it!
10. Failing to alert my credit card of impending international travel plans.
We had just enjoyed a nice dinner in one of Italy's many fabulous trattorias. The server headed to our table to inform us that our credit card was "no good." Oops. We tried our other credit card. It, too, was "no good." They were "good" earlier that day when we made purchases in a nearby boutique, so we were perplexed why this particular restaurant could not process our cards. Fortunately, we had cash. The next day we ran into the same problem, so we called the credit card company. They had shut our cards down. Seeing a rash of international charges on our account, they feared fraudulent activity. We got the mattered resolved and the accounts restored, but not after some truly embarrassing moments. Lesson learned: call your credit card company before leaving home to tell them of your travel plans. They will flag your account to prevent it from being shut down in the midst of your vacation.
Normally, I advise travelers to leave their jewelry at home. The risk of losing it, having it stolen, or drawing attention to yourself is too great. Nevertheless, there are some vacations that demand the bling! So, what's a girl to do? My friend, Lia Wilson has the perfect solution! Here's what she says, . . .
When traveling, you want to look your best, which often means using jewelry to put the finishing touches on your vacation wardrobe. However, traveling with valuable jewelry can be worrisome. Anxiety over how to secure expensive jewelry while you're not wearing it is a burden you don't need while you're suppose to be having fun!
The good news is that you can have your cake and eat it too! With fashion jewelry, you can look fabulous without the worry. High-quality fashion jewelry looks like fine jewelry, but at a fraction of the cost. Often plated with precious metals like gold and silver, it gives the illusion of the "real deal," meaning you can enjoy it without worry about loss or theft.
Another advantage of fashion jewelry is its versatility. With current fashion trends favoring lots of layers and big statement pieces, it's easy to take a few pieces of jewelry and mix and match them in different combinations to create entirely new looks each day. By getting more mileage out of a few basic pieces, you'll have less to pack and keep track of.
Here are some ideas for transforming a few basic pieces into new and different styles:
Take a necklace with a decorative clasp that can be worn in front as a design element. Turn the necklace around and add a brooch or pendant. Voila! You have an entirely different piece of jewelry.
Bring necklaces that compliment each other and wear them alone; then, wear them together for a different look. Vary the length of the layers for variety. Wear a long necklace in triple layers as a short "statement" necklace. Add a pendant or a brooch to it and you've got a choker with a completely new look.
Select reversible jewelry to get two looks for the price of one.
Use a brooch as a pendant. Look for brooches that have both a bail (the loop that allows it to be strung on a chain) and a pin on the back. If the brooch doesn't have a bail, simply pin it over the necklace.
Tips for choosing the pieces that make up a basic travel jewelry wardrobe:
Choose pendants that can be easily attached, such as those with a magnetic bail. The magnetic bail makes it a snap (no pun intended) to add and remove the pendant.
Take a brooch that can serve double duty as a pendant when it's not being used as a pin.
For flexibility, take necklaces and bracelets in a neutral color. Pearls are great for this purpose. They can be worn with almost any color and combined easily with many other necklaces.
Select pieces that complement each other. Look for an element that is common to both such as a specific stone, bead color or style.
Take items that can be easily and efficiently packed. Elasticized cuff bracelets, for example, are great for travel. They're comfortable, don't get in the way as you handle luggage, and can be flattened for packing.
Bring a couple of dressy pieces that can be worn in the evening. For instance, replace a more casual pendant with an elegant one to create an evening look.
Take some time to experiment with different combinations and use your creativity. You'll be amazed at how many pleasing combinations can be created from a handful of jewelry pieces.
BIO: Lia Wilson is an independent distributor with Premier Designs, a jewelry company based in Irving, TX. She loves fashion and enjoys the freedom of having her own business and working from home with her three canine "officemates." The most gratifying part of her job is helping other women look and feel their best through a well-accessorized wardrobe. Lia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
**This is an unsolicited opinion. For my full disclosure policy, please see this page.
It seems somewhat sacrilegious to think of visiting Rome without touring the colosseum and ancient forums. Now it's possible to tour the city as it looked in 320 AD without ever leaving home. Google Earth has created a 3D view of the city that allows you to fly down to see famous buildings and monuments. Click on the monument and get a complete description of what it was and what it was used for. This incredible tool is a great precursor to visiting Rome, or a wonderful advantage for those who may not have the opportunity to get there.