Helpline Question of the Month:
Lessons Learned the Hard Way, Anyone?
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Rick Steves' Travelers Helpline is where we take a step back, and let travelers share information directly with one another.
Once in a while, our Travelers Helpline gets a thread going that's spun from gold. Roy from Alabama felt compelled to list a few travel lessons he's personally learned "the hard way" — and it inspired other travelers to chime in with their lessons similarly learned. The result is one great page of tips for any traveler.
Learn — painlessly — these hard-learned lessons from our Travelers Helpline contributors...
Things don't always go according to plan. But when I ignore my gut feeling or try to make the most of bad options, I have to throw the plan out the window and wing it (the metaphors are adding up fast). Even so, I tend to go with the flow (another metaphor, sorry) and still have a good time while traveling.
Here are some things I learned the hard way. No need for detailed accounts about what brought it on, but how has your approach to travel changed because of lessons learned the hard way?
1. Skip CDG for connecting flights; if no better option, either set a three-hour minimum or, best option, spend the night in Paris and take a train out the next day. (Same to a lesser degree with some other large airports.)
2. If you must book a car (or train) for the day of arrival, build in extra time in case of late arrivals, missed connections, etc. Preferably spend the night in the city and pick up the car the next morning.
3. Don't travel to Europe, except for, maybe, the north, in July or August; if you have no choice, see item 4.
4. Air-conditioned hotels only for central and southern Europe in late summer; even the mountains can be scorching in the summer. (Pictures don't tell you anything about temperatures at a place.)
5. Pubs are great for an occasional meal, but not every meal. Enough said.
— Roy in Auburn, AL
Monte in Genesee, ID
At least you're learning. Some people don't.
Pat in Victoria, Canada
I think your number two is an especially valid point, but I think most folks coming in from 12-hour plus flights should not start off on a car trip that day unless they are experienced... jet lagged is not a good time to figure out a whole new road system.
Don't agree completely with number three. I like summer travel, do it alot, and other then Rome is way too hot in summer, I haven't found much negative ... I actually try and time my Paris visits for August as they often have hotel deals on then.
aRies in Seattle, WA
1) Stay in a centrally-located hotel, central to the sights and places you want to visit. We stayed up in the Alps (Mürren) for a whole week using our timeshare (to save money) and while it was an awesome experience, staying there for 2-3 days would have been enough. We travelled all over Switzerland and our Mürren location restricted us time wise. We had to plan our day-trips round the vagaries of the gondola.
2) Everyone has a different way of travelling and it's hard to please all when you're planning a group trip. Last year I planned a trip to London and Scotland for four people and it was mentally exhausting trying to convince people of certain things (time is money, logistics of planning the sights to see vs. just winging it as we had limited time etc. etc.). These people had not even done their research and didn't want to listen to someone who had done her research. Never again. We still had an awesome time but I was drained by the end of the trip.
Marty in Rockville, MD
- Review your flight times occasionally after you book them. Sometimes these change.
- An hour and a half to change planes at Heathrow Terminal 5 might work but will be very stressful. After the passport control there's a tram that leads to your next gate.
- Review your plans about a month out. You might learn a museum will be closed for renovations while you are there. You might learn that the Anne Frank House has timed entry passes that skip the lines but you must order in advance (I'm not sure how far in advance, at least a week).
- Two weeks is long enough for adult children and parents to travel together. Three weeks was pushing it.
Swan in Napa, CA
1) One week is long enough to spend on a tour or with travel partners. The confinement and socializing begin to wear.
2) Don't expect things to go perfectly, no matter how well you planned.
3) Expect the possibility of some sort of: injury, work strike, disappointing food, unpleasant weather, crowding, loss of belongings, imperfect hotel conditions, and missed transportation.
4) The best experience is often the one you weren't expecting. Be prepared to appreciate the people and events that appear. Drop your plans if something better comes along.
Rebecca in Nashville, TN
1. When searching online for airline prices, when you find a great bargain, book it right then! Do not change pages or go to another website to compare. When you come back to the site where you found the bargain fare, it will be gone, never to be found again.
2. aRies is right; (reread her number 2 item) beware of planning trips for large groups of friends, most of who have never been to Europe before. Once you have all agreed on a country, and a rough outline of what everyone would like to see, consider choosing, as a group decision, a Rick Steves trip, and have everyone sign up. That way, you don't get blamed or stressed out as the Trip Planner. Arguments within the group are reduced, since the itinerary is set.
This also helps with Marty's item number 3; the Rick Steves tour will know which museums are closed, etc., so you avoid lost time on your group trip. Also one of Swan's number three items is covered: missed transportation.
Ed in Pensacola, FL
1. Don't slow down for snags. If you have a problem, lower your head and blast through it or ignore it.
2. Don't believe anybody. If something seems good to you, see or do it. If somebody says you gotta see X and you think it probably sucks, it will.
3. There isn't a problem that money can't solve. Travel cheaply, but when it's time to open up with the money gun, use it like a fire hose.
4. Don't waste time fretting about where to sleep - - there's always a bed somewhere. Spend the time saved reading history and everything else about where you're going.
5. You can't know a place unless you walk it.
6. Get lost regularly.
7. Trolls and goblins don't exist. Go everywhere.
Ann in Sunnyvale
I'm going through the trip planning for a group right now. Ergh. Next time, everyone is on their own! :)
Honestly, the group I'm dealing with (my siblings) is all very easy going and is just happy to be on vacation, so every suggestion I've made they've said yes. But, I would like it if they would do a little research instead of me doing it all!
Thanks for letting me vent! LOL
Carroll in Pittsburgh, PA
1) Don't return a rental car to the middle of a large city.
2) Especially if it's Brussels.
3) Don't forget a map.
Pamela in New York City (formerly Madison), NY
Am so with Ed on the money gun. Even if you are a student. There are times that you need to spend Dad's money. :)
I would add, always take an earlier flight if offered.
And I'll second the comment about not worrying where you'll sleep, something will turn up. You can always move on in the morning!
Betty in Missouri City
I don't agree about not fretting over where to sleep and that you'll always find a bed somewhere. For me, where I stay is part of my vacation experience. I don't want just a "bed." I have that at home.
I've been to Europe enough times to know what I want to do and what I want to see. We never schedule every minute of every day because it normally doesn't ever work out the way you expect. But I like having an itinerary and book all of our hotels in advance.
Zoe in Toledo, OH
Ed is so right about snags and the money gun. Last month I was in France and somehow got it into my head that I could daytrip to Vézelay from Autun. There is no way without a car. I didn't have a night to spare to stay over in Vézelay, so I went as a daytrip from Paris (expensive train fare and five hours travel roundtrip). I would not trade that day for any other. If you can, be prepared to give up something. If you must see something, it may cost you, but you won't have to deal with the "if only..."
George in Canada
Gone for me are the days of winging it when it comes to accommodation. Blowing into a city and then spending time looking for a place is just an unnecessary waste of time for me.
Other than booking rooms I have very little structure in what I plan to do in my stops. If I'm not sure about the number of days I should plan for, in a city or area, I usually tack on another day. If it turns out I didn't actually need the extra day then I just loll around, lots of coffee breaks, early cocktails, a refresher day so to speak.
As for money gun, I call it my BLOWTORCH!
Christina in New York, NY
My two top rules, learned through trial and error, are as follows:
1. Never assume anything will be true. I try to stick to this even when doing something new at home, such as riding a new bike route. But here is a European example. When we were climbing Notre-Dame, I wanted to stop at the gift shop on the way up. My husband (who has only learned to follow this rule because I force him) said that surely there would be another one on the other set of stairs, on the way down. I couldn't be sure, and anyway I needed a break from the steps, and it was the right thing to do because there was not another. If I'd wanted to know for certain whether there was another, I would have asked someone. Never assume that something will exist/be open/be available. Similarly, I always check into a plane in advance if I can, after having been burned when my husband said we didn't need to bother and we were ONE minute late for checking in at La Guardia. We didn't get on another flight till the next morning.
2. This is really an iteration of #1, but important on its own: when you see a bathroom, go. You never know where the next one will be. I formulated this rule after spending 75% of my time on the Paris streets looking for somewhere to go. I was never so happy to find a McDonalds in my life....
Chani in Tel Aviv
1. Don't lose your passport. If you have two, don't lose them both. If you do lose them both, let it be when you are staying with friends who have a large house and love you. Corollary: do not have any contact with U.S. passport offices if you can possibly avoid it.
2. Don't expect planes to be on time. Don't expect your checked luggage to arrive with you. London theatre tickets purchased online are transferable.
3. Learn to sit for more than two minutes at a time. Your feet will thank you.
4. Don't eat gelato more than twice a day, after that it's not quite as good. Corollary: don't eat gelato in Rome; it's not great and there are other things that have just as many calories and taste better.
4. Pack a couple of days before your flight. That way, if you suddenly find out that your flight halfway around the world is leaving 24 hours sooner that you remembered, you won't miss it.
5. If you are going to the Netherlands in July, be sure you pack winter gloves, hat and scarf.
6. Don't drop your camera more than two or at most three times. It will retaliate. Never drop your camera on a 2,000-year-old Roman road. After surviving that long, the road always wins.
7. Know before you go. The more research you do before the trip, the better prepared you'll be and the more you'll see and do.
8. As you leave your hotel, put one of their business cards in your pocket, just in case. Corollary: don't go anywhere without a map.
7. Relax. You can't see everything, so don't try. Enjoy the moments. Talk to people, tourists and locals. Take lots of photos. Ten years from now, you'll see that picture of yourself with Joyce and Jon from Timbuktu in a random encounter in Fiesole or Giverny or Delft and a flood of wonderful memories will billow forth.
Denise in San Antonio, TX
If someone tells you that it is too dangerous for a single woman to be in St. Petersburg by herself, don't believe them. I imagine the same is true for a lot of other places. Most people give advice based on their fears and abilities. You may have very different skills and concerns. Do take into account other people's actual experiences.
Charles in Austin, TX
One simple lesson, BE PREPARED!!
As everyone else has detailed, curveballs happen. The more prepared I am with details in the guidebook, the easier it is to adjust on the fly. I always do my homework and know what my options are. That way the only curveballs are the ones out of your control (i.e. strike) and not self-inflicted ones because you did not plan properly.
Michael Schneider in New Paltz, NY
Chani says, "Don't eat gelato more than twice a day, after that it's not quite as good. Corollary: don't eat gelato in Rome, it's not great and there are other things that have just as many calories and taste better."
You lost me at "don't eat gelato.....".
Teresa in Seattle, WA
Before ordering dinner from the chalk-written blackboard, confirm that the prices listed are actually for dinner ... not lunch. That was an expensive little lesson!
Andre L. in Tilburg, Netherlands
My list, in no particular order:
1. Whenever possible, schedule flights with long enough connection layovers. Four-hour stay in an airport terminal if flight is on time beats the headaches of being reschedule/rerouted if a tight 90-minute connection is missed because of delays.
2. If you rent a car and are unfamiliar with its operation, drive around a bit on the lot or on a quiet street. Be attentive of auto-stop features and make sure you know how to operate the tank fuel lid/door before heading into a fuel station.
3. The best GPS is the one you operate, at home, and are familiar with.
4. If TripAdvisor has repeated specific complaints (noise, something broken/missing), it is likely true, and you will be disappointed.
5. Always carry some coins for using the restroom; you never know when you will need it and the only one available requires coins.
6. When organizing a trip with someone other than a girlfriend or close relative you know well, make sure not to put yourself in a position of becoming "accountable" if something doesn't go as planned like bad weather, delayed train, etc. It pays off not to over-entice people to travel with you if they are not involved with planning the trip themselves.
Richard in Los Angeles, CA
All hard-learned lessons:
The little colored dot on the gas cap cover of your rental car is the color of the fuel pump handle you want to use. Green is not diesel in Europe like it is in the U.S.
Don't use two modes of transportation in one day if you can avoid it (for example, a train and rental car). Don't plan on more than two train connections in one day.
France and Italy are two different countries for a reason. Even though they seem close on a map, they are not easy to travel between with ground transportation. Better to fly.
Don't leave with a full suitcase. If you are, you have packed too much. Plan on a "laundry day" after a week or so.
Don't go to a restaurant because you are tired and "there are plenty of people there so it must be OK". Take the time to plan your meals around RS recommended places (or several other guidebooks because they all overlap).
The train to "Gare de Lyon" from Avignon is NOT the train to Lyon even though you are on the right track that four separate employees said was correct but the change of tracks was in French and you didn't know it. That was a fun day!
The prompts on your cell phone to retrieve messages or add time or anything else are in a foreign language and useless. Get a British SIM and pay the roaming charge.
Kristen in Chicago, IL
When you book connecting flights, book them on the same itinerary. This way, if you miss a connection (and it will happen) the airline is way more accommodating and in some cases may automatically rebook you on a later flight. On one of my first trips, I booked different legs of a flight through different ways to save money (one leg using miles, one leg on Travelocity). My first leg of the trip was delayed and I missed my connecting flight. When I didn't arrive for my connecting flight (because I was still in the air for my first flight), it got cancelled. So I arrived in a foreign country and had to pay an arm and a leg to buy a ticket for a new flight. My flight home for that leg of the trip had also been cancelled. And I had to buy THAT flight too.
Now I just book one airline, one itinerary. Costs a little more up front but it is so worth it.
I also never fly though Heathrow without allowing four hours for a layover.
Adam in Boston, MA
1) The map is not the territory.
2) Just spend the goddam euros to see the stuff you want to see. Don't waste time stressing out about it. That's what they (the goddam euros) are for.
3) If you fall into a bad attitude somehow (Was it closed? Did it rain? Were you late? Was it a rip-off? Whatever), it happens to everyone. Treat yourself to a decent meal and move forward.
4) If you are in a place that has a tower or steeple or other high place, climb it.
Bruce in Whitefish, MT
Bad things happen (transportation strikes, record-breaking weather, etc.) so vent, evaluate options and move on.
Sarah in Canada, eh
1. If you aren't traveling carry-on only, make sure that you carry a change of clothes, clothes that are comfy enough to sleep in, and a few basic toiletries in your carry-on in case your luggage takes a day or two to catch up to you. Yes, you can buy stuff there, but it's nice to not have to spend your first day there shopping for clothes. I was super thankful I had some clothes in my carry-on when my luggage got stuck in Frankfurt and didn't catch up to me for a day. Goes without saying, pack any medicines/valuables/essentials for your trip in your carry-on.
2. I'm with others in allowing 90+ minutes for connections, preferably 2+ hours if you have to clear customs and/or it's a large airport. See luggage left in Frankfurt above.
3. Try for flights earlier in the day. They're often less likely to be running late and there might be later flights they can bump you to if you miss a connection, instead of having to stay over a night and catch a flight the next day.
4. Agreed on the money gun. Always have enough resources available to you to buy an emergency ticket home or to change hotels or something if it becomes necessary.
Zoe in Toledo, OH
Chani, great post except for the gelato in Rome comment — next time go to Giolitti.
Hard lesson: I had six train connections in one day. The first train was ten minutes late. The second was an hour late, and I lost a day.
I was gas-bombed by the Paris police while they were chasing a group of thieves. Very uncomfortable for a minute, great story for years to come.
Philip in London, United Kingdom
Do read the negative reviews on TripAdvisor to make sure they aren't all complaining about things that are irrelevant to you. (For instance, no lift, no air-conditioning, no free car parking, no cooked breakfast available...)
Nicole in Truro, NS Canada
Amen, Christine on the Paris McD's washroom — LOL! I did the exact same thing. I don't care if I went an hour ago, if there is a free bathroom, I'm using it. Hubby always shakes his head, but one of these days, he'll pay...teehee.
Brad in Gainesville, VA
Lessons learned (the hard way) that come to mind:
1. Pack light.
2. Keep your bag organized.
3. Keep your valuables secure.
4. Don't plan everything to the minute.
5. Don't sweat it when your plan doesn't work out.
Roy in Auburn, AL
Thanks for the warnings about trip planning for family members. Not that I could afford it, but I have found myself lately wishing I could take my daughters and their families along on a trip. Not such a good idea, after all; we might never speak to each other again!
I will mention one other hard-learned lesson: Take Helpline advice, even this, with a grain of salt, and add an extra tablespoon for advice from TripAdvisor "experts." Every mistake I cited above came after getting reassurances on these boards that there was nothing to worry about. At least, the Helpline folks were writing from experience; I am not so sure about some of the TA "experts". Just because something always works for others, does not mean it will work for you; just because they never had a problem does not mean you won't. There's always the law of averages. Seek advice but, in the end, trust your gut.
Going off on a tangent, one thing seems to be missing in these comments. For all the talk on Helpline about moneybelts, there has been no mention of them; no one so far seems to have had a problem with pickpockets. I haven't, but I now use a hidden pocket to keep from losing passport and credit cards. Maybe my luck will hold.
George in Canada
Roy, numerous trips over 25 years. I don't wear a moneybelt and I haven't been picked.
Ed in Pensacola, FL
Junk: reservations and moneybelts. I've spent more than half my life (right at three quarters in the last dozen years) outside of the United States and have seldom found a need for the former and never for the latter. The law of averages be damned.
Chani in Tel Aviv
Roy, I thought everyone used moneybelts. To me, it's like saying "wear shoes in Italy."
Zoe, I'm sure there must be some good gelato in Rome, but after I found the cannoli in Trastevere, even the best wouldn't have tempted me. Next trip, I'm finding a room in Trastevere! I think the shop also had gelato, but I only had eyes for the cannoli.
Andrea in Sacramento, CA
Okay Roy, here you go:
Keep your valuables secure. Using a moneybelt or similar is up to you, but be aware that in very crowded situations (metro, buses or any other crowd) it's easy to be picked and you won't even know it. Fortunately when this happened to me, it was on the way to the airport to go home. I was able to recover the money spent using my debit card, but running to the bank, DMV, etc. was not what I had planned for my first day home. And if it had happened earlier in the trip or my passport had been in my wallet, big problem!
Use what kind of bag you prefer. Wheels or no wheels is a personal preference. But do make sure you pack lightly. Your hotel may have an elevator, but it might be broken. Don't count on help getting up those steep stairs to the train.
Have an idea about what you want to see, but don't plan your day down to the minute. Stuff happens. Don't be disappointed if you don't get to something. Just plan on going back another time if it's that important to you.
Take time to enjoy the place you are visiting. Don't just rush from site to site so you can check things off your list. Your trip will end up being a big blur.
Choose your travel companions wisely. If planning for anyone that's not a spouse or minor child, make sure they approve of the destinations and lodging choices prior to booking. Then if they are unhappy with the result, they can be reminded that they signed off on it and the blame shouldn't go to you.
Be prepared, but expect the unexpected. When things don't go as planned, it usually makes for the best stories later!
Always have change for the bathroom. When you see one, use it.
Take grocery bags to the store with you. I always pack a couple of bags that crumple up very small and put them in my purse.
Christa in Alameda, CA
Are you ever right about #1! My first trip to Europe had a connecting flight out of CDG and I don't know if I've ever been as upset and confused as I was when I was set loose in an enormous mass of people who seemed not only equally confused but all speaking in foreign languages. No discernible lines, no sense of where to go and my connecting flight leaving in 10 minutes. I grabbed an airline employee and magically they whisked me to the right security line and somehow got me through and had the plane wait as I ran, shoe-less and sweaty, through the terminal. Never again.
David in Seattle, WA
1. If you're driving (and maybe even if you're not), bring a GPS from home that has current maps, and that you know how to use.
2. Bring a paper map, too. Your GPS may die (or be stolen), you may lose your map. Do not rely on having just one or the other, you're gonna want both.
3. Bring a small compass. Yes, a compass. A tiny, cheap one is fine. Being able to check which way is (roughly) north (by taking a furtive glance as you're walking) can be invaluable in finding your way around an unfamiliar city on foot and staying oriented.
4. Always bring at least two cards of any type (ATM/credit cards). ATM systems and credit card readers can be finicky; sometimes my card/account won't work, but the wife's does.
Rebecca in Nashville, TN
Roy, I think it would be possible for you to plan a trip to Europe for a very small group of family. What I was talking about on page one was a trip I had tried to plan for a large group of friends that I had known since college. Think "The Big Chill" with twice as many people. The bickering started immediately at the first meeting we all had to talk about an itinerary. That's a bad sign!
I think if it were you and three other close family members that wanted to go, it would work. Let's say, if you have two adult daughters, and their husbands didn't want to go. That might work; you, your wife and two daughters. When the group grows large, that's when people start having a difference of opinion.
It might work, as you say, to include all members of the daughters' families. You could test the waters by getting together with the family members you are thinking of taking on the trip, have a general discussion, and see if any arguments start developing. It's a good sign if everyone gets along well in the first place. You said, "Not that I could afford it, but I have found myself lately wishing I could take my daughters and their families along on a trip." It is more than generous to offer to pay only a portion of the kids' trip. There is no need to break the retirement savings account; that is our thinking. Our kids can pay their portion of the trip, say, their airfare and food, if we pay for just hotels.
We were going to take our grandchildren to England with us one summer, but they just weren't interested. They decided they'd rather stay at home with their friends. So don't be surprised if your family trip turns out to be adults only. Some kids are involved in Little League or swimming competitions in the summer, and want to stay home.
Keith in England
1) Possibly the internet and sat nav/GPS have taken away this problem, but if you are planning on a "quick drive" based on the map in the back of your pocket diary, it is worth checking what the scale is. Atlanta and Dallas looked pretty close together when we set out ...
2) Always think why someone is pushing a particular idea. If he says, for example, "moneybelts are your key to peace of mind" and then offers to sell you one for $14.99, there may be a link which is not necessarily to your advantage.
(Note: Some posts have been edited for spelling and clarity.)
Our independent, volunteer Travelers Helpline contributors are sincere, but not infallible! Follow their advice at your own risk. This thread was gently edited for brevity and clarity. Ask your European travel question on the Travelers Helpline.