Idiot-Proof Travel Tips
By Christina Waters
The Big Picture
Book big cities in advance. Leave smaller towns and villages for spontaneous decisions. We always have the front and the end of the trip reserved way in advance. Do not attempt to just breeze into a city like Paris without a hotel confirmation in your hot little hand. You need to know that you've got a base camp from which to reconnoiter, a place to refuel after that long flight. Once you get into the countryside traveling from town to town by car or rail, you or the nice person at your hotel's front desk can call a day or two in advance to the next town or hotel where you would like to stay. Unless there's a convention or feast day (more about this later), you'll invariably find lodgings in your price range.
Give Good Reception
Make friends with your hotel's receptionist. Learn this person's name on the very first day. Make small requests--like finding a map or getting the name of a good restaurant--and then praise/thank/tip them lavishly. They're yours for the rest of your stay. The person at the front desk can be your ally in maximizing your stay.
Seal of Approval
Tip the housekeeper faithfully. Leave small change on the bedside table. Then you can ask for extra pillows.
Everything you take will wrinkle, so don't worry about it when you pack. However, it's true that knits--T-shirts (the kind that fit neatly, not the oversize beer-logo kind), elastic-waist pants and walking shorts, sweaters, one decent dress--really do travel well. Take a pair of jeans, the universally correct attire. If it's winter, I bring everything in black. In summer, I switch to khaki. Then throw in some bright accessory and you need never think about your dress code again.
Roll With It
Roll-aboard luggage will save your life. It certainly won't hurt your back, either. Roll-aboards even do well on cobblestones. Invest in one, and take along one soft, nylon bag. More than two pieces of luggage and you're asking for a world of stress.
Don't Leave Home Without Them
You must always have with you: plenty of little packages of Kleenex; your favorite antacid, analgesic (I stock ibuprofin), and allergy pills; a bathing suit; presentable shorts; a soft hat (a baseball cap is good); sunscreen; sandals; extra underwear and socks; a Walkman with a few favorite tapes; a notebook.
Walk This Way
Take four pairs of shoes--comfortable shoes--and rotate them, wearing at least two pairs each day.
Hour of the Munch
When you hit a town, immediately locate the nearest epicerie or grocery and load up on bottled water, beer, hard cheese, fruit, bread and wine for the hotel room. You will be so happy you did, since few restaurants are open at 3pm, the universal munchie hour.
Always carry bottled water in your travel bag--you have no idea when you'll find that little grocery store. To be safe--I do this even in Paris and London--brush your teeth in still water (l'eau minerale sans gas), drink the bubbly (l'eau minerale avec gas or gazeuse). Wherever you're traveling, make sure you can order bottled water in the appropriate language (e.g., agua mineral sin fizz).
Oh Happy Days
Check ahead for any big regional festivals--Ascension Day literally closed down France for three days on my trip last summer--before you assume that you can visit that cathedral/museum of your choice. You may be competing for space with villagers from the surrounding hills and their entire extended families.
Everything closes on Sunday, except museums, so plan accordingly. Take that trip to the Louvre or Rodin Museum on the one day you can't genuflect at some temple of cuisine. Everything closes--even churches and tourist bureaus--between noon and 2pm. There's a reason. That's when everybody is enjoying a long, leisurely midday meal. That's when you should be eating too.
Late Breaking News
Do not be alarmed at the late European dinner hour. Go with the flow, snack in your hotel room to prevent the crankiness that comes with low blood sugar. You will not actually be laughed at if you make a reservation for as early as 7pm, but the action only starts after 8pm. (I've seen families with very small children arrive at their tables at 10pm.) In summer, Europe stays light until 10pm, so expect to stay on your feet way into the evening. Even if you get a late start in the morning, you can continue sightseeing up until dinner.
Who's Vault Is It?
ATMs are really the way to go. If your bank card belongs to the CIRRUS or STAR programs, you can get money pretty easily in cities. Take along some travelers checks, too. And when you change into local currency, always get more money than you think you'll need. There's always a fee for each transaction and banking hours are erratic (Ha! is that an understatement) in France.
When in Rome (and Especially Paris)
Even if it's not your normal habit, stop often at cafes. Order a beer or coffee--it gives you access to good restrooms and lets you sit and check out the local action. During an all-day sightseeing marathon, two cafes in the morning, three in the afternoon is a good rule of thumb. Trust me, with all the walking, you need to stop and rest, regroup, look at maps and just chill out.
The first time you hit the Metro (the subway, not the newspaper) in Paris, stop at the ticket window and buy a carnet, a batch of 10 tickets. That way you don't have to stop each time you want to ride the subway and buy new tickets.
When in doubt, order the daily special, plat du jour, always the best, freshest and cheapest lunch/dinner available. Ordering half bottles--dèmi boutaille--of wine (ubiquitous on French menus) lets you sample intriguing, locally made stuff without getting roaring drunk and without breaking your budget. Should you wish to get roaring drunk, of course, there is more than enough wine in Europe to accommodate you. Then call a cab.
Go ahead and take snapshots--you'll absolutely adore having these images for years to come. Don't be afraid to ask people to take a picture of you in front of your favorite world-famous landmark. Never bypass the chance to climb up a church or castle tower--the view from the top is worth the effort. But don't for a minute think that you, above all other tourists throughout the ages, will capture the definitive shot of the Eiffel Tower. It's been done. If you want the best images for your scrapbook, buy postcards as you go. Don't send them, keep them--or send them to yourself at home.
Make Book on It
Above all, invest in the thin Michelin green guide for major cities, e.g. Paris, Rome, Athens. These guides are terrific, filled with history, architecture, local color and maps, and are light enough to justify packing and hauling all over Europe.
MetroActive Goes Trippin' . . .
Don't Miss Saigon: Playing the Pacific Rim by bike requires stamina and good wheels.
Cruising Oblivion: Life aboard a cruise ship is a lesson in scheduling and snoozing.
On the Road: Traveling doesn't have to mean planes and trains. Automobiles and thumbs can get you pretty far.
Southern Sunshine: Paradise found on Mexico's tropical beaches.
Romancing the Romanesque: Scouring France in search Crusader ruins.
Queer Across the World: Transcending homophobia in search of another buck.
Packing Heat: Paranoid or not, it's always a good idea to keep an eye out for danger when you travel.
Virtual World: Armchair travelers can feed their wanderlust on the web.
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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz
This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
© 1996 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.