No Bullshit Stories and Tips From Europe Vacation
We made a good decision to take a Mediterranean cruise family vacation in a way that we visited many parts of Europe in two weeks. We were entertained and fed on the boat. We went to sleep and then when we woke up, we were in a different place. There was no hassle with checking in and checking out from a hotel and loading and unloading the luggage. After the cruise we stayed in Barcelona for a few days, and then hopped on a plane to London before coming back home to the USA.
Here are some of the lessons I learned and stories I had that I would like to pass along for you to have a great vacation.
Passport and identification.
Scan the passports before leaving home. Send a copy to your personal email, and download to your mobile phone. Print copies and bring it with you as back-up. Our tour guide reminded us to protect our bags and wallets. Pick pocketing is a major issue in European tourist areas. Even the police officers at Buckingham palace warned visitors of pickpockets.
In case you lose your passport, it will be easier to identify yourself with the scanned copy. You can easily retrieve it from the email when talking to authorities.
Spain, Italy, Vatican, Monaco, and France will accept other types of identification like your driver license so you don’t need to carry around your passport booklet. Keep your passport booklet in the safety box in your cabin or hotel room.
The US Department of State can issue passport cards for an additional $55. The size is the same as the driver’s license. It’s less bulky compared to the passport booklet. This is a best way of identification. Note: US Passport card is not allowed for entry in international airports.
Before leaving home, enroll at least 2 mobile phones in an international plan. My ATT provider offers Unlimited Texting, 120 MB of data, and affordable calling rates all for $30. The unlimited texting will allow you to get in touch with your travel party in many situations like on our free day. On that day Tim, my son, went to Stonehedge while we stayed in London. We got updates via text, and when we had dinner later, we caught up on our whereabouts. You can also text friends and family back home if needed. The 120 MB of Data is good enough to use Google maps for directions. Don’t overuse the cellular data because it may become expensive. Use your phone setting to enable or disable cellular data.
Note: The cellular data plan is different when you are on the cruise ship. The cruise data plan is a different subscription. Check with your provider. We racked up too many charges on day one on the cruise ship because our international plan that we purchased did not apply on the boat. ATT was friendly enough to reverse our charges. If you cannot live without internet, the cruise line has WIFI rates of $25 per day.
I had thought about bringing a long range Walkie Talkie . It is another option to get in touch with your travel party. It has limited radius within 30 miles.
Europe has one of the best views in the world. You don’t want to leave the place without pictures of yourself and your family. Asking your kids to take a photo takes a lot of convincing to do and will test your patience. Asking a stranger in a different language is awkward. A Selfie Stick with a button is the best gadget ever invented to take picture. Don’t leave home without one, otherwise it will cost you 10 to 15 euros from the street vendor.
In Florence, I ate an authentic Italian “Deliciosa” pizza which was very similar to the meat lover’s pizza back home. It was really delicious, but my stomach complained. I think the sausage was still raw. By the end of the day, I was having diarrhea. The fine dining at the Japanese restaurant on the boat made it absolute worst.
I hit the restroom like a fire truck spewing shit water from my bottom. It was painful and disgusting. By midnight, I was running a fever. Rosemarie, my sister-in-law gave me two Imodium tablets. It was a temporary relief.
The following day we were in Cannes, France. I was deciding to stay in the boat or join the tour. I asked myself, “When is the next time I’ll be in Cannes – the playground of the celebrities?” Then again, Europe is well known for lacking public restrooms. If there is one, you will pay 50 cents to €1 per use.
I joined the tour with my grumbling stomach. At every tourist stop, I had no enthusiasm to take pictures. Instead, I was in the hunt for a restroom. In Monaco, my family was shopping for souvenirs, and I was looking for a pharmacy. Imodium Caplets was €7. They don’t sell Tylenol there, but the pharmacist gave me their equivalent, Paracetamol, for €4. It was not as effective as Tylenol.
Speaking about medicine, our allergies flared up while we were at the Buckingham palace. For some reason, the pollen levels in early June were very high. We could see the pollen particles with our naked eye, flying the breeze and irritating our eyes and noses. While we tried to enjoy watching the changing of the Royal Guards, we endured headaches, dripping noses, and teary/itchy eyes.
Lesson learned: pack up some over the counter medicines, but be sure to check international laws.
I thought counterfeit items were solely in Asia or Canal Street, New York. From watches and clothing to handbags and sunglasses, counterfeit items are rampant in Italy. Buyers beware.
Haggle if you must. Don’t pay the sticker price. Pay half or less. Be ready to move on to the next vendor. For example, I like to buy souvenir mugs because every breakfast when I drink my tea, I like to remember the memories of our vacations. In Pompeii, a vendor was asking €27 for a mug. My son offered €5 for the mug. We end up paying €10. Still expensive, but at least we did not pay the full price. The most unforgettable souvenir purchase was a mug from Monte Carlo, Monaco where my stomach was racing like a Ferrari.
You must experience the luxury (window) shopping at Harrods if you are in London. I was walking around with my small green Harrods bag, and my family thought it was jewelry for the wife. To their surprise, it was only a pair of socks because laundry on the boat and at the hotel is really expensive. At the ground floor is a memorial to Princess Diana, and Dodi. It’s a place to see, and write well wishes in their memorial book.
We learned that non-European visitors are exempted to pay the VAT (Value Added Tax) on souvenir items. The problem though is that you still have to pay the VAT at the place of purchase. You need to keep your receipts and on the last European airport to which you will use to fly back home, you can reimburse the VAT. Check the minimum purchase at the store for the reimbursement.
Sightseeing and Excursion.
Booking excursions and trips at the cruise line is very expensive. Rose and my sister-in-law found a tour company online that was 50% cheaper. Cruising Excursions.com gave us the best experience in visiting Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento, Florence, Vatican, Cannes, and Monaco. The tour guides were able to show us the best of the places in less than a day.
With all the hustle and bustle of the City of Barcelona, you can find solitary reclusion at Montserrat. It takes an one hour journey from the Espanya station to Monserrat. We paid €29 per passenger including the cable car to the mountain. The fare also includes the ride in the funicular railway to St Joan (going up further the mountain) and St. Cova (going down through the side of the mountain). Apparently, most tourist rides to St Joan are where there’s nothing much too see. The ride and walk to St. Cova was much better. You will have the best view of Montserrat at St. Cova and at end of the trail there is a chapel at the edge of a cliff. The chapel encapsulates the cave where the holy image of the Lady of Montserrat was found by the shepherd in the year 880. I spent few minutes of prayer and reflection inside the chapel.
There is lots of walking on the tour so wear comfortable shoes.
The hop-in and hop-out bus tour is the also the best way to see the city of London and Barcelona.
The Big Red Bus in London included the Thames river cruise for a price of £26.
We made a mistake on day one in London by paying a taxi driver £20 to take us to London Bridge. Somehow there was an influence from the nursery rhymes to visit the bridge. When we get there, my excitement fell down because it was an ugly looking bridge. Several blocks away was the Tower Bridge which was a tourist spot area.
While the cruise line provides boatload of food, inland Europe food is very expensive, and the serving is small. The service was very slow especially in Italy. The servers will take their time before taking your orders, and it will take time to deliver. If you are in a tour, the guide will give an hour for free time, and if the entire time is spent on dining, then it can be a waste of time. That is exactly what happened to us in Sorrento. We waited for 30 minutes, and we finished our food in 15 minutes. We then waited for the check for another 10 minutes. The advice from the tour guide is to ask for the check while the food is served and then pay while you are eating.
Paying for bottled water can become expensive, however, having clean water is a necessity. We brought our Nikken PiMag water bottles with us. It has a built-in water filtration system that gives you clean, alkaline water from any source of water.
Tipping is not a practice in Europe. However, we found it very gratifying to tip hotel porters and concierge who helped us made our stay very comfortable.
Taxi drivers were surprised and thankful if we tell them keep the change or added some Euros to the fare. By the way, they charge an extra €1 per suitcase as part of the fare in Barcelona.
At the cruise ship, tips are already included in the final bill, however, we gave additional $70 (kinda $10/day) in cash to stateroom attendants. They were fast in every request we asked (e.g. ironing board, new towels, cleaning, breakfast, laundry, making the bed, luggage check in / checkout, etc.).
Bring International Power Adapter Converter. Most power adapters / converters have one outlet so it is a good idea to bring a power strip so that you can charge your phone, tablet, and camera.
If you are a picture or video enthusiast, make sure to bring the largest capacity SD card.
Don’t bring your laptop unless it is absolutely necessary. The hassle of taking it out in the airport is strenuous and it’s an additional expensive item that you have to worry about.
Minimize the contents you bring and do not use the expandable zipper. This will allow you to put more stuff that you accumulated during the trip later on.
Make sure to buy a sturdy, good quality, hard plastic suitcase. A hard plastic suitcase is good to protect breakable souvenirs like shot glasses and coffee mugs. Rose, my wife’s nice looking plastic suitcase broke and wheels fell off leaving a hole in the suit case. The hotel concierge put duct tape on it, and although it was not the nice looking suitcase it was used to be, it worked the time being. We purchased a replacement suitcase in Italy.
Debit and Credit Cards.
Cash is king, and you can withdraw from the ATM Machine. Before leaving home, call your bank and let them know that you will be using your debit card in Europe. There are withdrawal fees but it’s much better than carrying a bulk of cash while travelling or exchanging cash while there (very bad rates). My son got paid from his full time job while we were on vacation, and it was convenient for him to withdraw some funds.
Call your credit card issuer and let them know that you will use your credit card in Europe. I didn’t know that the credit card also has a pin number so be sure to obtain that information before your travels since some card machines require a pin number. For example, the ticket machine at the Espanya train station in Barcelona requires you to enter pin of your credit card.
In London’s subway system, or the “Tube” as they call it there, magnetic strip credit cards do not work in the ticket vending machine. The machines only accept credit cards with an EMV (Europay MasterCard Visa) chip. Before leaving home, ask your bank if they can issue an EMV chip credit card. We ended up paying cash and experienced difficulty since the machine did not accept £50 notes. We had to ask for assistance to get our tickets.
When we arrived at the Barcelona airport, we lined up where a sign said “EU” to process our passports rather than the long and full non-EU line. When we got to the counter, the officer told us we were in the wrong line. Oops! Joe, my brother-in-law, said that we are from “EU”. The officer looked puzzled and confused because we are carrying US passports. Joe followed up that we are from “Estados Unidos” – the Spanish translation of the United States. The officer was forgiving and he let us in with a smile. EU stands for European Union.
Coming home, if you are reimbursing VAT from your souvenir items at the airport, allow yourself an extra 30 to 45 minutes for this process.
When we were departing in London Heathrow International Airport, it took about 20 minutes to clear security. It took another 15 minutes to get to the international departure area. Lesson: Give yourself lots of time.
In our case, we were rushing to our gate since we did not know how long it would take to reimburse our VAT. To our dismay, when we arrived at our departure gate, we were shocked to find that it was empty. Had we missed our flight? Oh no! My mouth dropped to the floor.
We talked to an attendant. Gate change. Whew! We hadn’t missed our flight. We were one of the last passengers to board the aircraft.
Home sweet home, baby!