10 Lessons Learned While Traveling to Europe for the First Time

Nervous First Timers in Europe - 10 Lessons Learned {Saving up for Disney}

Last year I won a trip through Intrepid Travel in a Pinterest contest from Skype. It was a 9-day adventure in Central Europe starting in Munich, Germany. It was our first time traveling to Europe and we were nervous about the entire process!

After one day in Germany, we traveled to the Czech Republic for two days in Prague and two days in a small village called Cesky Krumlov. Moving on, another two days in Vienna, Austria and ending with one overnight in Budapest, Hungary. We extended the trip with one extra overnight in Munich to get ourselves adjusted to the 13 hours of air travel it took to get there.

Neither my husband or I had ever traveled to Europe. We were nervous and excited and apparently, still had a lot to learn. Here is what we discovered in our travels:

Schonbrunn Gardens in Austria

Lesson Learned #1 -Leave the heels at home.

Before the trip, I was envisioning in my head that we’d walk the city during the day, return to the hotel in the evening for a shower and to change into dressy evening clothes before hitting the town. Well, things didn’t exactly go down that way. I packed pretty dresses and several pairs of heels to wear for dinner but only one night did I even wear a dress and never did I wear heels. Even though it was mid-August, the weather generally wasn’t conducive to dress-wearing (it was too chilly) and I ended up just wearing my same ol’ day clothes for dinner along with my hot pink rain jacket and walking shoes.

“Going to dinner” either meant taking public transportation or walking long distances, so the heels never made it out of the suitcase. There was one reason for that: Cobblestones. The cobbled streets in Central Europe make it challenging enough for you to walk in regular shoes, let alone heels.

Cobblestoned streets of Europe

Lesson Learned #2 – The tap water is great…but restaurants won’t serve it to you.

I’d heard in advance that tap water was frowned upon in restaurants but I still was surprised to get the eye-roll when I requested “tap water” in a restaurant in Prague. “Still or sparkling”, said the waiter, firmly. My only two options for water for most of the trip. Water was always pricier than beer and you only get a tiny glass, 8 ounces at the most! Restaurants averaged $2.50 a bottle for water. Only at our last meal in Budapest did the restaurant bring us pitchers of tap water to the table…I drank 6 glasses!

Lesson Learned #3 – Pack several pair of good walking shoes.

I’d taken my slip-on shoes off on the plane trip and when we landed in Munich, I had to cram my swollen feet back into them! I didn’t realize my feet would swell so much on the plane. By the time we reached the hotel, I had terrible blisters along the tops of my feet and heels and my newly-polished toes were broken from walking in too-small shoes. Next time, I would choose something with adjustable straps when we get off the plane to accommodate my puffy feet!

The constant pounding of feet on cobblestones kicked my butt. Seriously, by day two my feet were aching. I relieved that by changing my shoes every day and taking two Ibuprofen before bed to help with swelling. On Day 5, we were just walking into a museum when the plastic ring on my sandal snapped and my shoe was flopping off my foot. Fortunately my husband was able to rig up a decent fix with a piece of string. Might be a good idea to carry even a lightweight pair of flip-flops in your backpack as a shoe backup!

Schonbrunn Palace in Austria

Lesson Learned #4 – No ice cubes. Not a one for ten days.

I am not even sure they exist in central Europe. I ordered a “Coke Light” and it came to the table in the tiniest of glasses, like a child-sized cup. It was chilled but there wasn’t any ice. Water is also served cold but never iced.

Lesson Learned #5 – Know your currency.

We traveled to 4 countries. Two used Euro, one used Hungarian Forint and one used Czech Koruna. Each one, of course a different currency rate. We ate lunch in a cute cafe and not until we left the restaurant did we realize that the (very small) chicken Caesar salads we ate for lunch were $15 USD each. After that costly meal we started taking a closer look at the prices on the menu and figuring out the exchange rate before stepping foot in the restaurant. Good thing we didn’t order the bread pudding with the sky-high meringue…it would have set us back $10 USD for one slice!

Prices in Central Europe

Lesson Learned #6 – Prepare to pay to pee.

Okay, so maybe it’s okay to have a fee to use the bathroom at the metro station. And even at the McDonalds. But in the high-class restaurants? They still had either a dish near the door to place your payment or an actual bathroom attendant collecting the charge (while simultaneously playing a game of cards with a friend, really!). Generally the bathroom fees were around 50 cents. On a positive note, I never once experienced a dirty bathroom, in fact bathrooms in central Europe were always cleaner than the ones here. There was never urine on the seat or floor, there was always a scrub brush in every stall and only once was there no toilet paper (I was supposed to grab a wad of it after I paid my Koruna, oops!).

Fresh beer in Prague

Watch your liquids…unless you have change to pay to use the bathroom!

Lesson Learned #7 – A Queen is two Twins.

In every hotel room we stayed at two Twin beds were pushed together to create a Queen-sized bed. I suppose that makes it easier for single travelers to separate the beds into two, but in the case of the hotel we stayed at below in Vienna, the headboard and end tables were built in and there was no room to physically separate the beds, so it didn’t make much sense. Pillows were often enormous floppy feather bags that didn’t serve much of a purpose. What we did like…the individual feather-stuffed duvets. My husband stated that he never wanted to leave the hotel in Prague, our bed there was heavenly!

Hotel in Vienna

Lesson Learned #8 – A sleep mask is worth it’s weight in gold.

I used a sleep mask every night while we traveled and slept a perfectly solid eight hours every night. In several hotels the curtains were completely sheer and there was no drapery to close (what was up with that?!) so the room was not dark enough to my liking. The sleep mask blocked out all light, had a nice silky pad against my closed eyelids and was scented with lavender (ahhh!!) so I always drifted off quickly. I used the sleep mask on the plane and slept five hours straight and also on the bus when we were traveling to the next city. Get a sleep mask for your trip, you won’t regret it. I’ve been continuing to use it at home, I love mine so much.

Lesson Learned #9 – The meaning of “Salad” changes around the globe.

In some locations, it was perhaps three small lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes and cucumber. In another place, it was dry spinach leaves sprinkled next to your schnitzel. In all cases salads were very tiny and were nearly always drowning in vinaigrette. In fact there was almost always a quarter cup of liquid at the bottom of my bowl.

Dinner in Prague

A lovely meal but technically, I wouldn’t consider that a “salad”.

Lesson Learned #10 – Avoid jet-lag….if you can!

I’d heard about jet-lag but had never experienced it. Going there wasn’t terribly bad. We flew overnight and were able to nap on the plane so that when we arrived at 8:30 am in Munich we were okay to start the day. We did take a brief nap in the afternoon, got plenty of water and sunshine, and went to bed at a decent hour and I think that helped.

Coming back, it was a completely different story. We awoke at 6am in Budapest. We spent 15 hours in the air and 6 hours layover (which was mostly rushing to catch our connecting flight and waiting in queue through customs). By the time we touched down at home, we’d been awake for 24 hours. I had 4 soul-crushing days of jet-lag to follow where I was foggy-headed and exhausted, akin to recovering from the flu. We’d wanted to stay awake so that when we got home we could go to bed at our usual time but maybe we did that flight home “wrong”? I’m not sure. In any case, we’re still waking up at 4am, ready to start our day so our bodies are still not on U.S. time yet.

We did a lot of research before our trip but there are always things that you can only learn along the way through experience! That, of course, is part of the fun and adventure!

Helpful Links:

Rick Steves Europe

Conde Nast Traveler

Travel + Leisure

Traveling Mom

Follow my adventures on Pinterest – European Vacation Planning


Every Picture Tells a Story – A Fairy Tale Village

Double rainbow of Cesky Krumlov in Czech Republic

We were in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, a small fairy-tale like village surrounded by forest and with a picturesque river that runs right through the town. My husband and I were sitting at an outdoor barbeque restaurant with our tour group when it started to rain. We were partly under the protection of a tarp but the rain was running off and dripping us on the backs. My husband ran back to the hotel room to grab his jacket and umbrella and on the way back saw this beautiful double-rainbow arched over the village and snapped a picture with my cell phone.

This picture pretty much sums up the time we spent in this lovely area, it was definitely the treasure at the end of the rainbow for me!

First Timers in Europe – Jet-lagged but full of amazing memories

European Vacation {Saving up for Disney}

Wow! I am finally home after a whirlwind trip to Europe covering 4 countries and 5 cities in ten days. I won this trip on a Skype Pinterest contest and my husband and I traveled with 14 other people on an Intrepid Travel Tour group through Central Europe.

Jet-lag. I’d heard of it, of course, but never knew what soul-crushing symptoms I would be faced with upon my return! I was affected only slightly on the first day in Germany but after walking in the city, napping briefly and drinking plenty of water I was fine the next morning. Coming back and settling in to home life has been a different matter, however. I have been experiencing nausea, vertigo and extreme exhaustion. I have read that it takes about 5 days to get back to normal, so if that’s true, I should be finally feeling better in the next day or two. Talk about a crazy brain fog, I can only hope and pray that my body goes back to normal very soon.

I’ll be getting my posting back to normal next week! In the meantime, enjoy this photo of me above the city of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Looks like a little fairy tale village, doesn’t it?

Travel Planning – You’re Going on Vacation (But the Kids are Staying Home)

A Vacation without the Kids! Tips for preparing {Saving Up for Disney}

Last year my husband and I spent our first weekend away from the kids. I knew the older ones would be fine but the littlest was a few months shy of two years and I didn’t know how he’d be staying with Grandma overnight. Turns out he was totally fine, didn’t miss us and didn’t even ask where we were!

This month my husband and I will be gone for 10 days traveling to Europe and we’re leaving the kids at home with the Grandmas again. My mother and my husband’s mother live next door to each other and they will be splitting time taking care of our three children. I’ve mentioned a few times to my little one (he is 2 3/4 years old) about our going away. I’m trying not to make it a big deal or give him undue stress about our leaving. I do want to prepare him though, so he doesn’t wake up one morning and we’re just gone! I have told him that he is going to be staying with his Grandmas while Mom & Dad take a plane and that we’ll be back with a present for him. Naturally, he’s two so he says, “No! Dillon go on plane with Mom and Dad, too!”. Hmm…what a difference a year makes!

Here are a few things that I’m doing now to help ease the transition while we’re gone.

Making a list of meal ideas that can be prepared that all the kids will eat. This was created at Grandma’s request so there is no more confusion about who wants mayo on their sandwich, ketchup with their chicken nuggets and who won’t eat peaches. I’ve listed a brief outline of fruits, veggies and snack ideas as well as some lunch and dinner ideas.

Printing out some pictures and putting them in a simple album. I’m taking one with me and leaving one behind with the kids. It’s specifically for the little one, he likes looking at family albums and recalling memories.

Writing a letter to each child. My husband and I will each write a letter to each child that they can read while we are gone. Just something short and sweet that tells them we’ll miss them.

Making sure everyone has an itinerary. I want my family to know where we’re going to be not only in case of emergency but so they they can track where we are each day on a map.

A property installed car seat. Both the Grandmas will have a car seat in the center of the back seat for any travel with the little one.

Leaving contact and emergency info, including insurance cards for each child.

Packing up the “blankie” and special toys and books. The Grandmas will take good care of him while he’s gone but given that he won’t be sleeping in his own bed each night, I want to make the bedtime transition as familiar as possible.

Leaving behind a special gift that they can use while we are gone. I have purchased one special new treat for each child to play with while we’re gone. My hope is at least they won’t be bored…for a few hours!

And once we’re gone…

Keeping in contact, within reason. Our cell phone plan has unlimited international texting and calls are 20 cents a minute. I think we’ll try to call once a day (timing that when we’re half a world away will be a challenge!) and maybe send a few texts and phone pictures.

Skype. I won this vacation from Skype on a Pinterest contest, so it’s only fitting that we use it on the trip to keep in touch with family back home!

Do you have any tips you could add to the list with your own experiences? Please comment below and I’ll add them!

Handy Links:

Babble – How to Travel without Your Kids

Today – Should Parents Vacation without the Kids?


Travel Planning – Nervous First-Timers Checklist for Europe…What did I forget?

First Timers Checklist for Traveling to Europe {Saving up for Disney}

Up until last year, I was a Southern California native who had been as far north as Nevada, as far east as Utah and as far south as Acapulco, Mexico. My longest plane flight had been 45 minutes to Las Vegas. I’d been on one cruise. I loved the idea of traveling and I desperately wanted to travel, but for the most part, time and money have eluded me. I’ve stayed put, happy enough to drive the 90 minutes north to Disneyland for a mini-vacay once in a while.

Then last year for my birthday we went to New York city (on a trip that I won through Pinterest from Armitron Watches). It was a whirlwind weekend and the travel bug bit me, I wanted more!

Shortly after I won the NY trip, I was awarded the grand prize in another Pinterest contest, this one from Skype for $5000 in travel vouchers from Intrepid Travel.

After much discussion, my husband and I decided to visit Europe.  I knew exactly what city I wanted to visit and we chose our tour based on that. When I was a teenager, I’d seen a photo of Vienna, Austria lit up at night with a huge full moon hanging over the city and from that point on, I knew that if I went to Europe, that was where I wanted to go!

So…that’s where we’re going! We’ve been planning for over a year and now the time has finally come. Our tour will include Munich, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna and Budapest…4 countries in 9 days!

I’m a teensy-bit obsessed with planning *ahem* I have been scouring the internet for traveling tips. My Pinterest board is loaded with images of places we are going, hotels we are staying in, maps, restaurants we want to eat in and general tips for international travels. Given that neither of us have been to Europe and neither of us speak a foreign language, we are equal parts atwitter with excitement and nerves.

Because we are total newbies to international travel, we are soaking in all the help we can and grilling those we know who have traveled to Europe. Once we return I’ll have a better feel for what was good and helpful advice… and what exactly didn’t work for us. I can’t wait to tell you all about it but in the meantime, here is where we stand.

What I’ve gleaned so far:

  • Pack light. We are going to aim to keep our luggage around 25 lbs each (we have matching rolling suitcases) and expect that we’ll have some souvenirs to bring back.
  • Learn the language basics. At least enough so I can ask where the bathroom is! Languages are not my thing so this should be comical…I sense some major charades coming on this trip.
  • Do as the locals do. Drink what they drink, eat what they eat, wear what they wear and try not to whine when it’s “different” than what we’re used to. Of course it will be different, it’s a whole ‘nother country…that’s the adventure!
  • Avoid looking like a tourist (though I’ve heard they will probably still see you coming a mile away). I just read that most women in Europe don’t wear shorts. Guess I need to start rethinking the travel wardrobe.
  • Pack a money purse to wear under clothes. We’ve heard not-so-good stories about safe travel and keeping valuables away from pickpockets.

What we are doing for sure:

  • Instead of using our cell phones overseas, we’ll be purchasing international phone cards to keep in touch with family back home. Because we’ll be traveling to 4 countries, we’ll have to be careful not to purchase too much upfront because most cards are only valid in the country they were purchased in.
  • We’ll be keeping a watch set at US Pacific time. Don’t want to accidentally call my mom and kids at 2 am!
  • Avoid long lines at popular attractions by getting there early and buying tickets in advance. A few of the activities that we are doing are included with our tour but there is one attraction in Vienna I’d like to visit and I’ve heard that the line can take hours just to get tickets! Since we are going during peak season, we’ll get there early and I’m going to purchase the tickets before we leave home.
  • We’ll be carrying cash as well as debit/credit cards. I will be contacting my bank and credit card companies a week ahead to let them know we are traveling internationally. It was recommended to have cash in each location for restaurants and shops that don’t take cards. However, this will be tricky as we are traveling to 4 countries and 3 of them have different currencies so we don’t want to have excess before we take off for the next place.
  • Journalling as we travel. A friend recommended getting a small journal that my husband and I can take turns with, jotting down memorable things and drawing little pictures. She said that her husband and she did this on a trip to Italy and it’s one of their favorite souvenirs.
  • Taking some snacks from home. Not only for the long plane travel but also if the food isn’t appetizing, at least I’ll have a granola bar to eat. I am just not the most adventurous eater…but I will try! I’m comforted in the fact that I can always eat pastries.
  • We’re definitely not afraid of wandering, though I am a planner so I already have walking maps planned out based on our hotels.

What I’d LIKE to accomplish on this trip:

  • Starting in Munich, I want to eat in an authentic German restaurant, clink a beer stein and listen to oompha music. My grandma would be so proud! I also want to visit the English Garden and the Glockenspiel.
  • In Prague, I’d like to cross the Charles Bridge and visit Prague Castle. Taking a cruise on the Vltava River might be an option but I’ve heard that some river tours are not as good as others so we may consult our guide on this first.
  • Moving to Cesky Krumlov, which is also in the Czech Republic, our group is slated for a bicycle tour in the country side. We’re staying in a very old and rustic place, so I can’t wait to wander the streets and explore this beautiful city.
  • In Vienna, Schonbrunn Gardens is at the top of my list. And eating schnitzel. And listening to Mozart.
  • In Budapest, I’m not sure how much time we’ll have there to do much (we are only there overnight and leave early the next morning) but I’d love to visit the Fisherman’s Bastion and maybe relax in one of the thermal spas.

I’m reading every article on Rick Steves’ Europe website. What a wealth of information. I hope someday to be as carefree about traveling to other countries as he is. Right now, I’m a bit of a nervous wreck! There is just so much to remember and take care of before we leave. I know as soon as the plane takes off and we’re finally on our way, all that nervousness will dissipate into excitement of the days ahead. And I have a feeling, the travel bug is going to be really biting after this adventure!

Other Helpful Links:

Travel Zoo – 20 tips before traveling internationally

Independent Traveler – Travel Tips

U.S. Passports & International Travel – Traveler’s Checklist

Trip Resource – Travel Checklist