The Peripatetic School, Pt. 4

Travel Tips

Traveling today is far different and much improved from the past, in ways other than technology. This post is about lodging, food, and transportation.

AirBnb accommodations have been wonderful. We had stayed in one in Ketcham Idaho during the summer of 2014 and it was great (bikes, zip line in backyard, cozy fireplace, etc.). There are others like VRBO, and we used the British service Home Away. By the time we leave for India on February 1st, we will have stayed in 16 different homes in Europe and only 3 hotels. Not only has this saved a ton of money on lodging, it saves on food. Beyond the economics, meeting locals and learning about the neighborhoods and cities where we’ve stayed has been outstanding. Advice from our hosts has taken us to places we would not have normally visited, and while many of these are rented continuously, they still give more of an authentic feel of living in the community. Of course, some have been better than others. Paris was rough, super small, kinda dirty, not easy to relax in. The second Cadiz place, our longest stay, was great, modern, equipped, great wifi, even better location. Both countryside stays, Montjouan in France (Burgandy) and Certaldo in Italy (Tuscany) have been charming, comfortable, and homey. Being able to cook food and do laundry has been great, and with a few exceptions we’ve averaged almost a week in each place which is usually enough to get a feel of the area.

Speaking of food, with a few exceptions going out a lot will eat up your money. So we’ve had many fun grocery store adventures and it helps that we like to cook. Another good option in Europe are sandwiches which can be found in lots of cafes and pastry shops. They’re usually pretty cheap and good. Of course there’s pizza in Italy, tapas in Spain, all kinds of wonderfulness in France, and we’ve tried to have a few nice culinary experiences. However, I gotta say, I’m likin’ the USA for victuals. Not only do we have every kind of ethnic restaurant, but some of those folks do it better there than the homeland. And I’m sorry, but the food in Spain was disappointing. I didn’t really care for paella to begin with, often the olives had this expired flavour, some of the tapas were gross, and bland was not banned. Further, except for an occasional Italian or American restaurant, there wasn’t anything ethnic. The poor Chinese people we met there must have it really rough. As Dad & CFO, I’m a human garbage disposal anyway and can’t afford to be picky. Take away: eat at home – wherever that is.

Getting around is another tricky topic. Not only are there trains, planes, and automobiles, there are boats, bikes, and really funiculars. And walking, walking, walking, but let’s go back to the first step. On day one, the Lord created frequent flyer mile credit cards and we had enough for all of us to fly from Oakland to Boston (notice: not SF to NYC). It seemed almost free, except that we had use a shuttle and rent a car – it was three hops all night long and left us exhausted.

Having experienced the sticker shock of flights to Europe, we considered cruises and serendipitously the Queen Mary 2 was leaving NYC a couple days after we arrived. Perfect, except that we’d planned to stay longer then go to DC, buy hey, we’ll be back. When we booked it we didn’t even realise that the musical guests for that cruise were Crosby, Stills, Nash – awesome. We didn’t actually get to chat with them while strolling on deck, but they gave a great show and since then we’ve been to Winchester Cathedral, the Marrakech Express, and hopefully are Teaching our Children Well.

Which leads us to cars, and the fact no one wanted me to be driving in England on the left hand side of the road. I’d looked into buying a car then selling it later, and that still might be the best way to go. However, I ran into some problems with registration and insurance, and it was exceeding bandwidth to figure out. So it was trains, taxis, and tubes in England. On the continent we’ve now rented five cars (two Citroens, a VW, an Opel, and a Ford). I’ve used both AutoEurope and EconomyCarRentals as online brokers, and it’s been mostly good. Finding the Paris drop off at Gare du Nord was a nightmare, squeezing our copious luggage into a couple has been a challenge, and Europcar at first threatened to charge us for scratches on the VW, but realised their error. While it may have cost a bit more than owning, we’ve saved in not paying for parking in big cities (which can be ridiculous) and in Cadiz we had no car for almost two months, just walking, with an occasional taxi, bus, or ferry boat.

I do a lot of comparison shopping and occasionally four train tickets (esp. in Italy) have been better than a car rental. Another trick is staying within the country you rent in. You’ll still have to pay to return to a different location (sometimes the brokers cover that), but it’s crazy expensive if you return in a different country. So, we first rented in Calais, drove through Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, but returned in Paris. After a week there, we rented in Paris, drove to San Sebastian, Spain, but popped back into France the next day to return in Biarritz. Renting again in Spain, we spent a day in Portugal. There’s probably more advice about European driving, but go slow, research your route ahead of time, and inspect the car before taking the keys (take pix of scratches!). Hey, there’s more. Route research can take you to cool spots, parking research is also valuable, organising drop offs can save taxi fare, and yes Ron, roundabouts rock (except in parts of Spain where they have signals on the roundabout).

Train routes, times, and fares can be found on the internet, and usually even in English. There are also online ferry brokers with lots of good options. But here is a mistake we made in coordinating things. I thought we’d ferry from Spain to Italy and there was one from Barcelona to Genoa. We decided Genoa seemed cool, so we booked an AirBnb for five nights. Then found out the ferry didn’t leave every day – ooops. Wound up flying to Milan, then having to take train to Genoa. It was cool, but we could have stayed in Milan, or maybe flown to Vienna if we hadn’t already booked the AirBnb. This goes back to deciding where you go and where you don’t. Lesson: less is more.

More on less: luggage! Not only are suitcases hard to fit in rental cars, heavy ones can be expensive on flights when you have to check ‘em, and they are a nightmare on the cobblestones of Venice after getting off the train, wheeling ‘em to the water bus to the Rialto bridge, then over five canals on a long and circuitous route getting to the hotel (then three flights of stairs with no elevator)! More on these particulars later.

One more transportation story. I spent a lot of time research Morocco, and finally decided on a tour for reasons of ease and safety. But rather than starting in Tangier which is right across from Spain, we had to fly from Sevilla to Marrakech where the tour would start and end. Sure enough the flight was cancelled, and while we spent a night in a nice hotel, we missed the first night in Marrakech. However, our tour guid Aziz came to the rescue and booked a car to pick us at the airport and catch us up to the tour. It worked swimmingly and we didn’t miss much. Tip: email everyone when disaster strikes (the tour company didn’t help, but the Marrakech hotel did!). Aziz also came through in getting our Morocco SIMs and booking our train to Casablanca when the tour was over.

In conclusion, smooth logistics takes good R&D, enjoy it. Read reviews, give yourself extra time, be kind & polite to clerks, conductors, and all your fellow travelers. Another pointer I got from Nassim Nicholas Taleb who valued this incidental advice from a colleague’s remark, “I never run for trains,” which to me means don’t just be on time, be early, but if you’re late, “keep calm and carry on,” “wherever you go there you are,” and enjoy the ride or the lack thereof. Be in this moment (not that other one).

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