Tuesday, September 28, 2010

money is such a hassle

Before you head out on your international holiday, remember to call up your banks and/or credit card companies to let them know you'll be overseas. That way, they are aware that you will be abroad and won't freeze your credit card for "suspicious activity." You can let them know way in advance and they usually just log into the computer the dates you'll be gone.

Many credit cards charge you fees when used abroad. There are foreign currency exchange fees, regular credit card fee, as well as a fee charged by the bank and that can add up. That's why it may be a smart idea to use your debit card to withdraw a good chunk of cash because that's a one-time fee vs. using your credit card over and over. Check out Rick Steve's advice for a more detailed and comprehensive overview of spending overseas.

And here's a link for prepaid cards available in foreign currency. Maybe that's your best bet? Though, I hate using giftcards because it's impossible to use up the exact amount! There's always a dollar or a few pennies leftover on it. Wasteful.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

what i want to eat: Dutch goodies

  1. Stroopwafels (syrup waffles) - thin waffles sandwiched together with syrup (duh) or honey or caramel.
  2. Bitterballen - deep fried meatballs; need I say more?
  3. Patat - the Dutch version of Belgium Fries
  4. Stamppot - potatoes mashed up with other veggies (endives, kale, carrots, sauerkraut, spinach, and onion) and sometimes meats (bacon).
  5. Raw herring - traditionally, the Dutch just let the whole thing slide down their gullet and it's eaten with some finely chopped onion. If you'd rather, you could attach it with a knife and fork.

what i want to eat: English Treats

  1. Fish & Chips - I've been to London a few times already and I always, always make it a point to get some fish and chips. There's this restaurant called 'Fishbone' near Regent's Park that gives great-sized portions for the price. The fish is fresh with a nice, airy breading and the chips are crisp on the outside, mealy on the inside. Perfect. Remember to generously douse your meal in malt vinegar and get some sides (like mushy peas, gherkins, onions, or even beans).
  2. Stilton blue cheese - this (cow's milk) cheese is poked with needles to allow air (and mold) into the core, giving it its signature blue veining. It's only permitted to be made in 3 counties in England (though, ironically, Stilton is not one of the permitted counties).
  3. Pasty - pronounced 'past-tee' NOT 'pay-stee' - rhymes with 'nasty,' not 'pastry' - basically a pastry filled with both sweet and savory ingredients - like beef and potatoes or jams and fruits. They originated as a way to make lunch portable and used leftover dinner ingredients, like stew and fruits (filling) and dough (skin).
  4. Scones & clotted cream with tea - I love having tea in London, it's just so fitting, and nothing goes better with the warm tea than a nice, fluffy scone, clotted cream, and jam. I highly recommend the Orangery for high tea. It's a bit pricey, but it's located in the beautiful Kensington Gardens and the decor is relatively fancy and sweet. Food is delicious (finger sandwiches and salads) and they have many different types of teas. I love their darjeeling.
  5. Indian food! - there's a relatively large population of Indian people in London so it's definitely worth getting a taste of their cuisine here. Here's a list of restaurants I found through a simple google search. If you're a first-timer with Indian food, I'd recommend Masala Zone, which is a chain with a few locations throughout London. They have a simple and reasonably-priced menu and the style of the menu and courses allows the diner to try multiple dishes.

what i want to eat: Irish Fare

  1. Tipsy cake - basically just layers of cake soaked in alcohol (usually wine or whiskey) covered in custard and whipped cream.
  2. Irish stew - hearty, and yummy. Many recipes call for beer to be mixed in with the stock. I'd like to try the stew made with Guinness from Dublin. (Guinness in Europe tastes oh-so-very different than it does in the U.S.).
  3. Smoked salmon - not exactly what Ireland is known for, but apparently, their method of smoking is different because these aren't your typical lox from a Brooklyn deli.
  4. Irish breakfast - consists of fried eggs, bacon, grilled tomato, and either white or black pudding. White and black pudding are both types of sausage; the difference is that the black pudding is made with blood, the white is made without it.
  5. Lamb - sheep farming is huge in Ireland so can't go there without having some sort of lamb dish. I'm usually not a fan of lamb because it can be gamey, but I'm ready!

what i want to eat: Parisian Savories

  1. Baguettes! French bread is amazing in itself. French bread IN France is on a whole other level. Go to a good bakery to get freshly baked bread, where the crust is crisp and crusty (redundant, I know) and the inside is soft and chewy. Good bread to me is perfectly chewy, and not at all tough or hard to eat. I hate when a crust is SO hard that the roof of my mouth gets ridiculously scraped up.
  2. You can't have your bread without cheese! So check out a nice market or experiment during lunch at a cafe or dinner at a restaurant.
  3. Steak-frites (steak with fries). Visit a bistro or brasserie for this fare. The former is a bit more homey and serves mostly traditional foods; the latter is upscale, yet relaxed.
  4. Croque monsieur or croque madame. Open-faced ham and cheese sandwiches; the difference between the two is that the 'madame' is served with an egg, sunnyside up.
  5. Oysters! Why not indulge in some aphrodisiacs in the City of Love; fitting, no? (There's a lot of arguments about the falsity of the existence of aphrodisiacs, but there is also some evidence saying oysters may do the trick! Check out this article for more info).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

what i want to eat: Parisian Desserts

  1. (double-decker) macaroons from Ladurée (easy-to-find location on the Champs-Élysées) - check out wikipedia's description and history if you've never had a macaroon before
  2. crêpe with nutella and banana - check out wikipedia's description and history if you've never had a crêpe before. I recommend you find a street vendor (maybe while window shopping) to make this fresh in front of you. 
  3. crème brûlée - check out wikipedia's description and history if you've never had crème brûlée before. I like to tap my spoon against the hard caramel shell to make it crack before I dive into the custard.
  4. chocolate mousse - check out wikipedia's description and history if you've never had chocolate mousse
    before. Very light (and mostly air) so a pretty guiltless dessert. 
  5. soufflé - check out wikipedia's description and history if you've never had a soufflé before. Note that these take a while to bake so they usually have to be ordered at the beginning of the meal.

mini break 2010 - financial summary (flights, lodging, ground transport)

Flights: $1426.16 total, $713.08 per person
Lodging: $862.78 total, $431.39 per person
Ground Travel: $312.42 total, $156.21 per person

TOTALS: $2601.36 for both, $1300.68 per person - for 10 days out of the country, including lodging, and transport... all that's missing now is food, souvenirs, and non-free tourist attractions. I plan on bringing about $500 spending money with me to use on food and knickknacks and credit cards for everything else (like shopping!).

This is just an estimate though. I'll have to see what our ACTUAL total is after we return because maybe we'll spend a little more on the taxi ride and a little less on some metro tickets, who knows?

mini break 2010 - ground transportation: Amsterdam

So thus far, I've written posts about places I've already visited. I haven't been to Amsterdam yet so I will be doing a LOT of googling, and I'll have to do an update post to rate the successfulness of my research.

The Eindhoven Airport website directed me to a journey planning website, but it's easier to get quick tips from fellow bloggers with experience or google. The most helpful site I found is AmsterdamTips. This site tells me that from Eindhoven Airport, I should take a bus (Hermes bus 401) to Eindhoven Railway 'NS' Station, which will cost €2.03 and take 20 minutes. The bus runs every 30 minutes (normally).

Aside: The Netherlands is zoning out the tariff system called strippenkaart, which are basically strip cards that you use as payment for the public transportation system (minus the 'NS' Railway). The farther you go, the more strip cards you give up (depending on zoning). In Amsterdam and Rotterdam regions, they are instituting the OV-chipkaart (official site here), which works similarly but there isn't a need to stamp to validate your travel.

mini break 2010 - ground transportation: Paris

Ooh la la!

Our direct flight from Dublin to Paris on ryanair flies into Beauvais Airport (easyjet doesn't fly to Dublin at all). Beauvais is about an hour and a half outside of the city center. To get into Paris, it's easiest to take the bus for about €15 per person, each way, and information can be found on the airport website.

Thankfully, our flight out of Paris (heading to London) leaves from Charles de Gaulle Airport, which is much more accessible. You can take the RER train, which is connected to the Metro. For one way fare, it's €8.40 (and €5.90 for children). Look for the "poche" or "pocket" metro maps. They're tiny and convenient and relatively easy to decipher.

For travelling within the city, you can purchase single t+ metro tickets or a packet of 10 tickets, which will save you time. Fare is €11.40 for adults (and €5.70 for children). Same as in London, remember to hold onto your ticket because you have to use it at random checkpoints (if you're switching from one line to another) and as you leave metro stations. And of course, if you purchased a ten pack of tickets, keep your used and unused tickets separate from each other. That's just common sense.

mini break 2010 - ground transportation: Dublin

Again, I stress the power and usefulness of google! A simple search for "transportation to and from Dublin Airport," gave me this useful little link to the Dublin Airport website. Here they list the different ways to and from the airport including car, taxi, bus, and rail.

Another little tidbit, look on the website of the hotel you plan on using. We're staying at the Anchor Guest House and on their 'locations' link they give directions on how to get to and from the airport. Nice! It even gives the fares, showing that the bus from the airport is €6 for adults and that bus fares within the city are €2.20.

I've been to Dublin before and it's a relatively small city. It's definitely possible to visit most of the bigger tourist attractions by walking (though, I suppose the biggest factor in that would be the location of the hotel). If you need it, there's a public bus system, but because of city traffic, it can be unreliable. There's also a rail system; it's not really for travelling around Dublin but for travelling outside the city to neighboring suburbs and countryside.

And, the growing trend of city biking hasn't escaped Dublin either. Dublin Bikes allows you to rent a bike for a few euro per hour (check the site for rates). The first half hour is free!

Our flight out of Dublin (heading to Paris) is going to be early in the morning, before buses are running, so it won't be possible for us to take public transportation back to the airport. We will probably ask our hotel to book a car for us. I found this website, called world taxi meter, where you can choose a city, fill in starting and ending addresses, and it tells you the approximate fare for the ride. The site estimates that it will about €21. It even incorporates fees and traffic time and probably overestimates the fare a bit; I like that it's conservative.

Breakdown of travel:
  • Arrive in Dublin on Friday (05Nov) morning, take public transportation from the airport into the city.
  • Take a taxi from the city to the airport on Saturday (06Nov) to catch our flight to Paris.
  • Arrive back in Dublin on Friday (12Nov), coming in from Holland, take public transportation from the airport into the city.
  • Take public transportation back to the airport on Sunday (14Nov) to catch our flight back to the U.S.
I estimate that we will spend approximately €70.20 (for both of us) on transportation in Dublin. That translates to about $90.40, or $45.20 per person.

Monday, September 13, 2010

mini break 2010 - ground transportation: London

Booking flights is one of the easier parts of planning a trip. Figuring out transportation to and from airports and learning how to use public transportation systems is a bit trickier. For this, google is your best friend.

I found out about easybus and national express by doing a little google searching. Both of these sites offer cheap bus transportation to and from London airports (and National Express also works in Rome for Ciampino Airport, but I don't think they service Fiumicino Airport). London has many airports. If you fly into Heathrow (which will probably only happen if you're flying in from the U.S.), then you can always take the tube straight into the heart of the city. However, when you book flights within Europe (using easyjetryanair, or the like) you will fly into Stansted, Luton, or Gatwick, all of which are 1 hour or more away from the heart of the city, and inaccessible by tube. Both easybus and national express have time-sensitive pricing, meaning, the earlier you book, the more likely it is that you'll find cheaper fares. I believe that easybus starts its fares at £2 and national express starts its fares at £1 but there are fees (usually £0.50). Oh, and by the way, national express also offers cheap fares for other trips as well (including from London to Paris). Just compare rates and fares before making a well-informed decision. Even if the bus is cheaper, remember that your time is valuable too.

mini break 2010 - lodging

Whether you want to stay in a classy and fancy hotel or slum it up in a hostel, I recommend the same thing: visit trip advisorvirtual tourist, or other similar sites for reviews. It's just as important to look at reviews for the 4-star places because if you're paying top dollar, you want to know you're getting what you pay for. On trip advisor, you can look up a city and it will list all of the hotels, hostels, b&b places, etc. (depending on your search filters) and will even show the rank of the hotel and list the "Top Deals" and popular places where people felt they definitely got more than what they paid for. They even show what the average room prices are (if the information is available) so you can remain conscious of your budget as you browse.

For this trip, we wanted to remain budget conscious but we also weren't willing or mentally prepared to sacrifice our comfort to sleep in hostels, so we decided to look for reasonably priced rooms in decent places.

Here's what we ended up booking:
Dublin - Anchor Guest House - €75 per night (or about $97 USD)
Paris - Hotel de L'Avre - €87 per night (or about $112 USD)
London - Hotel Meridiana - £54 per night (or about $85 USD)
Amsterdam - Hotel Washington - €75 per night (or about $97 USD)

Our biggest requirements of all of our lodging stemmed from location and accessibility. We didn't want to be too far from the public transportation networks and if possible, we wanted to be in good, touristy neighborhoods where the sites would be easy to find. For our London lodging, we tried to choose a place that was as close to our airport bus stop as possible (more on airport bus transportation later). Our Paris hotel is within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower and within 1 block of two different metro stops. And, though we found out that one or two of these places had shared bathrooms, the reviews reassured us that they were clean and usable, so we wasn't going to be too picky, especially considering the prices (which we view to be v. reasonable).

In total, we'll be spending 3 nights in Dublin (1 at the beginning of our trip and 2 at the end) and 2 nights in every other destination. That brought our total to $862.78 for lodging for two people for nine nights abroad, or $431.39 per person.

So far, that puts our total for flights and lodging at $2,288.94 for the both of us, or $1,144,47 per person. I don't know how you might feel about that, but I thought that was really good.

Next up: ground transportation

mini break 2010 - flights

Back in June, I started browsing sites like kayakyapta, and priceline to monitor prices of flights to Europe. I didn't have any specific destinations in mind. I just knew I wanted to get out of the U.S. for a mini break. So after discussing the idea with my beau, we started some real brainstorming.

At that time, the cheapest flight I could find for autumn was from New York City (well, technically, Queens, JFK Airport) to Dublin International Airport (Ireland, obv.) for $527.50, which is actually a really good deal (especially considering the fact that there are many domestic US flights that fall into that price range). My companion and I jumped on that flight and then started looking at flights on sites like ryanair and easyjet for cheap travel within Europe. It was a little difficult and we had to do a lot of mixing and matching because flights from certain cities were too expensive or made our itinerary too complicated (or impossible) and then there was also the problem of making sure we could get back to Dublin to make our flight back home. We had to use both sites to book our flights because one of the sites didn't have any (CHEAP) direct flights between Dublin and Paris and the other didn't have any direct flights between London and Amsterdam.

euro trips!

I have a few mini "euro trips" under my belt and I'm cheap as fack, so I'd consider myself a semi-professional at booking cheaply and reasonably.
  1. My first trip to Europe was in the spring of 2008 (my senior year of college) when I went to London. That's when I discovered the "day pass" for the tube. [1 week]
  2. My second trip to Europe was in the beginning of 2009 (to celebrate graduating college) when I went to London, Paris, Rome, and Dublin. That's when I discovered the goods and bads of hostels and the best diet ever: not being able to afford food. [4 weeks]
  3. My third trip to Europe was in the summer of 2009 (to celebrate my sister's high school graduation) when we went to London, Glasgow, Paris, and Barcelona. That's when I figured out how to survive after my wallet got stolen. [1.5 weeks]
  4. My fourth trip to Europe was in January 2010 when my family went to Madrid, Spain together. That's when I discovered that it's not worth trying to pack my things nicely and neatly if airport security is going to rifle through the entire contents of my bag. (They did this to everyone). [4 days]
It's sort of a personal goal of mine to try and visit as many European capitals before I turn 26 (which is in 2 years and 2 months). High up on my list are Copenhagen, Prague, Lisbon, and Berlin. I keep visiting some places over and over because I love them so much (i.e. London and Paris).

I thought it would be smart and helpful to start documenting what goes into my trip planning so that I could both share and gather useful tips from fellow travelers.

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