Monday, December 28, 2009

Pros/Cons of Traveling By Yourself

OK. As mentioned in my last entry I said I would make a short list of the pros and cons of traveling by yourself.

- You set your own schedule.
- You can focus on what you want to do - take pictures, shop, go to museums, etc. and nobody is going to wine or hurry you up.
- You will (or maybe not) see more than you would with someone else because you are moving at your own pace.
- You most likely will meet more people - at the hostel, restaurants, etc. I've found that people (especially other solo travelers) are more likely to approach you and strike up a conversation when you're also solo than if you're traveling with someone else.
- You never know how someone else travels or if you'll get along with them. Just because you're BFF with someone doesn't mean you'll travel well together! So traveling by yourself avoids possible conflicts or disagreements.

- There's nobody to watch your back or your stuff if you just need to go to the restroom really quick.
- There's nobody to share food (or other things) with! I love trying local foods or in general, trying different things. When traveling with someone else you can each buy one thing and then share or sometimes there are certain tickets, excursions, or accommodations that can be split between two people lowering the cost.
- Sometimes it can be lonely if it's a longer trip and you don't have anyone to talk to.
- Eating by yourself isn't always fun but sometimes you can grab a sandwich or wurst and walk around while eating! Also, people watching can be really fun if you're eating by yourself.

I'm sure there are other pros/cons but these are just a few I thought of on my last solo trip so I jotted them down in my travel notebook for this blog entry. Hope these last two entries help with your travel plans!

Travel Tips

As my time winds down here in Germany I wanted to share some advice I've learned from traveling Europe for the past 2 years. I also want to make sure I don't forget all of these "insider" tips when I leave here!! Just remember that these tips come from my personal experiences, each person is different and may prefer different things (how's that for a disclaimer?).

For cheap flights:
- -- if you click on the link for more and go to 'buzz' you can do unique searches to find out when you can go to a destination for the lowest cost or if you don't really know where you want to go you can do a search by areas (or worldwide) for cheap flights

- -- dont be intimidated by big name airlines! They usually offer great specials. Lufthansa has a 'Top Offers' link where you can see all flight deals (99 euros!) from a certain airport. I also love a newer feature called "No need to look - just book!" This feature will show you specials from airports near you for upcoming weekends (usually 4 weekends at a time).

For cheap accommodations:
- Hostels -- hostels are anywhere and everywhere (almost) and offer a range of accommodations. Some are nicer than others and some offer more than others so you can usually find something close to what you're looking for. One catch is that prices are per person and there are booking fees! After finding a hostel you like on the website do a google search and changes are good that the hostel has an independent website. From there you can contact the hostel directly via email or phone and book a room to avoid processing/handling fees. Hostels can also be a great way to meet other people (usually under the age of 30) who are traveling and sightseeing just like you! Depending on the city you can sometimes find a Bed&Breakfast or hotel that would be cheaper if you're splitting the cost with at least one other person. For example, if the hostel is going to cost 30 euros/person you could probably find a B&B for 60 euros, which would be the same price for nicer accommodations (in most cases!).

- Couchsurfing -- couchsurfing is an interesting spend the night on a "strangers" couch for free! Granted it's nice to take a bottle of wine or cook your host dinner or something but in essence it's free! I've done this a few times and some of my hosts I loved, others I didn't care too much for. It can be a great way to meet and interact with a local and live like a local while traveling.

- Bed & Breakfast -- I've used this site sometimes but it's not a comprehensive list and you can usually find more options by doing a basic google search for bed & breakfasts in your destination city. Bed and Breakfasts offer quaint accommodations usually including breakfast, hence the name. :) This type of accommodation is a little more homey than hostels and hotels because you are staying in someone's house or their fixed up house that they rent out - sometimes the B&B is attached the owner's home.

Handy Tips and Tricks:
- If it's a short trip try to only pack a carry-on bag so when you arrive at your destination you don't have to waste time waiting for your bag(s)! This is also a good idea in case your luggage is lost!!

- Currency Exchange Cheat Sheets!! These are sooo, oh so, helpful when traveling to a country that uses a different currency than you are used to. They are small (about the size of a credit card) and provide a quick reference of local currency to your home currency. It also reverses the exchange rates so you can see destination currency converted into home currency as well as home currency converted into the destination currency.

- Ask about transportation cards. For example, in Bavaria you can buy a single ticket for 19 euros and go anywhere in Bavaria, hop on and off the train, etc. for the entire day or for up to 5 people you can share one ticket and do the same thing for 27 euros. Many cities have transportation cards that allow 10 rides on the metro or something similar. *I just learned about the "Schones-Wochenende" pass today on our Free Walking Tour in Munich....I've never used this but it just goes to show how many great train specials there are throughout Europe!

- FREE Walking Tours. These aren't in too many cities (yet!) but they are so great! It's a great way to get a quick (3 hour) history of the city and have someone navigate through the streets for you and show you all the highlights! A similar tour would cost you at least $40/50+ but these tour guides are people who are in love with city and share that with tour groups for tips only (whatever you have or want to give).

- Maps! These are my favorite maps as they tell you lots of great insider tips about the city, including great ways to see the city for free (i.e. in Brussels the map told us to go to the top of a parking garage for the best views over the entire city - for free!)! Unfortunately there aren't too many city maps yet but it looks like they're in the process of creating more!

- If you have a student ID card always travel with it! So many places offer discounts for students! I wish I could tell you how much money my student ID card has saved me when traveling!

- Don't worry about exchanging money before you leave although if possible it might be handy to have at least $5 or $10 in the local currency to cover the costs of a bus/train from the airport into the city. After you arrive in the city you can find ATMs everywhere and 9 times out of 10 you'll get a better exchange rate in the local city than you would have from home.

- Do your research! If you don't, you'll never know what the pros/cons are of a city and what to be on the lookout for.

- Go during the off season. Accomodations will be cheaper, some restaurants will be cheaper, and sites will be less crowded with tourists. March-early May and September are great months to travel Europe!

- Go to the touristy cities but also look for less touristy cities close by. Some of greatest treasures of Europe are the small, off the map cities! You're more likely to have a local experience as well as have a more relaxed trip.

- Don't be afraid to travel by yourself. Yes, be cautious, smart, and aware but don't be so scared to travel by yourself that you end up going nowhere. I've gone on a few big trips by myself - Paris, Bucharest (Romania), Helsinki (Finland), and Tallinn (Estonia), as well as a few smaller, day trips and have had a great time each time! Yes, it's different traveling by yourself but it doesn't have to be bad (I think my next blog entry will cover the pros/cons of traveling by yourself - stay tuned!).

- Have a master packing list handy at all times so you don't forget the essentials! I've had a piece of paper with my master list for the 2 years I've been over here. Every time I go to pack my backpack I grab the list and run through it to make sure I'm not missing anything. I've also included special sections listing things I like to take if I'm going camping, going to the spa, flying, driving, etc. So depending on how much you'll be traveling, what type of traveling you'll be doing, and where you'll be traveling to, you can have specialized packing lists.

- Plan ahead. Yes, sometimes you can find last minute specials but for the most part if you wait until the last minute you'll find hotels/hostels that you want to stay at and are in your budget but are fully booked! Again, this depends on what time of season you're traveling.

- Have a plan but be flexible. Sometimes I've arrived at a hostel and found out they offered day excursions and changed my plans completely (although you usually know what the hostel offers by reviewing their website in advance!). or maybe you arrive in a city and find a city guide with local events going on and you'll find something that sounds interesting that you want to try/go to. So with that said, I try to have an idea of what sites I have to see and what sites I'd like to see if I have extra time after seeing the "must see" sites. This allows for some flexibility (including shopping!).

- My favorite time of year in Europe is December!! Why? Because that's when the Christmas Markets come out and you can buy all sorts of local crafts in one place and enjoy a wonderful atmosphere complete with gluhwein or gloggi (hot, spiced wine). There are all sorts of links - here are two I used this past year:
Christmas Markets around the world
Christmas Markets in Germany

- Oh, another favorite site is Whats On When. On this site you can search by what/where/category/dates for events whenever and wherever! This site includes almost every event going on around the world - from Christmas Markets to Running with the Bulls to Art Exhibitions this site will be able to tell you what is going on.

OK. Well, that's it for now. As I think of more tips for traveling/traveling Europe I'll update this entry.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hello 2010!

Inspired by Nicole and Kristen's blogs, both girls are AKPsi "brothers" from college and I recently found their blogs thanks to facebook, here are 10 goals for 2010:

1. Find a job. Maybe this isnt so much a goal as a task that has to be completed but I will make a note, mostly to remind myself, that I will not allow myself to get stuck in a job that isn't what I want, like, or need.....I need to be continually challenged, learning new things, inspired, and have a mentor or two to follow/consult.

2. Downsize and build from there. I feel like my life is so full of things that dont mean anything to me - clothes I dont like and dont wear and in general too much of nothing. I came to Germany with 2 suitcases and a backpack and now I have a room full of stuff (that took me and my friends over 6 hours to move from my old room to my new room). So as I prepare to leave here I will leave things that I dont like/dont wear anymore/dont need behind and when I get back to the States I will think more carefully before making impulse buys! There's a thrift store on post and I plan on taking a lot of stuff there! or leaving it in DOS, "Dropped Off Shit," here in the Abrams. Short blurb on DOS - it's great, here in Germany (and maybe other parts of Europe), you can put used items in common areas (for us in the Abrams, people leave things in the hall, in the bathroom, in a special DOS room, etc.) and it might be something someone else would want/need - like a winter coat, or boots, books, etc. It's kind of like a public trash can where your trash becomes someone else's treasure.

3. Be Healthy. Yes, I realize this is a very broad goal and one that everyone makes at the first of the New Year but this is something I sporadically do throughout the year and I'm tired of being on a health roller-coaster - losing and gaining weight, having lots of energy to being dead on my I want to be more consistent with a workout plan and eating healthy (fewer excuses to eat just one piece of cake or eating just one more of something - which then happens everyday if I let it!). Included in being healthy means taking better care of my skin - this has become a big pet peeve for me lately and when I go home to the States I want to buy better skin care regime products to start taking care of my skin - it is our largest organ after all!

4. Give Back. One thing I've realized living abroad is that I miss that sense of community. I want to get involved in my community, wherever that may be, when i move back to the States. I want to volunteer because not only does it help someone but as a volunteer you also receive an overwhelming feeling of making a difference (and it's free!)

5. Keep in touch. While living in Germany I've had a hard time keeping in touch with friends from home and I've also realized that I've missed out on some great friends. So when I get back to the States I want to nurture these friendships and make up for lost time.

6. Appreciate the little things. Pretty self explanatory but I think sometimes I take advantage of, or overlook, all the wonderful small things that are happening in my life. I also want to give more of these small things/moments for those that mean so much to me.

7. Learn new things. I love learning new things so hopefully it'll be easier to find cheap/free classes/books to learn new things in the States! Included in this, is taking a photography class. I'm most interested in taking travel/landscape pictures but I would also like to learn to take better people pictures and learn more features about my camera. A few other things I'd like to learn more about include cooking, yoga/pilates, fung shui, and graphic design.

8. Remember to not be afraid to do something by myself. It's happened a few times here where nobody has the time off or money to go on a trip, so I've gone by myself and they've all been great for different reasons - either I get to focus on taking great pictures or I meet great people (that probably wouldn't have started a conversation if I had been with someone) or I get to do some quality people watching and reflecting. Alone time in public isn't a bad thing. Sometimes we're all to nervous/ashamed to be by ourselves in public that we miss out by choosing to do nothing rather than going by ourselves, so I hope I remember all the good times I've had on my own these past 2 years and am not afraid to do something by myself when I go back to the States.

9. Continue the adventure. These past 2 years have been such an adventure. I moved here not knowing anybody or even knowing what my job would be. Two years later I've made a few great friends that I know will be in my life for the rest of my life. I've also learned that no matter where I live there will always be something to do/see/visit.

10. Have fun. Go out more. Stay out a little bit later than I normally would. Take things a little less seriously. Laugh more. Smile more (maybe not possible but more). Make my life the greatest memory possible.

It seems like a lot and sure, there's a lot more I hope to accomplish in 2010 but this is a start. I really do want to follow these goals and get the most out of this new year. I hope anyone who is reading this has also written down a few goals and finds the inspiration to follow through with their goals. Here's to another great year of life exactly as we make it!

Happy New Year!!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Helsinki and Tallinn

December 12-15, 2009 Possibly the coldest four days of my life (although I still think Krakow, Poland was colder...) spent in Tallinn , Estonia and Helsinki, Finland. Finland reached a high of -7 degrees Celsius, and a low of -18. Tallinn's high was -12 degrees Celsius and low was -16 degrees Celsius! I bundled up as much as I could -- 3 pairs of socks, 3 pairs of pants (2 thermal pants then jeans), 2 long sleeve tops then a vest and coat, plus a scarf, gloves and hat at all times!! At one point when I was walking around Suomenlinna island in Helsinki, my scarf had ice crystals on it!!! It was cold! I kept warm by walking around as much as possible and taking frequent breaks in cafes for hot chocolate, gloggi and Christmas cakes and pies!! A few highlights on the trip included seeing The Nutcracker and The King Mouse at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, taking the ferry to Tallinn, seeing both Helsinki and Tallinn's Christmas Markets at night, sea smoke early my last morning in Helsinki, meeting some cool people at the hostels, and in general exploring two new cities! Enjoy the pictures below :)


Mini Snowman in Tallinn

Ice Skating in Tallinn

Tallinn's Christmas Market

Helsinki - check out the ice puzzle pieces! (the building on the water front is the Government Palace and the cupola you see behind it is the top of Lutheran Cathedral)

Sea Smoke on the Baltic Sea - the ferry ride to Suomenlinna was possibly one the best parts of the trips - the sun was rising and there was the most beautiful fog (sea smoke as the locals call it) resting on the sea

more sea smoke as the sun is rising

Walking around Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress, an UNESCO World Heritage site

Another site on the island