From dune buggies on the island of Kos in Greece (I wouldn't pick up the hitchhiking goat though) to red double-decker buses in London, ditch the car, and find a plethora of possible alternative modes of transportation, whether you're traveling in Europe or the United States. My tips right now are limited to those two places, since I haven't visited any others...yet!
1. Skip the plane and take a train.
Don't get me wrong. If you find a really great deal on a flight, go for it, but always consider a train, when feasible! My daughter used a Eurail train pass around Europe for 5 weeks in 2011. She started in Rome, and went to Pisa, Florence, Venice, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin, Munich, Fussen, Zurich, and Barcelona . In 1969, my mother traveled from Baltimore, Maryland to Los Angeles (LA), California via train, and loved every minute of it. In fact, she prefers trains over planes; unfortunately there is no train from the US to Europe! There's also the Auto Train in the US, that connects Lorton, VA and Orlando, FL. Lorton is close to my hometown Baltimore, hence my reason for knowing about it, but also close to Washington D.C. and other northeast cities. Riding in either direction, you avoid traffic and putting miles on your car, plus you have your own transportation when you get to your final destination (yes, I said earlier to ditch the car, but sometimes you just have to have one)! But there's another side to train travel, and that's for local destinations. I'm currently living in Utrecht in the Netherlands, and find the train system here easy to use and quite reliable. I've traveled to Hilversum, Naarden-Bussen, and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (yes, I do take planes) and I'm just getting started. So, as you plan your travels, be sure to check out the local trains! With Google translate, almost any website is translatable!
2. Have a map in your pocket...
...or your backpack. Many travel sites advise to forego the map and just explore, but you never know when you might need to exit a train due to a blockage ahead, and then find alternative transportation (happened to a friend of mine)! A map always comes in handy when you have a specific store, museum, or landmark, you want to visit. At a minimum, have Google Maps or some other GPS app on your SmartPhone. Recently, I took a screen shot of the map obtained from Google Maps, of a restaurant where I was meeting friends. It helped me maneuver around the non-gridlike streets of Utrecht, which wind around and change names quite frequently. Of course, the other challenge is finding the street names. As an American, I'm used to street signs on posts at the corners of the street; look on the sides of buildings in many European cities. As for other street and traffic signs, that's a whole other post!
3. Book a strategic room.
When we vacationed in Chartres, France, we stayed at the Le Parvis (image at right), conveniently located directly across the street from the Chartres Cathedral, our main reason for visiting the town. We parked our rental car, and then never used it the entire time we were there. Every hostel my daughter stayed at during her whirlwind Europe tour was within walking distance of a train station. When looking at travel sites, and booking your hotel, check a map, and locate some of the other landmarks, museums, or attractions that you might want to see during your visit. An online description may indicate that a hotel, or bed and breakfast, is located in a particular town, but it may be right on the edge, and not near any form of mass transportation, let alone within walking distance of the most popular sights. Also, if you do have a car, inquire about parking. Many European towns have limited street parking, and often hotels do not have a parking lot. We stayed at Cleythil Hotel in Maldegem, Belgium, when we visited Brugge/Bruges. Only 9 km. from the city, it offered a huge parking lot, and excellently designed rooms, in what was previously a barn. We'll return to the Cleythil when we explore Brugge/Bruges again with family, as well as visit Gent/Ghent, which is also close by. Note: The two words are the Dutch/French spellings of the cities!
4. Ride the Tube...
...or the subway, the T, the Metro, or whatever other name the city you're in calls the underground system. When we spent a three-day weekend in London, we used all of the different stations in the collage above. Extremely convenient and fast, and by the end of our third day, we didn't have to check which direction we were going before hurrying down the steps. to the correct platform. Only downfall, we encountered quite a few, what we called "green escalators," ones that were not working, especially the ones going up. Not a good thing if you have knee problems. I love the Metro in Athens, especially the Syntagma and Acropolis stations, which are like little mini museums, and house some ancient ruins in glass display cases immediately after you enter the stations. I've used the subway in New York, the Metro in Paris, and the T in Boston. Fast, convenient, and an excellent place for people watching!
5. Hop on the bus, Kostas.
When I relaxed for a week on the island of Skopelos in Greece, I rode the bus everywhere. I chose the island for its lush vegetation and beautiful beaches (it's known as the green and blue island). Plus, since I didn't have a car, the bus, which connected the town of Loutraki to the town of Skopelos, and most of the beaches in between, was extremely convenient. My wonderful hosts at Hotel Selenunda gave me a map, which I carried every day in my beach or camera bag. The first day, I rode the bus to the end of the route, and marked on my map all of the bus stops. Each of the successive days I mellowed out at a different beach, and had tasty lunches at nearby cafes or tavernas. I also use the extensive bus system in Utrecht, and love that each bus stop has large posters indicating bus numbers and routes, and then an electric sign with information about when the next bus will arrive. When you enter each bus, a sign in the bus indicates the order of stops. So far, in the Netherlands and Greece, I have found it best to push the button before you reach your stop, or the bus might zoom right by! My ease with buses may stem from the fact that I grew up in Baltimore City; in high school, I took three different buses to get to school! Note: In Greece, Kostas is Gus--you do the substitution in the title, and I bet most of you can sing the rest of the song by Paul; however, it's from 1975, so many of you youngsters weren't born yet!
6. Try a bike.
I learned how to ride a bike when I was young. Etched in my memory forever is the moment when I pedaled my bike with its banana seat and high rise handlebars, and my grandmother's hand left the back of my seat, and I stayed upright and continued on my path around the large playground of an elementary school near my home. It was an exhilarating feeling. I'm trying to get that feeling back as I try riding bikes in different places in Europe! Unfortunately, my adult brain, full of fear and thoughts of accidents and falling, often gets the best of me, but I'm trying! In the above image, I'm on the island of Spetses, where private cars are not allowed, so all the locals ride mopeds or bikes. No moped for me (I'll save that story). I was comfortable until I encountered a hill and forgot to switch gears. After a quick tutorial from a friend, I was "zooming" along on my way to a fabulous beach where I enjoyed the sparkling waters and my current book in the series, Outlander. When we visited London, we actually took a 3-hour bike tour with the London Bicycle Tour Company. Our guide was knowledgeable, funny, and very patient, as 14 of us followed him and maneuvered around the city. I highly recommend the tour, but my comfort level in a city where cars ride on the opposite side of the street was in the red zone. But I'm trying! In Utrecht, I own a wonderful bike that my husband bought me. Let me repeat, I'm trying! The Netherlands has an excellent infrastructure for biking and perfect for trying. I'm absolutely amazed at how young children are so comfortable in the bike lanes, maneuvering along with adults. Younger children ride in all kinds of creative bike seats and buckets. Just take a look at any of the videos on YouTube from markenlei. I'm looking forward to the start of The Tour de France this summer--it starts in Utrecht! I'm extremely relaxed when watching others bike!
7. Venture onto a ferry.
It's chaotic, it's fun, it's definitely a part of the Greek culture that you don't want to miss when you visit Greece. I usually take a ferry when traveling to an island; it's less expensive and the network is amazing. Aegina, Hydra, Poros, Samos, Siros, Tinos, Mykonos, Skopelos, Kalymnos, Santorini, and Rhodes are all islands that I have reached via ferry. Some Greek islands have no airport, so ferries or Flying Dolphins, which get you there even faster since they are smaller and carry no cars, are the way to go. You can buy your tickets in advance, or try your luck, and get them at the port before you embark. Make sure you check which port. If you originate from Athens, there are two main ports, Piraeus and Rafina. You don't want to show up at the wrong one!
8. Stop and be a tourist.
Locals don't make it a habit to ride the cable car in Koblenz, Germany, but what an awesome view of the point where the Rhine and Moselle rivers meet. Sometimes you just have to be a tourist, and visit the touristy places, especially if you have limited time and might never return. From the funicular ride in Heidelberg, Germany to the cable car ride in Park City, Utah, I don't have a fear of heights, so I sit back and enjoy the ride (and take a few pictures along the way)! I haven't tried it, but I hear the donkey ride from the port, up the cliff, on the island of Santorini in Greece, is quite a trip!
9. Wear comfortable shoes.
Whatever form of travel you choose, you'll be doing lots of walking once you arrive at your destination, so select your footwear carefully. Try out those new shoes, bought specifically for your trip, ahead of time--you don't want blisters during your trip. The best mode of transport for exploring is walking. You'll find exquisite details on buildings, cute little side streets and alleys, and enjoy the variety of languages being spoken (but yes, in every city I've visited so far in Europe, you'll hear English, at least a little, so Americans, don't be afraid). In London, I loved the reminder (seen above) at the major curbs. I wish I had a pedometer during my visit there; oh, the miles I trekked. I wore my trusty tennis shoes on that trip!
10. Most of all, enjoy your journey!
Whether you take a car, horse-drawn carriage, or tour bus, or just walk, remember to enjoy yourself! I love to plan my trips ahead of time, investigating all that a city has to offer, but when we visited Brugge (image above), I did no advance planning. I loved just walking around the town, especially when we returned in the evening for a leisurely dinner and stroll, when many of the other tourists were absent. We saw many details that we had missed during the day. If you're travelling with friends or family, make sure everyone has experienced something that they will remember for years to come!
Mrs. T.--lifelong learner, traveler, teacher, voracious reader, and food, wine and chocolate lover!