I was inspired by a similar post by Peter and Dona on the blog, “Living the Q Life,” which you can see here. I think there’s a difference between graffiti and street art, but I’m not exactly sure what defines art and graffiti, other than some obvious differences. If someone just paints their name or someone else’s name on a bridge, that’s definitely graffiti. On the other hand, if the painting is clearly meant to be something more than just a scribbling I think it falls more into the street art category. Of course art is one of the most subjective forms of expression there is. One person may love a drawing while another person thinks it looks atrocious and if it’s on a public building, some may find that inappropriate.
I’ll leave you with some of the best photos of street art I’ve taken around the world.
Even though I looked through every photo I have ever downloaded to Google photos, I couldn’t find a single one of what I would call graffiti. I guess that should tell you what I think of graffiti versus street art!
What about you guys? Do you like graffiti? Do you like street art?
I have to add that I absolutely love the west coast in general, which includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska. I should also say that this is probably one of the more difficult itineraries of the east coast, midwest, and west coast itineraries to put together, just because the choices of amazing places to go to are over the top, but I’ll try my best to not list a crazy number of places.
1) For the city-lover and partier: Start in Los Angeles,California where you can spend a few days taking in the sun and sight-seeing. Los Angeles is filled with museums, amusement parks, tours, and cultural centers like Getty Center, LACMA and Walt Disney Hall. There’s also the Space Shuttle Endeavour and Dinosaur Hall. You can also take a touristy Hollywood tour if you want to get a glimpse of some homes of the rich and famous and see the Hollywood Walk of Fame (I won’t input my own opinion here but leave it at that).
Your next stop will be Las Vegas, Nevada, a place where I feel like everyone should go just for the experience. Las Vegas is like no other place in the United States and even if you’re not a gambler, it’s entertaining just to take in all of the sights. You can take a shuttle from Los Angeles for about $100 and roughly 6 hours of your time, you can fly in about 3 hours 20 minutes, or you can drive in about 4 1/2 hours. For me, a couple of nights in Las Vegas is plenty but if you’re into gambling, partying, and/or going to the myriad of shows, you might want to stay longer.
You could also go to one of my favorite places in the United States, San Diego, California. From Los Angeles, you can drive in about 2 hours or take a bus in about the same time if you don’t drive or can’t rent a car. San Diego is full of so many things to do you could spend a month here and not run out of things to do, but I recommend spending at least 5 or 6 days if possible. You could even skip Los Angeles entirely and fly directly into San Diego instead, but it seems like a lot of people have L.A. on their bucket list, and if so, check it off by all means but don’t miss San Diego and Las Vegas.
2) For a desert experience, first choice:Arizona. Fly into Phoenix, Arizona and hang out in this fun city for a couple of days before heading to Sedona, Arizona. You can take a shuttle or bus which will take about 3 hours or drive to Sedona in about 2 hours. I recommend renting a car if at all possible, because it will allow you to add on more sights, like Flagstaff, Arizona, which is about 50 minutes from Sedona by car. You can spend a day in Flagstaff or just stop along the way if you’d rather drive on through to the Grand Canyon National Park, which is about 1 1/2 hours from Flagstaff. The first time I went to the Grand Canyon, I only allotted one night with two days here and it wasn’t nearly enough. The next time I went, I allotted two nights with three full days and it was better but three nights would have been about perfect for my family.
Desert experience, with national parks: Utah/Arizona/Nevada. By no means am I ranking Utah behind Arizona here; I’m just listing choices. They are both amazing places and both highly recommended, with neither place being more recommended than the other. For Utah, you have some options. You can do like I did last year and fly into Las Vegas (Nevada) then drive to southern Utah to explore that area starting in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Antelope Canyon (Arizona), Glen Canyon National Recreational Area (Arizona), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), and back to Las Vegas to fly back home. It’s a nice loop where you get to see a variety of national parks but you’re not spending your whole time on the road. I’d love to go back to Utah to explore some of the parks I didn’t get to see like Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks. For that trip, I’d fly into Salt Lake City airport and drive from there.
3) To see mountains, first choice: Colorado. Fly into Denver and spend a day or two here before going to one of the ski areas, like Vail, Breckenridge, or Aspen. The first two places are a bit closer to Denver but Aspen can be reached by car in about 4 hours or 5 hours by shuttle. If you’re coming here to ski during the winter you should probably just take the shuttle so you don’t have to worry about driving on snowy or icy roads unless you’re used to those conditions. Colorado is also beautiful during the summer months as well, though, and I actually prefer going there during the warmer months to go hiking since I don’t ski (I have been during the winter a couple of times, though and it is beautiful). Another area I love in Colorado is Boulder, which is only about 45 minutes by car or shuttle from Denver. You can take a day trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park from Boulder or spend a couple of days at Rocky Mountain National Park. Ft. Collins would be another fun day trip from Boulder, which is about an hour from Boulder. I haven’t had the opportunity to explore the southern parts of Colorado but I hear Colorado Springs is a great place, as well as Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Mountains, second choice: Montana and Wyoming. Fly into Bozeman, Montana if you want to explore the southern part of the state. If you’re headed to Yellowstone National Park, it’s about a 2 hour drive from Bozeman Airport and a bit further south to Grand Teton National Park. If you want to explore the northern part of Montana, fly into Missoula and spend a day or two here. It’s about an hour drive to Seely Lake from Missoula and another hour and 20 minutes to Flathead Lake. From Flathead Lake, it’s about another hour north to Glacier National Park. If you want to go further north into Canada, I highly recommend driving another 4 1/2 hours to reach Banff. This area is filled with natural beauty such as Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, just to name a few places.
4) San Francisco, wine country, and nature: fly into San Francisco, California and spend 2-3 days here. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in California and it’s filled with fun things to do, from the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf to tours around Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. You can also take day trips to Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Redwood National Park, and Sausalito.
Napa Valley is only about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. You can either drive here yourself and spend a couple of nights or take one of many shuttles from San Francisco. There are also numerous wine tours in Napa Valley; follow this link for detailed information. You can also tour the Sonoma County including Santa Rosa, the largest city in the county. No matter what you choose, I recommend one of the tours rather than driving yourself so you can actually taste some wine and not have to worry about drinking and driving.
5) Alaska– although I’ve not yet been to Alaska, I’m going next month! I’m not going the ever-popular cruise route but rather am doing my own itinerary, starting in Anchorage and going to some national parks and making a loop around that part of Alaska. The state of Alaska is enormous, though, so I do see the draw behind cruises in that you could see several parts of the state in one week. I’ll have some posts on Alaska in the upcoming months.
6) Hawaii- you really can’t go wrong with Hawaii as far as choosing which island(s) to visit nor what time of year you go because the weather is great year-round and of the islands I’ve been to both times I’ve been to Hawaii, they’ve all been absolutely stunning. So far, I’ve been to ‘the big island’, which is called Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. I hope to go back in the next year but we’ll see! If you can manage to go to a couple of islands spread out over a couple of weeks, that’s ideal but don’t try to cram in two or more islands in only a week.
There’s also Oregon and Washington that both have a ton of beautiful places, but I think I should end here otherwise this post will be entirely too long! As I said earlier, I love the west coast!
Those are my top west-coast destinations for first-timers to the United States. What places have I missed? Any others that you would recommend?
This is part two of my compilation of itineraries for first-timers coming to the United States. You can find part one here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- East Coast. As a bit of background, I consider myself a pretty well-traveled American who has been to all but 8 of the states in the US, in addition to travel outside the US. Many of the states I have not been to yet are in the midwest part of the US, but I’ll do my best to present what I think are the “best” choices here. In case you’re not sure, the Midwest states are Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Minnesota.
Here are some of my recommendations for a week-long itinerary in the United States, midwest only. If you have more than a week, add on days to either or both destination, according to your interests.
1). For city-lovers and foodies: Chicago, Illinois. Chicago is such a fun city with something for everyone. There are great museums including two of my favorites, the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Skydeck, The Art Institute of Chicago, Millenium Park, and many tours including boat tours. Chicago is famous for their insanely huge pizzas and “Chicago style” hot dogs, both of which you have to try when you visit, but there are also many other fantastic restaurants in the city. I don’t personally recommend going to Chicago during the winter months, which are known to get quite frigid. Public transportation and walking are the best ways to get around Chicago, as is the case in most big cities in the United States.
If you want to tack on another 2 or 3 days, take a rental car out of the city and drive up to Lake Geneva or Milwaukee, both in Wisconsin, and both are about 1 1/2 hour’s drive from Chicago. I’ve been to both places during the summer months and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Milwaukee (I also enjoyed Lake Geneva of course). Fifty miles southeast of Chicago lies Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the adjacent Indiana Dunes State Park where you’ll find woodlands, wetlands and some sand dunes rising 200 feet high along 15 miles of beaches on Lake Michigan’s southern shores.
2). For the nature-lover: South Dakota. Choose Rapid City, South Dakota as your home base and take day trips from here. Thirty miles from Rapid City is Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone. Once you’ve had your fill of walking around the memorial and toured the Lincoln Borglum Museum, drive 15 miles for your next stop, Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse is the world’s largest in-progress sculpture carving, as well as the longest ongoing, having begun in 1948. When the sculpture is complete it will not only feature the Oglala Lakota warrior known as Crazy Horse but also his horse and will be 27 feet taller than Mount Rushmore.
For your next day trip, drive an hour south to visit Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. If you go to Jewel Cave first and end with Wind Cave, the drive back to Rapid City is more direct. I highly recommend making reservations for a tour online ahead of time at both places or you may get there only to be disappointed the tour you really wanted to do is booked for the day. Although Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave on Earth, you definitely want to go to both caves because they are very different experiences.
Custer State Park, about 45 minutes south of Rapid City, is the largest state park in South Dakota. The park is full of approximately 1,300 bison, bighorn sheep, burros, prairie dogs, and mule deer. Drive the scenic Wildlife Loop Road through the park but also get out and explore the park’s trails. On your way back to Rapid City, take Needles Highway (SD-87). This National Scenic Byway is gorgeous and you’ll see the famous Needles Eye Tunnel. Stop and look around at the panoramic views, and then find the trailhead for the Cathedral Spires Trail. It’s only 1.6 miles long but offers some incredible views.
About an hour from Rapid City is one of my favorite places in South Dakota, Badlands National Park. This national park is 244,000 acres and has one of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen. In addition to buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs and numerous birds that you’ll see in the park, fossil hunting is allowed as long as you leave everything where you found it, and there are of course many trails you can explore.
If you want to see a Wild West town, Deadwood is a fun place and is about an hour’s drive from Rapid City. You can go to the Black Hills Mining Museum, Adams Museum to learn about the history of the Black Hills, tour the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and go to the 1876 Dinner Theater. You can also find a casino, breweries and wineries, and many types of tours.
3). For a relaxing vacation on the water: Traverse City, Michigan. Although you’re going to fly into Detroit, Michigan, you’re going to pick up a rental car and drive north up to Traverse City, about 4 hours away. You can of course fly to Traverse City but it will be much cheaper to fly directly into Detroit. If you take a bus or combination of bus and train, it will take more than double the transport time so by all means rent a car if at all possible. Traverse City is a lovely area on the shores of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay full of wineries, many recreational areas and trails, and quaint shops and restaurants. The National Cherry Festival is held in early July and is full of all things cherry-related. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is only about 40 minutes away and is a beautiful area and a fun and unique way to spend the day.
You could spend 3 or 4 days in Traverse City before driving north about 2 1/2 hours to Mackinac Island to spend the rest of your time. Interstate I-75 brings you to the ferry docks of both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Access to Mackinac Island can be made from both of these cities. Mackinac Island is serviced from both of these cities by two ferry companies: Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line Ferry. You can bike around the island, explore Fort Mackinac and Fort Holmes, take a boat tour, rent a kayak, play golf, or just relax and take in the scenery. Both Traverse City and Mackinac Island are laid-back, relaxing places with beautiful water views.
Those are my top midwest destinations for first-timers to the United States. What places have I missed? Any others that you would recommend?
As an American who has visited all but 8 of the states in the United States, take it from me, the US is a huge country. The entire continent of Europe is roughly the same size as the United States, to put things into perspective. Imagine driving from one end of Europe to the other end or even half of Europe in a week or two. That’s crazy, right? But yet some people come to the United States for the first time with the intention to drive across the United States, only to wind up spending most of their time in the car. There’s got to be a better way.
Here are some of my recommendations for a week-long itinerary in the United States, east coast only. If you have more than a week, add on days to either or both destination, according to your interests.
1) For the city-lover: begin in New York City. With a population of over 8.6 million people, New York City is definitely a city with a lot to do and see. I’m not going to give recommendations for things to do and see in New York City, but I recommend staying here 4 or 5 days, depending on what you want to see and do. The noise and traffic can be a bit much for some people, so if you know you prefer to move on to a smaller area, I’d cut the time spent in New York to 3 days but wouldn’t go any less than that.
If you are a history buff, you can fly, drive a rental car, or take a train to Washington, D.C. There is an Amtrak train that will get you there in an hour less than it takes to drive (3 hours via train vs. 4 hours driving) and flying isn’t any faster, so I would recommend taking the train. Parking in both New York City and Washington, D.C. is expensive and difficult to find, not to mention the headache of simply driving in these hugely congested areas.
I suggest spending 2 or 3 days in Washington, D.C. As in New York City, public transportation is the best way to get around. The metro in Washington, D.C. can take you to the Smithsonian museums quickly and easily. I highly recommend spending time at the Smithsonian Museums, which are made up of 19 museums, galleries, gardens, and a zoo, all of which offer free admission. There are of course also the monuments and memorials you can admire on the National Mall. Most of the monuments and memorials are free or have a nominal fee. Check online to see if you need a ticket and if so buy it in advance.
2) For the history and nature-lover: begin in Boston, Massachusetts. Boston is considerably smaller both in land mass and population than New York City and may be an easier transition for some people, especially those that don’t like large crowds. Boston has around 700,000 people but still has plenty to do and is also a great choice if you enjoy history. Again, I would recommend just using public transportation and walking to get around Boston. Although you could easily spend more time in Boston, 3 days would be a good amount to see the highlights.
From Boston, rent a car and drive up the coast to Maine. It’s a pretty long drive, at about 4 hours, 45 minutes. If you want to break up the drive, stop at Portland and spend the night here. Portland is full of great restaurants and nice places to stay. Your ultimate destination will be Bar Harbor, home to Acadia National Park. You could easily spend a week just in Acadia National Park, but if you’re only spending a week total in the US, you’ll have about 4 days here if you spend 3 days in Boston. You could also fly from Boston to Bar Harbor in about an hour, but honestly, the drive along the coast from Boston is worth it in my opinion.
3) For a beach experience and party scene: fly into Miami, Florida. Miami is famous for its beautiful beaches, great food, and bar scene. If you like to hang out at the beach all day and party all night, Miami is the spot for you. Everglades National Park is also nearby if you want to take a ride through the Everglades in an airboat for a unique experience. Spend 5 days in Miami before heading to your next destination, Key West.
Key West is about 3 1/2 hours by car from Miami, although it could take longer if you stop at the many other little “keys” along the way. You can fly from Miami to Key West in 45 minutes if you are in a hurry, but if you want a memorable road trip, drive the Overseas Highway across a 113-mile chain of coral and limestone islands connected by 42 bridges, one of them seven miles long. Key West has a laid-back kind of feel, which may be a relief after the more upbeat party scene of Miami. Chill at the beaches and bars in Key West for 2 days before heading back home.
4) To skip the bigger cities for a smaller-town feel: fly into Atlanta, Georgia. Although Atlanta is a fun town and you could spend a few days here, for your first time to the United States, I suggest renting a car and driving the roughly 4 1/2 hours to Charleston, South Carolina. You could also fly into Charleston but flights from Europe will be cheaper if you fly into Atlanta. If you don’t have a driver’s license or can’t rent a car, by all means fly into Charleston instead. Charleston has consistently ranked number one city by Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, and for good reason. Charleston is a foodie destination, has beautiful beaches with soft, powder-fine sand, is full of historical sites, and has quaint bed & breakfasts as well as the usual hotels and Airbnb offerings. Spend 5 days in Charleston before moving on to your next destination, Savannah, Georgia.
It’s about a 2 hour drive from Charleston to Savannah. To me, Savannah is like the little sister to Charleston, in many ways. Savannah is a foodie destination, has beautiful beaches at Tybee Island, has many fun historical sites, all of which Charleston has, but Savannah hasn’t quite reached the level of “stardom” that Charleston has, for some reason. I suggest spending 2 days in Savannah before heading back and flying back out of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, about 3 1/2 hours away by car.
Those are my top east-coast destinations for first-timers to the United States. There are of course many more but I had to draw the line somewhere!
What about my American east-coasters? What east coast travel destinations would you recommend to first-timers coming to the US?
The first time you travel outside the United States will most certainly be a learning experience. Things will happen that you never even thought of before hand. Sometimes you get swindled by others taking advantage of clueless Americans. Most of the time, though, there are kind strangers who help you find your way or give you honest advice that ends up saving the day.
Over the years of traveling abroad, beginning when I was a college student, I’ve certainly learned along the way. By sharing a few things here that I’ve learned I will hopefully spare you some grief and stress, making your travels more enjoyable and save you some money while you’re at it.
1. Check out transportation options ahead of time
Depending on where you’re going, driving a rental car may be your best option or it may be a nightmare if parking is at a premium and/or you would be terrified to drive in the area because of overly aggressive drivers or roads so narrow you question whether they’re really even roads. You may want to take a taxi to get around or you may be in an area where walking really is the best option. Buses can also be a great option but can take much longer to get places if they have a lot of stops. To easily compare your options, check out Rome 2 Rio. For example, if you’re staying at the San Theodore Palace apartments in Venice you can see your options for getting there from the airport, factoring in time and cost.
2. Check Museum or Sight-Seeing Hours and Buy Tickets in Advance
Don’t make the mistake of just showing up at a place to take a tour without getting tickets or reservations in advance or you may be disappointed. Check the website hours well in advance (sometimes months in advance, depending on where you’re going and how busy it will be) and buy tickets ahead of time. This can also save you time of standing in line, by just walking up to pick up your tickets and being able to skip the line to buy tickets, plus you often get a discount by buying your tickets in advance.
3. Eat Where the Locals Eat
I’ve learned the hard way on this one. The bottom line is if you see that a restaurant has a menu in five different languages, that means they cater to tourists, not locals, and inevitably the food will not be that good and/or the food will be over-priced. There are exceptions of course, but in general, try to find a place that’s not near tourist hot spots if you can. Sometimes just walking a couple of blocks further away is all it takes to find a restaurant full of locals instead of tourists. If everyone turns and looks at you when you walk in and you feel a bit out of place, you’re in the right place. Just be sure to learn a few key food-related words before you go (or use Google translate on your phone) and you’ll be fine. I’ve found that even if your server doesn’t know much English, they’ll know enough to serve you a meal and drink, especially if you in turn know enough key words and phrases.
4. Paying for Things
Check well in advance to see if you have a credit card with no foreign transaction fees; if not, get one because otherwise you’ll end up paying a fortune in fees when you get home and get your credit card bill (that happened to me on my first trip to Mexico many years ago). Visa and MasterCard are accepted at many places around the world but less so in more remote areas so don’t rely solely on using credit cards. When you get cash from an ATM, make sure the ATM is physically attached to a bank and only make withdrawals when the bank is open in case you have a problem (your card is taken for example). Also, use your bank debit card that’s linked to your checking account (as opposed to a credit card), as the fees should be lower through your bank versus a cash withdrawal through your credit card.
5. Learn Some Local Words and Phrases
I’m not saying you have to be fluent in the language where you’re going, but learning how to say hello, goodbye, thank you, please, and some other key words and phrases can go a long way with locals. If you are at least making an attempt to speak the language, it shows you aren’t just another arrogant American who expects everyone to just speak English. A quick and easy way to pick up some language basics is with Duolingo, a free app that I often use for brushing up on my Spanish or picking up other words in other languages.
6. Check Your Cell Phone Plan then Rent a Mobile WiFi Hotspot
Check with your mobile carrier ahead of time to see if you have international roaming included in your plan and make sure you have data where you plan on going. If the fee for roaming internationally is exorbitant or nonexistent where you’ll be going, rent a mobile WiFi hotspot, or MiFi that you can use on your vacation. You can read about My First Experience with Mobile WiFi for International Travel. Since this time in Malta I’ve also used another company for MiFi abroad and was once again happy with my decision. If you’re like my family where everyone has their own phone plus a tablet or laptop and we’re all on different phone plans, it’s much easier to just rent a mobile WiFi where we all have coverage for all of our devices no matter where we are.
7. Bread and Water May Not Be Free
In the United States, most people are so accustomed to getting bread and water for free they assume that’s the case around the world, but not so. In fact, when I’m traveling, I assume the restaurant will charge for bread and/or water and decide ahead of time if I really want it. If you don’t want the bread or bottled water, by all means say so as soon as you sit down. In some areas of the world, tap water is unsafe for travelers so everyone drinks bottled water, and you can assume you’ll be paying for that, but in places where the water is safe to drink from the tap, just ask for a glass of water instead of bottled water. By all means do your research ahead of time so you don’t end up getting sick from the water (including ice cubes, fresh fruit and vegetables, and anything that might have been rinsed off).
8. Pack a Few Health Items
If you have an upset stomach, one of the last things you’re going to feel like doing is finding a pharmacy and trying to find medicine, most likely speaking to someone who doesn’t know much English. Pack some Immodium, Tylenol or Ibuprofen, Pepto Bismol, Tums, and band-aids in your carry-on and you’ll have a good start to a small first aid kit perfect for travel.
9. Don’t Pack Too Much
Do you really think you’ll wear all four pairs of shoes plus the 20 different outfits you packed for that 7 day trip to Barcelona? Maybe a better question is “Do you really need to pack all of that stuff?” Don’t fall into the “just in case” trap, packing clothing or shoes just in case you decide to wear them. When you’re packing, choose tops and pants or shorts that all match each other and pack one pair of shoes that go with everything (you’ll be wearing your second pair of shoes for your trip). Packing cubes are amazing in that I can always put way more into my bag with packing cubes than without them, plus they keep everything more organized. Finally, roll your clothes. I have a whole post on packing, Never Check a Bag with an Airline Again so please check that out for more information on packing.
10. Dress for the Weather
When you check the weather forecast before you pack, look at the daily highs and lows and chance of rain or snow for each day. This might seem like a silly thing, but I’ve traveled to places where I never thought I’d need anything more than short sleeves and shorts, only to find out the nights were much cooler than I had expected. Now I always wear a jacket or light sweater on the airplane for three reasons: 1) It’s almost always freezing cold on airplanes, 2) Even in the summer, many places get chilly at night or restaurants or other places that are indoors are often really cold to me because of air conditioning and 3) I always wear more bulky clothing on the plane like a jacket so I don’t have to pack them. If you’ll be hiking up a mountain with a big increase in elevation, you should know that even in the summer there might be snow at the top, so you’ll want proper clothing and shoes for that. Again, just do some research in advance to check the conditions.
Those are my top ten tips for Americans who travel internationally for the first time. What about you all? What tips would you pass along?
If you polled average Americans and asked “Where would you most like to go in Europe?” I’ll bet London, Paris, and Rome would be in the top ten percent. Many Americans even go so far as to try to cram all three places into one vacation, leaving them exhausted by the end. Is that what you really want or would you rather just pick one place and explore that area? There are many questions that should be explored to make the most out of your first visit to Europe. Do you even know where in Europe you want to go?
First ask yourself why you want to go to Europe. Is it because a friend or relative went there and said it was awesome? Or do you have something more specific in mind, like visiting St. Peter’s Basilica or The Eiffel Tower? Do you simply want to go somewhere different than the usual Disney World? Do you enjoy history and want to check out some historical sites?
If you’re more flexible on where you’d like to go, you can look around for good deals on flights. As I mentioned previously in my post A Simple Way to Save Hundreds of Dollars on Airfare, Google flights is a great search engine for gaining insight on airfare. If you put in a city in the US and type in Europe, Google flights will generate a map with prices for major cities in Europe. You can even put in Eastern Europe or Southern Europe, for example, to zero in on a more specific region of Europe. Or, if you have a specific city you want to fly to but are flexible with your dates, you can check Google flights calendar day-by-day to see how prices fluctuate. Even if you’re locked in to only June through August for travel, prices often differ by at least a couple hundred dollars and sometimes several hundred dollars, depending on which dates you choose.
Let’s say you’ve decided you want to go to Rome, Florence, and Venice in Italy. This is certainly do-able if you’re going to be there more than 7 days. If you have 10 days to spend in Italy, you could spend 3 nights in Rome, 4 nights in Florence, and 2 nights in Venice or even 4 nights in Rome, 3 in Florence, and 2 in Venice (either would be great options). You can easily get from one city to the next by train. The rail system in Europe in general is pretty reliable and easy to navigate. I don’t recommend driving in any of these cities the first time you go and not even on subsequent times, as it’s just easier to get around in town by taxi and a lot less stressful, at least in these Italian cities.
Let’s go back to the London, Paris, Rome example I brought up previously. To get from London to Paris can take up to 9 hours on a bus, a little over 6 hours by car, just over 2 hours by train, or a bit over an hour by plane. Taking the train seems the obvious choice to me, given the hassle with airports and the time difference between flying and the train isn’t that great. From Paris to Rome is a bit more of a stretch since the distance is much greater. One good option is to take the night train from Paris, on the Artesia sleeper trains from Paris to Italy. You must reserve a sleeping berth in either a sleeping-car or more economical couchette car (4 or 6 bunk-style beds) in advance. However, you can fly from Paris to Rome in about 2 hours for under $200 (usually much less) on Air France or one of Europe’s many discount airlines.
Putting all of the above together, let’s say you have 10 days total (9 nights) to spend in London, Paris, and Rome and you’re going to spend the first 3 nights in London. From London you’ll take the train to Paris and spend 3 nights there then fly to Rome and spend 3 nights there before flying back home to the United States. This is a bit tiring because of moving around such great distances, but the most you’ve spent in actual travel time in Europe is roughly 2 hours at a stretch, which isn’t bad. This of course doesn’t include any time spent at the train station or airport, but still isn’t terrible. I’d say it’s not as bad as it may seem at first, when you do the math and calculate the travel time.
By no means am I supporting the London-Paris-Rome first trip to Europe plan, however. Personally, I like to explore one country at a time, starting in a bigger city simply because they’re always cheaper to fly into, then branching out into smaller towns and villages of a country. For example, when I went to Austria, I flew into Munich, Germany and spent a couple of days here before I moved on to some of the small towns of Austria like Bad Gastein, St. Johann im Pongau, Werfen, and many others that most Americans have never heard of. I enjoyed the scenery, food, and activities much more in these tiny towns than I did in Munich. I know, technically I did explore two countries in my example here since I was in Austria and Germany, but other than Munich, I didn’t see any other parts of Germany other than driving through to get to Austria.
I guess my most important points in all of this would be the following. First determine how much money you can budget for this European vacation. Then figure out why you want to go to Europe and what specifically you want to see and do. Next look at travel times and how to get from one place to another if you want to visit multiple cities and look at the costs involved. Finally, factor in accommodations, dining out, drinks out, museum costs and other entertainment costs and leave some money for souvenirs and any unexpected costs. I’ve found that by choosing places that are a bit different than where some people might choose, they’re usually less crowded and cheaper, so don’t be afraid to think outside the box when choosing where to go!
By figuring these things out in advance, it will greatly add to your peace of mind, which should help you enjoy your vacation more. You will also find that it’s not so complicated after all to plan your first vacation to Europe. Given all of the information available online on destinations, you should be able to put together a package that includes your airfare, accommodations, transportation, and some ideas for things to do.
So go ahead and start planning your first vacation to Europe! Just don’t make the mistake of going there in August. Many Europeans take the month of August off work to travel so many restaurants and other businesses will be closed in August and beaches and other hotspots where Europeans like to vacation will be packed. Instead, travel during the shoulder season in September and October (with the exception of Paris, which tends to be quiet in August but crowded in September). Finally, I would be happy to give advice on anything travel-related if you have a more specific or personal question. Just send me an email @runningtotravel (gmail).
When I first started this blog post, I thought I was going to write about planning your first trip to Europe (written for Americans), but it evolved into something else. Perhaps I’ll have to write another blog post on planning a trip to Europe, but for now, I’m going to focus here on buying airfare. I’m not going to get technical and talk about credit cards, using miles or points, or anything remotely like that. This is actually a pretty simple way that can save you hundreds of dollars for just one airline ticket.
One place I like to start is Google flights (flights.Google.com). The thing I like most about Google flights is how flexible it is with searches. You can put in any city in the US and for example, “Europe” for destination and see how much flights cost to some of the most popular cities in Europe. A map will be generated with prices for around 15 destinations in Europe. For example, a flight from New York City (JFK) to Dublin the end of June is as low as $671 round trip, but on that same day, a flight from New York City (JFK) to Rome is $1475. If you’re flexible about where you’re going, you can end up paying half or less for your flight.
Again, being flexible can help save you money if you’re flexible with your dates. You can scroll through Google flight’s calendar and see how prices fluctuate over time. That same flight to Dublin that cost $671 the end of June drops to $360 for a few dates in August, or goes to as much as $1088 for a four-day vacation the week of July 4th. I suggest you play with the dates and it could easily save you hundreds of dollars per ticket.
It seems like there are a dozen websites where you can compare airfare. You could spend hours going to them all, but in the end I’ve found they all pretty much give you the same information as Google flights, and I just prefer the platform Google flights uses. If you like Hipmunk, Momondo, or Expedia (or something comparable) better, by all means use them along with Google flights, but I really don’t feel you need to go to six different comparison sites like these, so choosing one will save you time.
Once you have a specific flight, go directly to the airline to make sure it’s the same as what you’re seeing on Google flights. So that flight to Dublin that’s $360 in August is with Wow airline, a budget carrier based in Iceland, which is notorious for adding extra fees. When I clicked the link through Google flights to purchase through the Wow Airline website, that same flight cost $199.99 to get there and $179.99 to get back for Wow basic ($379.98 for round-trip), which includes your flight ticket and one personal item, slightly more than $360 shown on Google flights. One carry-on bag costs $49.99 each way if purchased with the ticket or $69.99 if purchased at check-in. Each checked bag costs $67.99 each way in advance or $79.99 at check-in. Let’s go with one carry-on bag, so that adds another $99.98.
If you want to choose your seat, that will be another $4.99-$6.99 for each segment of your flight for budget standard seats, $9.99-$19.99 for standard plus seats, on up to $99-$249.99 for the “BigSeat- Extra wide seats with plenty of legroom and WOW premium service” with price variances based on if you’re flying to/from New York or Reykjavik. The main thing here is you’re paying extra for that seat from New York to Reykjavik, from Reykjavik to Dublin, from Dublin to Reykjavik, and from Reykjavik to New York. $4.99-$6.99 might not seems like that much, but when it turns out to be $23.96 for each person for all four segments, just to be able to choose a budget standard seat, it adds up. Meals are also extra with Wow airlines, with most ranging around $12-$14 for lunch items (salads, pizza, sandwiches).
Not even choosing seats or buying a meal onboard, your ticket will be $629.96 after taxes and fees with just one carry-on bag. This is a far cry from the $360 that showed up on Google flights. Still, it is cheaper than the next-expensive flight with Aer Lingus for $984 round trip. The Aer Lingus “smart” fare does include a carry-on and checked bag, complimentary meal, and seat selection.
I love playing around on Google flights and often check flights around the world (domestic and international). If I have specific dates in mind to a specific place, I’ll set up a price alert through Kayak to track the price for a flight so I can wait until the price drops and buy my tickets then. Contrary to popular belief, there is no magic date you should buy airfare before flying somewhere. Generally speaking, if you buy international airfare (especially more so than domestic) several months in advance, you will pay less than if you wait a month before you want to fly. Airfare is one of the most volatile things I’ve ever seen when it comes to price increases and drops, which is one reason I like Google flights calendar so much, because you can see that volatility in pricing day by day.
What about you all? Do you use Google flights or some other search engine to research airfare prices?