Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Travel lessons

"The Gherkin" from Southwark
 We're back in the United States now after 12 days in London. We spent our time seeing our son, and with other family members from the US.

I'm not the most experienced international traveler - both [The Man I Love] and Our Son have spent more time overseas than I have. But I've been to the British isles and Europe five times, and feel pretty confident about getting around and enjoying myself there.

Our neighborhood streets
Still, we had a few glitches on our trip I'd like to share with you. Some may be due to the changes in our times - a growing reliance on the internet and cell phone use. Others might be due to the nature of our trip - we were coordinating multiple activities with multiple people instead of just being a couple.

Accommodations - You can choose to stay in a hotel, or you can choose to rent a furnished flat. [The Man I Love] made all the arrangements, so if you want specific advice, email me and I'll pass along your questions. But in general, I like this. You get more space and you get kitchen facilities.  We travel this way in the United States all the time, but if you're going to do it in Europe or another country, you need to make sure you're comfortable puzzling out domestic things  - how to work the laundry machine, going to grocery stores, and what to do with garbage and trash.

Our flat was near this picturesque Quay
Living in flats gives you an idea how everyday people live in the country you're visiting. In London we were reacquainted with English bathroom facilities, which are a very different scale than American ones! We also had neighbors, like in any other flat - which sometimes meant overhearing arguments, music or other noise.

Communication - this was a big lesson, and one we should have paid more attention to. Unless you are in a hotel, you will not have access to a reliable telephone unless it's your own. We screwed up here - [The Man I Love] had his employers' IT department convert his phone to International service, but they didn't do it right. For whatever reason, his American phone didn't work in London. Our brother-in-law DID successfully convert his phone so it worked in London. Our sister-in-law already carried a European phone, but for some reason, in London she could only receive calls and texts, not initiate them. Our Son had a working English phone.

Whitechapel market
Me? Well, put me down as oblivious and irresponsible. I simply assumed I wouldn't need a phone, because I'd be with [The Man I Love] and wouldn't need a phone otherwise. So I didn't even look into converting my phone. In retrospect, had I taken the responsibility to do this, it would have helped immensely. Flats don't have phones, and you can't dial an American cell phone from a pay phone.

We assumed that we could buy a cheap, limited-minutes Pay-As-You-Go phone when we got to London. As it turned out, you can certainly buy a phone in convenience stores or at a street market. But you can't pay to activate it without a credit card with a British postal code - or at least that was our experience. We couldn't use our American credit cards to activate new service on a phone in Britain.

So for five people, we had only two fully-functioning phones and one that could only receive calls. This caused a lot of confusion when trying to coordinate group activities.

Internet Access - similar to the phone issue, our flat's internet access depended on the account-holder topping up the service with a credit card. Our landlord was a day late in getting our service topped up, so we tried to activate an individual service on our own, but we couldn't use an American credit card.

I last traveled to Europe in 2009, and even then internet access was important. But this time, it seemed that it is essential - everything from the latest information about public transportation to making restaurant reservations to checking on tourist attractions is best done on line. Being without access for even a day was difficult. Also, the service we had was limited - the clock ticked on the amount of time we could be online, and only one computer could be online at a time. With four adults checking email, updating Facebook accounts, and other daily tasks, we had to ration ourselves. There were plenty of WiFi locations at places like Starbucks, but who wants to schlep a laptop around?

Credit cards - Did you know that American credit cards are less secure than everyone else's? There is a security chip embedded in credit cards from every major country except those from the US. This impacted us when trying to use some automated kiosks, like buying passes for the Tube. We had no trouble with ATMs or in restaurants, but unless we had cash, we had to queue up at ticket windows to buy transportation passes.

Yes, I brought Crocs.
We also had other typical travel mishaps, like unpredictable weather, packing unsuitable clothes, and sore feet from walking. I brought way more clothes and shoes than I needed.

Don't forget to rely on old-fashioned maps, too. Google maps is great but without a printer you can't take it with you. A phone app, or an I-Pad might have worked, but there's nothing like having a good old London A-Z pocket map in your purse. We had one - to share among four people.
A pub in the West End theatre district

But these were minor glitches, and didn't really affect our enjoyment of our stay. The one major thing I'd do differently next time is be very pro-active in getting our phones working - oh, and I hope by the next time I visit Europe, I have an I-Pad!

What are some of the lessons you've learned from traveling abroad?


Max said...

I haven't traveled abroad since I was 10 years old, but I completely agree with renting the flat. My whole family (6 of us) spent a year in Europe and we always rented a place to stay, us kids even went to public schools in France. You get a much more authentic feel for the countries when you are not staying in an "Americanized" hotel. Like you said, you get a real feel for how the people there live their everyday lives.
So, the rest of your advice I have no experience with, but I would advise people to stay somewhere other than a hotel.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I last went abroad for real back in the 90s, to Brazil and Argentina (it was for work, so totally different).

Thanks for blogging your European adventure, Aunt Snow. I've never been across the Atlantic pond.

(Maybe I'll make it, someday!)