Sunday, September 12, 2010

Expat Travel Tips

Along the way I tried to make a recommendation list for Belgian expats. I remember what a great resource stranger blogs were to me when I was getting set and settled in. So here are a few tips from me:

1) Buy one of these. They may seem like "Granny Grocery Bags" but truthfully just do it. Convenience trumps looking sophisticated.
2) Don't shy away from renting a car on travels. It will take you through the back door and assist you in seeing lots at your own pace. I never regretted the extra money spent on car rentals. It usually ended up saving us from being sucked into cheesy mass tours. The only caveat is definitely be sure to learn to drive a manual transmission before you get to Europe. We didn't and we were put in many tight spots being reliant on an automatic car.

3) Buy a good GPS. It was our first purchase in Europe. We bought a top of the line model and have never thought twice about the investment. It is a must-have in Europe. (Beware though they don't work in Greece and Romania!)

4) Travel during the off season. We went to Lake Como for New Years and Sardinia in December. Sure the temperatures sometimes proved a challenge. But overall the crowds were minimal and innkeepers more willing to negotiate and make a deal. Don't be afraid to bargain shop. Just tell them, "I really would prefer to stay with you, but have another offer at XYZ price. Would you be willing to match it? If so I will book right away."

5) Learn the virtues of public transport. What can I say, it is Europe?!? The trams, metros and buses were key to getting out and about. I didn't love the Belgian public transport and European trains were surprisingly expensive - yet there was always a way.

6) Perfect your knowledge of budget airline sales. Ryan Air, Wizz Air and the lot can be a pain with their many rules and weight restrictions. But ahem, can you really beat 1 euro tickets to the Mediterranean?

7) Learn to love the Ibis hotel. If you aren't ready for a hostel situation, but still want to travel on the cheap, check out Ibis and Travelodge. We found them a good option for our family-on-the-go. While they lacked interior charm - they were always clean, affordable, and often in a great location.

8) Pack lightly and travel often. We knew we were in Europe for 18 more and no less. We posted a wall calendar and matched weekends with a list of where we most wanted to go. I don't regret one trip. We became packing pros. And it is amazing how little you really need when you pare it down. Even with a toddler in tow.

9) Invest in Rick Steves before you come over. They don't sell Rick Steves travel books in Europe. Yet he is THE MAN! We must have had his entire library. And discovered all the good stuff with his suggestion.

10) Get used to eating long, late and only under a reservation. This is the only way it is done. I still chuckle to think we would need to call ahead for 3 girls to pop in and eat Indian food. But that is the culture and the expectation. Don't buck it. And goodness knows, don't try to pay with credit cards. Cash is the standard.

11) Smokers are everywhere, learn to dodge them. I never got used to this. It shocks and saddens me how much smoking persists abroad.

12) Get used to km, celsius and euros. My advice is to stop translating back to American standards. Just submit and get used to the new metric and monetary systems. The sooner you do, the more sense it will make.

13) Ship over your favs in your 'sea shipment' if you have one. We loaded up our container with Cheerios, oatmeal, goldfish, and cake frosting. None of which you can find abroad. These items will no doubt help in the friend-making department!

14) Pay for hotels in full upon reservation and no cancels. It is only an American standard to make a hotel reservation without paying up front. We were fortunate we never forfeited our payment due to missed travel. But this is a common problem.

15) Get used to being very assertive in asking for your check at meals. I have honestly been places waiting an hour just to get the tab. I really don't get it, but it does take persistence.

These are my top 15. Hope they prove helpful! Let me know if so - or what advice you would add?

1 comment:

Hope said...

wow...great tips. I am 1 month away from moving to Belgium from Texas! So glad I stumbled upon your blog as it may be my new 'bible'. Thanks for sharing!