Late Thoughts …

I meant to write this much earlier but apparently a week of traveling, too much booze and too little sleep isn’t good for you — I’ve felt pretty rough for the last few days.

I’m back from my travels and I will get round to posts for individual places (promise) so this is just a collection of thoughts.

Glance up and you’ll see one of the first of set of all new header images for 2008. It was pretty disturbing going through my photos to find images to use — there’s a handful of photos with me in them and I look progressively more haggard as you the week goes on. Scary stuff.

Anyroads, some advice after the jump.

Guidebooks, good but don’t rely on them
I’m travelling with a fairly new edition of The Rough Guide to Europe and it’s got some good points and bad points.

For most of the trip I used it to find tourist information points, left luggage offices, post boxes etc. All perfect except when I get to Poland and need to leave my bags somewhere for a few hours, but there there’s no listing for left luggage in the book. You’d think this means that there isn’t any but there were tons of left luggage places (at all the major stations, and the major tourist sites). Clearly it’s just a mistake but it does add to my impression that the editing/fact checking isn’t as good as it could have been.

The book covers a lot of places but most of the maps are only of the very center of town, to make matters worse the scale keeps changing meaning you have to be check that a ten minute walk on one map isn’t three quarters of an hour in a different place. I know they’re trying to cover a lot of places but I’d rather have had maps covering more of the town and all at the same (smaller) scale. Still it’s easy enough to grab a map in most places so it’s not a big deal.

While the Rough Guide gets the details for attractions mostly right it’s a lot more hit-and-miss for eating and drinking. Places change and move around so even a year-old guide has some listings wrong and since there’s only a handful of places listed per place you rapidly run out of recommendations.

I’ve also been using WikiTravel which is excellent for some places and dreadful for others, sadly you can’t always tell which is which before hand.

They’re good resources but even some of the places listed in both WikiTravel and the Rough Guide weren’t there any more …

There was a lot of free WiFi in the town centers and I did wonder if I’d have got away with carrying a WiFi enabled PDA/mini-laptop and using the internet as my guide.

Money, take cash and don’t rely on ATMs

I was travelling using my Cahoot credit and debit cards, I’d dutifully informed Cahoot that I’d be travelling and provided them with a list of exactly where I’d be each day of the holiday — they’d requested this so they would be able to avoid blocking my cards.

They still blocked the cards and I had to phone up when I got back. Apparently there’s no way to say “this card is regularly used abroad”.

Same with my Virgin credit card which I’ve used across Central America with no problem but was blocked in Poland.

I know it’s a fraud prevention method, but I just can’t imagine that every traveller in the world phones up their bank with their itinerary before travelling. Do they just carry cash? It’s a shame, I’ve never been anywhere where I couldn’t find a cash machine to use but the whole fraud thing means you can’t rely on your cards alone.

The lessons to learn are, talk to your bank, carry extra cash and pick where you use your cards carefully. It seems that cards are more likely to get blocked if you’re using a chip-and-pin machine (in a shop or a restaurant) or one of those squat little stand alone ATMs, the fixed in the wall machines that banks have seem to be more tolerated.

But keep a note of the phone numbers of your banks fraud department for when they ultimately block the cards anyway.

Use trains, but always double check you’re on the right one (and in the right seat)

The trains in Europe were pretty good, if you’ve got the time then they’re a fantastic way to get around Europe, you can do the longer journeys overnight and save a nights worth of accomedation costs.

One of my all time favourite websites, The Man in Seat Sixty-One…, will help you work out how to navigate Europe by train.

I’ll add a bit of advice from experience: remember to check if a train splits partway through the journey — if it does then make sure you’re in the right part of the train otherwise you may find yourself a few hundred miles off course …

Plan, or at least book, less

I had around half the trip pre-booked and the rest (mostly the inter-country trains) I bought as I went along. This meant I could change things up a little, but only a little. If I’d booked less in advance (or reserved, rather than paid in full, the accomedation) I would have had a lot more flexibility, I’m not sure I’d like to try finding a hotel in high season but in February I don’t think it would ever have been an issue.

Buying train tickets was simple, check the main routes beforehand and then use the timetables at the station. An InterRail pass would have cost slightly more than I eventually spent on travel but it would have meant that I didn’t need to worry about buying tickets for each leg although you still sometimes need reservations.

I imagine there’ll be at least one more multi-country tour this year, so I’ll have a chance to follow some of my own advice. Until then they I’ll use long weekends to keep on ticking off the countries one by one.

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