Thinking about finally making that great trip to Europe? Whether you travel regularly, or your trip is a once in a lifetime opportunity, when it comes to taking that big vacation abroad, you want to make the most of every moment.
You read, you prepare, and if you’re like me, you worry that you won’t be able to do it all – and that’s too true!
Having travelled a lot in my 20s, I found that my 60-plus travelling skills were rusty as I planned my long-awaited trip to France, revisiting the country where I lived almost 50 years ago.
The trip was everything I’d hoped for, and, along the way, I discovered a few secrets to successful travel in Europe that I wanted to share with you.
Do Your Planning and Then Let Go!
When I was in my 20s, I had abundant energy and didn’t need to plan my adventures on the roads of Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. But in my 60s, my energy level has changed, and I need to travel smarter and plan more.
Today, I do lots of pre-planning and research while still remembering that the magic of travel often happens when I go with the flow and savor some unexpected discoveries.
When you plan, choose a few important places to be the pillars of your trip – but not too many! Make sure you are prepared with reservations to top sites, book your hotel or apartment at key locations, and have the critical instructions you need printed out.
Then get ready to improvise. If you’re brave, some of your reservations can be made on the road, thanks to the online power of sites like Booking.com, Hotels.com or AirBnB.
Most importantly, relax. Things will never go as planned.
Did you count on clear days? It may rain. Did you monitor forecasts and pack for chilly weather? Surprise! You hit a heat wave that soars into the high 80s.
Your travel is all mapped out and then the trains go on strike. Or the town you intended to visit is celebrating its 300-year anniversary and there’s not a hotel room to be had.
Instead of turning left, you end up zigging right. And there, off your planned path, you discover a Romanesque church that swells your heart with its beauty, and then run into a market which has every type of olive you could imagine. Delicious!
Travel is an amazing opportunity to practice enjoying what is right in front of you, so do your planning, and then let go.
Deciding to do less can be hard, especially when there’ll always be so much more to see. Yet you can ruin your trip by worrying about not being able to see or do everything – the travel version of FOMO, fear of missing out.
You won’t do it all. You can’t. Why not enjoy what you can do rather than fretting about everything you won’t be able to get to?
Try traveling at a speed that works for you, without pushing to see everything, and add a few breaks to your trip. You may see less but you’ll increase the quality of what you do.
Years ago, I could travel on an overnight bus and still play the next day. Today I can’t. By planning “rest stops” where my husband and I could pause for a day, we enjoyed ourselves more – and the pauses really helped my innards adjust to the travel.
Go Wireless but Keep Key Information Printed Out
These days, you don’t need to weigh yourself down with a lot of printed matter. E-books and travel information can be available to you with one or two clicks. Armed with an iPad, a cell phone – which I decided to activate – and GPS proved really useful on my trip.
That said, I was glad to have key addresses, reservations and directions written out or stored where they were safe from an “OMG-I-just-lost-my-connection” Internet nightmare or losing the charge on my device at just the wrong moment. It will happen, so be prepared!
Pack Light and Then Re-Pack Lighter
Europe is not well designed for the non-able-bodied. I tried to navigate the Paris subway with my not-so-big suitcase and lost control of it on one of the MANY steep staircases we encountered.
Horrified to see my bag tumbling down a half flight of stairs – fortunately, I didn’t go with it – I was rescued by the kindness of a young man who lifted it up and helped me through the next two sets of stairs.
You can find a lot of great packing information online. Before our trip, my husband and I had great fun watching the packing light video series from Sarah Murdoch.
As Sarah suggests, if you leave something behind, you might have an opportunity to buy yourself something special in Europe. Travel guru Rick Steves advocates traveling as light as you can. His mantra is, “No one wishes they had taken more.”
I did a preliminary pack and then evaluated what I could take out before I did my final packing. The official carry-on suitcase size in Europe seems to keep shrinking and it is smaller than in the US, so you have an incentive to keep your suitcase small if you are going to take European trains or airplanes.
Open Up to Wonder
The poet Mary Oliver offered these instructions for life: “Pay attention. Be astonished.” Travel is a great opportunity to rekindle your sense of wonder, especially when it has been ground down by day-to-day responsibilities at home or work. With wonder, you’ll delight in small discoveries on the road.
I watched small children work out interracial differences on a swing set, saw strangers help each other in the subway, and watched a grocery owner come alive when I asked to photograph him in front of his opulent stock of cheeses.
Small memories like these made our trip feel distinctly ours, even as we also enjoyed visiting the great tourist sites like the Sacré Coeur Basilica in Paris.
What’s more, practicing wonder can open up our eyes to seeing the world in new ways, which is one of the greatest gifts your travel can offer, even as we return home.
What do you think are the secrets to a great overseas trip? Do you tend to over pack? Have you ever missed an item you forgot to take on your trip? Please share your experiences below.