Category Archives: backpack

What I’ve Learned in Reviewing European Hostels

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As I’ve been traveling about Europe, I’ve learned so many things! Since I’ve stayed in four different hostels so far, this type of accommodation is one of the things I’ve been educated on! I stay in North American hostels when I can, but since hostels are much more common in Europe, especially in big tourist cities, they compete by having a particular “edge”. For some, their edge is a rock-bottom rate. For others, it’s being in a great location. Still others boast a social environment, high standards of cleanliness, or comfort. While the hostels often master several of these traits, I don’t think it’s possible to master them all. There have to be trade offs. Having a party atmosphere sacrifices offering a quiet place to relax. Being up-to-date means losing the building’s historical value. When traveling in Europe, it’s important to know what aspects you’re looking for in a hostel and what offers don’t really matter. For me, I find it necessary to be a good price, walking distance to most attractions, WiFi connected, and female-only dorm options. Room security, regular cleaning, and breakfast are somewhat important, but I can make due if they’re not up to snuff. Social atmosphere and handicap accessibility are not taken into consideration at all when I select a

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Of course, your priorities are probably different than mine. If you are a man in a wheelchair, you probably don’t care about female-only dorms, but handicap accessibility is a must! Because we all differ in what matters most, my goal in reviewing European hostels is to pinpoint what each hostel is best at, while also bringing to light the things that aren’t exactly their “edge”. My first review about BVJ Champs-Elysees Monceau in Paris has been published. You’ll see that they rock when it comes to breakfast and location, but you’ll also notice some sacrifices they had to make.
Click here to read my review of my Parisian hostel on Hostelz.

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How I Spent Ten Days in Paris (and How I Did It On a Budget!)

It´s time to announce my first stop of my Mediterranean Adventure! I don´t know if you can actually count Paris as Mediterranean, but it has been a place that I´ve always wanted to visit! Here are a few things I did, and also how they didn´t cost me an arm and a leg!

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I Stayed in a Hostel I chose to stay at the BVJ Champs-Elysees Monceau because it was the closest hostel to most of the attractions I wanted to visit. Plus, it was one of the few Parisian hostels that offered free breakfast! Sure, this hostel had its downsides. It was once the mansion of famous Parisian painter Henry Gervais, which was super cool, but the downside of that was that since this historic high-ceiling mansion couldn´t undergo too much remodeling, everything echoed at all hours of day and night. But I think the good definitely outweighed the bad as they offered free detailed city maps, free big breakfasts, free WiFi, and plenty of opportunities to meet other travelers!

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I Climbed the Eiffel Tower I saved hours of time with this by choosing to climb- yes, actually climb- the Eiffel Tower instead of taking the elevator up. The two elevator lines stretched across the entire base at all hours of the day, but the lines for the stairs were virtually non-existent. Not only is this a great way to save time, but it saves money, too. A ticket for the stairs is 5 euros, but after convincing the ticket salesman that I was indeed under 25, I got in for just four. You see the same sights anyway, which are incredible! Plus you sound pretty cool for saying you actually walked up all those steps! The stairs ticket allows you to the first and second levels, but you have to take an elevator to the top level. I chose not to do this. For one, the line to buy this ticket was incredibly long, but also because Paris is so flat, you don´t get to see much more from up there.

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I Smiled at Mona Lisa and Waved at Venus de Milo The Louvre is huge! I spent the first several hours inside the museum simply wandering from room to room and marveling at all I found. But of course, there is one thing that most people come to the Louvre to see. Everyone wants to see Mona Lisa smile! It is totally worth seeing and snapping a selfie with, but beware: it involves waiting in a crowd of hundreds and you really have to push if you ever want to get to the front, where Mona Lisa is several feet away and protected by thick bulletproof glass. By the time the security guard forces you to leave, you are really sweaty, but it´s probably not just your sweat! I am totally glad that I saw her, but I´m okay with never going through that ordeal again!

The other art on my must-see list was the Venus de Milo. There is also a pretty big crowd around this one, but because it is a sculpture, you can see it from all angles. You can also get much closer to her! When I didn´t feel like being in a crowded room, there were plenty of places around the museum where I was the only one around. Eventually, the Louvre outlasted me, and I left much of the museum unseen. So I may go back there someday, but I´ll pass on the Mona Lisa!

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I Saw Vincent Van Gogh and Other Art While the Louvre is great, I preferred the Musee d´Orsay simply because it was less overwhelming. I still got tired at this museum, but this place actually had napping couches! I don´t know if they were intended for napping, but the unique octopus-like couches on the top floor opposite the clock had one-person seats that made you practically lay down, and I was not the only one who took a quick snooze there! But seriously, the art is great. There is a small Statue of Liberty made by the same person as the original, and a self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh!

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I Took a Sewer Tour Yes, it smelled. But this was probably the most unique attraction I visited! Paris has a very old sewer and water system, and it´s amazing that it was created progressive enough to hold up all these years. Plus, I´m really thankful that Paris has this so that the Seine is no longer full of waste!

I should mention how I could afford all these museums and attractions. I actually did not pay an admission fee for anything in the city other than the Eiffel Tower! The rest was covered by my Paris Museum Pass. I picked up a four-day pass for €55 at the airport´s visitor center. They also sell passes for two or six days, but I found four days to be the perfect amount. I got to do everything on my must-see list, plus I had a little time to discover little-known features, such as the sewer! As a bonus, the pass allows you to skip the line at most attractions, especially beneficial for long lines at popular places like the Louvre!

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I Hung Out at the Arc de Triomphe I think the best views of Paris are not found from the Eiffel Tower, but rather from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc is situated in the center of the largest roundabout you´ve ever seen! But I didn´t have to worry about crossing this nearly lawless route. There is an underground tunnel at the end of the Champs Elysees that goes under all that traffic and ends up at the base of the Arc de Triomphe. It´s free to stroll around the base or admire the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You can buy a ticket to take the long spiral staircase to the top, or just wave the Museum Pass and get in for no extra cost.

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I Strolled the Champs-Elysees (and learned how to pronounce it!) This could be an expensive endeavor if you don´t do it right. I did spend a little money at two different places. The first shop I bought from was McDonald´s, of all things! But this McDonald´s has a special McCafe where you can get what I think are the best macarons in Paris. I know this because I also bought a raspberry macaron from Laduree and did a comparison.

Besides sampling the local cuisine, my favorite thing to do on the Champs Elysees was visit the multiple auto showrooms. Even if you aren´t that interested in cars, these places are a sight to see. One showroom had movie cars from Jurassic World. Another had an attraction that gave you the illusion that you were standing on the ledge of a skyscraper! A couple of them offered free photo booths. Other favorite places to window shop at included Sephora, A&F, and The Disney Store. As long as you´re just marveling at the size of the store and not picking up items to buy, the Champs Elysees can be an inexpensive experience!

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I Took Two Guided Tours Using a walking tour company called DiscoveryWalks, I had the opportunity to explore the Notre Dame and Montmarte regions very in-depth. The local tour guides will tell you secrets and show you places you won´t find in any guidebook! They also give you practical tips, like where to fill up your water bottle for free. (The green fountains aren´t just for decoration!) The DiscoveryWalks tours I chose were tip-based. After how wonderful both guides were, I wished I had brought more money in my daypack to tip with! The only thing that these guides (both male) weren´t good at was rocking the company´s pink vest. They both expressed how awful the color was and took it off as soon as the tour begin. Maybe sometime down the road, DiscoveryWalks can adopt a more masculine color!

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I Saw Notre Dame from Top to Bottom Most people want to visit the top of the Notre Dame because they know Quasimodo had great views. Some people go inside the free cathedral. Even fewer explore the depths below that show the remains of an ancient city. I actually didn´t know that crypt existed until I saw it listed on my Paris Museum Pass! I did have to wait in line for about an hour to get inside the stairwell that goes to the bell tower. I think it was worth seeing the bells up close, and getting a completely different view of the city. But I think my favorite part was going inside the actual cathedral. It looks like a long line to get inside, but it moves quickly. Inside you´ll find lots of art and relics, most of which you can photograph! And for those of you who have watched the Disney cartoon, I do have to tell you this: as I was walking off the island that Notre Dame is situated on for the last time, I realized that I had completely missed my opportunity to yell “SANCTUARY!” So if any of you go there, will you do me a favor and shout that for me?

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I Visited Other Historic Cathedrals, Too I probably could have spent my entire time in Paris just cathedral hopping! Actually, I´ll probably visit lots of cathedrals throughout Europe if they´re half as good as the ones in Paris. As wonderful as the inside of Notre Dame was, it wasn´t nearly as exquisite of that of Sacre Couer. I also attended mass twice in Paris, once at Notre Dame, and once at a little historic cathedral on the same hill as Sacre Couer whose name escapes me. I´m not Catholic, and I don´t speak French, so I was pretty lost during both French-speaking Catholic masses, but the people there are very welcoming of everyone. It´s also easy to take a hint from everyone around you if you sit in the middle or the back of the sanctuary and just stand, sit, or kneel when everyone else does. You could try to sing or respond with everyone else if you´re ambitious. Even when I had the words in front of me, I usually ended up just moving my lips.

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I Relaxed Like a Parisian at the Parcs There are so many parcs in Paris! Of course, the most popular ones among travelers are those surrounding the Eiffel Tower. But after getting tired of being asked to sign fake petitions there, I went out and explored the other parcs. In these parcs, you´ll see the locals getting together and lingering over a picnic. At one parc, I sat down to eat a crepe nearby a group of young Parisians. After I finished, I walked around the Sacre Couer, walked down to Moulin Rouge, met up with a DiscoverWalks group, toured with them for nearly two hours, and ended up at the same parc I had eaten lunch at. Guess what? That same group of Parisians was STILL THERE enjoying lunch!

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I Ate a Lot of Crepes Other foods consumed included quiche, baguettes, and croissants, but my favorite was definitely crepes. There are street vendors all over Paris who sell these wonderful creations, and they can be eaten for snack, dessert, or even a meal! My favorite spread on the crepes was Nutella, but the cheese was also delicious. I tried to buy crepes from vendors who would pour out crepe batter and cook the crepe right in front of me. There was just something more authentic to that than eating the mass-produced packaged crepes.

I ate a crepe on most days, but there were also a few times when I went grocery shopping. That was an experience in itself! My favorite store ended up being a chain called Monoprix. They bake their bread and pastries right there in the store. If you buy a food that needs to be heated, you can even use their microwave! I mostly just bought Nutella and produce.

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I Went to Disneyland Paris It´s the most magical place on Earth! Well, it is in Europe at least. After going to all the Disney parks in the United States (save for California Adventure), I wanted to live as a Disney fan in another country. Disneyland Paris consists of two parks: the classic Disneyland, and Walt Disney Studios, which is most like the Hollywood Studios park in Florida.

You may be wondering how Disneyland  could possibly fit into budget Paris. A day at Disneyland Paris is actually cheaper than a day at the original Disneyland. I wanted to get a Disneyland Paris Express ticket. Not only does this include entrance into both parks, but also offers bussing to and from several locations in Paris. If you live in the USA, you can buy one of these tickets online for $135. But when I went on the French version of their website, I noticed that they sold this same ticket for €99. That´s a lot cheaper! In order to get the lower price, I used the French version (translated into English, of course) and entered my hostel information when it asked for an address. You print the ticket from your e-mail anyway, so it doesn´t really matter what you enter for the address. After I bought this, I didn´t buy anything else from Disneyland. I brought my own snacks to sustain me, and I even got a free souvenir by asking at Guest Relations!

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I Took the Plane, Bus, and Subway I didn´t take the subway until my very last day, when I had very few other options to get to the bus station. I was a little nervous since it was my first time riding any subway. I was confused when buying the ticket and had to get some help, but after that, it was almost as if I´d been riding the metro for years! It´s only €1.80 for most of Paris. Places outside of the city limits, like the airport and Disneyland, do cost more. To save money coming into Paris from CDG, I found a bus service called EasyBus, which is the absolute cheapest way to get from the airport into Paris! I also took the Disneyland Paris Express bus to get to and from Disneyland. But other than that, I did everything on foot. Yes, it was exhausting, especially considering Paris´ unexpected heat wave. However, this way I was able to experience so much more of Paris that most tourists miss! It saved a few Euros to boot!

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I Saw the Last Leg of Le Tour de France! When I found out when Le Tour ended, I decided to stretch my time in Paris just so I could catch it.I was curious what the best place to watch it from was. I even asked on traveler forums, and most people responded with snotty things like “just watch it on TV” or “the best place to see it from is inside your hotel room”. NO! It was absolutely amazing to see it from nearby the Arc de Triomphe. It was amazing just in itself to see that roundabout free from traffic! But seeing a bunch of guys bike around the Arc several times is not all that there is to do. Before the final stretch begins, there is a women´s version of Le Tour de France, which is just as exciting to watch. Between races, there is a sponsor parade with some pretty crazy vehicles! And during Le Tour, when you can´t see the cyclists in person, there are several screens situated around that stream the race live. However, I think my favorite part was going through the street fair. Companies were giving away delicious samples like crepes, oysters, fruit, breads, and Paris Cola. I shouldn´t have even bothered to pack a lunch!

Just so you know, I was not sponsored or comped for anything I did in Paris. I had to fund all my time in Paris completely on my own. If I can conquer Paris on a budget, I know that you can, too!

Taking a Practice Walk

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Pardon the mirror selfie, but I wanted to show off my pack after my test walk.

Before a road trip, you always make sure that the car is ready for such an endeavor, right? It’s a good idea to get the main mode of transportation ready for a backpacking trip, too. And for my upcoming trip, that transportation would be… me!

I have worn my backpack a bit around the house, but yesterday I decided to take it to the streets. Except for a few small items, my backpack is completely packed. It weighs a little over 20 pounds. I wonder what the neighbors thought as I walked down the road with this big ol’ thing on my back! Was I running away? Did I think this rural area was for tourists?

I ended up walking about a half mile. I returned home sweating, but I think that was mostly due to this triple-digit Oregon summer. Regardless, I’m still glad that I sprung for a hybrid backpack with wheels. My first walk in Europe will be over two miles!

Do you “practice” for anything before taking a trip?

The Packing Experiment

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During after-Christmas sales last December, I got a bargain on the kind of luggage I wanted to take to Europe. It was a wheeled suitcase that not only featured a long enough handle so that my 6’1″ body didn’t have to slump over to roll it around, but it also contained hidden backpack straps for when I realize that a roller suitcase is not ideal for cobblestone streets! The front part (not shown in picture above) zipped off so it could be used as a daypack. It had nearly everything I could wish for in a a suitcase. It’s even the maximum carry-on size!

I’ve used this backpack a few times since buying it, kind of like a test drive in preparation for the big trip. I’ve taken it to Wilderness Trails. I used it over the course of my tri-state California road trip. I also used it this past weekend for the outdoor retreat. This time, I wanted to study my packing, and see if I can use this experience to learn to pack better.

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Packing Clothes

Since this retreat was for two nights, I would only need two changes of clothes, right? However, there were a few variables. I would probably want shorts or capris for this trip, but I had no idea where I was actually going. Would there be a breeze? Would we be in a shaded area? Would cold weather hit? Not knowing these kinds of variables, I decided to pack a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved under armor shirt. I also decided to pack three shirts since I figured I had a good chance of getting one dirty or sweaty. I also needed to pack swimwear. Since I don’t wear standard swimsuits, this meant that an extra swim tunic, bikini top, swim shorties, and sarong had to be packed. Still, in total, all these clothes took up about one-fourth of the main compartment. (Socks, hats, and undergarments took up little room in the front pocket.) Of course I had completely forgotten about sleepwear until the last minute, so I did shove in pajama pants and a three-quarter sleeved shirt right before leaving.

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Packing Everything Else!

Most of my luggage weight consisted of non-clothing. Since this was a camping type of experience, I would need to bring a pillow and sleeping bag. These two items on their own were larger than my suitcase, but for most trips (like Europe), these things are not necessary. The other items, as you can see in this picture, include sandals, towel, Camelbak, wallet, phone, glasses, sunglasses Bible, notebook, car keys, head lamp, flashlight, pedometer, mug, and bag of toiletries. I put the Camelbak and the small items that are normally found in my purse into the daypack compartment to ensure I had easy access to them. Everything else fit into the remaining space of the main compartment.

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Things I Didn’t Use

Clothing was the main thing I over-packed. I ended up wearing my capris on both Saturday and Sunday (since there were only a few hours on Sunday that I wasn’t in my swimwear), which meant that both the shorts and jeans were unused. I did end up using the long-sleeved shirt as an extra shirt, but I still had one extra shirt even after that. I don’t drink coffee, and although there was some tempting-sounding hot chocolate, I ended up only drinking water during the entire trip. That meant my mug stayed clean and inside my bag. I only used my head lamp for light, so my flashlight was unnecessary. Other than that, there were several toiletries I did not use. I didn’t use soap (hey, we didn’t have a shower!), nail clippers, hair tie, bug wipe (I had bug spray instead), cotton swabs, or the icy-hot patch.

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Things I Learned

Most of the things I brought that I didn’t end up using were brought because I was unsure of what to expect. Now I know that it’s very important to do my research for every city I plan to go to in Europe. I will definitely be taking more clothes there than I did on this trip, but I’ll know that I can wear things multiple times, especially legwear. One piece of clothing it seemed like everyone but I wore was athletic leggings or fitted yoga pants. Seeing how versatile they were for sleeping, exercising, getting wet, staying warm, and simply hanging out, I went out and bought a pair yesterday!

A few items I brought on this trip will not go to Europe in order to save space. The biggest thing I will not bring is a beach towel. Most hostels provide towels, and I’ll have a small towel for the ones that don’t, so this will free up about a quarter of the main compartment. I will also not bring my Bible. Now, as a Christian going on a trip for three months, that sounds weird, but hear me out. I love my full-size waterproof Bible for trips like these, but it’s just too heavy and space-consuming for Europe. Instead, I will bring the miniature New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs that the Gideons give out for free. If I want to read a passage of scripture not included in that Bible, I can always access it on my phone. Speaking of my phone, I will use that as my flashlight in Europe instead of bringing a redundant item.

There were some “emergency-only” items in my toiletry bag that I actually ended up using. Fortunately I didn’t need these things for myself, but as the EMT/former Girl Scout of the group, others ended up benefiting. I offered a sample pack of bacitracin and a band-aid for a tick wound, and afterwards when everyone was doing a tick check, several ladies used my nit comb for closer examination. Hand sanitizer was also very useful throughout the trip- it was the only way to wash hands! One thing I didn’t bring, but someone else gave to me, was a Benedryl pill. This helped will all the allergens collected from the outdoors and also helped me fall asleep that night. Benedryl (well, the store brand of Diphenhydramine, at least) was already on my packing list for Europe, so I made sure to buy that yesterday, along with a couple other useful medications. Needless to say, I will bring first aid supplies along with me!

These are just a few results from my packing experiment this weekend. I know that an outdoor retreat and urban backpacking Europe are two completely different beasts, so I guess I still have plenty to learn before cramming three months of my life into a carry-on and setting off!

What is your all-time best packing tip? 

Checklist for Planning a Crazy Hectic European Adventure

After entertaining ideas in my head for the past year or so, I finally confirmed that I will be trekking through the Mediterranean. This was decided on exactly two months before my departure date. So what can I do in those waiting months? Ha, there’s plenty to do! Here’s a checklist if you want to know what’s been on my mind lately, or if you’re interested in taking on a similar endeavor!

  • Buy plane tickets. I have found fairly cheap tickets with budget airlines, but in the end, I just booked with Expedia. There were a few reasons for this: for one, I could make sure to earn loyalty points, both with Expedia and with the name-brand airlines they booked for me. For another, I could fly right out of the nearby little airport instead of going to Portland, San Francisco, or another major airport. It would also ensure that there would be no ridiculous hidden fees and that all the basics were covered. I know the exact size my luggage can be, whether or not I’m getting in-flight meals or entertainment, and other things that provide more peace of mind. I decided to book shortly after news broke out about an ordeal involving a passenger suing United Airlines. I thought it might be a good time to snag a cheap ticket. The funny thing was, even though United is usually the cheapest airline for me, that’s not the airline that ended up being the cheapest this time. I guess the other airlines wanted to draw in the loyalties that United was losing!
  • Purchase traveler’s insurance. This was something extra offered as I was checking out with Expedia. I had debated for so long if I would get this, and at the last second I decided to go for it. It was less than $100, but it could end up saving me thousands if certain situations arose. A number of things have the potential to occur during a trip (just like every other day of life), so it’s good to know that I have a fallback for many of these possibilities.
  • Map out destinations. This is especially important if you’re flying multi-destination or open-jaw. You have to be in certain places at certain times, and have to take travel time in between everything. Figure out how many days to spend in each location. Also determine if everything you want to visit is centrally located, or if you’ll need extra transportation or possibly two different accommodations at the same destination.
If you're going to use a GPS, make sure it is loaded with maps of your destination.
If you’re going to use a GPS, make sure it is loaded with maps of your destination.
  • Budget and brainstorm ways to save. Nobody likes the word “budget”, but think of it more as a challenge than a chore. How much can you do with a set amount of money? How much do you want to do? Also keep in mind that budgets can change over time. As I’ve gotten a more realistic idea about Europe, my budget has adjusted to reflect that. And even though my budget is still relatively low compared to most tourists, I am still looking for ways to save. (Do you have any tips specific to saving for Europe? I’d love to read them in the comments!)
  • Make at least a couple of accommodation reservations. My task today was booking the hostel I’ll be staying at for the first several days. It’s a good idea to book ahead of time, since prime accommodations can fill up quickly, especially during busy seasons. I don’t believe in booking all the accommodations for an extended trip though. If your plans change and you want to spend more or less time at a certain destination, it’s nice not to be tied down with having to pay for a bed you don’t want to sleep in. If you are making plans to visit people or enroll in a program, make sure to take care of this ahead of time, though. I was accepted into the Diverbo program a few days ago, which means that I have a free place to stay for seven days (in exchange for speaking English with those enrolled in the program). However, I did have to apply for that ahead of time to make sure I got a place, and I probably should have applied even sooner!
Hostels are great! Stay in them as much as you can.
Hostels are great! Stay in them as much as you can.
  • Get overseas communication. This was something that I had to promise I would do in order to gain my parents’ support for this journey. WiFi works overseas, but cell phone plans don’t. I did hours of research trying to see if I could get MiFi or an unlocked phone with an international plan, but nothing was cheap, and everything involved waiting until I got overseas for purchasing. However, I finally discovered a company that offers prepaid international SIM cards and inexpensive unlocked phones. I’ll tell you all about them once my phone arrives in the mail!
  • Attend any needed or desired doctor appointments. Your medical insurance probably isn’t valid overseas. And no one wants to have to cancel or shorten a trip due to unexpected health problems, so a pre-trip physical is always a good idea. I’ll usually tell my doctor when I am about to travel, and they often make some good health recommendations that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. Sometimes, they even give me sample-sized products of medicines I may need! Visit the dentist or any other specialty doctors before you go, too. Oh, and if you ever experience any sort of back pain, going to a chiropractor before leaving will change the outlook of the trip. Chiropractors can’t make being stuffed in an economy airplane seat for twenty hours feel comfortable, but they can help make it more bearable.

    Having been a practicing EMT (and I'm still licensed) gives me the confidence to take care of my and others' health while traveling. But it's never wrong to get a second opinion.
    Having been a practicing EMT (and I’m still licensed) gives me the confidence to take care of my and others’ health while traveling. But it’s never wrong to get a second opinion.
  • Arrange things with work. Will you quit? Request a leave of absence? Try to figure out a way to work from the road? Oh, so many options. With three jobs, this one will be an ordeal for me. I still need to modify my writing job so that it will be most effective for travels, and also take care of my other jobs that are not so location-independent.
  • Figure out on-ground transportation. If flying from one airport to another was the only transportation necessary during a trip, travel would be much less stressful. But the thing about airports is they tend to be miles away from the stuff you actually want to visit. Does the destination airport offer shuttle service? How much will that be? If you’re going to multiple destinations, you also have to factor in traveling between cities. Bus, train, or regional jet? Does your preferred method of travel service all the destinations you plan on visiting? Will travel time take up too much of your trip? This is probably my biggest headache right now, but I know it will be so worth it once it’s planned out. Yet another on-ground transportation factor is going about day-to-day. I prefer to walk anywhere possible, but that involves making sure that roads are pedestrian-friendly, allowing extra time to get from place to place, and planning to staying no more than a couple of miles away from the sites I want to see.

    Hoofing it during last year's international trip to Niagara Falls
    Hoofing it during last year’s international trip to Niagara Falls
  • Gather gear. Knowing I needed a good maximum-sized carry-on backpack for this trip, I found one way back in December. It’s possible that will be my biggest piece of gear, but there are plenty of things that I will need for this trip that I don’t normally have at home. Just yesterday, I bought an international adapter/converter plug (so I don’t fry my electronics), a combination lock (so I can secure my belongings in hostel lockers), and mini caribiners (so I can make sure the zippers on my backpack stay closed). And while I’m almost done with shopping, there are still a few more pieces of gear on my list to get!
  • Ensure passport and any needed visas are prepared. When I was sixteen, there was a big ordeal with getting my passport. I was going to Peru the same year that the law was made requiring passports for Canada and Mexico. With the increase in people applying for passports, somehow mine got lost in a government storage room for months on end, so I had to go to Seattle to get a replacement. Case in point: get your passport as early as possible. Keep in mind that passports technically expire six months before the printed date, so check the information and apply for one if necessary. This will be my first trip where I will need to get a visa. I can actually go through Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and pretty much anywhere else without one, but for just a few days in Istanbul, the Turkish government is going to make me apply for one. This sort of thing can typically be done online ahead of time.
  • Pack. All that stuff you bought for the trip? Now it has to go in the backpack you bought for the trip. I am sticking with carry-on only for a number of reasons: I won’t have to pay airline luggage fees, there’s less chance that I’ll lose anything, I won’t get a back injury from carrying too much luggage, and when I arrive in a city I can explore on foot instead of paying for a cab to get to the hostel. In order to accomplish this, I can’t take my whole closet with me, and I have to siphon liquid toiletries into TSA-friendly 3.1 ounce containers.
Having multiple bags, like I did while moving across America, means that you may have to try to balance all your belongings on the curb of a busy Chicago street while waiting for a cab to take you one mile to the bus station.
Having multiple bags, like I did while moving across America, means that you may have to try to balance all your belongings on the curb of a busy Chicago street while waiting for a cab to take you one mile to the bus station.
  • Make it to the airport on time! This one is probably the simplest, but also the most important. Find someone to drop you off or otherwise make arrangements, and plan plenty of time to get through the security line and find the right gate. Yes, there is plenty more do to once you land. But for the next few hours, kick back and enjoy the beginning of a new adventure!

Fast Friday Thought

Having dreams and goals are exciting, but making a commitment toward them? That’s a big deal.

I made a commitment today.

I bought a plane ticket. First stop, Paris!

It seems so unreal. Yet, this means my Mediterranean Europe Backpacking Adventure will now actually become real.

Whoa.

Question: What backpacking or European advice do you have to share? Anything helps!

Where in the EU am I Backpacking?

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted specifically about my upcoming European backpacking trip, even though that’s what I spend most of my waking time thinking about! So I thought I’d share a quick update with you.

As a US citizen, I can spend a total of 90 days in most of the European countries. There are a few nations that do not follow this rule, but after three months it would probably be best for me to return to North America anyway. Ever since I started planning this trip, it seemed overwhelming. How would I split up 90 days over about 20 countries without feeling rushed through each city? Plus, transportation fees were also an issue. Eurail is probably the least expensive way to effectively travel throughout Europe, but an unlimited all-nation pass isn’t exactly cheap!

I finally came to a realization that would save me money, travel time, and ultimately, make me a happy traveler who could do more of what I wanted to do:

I would go on a Mediterranean Backpacking Adventure!

Mediterranean_Relief
Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediterranean_Sea

The plans aren’t set in stone yet, but starting in either France or Spain, I would travel along the European countries lining the Mediterranean, spending one to two weeks in each city I’m interested in visiting, until I reach the Asian border in Istanbul, Turkey. Switzerland is a landlocked country, but I’d probably go there as well because I like cheese and chocolate. But it wouldn’t be just backpacking. I will volunteer with an organization that teaches English to businesspeople in Spain, retrace the steps of the early church, use my marketing skills to allow small tourism businesses to prosper, visit missionaries, and hopefully find some sort of orphan or childcare organization to help with somewhere along the way!

In total, I am planning for visiting potentially nine countries (including the two smallest nations in the world) and two continents (possibly three if I can find a cheap way to get between Spain and Morocco) in a half of the world I have never seen, leaving in about five months! And I can use all the help I can get!

What advice do you have for me regarding this trip, either for before or during this journey?

Backpacking Across Europe

I don’t know when this dream started. Maybe it was sometime in the 60s when hippies fresh out of college wanted to explore the world on a shoestring. But I’m not concerned too deeply about that. I’m wondering when that dream became my dream.

I have a lot of dreams. I want to have a family, become a full-time freelance writer and media specialist, and adopt several kiddos. I also have an entire bucket list specifically for travel goals. The one I’m currently working on is the dream of backpacking across Europe.

Childhood Years

My sister (age five) and I (age nine) in Oahu. Yes, I went to Hawaii with a broken arm. But back then, they had waterproof casts.

My family traveled a bit when I was growing up. Other than a Mexican cruise, all our trips were domestic: Disney World, Hawaii, Yellowstone… you get the picture. I loved every single trip, but I always wanted to travel internationally, particularly Europe. After all, where else can you see the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, Big Ben, and a ton of other notable and historic structures? Okay, maybe in Las Vegas, but Europe is the real deal.

Gaining Independence

Dressing up while working in Bandon, Oregon.

I started taking out-of-state trips without my family when I was twelve years old. Mostly this was with my church, such as our X-treme Praise choir tours around the Northwest. Even on the first trip of this sort, I was brainstorming ways we could somehow take our tour through Europe! At age sixteen, I went on a school trip to the other end of the country as we touring DC, Philadelphia, and New York. Later that summer, I finally went intercontinental- a mission trip to Peru! From then until I started college, I spent my summers living by and exploring the Pacific Coast. I went back to Peru when I was eighteen, and one year later, I took a different mission trip to Mexico. At age twenty, I left my Oregon home and set out for the Midwest.

Becoming a Backpacker

Pointing out where I was on a giant map that I found while backpacking across the city.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about hostels, au pairs, and all kinds of low-key travel. I was anxious to use these new found resources, but things kept on getting in the way. It all turned out for the better, as moving what is normally thought of as flyover country provided tons of opportunities. Just three days after moving to Nebraska, I went on a work-funded trip to Mount Rushmore! Work sponsored several other trips, which added several new states to my list of places I’ve been.

A year later, I took a trip that would set the pace for all subsequent trips. I spent two weeks in Tennessee with just carry-on luggage, my own two feet, and a $0-$50 daily budget. It was my first time staying in a hostel, and I’ve stayed in many since. Even with trips that aren’t officially “cheapskate” trips, I’ve incorporated minimalist packing and being budget savvy.

The Realization

One word to describe my Niagara Falls experience? Exciting!

This past summer, I finally crossed borders by myself. Okay, it was only to Canada, and it was only a couple miles from the US border at Niagara Falls. I had recently transitioned from being a general devotional writer to being more of a travel writer. I had already taken a couple partially-sponsored weekend trips for writing purposes, but this was my first big break. Even though I had to work for some comped attractions and lodging, I still had plenty of free time to enjoy this vacation.

I stayed on both sides of the border, but while in Canada, I was sitting at a lookout point, admiring all three of the Niagara Falls, and started thinking. Suddenly, I got what I feel was a God-nudge. You are ready to go to Europe. Really? Yes, this was practically a lifelong dream, but I had pushed it out of my mind the last few years as I was doing extensive domestic travel. This was an exciting realization!

The Preparation

I decided to leave Ohio right before going on this final trip to Amish Country, so I decided to make the best of it!
I decided to leave Ohio right before going on this final trip to Amish Country, so I decided to make the best of it!

As soon as I returned from Niagara Falls, I immediately began planning a European backpacking trip. I picked up the AAA Travel Guides, started a Pinterest board, subscribed to a dozen travel blogs, and re-prioritized my spending and saving habits. But there was one thing that still felt wrong, though I couldn’t pinpoint it. I was about to celebrate my first anniversary of living in Ohio, when I quit my job! I quit for personal reasons, but suddenly, my travel goals seemed to become clearer. I would spend a year back at home while saving up and planning for this overseas excursion.

This is the end of this blog post, but it’s not the end of this story. I am still in the early planning stages of an international excursion, and I’ll be sure to post my updates and ideas here. It will be interesting to see how this long-term dream finally comes to fruition!

 

U.S. vs Canada: Who Has the Better Niagara Falls?

As much as I’ve traveled across the United States, I never seemed to make it to Canada. I had been to New York, but never set foot out of the Big Apple while there. This summer, I took an eight-day trip to Niagara Falls. This means I had the opportunity to see the other side of New York State, as well as finally enter Canada. And since I visited both sides of this international city, people often ask me “Which side is better?”

Now, when it comes to travel, I don’t play favorites. I sometimes say that because I’m not a mother, my trips are like my children, therefore it would be wrong to choose a favorite. And really, I enjoyed both countries very much, but for different reasons. Here are a few highlights from each side:

Transportation:

US: You can take a trolley around Niagara Falls State Park, which is a lot of fun and very inexpensive. Unfortunately, public transportation around the rest of the city isn’t so great.

CA: While there’s nothing fun like a trolley, you can buy a WeGo pass and ride any bus with the WeGo logo. It goes anywhere in town that a tourist would want to visit.

Sights:

US: You can get up-close and personal with the falls. There are spots where you can be about five feet away from the top of the falls. (Naturally there’s railing to keep you a safe distance.)

CA: There’s only one waterfall that spans from the US to Canada, but because you’re not so close, Canada is the best place for viewing the falls and taking scenic pictures.

Attractions:

US: My favorite attraction was Cave of the Winds, where you can walk a deck at the base of Bridal Veil falls and get drenched. Other attractions include the Gorge Discovery Center, Aquarium of Niagara, and the Observation Tower, all of which are packaged in the Discovery Pass. The most famous attraction is the Maid of the Mist boat tour.

CA: My favorite attraction was Journey Behind the Falls, where you literally walk in an underground tunnel where you can see the underside of Horseshoe Falls. Another attraction included on the Adventure Pass is an amazing theater experience called Niagara’s Fury. Canada has an identical tour to Maid of the Mist, but it is called the Hornblower Niagara Cruise.

Down the River:

US: The Gorge Trail system offers miles of paths along the Niagara all the way to Lewiston. I experienced it as a combination of hiking and biking, using a bike I rented from Gorge View. This takes you through three state parks, Niagara Falls (of course), Whirlpool (which is the best place to view the large Niagara whirlpool), and Devil’s Hole (aptly named because of the hundreds of torturous steps, but has a great view of the power plant). If you drive, you can go to Fort Niagara, which is a historic base where the Niagara drains into Lake Ontario.

CA: While you could walk downriver by foot on the sidewalks, the WeGo buses can take you all the way to Queenston Heights, with hop-on-hop-off stops at interesting places such as gift shops, aviaries, and a large floral clock by the power plant. The White Water Walk takes you on a long deck as close to the Whirlpool Rapids as is legal (there is also an Aerocar that takes passengers above the Whirlpool for an outrageous extra fee). This side also has a beautiful site where the Niagara connects with the Great Lake, and you can get there by paying an extra fee for a special WeGo bus.

City Life: 

US: This is the side where you’ll experience the most nature. Wooded forests, walkable islands, and dirt paths are hard to find on the other side of the Niagara. It also seems to be the quieter town, if you go a few blocks away from the park, there are only houses, restaurants, hotels, and one casino. If you’ve never had Indian food before, this is the place to try it. Authentic Indian restaurants are practically on every corner.

CA: This side has a lot more tourist flair. Clifton Hills is a Disney-Vegas mashup filled with quirky museums, flashy tourist traps, and casinos. There are elegant (AKA expensive!) restaurants that beautifully frame views of the falls, most notably the Seattle Space Needle’s twin, Skylon Tower. While the nature aspect is lacking, more tourists mean more shops and services are offered here.

Hostels:

US: I stayed at Gorge View Hostel, which is the closest hostel to Niagara Falls. My favorite aspects were that is was across the street from the aquarium, the bedrooms were spacious and comfortable, and the owner let guests go on the roof to watch fireworks.

CA: I stayed at Niagara Backpackers Hostel in the bed-and-breakfast community, so everything was pretty upscale and historic-looking. I enjoyed this family-run accommodation, and the free breakfast was delicious!

Names and Number of Falls:

US: There are three waterfalls: American, Bridal Veil, and Horseshoe. The American Falls span between mainland New York and Luna Island. From Luna Island to Goat Island is Bridal Veil Falls. Then from Goat Island (still part of New York) to Canada is the Horseshoe Falls.

CA: There are two waterfalls. The American Falls is the collective name for the waterfalls on the US side. Of course the largest waterfall is still a horseshoe, but it is referred to here as the CANADIAN Horseshoe Falls! I just found it funny that each side has different interpretations of what the falls are!

As long as you have a passport, I encourage you to visit both sides of Niagara Falls to get the full experience. After all, perhaps the best part of Niagara Falls is walking across the Rainbow Bridge, where you have one foot in each country! 

Note: This post was made possible in part by two hostels on opposite sides of the Niagara! Gorge View in the States, and Backpacker’s Hostel in Canada.