Bucket List, coronavirus, Travel Life

My Time in Europe with the Coronavirus Pandemic

I had to start this post over and over again. Every day, there were new developments announced in the news, and what I had previously saved in drafts was no longer applicable. But here’s what happened: I started what was supposed to be an extended European trip in late February.

Just a couple days before leaving, I heard that the coronavirus, which previously was only really an issue in China, was now infecting parts of Northern Italy, particularly the two cities I was going to visit: Milan and Venice. Thankfully, I was landing in Munich, where at the time there had only been a few cases that were already treated. I left on my trip, knowing that I would need to keep an eye on the news to see if I needed to rearrange my plans with Italy. But since my time in Northern Italy was a month away, I was hopeful that the coronavirus outbreak would be taken care of by then.

My first day in Munich was Ash Wednesday. No one seemed to mind crowding for a glimpse of the annual Fischbrunnen Wallet Washing!

I wasn’t even one week into my trip when I cancelled all my plans in Italy. The numbers kept on growing every day, with no sign of an end. But I was only going to be there for one full day, so it was easy to rearrange my plans

I continued traveling Bavaria, Germany. There were no signs of an epidemic there. No one was wearing gloves (other than winter gloves on cold days) and the only ones wearing masks were extra-cautious foreign travelers. But obviously they were still traveling, and so was I. I spent a week seeing so many of the open museums in Munich. Then I went to Fuessen, where I walked right up to the ticket counter and got tickets to see the famous Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles. (It should have been a clue that the ticketing office was set up with really long queues, but I just figured that I arrived early and it was still off-season.) I went back to Munich for two more nights before heading to the Bavarian countryside near the little town of Eichstatt to volunteer with the Englischhausen language immersion program.

Some Englischhausen participants trying to navigate while on a quick excursion to Eichstatt.

Before the program, the director e-mailed us all asking if we had any of the common symptoms of coronavirus. During the program, we chose to bump elbows instead of hug or shake hands. But we weren’t really concerned with catching it from our small group or the staff at our hotel, so even though it was an intense immersion program, it was fairly relaxing compared to everything that was going on in the rest of the world that week.

Since the native English speakers’ job at Englischhausen was simply to speak English all day, we started the week out by talking about our jobs, our families, and topics like that. While the WiFi was spotty, I and much of the rest of the group made sure to read the news each day, and in the middle of the week we found out that the virus was now considered a global pandemic. By the end of the week, every conversation, no matter how many times we tried to change the subject, always went back to the coronavirus. When Trump announced that the US would close their borders to Europeans, I knew things were going to be different for the rest of this trip. However, since I am a US citizen and could still return for as long as planes kept flying, I thought I could still continue on my journey. I started making back-up plans; perhaps I could go to Eastern Europe or maybe even the UK if my original route didn’t work out.

On our last night there, someone announced that the Czech Republic closed their borders for a month. I was bummed; that meant I couldn’t visit the Prague Easter markets. I figured maybe I could extend my stay in Slovakia, or maybe go from Slovakia to Hungary instead. But with a Google search, I found out that Slovakia was no longer an option either. I didn’t know what to do for the rest of my trip, but my next stop of Salzburg, Austria was still open.

Arriving back to Munich seemed eerie, like it was just a shell of the city I’d seen six days prior. When I checked into the hostel, the receptionist recognized me from when I had stayed there two weeks ago. “Nothing is different,” he told me. While not much had changed within the hostel, the city definitely was different. People were still out and about, but none of the tourist attractions were open anymore. There were government notices on all the church doors saying that individual prayers and visits were okay, but services were discouraged. A couple chain stores were closed, and for the first time ever, I saw hand sanitizing stations in Europe. But no worries for me; I was headed to Austria and then Switzerland.

Going to Salzburg was actually the second time going into Austria on this trip. Since Fuessen is on the border of Germany and Austria, while I was there I enjoyed a lovely hike across the border. I saw where the border checkpoint used to be, and at the time thought how awesome it was that the European Union has such open borders between countries.

I found lots of Salzburg sites that were either featured in The Sound of Music or provided inspiration. This gazebo was used in the “16 Going on 17” number.

But as I headed to Salzburg, I got an email from the hostel there saying they could only host me for two nights instead of the original five. On Monday, all of the accommodations in their county had to close. I stressed out the entire bus trip there to figure out what to do after this shortened time in Salzburg, but I was determined to make the most of the time I had.

I have an upcoming special post that describes my adventure in escaping Salzburg much like the Von Trapps had to, but long story short, I ended up having to leave even earlier to avoid becoming a homeless refugee. But by this time, with all the countries that had announced border closures, in addition to all events cancelled and attractions closed, I knew it was time to start planning how to cut my trip short and go home early… if that was even possible.

I definitely didn’t expect half of this trip to be spent in Munich, but I ended up there yet again. I spent two nights there figuring out a game plan. I compared flights going out of both Munich and Frankfurt, and Frankfurt seemed to have more reasonable options. Through a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend connection, I contacted someone who lives in Frankfurt just to see what they recommended about traveling there. In turn, they offered to let me stay in their guest room for as long as I needed! While I had already cancelled all my bus trips out of frustration, I now had hundreds of dollars worth of FlixBus credit, and used some of that for a day-long trip to Frankfurt. Little did I know that the day I chose to take the bus ride was the last day that FlixBus would be operating in Germany.

My original schedule did take me through Frankfurt toward the end of my trip, but I wasn’t planning to spend too much time there. So I definitely didn’t know how I would spend several days there in the wake of the coronavirus. The recently-implemented laws in the state of Hesse definitely weren’t tourist friendly. Museums were closed. Stores and bars that didn’t sell food or other essentials were closed. Restaurants closed by 6 pm (that rule became even stricter the day I left). But I still enjoyed my time there seeing the architecture, going into the churches that were still open, and going on long walks and bike rides.

Finally, the day of my new flight arrived. I was impressed by the Frankfurt airport, except for at a security checkpoint they didn’t have a place for me to empty my reusable water bottle, and thus I had to chug the entire thing! I was trying Condor Airlines for the first time. This one-way ticket home cost me more than my original round-trip ticket with Delta. While the no-contact guidelines meant there was limited food and beverages, it still had the amenities of seatback entertainment screens and, the always hoped-for but especially appreciated when everyone’s concerned about a contagious virus, my own row with empty rows in front and back of me! I finally knew that I would make it home.

It only took a few minutes for all passengers to board the nearly-empty flight.

I had a six-hour layover in Seattle. I heard that the health screenings for European travelers the previous weekend took at least seven hours, but now with fewer travelers, I got through both the health screening and immigration in just minutes. The health screening seemed kind of like a joke. We just had to fill out a couple forms with our contact info and checking off where we’d been, and then someone asked me how I was feeling. They didn’t even take my temperature. So I had several hours to wait around in an airport where half the shops were closed until I could finally take my late-night flight home.

Now I’m approaching the middle of my two-week quarantine in what I call the plastic bubble, named so because there’s plastic sheeting separating my bedroom and bathroom from the rest of the house. I’m taking quarantine seriously. I even drove my own car home from the airport by myself. I went from being able to explore an entire continent to only being allowed in two rooms. But I have been keeping busy with a variety of things, including thinking about how I’ll finish my original itinerary when I get to go to Europe again!

I Didn’t Get to…. BUT

Remembering the positive moments of this trip

I didn’t get to see the 11 countries I came to see… but I got to see two countries that I hadn’t before.

I didn’t get to go to Milan and Venice… but I had a delicious authentic Italian pizza made by Italians at a restaurant in Fuessen. Plus, I’ve been to Italy in better times.

I didn’t get to see the Matterhorn… but I got to take nature walks among the German-Austrian Alps (Bucket List Accomplishment!)

I didn’t get to visit the famous Anne Frank house… but I got to see TWO of her houses from her early years in Frankfurt.

I didn’t get to see the Little Mermaid statue… but I still felt the Disney magic at Neuschwanstein Castle.

I didn’t get a week to enjoy the museums of Salzburg… but I had a super-eventful weekend there where I could tell the hills were alive with the sound of music!

I barely got to go to any museums… but I saw all the ones I wanted to see in Munich, and beyond that, I still enjoyed the local history through architecture, cathedrals, and the outdoors.

I didn’t get to take a Swiss chocolate-making class or go to Prague’s Easter markets… but I bought a lot of German chocolate that I will enjoy for Easter!

I didn’t get my “break week” in Bratislava, Slovakia… but I’m definitely getting a break now with a two-week quarantine!

I didn’t get the adventure I was planning for… but I got an incredibly unique adventure I’ll never forget!

What’s been your biggest struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic? Share in the comments below, and maybe we can all support each other!

backpack, Bucket List, destinations, saving money, seasonal, Travel Life, travel tips, writing

I’m Going to Europe… Again!!!

I started this blog when I first had the inkling that I wanted to backpack across Europe. A year later, that dream became a reality. But I wanted to take my time exploring, so I planned to see Europe in (at least) three trips: one trip for the Mediterranean, one for the British Isles, and one for Central Europe. My first trip trekked across the Mediterranean four years ago, and just this past May, I got to see a few pieces of the British Isles. I didn’t want to wait another four years to see Central Europe, but I certainly didn’t expect it to come this soon!

Burren Ireland
The Burren in Ireland. I hope to take in more beautiful views of nature on this next trip to Europe!

Ever since I scored a $30 flight from Dublin to London for my last trip on Kayak, I’ve loved playing around with that site. In addition to regular flight searches, you can input your home airport and see the cheapest options for flights in various destinations around the world. With more typical flight searches, when you select the dates, the calendar will show days in green, yellow, and red, based on how much flights cost on that particular day. You can also search up to three days before and after your intended departure dates to see if it would be a better value to leave earlier or later. I like to play around with these features just for fun, and just the other day, it happened to find me a $524 round-trip flight to Munich!

Yes, that’s a real-price $524 flight. No frequent flyer miles. No credit cards. No hacks at all. A true $524 US dollars.

Now, if you live in Europe, or even on the East Coast of the US, this may not seem like such a great deal. But it is a big one for me! My last two Eurotrip flights have been around $1500- nearly triple this! My local airport is pretty small so there are limited options. And being on the west coast, $600 is usually only enough to fly within the continent. Also, this isn’t some budget airline. I’ll be flying both ways with Delta, an airline that includes most flight perks like meals and entertainment. I flew Delta on my first trip to Europe, and it was way better than American Airlines!

Where am I Going?

Bocca Della Verita
The Bocca Della Verita (Mouth of Truth) on my last trip to Italy. Will I be seeing this country a second time?

Obviously, I’ll be going to Munich. This is my first time doing a round-trip flight to Europe instead of open-jaw, so I’ll be seeing Munich twice! (Typically I fly open-jaw so that I can go into one country and leave from another without having to worry about getting back to the original airport. But in this case, flying out of a different airport would have added several hundred dollars to the cost of this flight. So I’m okay with making this backpacking trip a loop route!) I haven’t seen any of the Central European countries at all yet, and in addition to Germany, I want to visit sites in Switzerland, Austria, and the Czech Republic. I’d also like to visit the tiny countries in this area if I can afford it, Liechtenstein and San Marino. If I go to San Marino, that means I’ll be returning to Italy too!

So far, I’ve been researching Munich and side trips, Interlaken, and Salzburg. I’ve looked up other cities and regions, but with these three I’ve done enough research that I could go there tomorrow. I’ve found hostels to stay in, sights to see, and food to eat. I also applied to volunteer at a Diverbo program in Germany, which altered my last trip!

How am I Affording It?

London Eye
I bought my ticket to The London Eye online a day in advance to save 3 GBP- will definitely be looking for discounts like this my next time in Europe!

In the past, international trips have been a once-every-few-years treat. But now, in a twelve-month span of time, I have the privilege of going on three international trips! My last Europe trip to Ireland and England was full-cost, but I was able to coupon my life ahead of time to cancel out the expenses. I’m continuing couponing for my next trip to The Bahamas, but the reason I booked that trip at all was that I was able to get the cruise for free. Obviously, the reason I booked this flight to Germany semi-spontaneously because of how low the airfare was.

Last night, I looked at the cost breakdown of my flight, and guess what the base fare was? Eleven dollars! There’s a $350 carrier-imposed international surcharge, and the rest of the cost is taxes and fees. I don’t know how Delta can afford to transport someone nearly halfway around the world and back for $366, but that’s the kind of deal I like. And I’ll be getting Delta Skymiles for my next two trips too!

The flight was a good deal, so now the task is to find good deals within the continent. I’ve been looking up hostels that have included freebies. Many include breakfast, one includes dinner, and a couple include a free visitor’s pass to the city. If I’m accepted into Diverbo’s program, that will be one cost-free week of travel, cultural exchange, and delicious food! Since the time of year I’m going is the shoulder season or off-season for many destinations, accommodation prices do seem to be lower. But I’ll still need to save up some money, right?

My rough budget right now for the total trip is $4000. I’m almost done couponing to The Bahamas, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to coupon an additional $4000 on top of that, even if I do have five months until my departure date. Instead, I’ll be looking into extra work I can do, like:

  • Book Sales: I’ve published two books so far, with another coming in November. I may release an additional book or two before leaving to Europe. Here’s my Amazon Author page so you can keep up-to-date with books I’m releasing. I’m hoping this trip will inspire ideas for more books to come!
  • Swagbucks: I use Swagbucks for a bulk of my couponing, but this website also offers other ways to earn money. Another way I like use Swagbucks is to use it as my search engine, and I get paid just for looking things up that I’d otherwise Google for no profit. I can also take surveys, watch videos (some may even help me with travel planning!), and even play games! Join me on Swagbucks so we can earn together!
  • Writing: I’ve written dozens of hostel reviews for Hostelz.com. It doesn’t cover the cost of travel, but it sure does help! I used to do a lot of product and accommodation reviews. I don’t do that much anymore, but I may do a couple on this trip if I feel it would be something beneficial to you readers. There’s also normal writing for normal magazines, and, like I said before, maybe another book!
  • Extra Hours: Unless I get a part-time online job, I won’t be able to work for an hourly wage in Europe. That’s fine for me; it means my time can be better spent exploring. But until then, I can trade time for money by accepting extra hours. I am trying to balance that better right now, though. I worked a lot of extra hours in the summer, and it did take away from my time working on my book business. I need to prioritize books because, even though that’s less lucrative than my hourly work, it has the potential to become more sustainable. But when I can, I will take on an occasional extra shift. And you’d better believe that I’ll be cashing in all my paid time off when I head to Europe!

Now it’s your turn… help me plan this trip! Do you have any must-see sights in Central Europe? How about money-saving tips? Let me know in the comments and I’ll try to incorporate your thoughts into this trip!

Bucket List, culture, destinations, hike, travel tips

4 of the Best National Parks in the US that Hikers Must Visit

The US is a vast and varied country. There is a lot to see and do. A lot of people that live here love to camp and explore the great outdoors. There are a lot more national parks and reserves to see than you might think. 

 

So if you are planning a hiking trip, where are the best places to visit? It can be difficult to know where to start, especially if you are coming from abroad. Locals have friends and family recommendations that they can go on. So if you are coming from abroad, I have got some advice for you. First of all, check out a page like https://www.trails.com/toptrails.aspx. It is a great place to start. It will narrow down your search of the areas you want to be in and the distances that you want to travel. Remember if you are coming from abroad, you need to have the necessary visas in place as you plan your trip. You will most likely need an ESTA visa for the time you are on vacation. You could look at https://www.official-esta.com/our-services for any questions that you might have. But anyway, here are a few of my ideas to help get you started on deciding where to go.

File:Wolfgang Moroder photographer at the Grand Canyon in Arizona.jpg

Image of Grand Canyon

 

Grand Canyon, Arizona

I think one of the most obvious hiking trails that are known worldwide is the Grand Canyon. If you have never been in your life, it needs to be on your bucket list! There is so much to explore, and it is a stunning area of the world. It is a mile deep which is pretty epic to hike in. You can also hike around the top of it, too.

 

Zion National Park, Utah

There are a few awesome national parks in Utah. One of the best has got to be Zion National Park in southern Utah. There is a river that runs through it which is great if you feel the need to cool off a little. The river leads to an area called Emerald Pools that is full of waterfalls. It is a beautiful area to hike.

 

Yosemite National Park, California

This national park is set in the Californian Sierra Nevada mountains. It is the park most known for its giant, and I mean giant, Sequoia trees. The ancient trees stand proud, and it is pretty epic that you can close to such historical lifeforms. It isn’t too far from Sacramento and San Francisco in California. So if you do want to experience some of the USA’s great shopping and burgers, you can while you are close by!

 

Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee/North Carolina

This park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and is one of the greatest national parks on the east coast. The forests are lush, and it is full of amazing flowers all year long. There are of course streams and rivers that follow along the hiking trail. It is one of the prettiest national parks that you could visit.

 

Hope you enjoyed this collaborate post! While I have only seen a couple of the parks listed above, stay tuned as I return to some of my favorite national parks and visit new ones, too!

Bucket List, day trip, holiday

Back… to the Future!

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Back in April, I got to visit one of the most iconic locations where Back to the Future was filmed. As you can see in the photo above, this place is often written off as a large empty parking lot at a mediocre mall. But for me, I could see the places where Marty skateboarded to the Twin Pines sign (which warped into a Lone Pine sign by the end of the movie), where Doc introduced his latest invention of a time machine, and where the Delorean took its maiden voyage back to the future.

Although the mall scenes only appeared in the first movie of the trilogy, something very significant happened in the sequel. Doc and Marty travel from 1985 to 2015. More specifically, they travel to October 21st, 2015. Of course many people across the country and around the world are celebrating this day in history, or should I say this day in future? Puente Hills Mall in City of Industry, California, better known to fans as the Twin Pines/ Lone Pine Mall, had to jump on board with the festivities. The photo below was taken today, in the same place as the photo above. Check out the cool mall sign!

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This month the mall added a Twin Pines sign in the same spot it is seen in the movie. But that’s not all. If you look down at the parking lot (just as Marty did in the movie), you’ll see a peculiar white truck parked down below, likely surrounded by people taking pictures with it. This is Dr. Emmett Brown’s truck that he uses to transport the Delorean time machine to the mall parking lot for a test drive in the movie.

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I was very thankful to have this unique opportunity on this special day. It wasn’t even the reason I went to California to begin with. I originally wasn’t even supposed to leave Oregon until tomorrow, but plans changed and things just happened to align! If you’ll be in the area, Puente Hills Mall has the sign and truck free for fans to view through the weekend.

Liked this post? Answer one of the following questions:

1. Did you do anything special for Back to the Future Day?

2. Have you ever visited a movie prop or set? What was it?

3. What do you think the future will be like in 30 years? Will we finally get flying cars and hoverboards?

Bucket List

Mediterranean Trek by the Numbers

Ninety-two days
Seven countries (well, eight if you count USA)
Fifteen hostels
Six shirts
Twelve socks
Five long-distance bus rides
Nine days of train travel
Six flights
Eighty filled journal pages

Countless people met
Countless memories made
Countless sights seen
Countless delicious Mediterranean treats
Countless once-in-a-lifetime experiences
Countless lessons learned
Countless reasons to go back

I’m home now. You just got the Mediterranean Trek by the numbers, but so much of what happened simply cannot be quantified, and maybe not even described. I’m not sure how this trip impacted my life, but it did. I’m not sure how this journey will affect my future, but it will. I’m not sure what I feel now that it’s over, but I am here and ready to start new adventures!

Bucket List, culture, destinations, faith

Hipster Pope

My sister constantly tells me that I’m not a hipster, and can’t even begin to understand “her” type. But with my Facebook feed and online news feed blowing up with people analyzing what the Pope said while visiting the United States, even she will have to admit I’m “hipster” in at least one way.

I saw Pope Francis before it was cool!

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I didn’t necessarily start the trend. On the contrary, I was just one of tens of thousands. I didn’t even realize that the Pope was coming to America until just a few days before he left for Cuba. But I saw him a week before anyone in the USA did. All I had to do was go to The Vatican.

I first learned about Vatican City when I was in sixth grade. The religious connotations didn’t matter much to me at the time, but I made it my goal to someday go to the world’s smallest nation. When I got to Rome three weeks ago, the person checking me in asked, “do you want to see the Pope?” Um, sure! I hadn’t really thought of that as feasible, but she told me that all I had to do was show up at the Vatican on Wednesday morning.

So when Wednesday morning came, I excitedly walked all the way across the city and entered the fifth country of my Mediterranean Trek. When I got there, the event was already in progress. I’m not sure it it’s officially considered a mass, but there was singing, Bible reading, and a couple people spoke, one of whom was Pope Francis himself. I got my bag searched at the country’s entrance (which I learned when I returned another day is not an everyday thing, it’s just for the Pope’s safety when he’s so close to so many people), and I found a good place to stand. If you make a reservation ahead of time, you can get a seat that’s a little bit closer. But the standing room was nice and open, and there were jumbotrons so that you could see everything that was happening onstage.

After the service, most people left, but none of the Vatican’s attractions, such as St. Peter’s Basilica or the temporary exhibit, opened up, and security was still tight. I decided to stick around to see if something else would happen. Over an hour later, one of the seating sections was emptied out and some of the rowdy, Argentina-national-anthem-chanting crowd had moved there, so I got up closer to the basilica, too. Finally, Papa Francesco appeared again and waved at us all as he rode away. Soon after, the Basilica entrance opened up, and I was able to walked by the stage and see the chair where Pope Francis had sat that morning.

This is a weekly occurrence every Wednesday morning. Just a day or so later, I switched to another Rome hostel. Someone there told me that the Pope also gives a message every Sunday that he’s in town. It wasn’t as formal as Wednesday, but rather just a 15-minute speech given from his window. That sounded interesting! So on Sunday, I walked back to the Vatican. Since I guess his window is far enough to make it difficult for assassins, there was no bag check at the border this time. It was also less crowded, and the seated section was closed off since you couldn’t really see the window anywhere but from the standing area. I wasn’t really sure which window he would appear at, but a few minutes before the scheduled time, someone opened a window and hung a banner out of it. Right on time, Papa Francesco appeared, waving back to the thousands of people below!

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As he spoke, I took pictures of him in his window and got a better look from the jumbotrons (to make sure it really was him), but didn’t really listen to the message. One benefit that the Americans had over me is that they could hear him speak in English, which doesn’t happen in the Vatican! I am very limited when it comes to Italian, mostly just knowing food words, but all I really know is that Pope Francis was not telling us what he was going to eat for lunch! He spoke very eloquently and didn’t really use any simple words that I could make out. Sometimes people would cheer about what he was saying. I wasn’t sure what to do. Had he said something that I would also cheer for, or did he say something that was completely against my personal beliefs? I don’t really know for sure, but just having the rare opportunity to see the world’s most famous living religious leader was amazing!

I went to Vatican City two other times. While there, I enjoying the country’s other offerings, like climbing to the top of the cupola, straining my neck to admire the Sistine Chapel, and seeing a museum featuring many past Popemobiles. These were all great experiences, but there was something extra special about being there with the Pope! My last full day in Rome was a Sunday, but sadly, Papa Francesco had already made his way to Cuba. I attended an international English-speaking Baptist church that morning instead, and after the service when I headed over to the Vatican for one last goodbye, the nation was eerily empty.

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I’m not Catholic so I obviously don’t support everything that the Pope says or does. But I am a Christian and I think that he and I have a few of the most important beliefs in common. But I didn’t write this post to make any political statement. Besides, like I said, I really don’t know what he was talking about in the two occasions I visited him. All I know is that I got to see Pope Francis before most other Americans, and that makes me pretty hipster!

Have you ever seen the Pope, whether it was recently in America, previously in Italy, or even just on TV? What European celebrity would you like to meet?

Accommodations, backpack, Bucket List, destinations, saving money, travel tips

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!

bvj hostel[1]

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!

backpack, Bucket List, destinations

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!

Birthday, Bucket List

Happy Hot Air Balloon Birthday to Me!

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My family happened to be vacationing in Walt Disney World when I turned 18. That day, as a newly minted adult, I took a ferry to Downtown Disney in hopes of experiencing something only adults could experience- signing my own liability waiver! I wanted to ride the then-new “Characters in Flight”, a giant tethered helium balloon. Unfortunately, when I got there, it was closed due to the wind. But as a left Florida that year, I was determined that I would eventually be able to have lots of non-airplane flying experiences… and also sign lots of liability waivers!

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About a year later, I went to a local hot air balloon festival. It was there that I got to take my first tethered hot air balloon ride. After signing my waiver and waiting an hour in line, the ride lasted maybe three minutes, and gave me a great view… of just the field where it took place! It was well worth the $3, but it was only an adventure appetizer when I wanted a dinner buffet.

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For three years now, I’ve decided to do something adventurous for my birthday. After meeting up with my family at Disney World (for the fourth time), or taking a bike trip around Columbus that ended up with me suspended on a high wire, I was looking for something that would be even better this year, especially since I was spending my first birthday at home since age 19. My plan actually wasn’t on my bucket list, but probably should be: go paragliding! I called a local paragliding guide and made plans for my birthday weekend.

On Thursday night, I received a message from the pilot with some bad news. The mountain that gliders have used for years belongs to the Bureau of Land Management, and somebody complained about the property’s use. That means all paragliding in the area will be shut down for at least six months. And of course it had to happen right before my birthday weekend! I still wanted to have some high-flying fun for my birthday, but would I be able to get anything arranged in just one business day?

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Referring to my Travel Bucket List, I picked out the ones that would be able to be done in the area and started scouring the internet for contacts. On Friday morning, I got two responses. One was from a helicopter service that offered me a one-hour flight for just $1500 (yeouch!), and the other was from Daybreak Ballooning that, while not cheap enough to be a regular activity, was WAY more affordable and worth every penny for this special occasion. So at 6 am Saturday morning, I was all set for my first real hot air balloon adventure!

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My friend Steph had agreed to accompany me on this ride, and my parents came to watch our take-off. But first we watched the crew set up. The first thing they did was figure out the wind pattern using what is probably the best instrument in the business: an ordinary helium party balloon. Fortunately, we had great weather conditions. We then went out to the soccer field of Jewett Elementary School for set-up. First, they took out the three-person basket, and then they spread out the envelope (the actual balloon part). Using a fan, the envelope slowly began to take shape, and eventually, some heat was added.

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Steph and I got into the balloon with our pilot Drew, and went over, like, two safety rules 1. You can hold onto something if you want to as long as that something is not the fuel line, and 2. Don’t get out of the basket for any reason unless you’re told to. Then with few pumps of heat, we lifted off!

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How do you describe the view? We were hovering over Central Point, which I lived in from age 3 to age 15, so I was very familiar with the town and many of its buildings, but I never saw any of them like this before! (Google Maps would be better if it was taken from a hot air balloon’s point of view!) Of course, when you’re up in the air, the first thing you want to try to find is your house. We were a little too far away to find my current house, so I instead tried to find my childhood home. I found Central Point Elementary, where I attended from kindergarten through fifth grade, and then peered into the suburbia beyond that to see if I could spot the street.

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I did find a corner market that’s about a block away from the house. While I didn’t exactly see that house in the air, I did take lots of pictures of the area so maybe I can zoom into the photo later to try to find it.

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It was kind of fun to spy on other people’s houses, too. I now know where to go if I ever feel like crashing a pool party!

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Some people were outside and, when we were low enough that they could see us in the basket, we’d wave at each other.

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One home had a super-cool large tent that you could practically live in.

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And then there was this one house that had a bus in their backyard!

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But more fun than looking at houses was looking at buildings that I knew about. Besides my elementary school, I got aerial shots of the other two elementary schools (including the one we launched from), as well as my high school. My middle school is on the outskirts of town, so it was harder to see that one, but eventually we did get close enough to take a few pictures.

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Another thing that was neat to see was the churches.

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For awhile, we were hovering in one spot above the McDonald’s. My parents had told me that they were going to eat breakfast there after we launched, and I was able to spot their car in the parking lot.

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We floated over the main street and saw many of the local businesses. In the distance, we could see the interstate, the Family Fun Center, the Jackson County Fairgrounds, and the mountains. We even saw the Medford Airport and watched a plane take off!

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One thing I hadn’t thought about until this morning was that hot air balloons can’t really control where they’re going. The crew was on the ground chasing us and keeping in contact during the entire flight, but toward the end, they were essential in helping us get a place to land.

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Pilot Drew had pointed out some of his common landing sites early in the flight, such as all the different school soccer fields, and even some power line-free residential streets, but the wind ended up taking us toward a wheat field. Of course the chasers had to ask the farmers if it would be okay to land there, and we really didn’t want to make crop circles on the wheat, so we headed to a farm road that split up two of the crops. And then I was offered the opportunity to play pilot!

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Okay, so all I really did was pull the trigger that made the fire whenever the real pilot told me to, but it sure was an experience! At that point we were also getting lower, and I mean really low, to the point that we could probably reach out and touch the wheat. (I was probably more nervous flying at that point than I would have been at our highest altitude!) Fortunately, no wheat was harmed in the making of this birthday experience!

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Our pilot threw a tether out to the crew member so that we could make sure we landed right between the two fields, and after bouncing a couple times, we were back on solid ground. For a few minutes, we just stood in the basket while the balloon deflated enough (that is where the don’t-get-out-of-the-basket-without-permission rule really comes into play, because one less body of weight could make it take off again!). We then got out as everything was taken apart and returned to the trailer. Steph and I then hopped in the car with the crew and we headed back to our starting point. But the fun wasn’t over yet!

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When we returned to the elementary school, we met up with my parents and then gathered at a picnic table that the crew had set up. While we were munching on the treats, Drew explained that, since it was our first flight, he would tell us the history behind hot air balloons and the traditional after-flight champagne toast. Ballooning was first done in France in the 1780s, before any other human-carrying aircraft was even though of. It started out by carrying a few animals, then someone took a tethered flight, and finally, they were brave enough to try a real flight. During one of the early flights, a balloon had to land on farmland. The farmers, having never seen anything like this before, thought this smoke-causing contraption must be a demon or something equally evil and vicious. To prove that they were just ordinary Frenchmen, the balloonists offered a very French-like peace offering: a bottle of champagne.

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In our correspondence beforehand, I had noticed on the website that champagne was served, and being a teetotaler (who tried champagne once and found it awful), I mentioned it was not necessary. But we were still able to carry on this tradition using sparkling cider instead. But first, Steph and I had to participate in another tradition of drinking “champagne” without your hands while kneeling on the ground and a traditional prayer is said over you that includes sprinkling!

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We all chatted for a little bit longer, asking any last burning questions we had about flying hot air balloons. Then we all thanked each other for the part we each played in making this event happen, and I got a few birthday wishes as we left. Even though it was a day before my actual birthday (which is today), this was a great start to a birthday weekend!

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Have you ever flown without an airplane? Have you ever wanted to? What would you like to do for your next birthday?

Bucket List, day trip, destinations, road trip

Street Fairs and Roadside Attractions

If you haven’t read about the previous days of my road trip through Northern California and to the desert, you may want to catch up on those first. After those two legs of the trip, the next several days were spent at my grandmother’s house in Southern California, but we took little day trips from that location.

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On the day we got back from the desert, we took a walk around downtown Upland. This is the town where my mom grew up, but little did we know that the city was having a celebration for her homecoming! Okay, it wasn’t really for her, but Upland was having their annual Lemon Festival the weekend we were there. The next day, I went there for a little longer to enjoy the sights and street food (including, of course, lots and lots of fresh lemonade!).

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Chick-Fil-A exists within an hour of places I’ve previously lived, such as Nebraska and Ohio, but there is not Chick-Fil-A in Oregon. When we found out that there was one right in my grandmother’s town, I just had to take my mom out for her first-ever spicy chicken sandwich!

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On Sunday, we hopped in the car and went to City of Industry. This little side-trip took a lot of convincing, but my mom finally agreed to it. Our first stop was this guard rail:

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What, you don’t know what this guard rail is? What if you pictured part of it turning into a big sign with a digital clock and the writing “Twin Pines Mall”, or perhaps “Lone Pine Mall”?

Okay, if you haven’t seen Back to the Future (or didn’t pay attention while watching it), you won’t know what this is, so I’ll tell you: this is the location where they shot the mall scenes in the first movie of the Back to the Future trilogy. Yes, this is the parking lot where time travel took place!

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In the above photo, you can see some fence-type thing (not sure what that’s called?) in the background. It’s location didn’t make much sense, unless it was put there to prevent movie fans from driving 88 miles per hour!

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Since Back to the Future Part 2 involves a trip to 2015, it was my New Year’s Resolution to see a location from the movie this year. Hey, it was even on my Travel Bucket List!

While researching the Back to the Future mall parking lot on Roadside America, I noticed another interesting location just a mile away. So we drove up to it and found this:

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Wait, McDonald’s isn’t an attraction! Ah, but this one is.

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This particular McDonald’s has never turned on their range. They refuse to serve the public. In fact, it’s surrounded by a security fence! That’s because this is not McDonald’s restaurant at all. Instead it is a McDonald’s set, the place they use to film all the McDonald’s commercials! Below is a sign on wheels, so they can position it to wherever the best lighting and scenery is.

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Next to the fake McDonald’s is a big warehouse with the McDonald’s logo. It’s funny since I’ve never really thought about commercials like this having props or costumes, but I guess they need this large of a warehouse to store that kind of thing!

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Of course, all the gates were closed and I’m sure there was no lack of security cameras and burglar alarms, but I have read that on days when they film, they sometimes have customers pull up to the drive-thru and begin honking their horn due to lack of service! I’m not sure if that’s legitimate though. This McDonald’s is pretty out-of-the-way in and industrial area and even has signs stating it’s not real!

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Our final roadside stop before leaving grandma’s house to continue our road trip was right on one of America’s most famous roads. When visiting my grandmother, you can’t avoid driving on Route 66. (Even though I didn’t realize it was actually Route 66 until I was about eighteen!) So while I haven’t really traveled on Route 66, I am very familiar with a several-mile stretch of it. And with that familiarity, I am going to assume that the best place to eat in all of Route 66 is right here:

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Locally-famous Vince’s has delicious spaghetti, as well as garlic bread, cheese bread, soup, and salad. It was a delicious way to cap off all the things we saw in the street and alongside the road!

While these days were jam-packed with roadside attractions, I’ve been to other interesting places that I love as well. What roadside attractions have you visited? Are there any that are on your bucket list?