Archives for September 2014

Validating a Eurail Pass

validating a Eurail pass

So, you’ve decided to buy a Eurail pass for your trip to Europe. Smart move. If you’re anything like me, now you are spending your days staring at the map of Europe and train schedule that came with your Eurail pass imagining all the possibilities that lie before you.

Could I pull off Paris to Portugal in a week? What would Poland be like this time of year? I wonder if I could take a train down the entire coast of Italy?

Yep, daydreaming about riding the rails in Europe can keep you busy for weeks (or months) leading up to your trip. In the midst of all that daydreaming though, a few questions about your Eurail will inevitably pop up, I know they did for me. Of all the questions, the one I wondered about the most was:

How do you go about validating a Eurail pass again?

In the middle of the packet of information they send you, you will find a little note about how the pass “can not be used under any circumstance for travel until it is validated”, or something else equally scary. Trying to figure out all the perceived ins and outs of validating a Eurail pass was the one thing that had me a little confused and/or nervous about my Eurail pass when I set off for my first trip.

validating a Eurail pass

So, if you are a little concerned about validating your Eurail pass, I am here to calm your nerves. Why? Well, because …

it is simple.

Seriously, validating a Eurail pass could’t be easier. Don’t even sweat it for half a second, because validating a Eurail pass is as easy as 1,2,3.

First, walk in to the first train station you see in Europe.

Second, find the place where they are selling tickets and stand in line.

Third, when it’s your turn, simply ask the ticket attendant to validate your pass.

About the only that could get in the way would be if you slipped and fell on your way to the ticket line. Now, I would totally recommend learning how to say “can I validate this Eurail pass, please” in the local language just to be polite. This way, you are sure to get a smile with your service and you will be on your way on your first train feeling all travelly.

Photo Credit

Great Stays: Ecohostel Andromeda, Ghent, Belgium

Ecohostel Andromeda

Many people skip Belgium on their Europe trips. And as I’ve preached before, this is a terrible mistake. For the few and the proud that make it to Belgium, most of them end up skipping Ghent in favor of bigger-hitters Bruges and Brussels.

I did.

Twice.

Again, terrible, terrible, mistake. It actually took me until my third time visiting Belgium to discover the magic of Ghent, and part of the magic of Ghent came in the form of a great stay at a one-of-a-kind place called Ecohostel Andromeda.

An industrial ship turned cozy, modern, and eco-friendly boat hostel, Echohostel Andromeda is an ideal ambassador for Ghent. Located on a quiet canal just outside the main city center, Ecohostel Andromenda is as unique as it is welcoming. A broad deck on top of Ecohostel Andromeda greets you with open arms and once down below in the hull (is that the right word?) you find sparkling, stylish shared rooms and one private room with a massive bed. The “eco” part of their name isn’t just for show either, as the green garden on the roof acts as a water purification system and the heating is provided in a Carbon-neutral fashion.

Ecohostel andromeda

In addition to the unique atmosphere, the friendly owners of Ecohostel Andromeda serve a delectable and organic breakfast every morning and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to hang out with them and their super cool dog while you are there.

There is just something about staying on a boat. Whether it’s the water lapping at night to put you to sleep or waking up to see light shining through a round porthole window, it’s the type of experience that you left home for and that helps make a trip.

Now as far as Ghent is concerned, it’s a bit of a cheap cliche to say that Ghent is the best of Belgium rolled into one city, but you know, it kinda-sorta is. Well, the Flemish region of Belgium anyway. Ghent has the canals and the buildings-begging-to-have-their picture-taken of Bruges, while having more energy and spunk like Brussels.

Ecohostel Andromeda

It’s just right in my opinion.

Be sure to look up Ecohostel Andromeda when you come to Belgium, and I have a feeling you will end up seeing both Ghent and Belgium for what they are: the kind of places you definitely don’t skip.

Know Before You Go: 

Ghent is easily reachable by train from anywhere in Belgium.

Ecohostel Andromeda is about a 10-15 walk from the historic center of Ghent.

I implore you to check out their website for pictures of the rooms, because mine don’t do the interior justice.

How to Save Money in Europe: Going to the Store

save money in europe

Wasting money really sucks. And no matter how big or small your Europe trip budget is, no one likes to spend more than they have to for things. Well, if you’re aren’t careful, you can throw away a ton of money on a trip to Europe. Especially on little things like bottles of water, soda, snacks, and beer.

Even if it’s just a few Euros here, a few Euros there, that money adds up and could have been used better elsewhere for something much more worthwhile and more fun. So, what’s the best way to save money in Europe? Well, in the first on a series on the subject, this post is about one of the simplest and easiest ways to save money in Europe:

Shopping at supermarkets.

You see, by their nature supermarkets cannot exist on tourists alone, and thus can not gouge you at quite the same clip that an oh-so-convenient corner store or train station kiosk can.

An example:

I was in a supermarket in Germany looking to buy my favorite local orange cola called Spezi. They only had it in cans, but I was hoping for a bottle, so I went across the street to the see if the convenient store had it. I made note of the price of the Spezi can though, which was 50 Euro cents. At the convenient store, they didn’t have the bottle either, but their cans of Spezi were going for €1.50.

Really? Three times the price? Well, I marched back across the street and bought the Spezi can. I know it was only a Euro difference, but it was the principal. Multiply that by several times a day for a couple weeks, and you could have thrown away an entire nice meal out.

Not only is shopping at supermarkets one of the best ways to save money in Europe, it gives you a real insight into the local flavor and culture of a place. It’s always fun to see different brands and check out how the stores in Europe present their food and how they are laid out compared to back home.

save money in europe

Heck, shopping in a supermarket in Europe can become a travel experience in itself.

On the contrary, there is nothing really that interesting about the corner convenient store or unique about the stand in the train station selling bottles of water for €3. Luckily, supermarkets are in every town big and small , so just simply ask at your hotel or hostel where the nearest supermarket is, and they will send you in the right direction and on your way to saving money.

 

The Most Beautiful Places in Europe (That I Almost Went to)

Every time I’ve come to Europe, there has been a place or two that I really wanted to go, but for some reason or another I just wasn’t able to see. Some of these places have been missed on multiple trips now and are now just simply known as “the ones that got away”.

The ones that got away are a small group of beautiful places in Europe with scenery that looks like it would take your breath away (I wouldn’t know) or a monumental historic draw that have lured me to them for years. Here’s to hoping I’ll see these beautiful places in Europe soon, and here’s to you not repeating my mistake and missing out.

beautiful places in Europe

Lake Como, Italy

Ever since seeing this place on a television show based on that book called 1000 Place to See Before You Die, I have really, really wanted to go here. The hosts of the show arrived on Lake Como on a seaplane, and while I highly doubt that will be our arrival method, something about it really struck a chord with me. I have seen brief glimpses of Northern Italy’s lakes from trains, but never left the train to take in the Cypress trees and blue water with my own eyes. We threw out taking a day trip there when we were in Bologna a couple years ago, but in the end, took a pass. All you really need to know about Lake Como’s beauty is that one of the villages that surrounds it is Bellagio, the inspiration for the iconic Vegas casino.

most beautiful places in Europe

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

The cascading pearl of Croatian Tourism, I have known of the beauty of Plitvice Lakes before I had the slightest clue about anything else in Croatia. A friend who studied in Croatia in college told me all about this otherworldly park full of wooden walkways under waterfalls and when I first arrived in Croatia years later, I was determined to make it to Plitvice Lakes. I was so thoroughly confused by the procedure to get there from Split via bus though, I abandoned the mission and just assumed I would get it next time. Well, I’ve been to Croatia twice more since that first time, and still somehow no trips to Plitvice Lakes National Park to show for it.

most beautiful places in Europe

Hallstatt, Austria

I discovered this place through a random travel blog seven years ago and it was one of these places were all it took was one picture for the deal to be sealed. I actually penciled in to visit on my second trip to Europe, but never made it. I actually still have a piece of paper in my travel scrapbook with the word Hallstatt circled and then subsequently crossed out. Talk about your sad souvenirs, huh? Then, the next year, my friend Chris and I were so close to going to Hallstatt, that we actually Skyped a hotel there to and reserved a room. Amazingly, it still all fell through. I can only imagine how spectacular arriving on the ferry to Hallstatt must be.

beautiful places in Europe

Normandy, France

The legend of the D-Day Invasion has always enthralled me, and I actually consider it a bit of a duty to go to this area of France and pay my respects to the brave men who battled and died there in person. In addition to the World War II history, Normandy is home to Mont St. Michel, the haunting castle which after the Eiffel Tower is France’s most visited attraction. I was all scheduled to go on once but then had a bit of a late night out in Paris and subsequently overslept for my train the next morning, but let’s not talk about that right now.

beautiful places in Europe

The Algarve, Portugal

This sunny stretch of Southern Portugal is known the world over for it’s festive atmosphere, great beaches, and cool rock formations. It was penciled in to one trip of mine after a friend from college, whose family is from Portugal,  gave me a giddy lowdown about the place. I honestly can’t remember why it didn’t happen, but I’m sure it was a, um, real good reason.

See you someday, ones that got away. See you someday.

 

Photo Credits: 1,2,3,4,5

 

 

 

Amsterdam Beer: What to Drink When You’re Here

I subscribe to the theory that imbibing in local beer and liquor when travelling is a big part of getting to know the flavor of a place. Amsterdam, lucky for us, is home to a handful of solidly established and up-and-coming craft breweries and a couple of monster brands in the beer world. It is definitely a beer-friendly city, and here is the Amsterdam beer that I feel like gives you a pretty decent taste of the town.

Amsterdam beer

Mannenliefde by Oedipus

Oedipus Brewing is the one of several up-and-coming craft breweries in the ‘Dam, and this is one of the finest brews in their stable. This one may require a trip to the beer shop De Bierkonig or a foray deep into a hipster bar to obtain, but it’s worth it. It’s a Saison with a tinge of caramel and pepper and along with the rest of Oedipus’ creative offerings gives you a taste of the future of Amsterdam beer.

amsterdam beer

Zatte by Brouwerij ‘t IJ

Brouwerij ‘t IJ is the craft brewery of Amsterdam and Zatte is their original and flagship beer. It is a blonde Belgian Tripel and without a doubt the best way to enjoy it is at their brewery in Amsterdam East. The brewery is set under a windmill, the beer is fresh and cheap there, and it’s just an awesome all-around travelly experience. Zatte is widely available around town though, so you won’t have a problem finding it if you can’t make it to the brewery, even though that may be the biggest mistake of your life.

 

amsterdam beer

Gerstebeir by Jopen

Brewed a mere 15 minutes west of the city in Haarlem, Jopen is close enough to count as an Amsterdam beer in my book. You will likely need to hit an upscale supermarket like Marqt or the De Bierkonig again for this one, but once again, it’s worth it. Awarded a silver star at the Europe Beer Awards in 2010, this cloudy Barley Beer is a throwback to a type of beer that was popular in Haarlem around 1900, a beer born out of a backlash against the rising popularity of pilsners. A trip to their brewery is a great idea too as it is located in an old church.

Amsterdam beer

Johnny by Brouwerij De Prael

Made by another established Amsterdam craft brewery, Johnny is probably the most popular beer by Brouwerij De Prael. This bubbly Belgian Pale Ale’s colorful label is bound to catch your eye behind the bar in establishments all over town. If you don’t have the time to go out to the windmill brewery of the Brouwerij ‘t IJ, you can make up for it by visiting these guys, who have a cool little tasting room and brewery in the heart of the tourist center near Central Station and the Red Light District.

Heineken or Amstel

No trip to Amsterdam would be complete without at least having one of these big boys in the city where they were born. They’ll be on draft at nearly every bar you walk into, and watching your pale yellow pilsner poured and its foamy head sliced off by the bartender is a Dutch beer tradition. While they may not the best beers in Amsterdam or even brewed in the city anymore, they are no doubt part of Amsterdam beer culture. Best enjoyed after drinking several of the previous beers listed.

Photo Credit: 1,

Europe Trip Planning: Booking the Bookends

Europe trip planning

In addition to figuring out what time of year to come to Europe and what places to see once you get here, another important thing you have to figure out is whether or not you are going to plan every day of your trip ahead of time or just figure it all out when you get here. Both of these strategies have benefits and drawbacks, but from my experience, one of the bits of Europe trip planning advice I can offer is a combination of the two.

I call this compromise the “booking the bookends” method of European trip-planning.

Essentially, you book the first portion of your trip and the last portion of your trip, but you allow yourself a good chunk of wiggle room in the middle for spontaneous places and things to happen.

A couple examples:

On my second trip to Europe, I knew my opening bookend was a week in Ireland and then working my way to Barcelona via Brussels and Paris. My closing bookend was Oktoberfest in Munich a few weeks later, and then flying out of Germany home.

I purposely made no plans for that time in the middle.

Sure, I had places penciled in for that wiggle room time like Switzerland, Hallstatt, Cinque Terre, but nothing was set in stone. Having this wiggle room allowed me to overhear and then fully jump into a conversation some guys were having at my hostel extolling the virtues of Croatia. I ended up working Croatia in to the trip, and it was one of the best destination decisions I’ve ever made.

europe trip planning

If it wasn’t for booking the bookends, I would have missed out on all this.

 

When Julia and I decided to spend a couple weeks travelling around Europe’s Christmas Markets last year, we did the same kind of thing. Our opening bookend was set in stone as Berlin, Leipzig, and Annaberg-Bucholz with our closing bookend being a purchased flight out of Italy a couple weeks later.

We left the big center of the trip entirely empty.

Because of this, we were able to work some things around to be in Salzburg for Krampus Night (cool Alpine Christmas tradition) and then ended up spending the next night in a place called St. Johann Im Pongau that we certainly didn’t plan on going to ahead of time, but ended up being a fun and snowy stop on our Christmassy tour.

Booking the bookends allows you to change your mind or be inspired on the fly, and that is priceless. Can making last-minute decisions cause a teeny tiny bit of stress? Well, maybe, but in today’s age of online booking and credit cards, it’s really easy to book a hotel or hostel a night or two before you arrive.

Trust me, I speak from experience.