Become a Travel Expert in Two Weeks

Always find the view.

All it takes is one trip to be perceived as a travel expert.

Prior to this adventure my only international travel explorations were Canada and Mexico. I have been back in the states for five days. In that time I have been asked for advice on upcoming trips by friends and coworkers, including my VP. I suspect his budget may be a bit different from mine.

I am guilty of asking everyone and anyone I have ever met for their advice before I left. Beyond anything else, I hate waste. Wasted words, time, energy or money. I wanted to travel efficiently. And who better to ask than someone who has already been where I was going?

While catching up with some of my well-traveled coworkers this week, one asked me what I would have done differently. I wish I’d taken a formal tour of the Vatican and Colosseum. The manager promptly replied, “I told you so.” I will take this opportunity to repeat his advice. If you are going to the Vatican or the Colosseum, get a tour guide.

Be careful if/when you return. Some people will ask you about your trip. Others will hate you for having left the office, especially if they had to cover your work. This may be why Caesar was really killed. Brutus got jealous that Julius was gallivanting around like he ran the empire.

The Vatican is overwhelming. Wandering around aimlessly is fatiguing and frustrating. I ended up not enjoying the Vatican Museum as much as I hoped I would. I’ll write more about that in a separate post.

If you are a history buff and remember everything from World History in high school, you are my enemy. But, you will be well prepared for visiting the sites in Roma.

The Colosseum is doable sans tour guide, but if you get one of the tours offered you gain access to restricted areas like the third level and onto the main floor. The tour was about 10-15 euros and lasts an hour. In our haste, we ascended the stairs after getting through the gate and marveled at the spectacle of the monstrous arena. After an hour walking around mouth agape we headed for the exit and saw the signs for the guided tours. At that point we didn’t want to spend another hour walking around the Colosseum.

Traveling is one giant upsell. You buy a museum pass, then you get there and a tour is offered for another 10 euros. Or an audio guide for 7. You begin to forget you already paid to access the site or museum.

Tip: Read as much as you can pre-trip. Stock up on history texts. If you’re like me and don’t have a ton of time to read (fall asleep on page 2), there are tons of podcasts and lectures you can stream.

Aside from those two sites, I wouldn’t have done anything differently on the trip. That’s a bold statement from me. I am extremely critical, especially of myself. One time I parked in the wrong parking garage for a company party. The garage cost $30, instead of the valet that was pre-arranged and cost $12. I still haven’t forgiven myself for that.

Most people enjoy talking about two things: themselves and their travels. So, be curious. Ask them questions. What did they love that they didn’t think they would? What would they have done differently? Where do they wish they had time to go? What was underwhelming? What’s the transit system like?

Those are all questions I asked anyone willing to talk to me. The answers helped me shape the time in each city and agenda. I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends who have traveled the globe. My cousin studied in Rome for a semester. Another friend spent a significant amount of time in Italy. I didn’t get a ton of advice on Paris, but supplemented personal advice with travel books and Paris’ tourism site. I was also extremely lucky to have someone with similar cultural interests and curiosity joining me on the trip.

Ultimately, if you are a planner, you’ll do your legwork before take-off. If you like to wing things and live each day as it comes, you will also have a great time. The biggest advice I could give if you are traveling with someone is to make sure you know what type of person your companion is. If I had gone on the trip with someone who wasn’t a planner and relied on me for everything, I would have been resentful and burnt out.

Traveling is tremendously rewarding but also tiring. I haven’t tallied up all the museums and sites we saw or the mileage covered, but this may be the first trip where I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Aside from getting on the flight back to Chicago.

6 Essential Apps to Avoid Getting Killed in Europe

travel, apps, iphone, ios, google, podcast, tripadvisor, metro, paris, italy, rome, florence, venice, zelda, nes

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I love apps. I love staying connected. And I love technology that helps me do things smarter and more efficiently.

Prior to leaving for Italy and France, I read a stack of articles including some on essential apps when traveling. I loaded up my phone with a few of them. Here are the ones I found to be most useful and I credit with keeping me alive.

TripAdvisor

This app comes in quite handy and barely edges out Google Maps for what I used most during the trip. You can download city guides for wherever you are going. They have most of the major cities. The best features are walking guides that cover must-see attractions. Beyond that, the app also has some historical context for sites and attractions pulled from reviews on the site and Wikipedia. The app also has some pretty good maps that can help orient you with where you are. If you are looking for a particular place, they have a “Point Me There” button that tells you which way to start walking/hobbling.

Google Maps

I should also mention I love Google. I consider myself a Google disciple and await them sending me those funky glasses. I’m holding out to be a beta user for the self-driving car. But, their map app saved countless time wandering the streets. When you have WiFi turned on your phone, somehow the app figures out where you are. This goes for both this app and TripAdvisor’s. In Venice, maps are deemed useless. You wander the streets and hope for the best.

zelda, hyrule, map, nes

At times I felt like I was in Zelda without a map, wandering room after room, only to end up looking at a canal with nowhere to turn. Google Maps saved me time and miles of walking. I used it mostly when trying to find a particular attraction or at night when trying to get back to the hotel.

Podcasts

This may seem like an unlikely pick, but there is a font of knowledge in the podcast and iTunes U app stores. My main go to was Rick Steves. He has museum guides for all of the major attractions in Italy and Paris. I downloaded these before I left, then popped in my headphones at the museum and had a personal tour guide directing my attention to important works of art and sculpture. I bought the audio guide at the Vatican for 7 euros and regretted it. I didn’t have my headphones so I had to put the mini remote/speaker thing directly on my ear, risking Cauliflower ear. Maybe they disinfect them with Holy water. It’s so loud in the Vatican Museum you can’t hear the audio. Plus you have to key in the numbers for the items you want to know more about. Fun fact: the Vatican has an ungodly amount of things.

The audio tours from Rick are free and most are close to an hour. I’d highly suggest going this route if you don’t want to hire a private or group tour guide.

MetrO

Oh, the Metro. How I love thee…

I used this app mainly in Paris. It works extremely well. It works offline and presents you with multiple route options. You can even have it use your current location, likely thanks to the little sprites and lemmings toiling inside my phone. Our train stop in Paris was Jules Joffran. With that knowledge, I could plug-in my current location and have the app tell me how to get back to the stop closest to my hotel. It presented the shortest time route as well as that with the fewest transfers. This is a must if you’re going to Paris. The Metro is amazing and this app helps you take advantage of its greatness.

Google Translate

I didn’t use this a ton because it requires an internet connection. But when I was back at the hotel, I’d use it for some phrases I wanted to know. Or if I wanted to look up what I had ingested at dinner. Cuisses de grenouille equals frog legs. FYI.

Google+/Dropbox

As you may have noticed. I take a fair amount of pictures. These apps allowed me to sync my photos when I had a wi-fi connection. One of my greatest fears, next to being in a foreign prison, was having my phone stolen or broken. Friends and relatives have had cameras stolen or broken when abroad and lost all their photos. These apps diminish the gut-wrenching pain if your camera/phone is stolen. One bonus for Google+ ahead of Dropbox, Google+ has unlimited storage. Dropbox caps you at 5GB.

Honorable Mentions

I tried a few other apps but they ended up not being of use for me. I downloaded a WiFi finder and a few language apps. Some had helpful phrases and more robust capabilities if you paid a few dollars for the full version.

Final note:

You read that time above correctly. I now wake up pre-6AM. I haven’t consistently woken up this early since high school. The thought that people voluntarily get up at this hour frightens and saddens me. Then again, I have found this new time to write and start my day at a more leisurely pace.

Happy travels and comment with any apps you found helpful during your travels.

Forty-Five Minutes in LA

time, clock, LA, union stationDoes the term “layover” only apply to flights?

On our interpretation of The Odyssey–or Plains, Trains & Automobiles for those that don’t care for Greek– we had a layover in Los Angeles. The Spaniards must have been horrible prophets or have a deep love for irony. LA is far from a repository for the pious and devout. This was my second visit to Lalaland. The first was during spring break my senior year of college, and included seeing The Price is Right before Bob Barker retired. Continue reading Forty-Five Minutes in LA