Howdy Travel Fans! NiftyNotCool here, back in Canada and feeling fine. I survived a month of hostel living, train riding, and living out of a backpack, and I managed to tear myself away from the charms of Portugal and Spain and return to you all to give you my recommendations for European travel Nifty-style (lucky you!).
Guidebooks: I bought a Lonely Planet for Portugal and also one for Spain. At first they felt a little pricey (about $30 a pop) but they were absolutely invaluable. A lot of train and bus stations don’t actually have a tourism office or provide free maps of the city you just arrived in. Even though the maps in the books are rather small, without my Lonely Planet there are a few times I would not have found my hostel, the train station, the site I was looking for, etc.
I also stayed in Lonely Planet recommended hostels and hotels through most of my trip and I was not disappointed in them. They were clean, safe, usually centrally located, and, because they were recommended in the Lonely Planet, they helpfully appeared on the Lonely Planet maps.
Because I didn’t know all that much about that places I was going, my guidebooks were also invaluable in helping me plan my trip and decide where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. They give an overview of regions, history, language, transportation, accommodation, safety, and just about anything else I would wonder to myself about the country I’m visiting. Even if you get to a place and decide to just wing it, get a guidebook. I consider mine practically life saving.
Travel insurance/travel medical: I got mine through World Nomads (recommended by Lonely Planet of course) and it only set me back around $150 for four weeks. Whichever company you decide to become insured with, do become insured. I think lots of people like to think nothing will ever happen to them, and usually nothing does, but when I was sick in Madrid I remember thinking that if I got much sicker I would need a hospital (because I simply couldn’t take care of myself in a hostel) and I was so glad that I had insurance and therefore had that option.
Passports: I usually renew mine as soon as it expires. It’s a good idea because they can sometimes take a long time to obtain/renew and you don’t want to have a whole trip planned and be worrying you won’t receive your passport/visas in time. As a Canadian and British citizen, I did not need a visa for EU countries.
Itinerary: I didn’t completely plan out everything I did, but I do think it’s a good idea to at least narrow your travels down a bit. For me, having an abundance of choice is paralyzing. Once I decided I wanted to work Portugal north to south, and then focus half of my Spanish adventure on the Andalucia region, it was far easier to choose the specific cities I wanted to stay in and the things I wanted to see. Which makes it easier to pin down accommodation, transportation, etc. down the road.
If you do want to try to get off the beaten path and out of the cities, make sure you do your research ahead of time, and make sure you won’t need a car, a certain time of year, etc. to access the nature you’re trying to see. This will save you a bit of heartache and quite a big headache.
Documents: I made sure I brought my flight itineraries and my statement of insurance with me. I also brought photocopies of my passports and credit card, along with the number to call if my credit card was stolen. I left a copy of all of these documents with my TC as well, just in case the bag these documents were in was stolen. I have also heard of people keeping a photocopy of their passport in their shoe, but I did not do this.
The pack: First things first– If you’re going to be living out of a backpack for a few weeks like I was, you should have a good backpack. Schlepping 40 lbs. around the Iberian Peninsula sort of took it out of me and I was incredibly happy I’d shelled out the money not only for a swanky Osprey backpack with a zip-off day-pack, but one that was a women’s size small (because I am a small woman). The fact that the bag was well-balanced and fit me properly made a huge difference in how easy it was to lug around.
The stuff in the pack: It’s a family joke that I am a terrible packer (like the time I brought only one t-shirt on a trip to the Rockies in the heat of July because “the mountains are cold”). Thanks to some consultations with them pre-trip I was actually able to do a pretty decent job packing this time round. I checked the weather in Portugal and Spain beforehand and saw it was going to be unseasonably warm, but it’s good to be prepared for anything. I brought one pair of long pants, two pairs of capri pants, and one pair of shorts. I also brought two sweaters, two long-sleeved shirts, four t-shirts, and four tank tops (given how hot it was for parts of my trip I’m glad I had the option to change my shirt often). I brought a pair of hiking shoes, a pair of walking sandals, and (at my sister’s insistence) a pair of flats to wear to nicer places, like the flamenco restaurant I went to in Madrid. I brought pajamas, one dress, a bathing suit, my Hat With A Brim, and a windbreaker jacket. AND underwear and socks of course. I must have done a good job packing this time because I wore everything I brought except one exceptionally fluffy pair of socks, and there was no article of clothing I regretted leaving at home. And all of this fit into my pack, which I managed to carry around with me for four weeks. So congratulations me.
My major packing regret is that I did NOT take my student card, which would have saved me almost 50% at some tourist sites. Sigh.
Air travel: I can’t really say much about the actual booking of flights because I am a little sucky-poo and I have a mother who is really good at finding cheap flights and she booked my flights for me. I flew cheaper airlines because I’m not made of money but I do have this to say:
Thomas Cook Airlines (the airline you get when you book with Air Transat to London) is terrible. The seats are tiny and incredibly close together (I pretty much felt like a chicken in a crate for 10 hours). Every seat had a black electrical box mounted underneath it, leaving no room for your carry-on (or your legs). The seats did not recline, not because they were broken, just because they didn’t. Words cannot describe how disgusting the food was. Terrible airline food is a cliche but this really hit new lows. Not only was it all, without exception, revolting, the portions were tiny. Basically, they give you enough food-like substance to legally claim they didn’t starve you. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
Condor airlines (the cheap airline I flew back from Frankfurt with following my connection from Barcelona) is, by comparison, fantastic. I didn’t get my own TV, but that does mean my feet actually got room. The seats were a little larger, and reclined. For our “hot meal” we received a cole slaw, a large vegetarian lasagna, a roll with a triangle of real Camembert, and a lemon square. Oh yeah, and a complementary alcoholic beverage (I declined) and all the fruit juices were REAL juice. Then we got a snack and more juice. Then for our “cold meal” a breaded chicken cutlet, potato salad, and rye bread. I know I’m gushing a bit much for a charter airline but compared to Thomas Cook it was absolute heaven. Flying over Greenland and seeing a landscape that was simply pure untouched snow as far as they eye could see was pretty great too.
Train travel: The train is a very civilized and pleasant way to see Europe. My train days allowed me time to relax (i.e. have a nap), slow down, and think grand thoughts while watching beautiful countryside fly by. It’s more expensive than busing though (in some cases a LOT more expensive) which is why I bought a Eurail Pass.
The pass was rather convenient, but in the end I don’t really think the Eurail Pass saved me much money. I bought three travel days in Portugal and six in Spain, but only used four of my Spanish travel days. To use a Eurail Pass properly, you really have to make sure you are going to be covering a lot of ground, and plan your trips carefully. I overestimated the amount of travel I’d be doing and ended up making day trips just to use my pass. Since you have to pay in Spain and Portugal to reserve seats on trains anyways, even with your pass, if you aren’t making many trips you may as well just buy individual tickets for the journeys you want.
Bus travel: Bus travel is MUCH cheaper than taking the train and the bus usually reaches more locations. Being a romantic, I definitely preferred the train but I enjoyed the three bus journeys I did take during my travels and both Spain and Portugal seem to have rather good long-distance bus services.
Hostels: Most of the time, I looked to my Lonely Planet for accommodation recommendations (the Madrid hostel where I saw bedbugs was NOT a Lonely Planet suggestion). One hostel group I can certainly add my thumbs up to is Oasis. (I stayed in the Oasis Lisboa, Oasis Sevilla, and Oasis Granada.) These hostels were slightly pricier but they all included breakfast, free access to wi-fi and computers with internet, and safe storage (the first two had electronic safes and Granada had a locking cupboard). They had cheap food in the evenings, cheap booze, kitchens, and information about all sorts of tours, activities, and sites. The friendly atmosphere helped me meet a lot of cool people and I was probably more social and had more fun in these hostels than anywhere else.
Because I was travelling solo, I really appreciated hostels not only for their affordability (they’re SO much cheaper than staying in hotels I’m really not sure how anyone my age could afford to travel without hostelling). but also so that I didn’t have to spend my entire trip eating alone and talking to myself. That would have been quite lonely. I also appreciated the informative and helpful staff I encountered in most places I visited who could provide me with maps, tours, admission booking, and transit info.
What to bring if you are staying in a hostel: I am glad I brought a luggage lock (my combination lock was too big for all of the lockers I encountered), a flashlight (there’s ALWAYS someone asleep in the hostel room, at all times it seems), a travel alarm clock (no wake up calls in hostels!), and a facecloth (works as a towel when you don’t have one). I’m also glad I brought camp laundry detergent so I could wash things by hand. I wish I had brought a travel towel, a better luggage lock to use on the lockers, and a pair of flip flops to wear in the hostel showers.
I believe that eating is a very personal experience, so my recommendation for food is simple but mighty: go to a grocer or a supermarket, buy food (esp. fresh fruit which I found an abundance of in both Spain and Portugal) and have some food and water with you at all times. There’s nothing as tiring and frustrating as trying to look for a good restaurant or cafe when you’re already so starving you’d eat at McDonald’s even though you’re in an exciting new city. So take food and water with you so you can hold out for an eating experience you really do want (P.S. I never did eat at McDonald’s thank the gods).
VI. And one last recommendation…
Travel itself: I recommend it. If you want to go, I recommend that you go. If you are scared to go, I recommend that you go. For some (like me), the idea of four weeks of solo travelling in Europe would be daunting. For some it would be no big deal. And that’s fine. The journey is personal, it’s what you make of it, and for me it was exactly the balance of challenge and security I needed.
This was the right trip at the right time. The reasons I had for going changed as I planned, but the good I knew it would do me stayed the same. I returned to Vancouver not disappointed with the city and the cold as I expected I might be , but rejuvenated and able to see the beauty of my West Coast life afresh. The thing I had hoped to find on my journey was right here where I left it, right where I hoped it would be. And that’s worth searching for.