I travel a fair bit, and I even write about it on a travel blog! So you'd think I'd be immune to "travel mistakes" - but on my recent trip to Great Britan and Paris, I made a few! I'm not too proud to share them with you, so that if you are planning a trip, you don't make the same mistakes!
1- Don't forget to adapt to the culture and customs of the place!
When I travel, I tend to bustle around trying to fit a lot into a day. London suited me; it moves fast and since we started our trip there that's what we did! But every place in Europe has a different culture from the next place, and when traveling in Europe it's easy to travel an hour or two and be in a whole new country. I forgot how important it is to remember it can also be a whole new culture! After London, we went to Paris on the Eurostar train and we were in Paris in less than 2 hours! And I was still hustling down the Rue de Rivoli like I had a train to catch. Except I didn't, and the French strooooooll along. I had to slooooooow down! Luckily, for me it was made easier by a few rainy days, because even the French pick up the pace in the rain!
2- Don't go it alone at the museum
Travel requires an investment - of time, of money. I like to save both, but don't make the mistake I made of spending money to go somewhere and then not getting the most out of the experience. My daughter is a design major, so we thought we could explore the Musee des Arts Decoratifs on our own. And while she was able to point out the Cameron Macintosh chairs and distinguish between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, neither of us could sort out the layout of this museum! We walked for miles trying to find exhibits! The Musee des Arts Decoratifs is in the same giant palace as the Louvre, but it's set up vertically with a small set of galleries on each of 9 floors. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to get from one floor to next. One set of stairs only goes to some floors, another lift to the top floors can only be accessed from the 4 th floor. The museum is well staffed, and we asked the docents, but after the fourth explanation in French, I didn't know my troisième from my deuxième etage!
We decided to take 2 Context Tours in Paris, https://www.contexttravel.com/city/paris?page=1 which were recommended by Wendy Perrin on her WOW list http://www.wendyperrin.com/wow-list/ We picked the Louvre Crash Course and The Pompidou Center. Context provides local guides for walks in many European cities, and they are usually educated people with expertise in the area you are visiting. Our tours were led by artists and art teachers. We had skipped booking a guide for the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, and it took us twice as long to navigate the labyrinth of galleries as it should have and we only understood half of what we saw, with me reading the descriptions in my high school French and my daughter trying to recall her art history class. In contrast our Context guides got us to the front of the line, had a planned route through the museums that hit the highlights and still left time for us to explore things not on the hit parade. The Context guides also provided, well, context (with a small c) to understand how the works were seeing fit into the culture and history of the place. We couldn't afford to hire one for every museum we visited, but our experience show is well worth hiring a good guide for places that require a high level of expertise to navigate and interpret!
3- Don't rely on tech to bail you out
We brought plenty of tech on this trip, and generally I rely on technology as a travel aid. I had paid for an international plan with my cell carrier; I could send texts, but inexplicably only received texts once I arrived at a rest area one day on a motorway in England! I never had cellular data in England despite paying for it. My daughters phone charging cord was fried by the power outlets. At one point nearly every piece of tech we brought was broken, uncharged, or just plain ineffective! My niece, who we met whee she was studying in Oxford, got a sim card in the country for her phone. That worked better for her than my hoping my carrier will play nicely with the carriers abroad. I'd get the SIM card for a long stay in Europe next time.
I did download 2 good apps that allowed me to route the public transit off line. (YR Creative Offline London Tube and Paris Metro Maps) These were invaluable for finding our way around the Tube and Metro, when we couldn't count on google maps. I also carried a guide book with street view maps which proved very helpful when standing on a corner wondering which way to go! (DK Eyewitness- Paris, London)
4- Don't get pick pocketed IRL or phished or scammed on line on wifi
In big cities anywhere, there will always be an element looking to take advantage of distracted travelers by trying to pick their pockets, or worse! We were lucky, with our cross body bags from PacSafe, we didn't encounter any trouble in real life (IRL) and our bags had RFID blocking pockets to prevent scammers from scanning our electronic info from passports or credit cards remotely. But we also had to guard against getting phished or hacked on wifi and sometimes using wifi in public places can be chancy! Don't enter personal passwords or important info over public wifi, where anyone can be skimming for that data. While we were away my daughter fell for a phishing scam (this was a coincidence and not related to our travel) where she clicked on a link to reset a college account password that was from a hacker, not her university! Luckily, the University shut her account down before any major damage was done! Try to use wifi networks that are password protected, where they change passwords frequently. And don't fall for phishing scams anywhere, never change a password with a "link" sent to you, always log in at the website first to make a change or enter data. My daughter knows this now!
Also, remind people back home not to fall for travel scams. A popular one is to send emails or social media messages to loved ones in your name, asking for money because of an emergency abroad. While sitting in the airport in London, I had a FB message from a young cousin with a general statement saying she "needed my help". That sounded "phishy", and we hadn't been in touch in months, so I responded asking if her account might have been hacked. She responded with request for help with some general information she needed (not personal info) and used very specific nicknames for her grandparents, so I knew it was really her. Before helping loved ones when you receive a request for money or information, be sure that you are really hearing from the person you think you are. Check multiple sources of contact; text, email, call them in person. If they just instagrammed their breakfast, they probably aren't locked in a Tunisian jail! And remind your loved ones you'll use specifics if you ever needed to reach out to them for help, so they don't fall for a scam at home either!
5- Don't take the wrong (overpacked) bag
In a classic case of Maternal "I Told You So..." I had warned my daughter not to take a back pack she's had since middle school on our European trip. With no padded lap top section, a zipper that splits open at the worst possible times, it was too small and overstuffed. Mother knew best; this was not the bag to take! I offered any of a dozen promotional back packs I have sitting in my closet, but these were rejected. So what could go wrong?! First, the bag fell from a hook in the loo at Kings Cross and the display on the lap top was ruined. Second, we made it almost all the way home, when the zipper split (in the bathroom again, this time in our home airport!) and she didn't realize a bag of chargers and a small sentimental gift from her boyfriend had fallen out until she arrived home. I did the good mother thing - empathized, even though you know I wanted to say it!
There are so many great travel bags (I'll be reviewing my pacsafe sling bag soon, which traveled beautifully on this trip!) and you can spend a fortune. But you don't have to! You just have to make sure the bag easily accommodates your things with extra room for souvenirs, is secure and meets the guidelines for size and weight by your carriers, The most important part is to know you can access important things like your passport, or lap top, in and out of the bag without losing the contents and while keeping them be secure in crowds.
6- Don't fail to get your vat back
There I was at the Customs desk at Gatwick trying to get my paper work stamped to get back my VAT (value added taxes added to goods for residents that is generally refundable to tourists at the end of their stay) I was arguing with the agent about what he would do if he bought a sapphire ring. (I wanted to say it might not look so good on his fingers, but I rightly decided snark wouldn't be the best tactic at that moment!) I spotted a ring in exactly the style I had been looking for for years in a shop in Cambridge. It was also my daughters birthstone and would be the perfect souvenir to remember this special mother daughter trip to Paris. I bought the ring, which in itself is shocking because I rarely buy things, I usually just go places! I got all the official paperwork from the shop to get the taxes back and took them to the airport. Because the ring was for myself and we were very overpacked going home, (see # 5 above) I left the "presentation box" with my relatives in Britain and just tucked the new ring in my jewelry pouch.
Well, big mistake. Seems there are people willing to scam, (see # 4 above) and one of those scams is to bring paperwork from someone who is staying in the country with the goods and tries to pass off an old ring and reclaim the VAT money. I would never be clever enough to think of that or brave enough to do anything so stupid! But the agent couldn't know that about me, and he argued "if I bought a nice ring like that I'd save the box it came in". Well, I resisted the urge to yell, "well, I'm not you and I don't collect superfluous packaging" because I knew that would get me nowhere fast! I prevailed on him that shop keepers in his country sold these things making the promise of VAT returns and it would be disappointing not to get it back. I explained how we were overpacked, the ring was for myself, and as he inspected the new ring for age wear, I explained I could call my sister in law and have her dig the box out of her bin, pick off the coffee grounds and banana peels and send a photo to my iPhone! Luckily, with enough obsequiousness and apologies on my part, the stamp hovered above the paperwork, then swiftly came down...punch, punch. Satisfied I wasn't a tax scamming tourist, he approved my paperwork, I queued at the money exchange booth to get my VAT back, (less their fee!) Lesson learned, have the paperwork, but also keep the article new and with all of it's packaging before heading to Customs!
Overall, we had an amazing trip, just two gals exploring in London and Paris and visiting relatives in England. We had a few stumbles and made a few mistakes, but mostly we learned to be patient and soak up the atmosphere and enjoy time with eachother! And that's what travel is all about! Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting my trip reports for Paris France, London, St Ives, Ely, Cambridge and Oxford in England, with lots of photos...this time Kathy's own attempts to follow Jeff's photography instructions about how to get great travel shots. I hope you will follow along and enjoy the reports and photos from our special mother/daughter trip!