Thursday, April 9, 2015

Travel Diaries: D.I.Y. Europe

My article published in the Philippine Daily Inquire after my 9 week European sabbatical with my siblings. This is for people who want to D.I.Y. their Euro trip!

My siblings and I had been planning a long Euro trip together for years before we finally did it this year. With all of us grown up and with jobs and other responsibilities, even finding common schedules was a nightmare, and to make it even more complicated, we wanted to go to 13 cities in 6 weeks in different parts of the Europe without having to step into an airport a single time. Yes, we decided to go the Eurail way and take trains from city to city. Furthermore, we wanted a more local experience of places we were going to visit so instead of booking hotels, we booked apartments everywhere we went. I was in charge of planning everything, and with no travel agent involved, it took lots of time and research to figure out a route, how the train system works and what areas to stay in the different cities we visited. At the end of it all, it was worth all the effort as we got to personalize our trip to our tastes, needs and budget!

Travel by Train: Pros and Cons is pretty easy to navigate and selecting the right pass really depends on how long you will be traveling, how many countries you plan on visiting and how many times you think you will use your pass. Since we were going to be there for 7 weeks, we decided to get the Global Pass, which allows unlimited travel days to any of the Schengen countries for two months from the first day of travel. You can get less travel days if you are staying long in most places and won't be using the train too much. This does not include city trains such as the Metro, but can be used on local and regional trains. Your Eurail pass is not your ticket, and you will still need to reserve your seats for where you want to go, but it gives you the luxury of traveling for a way lower price than a full-fare ticket, so you can go to more places. For instance, I was able to get a round trip ticket from Paris to Strasbourg for only €18 as opposed to the €40-70 range for a one way ticket if you buy without one. Another good thing about traveling via train is you can actually book a spot on a night train, sleep through the trip and wake up in your next destination, also saving a little money by not booking an extra night at a hotel. Traveling by train also gives you the opportunity to see places and spectacular views that you would not be able to during air travel. Remember that you must book your Eurail pass before you arrive in Europe!

Berlin Central Station
At Gare du Nord in Paris, on the way to Amsterdam!

There are, of course, a few disadvantages to everything, but none so bad that I would never travel via train again. First of all, you must know exactly what time your train leaves, what platform it is on and be there at least 15 minutes before it departs. Unlike air travel, where your name is called over a loudspeaker that you are the only person missing from the plane, the train will leave when it is scheduled to leave, regardless if you have a reserved seat or not. If you aren't on it when it departs, well, sorry! In Prague, we almost missed our train to Vienna because we were so confused by the platforms at their central station and literally ran and jumped into the train a minute before it took off-lugging our heavy bags while doing so. Also, if you enjoy the comfort of checking in your luggage and not worrying about it until you disembark, then forget train traveling. You have to carry all your own stuff in and out and make sure you watch it constantly to make sure nobody accidentally or purposely takes your bag. There's also talk of a lot of theft in Europe nowadays so watch your stuff like a hawk! Another thing is that you need to make reservations in advance because there is a limited number of seats reserved for Eurail pass holders, so if you try to get one on the day you plan to leave, you might not be able to. What we did was book at least five cities in advance so it wasn't such an inconvenience to have to line up every time we arrived somewhere to book seats for the next destination. Lastly, in certain locations, you may have to take local trains, which are free for pass holders, but have no reserved seating and sometimes are not as nice as others. Also, if it's packed, chances are you won't get much rest or space during your travel. Thankfully, we only encountered this problem traveling from Florence to Nice, where you have to take the Italian train line until Ventimiglia on the Italian-French border, then switch to a local train to Nice which was packed with people and full of stops, and also from San Sebastian to Bordeaux. You get of at Irun/Hendaye on the Spanish-French border and take a local train to Bordeaux. Other than that, it was smooth sailing for all our rides. Lastly, if you aren't into long haul traveling, maybe train rides aren't for you. We would average about 5 hours per trip, but our longest was from Vienna to Venice at 11 hours on a night train. I have to be honest, we cheated once and flew from Nice to Barcelona, but only because we would have to take a local train with no reserved seats and travel for over 13 hours with a few switches!

The dreadful train from Ventimiglia to Nice. Dreadful because it was the summer and there were so many tourists coming in and out in every stop, and we had our luggage and other crap.
On an 11 hour overnight train from Vienna to Venice. It wasn't SO bad but I wouldn't wanna do it again unless absolutely necessary!

Staying in apartments: Ups and Downs

I was in charge of booking our Eurail passes and our accommodations and one thing I recommend is to plan months in advance to get the best rates for apartments, and so you have time to really look for a place that suits your taste and needs. has a wide selection of apartments for rent all over the world and there is something for every budget. Consider this- some of the cheaper hotels I looked up in Paris were about €80 and good for two people, but we were able to get an apartment for the three of us plus two friends for €120, in Le Marais, no less, just a block away from Place des Vosges. In Florence, we rented an apartment just a 7 minute walk to the Basilica de Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as the Duomo, which was also close to a lot of shopping, the San Lorenzo Market and the Uffizi Gallery for less than €100 per night for three people. Aside from spending less, it also allows for a more “local” experience I feel because you are able to go to the markets and cook your own food and live in neighborhoods that are a bit off the tourist center, but close enough for you to get to where you need to go. It's a great way to really feel at home because you are in someone's house or apartment, usually complete with everything you will need for a comfortable stay. Furthermore, you can shop for a new place to “live” in every city and actually stay in a really cute apartment for as long as you need.

Outside our Amsterdam apartment just a block away from Albert Cuypmarkt. Hello fresh stroopwafels!

Our Le Marais apartment in Paris. Down the street from a boulangerie with my fave tarte tatin and close to everything for only 20 euros per head per night (5 people)

Now the downside-booking an apartment can be a little tricky, especially if you have never been to the city you are visiting. You want to know that you are central enough, but also want to feel like you are part of the local community. It's best to do your research on the city before booking a place so that you know exactly what you are getting yourself into. If you don't do your own research and decide what it is you want to do or see in the city, then you may end up booking a place that is too far or in a dodgy area (which might explain why it's really cheap) Another downside to booking an apartment is that photos can lie and you might not be getting exactly what you expect. 95% of the time, we were satisfied with the places we chose but there was that odd apartment that was not what we bargained for. Another thing is that you need to be responsible for finding a place that is secure because unlike hotels, you will not have a doorman and a front desk that prohibits random people from coming in and out. Most place online will advertise that they have a security lock on the front door of the building plus more in the actual unit, but we had one experience in Paris wherein we opened the apartment for the first time and saw that it seemed to have been broken into! Needless to say, we booked another place ASAP and worked out a refund from the owner.

At the end of the day, I feel that traveling this way made me closer to my siblings because we had to figure things out together, instead of relying on someone to plan our trip for us. Since we felt a bit too old to actually “Backpack” in the literal sense, but wanted the same sort of adventure, slight unpredictability and freedom as backpackers do, we opted for this. It may not be for everyone. But it's definitely the best choice for people who want to feel less like a tourist and more like a local in their travels and even with some of the mishaps and misadventures, I would not have done it any other way!

Photos by Mio Paredes
Published in The Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2013

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