Wednesday, August 7, 2013

More travel tips!

You might recall that I just published a post about traveling light when going to an overseas painting workshop.  This prompted one of my readers to offer her own tips for traveling overseas.  I jumped at her offer to include them in my blog, so you're in for a treat!

One of my newest "internet" artist/friends is Helen Sturgeon who lives and paints in Brasstown, NC. See her art blog HERE.  She also writes a blog about Southern cooking which you may find HERE.

Without further ado, here are Helen's own words (many of the tips refer to France, where she's done some traveling, but they could pertain to Italy, or elsewhere in Europe, just as well).  Here's well worth the read!  Note:  Helen S. suggested I should alter her words if necessary...instead of altering them, I offer some of my own comments in italics for you.

Travel tips (and words) by Helen Sturgeon: 
These are tips we have learned the hard way, gotten from websites and learned from other travelers. We hope they will help make your trip a breeze! Bon Voyage!

Packing and clothes:

• Pare Down. The amount of clothing you take shouldn't be in proportion to the length of your trip. Get past the concept of wearing a different outfit every day.  Instead, choose clothes that will wear well and/or launder easily. Choose "slinky-knit" pieces that don't require ironing. (When I paint plein air, I like to wear cargo pants with lots of pockets, and I safety pin the flaps to the pants to keep them less likely to be pickpocketed...I take extra safety pins anyway.  Helen B).

Devise a general packing list and stick to it to avoid second-guessing yourself. "The 'what-ifs' are the killer."  I lay out everything I WANT to take, put 50% back, and then go through that to decide what is really necessary.  Pack your suitcase, and then get on your bathroom scales while holding it. If it’s over 50 lbs, start taking out nonessentials. Better to know BEFORE you get to the airport than have to pay exorbitant overage fees!

I only take black pants to Europe and NO jeans.  I take “dress” pants and cotton pants. Then I take a variety of tops, t-shirts, jackets, sweaters, etc.  My airplane clothes are soft (almost like bamboo pj’s) pull on pants and loose tunic top (black) from Talbots. I take a sweater or wrap for the plane (the little airline blankets are never big enough!) 

Travelsmith  has  a nice microfiber blanket that I have considered, but have not bought. You can also get the same thing on Amazon.  The flight will be long, the plane cold, the bathrooms disgusting by the end of the long flight and the food horrible. Those are givens! If you can, schedule the late night flight to Europe. When we went to Paris, we left at 11:15pm. Everyone on the plane slept for about 6 hrs. It was the BEST flight we have ever had going over.  (NOW you tell us, Helen S!  I've already booked my flight!!!  Helen B.)

DO NOT take white tennis shoes (They scream “I’m a tourist, rob me!”).  (NOW you tell us, Helen S!!!  I spent 4 hrs at the Tanger Outlet Mall last week, trying on different shoes...the only ones that felt good were WHITE!  Helen B.)  DO take at least 2 pr of comfortable walking shoes. Be sure to get them in time to break them in really well before you leave!!!!

• Method. Place a nylon tote bag across the bottom of your suitcase (for return-trip overflow), and then "interfold" clothes with plastic drycleaner bags between them to keep them from wrinkling. To interfold, place a pair of pants, or other long item, along the bottom of your bag, allowing it to drape over the side; top with plastic, then position the next pair on the opposite side and continue, working your way toward the shorter pieces. Fill in with a layer of items that can be easily rolled (such as T-shirts), underwear, and shoes, folding the legs of the pants on top. Tuck belts and accessories into shoes and other crevices. Group toiletries into plastic freezer (heavy –duty) bags and stuff them in the middle of the bag. Add a few sheets of bubble wrap for cushioning and to wrap around gifts and souvenirs you will probably buy. Extra-large zip lock bags will hold sweaters or t-shirts and can be rolled to squish out the air, giving you a space saving “vacuum” bag at low cost.

• Plan B. In case your bags are delayed or lost, cross-pack: Pack a couple of things into your traveling companion's luggage, and vice-versa. Always travel with a change of clothing in your carry-on, or at the very least, wear something on the plane that you wouldn't mind wearing for the next few days.
My carry-on bag contains: a change of clothes, makeup samples, tiny bottles of hair supplies (shampoo, gel, conditioner, miniature hairspray), toothbrush & mini toothpaste, curling iron, umbrella, raincoat, eye wetting drops, eyeglasses case (so you have someplace to put them while you attempt to sleep on the plane!), Kindle or something to read, meds, heavy shoes (to lighten your big suitcase), camera and noise cancelling earphones.

Pack small makeup samples in your carry on and pack full size in checked luggage. Clinique has always been very generous to me with samples even filling small round containers with makeup base. I put that in my carry on and am able to freshen up or use it for a few days to supplement the big bottle in my checked bag.

This may be a no brainer to you, but for one of our travel buddies it was a “revelation”. The quart size clear plastic bag for liquids in carry-on bags as required by TSA can contain as many 2oz. bottles as you can squeeze into it! I take it as a challenge to lay the bag on its side and work it like a puzzle, getting in numerous small bottles, mini deodorant, toothpaste, etc. The bottles/containers do not have to BE 2oz, just not over 2oz. each.

I do NOT wear or take any good jewelry. I leave my diamonds (rings, necklace, etc.) in the bank lock box. I only wear a simple gold wedding band, inexpensive watch and costume jewelry.  In France, every woman we saw wore a scarf – warm weather or cool! At the price of clothes there, I totally understood. They wore classic colors and the scarf dressed it up or down. Good system, in my opinion.
Things I wouldn’t leave home without:
iPad and usb camera adapter. With the adapter you can plug in your camera card, download selected photos and email them home as you travel.
Toilet seat covers (you can buy small purse size pkg in travel section of drugstore) most  toilets in Europe have NO toilet seats at all!
Bar of your favorite bath soap and a small ziploc bag to store it in
Washcloth – most hotels do not provide wash cloths (be prepared for their bath towels to be on the tiny side too.  And thin.  Helen B.)
A few coat hangers
Purse size Kleenex (sometimes it will have to double for TP) Take several pkgs.
Travel clock
Extra zip lock bags- several sizes
Bubble wrap for wrapping souvenirs
A microfiber tote bag with zipper top (I got mine at Wal Mart for $10) I use it on the way back to carry on souvenirs, purse, etc. Just throw it all in and that becomes my personal carry on.
Foldable small nylon tote bag (Eddie Bauer – they look like coin purses when folded up) Many stores don’t provide bags. We use these for carrying all sorts of things on day trips.
Neoprene wine carrier ( I got one at Marshall’s)  great for bringing home any bottle – olive oil, perfume, wine . Large Ziploc bag to put the wine bag in.. because it has to go in your checked bag. Pack it in the middle of the bag surrounded by dirty clothes. So far, I’ve not had one to break.
Prune/plum “ones” – individually wrapped prunes
A collapsible water bottle so you can fill it with tap water. Bottled water is VERY expensive.

General Travel Tips
(or things you might not think about and wish you had!)

Make a copy of everything in your purse (front and back) credit cards, driver license, passport, etc.  Bill registers us with the US State Dept website  “STEP - Smart Traveler Enrollment Program” (app available for iPhone or iPad) in case of emergency.

Carry 1 credit card. Tell the credit card company where and when you are going. Leave your check book at home! Many places in Europe do not take Amex. Many small shops/snack bars, do not take credit cards. (My bank just recently suggested I take a debit card too, in case the credit card gets lost.  And to set up a separate bank account back home for these cards, with a fixed amount of money in it.  Helen B.)

Get Euros before leaving the US. Most banks can order them for you for a small fee (sometimes free). Get a few small bills. Order Euros in amt. you will actually need, not in US dollars (ex. $500 Euros, not US $500 worth of Euros) EVERYTHING in Europe is expensive. While there, do NOT think in dollars, it will drive you crazy. Deal and think in Euros.

Print out your itinerary, emergency numbers, hotel numbers, address, etc. and put a copy in your all of your luggage, wallet, purse, etc.

If you have a safe in your hotel, leave your passport in it when you go out. Take a photocopy with you.  (We're staying in apartments, so please don't leave your valuables in the apartments since it's unlikely they'll have safes in them.  Helen B.)

Pack extra batteries for camera so you can charge one in the room and still have fresh batteries every day.  You may want to purchase an extra memory card for your camera.

Take an electric converter for small appliances (curling iron, hair dryer, etc.)  Your curling iron will NOT get as hot as in US! AND in Paris, mine did not work at all. My hairdryer did not get very hot, either.  So, get a good haircut before you go and be prepared for the worst! Always have a “plan B”.

Take an ‘across the body’ purse with inside zippers and compartments. (I wear a neck stash inside my shirt, as well as an "across the body" purse for evenings out...with very little in it.  Helen B.) ALWAYS be on the alert for pick pockets. A couple on one of our trips had their passports, cash and credit cards stolen off his body and out of her purse without ever feeling it! (Pickpockets love backpacks worn on the back...pls be aware!  Helen B.)

Air conditioning in Europe is not as cold as ours. You may be staying in a 400 yr old bldg…. what do you expect?
Even on buses, it was warm.  Many hotels and restaurants do not even have air conditioning at all. Sit outside at a restaurant if you can. It’s cooler and better for people watching!  (We're traveling in October when it will be cooler out, but the same could hold true for the heating conditions.  That's why it's good to pack layers.  Helen B.)

Do not expect to get ice. IF you order Coke, it will not taste the same as here, will have little (if any) ice and will cost a fortune. Drink the tap water or table water. Bottled water over there typically is carbonated. If you drink bottled water, ask for NO GAS (unless, of course, you like it!).  It almost all is mineral water (which tastes salty to me). House wines are better than you can imagine – especially in Italy! A glass of wine generally costs less than a Coke or bottle of water. (I’m sure you already know – there is no such thing as iced tea in Europe!) We paid as much as 8 euro for a bottle of water.

Bathrooms are often unisex with stalls for all. Don’t be startled to see a man at the sink when you exit a stall! I nearly fainted the 1st time this happened to me! They think nothing of it.  (This very same thing happened to me in Italy...except I was walking INTO what I thought was the ladies' bathroom and this fellow was in front of his...ahem, urinal...scared me the first time!  I jumped back outside the door, took another peek at the sign on the door, and realized it had both the male and the female symbols posted on the door!  You should also know that some toilets in restaurants, etc. are just porcelain holes in the ground, and you kind of have to hover over them...well, you do!  At least those holes in the ground were inside the stalls....weren't they?!  Helen B.)

If you go into a coffee bar for an espresso, you stand at the bar to drink it. IF you sit at a table, you pay more.  Cappuccino is not drunk after 10am! If you do not want either of these, Café Americano is just a “normal” size cup of coffee (and not as strong as espresso). They do NOT refill your cup.  Espresso does not have as much caffeine as coffee. Go figure THAT one! I drink café au lait – half coffee and half hot milk.  (I'm not sure if the coffee strengths that Helen S refers to here also applies in Italy...I just remember it being strong!  It took me 1 week to get used to it, and then I really, really missed it when I got back home 2 weeks later!  Helen B.)

In a restaurant, you “buy” the time at the table for as long as you wish. You will pay a table charge – usually about 2 euros. They will never rush you through a meal and you can sit as long as you wish, linger over a glass of wine or cup of coffee and people watch. Meals are an event! You will most likely have to ask (nicely!) for the check. (I've heard that in Italy it costs you more than that to "sit" at a table, say for lunch.  Most places are cheaper if you stand at the designated bars.  Helen B.)

Learn a few key phrases in their language:
basic greetings: hello , good bye and good evening
please and thank you
excuse me
and some form of compliment – this is good, this is pretty, etc..
(Note:  One of my other artist friends, Anne, recently told me about this wonderful website where you can learn any language for FREE!  Go to  You can at least learn the basic phrases as Helen S mentions, and then some!  Helen B.)

We do not realize how many words we use that have multiple meanings and how many times we use “slang”. They learned proper English from a textbook and do not get inferences. Be very literal in every conversation.

 Learn to ask for a carafe of tap water (French, un carafe doah – phonetics) and learn how to ask for the bill (French, l’addition, se vous plait) ALWAYS use please and thank you with wait staff etc.
That seems like a no brainer, too, but it makes SUCH a difference! If you do not ask for the bill, you may sit for hours at a restaurant feeling ignored, but actually they see it as being polite. NEVER snap your fingers or call out to a waiter in Europe! You will NEVER get your bill if you do!

Don’t talk to the security people at the airport. Only answer when asked a question. Do not volunteer anything. Do not carry on anything that might even seem suspicious. (Bill bought coffee in metal cans but packed it in his checked bag, rather than carryon.) They do NOT play in European airports. Because they have had terrorist attacks many times so they are very serious.  Bill gets nervous and wants to make jokes with them. They do not understand what he’s saying and that makes them nervous! Then they REALLY go through the bags and pat you down!

If you’re on your own in a European city, buy a Streetwise city map. They are laminated and fold easily. They are invaluable! Study it before you go. Mark your hotel location so you can easily find it!

Study before you go. Research where you’re going. Look up things on the map. Get a general idea of what there is to see and do in the area. We always have a plan. Sometimes it’s loose and always with options.  website is a wonderful resource for all kinds of travel info from hotel and restaurant recommendations to general travel info. I have found numbers of good restaurants there.

Go with the intention of becoming immersed in the culture of the country. Do not visit McDonald’s or expect doggie bags and “to go” cups. You might as well stay home if you do. Expect that it WILL be different and embrace that.  You will return with a new appreciation for home.
My thanks to Helen Sturgeon for her invaluable travel tips today!  What a concise, sensible list to keep handy!  Does anyone else have a tip we haven't thought of yet?  Please feel free to send them my way!  

Come with me (Helen K. Beacham) and Kelly Medford to paint Venice this October...

Click HERE for details!