Hubby and I recently returned from an amazing two week vacation in The Netherlands and Belgium. We have been to Europe before, but this trip was the biggest travel endeavor I have ever taken. I learned a lot about travel, trips, and Europe, so I thought I would share some tips here.
1. Don't be afraid to plan a big trip yourself - Initially, we contacted a travel agent because I was too scared to plan a trip like this one by ourselves. We wasted time and effort with the agent. She just did not have the same vision we did, so we went in our own direction.
2. Buy the guide book - There are so many great travel guidebooks for purchase. Even on short trips, I will go to the library and borrow a copy of the guide for our destination. They give great advice and tips for the best places to visit, to eat, to shop, and to stay. I usually go for a Fodor's book, but we used Rick Steves' book for this trip. It was a great guide and we used it throughout the trip.
3. Stay in a B&B if possible - We stayed in 3 different places on our trip, and used bed and breakfasts in 2 locations. It was wonderful to share someone's home for a few days. The service was outstanding and the locations were small (one had two rooms, the other three). The hosts were amazing and were so helpful to us during the trip. It was just such a treat to be able to stay in a ship's captain's home from 1667. We also met a great couple in one of the B&Bs and have planned to get together with them here in the states. B&Bs are usually less expensive than commercial hotels, but offer the same (or better) amenities.
4. Cash! - If you are travelling to Europe, it isn't going to be cheap. As our new friends said, "Bring a few clothes, take bags of cash." We found that it was much easier to pay as much as possible with Euros. It is also less expensive in the long run. Our ATM fees were 1% of the withdrawl amount plus a nominal fee for using the machine. Credit card purchases carry a 3% transaction fee and may require a European PIN to work in certain places. We also found that our bank have a foreign currency department. We were able to order Euros from the bank and pay only a delivery fee.
5. Prepurchase tickets - While we were in Amsterdam, I knew I really wanted to see The Anne Frank House. I prepurchased the admission tickets online a few weeks before our trip. I am so glad I did. We bypassed a huge line of people and walked right in to the museum with our paper tickets.
6. Trains - The trains really intimidated me, so we prepurchased the majority of our tickets before the trip. While it did save time standing in line, I think it was cheaper to buy the tickets at the station. I think in the future, I would buy day trip tickets in the stations. For major trips to big city central stations, I would buy those tickets online. I would also buy either Thalys (high speed with assigned seating) or first class tickets. On our train from Brussels to Bruges, we had to stand for the entire 45 minute journey. It was hot and uncomfortable. We almost had the same problem from Antwerp to Amsterdam (a 2 hour trip), but we did find out you can squat in first class if you don't have a ticket or you can buy an upgrade to first class on the train. That upgrade was worth every penny to not have to stand for 2 hours in a very hot area between two cars.
7. Europe is so laid back - I love the USA - please don't understand. While travelling to Europe, however, I realized just how restrictive the US can be. Land of "Yes, we can?" More like the land of "No, you can't because it is against federal regulation US527." We toured a medieval 13th century castle by ourselves. It was worn and have very steep stairs, but we know what we were going to be doing. I wonder if the various regulatory agencies would have allowed something like that in the US. There was no handicap access, no guiderails on the stairs, no screens or safety material on the windows - it was a fantastic "at your own risk" tour.
8. English spoken here - We never had any communication problems on our trip. Although English is not their first language, we met people who could speak at least a little English. Everyone was wonderful and had no problems translating menus or anything else we needed.
9. Go for it! - You are on vacation, so do things you would not do every day. We went for a hot air balloon ride over Bruges, and it was amazing! It was such a unique and wonderful experience, and a memory I will always cherish from this trip.
10. No goofy souvenirs - For once, I decided not to buy postcards, magnets, or other dust catchers. I bought a few pieces of jewelry and we got several Belgian beer glasses which we intended to purchase during our trip. Other than that, we have about 1500 amazing pictures to remind us of this great trip.
It truly was a wonderful trip. We were excited for months leading up to this trip, but we were both scared to hope it would be everything we wanted it to be. It was everything and more. It was the greatest vacation to date. We are already thinking about our next trip to Europe. Should it be Germany/Austria or Italy?