It all happened so fast - we planned (briefly), we went, and now we're back. How did we end up in Europe without much warning? Well, you know that scene from When Harry Met Sally in which Sally is talking about her failed relationship with Joe of which the highlight was the fact that they didn't have kids and could fly off to Rome at a moment's notice? Sally and Joe never went to Rome - never took advantage of their freedom. Well, we did. Not to Rome, however, but to Barcelona, Paris, Bruges, the Canary Islands and Madrid.
For 8 months, we let anything and everything get in the way of our honeymoon - weather, exams, work, etc. We considered going to an all-inclusive tropical getaway that required little planning but, in the end, we really wanted to see the world while we're free to do so (that is, before we get a puppy). And so we picked a date to leave that was less than 4 weeks away, with the intention of going to Barcelona, Paris, and Bruges. But since we were flying all the way to Europe we couldn't miss the opportunity to visit our nephew and family in Gran Cararia. And the best flight deal we could find was in and out of Madrid - so we extended our layover there to get a few days in. Thus, we ended up with a random assortment of cities and circled our way around the continent.
Gare du Nord, Paris
Our trip did not leave a light carbon footprint but we hadn't left Argentina for nearly 2 years, so I figure we saved up for it! We took 6 planes including our trans-continental flights, connections, and 2 low-cost carriers (Vueling and Ryanair). We took a Thalys train to Bruges and also from Bruges to Charleroi airport. We stayed in 3 hotels and 2 B&Bs. Our planning was mostly focused on these travel/lodging logistics for the first few weeks. A key goal was to carry our luggage onto the flights, so as not to waste time (and money!) with checked baggage and to also avoid dragging a huge suitcase on and off of public transportation in strange foreign lands. So we each took a suitcase that conformed to the airlines' size requirements for cabin luggage - Ryanair's is a thin 20 cm for width. The tricky part was keeping them each under 10 kilos - we had to start lighter since we knew we would be picking up a few things on the road. Ryanair was the only airline to actually weigh every cabin bag (Guille's was a little over at that point but mine was under so they let us slide...whew). Thankfully, we didn't have to start layering clothing and filling our pockets to lessen the weight of our bags like several other travelers did.
Our luggage on Ryanair
Of the multitude of guides that we searched through, we relied on TripAdvisor for hotel reviews (though I don't recommend it for restaurants - a lot of travelers seem to prefer the Hard Rock Cafe over local eateries), TimeOut and Lonely Planet online guides for restaurants/things to do, and DK Eyewitness Guides (Top 10) for carrying around on our iPods - but these were better for sightseeing than restaurant/bar/club tips. Lonely Planet has a mapping feature that would be great if you have time to plan your entire trip in advance and have continuous mobile internet access (or want to carry around print-outs), but is less helpful as an on-the-go tool. Still, I made a few maps because it let me visualize where I was going and then help me find interesting spots in those areas. Lonely Planet is good for finding hotels but not so much for user reviews. I also used Google Maps to visualize cities in order to plan for transportation vs. walking but, again, you can't create a map and then access it on your iPhone so you'll have to carry print-outs. TimeOut provided current info on both trendy and traditional spots, but you'll need an Internet connection to read through it and will have to look up directions elsewhere.
HopStop is an absolute must for getting around NYC but I found that the Paris version to be as stand-offish as a Parisian waiter. It was really picky about addresses and didn't recognize 'places of interest' such as Notre Dame and the airport. We used the free MetrO iPhone app instead for directions on public transportation - once you download the maps they're accessible offline.
Trying to be tech-saavy, I used TripIt, an iPhone app that lets you forward your confirmation emails and automatically populates your trip with flight and hotel information, along with maps and weather. It worked for about half of our plans and the other I typed in. It was a great place to track the important stuff and could have been more useful for directions if we would have had time to plan out all locations we wanted to visit and add the addresses to TripIt. Still, a girl needs a little spontaneity. You can use the TripIt Google map or the Google maps app on iPhones (easy to add bookmarks) and use these as offline maps/directions but you need to zoom in on each part of the city that you want to see and also read through all the steps for directions while connected to the Internet first. This is super helpful for getting yourself around town, especially when used together with GPS to find where you're at on the map.
More on our tour to come!