Thursday, February 24, 2011

Weekender in Europe

This blog is called "TwoDC" for a reason. It describes those things that the two of us do in DC. So why then would we post something about our recent trips to Europe (pictured: Madrid and Paris)? Good question. Let me explain.

When you grow up in Southern California and move to DC, that means several things. First, it means that in order to visit friends and family you end up making a lot of weekend trips to the West Coast. To that point, we traveled to California 6 times in 2010 alone, and never stayed more than 3 nights.

The other thing about growing up on the West Coast is that you develop a belief that Europe is this far-off destination (at least a 12 hour flight) that requires an embarrassment of riches and two weeks of vacation.

It took us a couple of years but I think we've finally figured it out. If we can do a 36 hour trip to LA (which is a 6 hour flight) over a weekend, why not do the same in the opposite direction? Sure, travel is somewhat of a pain and a 7 hour flight is nothing to sneeze at. But unless you've hit the life lottery, you'll probably never have the time, money, health, etc. to make frequent travel easy. Instead, you have to make it a priority.

But when you decide to pick a weekend and fly off to Paris, you'll find it isn't as hard or as expensive as you might think. Here is the formula that works for us:
  • Find a 3-day weekend and add a day: Remember, just because you get the day off to celebrate President's Day, that doesn't mean that Europeans do (i.e., not always long-weekend crowds). 4 days gives you 3 days in a city which is enough to get a taste.

  • Minimize jet lag through scheduling: Take the after work red-eye and sleep as much as you can on the way there. Arrive in the morning and stay active. The excitement of the trip will carry you through that first day in Europe. On the fourth day, take the afternoon flight home (arriving in the evening) and try to stay awake on the plane. You'll be tired when you get home and have no problem going to bed that evening.

  • A smooth flight is everything: You don't want to waste a day in Europe recovering from a bad flight. Fly direct if possible. Choose a plane with TVs at every seat. Choose seats strategically; J and I now seek out planes with rows of only 2 seats (often found near the back) leading to more room and one less aggravation.

  • Find a deal: Traveling in low-season might mean less than ideal weather but also prices that are half what they usually are. Go where the deals are. We flew direct to Madrid last May for $400 per person on a promotional fare.

  • Soak it all in: Do the touristy things but also dive into the culture. Don't fly across the sea to do the same things you can do at home. This might mean eating or experiencing something odd or disturbing (note: we included the picture where the bull appears to be winning, but that's not the whole story).

  • Do your homework: Some people like guide books (we like the Eyewitness series) and others like the Travel Channel. Either way, study up on what you'll be seeing and doing. It provides for an infinitely richer experience. Study a map and the public transit situation. You don't want to do this on the fly. And don't forget to learn a few key phrases. You'll be surprised how far that extra effort will get you.
  • Be spontaneous:It is cliche but what is more evocative of youthful love than dreams of weekends in Paris? Just do it. And once you're there, go with the flow. Part of the beauty of travel is being open to those situations that are completely unplanned.
So there it is, our quick guide to a quick weekender in Europe. Now what are you waiting for?

J Says

I still remember my first long flight. I was 8 years old and my family flew from LA to New York for a summer vacation. I remember sitting in that United seat (it seemed so big back then) and being in awe of the overhead movie and the airplane food. Fast forward a couple decades and a zillion flights and, while I'm not in awe of plane travel, I remain just as wide eyed about setting foot in a new destination. Ask B about the first time I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower...

Yes, we understand that not everyone can just pick up and go to Paris for the weekend. However, we are proof that it isn't as hard as you might think it is. B's tips are great but I'll add a couple of my own:

Make your plane seat your friend: We can't afford to fly first class. Instead, what I've learned to do is to make my coach seat as comfy as possible. I travel with a comfort kit that includes fuzzy socks, a folding footrest (seriously), an eye mask, ear plugs, neck pillow, travel blanket, Benadryl, sanitizing wipes, Emergen-C, a healthy snack, headphones and a great book. Call me crazy or OCD but I guarantee I'm one of the most comfortable people in coach. This stuff all fits in a backpack that can slide right under the seat.

Research your food options
: You don't want to land in a country where you don't speak the language and get ripped off on a crappy meal. Know where you want to eat and map it out. For Paris, I used Twitter to solicit meal suggestions and got some great tips. Other resources are your friends who have been before you, and countless food/travel websites. I always check Tom's Postcards before a journey, too. However, even with all the planning in the world, sometimes the best memories come from just trying something on the street.

Chill the Eff Out: As you can probably tell, I have a tendency to over-plan and over-worry. However, traveling has taught me that the best way to enjoy yourself is to go with the flow. In Madrid, I might have had a slight panic attack about missing a train. After wiping away a few tears (and boarding the train with plenty of time) I realized that missing the train wasn't the end of the world. Take a deep breath and take the time to look around you.

Leave your phone at home:
You don't need your smart phone for traveling. While I appreciate the safety and convenience of these devices, I also appreciate not having my work email at easy access. I wear a crappy watch and carry a foldable map. The rest we work out by asking locals or hotel concierges. You usually can always send the "we're alive" email to your family from the hotel's business center anyway. Trust me, those zillion work emails will be there when you return.

Bon voyage and enjoy. There's a big world out there waiting for us to check it out.

1 comment:

SB said...

Truly excellent tips, and a comfort kit like yours goes a long way toward making that 7-hour flight more enjoyable.

I would also add that some places you just know you will return to so don't try to see everything in 3 days. Allow time for people watching on patios or in squares and leave some touristing for the next trip.