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Things I’ve learned along the way…

August 25, 2010

Do you ever think about what you would do if you had a million dollars? I don’t have to think about it. I know what I would do. After tithe, missions, and investing most of it, I would immediately take a fun vacation to some exotic locale.

But, thankfully you don’t have to be a millionaire to take fun, exotic vacations! I complain about air travel, and long flights, but really, I am so thankful I don’t live back in the day where you had to take a 3 month boat ride just to visit a foreign country! Travel today has become so incredibly easy. And cheap. And that makes me happy. =)

When I think about the fact that I only got my passport FIVE years ago, I am amazed. That little book has opened up a whole new world (haha, literally) to me and these past five years have been FUN! I am certainly no seasoned traveler, although hopefully someday I will be! But here are a few things I have learned along the way: (these will mostly apply to European locations)

1. If you are charged a VAT, make sure you remember to get your refund! In most European countries, if you spend over a certain amount of money, on certain items, you will be charged a Value Added Tax, which is refundable for visitors. The merchant will fill out a form that you must then get stamped at customs and mail in for your refund. If, however, you sail through customs, not giving thought to the paper that must be validated, then you have just kissed your refund goodbye. Yes, I have done this. Yes, it was only a 14.00 refund. And yes, it still bothered me. I generally don’t buy very expensive items on vacation, I’d rather spend the money on an activity or event than a trinket. But sometimes you do really want that authentic, hand blown, Murano glass vase or that Swiss watch, (or in my case those sparkly Swarovski earrings and rings…) so make sure you get your VAT paper stamped when you get back to your home country! It’s like a “do-it-yourself” sale.

2. If it’s something that you really want to do/buy,  do it! You may never have this chance again. Yes it’s expensive, but when will you come back again? In the years to come you won’t regret the 100 bucks you spent for the last minute seat to see the Salzburg Palace Concert if that is your thing, but you will remember the memories and experiences for years to come. Do I regret not spending the 250.00 for dinner and orchestra seats to see Mary Poppins on London’s West End when I was there the first time? Yes, I do. At the time it was a lot of money (okay, still is) and I had already spent thousands, so I decided not to go. But now, if I wanted to do that, I would spend thousands just to fly to London, get a hotel, transportation, Broadway tickets, etc. So would it have been worth it to go the first time? Yes, because it is something I STILL want to do. On my second trip to Europe, my friend and I wanted to go to Rome, but she didn’t want to spend the extra 300.00 that it would have cost to do so. She said “I’ll come again.” So now, to see Rome, I am going to spend thousands, instead of the 300.00 it would have cost me to just go when I was there last. Was it more money at the time? Yes. But it’s even MORE money now. My motto is “if you really want to do it, then do it.” You will never regret the memories and in the long run it will probably save you money!

3. If there is a free bathroom in sight, USE it. Even if you don’t have to go.  =) This I learned well throughout the many European countries we traveled. Bathrooms (or WCs as they are mostly universally called) are generally not free in Europe. You will either pay a set price to use one, or you will have to give the cleaning lady a tip on your way out. There are a few different systems used, depending on which country you are in. A new system that had just gone into effect in Germany when I was there was that you would pay .50 Euro to get into the bathroom via turnstile and then it would give you a coupon for .50 Euro off your purchase in the store. Okay, fair enough. At least you are getting something in return. Most of them are not like that. We generally paid between .35 pence in Britain up to a Euro in parts of Europe to use the restroom. (Side note here, if there is no set price, just a cleaning lady, wait until the latest tour bus crowd has departed and then use the restroom. The cleaning lady will have vanished and you won’t have to pay. This I learned after a week or so) BUT, every once in a while there will be a store, restaurant, etc. that will have a “free” restroom and take advantage if you want to save money. Believe me, at a Euro a stop, it can add up after a few weeks.

4.. Do your homework ahead of time. I highly recommend traveling with a tour group. There are just so many advantages to this, I couldn’t even list them all. Especially if you haven’t been to that country before, or don’t feel comfortable with the language. A tour will take care of EVERYTHING. You couldn’t possibly mess up a vacation like this. (And, if you decide you’d like to come back on your own someday, you’ve already had a nice overview of the country and are better prepared to set out on your own.) But even on these tours, do your homework. Read the reviews of the tours you are thinking about taking. Read the reviews of the optional excursions too. Others who have already done these tours will list the things that they did/n’t like about each thing and you can decide if it’s something you really want to do or not. This is also a good way to discover if this is an activity you can book on your own, or if it would be better to book it through the travel company. An example from my last trip is that I booked a trip to the top of one of the Swiss Alps via my travel company. This didn’t seem feasible to book on my own. But we did not book a gondola ride in Venice though our travel company. I had read a review online that said you could easily do this on your own, and so we saved 20.00 Euro each by doing this excursion on our own. So sometimes it’s worth it to pay a bit more and go with the others from the travel group, and sometimes it’s not. It is worth doing some internet research ahead of time though.

5. Travel between European countries is EASY and CHEAP! Whether it’s by rail or by train, you can easily get from one country to another for about 60.00. That might be the same price you pay for your MEAL in Europe, so eating there isn’t cheap, but traveling is. =)  (if you want your European vacation (or “holiday” as they call it) to be cheap, consider fasting while you are there. =) (kidding)

6. Be open to new ideas, meeting new people, trying new things, and just having fun. I have learned SO much from my limited travel experience.  I feel my best geography lessons have not come from school, but from traveling. You can learn about new cultures, different languages, geography, history, exotic cuisines, art, just about anything. I hope I have the opportunity to keep traveling and learning for the rest of my life!

Happy travels!

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