Travel Tips from a Honeymooner in Europe

I have been a bit distracted with a hectic spring semester and quickly putting together a 25-day fieldwork trip to Northern Ireland and Ireland from which I returned a few weeks ago, so my travel writing has been a big behind. And now I have two more countries to add to my growing list of places to write about! While I take some extra time to perfect some upcoming pieces on Egypt (this is my country three generations back, so I want to put even more care into this writing), I am lending my little corner here to my sister. Kristy just returned from her honeymoon and wanted to share her travel trips and stories with all of you. Hopefully soon we can write about a trip together! We have had a sister trip in Paris dream for, well, ever. (I even mentioned it in my maid of honor toast). Without further ado, I’ll turn it over to her!

My sister and brother-in-law watched our St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the airport on the way to their honeymoon. They watched us become champions in Game 7 in the early morning in their Santorini hotel.

Kalispera (good evening), readers! I’m coming to you live from a quaint B&B in Agerola, Italy, ready to jot down some thoughts about the first week of my travels in Greece.

First things first, my name is Kristy, and I am Stephanie’s sister. I asked her if I could do a few guest blogs on here about my current trip to Greece and Italy, partly because I’ve always wanted to try my hand at blogging and partly because I already finished my book ( Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered, a memoir of the two podcasters of “My Favorite Murder,” 10/10 recommend the book and podcast). Anyways, I am taking this two-week trip with my husband for our honeymoon! That being said, a few things you should know before delving in: a) Drew has never been out of the country before, b) I’ve only been out of the country two others times (not counting cruises/Cancun because of trip style), and c) weddings are a TON of work and I definitely made some errors trip prepping due to some wedding brain the week prior (we left the morning after our wedding), AND we moved about a week and a half before that. So I really just want to justify some of my mistakes now to people who probably don’t care. Whoops.

So, for the first entry, because of the many errors on our trip, I want to make a more general post about traveling abroad, specifically to Europe. It’ll be a bit long, but I hope you’ll find the information answers a lot of questions you may not even know you had.

Book your flights together and with generous layovers.

Savvy travelers are always looking for the cheapest flights and I totally feel that. Flights are uber expensive. We saved a bit of money by subscribing to several airline newsletter emails and watching for deals (let’s be honest, I did this and Drew probably has no clue this happened, God love him). We ended up finding a deal where you could buy extra reward miles through American Airlines/British Airways and for every x miles bought, you’d get an additional x miles. I played with the math a bit to figure out how much to buy in miles vs. pay the difference to optimize the price and went with that. Mind you, I had been watching for other cheaper flight deals, but, particularly because of the peak-season, the deals were just not rolling through for our destinations. We didn’t get a steal, but we saved a couple hundred bucks.

I wouldn’t realize how grateful I was to book all our flights, except the last leg, through all one airline until our Philadelphia-London flight was delayed by six hours. While having left a three-ish hour layover in London before our flight to Athens, I watched the time get narrower and pass. I was concerned because we had one domestic flight from Athens to Santorini that was booked separately because AA/BA doesn’t fly through there. Having most of our flights on the same airline, when we finally landed at Heathrow airport, we were greeted with new tickets immediately off the plane. We ended up going to change them anyway because of our last leg of flights, but the efficiency was commendable, and it was still super helpful to know that, one way or another, we were still going to inch towards our destination relatively stress-free (okay maybe not stress- free , but less stress). They were so accommodating and it took a huge pressure off us. It would have been perfect if we didn’t have that last flight booked separately, which was unavoidable due to our destination. Even still, they worked with us at the airline counter to make it work!

I had left a generous layover between our flights to and from Athens as well, but our flight out of Athens ended up sitting on the tarmac for almost an hour before taking off, and we ended up missing the connection to Santorini after all (that last separate flight). Unfortunately, that was the last flight to Santorini for the night, but Air Olympic was very accommodating in setting us up in a free, super nice hotel, reimbursing us for the taxi to and from said hotel, and getting us seats on the red-eye out in the morning.

All things considered, it worked out okay despite the stress, and the moral of my long story of travel is to try to book as much of your flights through the same airline so, if something happens, they can easily see your full itinerary when they adjust your flights, and leave big layovers (three to four hours) between legs of your flights to leave some wiggle room. To be fair, that six-hour delay is the longest delay I’ve ever had for a flight, so maybe it’s just dumb bad luck, but best to be prepared.

Know the rules for your luggage.

Experienced travelers will always tell you to try to pack in a carry-on if you can. It lowers the risk of bags getting lost and makes connections much easier. It also saves time checking in, and we all know the airport is only super crowded when you’re running late. So when Drew and I left for our honeymoon, we packed carefully and each had a carry-on suitcase + my personal item. In the US, as long as it fits the size restrictions, you’re good. However, what we didn’t know is that some airlines have a weight limit on these carry-on suitcases as well. Agean Air and Alitalia* each would allow only 8kg for a carry-on or they would check it; some let us take 10kg. We had no idea and were shocked when our bags were checked at the gate from London to Athens. Problem was, due to all our flight delays and getting a next-day flight to Santorini, our luggage was stuck in transfer to be put on our flight the next morning while we were spending the night in a hotel. Moral of the story, check all the luggage details, including weight for carry-ons, because they vary by airline and some have more explicit specifications.

*Note: Alitalia does have this rule, but, at least on our flight, I never saw them weigh any carry-ons at the gate. Maybe because our flight wasn’t full? Not sure. Just be aware of the risk.

*Packing note: keep your absolute must-have toiletries (i.e. toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant) in your personal item just in case your other bag gets checked at the gate or gets lost. Or both, lol. Take that “lol” back, too soon. I know that Steph was super thankful to have her essentials in a carry-on when her checked bag was lost for the first five days of her study abroad trip.

Pack smart.

This may seem obvious, but I wish I had gone through my itinerary and clothes one more time before we left (calling wedding on this one because there simply was NOT time). I had forgotten while packing that our Air BnB in Athens had a washer/dryer and we were staying there exactly half-way through our trip, so I could have dropped several items from my luggage and really maximized my space better. I highly recommend having at least one of your accommodations with laundry facilities so you can do this; our Air BnB even gave us two free laundry pods, but you can easily swing by a market and grab some detergent too. Plus, you’ll probably be doing lots of walking, hiking, etc., and as acceptable/understandable as it is to re-wear clothes on your travels, you’ll appreciate a good wash, particularly in cities like Athens or Rome with ancient ruins (aka lots of dust!). This double checking will also help you not forget the essentials you laid out in plain sight so you wouldn’t forget (again, calling wedding brain here) like your beach bag and your super fly, collapsible silicone water bottles you bought just for your trip (which you can find here).

*Tip: Use space-saving compression bags to maximize your luggage space. My husband packed normal on the way to Europe and then used the compression bags after we (I) made some purchases to make everything fit/I forced him to carry my things because I can’t resist buying pottery! For more packing tips, check out this post from Steph.

No matter where you are, always ask the cab price before you get in.

Most bigger tourist destinations have a set price from, say, the airport to the city center or x landmark to the south city etc. If you don’t ask the price upfront, they can way upcharge you, particularly if they sense you’re desperate or in a hurry. Others are strictly meter. But ask first because, if it is a set price and they don’t say upfront, they can make up whatever number at the end. Also, have cash for the taxi . Very few have card swipers and they are also not always a huge fan of giving change.

It’s okay to get lost and ask for directions.

You’re in a foreign city where you speak maybe smatterings of the language, rely solely on restaurant free Wi-Fi because international cell phone plans can be expensive, and the presence of road signs may be questionable. You will get lost. And sometimes that’s the best part of traveling. So embrace it, relax, and take a stroll. If you start to panic, ask a local shop owner or a friendly local on the street for directions – I’ve never been turned down. Try to avoid the typical tourist shops/street vendors when doing this, as, in my experience, they tend to want money in return/you to buy something for their sometimes-vague directions. It may be worth it at that point, just go in knowing.

What I do is put a few of my big things to hit that day into my Maps App from my hotel and take copious screen shots so I can see the surrounding streets, etc. I usually hit up some of my must-sees and mosey my way to the next, wandering through the back streets or stopping for a little side adventure on the way. In my opinion, it’s the best way to experience the area and usually where you find the best, less-touristy, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and artisan shops. So don’t panic, get a little lost, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Make an effort to speak the language.

Did I take a crash course in Greek before our honeymoon? Hell no. Honestly, I’d call Greek my biggest language fail as far as my international travels are concerned. I’m a) going to pull the wedding card here, and b) going to say that Greek was particularly hard for me to pick up on. Traveling to places that speak a Latin-based language has been much easier for me because of the similarities to French, so I can usually get by with some good cognates and Google translate. Also, I was frankly exhausted in Greece post-wedding and my efforts were minimal (not an excuse, just an explanation mostly so I feel better). But I’m redeeming myself here in Italy as I write this, and I highly recommend you do the same. It is greatly appreciated by the locals and they will even try to help you with your language. It shows that you are coming to their country to appreciate their culture and way of life in a small way by trying to acclimate. And frankly, it’s a bit rude to assume they will just all speak English. Sure, many will, but it’s their country and they have their own language. Some of the best places I’ve been are just a little outside the tourist spots where locals’ English is about as good as my Greek. So make an effort. You’d want them to do the same.

*Tip: Download the Google translate app and you can pre-download a language dictionary while still in Wi-Fi to use offline. This is so helpful; I can’t emphasize it enough. This will greatly expand your ability to travel outside of the main tourist areas and help you read menus better, because the only thing more important than the views when you travel is the food.

Have enough cash before you leave, and check your cards.

Unlike the US, much of Europe functions on cash. Bigger restaurants and shops will have card readers, but I have sometimes still been asked if I have cash instead. Also, a lot of the smaller artisan shops and those great local restaurants we love may not have a card reader. Save yourself time and money by getting quite a bit of cash exchanged before you leave. Many of your US banks will do this for free and withdraw directly from your checking account. If you wait until you get there, you’ll be hard-stretched to find an exchange without a fee. You can use your debit to withdraw from an ATM abroad, but most cards have a 3-5% foreign transaction fee (credit and debit) for purchases and cash withdrawals abroad, unless you have a travel card, so be wise and get at least some before you leave.

*A note on travel cards: I have a DiscoverIt Miles Travel card with no foreign transactions fee. However, many places did not accept this card, even when it showed they took “Diners International” (this is what is on the back of the Discover Card and what to look for on signs). It was probably 50-50 if it would work. Thankfully I had a back-up card and had no problem using my Visa or Mastercard (tried and true from other trips as well). It seems like a lot of Europe just has not jumped on the Discover train yet, so keep that in mind.

*Note: Remember to put a travel notice on any credit/debit card you bring with you (always have a backup!). You can usually do this online or in the bank app for your card and list the countries you’ll be in for certain days. If you don’t do this, the company will very likely freeze your card after you use it once!

*A word of caution: I could not use my US Bank debit card (Visa) in Greece at any available ATM for some reason. We had a Mastercard debit that worked fine, and my Visa worked totally fine in Italy and has worked in France, too. The travel notices were correct. Not sure what’s up with that, and it was only an issue for ATM withdrawal, not other payments, so heads up if that’s your card to have plenty of cash before you get there.

Get a refund on the VAT.

Okay, I promise I’m going to close this out soon. Let me break down this last, EU-specific thing. In the EU they have a Value Added Tax that can be pretty high. It is almost always included in the price (which is super nice because you know exactly what you will pay at the register, probably why they can still use cash so efficiently – HELLO, US, ARE YOU LISTENING?). Anyway, most of the time, your money is as good as gone. However, if you spend over a certain amount, which varies by country but is often a range of 70-120 euros minimum, you can get a refund on the tax. This only applies to goods, not services like a hotel room, rental car, excursion, etc. If you spend over the amount, you need to ask the vendor for a refund form. Sometimes they don’t offer it, even though they should, so remember to ask. This is true at all stores; a few smaller ones may say no, but all places with a “VAT-Free” sign should absolutely have this. They’ll need your passport to create the refund form, so be sure to have that along on your shopping (otherwise keep it in a locked safe! Don’t want that pick-pocketed).

At the last airport you’re in before you leave the EU is when you need to worry about the refund. There should be a well-marked kiosk area before you enter security, where you will need to bring all the receipts, refund forms given to you by the vendors, and the unused items you purchased. Sometimes these lines can be very long, so you should arrive at least an hour earlier than you would normally for a flight to get this done. Depending on the amount, they will either give you cash in your home currency on the spot or you will receive it in the mail. If you bought items at a tax-free store, you still need to do the refund, as it will prevent the additional tax from being charged to your credit card later!

Well, my verbosity has gotten the best of me again (who’s surprised?), but I hope that some of you will learn from my stumbling. Next time (if Steph lets me back on her blog after this essay of a post) I’ll take you through Santorini and Athens on a glorious, relaxing honeymoon in Greece.

Do we sign off on these things? I’m not sure how blogs work yet.

Ciao,

Kristy

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