Travel Tips

I’ve been lucky enough to be afforded two weeks of vacation time since I’ve been away in Slovenia, which is an exciting prospect when you live in such a small country. That’s because that means you can easily—and cheaply—travel to several nearby countries to catch a taste of another culture.

While Slovenia is about as big as New Jersey, crossing the border into Croatia, Austria, Hungary, or Italy, provides a much, much greater cultural difference than crossing into New York, Pennsylvania, or Delaware. In addition to visiting the countries I’ve just mentioned, which border Slovenia, I’ve also had the chance to meander into Germany, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

Along the way, I’ve picked up a few European travel tips…

1. The train is always cheaper… and for good reason. Country learned: Hungary.

For a small wad of cash—namely, only 39 euros—I was able to book a ticket from Ljubljana to Budapest, where I was set to meet a friend who was visiting from the U.S. but found a cheaper ticket to Budapest rather than to Slovenia.

Great deal! I thought to myself. Especially for such a long ride! The train ride was set to take just over 10 hours.

When I got to Budapest, talking to a local, I realized that by car, it takes just over four hours.

At least I met some British girls on the train as well, so we could chat about their visit to Ljubljana and sing along to English-language songs.

2. Go to the bathroom at a free restroom whenever you have the chance. Country learned: Austria.

While walking along in Vienna, I suddenly decided I had to use the restroom. My friend and I started hunting for somewhere that would have some kind of bathroom facilities, looking of the universal stick figures on a door, or the sign: WC. No such luck.

A half hour later, I thought: Ah! There’s a McDonald’s! They’ve got to have a restroom!

And they did, of course. But it cost around 50 euro cents to use, as do many public restrooms in other European countries.

At least they are usually clean.

3. Be prepared for inauthentic food if you dine at odd hours. Country learned: Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, and well, everywhere.

After arriving past 8 p.m. off the train from bordering Slovakia, my friend and I dropped our bags off in our hostel and set out to find some authentic food. The only thing we could find in our price range? A McDonald’s. Talk about a disappointing first night.

Well, we might have been disappointed if we hadn’t run into something similar. After I arrived off my 10+ hour train journey in Budapest, I was starving. My friend and I dropped my bag off at the hostel and set out to find somewhere—anywhere—that was open. That night, we deemed price to be no object.

No such luck.

We walked and walked for blocks around our hostel, but we must not have been in the culinary center of the city. All we could find was a Burger King and a fast food Chinese chain called Kínai Büfé (Chinese Buffet).

“We’ll always have Kínai Büfé,” I said with good humor as we dug into some inauthentic sweet and sour chicken.

We were not so good humored about it after exiting a wonderful opera performance in Vienna—to which we’d scored standing balcony tickets for a few euros a few hours prior—and we realized that we were going to have to eat at the Austrian version of the Kínai Büfé since it was past 10 p.m.

Good thing we’d eaten a lovely traditional Austrian lunch that day.

4. Don’t lose your hat. Country learned: Slovakia.

I’m still not sure how that happened. One moment, my friend had his hat on his head, and the next moment, it was gone.

That makes for a cold head for the rest of your vacation if you’re traveling in the winter.

5. Budget your money carefully. Country learned: Croatia.

While most countries are on the euro now, some—including the Czech Republic (koruna, or crown), Hungary (forint), and Croatia (kuna)—still maintain their own currencies. After several trips to the ATM in Hungary, I swore we wouldn’t do the same in Brno, Czech Republic.

That meant, when I ran out of the small amount of cash I’d taken out, we didn’t have enough fare for the tram from our hostel to the train station.

“No big deal,” we both said. “We remember basically where it is.”

The tram had taken a little more than 10 minutes the day before.

Our walk took more than four hours.

I still refuse to talk about it.

In Croatia, we had it down to a science: we took out the equivalent of $50 for the day, and somehow, by the time we were eating dinner—near the train station, mind you—we’d managed to use it all up, down to the last kuna. As that was our last stop during our 6 days of travel, we could sit back and smile—because we’d finally figured out how to budget our money, we were at the train station, and we—finally!—were not eating Chinese food again.

Published last week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers.

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