There were so many questions too, so I thought I'd address them in a Travel Q&A Post. Ready?
1) The most asked question, hands down, was where did I get this skirt?
I wish I could link you, but it was a Forever 21 treasure...which means it'd be like searching for a needle in a haystack to find your own. Since I don't have the body of a 14-year-old boy, I can't wear the majority of their clothes, but do find the occasional top or skirt. And of course, accessories. Can't go wrong with those.
2) You mentioned traveling on a budget, can you give us the tips you use when booking accommodations, flights, etc?
Okay. I am by no means an expert, nor do I have any kind of training in the field. These are simply the tips I've learned and picked up over the years...and what works for us! We are frugal in most aspects of our life, and traveling is where we choose to spend the 'extra.' And we'd much rather take multiple budget trips, than one grand trip. To each their own, but this is how we make it work for us.
* Become a mileage whore! Every available purchase and bill goes on our Citibank card (which we pay off in full every month, I'm not advocating credit card debt people!), which in turn gives us miles on American Airlines. Choose an airline or point system that works best for you, and stick with only that program and/or credit card. Look for bonus miles opportunities, too. These days you can get bonus miles for changing your cable service to refinancing your home. In time, the miles will add up. We almost never pay for our air travel on big trips. Not paying airfare = major savings!
* If a hotel you're staying has a Membership Program (and it's free), join it! I joined the iPrefer Club the week before our stay at the Metropole Hotel. It resulted in a massive room upgrade!
* Travel during off-season, when flights require fewer miles (Coach seats in off-season are 40,000 miles vs. high-season at 60,000+ miles), and hotels slash their prices. The weather may not be prime, but you also won't be fighting the crowds, and going broke while doing so.
* Trip Advisor is the best thing to happen for travelers...ever. Hotel websites are glossy and slick. Traveler reviews and pictures on Trip Advisor are real. You do have to take some of the reviews with a grain of salt, but you'll get the gist of how well-liked a hotel you're considering is. First I narrow down my preferred neighborhoods using Frommers or Fodors, then use Trip Advisor to create a list of 3-5 well-reviewed hotels. From there, I check multiple travel booking websites to see who has the best price for my dates. It is a slightly OCD process, but planning the trip is part of the fun for me. And because I know you want to know, we try to keep our hotels at under $150/night. (Which isn't easy given the value of the dollar!) Clean and quiet are our requirements.
* Hotels outside a city's center are cheaper, but consider the time and money you'll spend each day getting to the main sites. It may make budget sense to spend a little more for location, especially if it's a quick stay. On our recent trip to Paris, we did just that. We chose the Latin Quarter, just a few blocks from Notre Dame. The time and money we saved getting around helped us to make the most of our short two day visit.
* Small, individually-owned hotels typically have the best prices. Most of their reservations are via email with the actual owner, so you're in direct contact with the decision maker. Don't hesitate to ask for a discounted price, especially if you're traveling in low season or staying several nights. It doesn't hurt to flatter them about their hotel and city either. I also always mention that we're celebrating a special anniversary, which sometimes results in a free upgrade or wine upon arrival.
* Be flexible with your schedule. When booking our train from Paris to Brussels, the Coach tickets were 58 Euro. But if we were willing to travel an hour earlier, First Class tickets dropped to 65 Euro (as opposed to the 95 Euro price at my original time). Needless to say, we got up a little earlier that day. Same was true for our hotel in Brussels. The Metropole rates are in the upper 300 Euro range during the week (it's big for business travelers.) We rearranged our schedule to stay over a weekend and the rate dropped to 100 Euro. Score!
* If your hotel includes a free breakfast, eat up! It's one less meal to buy. Rarely do we pay for a hotel's breakfast, as it's overpriced and contains the same thing we can find up the street at a cute little cafe. For half the price.
* As for the rest of our meals, we don't indulge in large, extravagant ones. We love to eat, and love to sample the local cuisine, but prefer to sample small treats throughout the day, as opposed to one gut-busting meal. And some countries frown upon it, but we split most of our dinners. That way there's room, and budget, for an appetizer, entree and dessert!
* Finally, decide what is most important to you while on a trip...transportation, hotel, food, souvenirs...splurge in those areas and go budget on the rest.
3) I am dying to plan something like this. Can you tell me your itinerary? Where you stayed and how you traveled?
All our travel to/from airports, hotels and train stations is via the local metro/subway system. We purchase tickets upon arrival.
Day 1: Fly DFW to Paris, with a plane change in Chicago
Day 2: Arrive Paris. Hotel College de France, booked via the hotel directly
Day 3: Paris
Day 4: Thalys high speed train from Paris to Brugges, with a train change in Brussels; booked via Thalys website. Arrive Brugges. Hotel Fevery, booked via the hotel directly
Day 5: Brugges
Day 6: Brugges. Rent bicycles from local vendor and explore countryside
Day 7: Train to Brussels, with day stop in Gent. Store luggage in train station locker until continuing on to Brussels. Metropole Hotel, booked via hotels.com
Day 8: Brussels
Day 9: Fly Brussels to DFW, with plane change in Chicago
4) Is it difficult if you don't speak the language? Do you speak French?
I wish! I do not speak any other languages, but I do learn the basic phrases before traveling to a new country. Hello, Good-bye, Thank you, Do you speak English, Please...so at the very least, I can be polite and greet people. It shows we're making an effort to come into their environment. Many restaurants will have English menus, and most have someone who speaks English. If not, bust out your travel book and check the main menu items in the back. You may feel silly and 'touristy', but trust me, it's better than ending up with a plate of 'Oh hell no, I can't eat that!' It's not always easy, and it does get frustrating sometimes. But remember you're there to experience something new. If you wanted to stay in your comfort-zone, you'd be staying at the La Quinta down the road from your house. Okay, maybe the Marriott.
Travel Tip: The best approach is to be as polite as possible when asking for assistance. No one likes a pushy, entitled American expecting everyone to speak English!
5) How do you look so stylish?
Well, first of all, thank you! I believe it takes as much effort to dress like a schlep, as it does to throw on something cute. (Don't misunderstand, of course I own and wear clothing that should never see the light of day. I just don't wear them if I'm going to be in pictures, or strolling around the Eiffel Tower with my husband!) Sundresses, skirts with tshirts, well-fitting jeans and cardigans are just as comfortable as sweatpants. And by adding gel insoles and/or good quality wool socks, my wedge boots, flats, and converse tennies are actually more comfortable than athletic shoes.
Travel Tip: Accessories are also an easy way to look pulled together, and don't take much room in a suitcase. I always pack an assortment of scarves to add a pop of color, and I feel instantly pulled together with a great pair of noticeable earrings.
all photos taken by us, on multiple trips
6) Last time we went to Europe we found the trains to be horrible because of all the smoking. Has that changed and gotten any better?
Yuck! I was shocked the first time we went to Europe (10 years ago) at the number of smokers, and the places they were allowed to smoke...in airport terminals, on trains and every single cafe. When we returned four years ago, the only smoking we saw was in restaurants and cafes. This most recent trip, I never even thought of it because I don't recall seeing people smoke anywhere. I don't know if locale makes a difference (Spain vs. Belgium), or if fewer people are smoking and fewer establishments are allowing it. Either way, it was not a hindrance whatsoever.
Okay, I'm sick of myself for one day. I'll finish up with Part 2 this week....how and what I pack! Are you still with me?