Monday, November 28, 2016

Article with general European Travel Tips

When traveling, everything is a tradeoff so it is important to know what is most important to you. The destination or getting away? Avoiding a layover or a more desirable departure time? Maximizing your time on a trip or staying a little farther out and using public transport? Basically everything comes down to time and money. When both are limited, the first step is deciding which is most important to you. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned over my time traveling that I hope help you enjoy Europe.

Getting There:
Living on an island makes this tricky, add to that the limited places that you can fly to directly out of Catania and you, like me, will probably develop an abhorrence of the Rome airport. But if you aren’t shooting for a specific date you can check out the Catania airport timetable which lays out when you can fly direct to certain destinations throughout the year. If you have specific dates but not a specific location try they have an “Everywhere” option to help you figure out what is cheap and possible. Also, don’t forget about the Comiso airport. It has some great flights and is only about an hour away. Matrix Airfare Search is another option if you are looking for the cheapest option for flights somewhere specific. I would also suggest signing up for newsletters from various airlines like EasyJet or Ryan Air for some great deals on flights.

Where to Stay:
This is another area where you can save or splurge. If you stay farther outside the main part of a city it can be cheaper but you have to factor in the time (and possible transportation costs) it will take to get to everything you want to see. Old classics like, Expedia, and Travelocity are very good for hotels, but I personally enjoy the AirBnb experience. I like feeling like I live in the city even if just for a weekend. This can be cheaper than a hotel, and many times the host has amenities and helpful advice so you can get the most out of your trip. Hostels are an option that I tend to stay away from after watching a certain horror movie (just saying.) Regardless do some research ahead of time and figure out what parts of the city you are going to spend the most time in. Book close to there or at least closer to public transportation.

What To Do:
We are surrounded by rich culture every day and the rest of Europe has even more to offer. The first place I look when going to a new place is Pinterest. There are lots of travel bloggers out there who have suggestions. This will help you get an idea of when to travel, to either enjoy or avoid big festivals, and what to see. Some even have sample itineraries so you can maximize your short time. These can also give you an idea of what you will need to book ahead (i.e. tickets for the Borghese Museum in Rome or the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam) and what you can do on the fly. You should also look to see if the city you’re travelling to has a pass card. These can offer free or discounted rates for museums and public transportation. If you plan to see multiple museums on your trip they often pay for themselves.

Now let’s talk about tours, some are great, some are terrible. There are some companies that are pretty ubiquitous around Europe, like Viator and Get Your Guide, and there are many local companies as well. Some cities have free walking tours that are done by local volunteers who just love showing off where they live. Do a search ahead of time because even though they are free you may need to sign up in advance. I personally love food tours.
Food is very elementally linked to culture and I think it gives a really colorful view of the history of a country when you understand why they eat the cuisine you see. If you like to see the wackier side of a city the site has some great spots off the beaten path.

Ideally I recommend only booking yourself to one time-bound thing a day, having a time limitation looming over your head can keep you from fully enjoying whatever you are doing. I also like to make a list of my “must sees” and other possible sights, then I get a map as soon as I arrive either from the airport, hotel, or tourism office, and I mark where everything I want to see is along with the opening and closing times. That way I’m not running from one end of the city to another and
missing stuff in-between or getting to a museum right before closing.

What To Take:
Check to see if the place you are going has public transport and try to plan out how you will use it. Can you get to your hotel from the airport by train? That will be much cheaper than a cab. Many cities have transportation apps you can download on your phone that can save loads of time and frustration. Speaking of phones, yours will run out of juice at the very worst moment, I promise. How to avoid getting stuck in a dark alley with a dead phone? Invest in a portable charger, you can get one on Amazon or pick one up at Auchan for less than $20 and it will be a life saver, trust me. This probably goes without saying, but I’ve been guilty before, check the weather before you go! My personal favorite site is Accuweather, but any weather site or app can give you a better idea of what to pack. This can mean the difference between being comfortable and dry in your raincoat and boots, and ruining a gorgeous pair of leather sandals and buying a five euro poncho that looks ridiculous. (There is a possibility that is a true story.) Travel insurance, you can’t really take it with you but it is worth the investment. With the uncertain times we live in right now a city that was fine for travel last week might be off limits next week, USAA offers travel insurance which can pay for everything from airfare if you flight is cancelled or delayed, to lost luggage, to the entire trip if you cancel for any reason, there are different offers for different prices but I encourage you to take a look especially if it is a big expensive trip. You might never need it, but the one time you do it will be worth the $70. Most importantly bring a good attitude, things will go wrong, just roll with it. Be friendly to the locals and they’ll be far more likely to help you. Take in the good and the bad as life experiences and enjoy!

Article on Winter European Travel

I've written a few articles for my command's newsletter, here's the one about winter travel. 

Winter is coming… What does that mean for European travel? Sweater weather! Scarves! Mittens! Snow! Skiing! Christmas Markets!

Here in Sicily we are lucky enough to revel in temperate weather all year, but Europe has a range of climates to explore and enjoy. Northern countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland may not get as much light in the winter, but their populations are some of the happiest in the world because they celebrate these cold months.

Winter is the perfect time to visit these countries to try out some winter sports or see the Northern Lights! There are many tour companies that will take you out to the wild tundra, far away from the lights of the city to see the Aurora Borealis. And don’t worry if bad weather interferes with the lights, many companies offer a refund or insurance that allows you to visit again for free in the next two years, giving a perfect reason to return. They also offer amazing experiences like dog sledding, cross country skiing, or snow shoeing.
Ever noticed that mountain range up north? The Alps offer some of the best skiing in the world and run through Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany with dozens of resorts and ski areas that can accommodate a variety of budgets. You can try anywhere from Chamonix Mont-Blanc, with its 4,810m mountain, to the Matterhorn in Zermatt. There are also some ski destinations which are a little off the beaten path that offer a lower price tag and are better for beginners, like Jahorina, Bosina (site of the 1984 Winter Olympics women’s alpine skiing events); Janské Lázne, Czech Republic about two hours outside of Prague; Poiana Brasov, Romania not far from Bran (Dracula’s) Castle; Zakopane, Poland; Borovets, Bulgaria; Papova Sapka, Macedonia; and Jasná, Slovakia.

And if you are not inclined to sliding down the side of the mountain on two pieces of plastic, then there is always the option to après-ski, which is basically sitting by a fireplace with a nice warm beverage. Christmas markets are also one of the charming facets of European life and can be found all over. According to Travel and Leisure the top markets are in Brussels, Belgium; Copenhagen, Denmark; Dresden, Munich, Nuremberg, and Stuttgart in Germany; London, England; Prague, Czech Republic; Rome, Italy; Salzburg or Vienna, Austria; and Strasbourg, France. These markets offer local crafts and food and usually have some music and entertainment, and while you are there you should try some gluhwein.

One last thing, traveling around the holidays can be wonderful. Getting to see how other cultures celebrate and enjoying cuisines that are not available the rest of the year is an invaluable experience. However, keep in mind that in most cities basically EVERYTHING will be closed on Christmas Day and many attractions will also be closed on New Year’s Day. Plan ahead so you aren’t left wandering the streets starving looking for a mythical open restaurant or missing out on museums that have special holiday hours. However you choose to travel this winter make sure to Stay Safe and Make Good Decisions!

Tips for a great Oktoberfest

Here's a little something I wrote for everyone before we went to Oktoberfest this year, thought it might be worth putting out to a slightly larger audience. 
-        Where – Theresienweise (48.1316O N, 11.5496O E)
-        How to get there – There are 4 U-bahn Stations – Theresienwiese (U4/U5), Schwanthalerhoehe (U4/U5), Goetheplatz (U3/U6), Poccistrasse (U3/U6) – within walking distance.  The train station, München Hauptbahnhof, is also about a 20 minute walk. (***Make sure to use a card with a chip if you are buying train tickets using the machines, regular credit cards don’t really work. )
-        What to wear – The traditional garb is called “Tracht” – Lederhosen for the gents and Dirndls (or lederhosen) for the ladies . You can get a decent set for about 100 euro. You can buy it when you get to Munich, there are many temporary shops just outside the train station that have them pretty cheap, you can buy them online, or you can spend some real money getting a nice set, but definitely get some so you fit in. I would recommend shoes that you don’t love, for the ladies buy a pair of cheap ballet flats (but make sure they have a rubber sole) that you won’t be sad to throw away at the end of the weekend, there is often spilled beer and occasionally broken glass so make sure your shoes are good but not great. Here’s a good resource if you have other wardrobe concerns:
-        General – The beer halls open at 1000 on weekdays/0900 on weekends and close at 2230 every day. You don’t need a reservation to get in but you may have to wait in line. If you get there early in the day you can usually score a spot outside easily and camp out as long as you’d like. Beers are about 10 if I remember correctly, but they are a liter, so don’t worry it’s a good deal. There is also a tent that does wine if beer isn’t your thing. Don’t bother asking for liquor or mixed drinks, they’ll just look at you like you’re an idiot.
-        What to eat – Most beer halls have standard fare ½ chicken (Hähnchen), pork knuckle (Schweinshaxe), Wurst (Sausage), Schnitzel (breaded chicken or veal cutlet), pretzels (Brez’n), sauerkraut, and käsespätzle (cheese covered potato noodles, which is what I think heaven must taste like). There are also food kiosks around the grounds that sell other things like coffee and roasted nuts. I think there might also be salads available, but I’ve never asked.
-        They don’t allow large bags in Oktoberfest for security reasons. Either bring a small purse (a man purse, no judgement here) or just a wallet. There is a luggage check at the exit near the Thereseweisen metro station, I think it was only 5 euro for the day.

What to see/do–
-        The Glockenspiel – it’s the clock that plays on the Rathaus (town hall) in Marienplatz (which you should go see regardless). For a really neat view of it I would recommend climbing to the top of Peterskirke which is about a block away.  It plays at 1100, 1200, and 1700 every day.
-        Neuschwanstein Castle (the one Disney castles are based on) – Book a tour or you can take the train from Munich to Füssen and then the RVS/OVG 78 or 73 busses to Hohenschwangau and walk to the castle. You can book tickets at
-        Schloss Nymphenburg – Summer home for the royal family initially built in 1664. Schloss Nymphenburg 1, Open 0900-1800, 11.50. To get there S-Bahn to "Laim", then bus to "Schloss Nymphenburg" or U-Bahn to "Rotkreuzplatz", then tram to "Schloss Nymphenburg".
-        Deutches Museum – Museumsinsel 1, Open 0900-1700, 11. To get there S-Bahn lines to Isartor; U-Bahn lines 1 and 2 to Fraunhoferstrasse.
-        Hofbrauhaus (Actual) – Platzl 9, Open 0900-2330, free entry to restaurant.
-        BMW Welt – Displays of everything BMW has ever made. Am Olympiapark 1, Open Mon-Sat 0730-2400, Sun 0900-2400, 10. To get there take the U3 toard Olymia-Einkaufszentrum to Olympiazentrum.
-        Munich Residenz - Served as the seat of government and residence of the Bavarian dukes, electors and kings from 1508 to 1918. Residenzstrasse 1, Open 0900-1800, 7. To get there walk from S-bahn “Marienplatz”, U-bahn “Marienplatz or “Odeonsplatz”, Bus stop “Odeonplatz” or Tram stop “Nationaltheater”.
-        Dachau – Concentration camp located about 30 minutes outside of Munich. Pater-Roth-Strasse 2a Dachau, Open 0900-1700, free to enter, small fee for audio guides and guided tours (guided tours should be booked ahead of time). To get there from the Hauptbahnhof take the S2 to Dachau then the 726 bus.
-        Englisher Garden – You can see people surfing on the river and there’s a huge beer garden inside.
-        Mike’s Bike Tours – They give a really good overview of Munich’s history and you get to see a lot of the sights faster than a walking tour.

How to get there - As you exit the baggage claim area in the airport, you will need to look for a sign with a solid green circle with a white "S" in it. This is the sign directing you to the S-Bahn (subway). The sign will lead you to the station in the airport that is located in Terminal 1. Continue to follow the signs until you reach the Deutsch Bahn (DB) train counter to obtain a ticket to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The train counter will be able to print up an itinerary which tells you which train to catch, where and when it leaves. You will board the subway downstairs. After 40 minutes on the train pay attention to a changeover at Pasing. Exit the train. The connection time can sometimes be very tight. If it is a tight connection, make sure to ask the counter the track number (gleis) for your train to Garmisch. Once you have made the switch in Pasing (or another stop as specified by the itinerary), you can sit and enjoy the scenery, as you have a one hour and 20 minute ride ahead of you. The train will stop directly in Garmisch. The stop is one after Farchant. For more information regarding train schedules please visit: Taxis are located in front of the train station and should cost you 8-10 Euro to any of the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort facilities in Garmisch.
Another option is to take the Meinfernbus directly from the Munich Airport to Garmisch-Partenkirchen Bahnhof. You can reserve seats in advance. Please visit:, the airport is 'Munchen Flughafen'. To find the bus stop at (MUC) airport, you need to make your way to Terminal 2. Once in Terminal 2, go out the door by Subway to the bus terminal. Look for a Meinfernbus sign to Garmisch. The bus is generally bright green.  

What to see-
-        Zugspitze – The highest point in the German Alps is located not far from Edelweiss.  Olympiastraße 27 Garmisch, First Cogwheel train leaves Garmisch at 0730 – Last train leaves Zugspitz at 1850 or the cable cars run 0800-1645, 53 (so maybe a little expensive for a view). How to get there - Take the cog wheel train from Zugspitze station Garmisch-Partenkirchen to the idyllic Lake Eibsee. The ascent with the Eibsee cable car offers spectacular views down to the lake, before new horizons open up with a powerful panorama at the Zugspitze Peak.  The Zugspitze Glacier at 2,600 metres is then accessed using the glacier lifts, before the rack and pinion railway comfortably transports you through the Zugspitze Tunnel and back to your original starting point.
-        Partnachklamm – Take a walk through this gorgeous gorge. Open 0800-1900, 4. Park at the Skistadion and follow signs to the path.
What to eat-
-        I would highly recommend the Zum Wildschutz restaurant, if you want a great pork knuckle go for dinner (they don’t have them at lunch).