Written by Megan Myslinski (Classic Travel Intern, Fall 2015).
Wanderlust is defined as “a strong, innate desire to rove or travel about,” a desire that compels wayfarers, cosmopolitans, and globetrotters to sojourn, traipse and gallivant to sights unseen all over the world. I know I’ve had this urge to explore since my tiny tot days. To feed my addiction, I applied to a six month exchange program with Michigan State and Stenden University in the Netherlands and to my delight, I was accepted. When I found out I was going to be living in Europe for six months, I knew every second I wasn’t in school, I’d be on a train, plane, or in an automobile.
During my time there, I managed to make it to 19 countries. Those countries, in order, were: Iceland, The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Morocco, Scotland, England, Spain, Turkey, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Poland, Switzerland, Hungary, Italy, Vatican City, France, and Monaco. Those six months changed my life in so many ways. I’ve been in countless cities, buses, trains, planes, cars, and have probably walked more miles there than I have my entire life. I met so many wonderful people and had way too many experiences to ever recount and share. All of these places had something absolutely amazing about them and I could never choose one to spotlight so I’ve decided to share my tips on how to travel in these awesome places.
Iceland was special as I was moving to Europe with three big bags and a backpack as well as taking a three day vacation to Iceland. To get to Iceland, I booked a one way ticket to Amsterdam with Icelandair. Now the cool thing about Icelandair is that they have something called a Stopover. So for no additional cost, passengers can stop in Iceland for up to seven nights when traveling to or from European destinations. Upon our arrival, we rented a car and drove the hour from the airport to the capital city Reykjavik and checked into our hostel. Parking in Reykjavik was a little confusing and we ended up getting a parking ticket, so beware of where you park in this city.
From the capital, we traveled all over the west side of the country up to the Golden Circle down to the Blue Lagoon, and sideways to the Þingvellir National Park to snorkel the Silfra rift. We were there three nights, but I think one more night would have been better. Unfortunately, we did not see the Northern Lights. After speaking to other travelers, renting a car was not necessary as there is a shuttle that could take you from the airport to the capital city and tours that will pick you up from your hostel and take you to places like the Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, and the Þingvellir National Park. Also, driving in January in Iceland was slightly scary, and I had to be very cautious.
Netherlands. Germany. Belgium. France. Spain. Scotland. England. Monaco.
These countries all had very similar public transportation setups. I took trains, taxis, buses, and planes in all of these countries. I even biked in Holland, Germany, France and Hungary. The planes in these countries are quite similar to American ones. Check-in, receive your ticket, check any baggage, go through security/customs, find the lettered/numbered gate, wait, board the plane, wait, and, finally, fly away! Train traveling is pretty simple in these countries. Buy a ticket online (for some), a kiosk in the train station, or from a ticket agent at the station. There was never any language barrier in any of these countries; if neither of us spoke each other’s languages I would say the name of my destination and away I went.
I did a lot of traveling within these countries. In both places I flew, bused, train-ed, cabbed, walked, and trolleyed (in Poland). These were places where the largest language barrier was, for me, and I even speak a little French. The planes were fine to both destinations. The trains were packed and old, and buying the tickets were slightly difficult because of the language barrier. The trains in Poland were straight out of a Harry Potter movie, but every seat was filled with people squished together in a non-air conditioned train car with zero maneuverability. The cabs in Morocco are called “petit taxis”. BEWARE: I had to haggle very hard (in French!) to get a fair price as they jacked it up in Casablanca and Marrakech so much.
I took private tours in both countries and both were very professional, and slightly overpriced but that’s what you get for the convenience of a private tour. I took buses and both of those were quite hard to navigate as the schedules were not printed near the stop and in Poland, the bus stops are sometimes unmarked. Lastly, the streets in Morocco are very tiny and there many of them; think alleys of Barcelona times 100. In the end, even though traveling in these places could be pretty difficult at times, these places were two of my favorite places visited simply because every victory I had there like riding a camel, playing with monkeys, finding homemade pierogis, and stumbling upon the most delicious Polish Mexican restaurant ever was so much sweeter because getting there was that much harder.
Austria. Czech Republic. Slovakia. Vatican City. Turkey. Hungary.
Last, but definitely not least, are Italy and Switzerland. These countries I also did a lot of traveling around in. For the smaller cities of Sorrento, Postiano, Amalfi, Pompeii, and Capri, in Italy, getting around was very frustrating. The local buses that go into the mountain do not allow you to pay on the bus, and good luck even finding one of those local buses. The ferry we went on was really overpriced. The tour of Pompeii was ridiculously overpriced. The little trains from Naples to the coast were very old, packed, and we were warned against pickpockets on those trains many times (though nothing ever did happen).
However, the big cities’ transportation made these countries the easiest to get around, hands down, in Europe. The national trains are pristine with plenty of room and even outlets to plug your devices in. The buses I took in Switzerland were free with my stays in Interlaken and Basel, and the bus to and from the airport was also free. The buses and trains in Rome were everywhere, pretty easy to navigate and always on time. The local trains near Interlaken ended up giving us half off which was amazing and their trains were so cute I felt like I was on the polar express on the way to the North Pole. Now if only those little towns in Italy could catch up to the awesomeness of the big cities these two countries would be even more perfect!
In the end, like all things, traveling around on public systems takes time and practice. After six months of travel like this, I was doing all sorts of wonky things to save some cash, but I knew I would have no problem getting around because I had been doing it for months then. Traveling on the local systems also lets travelers experience life as a local even for an hour or day, and I highly recommend it for all of the euros, dirhams, forints, krónas , zlotys, liras, francs and pounds you’ll save traveling like a local!