CONTRIBUTED BY GRETCHEN STRADLEY
When I first learned my husband and I were going to be PCSing to Germany, grand visions of touring world-renowned museums and art galleries sprang to mind. We would ski the Alps, stroll along the Parisian Seine in the spring and marvel at the ancient history of Rome. All while wearing fashionable European clothes and sending cute little postcards and trinkets home to boast of our travels. And where did our nearly one-year-old baby fit in all these dreams of classy, cultural wanderings? Uh, yeah… back to reality!
Real life hit pretty quickly after our arrival that travel PERIOD, not to mention with a very young child, would be a challenge. There was adjusting to a new culture to account for, managing the train system, learning some key phrases and how to keep our once sensibly-sized vehicle from flying off impossibly tiny European roads. All with having a little guy in tow who, at any second, could start screaming at the top of his lungs for any number of unintelligible reasons. Getting around, much less taking a trip, was a challenge. It was daunting at first. We started out just visiting nearby places and then slowly branched out as our confidence grew. I quickly came to the realization that travel is an ever-changing balance of preparation and flexibility.
Thankfully we live in an age where technology promises, if not always delivers, convenience. There are travel blogs, Facebook pages, Pinterest boards, endless sites and apps dedicated to overseas travel. Tapping into these resources can make both a trip down the road or a big family venture to another country more simplified and leave you with less to worry about and much more to enjoy.
I’ve found other military families to be some of the most well-traveled people I know and this makes them the first people I go to for advice about anything related to travel. Word of mouth is great but when I first moved here and didn’t know anyone I was on the hunt for military wife/expatriate blogs. My favorite (besides Germany Ja!) that got me through our PCS to Germany with my sanity (mostly) intact was Life Lessons of a Military Wife. Her website is a treasure trove of advice and information for military personnel and their families living overseas.
TripAdvisor is a very popular site but what I like most about it is reading other people’s reviews and ratings of hotels, restaurants and tourist spots. I usually check reviews here before booking a hotel online. I’ve even find some advice from the locals and great off-the-beaten-path recommendations. It’s saved me time and money, too. Sometimes a recent review is the best advice on when, where and how to visit a spot and may even be more relevant than what you’ll find on a tourist spot’s website. I signed up just so I could save trip information and I love keeping all the places I’d like to visit in one centralized place.
Two even more detailed travel organizers are Tripit and Tripomatic. They allow you to organize all of the details about your trip, from flight info, hotel reservations, maps of where you’ll be and just about anything else you could need. You can even e-mail your reservations to the fantastic people at TripIt and all the relevant info will be added to your itinerary. Know where you want to go but not exactly what to do? Tripomatic offers their more flexible users recommended itineraries. After downloading their respective apps you can keep all your information with you while you’re away from home and a wi-fi connection.
The tourism websites of any of Germany’s 16 states is a wealth of information with endless ideas about places to stay (a sleepover at a nearby castle, anyone?), things to do or visit, the culture and heritage of an area and upcoming festivals. More specifically, I always try to look up the tourism site of the town we’re going to visit. Although that seems painfully obvious I always like to keep the address of the local tourist office on hand with overnight stays because those are the people to go to with questions in a new town. They usually offer a map of the town for free or for a few euro. Often their sites will have information about renting an audio guide from them or one that can be downloaded ahead of time onto your phone or other device. Some may be free but they’re often only a few euro. I love this option because, while I love to learn about a town’s history, I’ve found my little rug-rat doesn’t have the patience required to allow for a 2 hour guided tour. And if my head is stuck in a tourist book trying to follow a walking tour I’m liable to find him going for a swim in the nearest fountain or otherwise getting into something that ends in a meet and greet with the local Polizei.
Looking for another alternative to staying in hotels or hostels? 9flats and Airbnb are great sites that offers rooms, apartments and homes for vacation rentals. This is a great option if you want to get a feel for a place and live like a local for awhile.
Deutsche Bahn: Official app of the national railway system. I’m surprised to find that many people don’t know about their regional ticket discounts which are offered for groups of 2-5 people. (We use this literally every time we take the train!) Visit their website at (www.bahn.com) and click on “Offers” for more info regarding this and other ways to find cheaper fares.
Rick Steves Audio Europe: Downloadable tracks featuring Europe’s hot spots from American travel guru, Rick Steves.
Minitime: Dedicated to finding places to stay and things to do for those with kids.
Wi-Fi Finder: Always a good thing to have when you don’t have Internet on your phone.
TripAdvisor City Guides: Reviews focused on specific cities. Works offline too!
MetrO: Free guide to public transportation routes in 400 cities.
iTranslate: I know very little German but this app helps expand my knowledge.
WordLens: Another translation app but where it really shines is that it can read signs using your device’s camera. It works offline too! I wish I’d found this one a long time ago!
So don’t stay cooped up on post! Get out and explore Germany. Traveling may not initially be as easy as it might have been in the States but with a little help and some trial and error you’ll be able to simplify your life and organize all the little details so you can relax and enjoy your next adventure. Most importantly, you’ll learn from your own experience and be well on your way to checking off everything on your European travel bucket list. Now, about those fashionable clothes…
Note: Please click each photo for photo credit on second and third pictures.