Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Wilde in the World - Europe on the cheap

I should really title this post - Europe on the cheap in your Thirties.

There is a big difference between being in your thirties and being in your twenties. Your twenties are a fine time to live off of potato chips and beer, sleep on a bunk bed and share a bathroom with the entire floor.

Your thirties are a time for meals with silverware, bathrooms with rainfall shower heads and your own room. By this time, your stuff is probably nicer than it was in your twenties and you don't want to store it in a locker at the hostel. Here are some tips for the over-thirty crowd, to keep some bucks in the bank.

1. Open ended plane tickets. The price of a plane ticket is based on a two-leg fare, but that doesn't mean you have to fly in and out of the same airports. Rather than booking one-way plane tickets, simply use the multiple destination option. Fly into one airport, travel across the continent and then fly out of your final destination. We flew into Prague and out of Istanbul on United Airlines. This multiple destination ticket was the same cost as flying into and out of Prague, but much less than two one-way tickets.

2. Locate your nearest grocery store. While I love eating out at restaurants, sometimes it easier (and definitely cheaper) to pick up snacks and meal at the grocery store. Almost every hotel these days has an empty fridge in the room. Use that bad boy to keep your grocery goodies cool. Stock up on yogurt and juices for breakfast on the go. Get some local candies and snacks to keep you satisfied while you walk all over town.

3. Trivago hotel search is AWESOME! You can find adorable boutique hotels for great prices. I like to set the Smiley face option to green and the star rating to 4 or 5. Those settings weed out all the sketchy hotels with scary bathrooms. This site also has the big guys, Marriott, Wyndham, Hilton, and you can find a wide range of prices for the same hotel.

4. Search out the food halls and street markets. These places are your best bet for local fare among locals. Sure, you'll be more likely to be greeted by non-English speakers, but I've found the point and smile method gets me food.

5. Travel with someone. Your twenties are the time to travel alone, meet new people and discover who you are. In your thirties, you probably have one person in your life that you would like to share some experiences with. Whether it be your significant other, your sibling or your coolest parent, traveling with someone makes for wonderful shared experiences. It also cuts your hotel bill in half.

6. Book your rail tickets early. This tip really goes for everyone traveling to Europe, not just us over 30 types. Plan out your route at Rail Europe and they will mail the tickets to your door. The prices are at their lowest when they first become available for purchase (usually 60-120 days out). They get progressively more expensive the closer you get to your travel date. If you fly by the seat of your pants, you may end up paying twice as much! Do your wallet a favor, plan ahead.

7. Visit in May or September. You don't have to worry about a school schedule (at least not your own) and these shoulder travel months are the best for visiting Europe. It's not too hot, the swells of tourists aren't in town and things are generally less expensive. Bonus? You can schedule your trip to hit Memorial Day or Labor Day and you get an extra day away, without using a vacation day!

8. Travel light, but carry Dropps. Everything I brought to Europe was worn at least twice, three times when it came to bottoms. However, you don't want to be wearing underwear for a second day. I like these Victoria's Secret Body by Victoria undies for traveling because they are super comfy, no-show and they dry super fast after washing. Laundry detergent pods are your friend when doing laundry in the hotel sink. Dropps are my favorite because they come in a variety of scents. Tide also makes a version, but I think Tide smells vile.

9. Eat Local. Restaurants with English-language menus tend to be a little pricier than the ones that cater more to locals. The local restaurants are usually less expensive and often tastier!

10. Utilize ATMs. Don't bother bringing travelers checks or a ton of money to convert. ATM fees are much lower than exchange fees. Those exchange kiosks are a total rip-off and give you the worst exchange rates. Your bank may charge you $5 to take money out of a foreign bank, but they give you the actual exchange rate.

What are some of your tips for saving money while traveling?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Wilde in the World - Istanbul, Turkey

The final stop on our European voyage was Istanbul. After our short flight on Tarom airlines, we got in the mile long taxi line and waited a good forty-five minutes for a cab. The taxi line at the Istanbul airport is like a free-for-all. Apparently, being polite and waiting in line is not a requirement in Istanbul. You gotta let your New Yorker shine and be very forward with getting your cab.

Stop one in Istanbul - Food! Delicious, delicious food. After eating rich and heavy Eastern European food for the past week, the light and fresh foods of Istanbul were amazing. I can highly recommend Sur Ocakbasi, the lamb kebap that I had was so flavorful and the perfect detox from all the potatoes.

There was so much to see while visiting Istanbul. We stayed at the Wyndham Istanbul Old City which is a short walk from the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque. The Hagia Sofia is currently under a lot of construction. The mosaics and paintings are being restored, but there was a wonderful art show on the first floor when we visited. Be sure to stop in the front hall to read the entire history of the church/mosque/museum.

Our hotel was also a five minute walk from the Grand Bazaar. Inside the Grand Bazaar building you'll find everything from snacks to tea sets to knock-off handbags. It is one of the largest covered bazaars in the world, with over 3,000 shops inside. You don't have to stop your shopping when you leave the building. The winding streets North of the bazaar are filled with more vendors and they are grouped according to what they are selling. There is an entire street selling scarves, another one selling housewares and plenty selling "designer" jeans.

Wandering around the streets of Istanbul was the best part of our visit. Except the hills, there were lots of hills. Really steep hills! We walked up the hills to Taksim Square (so-called Times Square of Istanbul) and back down via Istiklal Street. If you want to get some local, high street fashion, this is the place to go. We stopped at a food hall for lunch and got some cheap and tasty doner kebaps.

To get a bird's eye view of the city, a stop at the Galata tower is necessary. It looks like a fairy tale tower! I was surprised and excited to see that you reach the top of the tower via elevator. By this time of our trip we had already climbed enough church stairs to last us for the rest of the year. My only problem with the Galata tower? They allow smoking on the viewing deck. The building has burnt down in the past, you'd think they'd want to avoid that happening again.

Right across the street from the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque is the ancient Roman Cistern. Be prepared for big crowds and a long line if you decide to go inside of the cistern. There were many tour groups that were just rushing through the site. I think there were a few cruise ships in port during our time in Istanbul, so the sites were very busy during the day. Once the cruisers headed back to the ship the city became much quieter. I loved walking through the downtown area after sunset.

During our time in Istanbul, I finally learned what a simit was. I had heard the word simit before because there is a restaurant in downtown Montclair called "The Simit Hut." Perfect for breakfast, it's a sesame coated pastry that's very similar to a bagel. Cut in half, you have the option of cheese or nutella. Now that I know what a simit is, I think we'll be visiting the restaurant in our hometown!

Istanbul is a port town, so our visit wouldn't be complete without a boat tour. For only $6, you get a 90 minute boat ride! The information that was coming over the loudspeaker was completely incoherent, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. Salespeople wander around the major tourism areas trying to sell you a boat tour for an inflated price. Don't buy your ticket from these people, just go to the dock yourself. It's right near the Grand Bazaar and very easy to locate.

Istanbul is a city that you could spend well over two days visiting. I can definitely see coming back for another vacation and popping over to several other locations in Turkey - Izmir, Ephesus & Cappadocia.

Our final day in Istanbul consisted of us waking up at 3:00am and hopping on a 5:00am flight to Frankfurt and onward to Newark. It was a great (and tiring) vacation. I would totally recommend taking a similar route through Europe. Central and Eastern Europe are so completely different than Western Europe!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wilde in the World - Bucharest, Romania

Our final train ride pulled into Bucharest around sunset. Our hotel was about a mile from the train station, so we decided to hoof it. Since we were only going to be in Bucharest for 18 hours, the Novotel Bucharest City Center was our hotel of choice for the night. The price is right and it was very close to old town. After dropping off our bags, we wandered down Victoria Street (yay!) to find dinner.

The buildings are all lit up at night and look quite grand. We were in Bucharest on a Wednesday night and the night scene was hopping! Restaurants and bars were packed to the brim with young locals. The cuisine options were amazing, with everything from Lebanese to French to Japanese. We wound up getting dinner at Sushi Ko. It took forever... but it was delicious. 

Our limited time in Bucharest allowed us just one morning to walk around. We walked down Bulevardul Unirii and found food stalls serving these amazing ham and cheese stuffed pastries. For less than $1, I would recommend getting two for lunch!

Bucharest isn't a very large capital city, but it is home to the worlds largest Parliament building. The picture below doesn't do it justice. It's actually called the Palace of Parliament and it's so big that Parliament only uses about 30% of the building.

Our hotel was right near Revolution square, which is now home to a continually changing array of art pieces.  The central spire in the square is called the Memorial of Rebirth and commemorates the Romanian struggle against communism. You can also see a bright pink sculpture in the image, which seemed to be a comment on how bubble gum is sticking onto the city.

Before leaving Romania, we took a stroll through the Cismigiu Gardens. They were pretty, but could probably use a little bit of love.

Next up, we stopped back at the hotel and picked up our bags. We grabbed a cab for the 30 minute ride to the airport. Our cabbie lit up a cigarette and said he felt bad for us because it's so expensive to smoke in the US. I didn't want to break his heart and tell him that we don't smoke in the US because it's bad for you, not because it's pricey.

Off to check in at Tarom Airlines and board our 1 hour flight to Istanbul!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Wilde in the World - Brasov, Romania

If you take the overnight train from Budapest to Brasov, be warned, you will be woken up at 3:00am by Hungarian border control. They will bang open the door, flip on the lights and start talking loudly to you in Hungarian. After stamping your passport, they will shut off the lights and say goodnight. 

Thirty minutes later, just after you have fallen asleep again, the lights will fly on again. Someone will be speaking Romanian and asking for your passport. To this end, I suggest having your passport at the ready when you go to sleep. Also be sure to pack an eye mask and ear plugs. It took me a minute to even realize that all of this was happening in our car!

After our harrowing overnight journey through the countryside, we still had another few hours in the train. We finally pulled into the Brasov train station and walked two minutes before locating our hotel. Since we would only be staying in Brasov overnight, we chose to stay at the Kronwell. I'd describe it as a very chic, business hotel. It's about a thirty minute walk from downtown, but it's not a bad walk. Once you get downtown, you can pretend you are in Hollywood!

There are just a few must see things in downtown Brasov. We made sure to walk down the world's narrowest street and took some photos of the Black Church. Outdoor restaurants all sit underneath matching umbrellas and are open seating. See a restaurant you want to eat at? Find an open table, sit down, wave at someone who looks like a server. They'll let you sit and eat until they close. If you want the check you'll have to be proactive.

I'd also recommend the pastry shops in Brasov. I got an amazing raspberry-filled pastry for less than a dollar. You could also get a small bag of cookies or pretzels. They're fresh, locally made and delicious!

FYI - the Black Church isn't too black from the outside. It is apparently called the Black church because it burnt down. Maybe the inside is really charred and black? We visited later in the evening, so it wasn't open. Next time!

You may be asking why we stopped at a small town in the middle of the Romanian countryside. Well, Brasov is just a thirty minute bus ride from Bran, home of Dracula's Castle

There is plenty of history in this building, but Dracula didn't actually live here... Because he isn't real. Why has this castle come to be known as Dracula's castle? The story of Dracula is set in Transylvania. Bran castle is the only castle in Transylvania. Logic tells us therefore that this castle is the one alluded to in the story. Most recently it was home of Romanian Royalty and it's currently decorated in that manner.

Whether or not Bran castle was actually Dracula's castle (it wasn't), it's a lovely castle in a beautiful part of the country. If you can manage to locate the bus station and buy tickets (you buy them on board from the driver) you should definitely head out to Bran for a visit.

After sufficiently wandering through the castle and watching the video that played for two minutes and then unceremoniously cut out and looped back to the beginning, we left to get some lunch. With thirty minutes before the next bus arrived, we grabbed some snacks from the grocery store and had lunch in the cemetery. There was a ceremony happening in the cemetery that day, which even with extensive use of Google we couldn't figure out what war they were remembering.

Back on the bus and back to Brasov. We packed up our stuff and walked back to the train station. We only had train tickets, no seat reservations, so we were able to catch an earlier train to Bucharest. Our last train journey of the vacation was short and sweet. Though any trip would have felt short after the 13 hour trip from the day before!

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