How I Book Hotels

There is definitely a strategy to booking hotels and lodging when traveling abroad, specifically in Europe. I am sure that there are tons of tips and tricks, but this is what I do and it has seemed to work out really well. I have only travelled in groups of two and three, once with my sisters and twice with my fiancé. Typically, I prefer to stay in hotels, just for ease, but I have also used Airbnb and enjoyed my experience.

Before using any cite I always look into the best places in the city to stay. Whether that is in the city center or on the outskirts in a more residential area. Then, whichever site I use to book, I check the specific hotel to ensure that it is near a transit stop if this is something that is needed in the city. Having an entrance to metro right outside of your hotel is invaluable as it provides easy access to anywhere you want to go. I think it is important to read reviews on location, and the sites I use offer this.

I always begin with Booking.com. I find it easy to use and I like the available features. I search for the city with my tentative dates and number of guests. Once this populates I use filters to narrow down exactly what I want in terms of location, price, property, and review score. I always select options with free cancellation – this is the true beauty of booking.com. Because of this, I am able to book a residence that looks good while continuing to search. If something better pops up I can cancel my original reservation. I cannot count how many times I have done this. It is nice to have something booked ahead of time but I always want to have the option to change my mind if our dates change, or if a gem appears. Speaking of gems, I can say when it comes to hotels I am definitely not a hostel girl. I want my own room and my own bathroom, which is surprisingly a luxury in many places. The majority of places I have stayed in Europe have been above a review score of an 8 (very good) and under $100! Lodging has proven to be an easy way to save some money while staying somewhere nice.

While filtering on booking.com, I always cross reference with Trip Advisor as they have the most comprehensive reviews I have seen. With this I choose the city and dates as well, then I sort by “traveler ranked.” This will tell me the best hotels according to customer reviews. Trip Advisor is one of the most used sites for hotel reviews which creates a large base to pull information from. I like to check the top ten to see if any have great deals and if so I typically end up booking that. Trip Advisor also compares the rates from several hotel booking sites making it easy to see see where the best deal is. So far I have found Booking.com to be the cheapest or a competitively priced with other sites. Even if it is slightly more expensive I like to have everything in one place so I go with Booking.com over any other.

Booking hotels is actually one of my favorite parts of planning a trip; I find it so exciting to find a really nice hotel for a great place. I have been shocked at how amazing the places I have stayed are for under $100! My trips have been off season (fall and winter) so I don’t think prices are as high (except New Years, which has always needed a bigger budget). If I am going to a smaller city, or if the prices are not right, I will check Airbnb as well to see the available offerings– this is also useful with a larger party.

If anyone needs any help booking hotels let me know – I love it!

Three Travel Tips

If you Google travel tips thousands upon thousands of links present themselves. When it comes down to it, most people have similar essentials. Personally, I love to see what people recommend you bring, even if I’ve seen it before. Here are three travel tips/essentials/must-haves that I never travel without.

Travel Credit Card

My first recommendation to someone who is traveling abroad is to get a travel credit card. Most credit cards charge a fee for foreign transactions, usually around 3% for every purchase. While it is always necessary to have cash on hand, it is important not to have too much. I prefer to use my card for things like restaurants, hotels, trains, and flights. There are tons of people that are obsessed with points and use them with extreme precision, but I will leave that to the experts! I really like it because it gets rid of the fee and has a simple point structure through my Bank of America account. The universality of the card, coupled with the physical money you don’t have to worry about keeping track of, saves endless headache. Finally, there is not yearly charge for the card. It exists much like any normal credit card, it just works outside of the states, not just in.

For the Plane – A scarf, jacket, wool socks (down comforter, personal heater, Sherpa blanket…)

The point is, planes are usually FREEZING – I write this on a flight from Las Vegas to Chicago and I can barely feel my toes. It is on my mind even when my home base is Vegas where thinking about feeling cold in the summer is ludicrous. While flying, especially for a long distance, I want to be comfortable, warm, and entertained. One of my favorite travel accessories for a long flight is a big scarf, those that basically double as a blanket are ideal. It serves many purposes, and can act as a pillow if need be or even an extra towel if the situation is dire. I am not someone who wears flip-flops on a plane, instead I wear a cozy pair of wool socks (or bring them in my bag). On this current trip I didn’t follow my own advice and paid the consequences. My standard outfit consists of sweatpants, leggings, or comfortable jeans (how someone can wear shorts on a plane is beyond me). Then I wear a light long-sleeved shirt and bring a sweater. The key is to layer! If I am traveling somewhere in winter I wear my heaviest coat and boots on the plane to save the space in my suitcase.

arriving back in the U.S. in my typical travel gear

Global Entry / TSA Pre-Check

I got TSA Pre-check a few years back and it turned into some of the best money I have ever spent. For $85 for five years, you go through an expedited security line. It is often much shorter and you are not required to take off your shoes or take laptops out of your bag. It makes the whole process swift and painless. As someone who flies on average once every two weeks this is essential for me, but even for people who fly just a few times a year I think it is worth it. The only regret I have is that I did not get Global Entry as this goes one step further and includes an expedited process at U.S. customs. For only $100 you get both Global Entry and TSA Pre-check. I was not aware of it at the time so I just did the one. The convenience and time saved make both of these a great value.

Getting a Cold While Traveling

Preparedness is a traveller’s best friend. I am constantly thinking about what would happen if my bag doesn’t make it, if my wallet is stolen, if I forget something from back from home; all common anxieties of a prepared traveller. One thing that has slipped my mind over the years: getting sick. On my last trip to Europe, six days in, that happened. I’m not talking about a serious illness where you need to seek medical attention, just a bad cold. Honestly, it was my fault. Hank and I were in Budapest at the time and it was cold. A cold augmented by being close to the water you felt ever-present moisture in the air. But, it was New Years Eve and we wanted to stay out until the clock struck 12 – so we did. We also happened to get about 40,000 steps while walking over 15 miles through the city. The combination of being outside for so long, the cold weather, staying out late and waking up early, proved very costly.

New Years Day I woke up not feeling great but as the day went on, it progressively got worse. The worse it got, the easier we took it. I ate some traditional goulash soup, and we had a relatively early night. I think this is one of the biggest things we had to realize: Even though you are on this amazing trip and want to explore, taking care of yourself is still your top priority. Over-doing it will only make things worse, prolonging your sickness and ruining more of your trip. As with any cold, rest, staying warm, and drinking plenty of fluids is absolutely essential. That night we were hoping it would pass but when I woke up in one of those horrible cold sweats we knew it we had to take it seriously. I took some fever-reducing/aches and pains meds (which we had luckily packed), drank a ton of water and went back to sleep.

Bratislava was the next stop along our journey, so after sleeping as much as I could we set off. On the way to train station my throat caught fire the moment we stepped in the cold, wet air, turning a short walk into a nightmare. I slept at the station waiting for the train, I slept on the train, and I slept in Bratislava – sleep was the theme of the day. Accessing the metro from Bratislava Central Station proved difficult and resulted in more walking in the bitter cold. Eventually we made it and found that we were in luck. We had booked what we thought was a nice hotel for a great price. It turned out to be one of the nicer hotels I’ve ever stayed at. I did not want to miss a moment of the already fleeting time we had in Bratislava, but we knew it was for the best that I stay in bed. Hank ventured out to get us some food and me some tea and we watched Stranger Things while we ate our supermarket dinner.

Whether it was the bed, the tea, or the ‘80s inspired horror I’ll never know, but I awoke feeling refreshed and ready to explore. Hank forced us to take it easy, and I drank my weight in hot tea. We nipped inside to many cafes and had a simple day around the old town before heading to Vienna that night. Throughout the next few days I only drank water or lemon tea with honey and went through at least two boxes of tissues. Ultimately, what made me feel better was the age-old combination of rest and relaxation. You cannot fight something despite wanting to do more. And the length of our trip found us, some two weeks later, looking back on this moment in shock, as we couldn’t believe it was part of the same adventure.

These pictures are document the cycle of my sickness, up until my night in Bratislava. Looking back, I find these hilarious as you can really see it catch up to me! I apologize for how I look (especially in the last one!), but I figure you have to see it all to understand what it was like.

New Years Eve in clearly chilly Budapest
the morning of New Years Day as the cold began to settle
later in the day I progressively got worse and goulash soup was the answer
the next day, asleep in the train station
not looking my best in Bratislava, but resting in bed

Second Chances

I think it is possible to go to the wrong place at the wrong time, or for the stars not to align the way you want. That was what happened during Hank and my first trip to Oslo. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy being there, we were more than happy just to be abroad. But it was not one of our favorite places nor somewhere we expected to return. However, with the technique we use, we kind of just go where the plane takes us on the cheapest flight, and in the case of our next trip that place was Oslo.

Our first time to Oslo was the third leg of our journey, after Stockholm and Bergen. We took the train (which was a trip highlight) from Bergen to Oslo. Once in Oslo we made our way to a drab hotel and took off walking. Maybe it was because it was right after New Years, or maybe the cold drives out the people, regardless, even the main thoroughfare’s, rife with shops and restaurants, were inexplicably empty. Further (and not wholly unexpected), the food was expensive. Really expensive. In hindsight, we didn’t stray too far from the main tourist area, which could explain the prices, but we didn’t realize that at the time. We saw some cool sights, but nothing really drew us in to want more and we left Oslo for Amsterdam a few days later excited to move on to our next city.

Gol Stave Church at the open air museum – empty on this freezing day
The Royal Palace
empty and cold summarized our first trip to Oslo

Fate finds its way into everything, and our next trip to Europe was no exception. The cheapest flight options found us, once again, in Oslo. We figured at least we could fight off of jet lag and maybe see something we hadn’t seen before. A hotel makes a big impression, and the difference between this and the last was staggering. Off the heavily footed tourist trails and into a residential community we wandered, a choice we would not soon regret as we found ourselves gazing upon a beautiful sunset right over the water. Oslo being so far north causes a seemingly endless sunset. In and out of buildings we wove, always returning to this stunning sight. This new part of the city, combined with the setting sun, made it feel so much different than before. The next day we continued this trend, wandering through another new area and stumbling on a great, surprisingly affordable meal. It’s funny, sometimes, how traveling works, and on a previous journey we found a love for Edvard Munch. This revelation came after our last trip to Oslo, and, while going over city highlights; we quickly made the Munch Museum our focal point. The day was different and we followed it the same, popping into another museum, having a several cups of coffee, and enjoying the time we had.

the sunset that cast Oslo in a new light
in between buildings the view remained
a perfect meal in a new part of town
souvenirs from the Munch Museum

A city is so much more than just the two days you spend there. As a tourist it is easy to just hit the main points but when you do that you miss so much else. There is always more to see, wherever you go, often it is just a matter of giving it a second chance and finding the beauty you missed before.

My Third European Trip

Just this past winter I toured Europe for the third time. Once again, I travelled with my fiancée, Hank, for our longest trip, 21 days abroad. At this length one begins to bypass the feeling of a vacation and transverse into starting a new life somewhere. It’s so long that you have a moment of appreciation, knowing that a large amount of time has past, yet you have just as many days ahead. We each paid $515.21 round-trip on Norwegian Air. Like our first trip, we got the upgraded tickets to get the benefits of checked bags, seat choice, meals, and drinks. Our tickets were purchased on September 24th, 2016 for our trip spanning December 27th, 2016 to January 16th, 2017. Like it tends to happen, we needed an excuse to take another journey, and once again cheap flights proved to be the perfect reason.

A trend we follow is buying tickets with no particular destination in mind. They were cheap, the time worked out well, and we spent the previous year daydreaming of our last winter trip. This year I was slightly busier with school so we did not plan where we wanted to go until mid-November. Hank did most of the destination specific work. He mapped a few routes and, after some deliberation, we settled on the path that we took. Having such a long time in Europe meant we could extend our stays in certain destinations and visit more stops along the way. We really enjoy planning trips this way, knowing your beginning and your ending but having endless possibilities in the middle.

How we choose the “middle” of the trip is much simpler than it sounds. There are certain places we really want to go, we link them with trains or other routes of transportation, and add in stops that pique our interests. Prague and Bratislava have stood out in our hearts for some time, as they hold a familial history for both of us. We then connect the cities and add the logical stops along the way. This particular trip took us on plane, train, bus, metro, and only a taxi or two.

Here is the path that we took and one I would highly encourage for any travelers. We left Las Vegas on December 27th and after a long direct flight we landed in Oslo, Norway on the 28th. Just a few days later we left Oslo on the 30th and flew to Budapest, Hungary where we would celebrate the start of a new year. We left Budapest on the 2nd of January and took a train to Bratislava, Slovakia where we stayed only one day leaving on the 3rd. An hour-long bus ride brought us to Vienna, Austria and we were here until the 5th. A train brought us to Prague, Czech Republic on the 5th and we stayed here enjoying every second until the 8th. Then, another train ride took us to Dresden, Germany until the 10th when we left for Berlin, Germany. Berlin was a longer stop through the night of the 13th when we flew to Stockholm for our last part of the journey (and one of our favorite cities). We left Stockholm, Sweden on the 16th for a flight back to the US.

red = plane, purple = train, teal = bus

My Second European Trip

My second European trip started much like my first, on a whim. The idea of traveling abroad had been floating in our minds (mine and my fiancé, Hank’s) since my first trip. But what solidified things for us, and what I imagine prompts most travelers, was the discovery of cheap airfare. We each paid $545 for round-trip tickets on Norwegian Airlines. This was an upgraded fare that included meals, drinks, a checked bag, and the option to choose our seats. As we were going to Scandinavia in the dead of winter, we knew that our luggage would be no small matter. Plus, nine hours in the tight confines of an airplane is time best spent next to someone you enjoy. Our trip was set to be from December 26, 2015 to January 12, 2016; pretty long for two people with full-time jobs! Luckily, we had been saving our time off and, with a few federal holidays and weekends mixed in, it all worked out.

One of the great beauties of inner European travel is that, once you’re there, getting anywhere else is relatively easy. We kept this in mind when purchasing our international flights, not necessarily picking dream destinations, but places where ticket prices were cheapest. We knew we’d be going back to Europe at some point so we didn’t need to cram everything in all at once. Many hours were spent deciding on locations, looking at the best areas to stay, and checking trip advisor and Google flights. Our route was dictated by train paths, hidden gems, and recommended spots. Having the bookends planned was exciting because it meant the entire trip was to our discretion. This was Hank’s first time in Europe and our first time together, so we knew it would be special regardless.

We began with the basics, plotting points on a map, keeping our options entirely open. Once we hammered down the places we felt were musts, we looked into transportation. A good mix of airfare and train travel allowed for essential flexibility. The flights were set, but any destination that was travelled to by train was changeable. In fact, we enjoyed Bergen so much that we opted for another day there, and cut a day out of Oslo. This was also beneficial as we originally had Brussels on our tour. However, terrorist activity and heightened threat levels eventually pushed it from our itinerary (with heavy encouragement from our parents).

A visual of our path, red is plane, purple is train

Here is the trip breakdown (which I highly recommend for anyone interested in this area). We landed in Stockholm, Sweden on December 27th and then flew out on December 30th to Bergen, Norway. We stayed in Bergen until January 2nd where we took an incredible train ride to Oslo, Norway’s capital. After Oslo we flew to Amsterdam on January 4th. After three fantastic days we took a train to Hamburg on January 7th. This was a short visit and we left via train on January 9th to head to Copenhagen until January 12th. This was our first attempt at planning a long trip and overall I think we were very successful. Plus, it served as a great learning experience for future trips.

Journey to Jamaica

I traveled to Jamaica for my cousin’s wedding, with the intent of turning a special day into a special trip. This was my first time on the island and my first time staying at an all-inclusive resort. It was… interesting. I left the states with excitement but also with an uneasy feeling that is difficult to describe. While I would be going to a beautiful resort, right on the beach, with endless food and drink – I recognized that it might not be a true representation of Jamaica. I was eager to make the most of my short stay, but was only able to venture out of the resort once.

If I got one thing out of the trip, it was ultimate relaxation. You do not need to think much beyond going to the beach, the pool, and the buffet. The ability to grab a drink or a bite to eat at any moment indulges the life of leisure, but I felt like it also encourages you to not leave as you are paying for this luxury. Why get it somewhere else? While the food was nothing special, the fruit was incredible and made up a significant part of my meals. I slept late, had leisurely mornings of coffee, and spent afternoons reading on the beach. The sunsets were consistently beautiful and the ocean was a calming lull in the background. The pool had swim up bars and built in lounge chairs. My favorite moments came when it was slightly overcast and the light drizzle of rain bounced on pool. The resort where we stayed is near the airport and I loved seeing and hearing the planes overhead contrasting the calm of the beach.

a plane flying overhead

the sunset after the wedding ceremony
a serene, cloudy moment the morning of my last day

The trip was short – two days dedicated to travel and one day to the wedding. This left three full days to do what we please. One of the days, we chose to explore a little bit of Montego Bay. The resort arranged someone to take us out and give us a tour. Heading from the confines of our hotel and into the city was immediately striking. The façade that we were living in carried such a contrast from what stood immediately outside its walls. It wasn’t necessarily negative, but it was just clear that we were staying in a bubble. After a short drive we were in the heart of Montego Bay. The guide pointed out streets, landmarks, sites, and explained island history. I noticed here I couldn’t spot a single tourist. I’m sure there were some, but the way the guide talked it was not somewhere travelers came to see. Instead, it was people, living their day-to-day lives in a sharp contradiction to the Jamaica we had been experiencing.

Jamaica is a beautiful country, that much is clear. With the ocean, mountains, and white beaches, it’s an easy place to forget your worries. But Jamaica also has high levels of crime and violence and a large amount of poverty. This doesn’t mean it’s unsafe, but there were areas our guide said we needed to stay in the vehicle. This reputation of Jamaica being unsafe was something I was familiar with before arriving, but I think, like any place you visit, you have to be smart. It is unfair to lump the whole country into this category, as every experience is different. Being confined in the walls of a resort does little to give a glimpse into the “real” Jamaica. And, although I toured just a small area on the large island, I am glad I did. I think the juxtaposition between the photos above and below speak more than I can.

the Craft Market with 3 school girls in the back
our guide jokingly referred to this as the Jamaican Costco
a busy side street
an area filled with homes

My First European Trip

I first thought an international trip would take months and months of planning and saving. I booked my first trip to Europe exactly 49 days before I went. My sister was studying abroad in San Sebastian, Spain and the opportunity was too strong to deny. We convinced my older sister and, one night in October, we bought our airline tickets.

Not only would this be my first time in Europe, it also stood as my longest flight and my first time flying international alone. Anxiety was definitely a factor, but the anticipation and excitement drowned out my worries. The moment I set foot on the Parisian streets, my love affair with Europe began, but, even more, I found a passion for planning routes and scouting destinations. And with European travel, the possibilities are seemingly endless. This trip was a rather simple route since it was only 11 days. In future posts I will discuss my two longer trips that were both over 19 days.

Our three journeys began quite differently: my older sister in LA, my younger sister in San Sebastian, and me in Vegas. Instead of flying to meet my sister in Spain we decided that it would be special to meet elsewhere. We decided on a place that is now very near to my heart: Paris. For three days we wandered the avenues of the City of Lights, ate chocolate croissants, and drank far too many café au lait. From Paris we flew to a little town in France called Biarritz and immediately boarded a bus to San Sebastian. For the next three days my sister assumed the role of tour guide and we followed her around the charming Basque city. We followed a logical progression from France to the Basque Country and then from the Basque Country to Spain, taking a bus to Madrid. Here we stayed in the city center and enjoyed Thanksgiving Day dining in the oldest restaurant in the world. Madrid was a quick two-day trip that led on into Barcelona, where we spent our final three days.

the red is our flights, the blue is by bus

This trip taught me a lot about traveling, what you can squeeze into such a short amount of time, and how easy it is to get around. While I don’t think talking about routes, timelines, and transportation is the most exciting topic, I find it to be the backbone of a good vacation. While in future posts I will go into my favorite things about my trips and the cities I was able to visit, I will also discuss the logistical side of it all. While not as glamorous, that is what can make or break the perfect trip.

Thanks for reading and I encourage you to follow my twitter (@elizabethnubel) to see what I am up to.   This week I am headed to Jamaica for a wedding– future post to follow!