Tina’s Guide to Winter Travel: 3 Weeks in the EU
This wasn’t our first EU trip and certainly won’t be our last– but after years of travelling you think you would have it all down to a science… not so! This time around we were armed with our carry-ons (yup! just a carry-on!) and 3 weeks of wintery European plans. Below, I go through a bit of everything travel-related from packing lists, to phone data, to travel insurance, and VAT… enjoy!
Compare flights because your flight might be cheaper if you fly to a nearby airport instead of a “main hub”. Our final destination was Edinburgh but the direct flights, if any, were pricey. We looked for alternative flights to Glasgow, London and Dublin– our winner was Dublin! It was half the price to fly into than any of the other airports. To compare flight prices on any given date of travel I use Skyscanner.ca. Our flight to Dublin was $650 Canadian dollars. Even with an additional flight from Dublin to Edinburgh we were able to save a substantial amount of money. Given the fact we had to get to Edinburgh from Dublin on a cheap flight we decided to travel with carry-on luggage only. Cue the packing mayhem!
Carry-on luggage only:
Europe is all about mass transit. Trains, tubes, trams, buses, planes. Because we knew we would be travelling to a few different countries, we didn’t want to be burdened with cumbersome luggage. The cheap flights between European countries allow one carry on piece but you need to pay to check your baggage. If you are planning on taking a few flights to travel to different countries, those fees can really add up.
Cheap Flights always have a one carry-on bag rule. The rules explicitly say only one bag but our experience was that an additional purse or back pack was allowed (The “one personal item” we are familiar with in Canada still applies!). Our wheeled carry-on bag was often taken at the gate and put in the checked baggage for free. This was a good thing. We were not in a rush, so picking up baggage from the carousel afterwards was not a problem. It also made it really easy to go up and down the airplane stairs and we didn’t have to fight for overhead space to store our case.
Packing and what to take with you:
My biggest advice? Take less than you think you will need.
The one single piece of clothing that saved me from the cold was my fleece from Cabyn. Not only is this fleece stylish but it is so lightweight, warm, and long enough to cover your butt. Quite honestly, I wore mine every day. If I got too hot with the fleece and my long coat I simply tied the fleece around my waist and wore it that way.
Even with my one-bag travel challenge I still brought things that were redundant (too many multiples…) and things I would never use but “brought anyways”… After this experience, the following is what would have actually been useful in my suitcase:
- At least 3 t-shirts: I packed 1 t-shirt (…oops that was a legitimate mistake) and wished I had packed more– it’s what I wore under my fleece nearly everyday.
- 2 pairs of pants: I packed 3 pairs of pants and used only 2 but even could have got away with one pair.
- Just the everyday jewelery: I wore jewelry and packed a bag with more. Never even opened the bag. This bag added weight and worry about loss. Next time I won’t bother since what I left home wearing, is what I wore every day.
- 1 scarf: I packed 3 and also bought a new one from Heathrow…. So I had way too many scarves!
- 1 pair of solid, walkable, comfortable boots: I packed 3 pairs of shoes and only wore one pair. I packed short boots, long boots and sneakers. I only wore the short boots and the rest took up valuable space in my luggage. My short boots were comfortable enough to walk many, many steps every day.
- 1/2 as many undies and socks as you think you need: These can be tucked into those small empty gaps for airtight packing, but if you have a couple days at a hotel/AirBnB, a little washing goes a long way.
- DO BRING your favourite tried-and-true pieces: If you don’t enjoy wearing/wear something regularly at home, you won’t wear it on vacation. It will just be a nice suitcase-liner.
- And DO take a compressible tote bag with you: I didn’t, so I ended up buying one from Muji in London. This is for all the stuff you may end up buying and need to take home!
We mostly stayed in Airbnbs. We really like staying in someone’s apartment rather than in hotels. This is mainly because there is so much more room– everyone gets a bedroom! Our routine was we had our coffee and breakfast at ‘home’ but generally ate lunch out as we needed an excuse to stop and rest every now and then.
M&S and Tesco both make decent pre-packaged meals. For a few pounds you can share a great Tika Masala. We often did this because you get sick of eating out and sometimes you just want to be home and watch Netflix.
You pay for a transit card, so you want to keep it accessible for future trips (or to loan to a friend who makes the same trip). We still had money on our Oyster cards from our last trip to the UK. You pay £5.00 for the Oyster Card (like a deposit), that’s nearly $9.00 you don’t want to throw away! You need to tap in and out on the tubes around London.
In Amsterdam make sure to get a OV Chipkaart transit card at the local Albert Hein or equivalent store. If you purchase a ticket on the tram you will be paying a much higher price than what is debited on your transit card. Tourists always pay more! Note, you cannot top up your card on the trams. You will need to do this at the yellow machines at the tram stops. You need to tap in and out on the trams. You can buy tickets as you board any bus, most trams, or from the machines at any metro station. These are much more expensive, a single journey (actually you can travel for an hour with this ticket) in Amsterdam will cost €2.90 compared to around €1.20 if you pay by OV Chipkaart.
Uber is a great option in some cases. Bear in mind public transit is faster in most cases but sometimes you just want a ride. We were so grateful to find Uber still alive and well in London.
All art galleries and museums in the UK and Ireland are free (do donate a pound/euro or two though…), only some special visiting exhibitions will have an admission fee. All art galleries and museums in the Netherlands cost money. That being said, there are a lot of incredible museums in the Netherlands! You are better off getting a museum pass or an IAmsterdam card to get better access to the exhibitions.
The Rijks and the Stedelijk are both €17 each. If you add on the Van Gogh Museum or the new Eye Film Institute it really adds up. We wish we had done passes because we ran out of time at the Stedelijk and really wanted to go back for just a short trip but we didn’t want to pay another €34 (for the two of us) to do it.
There are a few half price ticket booths at Trafalgar Square. There was a line up at TKTS but around the corner there was no line up at all, and the service was unbelievable. We saw numerous plays for around £35-55 each, compare that to nearly £60-100 each when buying from standard websites/vendors.
We found the people so nice in all the countries we went to. The Scots really stood out as being friendly, helpful, and with a great sense of humour. The Dutch are a really attractive bunch (such wonderful people watching!). They are also the tallest people in the world now and you can definitely notice this when you are there!
The food in all the countries we travelled to was great. We also found that the cafes in the galleries had great food. I would definitely recommend them as an option if you are stumped on where to go, or if you need a lunch break between Van Gogh’s…
Travelling in winter can really put a wrench in the works. We planned to do a few days stop-over in Amsterdam to visit friends before heading back to Edinburgh for our son’s A Capella competition. Due to the ‘Beast from the East’ our flight was cancelled and we were offered accommodation by Easy Jet for the night (… or as it turns out until we were able to get on another flight!). We decided to take them up on the offer as we were hoping to get on an early morning flight. We didn’t buy any extra insurance for this.
Nearly all flights were cancelled the next day and whatever flights were taking off filled up very quickly. The first available flight that Easy Jet could offer us was 5 days after were scheduled to depart. We absolutely had to be in Edinburgh for my son’s concert so I wanted to know my options for buying a flight on another carrier and being reimbursed. Not being sure about the Easy Jet fine print restrictions, I called TUGO, the insurance company I bought travel insurance from. They were absolutely no help. They said my cancellation insurance was only if I missed a connecting flight. Made me wonder what the purpose of buying all this extra insurance is when you can’t use it when you need it!
I ended up calling Easy Jet and they said they will reimburse flights as long as they are economy. I have yet to apply for reimbursement but getting clarification was very helpful.
This is the best tip I can give you. Get your phone unlocked and purchase a data card in the place you are travelling. For £25 I was able to get unlimited data for the 3 weeks we were travelling. Having internet allowed me to use google maps (and order Uber of course!) which made getting around the city so much easier. The internet was also helpful for finding recommendations for good places to eat and things to do.
On a sidenote, my Canadian internet carrier now has unlimited roaming charges in Europe for $12 a day, but even then for 3 weeks it adds up to around $252…
I have a trip to Los Angeles coming up and I plan to do the same thing by getting a data card with a local carrier.
As it turns out I needed to see both a doctor and a dentist while away. I had a pretty bad cold which turned out to be bronchitis and I eventually ended up at a doctor in Amsterdam. He gave me a prescription and didn’t charge me for the visit. I paid a nominal amount for the prescription. When I asked my insurance company, TUGO about reimbursement for medical reasons they said I had a $300 deductible.
The dentist I went to in London assessed my situation and advised me that I was fine until I got home and also did not charge me. If he was able to refasten my onlay it was going to cost me 45 pounds. Not too bad!
So is medical insurance worth it? Not sure. In the end we spent $250 for insurance and really could not use it. Now if we had ended up in the hospital it may have been a different story. I’d like to do more research on insurance because after that experience I’m not convinced it is worth it.
All I can say is that there are great sales in February and March… Remember to take that extra tote as mentioned above for those can’t resist some fabulous/unplanned purchases!
Because of the EU there are not many true Duty Free discounts other than those that apply to cigarettes and alcohol. Many of the airport stores do offer a discount so keep that in mind if you plan to buy something. I wanted to buy an Avoca blanket from the Dublin airport. The ‘Duty Free’ shop was charging €100 and another shop charged $80 because they discounted it the amount of the tax because they will apply for the reimbursement on your behalf. The other store didn’t offer a tax form so you essentially do not get any ‘duty free’ price.
Speaking of shopping… remember as a non-EU member we can get back our VAT taxes paid on purchases. Remember to ask the sales clerk for a tax form when you are shopping! They need to fill it out and you have to add your passport number and reimbursement method to the form. When you are leaving the EU you take it to the Tax/VAT booth for custom stamping and then drop the form off in the box. Note that at the Dublin airport there is no one giving custom stamps so you just drop off your completed forms in the VAT return mailboxes– this made it really easy. They may deduct a small fee for the effort, but it’s worth it to not leave the VAT money on the table. The returned amount ranges from 10-20%. I could never quite figure out how they decide that…
Winter Travel Advantages:
Travelling in the off-season, if you can, is fantastic. Fewer lines, smaller throngs of people, and overall more breathing room in the city (cities) of your choosing… what is there not to love? Because of the lower demand on flights and accommodation in the off-season rates can be much lower — even with a 2 or 3 week difference in dates. Especially when converting from Canadian to Euros or Pounds, the seemingly small savings add up very quickly (perhaps enough for a bonus souvenir or two…)! What we spent on 3 weeks in February/March could probably buy us around 12-14 days during the busiest times of year.
For us, travelling to a wintery climate at the end of the winter season meant packing more “layers” and bulkier winter accessories. With our carry-ons, it seemed daunting, but under a winter coat who cares if you repeat an outfit or two?