Getting Around in Europe

transit
First, we have to fly there!

One of my favorite parts of travel is not driving. We usually go places that are walkable and have good public transit. Since Germany was our first destination for this trip, I hit my dad up for information. We were flying into Frankfurt and had to get to Schwabisch Hall.

He’d recently made the same trip to visit his family and friends. I figured a train to Schwäbisch Hall, a short taxi ride to our hotel.

Fortunately, he told me the stuff that doesn’t appear in a travel brochure (which Schwäbisch Hall doesn’t, either, by the way). He recommended catching a train to Stuttgart and renting a car for the rest of the way.

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Boarding the train to Stuttgart

As it turns out, that was pretty darn perfect.

The Train to Stuttgart

After spending a night in Frankfurt, we left our hotel and headed to the Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof. Our train to Stuttgart took about 2 hours, and required no train changes. I just relaxed and read as the scenery flashed by, showing all these asphalt bike paths that made me long for a few weeks with my road bike in the German countryside. The stroller-friendly car had plenty of space for Anneka to practice her new skill of crawling. The price was $29 EUR each. You can get tickets right at the station without a problem.

One VW to Swabia

We rented a VW Golf Europcar at the airport and began a long, confusing search for the car in the multitude of parking garages. This was a stressful affair since nothing seemed to make any organized sense. Even worse, we weren’t sure how to install the carseat. The garage attendant was convinced there should be a base the carseat plugs into, while the desk people insisted otherwise. There’s a bit of a trick to using the seat belts to secure the carseat, but I can’t explain it here. And the staff could be far more helpful here (even though they’re very friendly).

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Let’s drive!

The VW Golf, by the way, is the only rental car I’ve ever liked as much as a Subaru. It handled beautifully, accelerating, braking and turning well in all circumstances – even rain. It was a six-speed manual, which was perfect for a guy who drives a manual at home. But I had a devil of a time figuring out how to put it in reverse. It turns out you push down on the shifter and move it to the top left. Good thing I had my smartphone to answer the question, or I’d still be stuck in that parking garage.

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The Eurostar will wow most American travelers.

Driving on the German freeways is nowhere near as frightening as you might expect, either. Yes, some people drive really damn fast. But they seem to use their heads along with their turn signals. Slower traffic is very good about keeping to the right. The highway signs are top-notch, and the pavement itself is in perfect shape.

Aboard the Eurostar

Our next train trip – and the London Tube doesn’t count – was the Eurostar from London to Brussels. Now, if you want to talk about an impressive train station, Saint Pancras Station is absolutely amazing. It’s huge, with a beautiful fusion of classic and modern design. It’s a bit confusing if you’re not familiar with the layout and all the different trains. Arrive early if it’s your first time.

English: St Pancras International Polski: St P...
English: St Pancras International Polski: St Pancras International (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The security is also a bit more airport-like, so be prepared for that. It’s considerably more genial than a typical US airport, though (a very charming security woman with an amazing Cockney accent referred to Anneka as our "lil’ chicken").

The train itself is comfortable and fast, with a very smooth ride. You’ll get a nice view of the the landscape on both sides of the Chunnel. The Eurostar slows down a bit as it goes under the English Channel.

Arrival in Brussels is pretty easy. We had little difficulty finding our local train into the city. Tickets start around $166, and the trip to Brussels took 2 hours, 30 minutes. Book early, ust in case.

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The ICE is nice – even moreso than the Eurostar.

That’s Right, ICE Man

The Eurostar set a high bar. And then the ICE, or Inter-City Express, completely vaulted over it. It was all just a touch sleeker, cleaner and more comfortable. Americans will long for high-speed rail service on par with the ICE after just one ride.

The ride from Brussels to Frankfurt was pleasant and comfortable, and without the added security measures of the Eurostar and its Chunnel route. Europe’s rail transit infrastructure is amazing, and I just don’t understand how the U.S. can allow itself to lag decades behind.

It takes about 3 hours and costs 99 EUR. Our car was often nearly empty, but I’d still book ahead of time.

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The trains in Belgian are clean and comfortable.

Based in Brussels

It’s also worth mentioning that Brussels has great rail transit headed to nearby destinations like Ghent and Bruges. For these short, 45-minute-or-so trips, you’re looking at $25 round trip on a clean, comfortable train. You can roll right to the station and purchase tickets.

A Warning

Escalators and elevators can be hard to find in Europe. And when you do find them, they might be small. Our BOB Ironman stroller was pretty awesome everywhere but in the elevators. Keep this in mind during your trip.

Why a Trip to Ireland is on My List for 2016

Giants Causeway 1c
Giants Causeway  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I was cleaning out a closet stuffed with books, I unearthed my old copy of Round Ireland With a Fridge, a true-but-silly travel story about Tony Hawks; Tony lost a bet, and his "reward" was to circumnavigate Ireland by hitchhiking. But here’s the kicker – he had to do it while toting a small refrigerator. The re-discovery of this book propelled Ireland back into my mind, and to the forefront of my possible destinations for 2016.

Round Ireland With a Fridge paints Ireland’s people as up-for-anything characters who roll with the oddities in life and don’t sweat the small stuff. The descriptions of the towns sound more than a bit idyllic, especially to a desert dweller like me. I would really welcome some cool temperatures once we’re in the middle of months of 110-degree heat (that’s about 50 for you Celsius users).

The stunning Belfast Castle taken from the gar...
The stunning Belfast Castle taken from the gardens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And I have to bet that the craft beer craze has sunk its claws into Ireland at least a bit, so I’d be eager to look beyond the Guinness (if you’re a craft beer aficionado who knows Ireland well, this is your cue to speak up.

Also, I’m more than a bit intrigued by WestJet‘s service to Dublin. I can hop on a WestJet flight from Phoenix to Toronto, and there I can board one of the new-to-them WestJet 767s and get to Dublin. It sounds like a lot of fun without too much fuss – but I am one of those oddballs who finds getting there to be a big part of the fun. I recently had a great round-trip experience on WestJet, and I’d like to see how the airline makes the most out of its upgraded fleet on a flight to Dublin.

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A view from a WestJet flight.

So, once we’re there, what’s next?

Usually, we like a good mix of independent travel mixed in with a guided tour here and there. The do-it-yourself method allows flexibility and spontaneity, while guided tours are great for those times when some local expertise and know-know can enhance the experience.

I’d plan to use some of the major cities – Dublin and Galway in Ireland, and Belfast in Northern Ireland – as bases. From there, we could take a look at some of the better-known sites while keeping an eye out for surprises beyond the guidebook. The Giants Causeway is definitely among the best-known destinations, and I’d have another read of Round Ireland With a Fridge to ferret out a few more ideas.

round irelandAnd I admit that I’m about to bet a bit nerdy here: I’ve read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series – which TV viewers know as A Game of Thrones – five times already. I visited the Wall when I was in Iceland, so I’d like to see some of shooting locations scattered around Northern Ireland. There are also plenty of castles for me to check out because I really can’t get enough of them. I also have some good friends who insist that I’d love hiking in Ireland – we can’t hike like we used to since our daughter was born last year, but we can at least get in a few short but interesting hikes, I’m sure.

When my family starts to talk about our big yearly trip, this is will all be part of my pitch for Ireland.

If you’ve been there, what are some travel tips you’d offer a couple traveling with an 18-month old?

This post is sponsored by Allens Belfast Bus Tours.

 

Best of Travel 2015

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Headed to Toronto on WestJet.

Despite 2015 being my first year as a parent, this has been a good year for travel. We got the Little Person on her first international trip, in addition to numerous runs around the country; she may have even outflown me with a total of 18 legs to her credit.

In spite of my expectations, I have some really interesting thoughts about my travel highlights. So here’s my Best of Travel, 2015 travel edition.

Best Airline

Considering that I flew two trans-Atlantic flights on a Lufthansa 747-8i, you’d expect Lufthansa to win this handily. All the Lufthansa employees I encountered were as polished as they were personable. They were excellent with our Little Person (let’s not forget the onboard bassinets and stuffed animals), and the economy class seats were the best I’ve flown in.

By WPPilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Orange County John Wayne is a better airport than you probably realize. By WPPilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But not so fast, says WestJet. This Canadian carrier was the surprise of my travels in 2015 – a likeable, eager-to-please, reasonably priced revelation that makes me wish it had a few US hubs. It’s Boeing 737 fleet is honestly nothing special, especially next to the marvel that is the 747-8i or even a newer iteration of 737. But WestJet one me over by having modestly priced upgrades to its premium cabin, which also gets you free food and snacks.

I am bummed that I can’t fly WestJet more. But you can bet that I will go out of my way to get on a WestJet intercontinental flight; they just added some 767s to the fleet. I’m eager to see what WestJet can do on a widebody aircraft on a long flight.

I expected Lufthansa to be great. And they were. I wasn’t sure about WestJet – but they delivered a wonderful air travel surprise.

Best Airport

This is hands-down Orange County John Wayne Airport. It has barely any lines or queues to speak of. It has an open, airy design that makes the best use of natural light. It’s easy to get around.

Lufthansa 747-8i
Lufthansa was great – but WestJet wins the upset for my favorite airline of 2015.

And in VinoVolo, it has terrific food. Skip all the the restaurants and hit VinoVolo. If you have time to sit and dine, they have an excellent charcuterie platter; though they pride themselves on wine, they also serve a small stash of bottled craft beer.

If you’re in a hurry, go for the to-go picnic boxes. I got a Mendocino Picnic box before my last flight out of John Wayne, which they modified with some pieces of prosciutto for me. I made everyone on the plane jealous with a fine selection of cheese (including an amazing brie), fruit, nuts, crackers and dark chocolate.

My only quibbles were the terrible WiFi and scarcity of power outlets.

In contrast, Chicago O’Hare International Airport is nothing short of the worst of the worst, from taxi times to TSA. Avoid connecting at O’Hare if you can. It truly stinks. I’ve had a lot of things happen at O’Hare, and none of it is good.

Best Brewery

Best of Travel 2015
Good times at Iron Fist Brewing.

When my family travels, we are on the lookout for great breweries. And by far my favorite is Iron Fist Brewing Company. It had everything I like – a warehouse/industrial vibe, a decent food truck and a stellar and varied selection of beers.

If you’re visiting, a flight is the way to go. But do yourself and a few good friends a favor and grab a few bottles of the outrageous Pillow Mint stout.

I also have a lot of great things to say about Noble Ale Works. It’s the best thing happening near the House of the Mouse in Orange County.

Best of travel 2015
An absolutely perfect autumn day in Schwabisch Hall.

Best Destination

If you crack open a travel guide for Germany, you won’t find any mention of Schwäbisch Hall. I wouldn’t have known about it if I didn’t have family in the area. So all those "follow the guidebook" people are missing out on a picturesque, storybook example of a German village (pronounced "willage" by my relatives, father included).

You can spend some time shopping in the town center. Or you can head out to the Einkorn ro hike – if you’re there in fall, pick some apples! If you’re a diehard fan of American football, you can also check out the – and I’m not making this up – Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, which is one of the stronger gridiron teams in Germany. Be on the lookout for the very amusing sausage-dispensing vending machine.

Oh, and if you’re near the village of Rosengarten and you notice some cool art hanging up in a public area, the odds are good that you’re seeing my Uncle Johann’s work.

Best Laugh

Best of travel 2015
This mannequin is definitely yelling “ja!”

So my family rolled into Stuttgart Airport on the German equivalent of a harvest holiday. Everything in the airport before security was closed with three exceptions: A convenience store, an electronics store and a sex shop. I don’t know many people who hit the airport for a ballgag or a flogger – but if you’re one of them, Stuttgart has you covered.

I figure the outfit pictured would make security searches a breeze, but I would want to accessorize with a nice gas mask -- which might cause difficulties at the security checkpoint. So I refrained. (Equality points to Germany for having a male mannequin in the window.)

Best Hotel

We absolutely fell for the Hôtel BELVUE. But after the events in Belgium following the Paris terrorist attack, I wonder how this wonderful place is getting along. It’s right on the edge of the neighborhood that was a focus for the subsequent investigations.

If you can get past that, you’ll enjoy great architecture, a reasonable price and far more space than the European norm. A few other things add to the Belvue’s cool factor: It’s designed to be energy efficient, and is also used to train people for hospitality careers. I could go on about this, but the Hotel Belvue website says it best.

Best Travel Gear.

I have this Grey Ghost backpack that the company calls the “Lightweight Assault Pack.” So yeah, it’s largely aimed at the military crowd. But me? The only thing I assault is the mundane, the ho-hum, the boring. The Lightweight Assault Pack helps me in that endeavour ably.

I picked up a selection of MOLLE pouches to add to the outside of the pack for different purposes. That makes it really quick and easy to configure it for a pretty serious hike (complete with knife and fire-making materials) or as a perfect carry-on items (definitely minus the knife and fire stuff). It fits beautifully under an airline seat, it wears comfortably and it has plenty of space even before adding external pouches. Great stuff!

Best News Overall

My daughter made her first trip abroad at the age of nine months. She was just about perfect – excellent on the airplanes, willing to eat anything, constantly ready to go for a ride in her Ironman stroller. Here’s a little story about what we did and how it all worked out.

 

TSA: “Your Pants, Sir, Are a Problem”

TSA
Costs a bundle, apparently can’t tell a zipper from a dangerous object.

I’ve heard some really silly stuff from TSA employees lately, but this one about my The North Face pants really takes the top prize for being ridiculous:

"These might not be the best pants to wear to the airport since they’ve got all those zippers and a lot going on."

My pants had just set off a false positive on a $150,000 millimeter wave body scanner at John Wayne Airport (which is still an outstanding airport for reasons I’ll address in the future). It thought one of my zippers was not like the others, and alerted the staff. And then the TSA employee – not rudely, or anything – blamed my pants. He was perfectly friendly, but ultimately he still blamed my pants. I think he and the rest of the TSA staff need to think about whether their scanners actually work.

This exact pair of The North Face pants have flown from Asia to the North America to Europe and back with me a few times. They have caused security officials in Asia (Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Tokyo and even Shanghai) and Europe (London, Frankfurt, Stuttgart) exactly zero problems. But they’ve stymied TSA employees in Phoenix and now Orange County.

By WPPilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I love this airport, TSA or not. (By WPPilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
My friends, the problem is not the pants. It’s not the zippers. It’s an overfunded, under-moraled organization trying to expand its mission and its funding by making banking on fear and security theater.

Read this, and tell me this agency is about keeping you safe. Fly abroad and tell me TSA is about keeping you safe. (One of the most dismaying aspects of security at foreign airports is that its employees are more courteous, better trained and more articulate – in a second language! – than TSA employees in my own country.)

So what’s the point of hammering away at TSA every time its employees say or do something stupid? First off, I want people who reflexively bleat "well, if it keeps us safe --" to open their eyes. And then I want the constant stream of pressure to prompt some reform in the organization so we can also get back to the goal of improving and expanding travel – because travel is the best educational experience that a person of any age can enjoy. It sickens me that there are people so cowed by TSA that they don’t want to board a plane.

Oh, and The North Face needs to give me a ring when it’s ready to design its ultimate pair of air travel pants. In the meantime, I’ll wear the same The North Face pants for every flight because they shrug off stains, have plenty of zippable pockets and fit just right for air travel.

One more thing – I have a great story for those of you who can’t get enough of security shenanigans from TSA.