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Europe Travel Notes
September-October, 2009

Adventure Log - Europe 2009

Trip Summary

The primary purpose of our trip was a 1-week Canal Boat rental in South Central France (the Burgundy Region, near Dijon).  But we flew Military Space Available into and out of Germany, and so go a little time to see a small part of Western Germany (the Mosel Valley).  We spent a week in Paris, staying a timeshare in the Euro Disney complex, and including a 1-day side-trip to Normandy. And then drove to the Dijon area to pick up our boat.  We spent a week going south on the ?? River, from the small town of Gray to the small down of Branges, and then rented a car and drove back to Germany through the eastern wine region of France.
 


Books and Reference Material

Rick Steves Guide to France

Rick Steves seems to be the Englishk-speaking guru for Europe as far as budget travel.  http://ricksteves.com His book was great and his website is worth checking out as well.

Lonely Planet Guides

We had PDF parts of the France Guide, and the appropriate sections of the Western Europe Guide.

HostalWorld
Website

http://www.hostalworld.com  Though we never ended up booking any French hotels via HostalWorld, they did seem to have some budget places to stay (but not as much as in South America).

Money

The primary currency in Europe these days is the Euro.  Usually designated as a funny looking E.  The Euro cost about 1.5 dollars while we were there, so any price that was advertised, you needed to multiply by 1.5 to get dollars.  A few english-speaking websites also quotes british pounds (the funny-looking L is the symbol)  It also was about 1.5 to the USD.  Yahoo's Exchange Rate Site

Language Issues

None of us studied any German.  We got by, because we were in the area where most of the U.S. Military bases were.  A little travel German would have been helpful at times, but in most cases, someone nearby spoke English.  We had one person who spoke pretty reasonable French, and 2 more that had subsistence level French.  As always, most French people had some understanding of English, but appreciated it when we tried to speak French (but with the exception of Sam, their English was usually better than our French).

English News of Country

European News in English is not hard to find, because the UK covers all of Europe pretty well via the BBC News.

Military Space A Travel

 http://spacea.net/mediawiki/index.php?title=Space-A_Travel_Links


Canal Boats in France

Le Boat - A British outfit that has boats all over Europe.  They speak English, can book your trip in U.S. dollars, etc.
Locaboat - A French-based company that we saw many boats from


Buses and Trains

Bus travel in France and Germany is much more limited than we experienced in South America, but the train system is a much more common means of getting around.  Basically the buses serve the rural areas that the trains do not go to, and within the city.

For information about Eurail Passes, etc, start at Rick Steves site.  But understand that those passes are best if you are doing a lot of moving around, and mostly with one person.  What we did was buy individual rail segments when we needed to.  In some cases, it was more economical to rent a car (for 4 of us) than it was to take the train.

Germany has a good and well-documented train/bus system.  But finding information about schedules and routes on the web in English, seemed a little difficult.  The best site I found was the German 'Travel Service' site:

 http://reiseauskunft.bahn.de/bin/query.exe/en?

Here you can put in a start and stop point (ie two towns) and it will show you how to get there (including trains AND buses).  Our experience during low travel season (Sep/Oct) was that we didn't need to book anything ahead.  All the buses/trains were running half empty all the time.   So the best tactic is to wait til you get to the train station, and then take advantage of the printed/displayed information there.

Finally, for point-to-point cross-country travel, the Rail Europe site seemed best:
http://www.raileurope-world.com/?var_lang=en
 


Air Travel

Airlines to Europe

Sorry, we flew Military Space-A to get to Europe, so I can't help you with suggesting airlines.  I did find that Air Canada flies a direct flight from Orlando to Paris, and was offering a pretty good rate.

Airlines within Europe

Several people have mentioned that sometimes, the regional budget airlines can get you across Europe cheaper than the trains.  Try EasyJet, Ryan Air, or this site: http://budgettravel.about.com/od/airfarescruises/qt/airsites_europe.htm 


Canal Boat Trip Recap


Not having time to really do what I normally do, here's the contents of an email I sent to friends about our canal boat trip:

It was a great trip and very easy.  You don’t need any super boating skills… we never anchored or anything.  If you want to spend the night in ‘country settings’, you just pull the boat over to the side at a good spot, pound some (furnished) stakes in the ground, and tie up.  If you want ‘city settings’ for the night, there are towns all over the place with places to tie up (sometimes free, sometimes about $15 per night).

The boats are lined with fenders, so even people with marginal boat driving skills can’t get in too much trouble.  Doing the locks was also easy, after the first one.  We did about 25 locks in 7 days (about 10 of them on a single day, on a side trip up a smaller canal), only 2 or 3 required us to do actual lock work.  The rest, you twist a rope when you arrive outside, wait for the green light, pull a different rope when you get inside, and wait for the lock to fill or empty and then drive out when the gates open on the other side.  In most locks, the water rises only about 3-4 feet, but again, on the one side canal we went up about 50’ over 10 locks.

We used leboat.com We rented a Continentale, a 3-couple boat.  It had 3 cabins, each with it’s own bathroom/shower.  The cabins were very small, but functional.  The galley was well-equipped, and there’s a small fridge aboard with a tiny freezer (ie like Island Time’s fridge).  They have some cheaper options if you only have 2 couples.  Depending on the size of the kids, you might be able to fit kids on the couch in the salon.

They have a U.S. representative and so we could book in US dollars, etc.  They are Brit-owned and so the people at the bases all speak English, too.  They rent boats all over Europe (England, France, Holland, etc).  We did a one-way rental in the Burgundy region of France, from Gray to Branges.  It was an easy one-week trip, motoring downstream.  There is another company we saw called locaboat, probably locaboat.com or locaboat.fr.

Logistics of getting there… easiest would be to fly into Paris.  I think I found an $800 USD pp R/T from Orlando to Paris on Air Canada.  You could also easily fly into England and drive or ‘fast train’ from there.  Or into Frankfurt Germany, and take the ‘fast train’ to Paris (about $120 pp).

From Paris you can either rent a car or take the train down to Dijon, and a bus to Gray.  (Note the Le Boat people were specifically unhelpful with the bus info… we think they get a cut of the taxi fare, but it was like $1.50 EU pp for the bus and $50 EU for the taxi). 

Buses in France aren’t as prolific as in South and Central America, but there is generally a route that runs 3-4 times a day through the small towns in any given region.s  We did find that renting a car was sometimes cheaper than paying for 4 people by train, but make sure you get a car big enough to fit 4 people (for example) and all your luggage.  We ended up with heavy suitcases on our laps a couple of times because the size of the trunk didn’t match the seats.  Renting a van, especially for a one-way to Dijon, didn’t seem possible.

The trip downriver was lovely.  We lucked out and got a great 3-week run of weather (Sep 15 – Oct 6).  It started raining the day we left… There was one ‘cold front’ before we got there, but the whole time we were there, it was 70’s during the day, and 60’s at night.  Not hot, not cold.

We rented 4 bikes from Le Boat for the 6 of us, and that was enough.  We took turns biking vs. driving the boat.  Our general daily schedule was to get underway about 10am, go for a couple of hours, stop in a town about midday, then go for a couple more hours.  You only need to go about 4 hours a day to make the particular trip we did.  All the locks shut down about Oct 15 – 1 Apr, so can’t rent during the winter.  July and August is high high season, and everything is full/busy.

If you want to see Paris at all, the closer into the city you can stay, the more expensive the housing, but the cheaper the transportation.  We stayed out by the Euro Disney complex (for free at a friend’s timeshare), but paid $20 r/t pp per day to get into Paris (that was the cost of a daily ‘anywhere you want to go’ transport pass in Paris).  But Euro Disney is about as far out as you can get and still get easy/frequent train service into Paris.

We found out later that there is a website that rents holiday rooms in France, it is called something like gitesfrance.com (or maybe .fr).  ‘Gite’ (prounounced ‘geet’) is French term for ‘rooms for rent’.

A good website for Europe travel information is ricksteves.com, and Rick Steves’ guides seem to be the most common travel bible in France.

An alternative trip that looked interesting was bike tour trips through the river/wine region.  We saw people biking.along the bike trails, and saw ads for tour companies.  I think they set things up for you, rent you the bikes, and transport your luggage daily to the next stop, so you can bike around unencumbered.  Looked fun, but no idea about the price.

In general everything in Europe was about 50% more expensive than in the U.S.  (Gas is $7 U.S. per gallon, so it impacts everything).  We ate out once or twice, but generally bought stuff in the supermarkets and made our own meals aboard and in the hotel (so getting a place with a kitchen or kitchen privs is well worth it).  Cheapest lunch we found (street food in Paris) was $6 pp, but if you sit down anywhere, it will be more like $15 pp.  The food is divine, but expensive as hell.

It turned out that our trip was near, but not IN the wine region.  Our trip was in flatter countryside that is mostly farming.  Lots of beautiful/quaint little towns, with a few bigger towns.

We did a side trip on the way back out of the country, by car, into the wine region.  (within the past week, all the regions started having wine fairs, and the German Octoberfest stuff starts within the next week too).

I took my laptop and played with my gps, but none of the charting programs I had had any detail on the rivers of France (it may exist, but I didn’t have it).  If I’d had time, I would have scanned the overall picture from the guidebook we got from Le Boat, and used that.  You don’t really need it though.  The guidebook has mile markers, and the mile markers are usually on the side of the river every Km.  I did eventually get Google Earth hooked up to my GPS and that was fun (but you need to do the terrain download ahead of time, because we had trouble getting internet).

On the internet… there was lots of wifi around, but nothing unlocked.  I would do research ahead of time, and try to book access to what looked like a paid network of wifi.  Google Livebox France and Neuf France wifi and see what comes up.  Or buy some cellular based access. 

On cell phones.  Our ATT quad-band phones worked fine over there, with ATT international roaming turned on. Once we figured out how to dial it, we could dial each other, and French and German numbers. I think it costs about 99 cents a minute (haven’t gotten our ATT bill yet!).  We used it sparingly, but were glad to have it when we needed it.  (I think paid local calls are something on the order of 40 cents a minute, so the roaming charge is not too outrageous).  Sometimes text messages (between ourselves) worked better, because they are only 40 cents each (I think).

Language:  We had one guy with us who had a fairly good grammatical command of French, and 2 others who spent some time listening to tapes and trying to get some language.  It definitely WAS helpful to have a little French, because out in the countryside, not everyone speaks English.  And most people appreciated our lame attempts at French, and then took pity on us and spoke to us in their lame English (which was usually better than our French).  The area of Germany we were in has tons of U.S. presence, so it wasn’t too hard in Germany.  But if you got further away from the U.S. bases, it might be useful to have a good German phrasebook.

Bottom line:  it was a really really neat experience.  We loved France and Germany (what little we had time for).  We are already plotting how to go back and stay longer.  Dave was really keen on buying a canal boat—we actually went and looked at a place that had a bunch of used ones for sale.  We looked at enough to know about how much a reasonable one would cost and what model we’d be looking for.

 

 
Internet and Cell Phone Notes

Cell Phones

Our ATT quad-band phones worked fine over there, with ATT international roaming turned on (you have to call ATT to turn this on before you leave). We contemplated buying a sim card, but the cost was 15 EU and we figured we just didn't need that much calling.

Once we figured out how to dial it, we could dial each other with our ATT Roaming on our regular cell phones, and French and German numbers. International calls, without being on an international 'plan' costs $1.29 cents a minute.  We used it sparingly, but were glad to have it when we needed it.  (I think paid local calls are something on the order of 40 cents a minute, so the roaming charge is not too outrageous).  Sometimes text messages (between ourselves) worked better, because they are only 50 cents each.
 

Wifi

While Europe certainly has good internet, we were disconcerted to find that almost nothing was "open" from a roaming wifi standpoint, especially in France.  While passing through small towns on the river in France, we could "see" 3-4 internet connection points, but couldn't connect to them.  Once or twice we did find one open, and it would turn out to be "for pay".  We didn't mind paying, but then the next town wouldn't have the same hotspot.

Next time I would do research ahead of time, and try to book access to what looked like a paid network of wifi.  Google Livebox France and Neuf France wifi and see what comes up.  These were the most common of the locked wifi that we saw along our route.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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