Last week, I returned home from a trip to Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Croatia and Montenegro. My trip culminated in an ocean cruise combined with a Backroads bicycling adventure, which I wrote about on our sister site Avid Cruiser. What I learned on the trip, however, applies to anyone going to Europe for a cruise.
In preparation for the trip, I addressed a number of concerns relevant to travelers going abroad. How would I get there comfortably and affordably? How would I arrive rested and ready to pedal 20-plus miles a day with Backroads? How would I stay connected while traveling abroad?
Now that I am back home, I am happy to report that nearly all went as well as – or better – than planned, and I have three tips for those traveling abroad this year.
1. Getting There Comfortably & Affordably
In Airfare Hacks: Using Google Flights For Cheap(er) Business Class, I wrote about how I found reasonably priced Business Class airfare. Fortunately, all went well with our flights. The highlight was flying Finnair, an American Airlines’ partner through the OneWorld alliance. After reaching New York’s JFK on American Airlines, we felt as though we had crossed into Finland when we stepped into Business Class.
We enjoyed Finnish beverages (Lapponia Cloudberry liqueur topped with champagne), Finnish beer (a Blueberry Saison) and Finnish foods, a plus for Tamera, who has Finnish heritage. The Finn in her also was happy to see that our amenity bags were from Marimekko, the well-known fashion company based in Helsinki.
Our connections were tight, which was fine with us, and arriving in Europe through Helsinki was a delight. The airport was quiet and clean; we passed through immigration quickly and into Finnair’s Business Class lounge.
Our destination was Copenhagen, less than two hours away, and then onward to Helsingborg, Sweden, which turned out to be a jewel of a choice. Before getting into that, though, I want to touch on one low point, and that was flying back into Chicago at the trip’s end. Finnair did a fine job on our return, one of my best flights ever, made even better by fantastic views over Greenland that lasted the better part of an hour.
Dealing with Chicago’s O’Hare, however, was dispiriting, with its masses of people, long security lines, barking security staff and long walks between gates. In the future, I’ll try to avoid ORD, a lesson I had learned long ago but somehow gave it another chance. A mistake.
The take-away: Do your best to find business class airfare at a reasonable cost. By doing so, your travel experience can begin even before you cross the threshold into the plane. You won’t be dinged for extra luggage; you’ll have priority check-in and priority security screening; you’ll enjoy seats where you can stretch out; you’ll enjoy the food and drink; and professional flight attendants will make your flight a pleasure. Oh, and you’ll also get bonus mileage through American Airlines’ rewards program for flying business class. An extra perk on this trip: American Airlines granted me complimentary elite status (Platinum) through the end of September. I can qualify to keep the status through January 2021. That was totally unexpected but welcomed. And of course, avoid Chicago’s O’Hare 🙂
2. Go Anywhere But Your Port Of Departure
We boarded Ponant’s Le Lyrial in Venice feeling fresh and completely over our jet lag, despite being six times zones from home. Others who had made the trip from North America struggled with jet lag and the time change. We were fresh because we had arrived a week before our cruise, and we had time to adapt. But we did not arrive in Venice, or in Italy, or even in Southern Europe. We went north instead, to Sweden, partly because of the way our airfare worked out, and partly because I knew Sweden would be perfect for us – as I had lived in Southern Sweden for nearly a decade.
From Copenhagen, it was an easy train ride to Helsingborg. In less than 90 minutes from leaving the airport, we were checked in to our hotel, the Elite Mollberg. Situated in the city center, the hotel was an excellent choice as was Helsingborg. Why? Read Five Reasons Why We Chose Scandinavia For Our Adriatic Pre-Cruise.
The take-away: You’re making a big investment in your cruise. Don’t shortchange yourself by arriving at your port of departure the day your ship sets sail. Doing so comes with too many risks: 1) your flight from North America could be canceled or delayed – it’s happened to me due to thunderstorms on the East Coast; 2) your luggage may not make it with you, and that can make for a miserable cruise; and 3) you’ll be so jet-lagged for the first few days that you won’t be able to fully enjoy your cruise. By arriving early, and I means as many days as possible, before your cruise, you’ll be rested and ready to go. And I advise going somewhere totally different from the region where you’ll be cruising. Engineer your trip abroad so that you have two vacations in one. That is exactly what combining Scandinavia and the Adriatic did for us. It was the perfect combination. We even made full circle, returning to Copenhagen before heading home. We spent a wonderful evening walking the Danish capital and having one last dinner in my favorite Copenhagen restaurant, Peder Oxe, showing the photo collage below (the green light, by the way, indicates that you are ready to place your order).
3. Upgrade Your Phone Service
In my post Staying Connected Abroad: Google Fi vs. T-Mobile vs. Verizon, I asked readers if fast connectivity while traveling was important to them. The majority of respondents said that it was. I tested Google Fi, Verizon and T-Mobile. T-Mobile’s Global Plus 15gb performed so well that I did not need to use Google Fi or my Verizon plan. The additional $50 per month for T-Mobile’s plan was a better value for me than Google Fi (at $60 for 6gb) or Verizon (which would have cost me $160 for my 16 days abroad – and with slowed data after consuming half a gigabyte).
The take-away: I’m someone who prefers to stay connected for a variety of reasons: 1) I don’t want to come home to an inbox overflowing with emails that need to be answered right away – I’d much rather spend a few minutes each day taking care of those while traveling; 2) I enjoy sharing our experiences on Facebook and Instagram and that requires fast data; 3) It was nice to be able to make phone calls without having to worry about the costs; and 4) having fast data allowed me to use apps for public transport in Sweden and Copenhagen. Spend the extra $50 to upgrade your data plan before leaving home. You’ll be happy you did so.
I’m still knocking on wood. We seemed to have had a lot of luck with our last trip. Or maybe, as the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” I certainly spent a lot of time preparing for our trip.
There are a couple of things that I did not mention as tips: 1) Thanks to reader suggestions, we signed up for GeoBlue Trekker Essential, multi-trip travel insurance that covers us for a year (cost: $200 for both of us). 2) Although we both packed light, we still had clothes that we did not wear at the trip’s end – lesson pack even lighter.
The trip will go down as one of the best I’ve experienced. There’s much more to come. I haven’t told you about our cruise on Le Lyrial or about our Backroads adventure. Look for those stories over the next two weeks on Avid Cruiser. In the meantime, please share your tips in the comments section below about what you think contributes to great travel experiences.
Oh, and here’s one more look at Greenland, from 30,000 feet.