In early April, I left my home in Asheville, North Carolina for back-to-back barge trips in Alsace and in Burgundy. Both were wonderful trips. If you want a peak at our two weeks of barging France, scroll through my Instagram feed at the bottom of this page. This post, however, details a dozen things that I did right on my trip and one thing where I goofed. Hopefully, some of these strategies will help you in planning your travel abroad. Note that I write from a U.S. (and somewhat North American) perspective, so if you’re reading this in any other part of the world, not all of the strategies will apply. Please feel free to share your tips in the comments section at the end of this post.
As countries try to navigate the waning global pandemic (at least we hope it’s waning), travel requirements change frequently. A Rhine river cruise back in September was nearly canceled because the Netherlands started requiring all international visitors, vaccinated or not, to quarantine for up to 10 days upon arrival. None of us were prepared to do that because our 11-day cruise would have ballooned into a 21-day trip, with about half of that time in quarantine. As I was planning my April barge trips, France announced that it would require that travelers have a Pass Sanitaire for traveling on trains and other modes of public transport. Knowing that it would be a hassle to obtain the Pass Sanitaire, I switched my flight from arrival in Paris to arrival in Frankfurt. I could not have switched my flight so easily had I not used points. There was no fee to cancel my flight and redeposit my points. And, as luck would have it, points required for business class flights between Asheville, North Carolina and Frankfurt were near historical lows. Even if you don’t have points, you can buy them, although there are tricks to that as well. I’ve written about buying points and other strategies for booking business class air in several posts: Airline Ticket Hacks: Cheap Business Class Tickets To Europe | First Class Flying Tips | Airfare Hacks: Using Google Flights For Cheap(er) Business Class
My flight, as do many transatlantic flights, put me in Frankfurt early in the morning – at 7:30 a.m. I knew I would be tired and in need of a shower. So before leaving home I spent $95 to book a dayroom at the Frankfurt Airport Hilton. It’s a nice hotel, conveniently located (no shuttle required – you can walk to the hotel), and the train station is within steps of the hotel entrance. To find a room, I simply Googled “day rooms at Frankfurt Airport.” I thought it would be nice to shave, shower and sleep before continuing my journey by train to Strasbourg. As it turned out, however, my day room became an overnight room, which brings us to the next item in my list.
American Airlines notified me by email that my luggage had been delayed. Though disappointed, I appreciated knowing right away rather than waiting at the luggage carousel hoping to see my bag. I went straight to the luggage service center and filed a claim. What I learned was that my bag missed the connection in Charlotte (it was a tight connection) and was loaded on the next transatlantic flight – to London. Not confident that my bag would catch up with me on a canal trip, I decided to stay put and retrieve my luggage before continuing to Strasbourg. Luckily, I was able to cancel the dayroom at the Hilton and switch to an overnight room. Early check-in, at 8 a.m., would have been an additional 50 euros, but that fee is waived for Diamond members, a status I maintain because I have the American Express Hilton Aspire card. That card has been well worth the $450 annual fee. In September I used it to stay for free in the Waldorf-Astoria Amsterdam. See Your Questions Answered: Snagging $600 Business Class & A ‘Free’ Stay At The Waldorf Astoria. Waiting for my luggage worked out well. I rested up, retrieved my luggage the next morning and made my way to Strasbourg to join the trip.
I had the luxury of waiting for my luggage because I followed a cardinal rule of cruising abroad. Arrive at least two days before your trip. Doing so allows you to acclimate and recover and enjoy a taste of Europe before embarking on your river cruise. And more importantly in my case, it allowed me to retrieve my luggage. Had I taken a chance and arrived the day of cruise departure, things could have gotten messy. My luggage would have had a hard time catching up with me as we voyaged along through small villages in the Alsace countryside.
In all, my trip on back-to back barge voyages would span 18 days.The first voyage, through Lorraine and Alsace, was punctuated with two nights in Dijon before beginning a Burgundy voyage. I did not relish the idea of doing laundry when in Dijon. I’d much rather see the city, so I packed strategically for 18 days. In the TMI department (that’s Too Much Information) I packed 19 pair of underwear and a whole lot of t-shirts, several pairs of pants, dress shirts, jackets, socks and toiletries. I also carried travel detergent in case I wanted to wash clothes in the sink. I never had to. I was able to wear fresh clothes every day of the trip. I let the lightweight t-shirts do the heavy lifting, keeping my casual shirts fresh. Shoes? Only two pair, the pair I wore on the flight, and a pair for the barge. Both pair are made by Keen. I like these shoes so much that I am putting non-affiliate links here. The first pair is Brixen Low Slip-on, waterproof and passably stylish for the barge. Gals, you’re on your own for the Brixen. It is only available for me. The second pair is the Howser Canvas Slip-on. It comes in styles for men and women.
I usually try to travel with carry-on luggage only. That way there’s no bag for the airline to delay or lose. But packing carry-on only was hard to do for an 18-day trip. I tried but without success. Still, I traveled relatively light, with one medium-sized spinner bag (26 inches tall, 18 wide and 12 deep) and one 2-wheel cabin bag measuring 13.5 inches tall, 15 wide and 9.5 deep. I am not recommending a specific brand, but I used Briggs & Riley because I like the durability and the interlocking handle system that allows the bag to stack on top of other Briggs & Riley Baseline uprights. If you’re traveling like I do, using trains, for example, you want luggage that is easy to manage. Spinners are helpful, and the stackable aspect makes it so that you can have one hand free.
I love France, but when it comes to being organized, Germany wins. Because of the challenges with France’s Pass Sanitaire (as mentioned earlier) and because I thought Germany would be an easier point of entry, I chose Frankfurt Airport with its convenient train station within the airport. I never encountered long lines upon my entry or return and passport control was a breeze. Friends of mine who traveled through Paris endured a bomb threat that caused a one-hour delay and long lines. The bomb threat turned out to be a grenade replica that a World War II buff had purchased in France.
Europe’s highly efficient rail system makes for a great way to travel, and it’s a relatively inexpensive way to go – even in first class seating. Pro tips for train travel: Some people make the mistake of not booking on the right sites, Bahn.de for Germany and sncf-connect.com for France’s official rail system. Using those site will get you the best prices and best routings. Also important to know is that when traveling with luggage, it’s wise to choose direct trains, those with no changes, unless you enjoy the challenge of changing trains and tracks with luggage in tow. When booking, make sure your route is with no changes (direct) as much as possible.
Ever see people racing along the train station platform while struggling with their luggage? That’s because they failed to position themselves at the part of the platform where their car will stop. How does one find that position? Look for a map like the one in the photo above. Find your train car on your ticket and look for the corresponding letter on the platform. Position yourself near the letter. For example, if I were in train car number 15, I would stand near the letter H on the platform. No running. No excess struggling with luggage. Keep calm and continue on.
I’ve written a lot about staying connected while river cruising. On this trip, as on others, I opted for T-Mobile’s International Package for both my iPhone and iPad. For $50 per device ($100 total), I got 15gb of fast data on each device – as well as free phone calls to and from the U.S. My devices worked just as they did at home. In fact, I was able to stream YouTube and share segments from my favorite comedian with guests and crew. See Staying Connected While River Cruising: Google Fi vs. T-Mobile vs. Verizon. I also use Airalo, a virtual SIM card that works well. See Using An eSIM For Blazingly Fast Internet On The Rivers Of Europe
I rarely carry euros when in Europe. Instead, I use my credit card to pay for nearly everything while traveling. The important thing to know is whether your card issuer charges currency conversion fees. These fees, typically 1 percent of the purchase price, can add up, and there are plenty of cards without currency conversion fees. The advantage of the credit card is that it’s handy, there’s no cash to lose and you accumulate points with many cards. Other pro tips, with a nod to one of our subscribers: Whenever given the chance to choose between paying in local currency and U.S. dollars, choose local currency. That way the bank does the currency conversion and not the credit card processor. Also, many credit cards cover luggage delays, entitling the cardholder to compensation. My Chase Sapphire Reserve is one such card. I do carry euros for tipping guides and I carry euro notes for tipping cruise staff. How do I obtain euros? I use my Fidelity debit card, which gives me a good exchange and reimburses transaction fees. As an astute reader points out, one ATM near the Eiffel Tower charges 6 euros for retrieving cash. The Fidelity debit card reimburses that fee.
We’re living in a different world – well, somewhat different. In my early days of travel, I had to get shots for international travel. Today’s no different. Knowing that Covid was surging in France, I got my 2nd Covid booster two weeks before going. There were positive cases on my trip – all mild. In fact, an 81-year-old tested positive the day before he was to fly home. He had no idea he had Covid. His asymptomatic case was likely due to the fact that he also had gotten the 2nd booster. See It’s Time To Get On With Life – And River Cruising
What’s the one thing I did wrong? I didn’t pack enough medication. I was four days short on one prescription drug. Happy ending though. I was able to buy the drug in France without a prescription and for much less than it would have cost in the States. “I have a sister in the States,” the pharmacist told me. “The cost of health care and prescription drug there is criminal.” Yep, we know. Merci!