Avoiding the Crush

Part 2 of Considering the Crush

So what should we do being in Europe amid the crush? I thought, “how can we make this work? How to sleep well, get around relatively cheaply and easily, and to just enjoy ourselves?” We could have made a frantic travel plan, to see all the big attractions, run to and fro, and try to get photos of everything. You may encounter someone in your party like Ellen Griswold (National Lampoon’s “Vacation”):

Ellen Griswold: Clark, why don’t we just forget the itinerary, and just play it by ear, like normal people?
Clark Griswold: Honey, we’re not normal people. We’re the Griswolds.

Unfortunately for the Griswolds, Clark’s itinerary was unbearable. My travel partner and I are not normal either, but we planned as easy as “presee” → prepare – sleep – eat – enjoy.

Like most smart travelers, we typically prepare our days online and on paper while at home in the U.S. We consulted our friend Google and also picked up a print travel guide for Italy. Some preparing stats:

• 148.3 million travel bookings are made online every year.
• 63% of the $1.2 trillion travel industry is booked online. This online market was over $817 billion last year.
• 80% of online travel customers will leave reviews. 72% of people won’t book until they have read them. (Keep in mind that 95% of online reviews will be positive.)
• 51% of travelers will decide on a trip, but then spend only one week or less preparing (Source).
• We did not want to be like that last group of people. Like many travelers we browsed the big sites, Expedia, TripAdvisor, Travelocity, Hotels.com, or Booking.com for hotels and local attractions four weeks in advance.

We were arriving at the city center train station, having just finished a dining car specialty. Then the doors opened and I moved us sideways through the disembarked crowd. We avoided the over-friendly taxi drivers and intent trinket salespeople, who wanted more money than they deserve.

Sleep. We get to our hotel, walking only three blocks from the station. The big websites had given us a rough idea of accommodations, but we ultimately booked on the hotel’s website (you can also do this by calling or app, if available). Ours was smaller, but comfy, and was a great jumping off point to the rest of the city.

Eat. In the morning, we had the included continental breakfast and latte at the hotel (another day we just stepped out on the street to a local coffee bar). Check, that’s one quick meal; time for something really Italian would come later.

Enjoy. After breakfast, my travel partner reminded me to keep to our self-tour that we had reviewed on the train. We arranged it so it took us through a series of sites arranged in a geographic line, with different routes each day, with no backtracking or overlapping.

We have a realistic choice of one big site for the day and that day we saw a place that is indispensable—the Vatican. For certain major attractions, like the Louvre or Colosseum, we got the tickets while preparing at home or from a computer or mobile phone during the trip. But as we walked on our own past the long line to buy same-day tickets for the St. Peter’s Basilica tour, we found a small shop that charged $70 per person for a private tour. To see the Sistine Chapel is an experience of a lifetime and also worth the money. We had an endurable amount of the crush away from that long line.

For lunch, while ignoring a maitre d’ selling the next door menu, we instead found a modern looking, open air bistro with outdoor seating. It had a menu with various pizza and pasta styles, all made quickly. Unfortunately, we also found we couldn’t escape the cigarette smoke—the only thing that I found to be annoying in Italy (the U.K. has outlawed it in pubs).
The streets, more like alleys sometimes, are more crowded in the afternoon. Later, at the Spanish Steps, we sat above the content crowd, at back to look over the city at dusk. This was a calm, mostly quiet environment making for a beautiful close to our day.

In the evening, we chose a below-ground restaurant accessible by descending stairs off the main thoroughfare. It was candle-lit and a family-run affair; the patrons all spoke Italian. We had the special and a bottle of wine. Near the end of our meal, live musicians started to play. Afterward, we grabbed a gelato from a store that has over 150 flavors.

Being English and Brazilian, we didn’t have relatives in Italy, but if you happen to have relatives in the old country, make a day of it—even if you aren’t that closely related:

Clark Griswold: There it is, kids. My motherland.
Rusty Griswold: Dad, Grandma’s from Chicago.
Clark Griswold: Shut up, Russ.

The season for the trip matters, too. Late August/September to February/March is a less-crowded, and sometimes cheaper time. It was cold during November in Cornwall, England, but I was able to take–with no competition–the obligatory photo of myself with the well-known “Land’s End” sign. OK, that was unforgivable, but there were perhaps seven other people there.

Oh, when you do take photos, take them of your travel partners and yourself against the backdrops. Like most photos at the Trevi Fountain, pics of buildings, museums, and art are not memories. You can just go to an art book or travel guide for that.

With the inescapable crowds at places that are must see’s, don’t let stress get you here:

Clark Griswold: “I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun.”

In Rome there are over 40 different catacombs, so we went to one of the lesser known ones. Same experience, less crush. Online resources can also help make your trip unique. We downloaded a Rick Steve’s recorded audio walking tour for the Roman Forum. It offered superb history and created a Zen bubble around us as we walked.

As the night came, we found another local bar. The band played and we ordered the small plates and drank more wine. We took it easy on ourselves.

Clark Griswold: Oh Ellen, the old west was dirty. Everything isn’t like home. If everything were like home, there would be no reason for leaving home… Despite all the little problems, it really is fun isn’t it?

Finally, some more pointers:

• You need to spend 2-3 days in a smaller city, but 3-5 days on a larger one. You also may want to pad those days with an off day that is free of plans. On my trips’ off days, I either took a private tour from a local guide, went to the smaller attractions not on our plans or just went to a store that I passed by earlier.
• Call your credit card companies to get an idea of international fees and interest rates.
• Buy a Eurail ticket or regular train ticket for only the countries you will visit. It’s easier to have transportation settled before the trip, but you can buy a city pass in the train station, which usually includes all buses and subways for at least a 24-hour period.
• For more non-touristy independence, book a car for the legs between cities or across the countryside.
• As for money, keep your hand on your pocket when you can’t avoid crowds or are in public transportation; avoid that problem with a money belt.
• You can speak English most places but be courteous by knowing a few common phrases in the vernacular: yes, no, thank you, bus, subway or Roman Forum?
• If you hate cigarettes, beware of smokers before you order food or relax while people watching.

Fight the pow- er, trash, noise, and public tomfoolery. Show your support to local citizens by being a conscientious traveler and patronize their businesses. Don’t subject yourself–or anyone else–to Clark Griswold touristyness. You can’t ride a scooter with Audrey Hepburn, but you can get away from the crush—and do it local style.

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