Our Trip to Italy and Greece – Part 3

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At long last we boarded our plane. We climbed into our seats, which held a pair of headphones and a blanket to ease our overnight flight. Each seat had its own small TV and a surprisingly impressive selection of new movies to choose from, free of charge. After the plane lifted off the ground and the turbulence turned to a slow hum, we chose our unmemorable movies and settled in for the long flight.

Emirates’ drink varieties were as impressive as their movie selection, with a wide variety of alcoholic beverages available alongside the typical soft drinks and juices. Again, even the alcoholic drinks were free of charge (or more accurately, rolled into the price of our tickets). Unlike the budget airlines I was accustomed to, there were no hidden charges or unexpected costs thrown at us. Quite the opposite, in fact. I did not expect quite the level of luxury that awaited us. Even the food was more than tolerable, verging on tasty.

The only uncomfortable experience I had with the flight was being unable to recline my seat. The man next to me showed me how he reclined his, but mine refused to cooperate. As a result, I probably only slept for about an hour for the entire flight, but excitement and adrenaline for the adventure ahead sustained me well enough.

Because of the time difference (6 hours), we arrived at Malpensa Airport in Milan, Italy around noon. Oddly enough, there were no customs checks other than simply showing our passport to an agent in a booth. Not a single baggage check. While this was convenient, we kept doubting ourselves whether we missed a turn, questioning whether it was supposed to be so simple for foreigners like us to leave the airport.

Our plan was to ride the Malpensa Express train from the airport to Milano Centrale, the main train station in Milan about 50 minutes away. However, we found the airport confusing and could not find our way to the Malpensa Express. After wandering around for over a half an hour, we changed our plans and paid for the first bus we found featuring a sign for Milano Centrale. Fortunately, tickets were 10 euros each, so the price was comparable to the train and probably more comfortable. We were just happy to be heading in the right direction.

When we arrived at Milano Centrale, we found a ticket booth (biglietteria) and explained that we were looking for the next available, cheapest tickets to Venezia. Thankfully, almost all the ticket salesmen in Italy spoke English, so the language barrier was no big problem yet. We paid our 81 euros for two tickets and walked into the train station. While we had read about and seen video of Milano Centrale, we weren’t quite prepared for the chaos that is finding and boarding your train. Compounding the stress of the fast-approaching departure time were the labyrinthine levels and stairs required to climb before finding the boarding area.

Upon arriving at the main gate, there was a crowd of people looking up at an electronic board listing all the upcoming departures. Everybody was waiting and watching so eagerly because the platform number for your particular train does not get listed until shortly before boarding starts. We saw that our train was 5 or 10 minutes delayed, but when we saw our platform number come up and everybody made a dash to that platform, we followed the crowd and boarded. We were a little early, but we figured the train would just wait until the departure time to take off. The train left a little before the time printed on our ticket, but we didn’t think much of it. Sleep deprived and physically fatigued, we were happy just to be able to sit and relax, fading in and out of sleep. Only three more hours were left until we’d arrive in Venice.

An hour later, the train stopped and everybody got off, far ahead of schedule. We didn’t see any signs saying Venice and it certainly didn’t appear to be a busy enough train station to be Venice. Panicking, we talked to the first people we could find just outside of the train, an older Italian couple who didn’t speak a word of English. After asking as clearly as we could whether we were in Venice, it was clear we were not and that we should get off the train. A few minutes had already passed and it was becoming obvious it was not going any further. This was the last stop.

We had arrived in a train station in what looked to be a working-class, lower-income area called Bergamo. We talked to everybody we could find at the train station, including a woman at the ticket booth, and nobody spoke English. As time was passing quickly, we kept fearing this was a connecting stop, and that we were missing the next train to Venice. It was an incredibly unsettling feeling being in a completely unfamiliar city where your cellular data is so slow as to be almost unusable and you are unable to communicate with anyone, no matter how hard you try.

Thankfully, we finally found a friendly and helpful young Pakistani guy, perhaps 20 years old, who spoke a little English. He said he had time before his train was going to arrive and he graciously walked with us to the ticket office. With the help of his interpretation, we explained our situation to the man at the ticket booth, and he informed us that we had boarded the wrong train and that our current tickets were no longer valid. No matter how much we tried to plead with him, it was to no avail. We had to buy brand new tickets and eat the cost of the previous tickets as a painful learning experience. 75 additional euros and another hour or more later, we were back on our way to Venice again. This time, though, we were aboard the slow train.

There are two types of train tickets in Italy. The first is a general use ticket. These don’t have a particular date or time printed on them, but are good for one ride to a particular location, redeemable within 30 days of purchase. If you get this type of ticket, you’ll have to validate it before you get on your train. Otherwise, you could face a hefty fine. To validate your ticket, you stick it in one of the green machines that can be found on just about any train platform. The machine will print a date and time onto your ticket. The other type of ticket is only good for the specific date and time printed on the ticket. If you get this kind of ticket and you miss your train’s departure, you’re out of luck. But, you don’t need to worry about validating this type because it is only good once, anyway.

Because of all our delays, we did not arrive in Venice until almost 7:00 p.m., much later than our anticipated 3:00. While the city was absolutely beautiful, we were too worn out and hungry by this time to fully appreciate the scenery. We had barely slept at all in the past 30 hours, and due to the train fiasco we hadn’t eaten since our breakfast on the plane. Using our free T-Mobile international data, we pulled up Google Maps directions from our itinerary and followed the phone down a series of dark, yet peaceful alley-ways to our hotel.

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We were immensely relieved to find that the concierge was at the front desk and that he spoke English. 24-hour English-speaking reception was a luxury we would soon find should never be assumed in a low-cost Italian hotel.

As soon as we arrived in our tiny room, we dropped our 20-25 pound backpacks from our shoulders and enjoyed a moment of relief. We didn’t stop for more than a few minutes, though, before we showered up, brushed our teeth, and went back out to the streets to find the nearest restaurant. Because of our extreme hunger, we didn’t spend time to look up restaurant reviews and costs ahead of time as we should. Instead, we opted for a nearby pizzeria. While we were excited to fill our famished stomachs with authentic Italian pizza, our excitement dissipated when the mediocre pizza, beer, and water arrived, followed by a 40-euro check. Ouch. Another expensive lesson learned on our first day in Italy.

With our stomachs fuller and our wallets emptier, we could finally appreciate the charm and beauty of Venice. Vaporettos (water taxis) and gondolas glided down the Grand Canal, the main waterway that weaved through the city instead of streets. Lining the canal were rustic houses, cafes, shops, and restaurants, filled with honeymooners and romantics enjoying each other’s company as much as my wife and I were.

For the next hour or so we wandered the city without any particular destination in mind, enjoying the cool breeze off the canal and the relaxed atmosphere before returning to the hotel for some long-overdue sleep.

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The next day, the real fun was to begin. Our first full day in Italy…

 

 

 

Our Trip to Italy and Greece – Part 2

It was the day we had been anticipating for the last two months. Friday, March 27th had finally arrived. On this beautiful, sunny day which barely required a fleece, I couldn’t help but reflect on how perfectly everything had seemed to fall into place leading up to this point. The weather bolstered our optimism and bode well for our next two weeks. It was as if Baltimore was gifting us with a going-away present before reverting back to its wintery, sub-freezing ways after our departure.

Our bags were packed with all the necessities, and only the necessities. In order to avoid delays, baggage fees, risk of lost luggage, and risk of damage during handling, we both decided to pack everything in our own carry-on backpacks, along with a camera bag in the form of a large purse. After we finished packing and weighed our bags, we were nervous because both of our bags were over some of our airlines’ weight limits for carry-ons. However, we decided to take the risk and we would check in if we were weighed. Thankfully, none of the airlines weighed or even measured our bags. Since our carry-ons were backpacks, the check-in agents didn’t seem to worry one bit about them being too large or heavy at any of the airlines (Emirates, Aegean, or Vueling). A couple of the agents even remarked that we were traveling light for an international trip.

In order to conserve space, we packed only enough clothes for about a week, along with a small travel laundry kit and clothesline. We planned to use the kit for washing our laundry in a hotel sink or bathtub halfway through our trip, and to dry our clothes outside our window. For organizing and tightly packing our clothes, we used eBags Packing Cubes ($29.99), which served us extremely well. With these cubes, we were able to keep our shirts, pants, and underwear separated and organized. When you’re packing and unpacking every couple of days at multiple hotels, this saves a lot of time and frustration.

For the backpacks themselves, my wife bought the eBags Mother Lode TLS Weekender Convertible ($79 with a discount at the time) in the “Tropical Turquoise” color and I bought the Cabin Max Metz Backpack (Black) ($45). While my backpack got the job done, my wife’s backpack had a much better build quality, more space, more compartments and organization, and was all-around better designed. Looking back, I wish I’d spent the extra money to get the eBags backpack, but the Cabin Max bag is by no means a bad pack for the low price.

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In Italy and Greece, pickpocketing is a major problem. Gypsies and career pickpockets roam the streets, particularly in the more congested areas, looking for unsuspecting victims. Knowing this, Ambrey and I took a money belt she already owned from a previous trip to Zambia, and I bought a Lewis N. Clark Neck Stash ($12). These are wallets that hang under your clothes to prevent pickpockets from stealing your money, credit cards, and passports as you walk down the street. It’s best to keep your valuables in your hotel room once you’re there, but when traveling between hotels and airports, your money belt is the safest place to keep those items. Always try to be discrete and check your surroundings when accessing your money belt, too. You don’t want a pickpocket seeing your stash and following you.

We picked up the Rick Steves Italy and Greece guidebooks from the library before we left. These were popular, so we had to put them on hold a few weeks in advance. His books are extremely helpful and have great insights both for preparing and for reference while you’re there. Out of all the research we did, these books were by far the most helpful resources.

We also packed a couple of Type C Plug Adapters ($7). You need these in order to connect any of your electric plugs in Italy, Greece, and many other European countries. Just be sure that any devices you plug in are compatible with 240 volt outlets, as that is the standard in Europe. Here in the states, we use 120 volts. Most electronic devices these days can handle either one, but it’s a good idea to check the labels on your chargers or batteries/devices so you don’t fry them, anyway.

Lastly, in addition to all the typical toiletries, we packed rain jackets. You never know what kind of weather you’re going to get.

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Driving up the highway from work around noon, I was headed to meet my wife at her parents’ house. Exhibiting the selflessness and graciousness that is characteristic of them, they were ready to give us a ride up from Baltimore to JFK airport in New York. We performed our last-minute checks to make sure we had all our critical belongings and then took off.

After a few hours of typical New York traffic, we arrived at the airport, thanked our parents, said farewell, checked in, and boarded our flight. We were off to Milan!

 

Our Trip to Italy and Greece – Part 1

My wife and I dreamed about the possibility of traveling to Europe since we were dating, but it always seemed so far out of reach. It remained a bucket list item for “one day” after we had a house and kids, a vague idea for an undetermined time in the future.

Then, one night I was browsing my favorite deal site, slickdeals.com, and on the front page was an unbelievable find: round trip tickets for two from New York to Milan, Italy. The price? $900. That’s right, $450 a person for round trip tickets. That’s cheaper than a lot of domestic flights! We’re talking about upwards of a 50% discount off normal airfare rates.

We knew this kind of deal probably wouldn’t come around for a long time, and we knew that the window of opportunity for this kind of trip was realistically only a short number of years until we had kids. We talked about how it wouldn’t be the same if we took the trip with kids, how we’ve wanted this adventure for a long time.

Then, we talked about the more practical details. How much will it all cost? When would we go? How long would we go for? Could we get off work for that long? How far would this set us back on our goal of saving for a house?

We decided to go for it.

Thankfully, we had the cash on hand from saving toward a house and we decided that we would prioritize this trip even if it meant pushing back our house buying goal a bit.

Since my wife is working as a full time substitute teacher this year, getting off work was not a problem like it would have been for a regular employee. We planned for the first week of our trip to be over her Spring Break, so it was technically only a week off. I had carried over 5 vacation days from last year in case the opportunity for a big trip like this should arise.

We got our approval from work the day after we saw the deal, bought the tickets that night, and celebrated the fact that our dream was finally going to be realized. I’m glad we bought them that night, because if we had waited another day, the discounted tickets would have been sold out, leaving only the regularly priced tickets at over $1,900!

That was on January 20th, and our flight was booked for March 27th. This left us with only two months to plan out a two week trip covering Italy and Greece, both of which we knew almost nothing about, other than what we had seen in movies.

Now, it was time to let the preparation and planning commence!

We started off with renewing my wife’s passport because it hadn’t been updated with her new last name since we got married. In case you’re in a similar situation, you have to submit the DS-82 form for passport renewal along with a certified copy of your marriage certificate. The government will happily take $110 for the trouble, too. (If you’re traveling internationally for your honeymoon, however, you’re best off leaving your passport as it is until after you return home from your trip. The important thing is that your passport, driver’s license, and your ticket all match your last name).

After doing a bit of research, we wrote out a barebones itinerary including just the cities we wanted to visit, the days we wanted to stay in each city, and when we’d travel between each one. Packaged tours and down-to-the-minute planned days don’t appeal to us, so we decided to plan the whole trip ourselves. We wanted the freedom to hang out at cafes eating pastries or simply wandering the streets if we wanted, while being able to see the main attractions at our own pace.

With our basic itinerary in hand, we decided the next logical step was to book our major transportation: flights between Italy and Greece, and a ferry ride between islands in Greece and our lodging. The toughest part was organizing everything so that we would end up back in Milan to catch our flight back out to the States!

After several months, we had bulked up our itinerary with sites we wanted to see, restaurants we wanted to visit, hotels we’d stay in, and more. Side note: Google Maps can be used to create a detailed itinerary. You can see each hotel, restaurant, airport, and attraction on your map with each one listed in a panel. This allows you to visualize everything and also to be able to access them easily when you are overseas. Clicking a location from our saved itinerary and getting directions was a breeze while we were there!

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In Part 2, I’ll fast forward to the exciting part – the trip itself – and fill in the details and numbers along the way. For our entire trip, we kept track of everything we spent to the best of our ability, so we hope it will be helpful to share for those of you who are looking to plan a similar trip of your own. We couldn’t find anything like this online when we were preparing, so we had to make our best guesses at the smaller expense details. Hopefully, by listing out our expenditures as we go, you’ll be able to better estimate a realistic cost of your own trip. Hang on for Part 2!