We’ve just arrived back home after our first “long haul” trip, delayed one year by the pandemic. The trip took us through southeastern France and to seven regions of Italy and three of Europe’s small countries. This was, obviously, our longest trip ever without full time jobs to return to after a week or two. It’s a good test of our travel model, our compatibility and if we would even like it. The good news is that we passed all three. While we were looking forward to returning home, we also could have kept going.
We are often asked about this model of travel and what it is like to be traveling like this for so long. A little over eleven weeks of travel is not for the faint of heart. Here are some tips if you plan to embark on such a journey.
1. Pack light and pack smart. We did the trip with one checked bag and two small carry ons each. We added 1-2 grocery bags of supplies from stop to stop depending on if we were moving by train or by car in between. Packing cubes are a savior. They keep you organized and some of them compress making your luggage load smaller in girth. We’ve used them for years and swear by them. We use Eagle Creek brand and use the following types:
Melissa uses the 9-9-9 model for clothes. 9 bottoms (pants, skirts), 9 tops (jackets, sweaters), 9 shirts to create 27 different outfits. She packed tennis shoes, one pair of casual shoes, one pair of boat shoes and three pairs of flats (she says she’d pack two in the future).
Underwear and socks can be rolled up and jammed into nooks and crannies of your bag easily since you don’t care if they wrinkle.
2. Nights in are as celebrated as nights out, maybe more. We cherished our dinners out and chose them well because of all of the restaurant research Melissa did in advance. But, our nights in were often some of our favorites. We brought along about a dozen Cooking Light recipes (printed out for easy cooking without a computer), six of which we used regularly based on the availability of ingredients, and brought along about a dozen different envelope packets of spices as a base. All very compact and light and carry-onable.
When we hit an Airbnb or booking.com apartment we’d inventory available cooking supplies and then hit the local grocery first thing to stock up for the stay. We’d purchase wisely and carried very little from stop to stop.
Nights in are good for your budget, waistline and makes it feel more like home. We could also access Netflix and TV using a VPN which we find essential to not feel so far away from our USA home even while home in Portugal.
3. Airbnbs. We love them. We never choose one with less than a 4.9 rating, if we can. Over eleven weeks, we stayed in only four hotels for a total of six nights. We choose hotels if there is no other option or if we plan to stay only a night or two, though choose Airbnb options for anywhere from two nights and above. They all have their quirks. Many are challenging to access (cue: lots of stairs and often no elevators, weird lockbox locations and instructions). Some can be loud, though only a few of ours were and that was only from floor sounds above. You have to figure out a lot of improvisation to cook, and yet, they make you feel like you’re at home.
Read your reviews, discerningly. Some people just love to complain and you can usually sniff those out. If the review says there are a lot of stairs, believe them, there are. We don’t care about that, but it sometimes drives the review rating down. We look for comments about communicative hosts and the words “impeccably clean” as well as “charm” or “style”. If they say good things about the neighborhood and location, trust them. Look for at least 30 or more reviews. Also look for verified photos and study the pictures very carefully. Also look to see if the host has “super host” status.
Melissa looks at literally an average of 50 or more places and then whittles it down to about 10 to read all of the details (fewer when there are fewer options in a smaller town) and then presents me with anywhere between 3-6 to choose from. I look at the map, location to sights and train station or rental car drop off. It’s a process, but it works. One of our first Airbnbs was in Maui and it was in a dark, somewhat sketchy building but close to a beach (which is why we chose it) and we’ve not had a repeat of that experience since. If you’re going somewhere we’ve been, feel free to message us about where we stayed. We are happy to share.
4. Alone time is good. I like hiking or climbing towers. Melissa doesn’t. I spend time blogging or culling photos in the bedroom while she sits on a rooftop reading or writing in her journal. I golf, she endures it occasionally. We make time for being alone, by design. Eleven weeks of inseparability on top of living in a foreign country where we only know a few people on top of 14 months of near isolation due to COVID could really throw a curve ball in any good relationship. Alone time makes it survivable and makes the together time better. This, of course, is a lesson not just for being good travel companions but companions in general.
5. Supplies. There are a few things we carried from place to place to place. Our first Airbnb in Lyon specifically said that they would supply one roll of TP. We thought that odd when we read it but then thought, we’d better stock up in case we find this elsewhere. We bought a pack of eight in Lyon and used the last of the rolls in our second to last stop in Ravenna, Italy. Despite that, it was nice to know we’d always have some in a pinch.
We also lugged along a few kitchen items from place to place: paper towels, sponges (oddly some places don’t supply a fresh one), laundry pods (almost all of our apartments had washers, none had dryers, so we usually washed clothes on the first morning after arrival to give them time to air dry), dish soap and hand soap dispensers, a knife (many supplied cutting knives are shockingly dull and might send a person to an urgent care) and a vegetable peeler (also the ones supplied are frequently too dull to not injure oneself). Obviously all of this, except the spices mentioned above, was acquired along the way. You find things you need in interesting places. We found our knife in a small grocery/sandwich shop in Positano where it was an all hands deck search by most of the staff to find us one and our vegetable peeler (a surprisingly good one) at the train station in Marseille.
Finally, don’t be afraid to leave something on the table. You don’t need to see every church, every museum or climb every tower. Be selective, pick and choose. You’ll be less exhausted and and happier for it. You’ll also appreciate what you do see more without the saturation of trying to see everything just to check some imaginary box. Hopefully our blog, and other sources like it, can help you whittle down the sights. Rick Steves is an amazing resource for Europe. His guides are the best, his walking tours fantastic and his website superior to most.
When I read this to Melissa (she’s my editor and vice versa) she said “good travel experiences are typically not happy accidents. Planning takes the stress out of things but leave room for spontaneity but always have a back up plan.” That pretty much sums up why we survive, for so long, on the road and can’t wait to go again as soon as we return.