I never thought my next trip would be to Poland, but when Doug was invited to attend a film festival for cinematographers in Bydgoszcz, Poland, we jumped at the chance to go. The only downside was that we were scheduled to arrive mid- November, a chilly time of the year. Being a Southern Californian gal from Los Angeles, I had to find warm clothes to wear and pack them so I wouldn’t break my back in the process. We decided to tack on an extra couple weeks to visit Warsaw and Krakow and then take a river cruise through Eastern and Central Europe. Our Ama Waterways cruise started in Budapest and went up the Danube through Austria and Germany to Prague where we visited Christmas markets along the way.
I wanted to share some of the travel tips I learned from that trip after making several dorky mistakes:
1. Make sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water on the plane
International flights are free flowing with alcohol, but indulging causes dehydration. This can be a problem, especially for those of us over 50. It’s better to stick with plain old water and avoid drinking coffee, tea or booze when you’re up in the air. I didn’t buy a large bottle of water in the airport before we departed and had to wait to be served one small glass at a time. Sometimes we avoid drinking too much water on a plane because we’re afraid to climb over our sleeping seat companions to find the bathroom.
2. Stand up, walk around and stretch
Sitting for long periods of time can cause you to develop an embolism so it’s important to stand up and stretch as often as possible on a flight. It’s also a good idea to wear compression socks. That’s not always easy when you ride coach. The seats on our plane were so close together I felt like a sardine. I don’t know how a large person is able to manage on a long flight without cutting off their circulation.
If possible, ask for seats in exit areas where there’s more leg room to move or sit on the aisle where it’s easy to stand up. I ended up in the middle seat. We had the idea of booking the aisle and window, hoping that no one would sit in the middle. When we found our seats, there was a man happily planted in the middle seat. He didn’t mind when we asked if he’d like the window seat but that left me in the center of the sandwich. I’ve noticed that planes rarely have empty seats anymore especially on international flights. Most flights in main hubs are consolidated to assure a full flight.
3. To sleep or not to sleep?
Our flight from Los Angeles was 10 hours to Frankfurt Germany. From there, we changed planes to fly to Warsaw for 1 ½ hours. A taxi picked us up and took us 4 hours to Bydgoszcz. It was a long day of travel. I didn’t sleep at all that day and, instead watched three movies on the main flight to pass the time.
I’ve never been a good napper and it’s almost impossible for me to sleep on a plane or vehicle. Once we arrived at our destination, we were immediately taken to the festival and then to a late night party. That night I slept like a log. The advantage of not sleeping was that I felt time acclimated when I woke up. I’d say listen to your body and do what’s natural for you without stressing out about it.
4. Pack as light as possible
After our trip to Spain several years ago, I was determined to travel light so I could board trains easily without a struggle. This time, I made the mistake of packing big bulky sweaters. I also brought along a puffy synthetic coat that was easy to stuff in a bag and that’s what I ended up wearing the entire time on our trip. My sweaters sat in my suitcase taking up room. My coat has a metallic lining that regulates heat and cold. Under it, I wore long sleeve black shirts, black leggings and a sturdy pair of boots that were comfortable and had good treads for walking on cobblestones. I added a colorful hat and scarf to break up the black. I figured black would make me look slimmer in pictures. LOL. I also packed 2 pairs of silk long John tops and bottoms for extra cold days and only brought 3 pairs of nylon undies (they dry quicker than cotton) and some pantie liners in case I laughed too loud.
I also packed a pair of comfy loafers and a travel dress I bought online that ended up looking awful. I ordered it last minute and didn’t try it on before I left. I wish I’d packed nicer dress shoes instead of the loafers. It turned out there were several occasions to dress up and my loafers looked clunky with my ugly dress.
If we had the time, I would have loved to shop in either Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic. Their currency isn’t on the Euro yet and clothes, restaurants, and attractions are cheap.
The 24-inch suitcase I brought on this trip was still too large and it didn’t help that I had a carry on rolling bag for my computer, electronics, snacks, and important papers. I thought it was going to fit under my seat, but I was wrong. It ended up in the overhead bin. One 22-inch carry-on bag, minus the sweaters, with a slot to fit my computer and a purse, would have been easier.
I carried my coat and wore my boots on the plane to save room in my suitcase. I’d read a tip that recommended that you take your bags downtown before your trip and walk around with them to see if you can handle the load. Trying to haul too many bags up and down steps at train terminals and hoisting them over your seat isn’t fun at all and could knock your back out in the process.
5. First class train seats may be overkill
The regional trains in Eastern Europe are sometimes old and rickety. We were told by our Polish speaking handler in Bydgoszcz that we paid too much for our “first class” tickets and could have saved some money if we’d bought them at the train station. I’d forgotten where I put the train tickets that were sent to us by our travel agent. We gave the people at the train station our locator number but for some reason, the train conductor, who didn’t speak English, looked like he wanted to throw us off the train. Fortunately, he didn’t. I found the train tickets after our train ride was over.
Our travel agent was haphazard in how he sent and arranged our travel documents. All our papers were a big mess. On our Mediterranean trip in 2014, we used a different travel agent who had all of our documents arranged neatly in a folder.
Once we reached our destination, we had to unload our bags quickly, step down tiny little steps from the train to the platform and then haul our bags up a non-functioning escalator and up several other stairways. There are no porters around to help you on regional Polish trains.
6. Play it bold when it comes to hotels
Before we left, I discovered that our travel agent had booked us into an American hotel in Warsaw that was 30 minutes away from the town center. I love visiting the old historic sections of a city and decided to look for a hotel on my own that was in the old town. I found a curious looking hotel online called the Castle Inn located across from the Castle in Old Town Warsaw. It had an artistic and bohemian feel with a different theme for every room. There were glowing reviews of it on Trip Advisor. Under protest from our travel agent, he reluctantly switched us from the Holiday Inn he’d chosen to the Castle Inn. We were delighted when we arrived. The hotel staff was friendly, the site immaculate, the room themes were wonderful and they had a delicious breakfast. There was even a funny character sitting in the lobby.
We were so glad we didn’t opt for a boring American accommodation rather than an interesting Polish experience.
7. Dress for pictures so you won’t have to delete them
If you’re not exactly happy with your over 50 body, you may feel tempted to trash any pictures taken of you before they make it to Facebook. There’s nothing as frustrating as when you upload your photos and look 20 pounds heavier than you actually are. Shoot wide shots rather than close-ups to show off the scenery and de-emphasize any parts of your body you aren’t happy with. Warm, non-bulky leggings are not only comfortable but slimming when coupled with a long shirt of the same color. Wearing the same color top and bottom is a good way to disguise a middle-aged muffin top.
8. Be careful with your money
I had the idea to bring a small leather backpack to carry my stuff in when I went touring. It wasn’t a bad idea at first, but when I was walking among large crowds of people, especially at crowded Christmas Markets or busy cities, I was nervous about carrying my valuables where I couldn’t see them because of pickpockets. The zipper on my backpack broke, rendering it useless so I ended up wearing a passport holder around my neck in front of me. It looked goofy but it worked. We kept our passports in the hotel and ship’s safe. The tiny passport holder was light and held my money, lipstick, credit cards, and ID. It had a small pouch for small street maps. I also carried a very lightweight nylon bag for shopping, and put my umbrella, gloves and water bottle in my coat pocket.
It can be confusing when you travel to countries with unusual currency. Poland has Zlotys, Hungary HUFs, Prague – Crowns, Germany, and Austria Euros. HUFS, especially, were hard to figure out how to convert it because it was a 6 figure sum for a cheap cab ride. It was a good thing Doug is better at math than I am because I was clueless.
Tipping in some countries is also confusing. If you put a tip on your credit card, the waiter may not receive any of it. The restaurant takes it all. It’s better to use cash for tips. Depending on the country, 10% is more than enough. In certain countries, like Italy, tipping isn’t even required. Our Ama Waterways river boat provided envelopes for a combined sum for the crew and one for the hard working cruise director. We imagine she’s paid a decent salary and probably makes a killing on the tips. To us, she was worth all that and more.
9. Make washing clothes easy
As I mentioned before, I brought 3 pairs of easy dry undies and pantie liners. I also brought some laundry detergent in a small bottle. Most hotels provide shampoo samples and you can use that instead. Carry all your liquids in small baggies when you fly or you may find a mess in your bag from the cabin pressure in the plane. I had a vial of my favorite essential oil in a baggie. I dropped it and it broke into pieces. Luckily the vial was still in a baggie, I didn’t have to worry about broken glass or oil all over the floor.
10. Be prepared for an emergency
While we were in Vienna, I received news that my 90-year-old father had passed away. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear on my trip of a lifetime. I didn’t go home right away because my sister was handling the arrangements and we were on a ship in the middle of Austria and Germany. On the last day of our trip, a few days later, our hotel concierge in Prague was able to arrange a re-routed trip to Colorado instead of LA for his memorial. In order to qualify for a bereavement discount, I had to track down the funeral home in rural Colorado to receive a copy of my dad’s death certificate. The funeral director had to drive to the doctor and then back to the funeral home to scan it. I also found out my 89-year-old mother was not doing well either and I needed to be with her ASAP. She passed away a week after I arrived. I’m fortunate that they both lived fairly well up to that point. Unfortunately, losing our parents is something we Baby Boomers have to face at some point in our lives.
My best advice to those of you who want to travel is to enjoy every minute of the experience. There’s so much to learn and enjoy around the world. For me, personally, there have been too many times when I put off traveling because I was busy being responsible for things like kids or work. I know both of my parents would have wanted me to enjoy this trip. Here’s to you, Mom and Dad. RIP.
Do you have travel tips to share from your experiences seeing the world? Please leave a comment and tell us about it. We’d love to know.