Two Weeks in Europe: Lessons Learned

This is Part 2 of 3 posts about my trip to Europe. If you haven't read Part One, read that first! There's a ton of great pictures of me in it 🙂

I'm all about learning lessons in life. Fortunately for me, this trip was chockablock with them. As a relatively new international traveler, I can tell I have a lot more lessons to learn before I get this globetrotting thing down. Here are 9 lessons I learned while spending two weeks in Europe!

Include downtime in the schedule:

In my normal day-to-day life, I don't get a ton of physical activity. Maybe I ride my bike, maybe I play some softball or soccer. I don't know why I thought I would be magically able to handle walking 15 kilometers in one day. Not only that, but do that multiple days in a row. My legs were SO TIRED. Then when I get tired, I get a bit grumpy and/or whiny. Then no one has fun. The lesson I learned here is, chill out on packing the schedule so full. In the future, I might do one fairly full day, but the next day will be an easy day. I won't have so many busy days in a row.

Traveling to and exploring a new city is also a fairly mentally stimulating activity. I get a bit stressed out when presented with new things to learn (like getting on the correct train, going to correct direction, and getting off at the correct station) and need the chance to just sit and process everything. Same thing for navigating around a new town on Google Maps while trying to take in all the new scenery. Overwhelming!

Museums are cool……. ish:

After exploring the British Museum and walking past tons more in Amsterdam, I think I can safely say museums are not really my thing. I like to go to a place, see one or two things, take some neat pictures, and then go. My sister and her friend like to really dig in deep and read as many displays as they can. I get bored after a while. While not my first choice of things to do, I do think they are a great idea for rainy/cold/ucky days when you can't or don't want to do anything else outside.

Spending money on vacation:

It's a dramatic mental shift while on vacation. You've saved up for this trip for months and then bam! You're on it! And you have all this money you can spend! Money that you've specifically earmarked for this vacation. If you're anything like me, you still have problems whippin' out the ol' credit card and buying whatever is within your limits. Multiple times I caught myself hem hawing over a purchase. I'm on vacation! In Europe! It's ridiculous to sweat the small purchases.

That being said, there are some things I learned.
-If it's a cool attraction, I'll probably pay for it. Case in point: Punting in Cambridge and the Hop On, Hop Off tour in London. Both are great ways to see the city with someone else telling you what's going on around you as you go by.
-I will spend the money on things that make my life easier, like transportation that offers a direct connection or will be in the timeframe I need. Example: Spending more money to fly on a KLM flight from Amsterdam to London early in the morning so I could make my second flight. (too bad that didn't exactly work as planned though!) I wasn't going to take a cheaper flight the night before and spend the night in the airport.
-I don't really need souvenirs. I bought some things, like a postcard in London and a hoodie in Cambridge, but I don't need shot glasses or little knickknacks that hang out on a shelf. It's just extra clutter once I get home, and I rarely have people over who could admire my brag-shrine that showcases shot glasses from around the world. Most of the things I brought home are edible. Honey, mead, cherry liquor and a tasty garlic mustard sauce are what I brought home with me.
-Finally, I also learned food is an important part of experiencing a new place. I will happily pay for food while traveling that I normally wouldn't at home. Extra meals out, special treats (stroopwafels made right in front of you or awesome street market stall food come to mind). However, I don't see the point in spending money on things like coffees or sodas during the day.


I learned as long as I have a place to sleep somewhere safe, I don't really care about anything else. This trip I spent a week sleeping on a mattress on the floor of my sister's flat. I only paid 10 pounds per night for it, as my sister was staying in a place lent to her by a larger organization. 10 pounds was the suggested price, so I could've spent less but as they're a non-profit organization I decided the money was going to a good place and paid it. This works just fine and dandy while I'm young, single, and traveling by myself. Were I traveling with a special someone, I would've sprung for more private accommodations. The next trip I go on I will look into staying in a hostel.

I also really appreciated having a kitchen for meals. Being able to make breakfast in the morning before going exploring, or being able to come home and make dinner was pretty nice. This helped keep costs down and I felt better from not having to eat out every meal. They can be full of sodium and other unhealthy things.

Speaking of food:

I love trying out new foods wherever I go (Ecuadorian foods, amazing Mexican food in San Diego, native Dutch fare….) but it can be difficult to eat sometimes. I'm gluten-intolerant, so finding cheap easy food is even more difficult than it normally is. Thankfully, Google and the recent gluten-free trend made that thankless task a little bit easier. I tried a lot of new foods while in Europe- some were delicious, some were not, and others caused major problems for me later. Maybe eating cooked cabbage for the first time on vacation wasn't the best idea I've ever had. Sorry sis :/

Gluten free pasta dish in London

A different kind of diet:

You know, Mr. Money Mustache might be onto something with his low/no news diet. While overseas, I was very much removed from everything going on in America, and it felt great. The only time I thought about the election was when someone asked me who I was going to vote for (which, to be fair, happened a half-dozen times).

I didn't know what Black Lives Matter was doing. I didn't hear about the latest celebrity gossip (although I did hear about Kim Kardashian getting robbed in Paris. Ugh.) It was very relaxing to be able to step back and just concentrate on having a good time with my sister and her friend. I've vowed to incorporate more of that into my everyday routine!

Social…. rhombus?

One of the hardest things about being overseas was being away from 99% of my social circle. Life continued on without me and I was acutely aware of that in the form of the buzzing messages of several group chats I belong to. Europe is at least 6 hours ahead of America, and could be up to 9 hours offset from the West Coast. Doing something as simple as sending a text message required me to stop, do the math to see what time it was for them, and consider whether they would be awake or appreciate a message from me that early. Most of my friends are in the Central Time Zone, so it was noon in England before most of them were even awake.

I never realized how important it is to me that I get some feedback at least right away. I would wake up to tons of notifications in the morning, but go almost all day without hearing much of anything from home. That kind of delayed acknowledgment was tough at first before I adjusted. Just goes to show you how addicted I am to technology/social media. I would like to change that, but ingrained habits/lifestyles take a lot of time and effort to change. Still, if I don't start now, I'll never improve.

Flexibility is Key:

When traveling, you need to exercise a LOT of patience and flexibility. Public transportation can be flaky, so don't depend on it going exactly right and definitely don't depend on catching the last train/bus/flight of the day.

People are also likewise liable to change plans. We had tentative plans to visit my sister's friends in Biarritz, but they ended up being in New Zealand so we had to change our plans. I had plans to hang out with a friend in Amsterdam for the two days I was there, but he ended up having to come in late and leave early due to work calling him in. Did it put a slight crimp in our plans? Sure. Was it a huge deal? Nope. There wasn't anything either of us could do about it, so no need to make a fuss and make it worse.

There could also be unwritten rules that no one tells you until you run afoul of them. We attempted to do our afternoon tea on Saturday. We called Friday morning to make sure they still had availability. They did. We called back later that afternoon to book the tea, only to discover there was a 24 hour cutoff time. They definitely could have mentioned that when we called earlier, but they didn't. So, we changed our plans and booked an afternoon tea somewhere else on Sunday instead. It ended up working out great!

Family Vacations:

Initially, this trip started out as me going overseas to London/Paris/Amsterdam by myself. Then, as fate would have it, my sister and her friend would be in London at the same time as me and would we just want to go on holiday together? Absolutely! I love my sister very much, and don't get to spend enough time with her as I work 4 hours away from my hometown and she travels the world as part of her work.

What I failed to take into account was our family dynamic. Sometimes when you're around family you slip into roles. My sister is 10 years older than I am. She loves to take care of her baby sister. She did change my diapers, after all. However, sometimes she wants to take care of me when I don't need it. I am a grown adult, but that fact slips her mind occasionally. That can lead to rifts when I feel like I'm getting smothered or not allowed to have a say in the conversation/decision-making process. I also have a tendency to revert into helpless baby sister mode, or heaven forbid, whine occasionally when I think it will help me get my way. Fortunately, as time goes on we're both getting better at not slipping into our big sis/lil sis dynamic and working out a new dynamic as sister friends.

Compromise is also key. We both have different interests. While she might be interested in exploring the British Museum from a Biblical aspect, I might be more interested in checking out cool old architecture or trying out new hard ciders in really old pubs. It's a push and pull. Sometimes we did something the other didn't want to do, but we did it because we love the other person and want to see them happy. I ended up not going to Paris, as our schedule really only left two days to do so and that's not nearly enough time. If I want to do everything on my travel bucket list for a trip or city, I will go by myself, as that's the only way I will get to do everything I want. That view, however, is pretty selfish and tends to be lonely, so I'm happy to compromise with my loved ones if it means I get to spend a little bit of extra time with them.


What are your biggest takeaways from travel? Anything I could learn without having to suffer for it?

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7 thoughts on “Two Weeks in Europe: Lessons Learned

  1. Hey Gwen,
    Thanks for sharing all the details of your trip! Looks like it was awesome.
    As for the low/news diet, it’s something I can’t really get away from. I usually only have WiFi when I travel but I still hate being uniformed and not connected. Though it was nice to get away from it all while on the beach in Mexico last year.
    My biggest takeaway from travel was that there’s more than one lifestyle or way to live. Travelling opens up your mind and frees it from the way we are raised. Thanks for sharing and looking forward to part 3 🙂
    Graham @ Reverse The Crush recently posted…Blog Traffic, Social Media & Income Report for September 2016My Profile

  2. I love the way you describe the dynamic with your sister. Ten years is a pretty big difference, but we have that dynamic in my family a bit too with my older brother being six years older than my youngest (i’m in the middle). Family dynamics are slays interesting but I’m sure having your sister there made the trip all the more memorable.
    The Green Swan recently posted…A Third World Perspective on AmericaMy Profile

  3. Mmmm… stroopwaffels. This is a solid list of lessons! As goofy as it sounds, I’ve occasionally “trained” a bit for trips by walking a bunch every day for several weeks beforehand — makes all the walking much easier, and means less soreness, which is worth it if you have time to prepare. But if not, then your next trip approach of packing less in makes sense! And gosh I can’t wait to go on a low-info diet! I think I’ve finally convinced Mr. ONL to unplug from all the news after we quit — he’s the harder sell on news and Facebook, while I could happily let those go (though would miss Twitter!).
    Our Next Life recently posted…Financial Independence Is a Good Goal, But a Bad GoalpostMy Profile

  4. Thank you for sharing all of these lessons! I’ve never traveled overseas, but I would like to next year. However, just like you described, I tend to get stressed out in new situations, especially with transportation. I’m also fairly Type A, and when I make plans, I like to stick to them…so if things *don’t* go as planned, I get bummed. I’ve learned to adapt, but I’m sure I’d feel stressed just by trying to make the most of my time in a new country. That’s why I’d like to slow travel.

    I’m the same way with spending on vacation as well. My natural instinct is to question every purchase so I can’t help it! I’ve gotten a lot better recently by emphasizing that it’s an experience that I’ve saved for, so the spending that normally matters in my everyday life is NOT the same as going out and trying new food/drinks.

    As for the low/no news diet, I’ve been practicing that for years. I might be less informed, and people may think I’m a worse person for it, but I have enough going on in my own life to worry about. Whenever I’m visiting family, the news is on, and it’s always depressing and blah. I like to enjoy my time without it interfering.
    Erin @ Journey to Saving recently posted…How Value-Based Spending Improved My Relationship With MoneyMy Profile

    • I’m glad you could learn from my experiences! I’m going to have to fight against the impulse to pack my future vacations to the brim like I did with this one. Good luck with your future trips and remember to stop and enjoy them!

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