EuropeUpClose Best Travel Secrets

Every traveler has learned from his or her experience. We tapped our EuropeUpClose writing crew to share their best travel secret. We asked them to either tell us their best travel tip or their favorite undiscovered destination.

Hannah May

Go Local: By Hannah May

It’s not a secret as such, but one way I really benefit from my travels is to immerse myself in the local places and culture of the destination. Especially with language. I always try to do a little research beforehand and pick up at least a few key words or phrases. Most important, I talk to almost as many people as I encounter – you’ll be amazed at the positive reception and where a little dialogue or exchange of pleasantries have the potential to take you.

Even if it’s mostly in English: it’s the effort that counts. Ask locals where to go – or better yet – go with them, rather than stick religiously to the guidebooks. Disembark from your comfort zone and eschew familiarity. Be as intrepid with your voice and attitude as you are with your geographical plans – that’s the real secret to successful travel.

Hope Tarr

Go With the Flow: By Hope Tarr

Just as there are no perfect weddings, there are no “perfect” trips. Lost or mislaid luggage, delayed flights, and missed connections happen. When they do, savvy travelers draw a deep breath and begin rolling out the Plan Bs.

I was in Paris for a week and decided to devote a day to visiting Versailles. I speak sufficient functional French to get myself from Point A to Point B, and catching the suburban “RER C5” yellow train to Versailles-Rive Gauche certainly seemed easy enough.

I arrived at the appropriate Metro station, purchased my ticket, and followed the overhead signage to the platform. There were other names on the sign along with Versailles-Rive Gauche—Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines and Versailles-Chantiers. Before I could consult my railway map more closely, the train rolled up and I boarded. The car was nearly full and buzzing with a cacophony of foreign-to-me languages—Hindi, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and even Estonian! Squeezing into a free seat, I ticked off the first few station stops against my map. So far, so good…

Several stops in, the line split. Suddenly I was headed not for Versailles at all! Panic plowed into me. The noisy compartment fell suddenly silent. I darted my gaze about—and saw that nearly everyone wore the universal expression for “Oh, sh*t!”

Collectively we decamped at the next stop. Pooling our diverse communication and navigational skills, we finally figured out which track would bring the train that would allow us to double back. Hint: overhead signs alongside the rails show a multitude of station names. If the name is marked with a yellow square, the next arriving train will stop at that station. If not, check the other side of the platform, where stopping trains will go in the opposite direction.

I arrived at Versailles-Rive Gauche, the line terminus, an hour later than planned. Fortunately it’s only a ten minute walk to the park gates. I managed to tour the palace and gorgeous grounds including the Grand Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon and Hamlet all before closing time. My snafu had cost me an extra travel hour—but brought me a favorite memory, and story, to tell.

Erin ConnellyDunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland, England: By Erin Connelly

For an off-the-beaten-path experience in Northern England, there’s almost no better place than Dunstanburgh Castle. While so many of Europe’s castles have been converted into sterile, people-packed museums, Dunstanburgh offers a bit of undisturbed, unguarded scenery. These dramatic cliff-side ruins are only accessible via a craggy footpath that snakes through sodden sheep-land. A willingness to climb and a certain risk-taking spirit is necessary to take in the full atmosphere of the ruins. There are no fences and no ‘keep out’ signs in this remote place and a short climb around the cliff provides a spectacular view of the ocean crashing into the dark caverns below the castle. A rugged, deserted place with an air of intrigue and danger, you may have the impression that you’re the first to stumble upon this castle since medieval days.

Mattie John BammanEat Local While Traveling: By Mattie Bamman

A bottle of Bordeaux costs less in Bordeaux. A fresh white truffle costs one hundredth of the price in Alba, Italy! Though this verges on common sense, it never ceases to surprise me. Exotic foods aren’t exotic in their places of origin, and, consequently, the entire globe can be viewed as one big discount specialty store. This is an added perk—one that can change a trip from great to absolutely mind blowing. I’ve never come home with fewer than five bottles of wine in my suitcase, many of which haven’t been even available in the United States.

In addition, I’ve also traveled to a specific area to taste a local delicacy only to discover that it’s out of season. Before you make your culinary pilgrimage, make sure that it’s available! And one last travel secret: White wine actually removes red wine from clothes (including clothes momentarily ruined by demolished Bordeauxs). Look it up.

W. Ruth KozakThe YMCA Indian Student Hostle, London :  By W. Ruth Kozak

Who would guess you could find reasonably priced accommodation in London that includes two meals (breakfast and dinner). I was tipped off about the Indian YMCA  several years ago and that’s where I always stay when I am in London, whether just for the night or for a longer stay. From as low as 30 pounds for a shared dorm room, singles with bath at 62 pounds to a deluxe double rooms from 75 pounds, the YMCA Student Hostel at 41 Fitzroy Square is one of the best bets in London. It provides a friendly home-away from home for not only Indian students, but other travelers are welcomed too. It’s a cultural centre and provides all amenities such as a TV room, internet, recreation and two meals: breakfast and dinner, including vegetarian. It’s conveniently located near the Warren Street tube station, walking distance from Tottenham Court Road and many local attractions and historical sites such as the former home of writers Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw just across the square and the lively Fitzroy Tavern down the street where poets and writers such as Dylan Thomas used to hang out.

Marilyn Mc-FarlaneSeek out Festivals: By Marilyn Mc Farlane

My secret travel tip is to seek out festivals. Grape harvests, truffles, wine extravaganzas, chocolates, music, dance, nut-gathering, herding goats down from the mountains, lavender gathering–every European town and village has something to celebrate and a tradition to honor. Each gives me a chance to glimpse local life beyond tourism.

I look for lesser-known festivals, such as the palio horse race and elaborate parade in Asti, in northern Italy. It’s not as well known as the world-famed palio in Siena, but just as much fun and with fewer tourists. Even less famous is the donkey palio in nearby Alba. The Bird King medieval festival in Puy-en-Velay, France; the Gypsy Pilgrimage in Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer; the mountain guides celebration in Zermatt, Switzerland—these and dozens more are worth seeking out and give extra richness and meaning to my journeys.

Julie FergusonTravel Slow and Solo: By  Julie H. Ferguson

Step out solo. Sit awhile. Sip slowly. Search for the unusual.

I’ve learned to travel the same way I enjoy food—by avoiding the processed variety.  Decades back, I’d be grabbing at everything I could find in a destination—the result, of course, was superficiality. Now I choose to see much less in greater depth and often part from my travel companions to explore solo. When my husband saw Notre Dame in Paris in an hour, I took four and a half. I avoid package or guided tours if possible; in cities, I walk and use local transit. I rely on extensive research before I depart to discover the unusual off the typical tourist track.

I choose B&Bs or small hotels when I can—ask me about the Black Empowerment hotel I stayed at in Durban, South Africa! I shop in markets for local specialties for dinner; buy local wines; and lunch slowly in tiny cafés off the main streets to observe the scene, sample the food, and absorb the atmosphere. Travelling solo makes it easier to talk to locals and ask them about their secret places. Many have opted to show them to me—a real bonus.

Slow travel, like slow food, is the best secret I know to ensure spectacular travel experiences anywhere.

Eat well on a Budget: By Andrea MacDonald

1. When in Spain, eat Menu del Dia, meaning Menu of the Day. Most restaurants in most cities offer this lunch special, and it’s a delicious, and affordable, way to try the fabulous Spanish cuisine. For anywhere between 10-15euros, you will get three courses; the first course is a starter: usually a gazpacho, meatballs, calamari, or smoked ham. The second course can range from paella, to steak, to grilled fish, depending on the region and type of restaurant. Then, depending on the deal, you may get a water, coffee, wine (and not just a glass of wine – it’s often a whole jug!), and dessert, such as creme caramel or gelato, included as well. No one in Spain even considers eating dinner until 10pm, so Menu del Dia is a great way to fill up so you’re not starving by regular dinnertime. Take your time, enjoy your meal, have a siesta, and then you’ll have enough energy to keep you going well into the late Spanish night.

2. There’s no time to waste on bad ice cream in Europe, so here’s a tip to steer you in the right direction. When deciding among the hundreds of gelato options in Europe, especially Italy, always look at the banana flavour. If it is bright yellow, you know that they are using food colouring, and probably other additives in their ice cream. Move on to a place where the banana gelato looks slightly greyish, more like the actual fruit. That’s when you know it’s more natural, and it will be delicious!

Anne-Sophie RedischVisit Port Isaac: By Anne-Sophie Redisch

Ever heard of Port Isaac? If you’ve seen the TV-series about the cranky Doc Martin, you may have. Called Port Wenn in the series, Port Isaac is a charming little fishing village on the windblown and mysterious Cornish coast. The stunning landscape is practically a given in Cornwall, and Port Isaac has that in abundance. But there are also narrow lanes, steep hills, stairs in odd places, colourful fishing boats pulled up to shore at night, quirky shops and really excellent restaurants – the fabulous hummus and pizzas at the tiny Victoria House Café come to mind, as does the raspberry merengue roulade at the cosy little restaurant in the harbor, aptly named The Harbour. When we’re in the neighbourhood, we try to stop by on a Thursday, to sample yummy street food and hear the local band play.

Jessica ColleyPlan Ahead: By Jessica Colley

When traveling somewhere new, find and research organizations that support your interests. For example, no literary enthusiast should travel to Ireland without checking out the website for Poetry Ireland ( This site has extensive listings on poetry readings, book signings, literary festivals, and workshops. Aspiring writers could join a class or attend a spoken word pub evening–the type of events that locals who are involved in the literary culture will be attending. Of course there is plenty to learn in museums like the Dublin Writers Museum or the National Library of Ireland, but literature is also alive and well in Dublin–as visitors will find on the Poetry Ireland website.

Terri FogartyPack Light: By Terri Fogarty

I know you have heard this a million times, but it is so true. Pack Light! I take a large carry-on for any trip that is 3-weeks or shorter. I actually check it on my flight to Europe and back, and carry on a large tote. If you plan to take any trains, or rent a car, or even fly on a cheap Europe hopper, you will be so glad you only have this one easy to manage suitcase. There are really no porters at train stations, so you will have to lift your own luggage when boarding and then stow it above your seat. If renting an economy car, your trunk space is extremely limited; a smaller piece of luggage can stow easily and be hidden from car thieves. Those cheap Europe Airlines have cheap ticket prices, but charge an arm and leg for extra baggage. Here’s a post that helps you learn just how to Pack light.

Compiled by Terri Fogarty for 

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