A Dashing Euro Vacation

We are on vacation! The good news is we visited Paris, London, Rome and Venice in two-and-a-half weeks. The bad news is we visited Paris, London, Rome and Venice in two-and-a-half weeks. So, yes, we are cramming too much in, but what a marvelous time we’re having these last few weeks before our son goes off to college. I am writing this column in Rome, gazing out at a view that is not majestic at all. It is, however, charming – a narrow, cobbled street and ancient buildings that have been recycled many times over for different uses. The hotel is in what is considered a ‘seedy’ part of town, yet it is steps away from many of the major attractions. I do not regret it.

The building entry is a thick, carved wooden door which opens onto a marble-covered foyer and an elegant stone and marble staircase. This, apparently, was a compound for a wealthy family at one time. Today it’s a mixed-use building, housing a few small businesses, some permanent residents, and an undetermined number of hotel guests. It’s quiet, the room is spacious and, most important of all for Rome in the summertime, it’s air-conditioned. Thank goodness, because it’s in the 90s here, and without AC we Americans would drop like flies.

There is nothing like visiting a foreign country to remind you how insulated many Americans are from the rest of the world. The last time my husband Ward and I went to Europe was 25 years ago. Quite a few things have changed. There are more crowds everywhere, for one. But some things haven’t:

A five- or 10-hour flight is not a lot of fun if you are a big, or even normal-size, person trapped in a seat the size of a pin cushion. I’m only 5-foot-4 and I hate being crammed into a space too small for a rat. If your airline offers something in between pricey first or business class and regular economy, grab it. United’s Economy Plus is quite comfortable for long domestic or international flights.

Beware of false or deceptive advertising when booking a hotel online. If a website claims to have “free Internet” make sure that doesn’t mean it works only in the lobby.

If a hotel is dirt cheap, it’s probably a hostel for college-age kids who aren’t really picky about service or hygiene. We made that mistake once. Luckily, we only needed the room for one night.

Do not overpack. You can and will buy things you need while overseas. You’ll also purchase souvenirs. Lots of souvenirs. You will need space in your luggage for all your new stuff. Plus, it costs a heck of a lot nowadays if your suitcase is overweight. My personal weakness is shoes. I always think I need certain shoes for certain outfits. Well, guess what? I ended up wearing walking shoes 90 percent of the time and a pair of ballet flats the other 10.

Finally, find a balance between tour time and personal time. Some tours are fun and you learn a lot if you pick the right ones. Here in Rome, we chose a semi-private guided tour, six to 15 people. Our guide led us right past the immense lines right into the attractions, and she took us into areas that were off limits to others. She kept us comfortable, hydrated and on track, and filled our heads with information we wouldn’t have gotten on our own. She was worth the extra dollars.

On the other hand, some of our best moments were completely serendipitous – a charming cafe, a pretty walkway along a river, a spectacular view from a hillside neighborhood we just happened to find on our own.

A couple of pieces of advice: Read in advance about tipping practices in each country. Just because we are Americans does not mean we have to wear a big sign on our foreheads that says “EASY MONEY.”