ROAD TRIPS 101: THE BASICS

A top-notch European road-trip requires less effort than you might think.

A sense of adventure and an open mind certainly help, as does a willingness to try new foods, wines, sights, and smells.  It should not, contrary to what most folks believe, require a tremendous amount of money.

With a little advance planning you too can be tooling around Europe, your next adventure just around the corner.

Airline Tickets:
The first rule of thumb is to try to be as flexible as possible when it comes to your travel dates.  Off-season travel will always be cheaper than in high season.

When booking flights I always start with Kayak.

Why?

Because Kayak displays sample pricing for the entire month, not just a single day.  This allows the savvy traveler to pinpoint the cheapest days of travel for any given month.  Don’t think that’s helpful?  Just try finding the cheapest travel days in the month on your own.  My guess is it will take you, oh…. about 30 to 31 separate searches.

Packing:
This is as easy as it gets but most people just can’t seem to pack lightly.

What does “packing lightly” mean exactly?

Well, I checked with corporate headquarters on this one and according to the Le Stuff International Guidelines For Light Packing Continue reading

Le Stuff Links

I’ve done my fair share of Internet surfing lately and thought I might let you in on a few of my discoveries.

All of these, of course, are south of France related…. so enjoy.

1) “The 19 Most Complex and Dangerous Roads in the World”
OK, what does this have to do with the south of France?  Well, as any Le Stuff reader should know by now I love driving – so much so that I’ve put together a Mini Cooper Driving Tour featuring the number one road in this article – the awesome col de Turini!

2) I’ve been resourcing Provence & Beyond for years.
Need information on area villages, sports, gastronomy, etc.?
There is not a more comprehensive site covering the south of France on the web.  Check it out and if you’re not impressed, I’ll buy you a beer.

3) Julie Mautner is an American writer who has lived and worked in S.t Remy de Provence since 1999.  Her blog, The Provence Post, is chock full of fun stories, recommendations, and gossip.  Don’t miss her guest post series “The Cocktail Drinkers Guide to Gardening” by good friend James Clay.

4) “How To Make That French Vacation More Affordable”
A good, common sense article by Jerry Lanson over at True/Slant.
I found the link on “The Provence Post”

French Dining Etiquette: Both Hands on the Table Mister!

When dining in France I try to remember to keep both hands visible.

This, I’ve been told more than once, is very important.

Sometimes I forget because it’s in direct contrast to the way I’ve eaten my entire life. In the States we’re taught to place the non-dominant hand in our lap unless it’s being used to help with cutting meat, buttering bread, etc.

In France, though, it’s considered impolite and even weird to do this.

I once asked a French friend why and was surprised by her response.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Why is it so important to have both hands visible when dining in France?” Continue reading

Roland Garros: A Guide To The French Open

Today’s guest post by Rick Dominick is all about one of the world’s greatest sporting events, The French Open. Rick attended the tournament in 2007 and gleaned some helpful tips that will make any tennis junkie’s trip to the red clay of Roland Garros easier and more fun.

Go Rick….

Le Stuff’s Definitive Guide to Enjoying the French Open

The 2010 French Open is underway and you, like the rest of us, wish you were there.  And for good reasons; it’s the only major tournament played on clay, the tournament is held in an elegant neighborhood in Paris, and for tennis lovers, the points on “terre battue” are long and hard-fought.  If you are considering making the trip in 2011, here are our suggestions for making it a great adventure.

1) Plan to attend the tournament during the first week of competition.
Week 1 is the best time to see all the top players. The grandstand courts host the premier matches while the grounds courts host everyone else.  You may want to watch Federer or Serena compete on the Phillipe Chartrier or Suzanne Lenglen stadium courts but hardcore tennis lovers will want to scour the grounds courts for their favorite players.  The heavy, red clay makes for long, carefully crafted points and matches. Sit within a couple of feet of the players on the smaller courts and enjoy the fine competition.


Get up close and personal on the grounds courts

2) Book your trip in advance and get tournament tickets through the www.rolandgarros.com website.
If you want stadium tickets sign up for tickets in January or February.  You’ll be notified once the lottery for tickets is completed.  Re-seller tickets on the internet and scalped tickets are available closer to tournament time but tend to be expensive.  Grounds tickets can be purchased Continue reading

4 Fun Things to do in Nice

Nice is an underrated city.

The fifth largest metropolis in France has a reputation for being noisy, crowded, and a place where retirees shuffle off to live out their final days in sun-kissed obscurity.  Dig a little deeper though, and this bustling town reveals a wonderful depth of character with just the right sprinkling of Franco/Italian seasoning.

Here are 4 fun things to do in Nice, France.

1)The Old Town
Don’t miss it.  Yes, the streets are narrow and charming, and the flower market held on the pedestrian-only cours saleya is a must, but the main reason I look forward to visiting this section of Nice is food.  Around every corner, it seems, there’s another opportunity to indulge in excruciatingly delicious Nicoise cuisine.  Think authentic Italian pizza, socca, Ratatouille, pastries, homemade ice cream, and the list goes on and on and on….

2) Colline du Chateau
There’s actually no chateau (it was destroyed in 1706) on this wooded hill overlooking the city , but Continue reading

5 Ways to Save Money When Traveling To Europe

These are difficult times for anyone accustomed to traveling across the Atlantic in the good old days when the dollar was as strong as an ox.

European travel now requires serious planning if you want to avoid breaking your bank.

Check-out these 5 tips for saving money.

1) Book an apartment instead of a hotel
If you’re going to be in the same area for at least a week consider renting an apartment.  They’re generally cheaper than hotels and can provide a more enriching travel experience.

2) If you do stay in a hotel, skip their breakfast
14 Euros for a croissant and a cup of coffee?  I don’t think so Francois.
Forego breakfast at your hotel and head out to a local bakery.  You’ll have more fun, save money, and eat better food.

3) Pick the right credit card
Almost all banks charge a fee for Continue reading

Rent A Bike In Nice

Good news for bike enthusiasts.

The city of Nice is offering bikes for rent at 90 different locations around town.  The Velo Bike System, first introduced in Paris, provides visitors with a fun, inexpensive way to see Nice.

The first half hour is free, the second 30min costs €1, and additional hours are €2 each.

Call 00 33 4 30 00 30 or go to http://www.velobleu.org for details.

3 Travel Web Sites You Should Be Using Now

The Internet is an invaluable resource for travelers interested in saving time and money.  With just a little effort savvy surfers can quickly find (and book) the lowest prices on flights, hotel rooms, rental cars, and much more.
Listed below are three of my favorite travel websites.

Booking Buddy
Booking Buddy consolidates numerous travel search engines onto a single page so you don’t have to maneuver from site to site when shopping for flights, hotels, cars, cruises, etc.  (Kayak.com also allows you to search over 140 different sites to compare rates)
www.bookingbuddy.com

TripAdvisor
Not only is Trip Advisor incredibly useful when you need to check out a potential hotel (or restaurant) anywhere in the world, it’s also just plain fun to read reviews from people who have actually stayed there.  In addition, Continue reading

A weekend in Turin, Italy

Turin is one of the great underrated cities of Europe.

Elegant and sophisticated, this northern Italian town on the Po River has much to offer.  Visitors can expect delicious food, substantive wines, ample shopping, and graceful architecture.

For those considering a long weekend in “The Capital of the Alps” I have two recommendations.

Where to stay:
Grand Hotel Sitea
Centrally located with large, modern rooms, the Grand Hotel Sitea is a solid choice for a weekend stay.  Enjoy a VERY generous breakfast buffet each morning before heading out to explore the town, and at the end of the day, the hotel bar is perfect for unwinding.
Via Carlo Alberto, 35
10123 Torino, Italy
+39 011 517 0171

Where to hang out:
Cafe Florio

Founded in 1870, Cafe Florio is
the place to stop in for a drink, pastries, chocolates, cakes, tea, or anything else under the sun you might have a craving for.  The service is friendly and the atmosphere is “molto” chic.
8 Via Po
Torino, Italy 10122
Tel: +39 011 817 0612

 

Travel Attitude: A Perspective

We all want to appear at least moderately competent as we go about our daily lives, but on the road that’s often not possible.  Travel to a foreign country on your own and you will undoubtedly face innumerable, potentially embarrassing situations.  Simple tasks like ordering coffee, shopping for groceries, or pumping gas can turn into cringeworthy affairs.

These uncomfortable situations often leave us searching for easy ways to explain and excuse our own limitations, which in turn, can lead to a defensive backlash of unfounded criticisms against the host country.

Developing and maintaining a negative “blanket” opinion about an unfamiliar country or culture is easy.  The real effort is in avoiding such thoughts. Continue reading

Driving in France: 6 Quick Tips

Click here for information on the French Riviera Mini Cooper Driving Adventure!

1) Residents of the United States need only a valid passport and a valid state driver’s license to drive legally in France.  An international driver’s license is not necessary.

2) French police can impose an on the spot fine for driving violations and payments must be made in cash.

3) When pulling into a roundabout always Continue reading

Alec Harvey Guest Post: Thoughts on France

Alec HarveyFeatures Editor for The Birmingham News, has been kind enough to submit Le Stuff”s very first Guest Post.  For those of you who are regular Le Stuff readers, you may remember I posted a story in July about the, um, transmission problems Alec encountered early on during a Spring 2007 trip to France.  I really do hate to mention it again, but honestly it’s just too difficult for me to let it go.

So thanks Alec for your contribution, and I very much look forward to our next adventure.  I encourage everyone to pick up a copy of The Birmingham News, one of the nation’s most respected newspapers, and to check out City Scene, found in the Entertainment section every Friday.  There’s no better way for hipsters like you and me to get a handle on the goings on in The Magic City.  Finally, “Alec Harvey’s blog and column” (does this guy ever sleep?) can be read at http://blog.al.com/aharvey.

Sincerely,

Le Stuff

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Two years ago, I fell in love with France .

I had visited Paris the summer after I graduated from college, and I probably fell in love then, too, but the nearly 25 years that had passed had dimmed that affection. What remained were memories of good food and a little too much good wine, but not much about the people and places I encountered.

This time, I don’t expect the love affair to end.  Visiting the countryside of France is much different from the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s greatest cities.  The villages have a quaintness that Paris can never duplicate, and their charm – and that of the people that inhabit them – is not likely to fade.

If you’re planning a trip to the South of France Continue reading

Car Rental Insurance: To Pay or Not To Pay?

Isn’t car rental insurance grossly overpriced, and can’t money be saved by booking with a credit card that provides insurance on vehicles rented with that card?

Yes and yes.

Sort of.

Car rental companies do make substantial profits by charging elevated rates for insurance, and it is possible to waive the insurance coverage when picking up your car (though some companies have stopped this practice), but I only recommend doing it in certain circumstances.

Vehicles rented in the United States should fall under your personal insurance policy.  Check with your insurance carrier before booking, and if you’re covered, then by all means decline the insurance offered by the rental car firm.  If you don’t you’ll simply be wasting money on useless coverage.

Many credit cards also offer primary insurance (if the card is used to book the vehicle) on cars rented in the United States.  Call your card company for details.

The rules change when you go to Europe. Continue reading

European Car Rental: The Bad News

It seems the recession is affecting everyone, even car rental companies.
A recent
BBC article reports that travelers are paying substantially higher fees for vehicles or, even worse, finding themselves with no car at all due to overbooking by the rental company.

Why?

Rental firms anticipated fewer travelers this year as a result of the recession and did not update their fleets (or could not update their fleets due to tighter financing restrictions).

The result?

During heavy travel periods demand is simply exceeding supply.
The countries hardest hit are
Spain, France, and Italy.  Prices are up 70% in some popular destinations.

My advice to avoid possible headaches?

As always, book early and do your homework.  Give yourself enough time to shop around and find the best deal. Also, it may be cheaper to book a larger vehicle instead of an economy car.  Smaller cars are much more in demand because everyone thinks they’ll be cheaper, so you may get a better deal if you upsize.

5 Tips: Be a Better Traveler

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Ditch The Attitude  (You got a problem with that?)

We all know the type – defensive, argumentative, thinks everybody is out to get them.  The kind of person who can never settle down and enjoy a trip because they’re too busy acting like an ass.
Come on man, breathe.
While a healthy dose of common sense regarding theft, petty scams, and being overcharged for a cab ride is never a bad idea, I can assure you, everyone is NOT out to get you.
I have found that most locals are remarkably generous with their time and almost always eager to help a traveler in need.
That definitely will not be the case, though, if you com across as an arrogant tool.
And if you do get scammed? Continue reading

5 Money Saving Tips For Frequent International Travelers

1) Run, don’t walk, past currency exchange kiosks
Usually found in airports, train stations, and at border crossings, currency exchange booths
NEVER provide a fair rate of exchange and alwaystack on exorbitant fees.
Bottom line: Don’t even consider using them.

2) Do your homework when choosing a credit card
Choosing the right card can immediately save you 2 -3% on foreign transaction fees, provide a substantial boost to your frequent flier account Continue reading

Addendum: Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees

In my last post I listed two credit cards (Capital One and Discover) that do not charge a fee for foreign transactions.
I’ve since found another card I would like to add to the list.

1) Charles Schwab Bank Invest First Visa Card
In addition to no foreign transaction charges the Charles Schwab Visa has no annual fee and gives you unlimited 2% cash back on purchases, automatically deposited into a Schwab One brokerage account each month.  The APR is high, 13.24%, so make sure you don’t carry a balance and always read the fine print before signing up.

Travel Tip: Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees

Savvy travelers know that most credit card issuers charge an international usage fee (usually 2 – 3%) for purchases made outside the United States.  They do this, they claim,in order to recoup what they are charged by Visa and Mastercard, even though that fee is usually no more than 1%.

What does this mean to you?

Each time you make a purchase in a foreign country the bank that issued your card is earning an additional 1 – 2%, ON TOP of the 1% they have to pay.  Add to that a weak dollar and costly travel expenses, and jet-setting around the globe becomes increasingly less appealing.

I am aware of only two companies that do not charge for foreign transactions.  I’ve listed them below along with the fees charged by other well known banks .

Caveat
:
If you’re the type of person who always carries a balance on your card, read the fine print.
It makes no sense to save 2 -3% on foreign transactions just so you can turn around and pay an APR of 13% or higher.

0% – Capital One
0% – Discover

2% – American Express
2% – Pulaski Bank

3% – Citi Cards
3% – Chase
3% – Bank of America
3% – HSBC
3% – Providian

Travel Safety: 3 Tips

It doesn’t make sense to be hyper-sensitive about the many perceived dangers lurking around each corner when you travel.  It does make sense to be reasonably aware of your surroundings and employ a few tricks to make life a little more difficult for someone trying to steal from you.
Listed below are three helpful tips.

1) Use a towel
When carrying a day pack or large purse worn over the shoulder(s), place a towel or flat piece of cardboard in the bottom of the bag.  Why?  Often thieves will slink up behind unsuspecting victims and slice open the bag’s underside with a razor, then simply walk away with the contents.  This is usually done in crowded areas Continue reading

Travel Tip: On the road in Barcelona, Spain

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Local hangout in Barcelona

I have a friend who loves to travel alone.
One evening not too long ago we were discussing his recent trip to
Barcelona when he casually mentioned something he has done for years.
I think it’s a great idea.
Each time he visits a new city he will locate a bar, cyber cafe, or small restaurant near his hotel.  Nothing fancy, just someplace that feels comfortable.  Then every day at around the same time he’ll stop by for coffee, a meal, or to check his email.
After a few days he will invariably have become friends with at least one kind waiter, bartender, or even owner.
He assures me this little bit of extra effort has enriched his travel experiences more than he could have ever imagined.
I think it’s worth a try.