Here is where I divert from my vacation slide show for a Lewis Black style rant. Some of this may be useful, but mostly, you'll laugh at what an idiot I was.
- Women's rooms always have lines. Sometimes you have to pay. Always bring Kleenexes, two 50 cent pieces, and plan at least 15 minutes downtime at each site for the wait. Even if they sell 4 Euro drinks, they don't want to provide you with a toilet when the rental period is over. Train stations are the worst... which is probably why the outside of Gard du Nord smells like urine.
- Never pick up a car at a rail station, even though you can only get automatics at train stations and airports. Despite the claim, Barcelona Hertz rental cars is not actually in the rail station. Finding it took some effort, dragging our seven bags behind us. The car place has to buzz you in and posts signs that "there are pick pockets working this line". They tried to talk us out of the Mercedes automatic we pre-paid for, but only a lunatic would brush up on shifting skills in the Alps. Don't even get me started about dropping a car off. The garages are always hidden.There are NO signs. It can take hours to find the Easter Egg. Hint, in Paris, it's under a Japanese restaurant on a taxis only road. None of police, taxi drivers, concierges, Google, or online Hertz maps will lead you to the right one. You have to wait in the 20 minute line inside while your spouse circles the city in rush hour traffic. That's 4 hours out of your life you'll never see again. It's all rigged so your tank won't be full anymore, and they can gouge you.
- A car native to your destination (in this case France) will result in a cheaper drop-off fee. I was a little reluctant, but the Peugeot 308 hatchback they gave us kicked butt! The gas mileage was phenomenal, and all our bags fit in the trunk! It may have been ugly on the outside but the controls were dead simple and we lived comfortably in it for weeks. The kids loved the fold down trunk access panel in the backseat armrest so they could hide their DS/ipod/ipad or get sandwiches.
- The type of gas is on the key. Reading the manual in French won't help when you practiced Spanish for weeks.
- If they offer to let you prepay the gas, take it! For several reasons: a) if you don't return it full, you pay for the WHOLE tank, plus a 40 Euro service charge. b) Spain is a little cheaper than France. c) You do not want to screw with finding a gas station in downtown Paris/Dublin, etc. minutes before your rental is due.
- Map parking lots not attractions. One can be quite far from the other, and you can waste a lot of time circling and hunting.
- With the possible exception of London, people in Europe don't seem to believe in labeling any roads other than freeways, so your big map is useless in a city. I pre-printed verbal map routes from Michelin.com in case the GPS battery died, but you can't navigate inside a city without a GPS.
- Europe believes in stealth attractions. They are rarely labeled. You can be within slingshot distance and never know. Use pre-printed close up picture Google maps with every road labeled. The road could be named after the place you're going, and the hot dog vendor out front may not know what was there.
- When you stop someone for help, smile and greet them in their own language first. They'll usually help. Ironically, most people who work menial jobs don't speak that country's language well either!
- Know the hours for the attraction. In Italy, most attractions shut down at 5:30. They also take a siesta in the middle of the afternoon for a few hours. Versailles and many other sites in France are closed altogether on Mondays. Dublin Castle was closed for an EU summit.
- Learn the name of ever attraction in its native language, or the people you ask won't have a clue what you're talking about.
- Carry blank paper and a pen for Pictionary when charades doesn't work. If you can understand 30 percent of the answer, it's enough to get there.
- Always have a pocket full of 2 Euro coins. That's how much laundry, parking, or the toll will cost and no place will give you change for your 50 Euro bill. The machine won't take Visa or your piddly little coins.
- Your TomTom, the one you can't
live without, is possessed by a demon. There were too many holy *%#@ moments to count. Half the time it works fine. When you select a site, it will say
1km distance. The route it picks will be 3.5km of back alleys, starting in
the opposite direction that the nice man in the rental office pointed you.
Once, it told us there was no route to get to our hotel. When you get close to the site, all the signs will often point the opposite
direction of where it sends you. You have to decide where to put your trust. Hint, follow the
crowd of 500 people, not the technology. To be fair, what seemed like a
random alley turned out to be a hundred yards from the unheralded front
gate. However, what should have been a 6 minute drive from Parc Guell
(pronounced Parkway) to the preprogrammed Sagrada Familia took 40 minutes. First, it led us to
a "taxi" only road with a gate across it. When we drove 3 blocks
closer to the site, it looped us back to the same gate over a twenty minute frustration fest. The TomTom won't let you zoom out to see where it's going--that's classified.
There's an alternate route button, but I eventually unplugged the beast
and asked directions when I spotted the Christopher Columbus traffic
circle at the port in front of our cruise ship. We were 9 blocks from the
biggest attraction in the city the TomTom was leading us further away. Always
have detailed Google Maps of every site and know roughly where they are in
the city. We have tons of examples where the TomTom sent us through the speed-bump-filled 20mph city center instead of taking the labelled 50mph bypass. The worst was when my map showed a freeway exit 5 blocks from the hotel and the TomTom took us through an extra hour of downtown Paris rush hour, including the famous 5 layer roundabout at Arch du Triumph--something I would not wish on my worst enemy. Immersion in holy water is the only cure.