After more than 15 years of traveling around Europe for a living, I still enjoy every moment as much as I did on my first trip. Well, almost every moment. The truth is, the more you travel, the more little, random things start to get on your nerves. At the risk of sounding cranky — and with tongue planted firmly in cheek — here are a few things that make me reconsider renewing my passport.
Noisy hotel rooms
We’ve all been there: Late at night or early in the morning, the bar next door disgorges its rowdy customers onto what had been a serene street. Or your neighbors come back from a late dinner and crank up the volume on their TV. Or a prewar elevator grinds its way up the shaft just on the other side of the wall from your bed…and, even with your head burrowed under a pillow, you can feel the gears trundle over each rusty bolt.
I don’t blame hotels for little bumps in the night. But I am an extremely light sleeper…which means that I’m a magnet for unexpected noises. On a recent trip, in one week alone, I had neighbors with thunderous plumbing and small bladders in Santa Margherita Ligure; a midnight bachelorette party on the shared terrace right outside my room in Pisa; and in Salzburg, a next-door neighbor doing a little 7:00 a.m. remodeling project — literally using a power drill on the wall behind my headboard.
Earplugs can only do so much. Side note: When you ask a hotelier for a quiet room, and they smile sweetly and say, “All of our rooms are quiet,” what they really mean is, “None of our rooms are quiet.” And when they say, “We are in the very center, so you have to expect a little noise,” they actually mean, “We totally cheaped out on the windows.”
Blinking lights in a dark hotel room
Speaking of barriers on the road to sleep, it seems every TV in Europe comes standard with an extremely bright little light that cuts through the darkness of a hotel room. Like the steely gaze of HAL 9000, this laser beam pierces deeply into your soul and jolts you awake just as you’re drifting off. (In my MacGyver bag of travel tricks, I carry a little roll of black electrical tape, which makes short work of these unwanted little lights.)
Traveler-unfriendly transportation connections
I understand that local transit is (and should be) designed for local commuters — not necessarily for travelers. However, in areas where tourism drives the economy, it’s mystifying when the authorities conspire to complicate a simple journey to a comical degree.
On a recent trip to update our Rick Steves Italy guidebook, I ran into a pages-long wall of text about how to connect two popular hill towns: Orvieto and Civita di Bagnoregio. In their wisdom, this tourism-driven corner of Umbria has turned this journey — which should be a simple 30-minute ride — into a farce of Rube Goldberg complexity.
Hundreds of visitors must do this trip every single day. And if they don’t have a car, here’s how they have to do it:
1. In Orvieto, buy a bus ticket at the tabacchi shop 200 yards up the street from the bus stop. (Actually, buy two. I’ll explain why later.)
2. Go to the bus stop. Mind you, this is not the bus stop immediately in front of the funicular station, where every other regional and local bus stops. Nope — this bus uses its own special stop, which is hidden away (I am not making this up) a five-minute, completely un-signed walk away, inside a deserted former military barracks that feels vaguely postapocalyptic.
3. When the bus arrives in the town of Bagnoregio, you have one more chance to buy a return bus ticket, at the tabacchi shop across the street. This is important, because the shop will be closed in the afternoon when you’re ready to head back. Except on Sundays, when of course it’s closed all day. (While the normal price for the ticket is €2.20, you can buy a ticket from the driver…for €7.)
4. Walk 20 minutes through the town of Bagnoregio, pausing at the belvedere in the garden for an amazing view of Civita. But do not — I repeat, do not — walk down the enticing staircase next to the viewpoint. You’ll reach the bottom of the stairs and discover a locked gate. (The real staircase is just over your right shoulder.)
5. Cross the long causeway up to Civita, and enjoy the heck out of the town — having really earned this experience.
6. Walk back down the causeway and 20 minutes back through town to catch the bus back to Orvieto — feeling smug for having already bought your ticket. Just for fun, sit up front so that you can watch the driver have the same conversation with each of the 20 irate tourists who pile on behind you. “What!? Seven euros?”
Did I mention that you have to leave Orvieto by 7:50 in the morning? Because, of course, even though every single bus between Orvieto and Bagnoregio is 100% tourists, this bus does not run between 7:50 and 12:45. (I could not possibly be making this up. Nobody would believe me.)
If you ever wonder why our Italy guidebook tips the scales at 1,250 pages…now you know. If Italy ever standardized its crazy regional transportation system, we could probably print the book on a postcard.
Seen all over Europe, this is the international shorthand for “open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” Or so you’d assume. But I frequently see a “non-stop” place shuttered at night or on a Sunday. So technically it’s not “non-stop” at all…right? (To be fair, “infrequent stops” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.)
Riding a bus to board an airplane
With all of the airport gripes we have in the US, at least once we finally make it to the gate, we know it’s just a matter of walking down the jetway to reach our 17 inches of misery. But at many European airports, there’s yet one more hurdle: cramming onto an overstuffed bus and zipping across runways to some distant fringe of the airport.
Pulling up to the plane, all of the bus doors open all at once, kicking off a melee of passengers elbowing their way up the stairs to find seats scattered throughout the airplane. (Begin boarding from the back? First class first? People needing additional time or assistance? Forget it.) And then, when you reach your destination, you have to ride another bus to get to the terminal.
This is especially stressful when you have a tight connection — you can’t just burst down the jetway and break into a sprint. No, you have to wait patiently for the entire plane to deboard, fidget nervously as the bus dodges luggage carts across the tarmac, and then make like Usain Bolt once you’re unceremoniously deposited at some mysterious annex of the airport, just past the Z gates.
I can’t tell you how many hoteliers — all over Europe — have bragged to me, with a wink, “We have an extremely rich breakfast!” This is clearly a language-barrier problem: They think it means “delicious and full of variety.” But to American ears, it’s more like “a little indigestion and heartburn to start your day.” Appetizing.
Tiny showers with big faucets
Europe is small. Tight streets, tight hotel rooms, tight everything. And normally I don’t mind it. In fact, I believe — philosophically — it’s good for Americans (who are accustomed to having all the room we want) to be reminded that space has value, and we need to be thoughtful about sharing it.
That said, European showers drive me nuts. The enclosures can be minuscule. And I could deal with that. But all too often, a big chunk is taken out of the middle by a jerry-rigged faucet that pokes way out from the wall. You know what I’m talking about: No matter how careful you are, it jabs into your lower back. And the oversized paddle of a handle is perfectly positioned to catch your elbow every time you turn around — suddenly making the water either volcanic or glacial. And while we’re on the topic of hotel showers…
It now seems near-universal for hotels to provide a single pump bottle of cheapo, all-purpose “body wash/shampoo/and while we’re at it clothing detergent and dish soap” mixture. (I recently found one that was labeled, simply, “Flowers” — apparently the marketing team took the day off.) For convenience and for environmental reasons, I carry my own shampoo and a big bar of soap. But occasionally I run out, and it’s nice to check in and discover some little individually wrapped itsy-bitsies, or a mini-bottle of shampoo that’s, you know, actually shampoo. However, these have been nudged aside by the liquid soap lobby.
I’m a big fan of straightforward pricing: The burger is $4, add fries for a buck. But many sights in Europe make a hobby of coming up with dozens of different ticketing variations for the same sight.
Salzburg’s Höhensalzburg Fortress is the worst offender I’ve seen recently. To enter the fortress, you can either hike up, or take the funicular. This could have been so effortlessly simple: The fortress costs €8, add €2 for each ride on the funicular. But no. They have separate discounts for entering the first hour of the day, or an hour before closing time. You can choose whether you want to add on the “Regency Rooms.” You can pay for the funicular one-way (and hike back down) or round-trip. And so on.
Consequently, the ticket desk is a mob scene. When I dropped by to update our guidebook, I assumed all of these people were waiting in line to buy tickets. But then I noticed a wall of bored cashiers, and I realized: No, these customers are puzzling over the comically long ticket menu, trying to make sense of which ticket they want to buy. I have to assume that, to guarantee future employment, the person responsible for pricing created a system so complex that nobody else could ever fully comprehend it. (I actually met one of these people once…but that’s a pet peeve for another time.)
Come on, no reason I should have all the fun — what are your travel pet peeves?
Cranky as this all seems, sometimes these frustrating memories grow fonder in retrospect. This post is part of my “Jams Are Fun” series — about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it. After a lifetime of world travel, upon writing a memoir of her adventures, my wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred chose the title Jams are Fun. Mildred realized that it’s not always the big sights that stick with you the most…it’s those serendipitous moments when things go memorably awry.
If you savor the Schadenfreude of hearing about good trips gone bad, check out the other posts in my “Jams Are Fun” series. How about that time I ran out of gas on Scotland’s remote north coast? Or that time I was stuck on a cruise ship during a churning storm in the North Sea? Or the time I became embroiled in a gelato feud in a small Italian village? Or really the entire experience of driving in Sicily…