Planning a Safe and Independent Trip Overseas

I found a love of travel when I joined Witte Travel & Tours. Before then, I never thought much of traveling and now 16 years later, I have just completed my first independent adventure overseas. And you know what? I will travel overseas alone again in a heartbeat. Do I like to travel with others? Sure I do; however, I also find solo travel to be very freeing. As a woman, I never felt unsafe during any of my travels and that was due to my well-planned trip and tips I always use.

For me, the key to a well-planned and safe trip is to use all resources available. And in my experience, using a travel professional is truly invaluable. They have the knowledge and experience to ensure that your itinerary as well as accommodations and transportation options will work for you. They will listen to what you want and then research all of the almost limitless choices to find what works best for you.

A few key questions to ask yourself during the planning stages:

  • Airlines: What is the best schedule based on the time of year I’m traveling?
  • Transportation: Do you want to travel by train or drive between destinations?  Do you want to use public transportation almost exclusively in your target cities or will you use hop-on /hop-off tours?
  • Hotels: Do you want to be in city center, close to the train station, or close to a public transportation stop? What is most important – budget or location?
  • Sightseeing: Do you want to visit multiple museums or just exterior visits (so hop-on hop-off tour may be an option)? Are half-day or day trips via a motorcoach company or independent day trips via public transportation wanted?

After I had an idea on what I wanted to see, I got invaluable information from the staff at Witte in deciding all items mentioned above. I had originally gotten a hotel near the train station in Munich, however, changed it after one of my co-workers saw the location and alerted me it wouldn’t be the best area for a solo person. None of that information was mentioned on Trip Advisor, so I appreciated the information in order to change my hotel to a safer area knowing I was traveling alone.

My tips for staying safe while in Europe:

  1. Walk with purpose, even when you are lost. Always be mindful of where you are and who is around you.
  2. Do NOT be distracted with scenes that are being made around you. It could be a setup for pick pockets.
  3. Pick a hotel in a safe neighborhood close to transportation. While city center seems enticing, there are times when staying outside the center makes more sense. Look at the destination you want to stay at and plan from there. Be open to staying farther out.
  4. Keep extra money and credit cards in a money belt. Only have enough money that you need for the day easily available. Men, be sure to keep your wallet in your front pocket.
  5. Take along copies of your passport in case yours gets stolen.
  6. Currency: If you need to get currency from Banks/ATMs while abroad, be sure you are in a well-lit and safe area and that you protect the screen from being viewed by anyone around. Do not keep cash in easy view.

Schonnbrunn Palace and Melk Abbey

On my last full day in Europe, I decided to visit Schonnbrunn Palace and then venture to Melk Abbey. Now why visit Melk Abbey when I could have spent another full day in Vienna? It’s simple…in the work I have done at Witte, I have seen the images of Melk Abbey quite often and always wanted to see it in person. Knowing I was a few train rides away, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit this gem.

Schonnbrunn Palace
Schonnbrunn Palace

I again used public transportation to get around, from my hotel to Schonbrunn, from Schonbrunn to Melk, and from Melk back to my hotel. Along the way I logged a lot of miles walking, but it was so worth it.

Melk Abbey - Inner Courtyard
Melk Abbey – Inner Courtyard

Schonbrunn Palace is truly grand and I enjoyed my exterior and interior visit; however, the true “sleeper hit” for my time in Austria was yet to come…Melk Abbey. Once I left the train station, I walked to the city center and then walked up to the Abbey. In the winter you must pay for a guided tour and they only one tour on Saturdays. In hindsight I am so glad this was a requirement. While the Abbey is awe-inspiring, having the guides really made the history come to life. The cost was so worth the one hour tour. Once I left, I thought it might be fun to check out the shops in the city center. Unfortunately my tour ended at 3 pm and the shops had closed for the day. If I am ever in Vienna again, I will be making a side trip to Melk to visit the city center and the abbey.

Vienna in a Day

Since I only had one full day in Vienna, I decided to start with an independent city tour using my map, landmarks, and public transportation to see as much as I possibly could. And yes, at some point even with the map I got turned around and lost, so once I found a U-Bahn stop, I went underground and got back on track. Seriously, the public transportation system in Austria is equally as user friendly as Germany’s.

Hofburg
Hofburg

Using the bus, I exited at Karlsplatz and immediately viewed the Opera House. Next, I walked by the Cafe Sacher Wien, which has the famous Sachertorte. I went in; however, the wait was long and I had limited time, in Vienna so I left and proceeded to Albertina Museum. Coats must be checked before you can begin your tour. I spent a very thoughtful few hours visiting each floor of art exhibits. I highly recommend this museum. Once back outside, I headed to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. I tried my one attempt at a selfie and decided that is definitely not for me. Selfie fail aside, I went inside to visit the cathedral. Next, I headed to St Peter’s Church for another interior visit. It is truly amazing the art that you find in churches and cathedrals. I am often awestruck by the stain-glass windows alone. Once my visit was complete, I ventured to the Hofburg Palace and purchased a Sisi Ticket, which covered the Hofburg Imperial Apartments, the Schonbrunn Palace’s Grand Tour, and the Imperial Furniture College. I ended my independent city tour by visiting the Hofburg Imperial Apartments. It was quite interesting.

Johann Strauss in Stadtpark
Johann Strauss in Stadtpark

I ended my “day in Vienna” with an independent Ringstrasse tour, using the tram system to get around. Thanks to Rick Steve’s, I finally got to see “up close” the statue of Johann Strauss in Stadtpark, viewed the City Hall and Burhtheater as the tram rode by, and then alighted again from the tram so I could see the statue of Mozart. Both statues can’t be seen while on the tram. While I had a few other stops I wanted to get off of to visit, including City Hall, the time was getting late and the light was fading fast. All in all, I enjoyed my full day in Vienna and look forward to visiting this city again some day.

Day Tripping outside Munich… Linderhof, Neuschwantstein, and Oberammergau

In planning my adventure in Germany and Vienna, I knew I wanted to schedule a day trip. One where I could sit back, relax on a motorcoach, and let someone else handle navigating from point A to B to C. This allowed me to experience a scheduled day tour.

I arrived at the meeting point with plenty of time to spare. There was a little confusion regarding what motorcoach might be ours as it was not clearly marked. That did surprise my fellow day trippers and myself since Grayline is a large company. Once they had the right motorcoach at the stop, we all boarded and started on our adventure.

The cost of the day trip (pre-paid), did not include the cost of admission to Linderhof or Neuschwanstein.  Once we were on our way, the tour manager came around to see if we wanted to purchase tickets to tour the castles. I was very happy to find out that we had a choice to purchase both, none, or just admission to one castle. I have toured Neuschwanstein before, but hadn’t toured Linderhof Castle yet. Now if I’ve been to Neuschwanstein, why go back? I wanted to see what it looked like in the winter vs. fall.

Linderhof Castle
Linderhof Castle

We first arrived at the parking area at Linderhof. Our tour manager went and purchased our tickets and we walked the short distance to the castle. Since it’s winter, the garden area was closed and the statues were encased in wooden structures to protect them from the elements. Even with not being able to see the statues, it was still worth the visit during this time of year. While small in comparison to Neuschwanstein, Linderhof is grand and the castle itself quite opulent. I am so glad I toured it. After the guided tour, we immediately started back to the motorcoach as we had a short amount of time before the motorcoach left.

Next stop…Oberammergau, an amazing village with beautifully painted buildings. It was amazing to see this village for the first time. Our motorcoach parked in the area by the Passion Play Theatre and we were given just a half-hour to visit shops or walk into the village. Sadly, it only gave me time to visit two shops. This is what you sign up for when joining a scheduled day trip. Plus, there never seems enough time to truly enjoy a destination. So with that, I know I will visit this village again, but on my own so I have time to walk and take in the painted buildings and beautiful wood carvings this village is famous for.

Neuschwanstein Castle
Neuschwanstein Castle

Final destination before returning to Munich…Neuschwanstein Castle. The Marienbrucke bridge is currently closed, so you can’t walk on it to get panoramic images of the castle. I knew about this ahead of time, but still wanted to enjoy seeing the outside of the castle again. There are three ways to get up to the castle, by bus, by horse-drawn carriage, or by walking up the long and winding road. It had snowed the day before and was deemed too slippery for the buses to run. I live in Michigan, and seeing the snow barely on the roads this information surprised me; however, some don’t get the amount of snow that we do. Needless to say, the line for the horse-drawn carriage was quite long. For me, I decided to hoof it up to the castle. It was a great workout and well worth the walk. I loved seeing this majestic castle in the winter.

The tour manager gave such great information regarding the areas we visited and the history. The driver was aces and kept us on schedule. All in all, I give Grayline tours high marks and I would definitely sign up for another tour with them again.

Dachau and Nymphenburg Palace

I decided on a morning excursion to Dachau. There are many tour companies that offer tours to Dachau if you so choose. I decided to venture out on my own and use public transportation. Getting there was as simple as a tram, train, and bus ride. I am pretty directionally challenged, in other words I do not have a great sense of direction, and I found navigating there to be quite easy. I do have to say Germany has a great public transportation system.  Knowing my lack of directional sense, I had printed off schedules of the trams, trains, and buses, so I could get to Dachau as efficiently as possible.  For me, having this extra information meant peace of mind.

Dachau
Dachau

Once I stepped off the bus I took from the Dachau train station, I immediately saw the Dachau Memorial Site marker. I knew this would be a sobering; however, important site to visit. In my walk and while I took my self-guided tour of the grounds and museum, I saw many German student groups visiting. It was heart breaking to see the images and videos that had been taken. The devastation is unimaginable; however, it is important to always remember and bear witness so these atrocities are never repeated. During the end of my museum visit, I saw a German teacher sit his students down at the last video. I was so very impressed with him and how he prepared his students. And yes, it was a heart breaking video of so many who had lost their lives.

My self-guided tour of the Museum and grounds took around 3 hours. Walking the grounds gave me time to reflect on all I had seen and learned.

After this difficult visit, I decided to head back to Munich and visit Nymphenburg Palace. If you wonder why visit Nymphenburg? I had seen images of Nymphenburg during my work at Witte and have always wanted to see it in person. Getting to Nymphenburg, I once again used public transportation. It was a short 10 minute walk from the bus stop to the palace. Even with the brisk weather, swans were still in the lake in front of the palace.

Nymphenburg Palace
Nymphenburg Palace

The entrance fee was quite reasonable and you are left on your own to wander around the beautiful palace. I thought it was well worth the time and cost to visit this gem. I only spent around an hour touring; however, if it had been summer with the gardens blooming, I would have been there so much longer. Nymphenburg Palace, even in the winter, is truly a site to see.

Munich City Tour

My time in Munich wasn’t long enough, but it did give me a glimpse of this beautiful and fun city. To begin my exploration, I felt an independent city tour would be best. I decided to begin with a Rick Steve’s recorded tour of Munich; however, found out very quickly that this wouldn’t work for me. I have a very poor sense of direction, so decided to abandon this and go with navigating by map. If you aren’t comfortable navigating on your own for a city tour, I highly recommend hop on, hop off tours. I have used tour companies before, but wanted to get around using the map, landmarks, and if I got horribly lost, go below to the U-bahn to get back on track. The public transportation system in Munich was excellent, as well as the German people.

I began the tour by exiting the U-bahn at Karlsplatz, walked through the Karlstor Gate and strolled down Neuhauser Street, which is a pedestrian area full of shopping opportunities. Seeing the gate, shops, and various statues was truly fascinating.

Glockenspiel in the Marienplatz
Glockenspiel in the Marienplatz

The street led me right to the Marienplatz, the central square in the city centre and one of my favorite spots. The Marienplatz has the Glockenspiel, and Old and New Town Hall. You can actually go into the New City Hall and pay a nominal fee to ride the elevator to the top to get a great panoramic view of Munich. I decided to do this and even though I went when it was cold and very windy, it was well worth it to get a birds-eye view of the area. Unfortunately both days I was at the Marienplatz, I missed the Glockenspiel’s show, though viewing the clock even without the moving parts is still quite interesting.

Viktualienmarkt
Shop in the Viktualienmarkt

Next, I walked through the Old Town Hall gate and visited St. Peter’s Church. Afterwards, I continued to the Viktualienmarkt, an open air market and pedestrian only area. I enjoyed looking at the different vendors here and even laughed when it started to snow. It added to the beauty of the area. I ended my tour and meandered back toward the U-bahn by way of the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady). I didn’t go inside since it was beginning to get dark and I am most comfortable navigating on my own during the day.

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Fundraising is Key to a Great Student Tour

As featured in the 2015-2016 issue of the NTA Student Trip Planner

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Give the Gift of Multi-Generational Family Vacation

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As featured in the April 2015 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine

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Witte Travel & Tours In the News

Witte Travel & Tours In the News

As featured in the November 2014 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine
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