Monday, March 31, 2014

Spring in Bloom

It's amazing how much a city can change when the sun finally comes out. When I lived in Copenhagen, I thought there were hardly any people there. And then Spring came and the city was overflowing with tourists and residents alike. I guess they had been hibernating. 

When I came to Munich, I expected a similar transformation, but a little less dramatic. Unlike Copenhagen, people still go out to bars, play winter sports, and generally live their lives even in the wintery months. However, the last few days of sunshine and warm weather has brought even more people out of hiding and I'm so excited to see what the city has in store. 

No sun + low temps = no people

Last week when the temperatures dropped down again, I was struck by how empty the city became, literally overnight. As I walked down Ludwigstrasse, a street that is normally buzzing with energy, it felt like I was in the city all by myself. But then the sun came out the next day and everything was back to to normal

High temp - clouds = people!

What I've really enjoyed, in addition to the warm weather, is the buskers that have started appearing around the city. In New York, they're everywhere, including the trains, and the random street music is something that I start to miss even now and again. So imagine my surprise when I came across a band with a full sized piano in the middle of the street on my way to Marienplatz. 

And when I went to hang out in the English Garden, the rhythmic sounds of a drum circle beckoned me to find them. I tried to ignore them and stay focused on my book and beer, but their hold on me was too powerful. Before I knew it, I was packing up my belongings and going in search of their source. 

When I found the group of performers, and started dancing, I was reminded of an old Dave Chappelle skit were he discusses the power of electric guitars and drums on white and black people. I proved his theory right. 

After having my fill of good beats, I decided to look for the legendary surfers of the Eisbach. I saw them once during my first trip to Munich. But it was the smaller area where the beginners practice. I wanted to see where the pros go to show off. 

I noticed a few people walking with surf boards before, but I wasn't sure if they were going to the area or coming from it. I was feeling daring that day and decided to follow my instincts and go where they were going. And I was well rewarded for my courage. I came across the pro area and there were about seven people in slick wetsuits riding the waves on their short boards. Even though the day was warm, the water was rather chilly (I know this because one of the surfers flicked me when he was coming out of the river) and I had to admire their commitment. Here's their exact location if you want to check them out.

And the summer hasn't even begun. Hell, it's not even April yet and all these cool things are happening. I haven't even mentioned Starkbierfest, the festival celebrating strong beer. And I've started to see some advertisements for the Munich Film Festival and numerous musical events that will be coming to the city. I'm absolutely giddy about the new experiences Munich has to offer. Let's see what else I can find.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cheap Travel, German Style

Spring is a upon us and soon, the streets will soon be teeming with tourists from far and wide, looking for a fun and adventure. If you would like to be one of them and are looking to stretch your limited budget, here's a few tips to bring down your transportation costs.

If you want to travel within Germany's borders with several accomplices, one of your cheapest options will be rail. One of the numerous discounts available through the national train service, DB Bahn, is the Bayern ticket, which allows multiple people to travel on the same ticket, throughout Bavaria. The more people that travel, the lower each person's ticket costs, with up to four people paying 8.75 euros per person. It also covers local transport, including buses. When my friends and I traveled to a tiny German town about three hours out of Munich for a Thanksgiving dinner in a countryside cabin, the Bayern ticket helped to bring the cost of travel and lodgings to less than 100 euros per person for a three day weekend.

Bayern baby! Photo: Ashley Lovell

And the savings that DB Bahn offers is not just limited to Bavaria. The company also has similar tickets for all parts of Germany and is currently running a special to many European cities, including Amsterdam, Paris, and Vienna, for just 39 euros. 

If trains are still a little too rich for your blood, the next cheap option is bus. 

Berlin's central bus station

Pictured is one of the many discount bus lines serving Germany, Meinfern Bus. Even if you need to book and travel on the same day, you can usually find cheap prices, like from Munich to Berlin for only 18 euros. Plus, there's free wifi on all their buses and snacks for sale, including beer, if you're unable to pick something up before you board. 

For bus travel out of Germany, I've had really good experiences with Eurolines. They also have free wifi on most of their buses, but they give you a free snack and bottle of water. The only draw back with them is you have actually print up your ticket, unlike Meinfern, which gives you the option of downloading a PDF of your ticket to your smart phone. 

When I wanted to travel to Copenhagen over the Christmas break and all flights were coming in at well over 100 euros, I used Meifern to get me from Munich to Berlin, and Eurolines to take me the rest of the way. I spent a full day traveling, but I only paid 30 euros doing it. 

Another bus option is Berlinlinien. They have prices that are similar to Eurolines when looking for international travel and low prices for trips within Germany. But for you to get the best rates, you will need to book your trip about seven days in advance. 

If buses and trains are still pushing you to the limits of your budget, your last option, that I know of, is a rideshare. If you can find people that are traveling in the same direction as your destination, you can offer to split the cost of gas with several other travelers. A great website you should checkout is Carpooling. Obviously, such a method has several drawbacks, the main one being that you are at the mercy of other people's schedules. You'll have to find people that are not only going where you're going, but they also have to be leaving when you want to leave. But if your dates are flexible and the savings that attractive, then go for it.

I will admit, all of these options will add significant time to your trip. Rather than spend more than twelve hours sitting on my butt when I went from Munich to Copenhagen, I gave myself an extended layover and spent the night with a friend in Berlin. But I love traveling and part of the adventure is actually getting to my destination. So a good soundtrack and plenty of treats were enough to keep me happy. And when you're in a position were every cent counts, I'd rather pay for my way in patience than cash. Happy travels!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Packing like a pro

This post was inspired by the countless articles that say they have the secret to traveling lightly by only using one carry-on bag for a three week trip. Honestly, I'm tired of the shannigans. Their secret is almost always some variation of "only take two shirts and one pair of pants and do laundry while you're there," to which I must respond, ew.

My main gripe with this method of only taking the bare essentials and buying or washing what you need once you get to your destination can end up being very expensive and frustrating. Things like sunscreen and moisturizer can be more costly in countries outside of the U.S. And if you're like me and have sensitive skin, do you really want to experiment with products when you can't even read the ingredient list? 

As for washing clothes, unless you're going to hand wash them, a laundry service can easily run more than $20. And don't count on finding a self-serve laundromat as my travels to London, Stockholm, and Glasgow have all shown that such services are on the steep decline and chances are, the city you visit may not even have one that is close to your accommodations. Hand washing presents it's own challenges since you will have to find a place to hang them (good luck if you're staying in a hostel) and wait for them to actually dry. Do you want to be stuck in the hotel when your only pair of trousers are dripping wet? 

Shopping may not even be an option, especially if you're visiting an Asian country and you are bigger that a U.S. size 2.

So now that I've said all the things that are wrong with this method, I think it's only fair that I suggest something that is more efficient. 

If you're only traveling for a few days, then sure, take the carry-on. That is what it was meant for. But if you're going to be on the road for at least two weeks, I say bite the bullet and check a bag. Before buying your ticket, see which airline will be the cheapest, including baggage fees. Most international flights will give you at least one bag (and usually booze) for free, so take advantage of it.

Now, if you're new to the world of travel, you're probably wondering which bag is best for you. I think few can go wrong with a rolling duffel bag with backpack straps. This is what my friend recommended when I did my first multi-country trip through Europe and it was the best advice I received.

I found this bag on Ebay when a gentleman sold two of them together for only $100. I gave the other one to my mom and she loved it when she took it with her to South Africa. It may look small, but it packs big, holding enough clothes for a three month, 4 country tour. The two large rubber wheels in the back makes it very maneuverable, even on the cobblestones of Europe. It has a large opening on the front, so I can reach what I need without having to rearrange everything inside. Plus, it has a ton of straps and handles, so you can grab it from just about any angle. 

As for carry-on luggage, you have plenty of wiggle room. I tend to go for bags that have either backpack traps or cross body straps, both of which leave my hands free to pull the larger bag. During my Oktoberfest tour, I picked up this lovely bag in Glasgow. After traveling for three months and buying gifts for family and friends, I needed an extra bag to transport all the goodies home

This bag has two main compartments, hidden backpack straps (are you noticing a theme), a removable cross body strap, and handle. It's also expandable, giving me a little extra room when I need it. This was 20 pounds at TK Maxx, which is pretty cheap for a Henry Cottons bag.

For an everyday bag to use at my destination, a vintage Dooney and Bourke saddlebag is perfect. It can hold a bottle of water, camera, and small book comfortably. Plus the inner pockets have zippers which keep my wallet, cash, and passport all nice and secure. I also found it on Ebay for the low price of $30. 

Me, my friend Nicki, and my trusty bag in Amsterdam

Aside from the backpack straps, an apparent theme is my love of Ebay. My adventures with used items have shown that you can save so much money by turning to this site in your hunt for high quality travel pieces. 

As you begin your search for the right piece (or pieces) of luggage, know that amassing a good collection is not an instantaneous process. It's taken me several years and many trips to know what works and what doesn't. So don't be afraid to start off slow with one piece at a time. The goal is to find things that you love and will stand the test of time. Happy travels!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Fasching: Party with zee Germans

This past week saw the end of the carnival season around the world. Instead of going to Brazil, the Carribean, or any another place where scantily clad woman roam the streets with ornate headdresses, I got the chance to experience my first German Carnival. But since I'm in Bavaria and the Bavarians think themselves cooler than regular Germans, they call it Fasching. 

Some research showed that the Carnival season technically starts in early January, However the last three days of the season are the biggest, named Fasching Sunday, Rose Monday, and Shrove Tuesday. 

Traditionally, the time is marked with elaborate costume balls and, as one blogger described it, is closer in style to the masked celebrations of Venice than the drunken debauchery of Cologne.

Last year's Carnival Ball at the Bayerischen National Museum. Photo:

As Bavarians are normally very reserved, I wasn't sure what to expect. My roommate, normally a great source of info about everything Munich, only said that it was crazy, the people were annoying, and she purposely avoids most clubs and bars until the whole ordeal is over. Not a very enthusiastic endorsement, at all. 

On Fashing Sunday, I made my way to Marienplatz where the square had been transformed into an open-air party. Live performances of traditional German party music supplied the entertainment while beer stands and food stalls provided the refreshment. During a break in between sets, I heard drums off in the distance. Mesmerized by the hypnotic rhythm, I made my way through the crowd and discovered Munich's Latin drum band, Bateria-Z

They were fantastic and I wish my phone took better video so I could show you. The group had fun with the crowd and did different tricks with their instruments. The energy was infectious and everyone around me were moving their hips to the beat. 

Tuesday was the culmination of Carnival and it was marked by the "Dance of the Market Women" at the Virtual Market. Not wanting to enjoy the festivities alone, I checked out my trusty Toytown Germany expat site and saw a forum posting asking if people wanted to get together for the event. 

Five of us arranged to meet in Marianplatz at 10:30 and head over to the Virtual Market. My roommate warned me that Tuesday would be crazy and if I hoped to see anything, I should be out the house by 9. I thought she was exaggerating, but by 10, both the Virtual Market and Marienplatz was in full swing. People were dressed up and many had already cracked open their first beer of the day.

10:15 and people are pouring in from the U-Bahn.

By the time we reached the Virtual Market, the place was packed! Being a vertically-challenged person, it was impossible to see any of the performances. But I did get the chance to see the mayor. Thankfully, my companions were as unenthused as I was, so we left and went for a breakfast of German champions, weisswurst and pretzels, at the legendary Hofbräuhaus

One of the oldest beer halls in Munich, Hofbräuhaus became known for it's delicious weissbier (wheat beer). The beer is so good, it supposedly saved Munich from the Swedish king during the 30 Years War in 1632. King Gustavus Adolphus promised not to burn the town down in exchange for some hostages and 600,000 barrels of Hofbräuhaus' beer. Pretty fair trade I'd say.

As if the food and beer weren't good enough, a brass band started playing on the stairs behind us. I was in Bavarian heaven.

After breakfast, which rolled into lunch, and then early dinner, we went back to Virtual Market for the last of the performances, and then a nearby bar for a nightcap. In total, I spent more than 12 hours dancing, drinking, and being entertained by the party revelers around me. I had no idea the Bavarians had it in them.