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Notes on Traveling (after Baltic trip)

I have posted a series of trip reports on our trip to the Baltic States in August 2017. There were separate threads on Tallinn, Riga, Riga-to-Vilnius, and Vilnius. This thread is a collection of notes about our practices while traveling. There are few points specific to the Baltics, but most apply to any trip we take. I hope it gives you some ideas.

Language

The languages in the three Baltic countries are very different from English and from one another. Estonian is more like Finnish, while Lithuanian is more like Polish. I don’t have a good comparison for Latvian—logically, it would be more like Russian. They differ in sentence structure, gender, suffixes, and the use (or not) of definite and indefinite articles. If you are an English speaker, you won’t find many cognates, except for recent borrowings. Fortunately, English is the second language for many people (sometimes, third, after Russian), at least in the capitals. We did run into a few people who knew the words for prices but not much else. Our greatest difficulty was in an Italian restaurant! Out on the street, it’s best to memorize the series of letters in the names you are looking for. You can mentally make up whatever pronunciation that helps you recognize them.

Money

All three countries are in the Euro zone, which simplifies exchange. We always keep a cash reserve of $200 each in U.S. currency, but we’ve never needed to use it. We rely on ATMs for cash in Euros. On this trip, we visited ATMs only twice: upon arriving and in Riga (where I lost my card). We came home with a few Euros left over (to be spent on the next trip).

Most of our purchases were with a credit card. We ran into few vendors that did not take it. Indeed, we had trouble spending the 50 Euro notes that came in the mix provided by the ATMs. Most sellers didn’t want them, because they couldn’t make change.

We have not paid attention to getting the best exchange rate or avoiding fees. We weren’t on a tight budget, and that was a complication we could afford to ignore.

Transportation and Navigation

We prefer to use public transportation as much as possible. Our preferred method of getting around is walking. We walk 10 miles or more per day. For longer distances, our preferences are: rail, bus, taxi, and (way down there) driving ourselves. We haven’t driven on vacation in about ten years. We don’t even consider Uber or similar services and have never learned how to use them.
Our big exception to public transportation on this trip was the taxi tour from Riga to Vilnius. We did that because there was no other practical way to visit Žagarė. (It had the bonus of allowing us to visit Rundale and Tērvete.) We also made a similar exception in the taxi ride to the airport on the way home.

We navigate by means of paper maps while walking around. We start with the ones in the guidebooks. Those are good enough to get us to the Tourist Information office, where we can usually get a better one. Paper maps allow us to see more of the area at once, compared with the view on a phone. We also see more of our surroundings, because we’re not walking around looking at a screen. Maybe we get lost more often—but that is part of the adventure.

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Photography

We both carry point-and-shoot cameras that were high-end models when they were bought, about ten years ago. We have avoided DSLRs to reduce the amount of equipment we have to carry—lenses in particular. My camera is a Nikon Coolpix P100, which has more capabilities than Fran’s Canon Powershot SX130 IS, but it’s a little bulkier. I carry it in a case hung from my belt, while Fran can fit hers in her purse.

I take a lot of pictures. Sometimes I must remind myself to stop and just look at things. Fran takes fewer (but better) pictures. She takes more care and waits until people are out of the frame.
My typical camera setting is to use the programmed auto, which is set to shoot in three-shot bursts, bracketing the F-stop by one on each side. In situations with a lot of contrast, I will take two such bursts, locking the exposure on the brighter or darker parts before composing the shot. I have the ISO set to automatically compensate for dark or bright conditions. In low-light conditions (such as in a museum), I use shutter priority mode. I almost never use a flash or a tripod. When I get home from a trip, I spend months going through my photos and doing HDR merges of the three-shot bursts.

In addition to the two main cameras, I have a tiny Nikon Coolpix S3700. I carry this camera almost all the time even when I’m not on vacation, just in case an opportunity for a good photo presents itself. It is very basic, but it’s small enough to fit in a pocket. It also has WIFI, which means I can upload photos to a smartphone if I want to share them during the trip (which I seldom do). It also came in handy when the batteries in one of our main cameras ran out in the middle of the day.
We don’t take selfies. We don’t take pictures of our food. We don’t take forced perspective pictures. The pictures we take of each other are most often in cafes or pictures of the other person taking pictures.

Luggage

We each take a small roller bag and a small backpack. The roller bags travel as checked baggage, while the backpacks go in the overhead bins. The backpacks hold our cameras, a change of clothes, our documents, anything we’ll need on the plane, and anything we want to have as soon as we arrive. I also have a small over-the-shoulder bag, in cross-section about the same as a letter-size sheet of paper. It has lots of pockets and divisions. I use it as my under-seat item on the plane to hold books, a tablet, and papers. After arriving I us it for maps, guidebook, and whatever we need just for the day.

Clothing

We aim for a “nice casual” look. We don’t plan to attend any functions that require men to wear coats and ties, with the equivalent for women. At the same time, we want to be able to walk into a nice restaurant or to be respectful in a church or memorial. That means no shorts. I pack a mixture of better-looking jeans, cargo pants, and slacks. For shirts, I go with polos or casual button-ups (no T-shirts). For outerwear, we bring light raincoats and sweaters. We can wear both if it gets cold. I like to wear hats, but I need to fit them in my luggage. That means a flat cap and a fisherman. I have a pair of leather walking shoes that don’t look like trainers. I also have a pair of leather loafers to make it easier to get through airport security. They work fine for walking in on dry days.

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Other Gear

A few other things we carry on our trips:

  • Binoculars: I have a compact pair of binoculars that fit into a belt pouch. I use it from time to time while sight-seeing. It also comes in handy for reading street signs. In European cities, such signs are usually attached to the sides of buildings, often only one per corner. If I am on the opposite side of the street, I sometimes use the binoculars to see where I am.
  • Pedometer: I always carry a pedometer when I’m out walking, even if I’m not traveling. Mine is pretty simple, with no computer or phone interface. It does remember the step total for each of the past seven days, and it can translate steps into distance, based on the length of my stride.
  • Tablet: I have a small, inexpensive WiFi-only tablet. It gives me access to the internet in hotels and airports, and the memory card is filled with music I like for listening on the plane. It’s inexpensive enough that if it were to be lost or damaged, it wouldn’t be much of a loss.
  • GPS: I have carried a dedicated GPS device on our trips for use in an emergency, when we get so lost that we can’t find our way using paper maps. I haven’t needed it in about three years. With the improvements in smartphones, I may dispense with this in the future.
  • Chargers and adapters: Gadgets need to be charged. Our cameras use removeable batteries, for which we have spares. We have chargers that we can use overnight or when we are out during the day, so that we always have fresh batteries on hand. The tablet, phone, and GPS all use USB-type charging (each with a different cable, of course!). We take along multi-socket AC adapters so that we can charge everything, even when the hotel room has few spare outlets. Of course, we need to bring the appropriate plug adapters for the countries we are visiting. Fortunately, must modern electronic gear can handle different voltages, and so we don’t need to bring transformers.
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  • Smartphone: I am not a heavy user of cellphones. When I’m not traveling, my phone stays turned off and plugged in at home almost all the time. However, mobile phones have become so ubiquitous that one can no longer count on finding a phone when you need one. Indeed, some hotels no longer have phones in the rooms. Thus, we do carry smartphones in case we need to make calls. We do not post pictures and bulletins to social media while on trips. Still less do we check our work email. The whole purpose of a vacation is to get away from all that. Some other uses for phones:

o Alarm clock: Another appliance you can’t count on finding in your lodging anymore is a clock. Without a house phone, there is no way to request a wake-up call.

o Bus and train schedules: If you’re in a station or at a bus stop, it can be comforting to know when the next ride is due to arrive.

o Translator: This doesn’t work very well, but we have used it to translate signs and museum labels. In principle, one could use it to moderate a conversation with someone who didn’t have a common language with you, but I think that would be very awkward.

o Camera: It’s a matter of last resort, but if we are traveling light we can still use the phone to take the odd photo or video.

  • Notebook: Last, but certainly not least, is a small notebook. I don’t mean an underpowered laptop computer—I mean a real paper book to take notes in. The kind I like is about the size of a checkbook (if you remember what those look like), but in “portrait” orientation. It’s really the best object for recording information on the go. This narration was built from short phrases that wrote during the trip. These helped me to remember what we did each day. I always set aside one page to record purchases. This make it easier to fill out the customs declaration form when we return.
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Thanks for posting these details. Which guidebooks did you use?

I have one more use for your cell phones - pedometers! If you have a Samsung, it's built in as the S-Health app. I don't know how it works on other Android or Apple phones, but they can certainly act as pedometers too.

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Thanks for some very interesting and enlightening details in this report. I don't use technology at all in traveling, relying on paper maps, etc. Going to Lithuania is one of the travel destinations.

Under the Indo-European languages the Baltic langauges, ie Latvian and Lithuanian have their own sub-group like Romance (Spanish French, It., Port, etc), Slavic (Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, etc).

Latvian and Lithuanian belong to the "Baltic" sub-group.

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Thanks for another very informative post. I enjoyed reading all of the posts on your Baltic trip. My smart phone is my pedometer, alarm clock, GPS device, map, translator, bus/train schedule, speedometer, and camera. :) It's also often my train ticket, too.

Happy travels! Thanks for sharing so much about this trip!

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Thanks, Dav. This is very useful information. Great post.

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Harold, the books we used are Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and Eyewitness Travel. Rick's doesn't cover Latvia or Lithuania, although we did use it for Estonia.

Yes, I do have a pedometer app for my phone. One of my pocket watches also has that function. So I'm pretty well covered.

Glad you found this useful.

--Dav

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I am familiar with the Rough Guide The Baltic Countries ...very informative, loaded with pertinent and useful information, maps, historical background, etc, especially as it applies to Lithuania, my main interest in that region. Prior to 1914 Tallinn was known as Reval.