Milestone Achieved: Fifty Countries!

In honor of my impending 45th birthday, I decided to gift myself a travel milestone. My criteria required to select two countries I hadn’t been to that were close enough to each other to fit within a 10-day vacation so that at the end, I could finally say that I’d been to 50 countries. It was fitting that I chose Liechtenstein to hold that honor. Many people probably haven’t heard of it, much less pronounce it, but this principality is known to fellow stamp collectors and is one of the world’s tiniest sovereign nations. While it’s in the middle of Europe, it’s tucked away in the mountains between Switzerland and Austria and has only about 30,000 residents. I’m a sucker for places that most people bypass because I tend to find those places the most memorable in the long run. So, I decided to spend two days in the little country and mapped out a roughly circular route from Zurich to Stuttgart to Liechtenstein and back to Switzerland using Rome to Rio and Google Maps. Naturally, it was a blast! So, how did I do it?

Before I settled on a destination, I perused maps and did sample flight searches on Google Flights, Kayak and Skyscanner. There are other flight searching sites, like Momondo, but I think Google Flights is my favorite because you can view months at a time and test out several different options and even change the destination fairly quickly. However, for this trip, I also happened to receive an email from Scott’s Cheap Flights and as fate would have it, found a flight to Zurich. My geography degree didn’t go to waste immediately pinpointing Switzerland and its little neighbor, fulfilling the required two countries I’d never been to. The next step was to book the flight directly on Priceline. Normally, this is not my preference, but having searched flights on Kayak, I knew from the departure times that I’d likely be flying Air France or Delta.

This trip fell in the “easy country” category because it’s Europe, but I still needed to research things like the weather, what type of electrical plugs they use, and approximate costs. Switzerland is known to be one of the world’s most expensive countries, which meant that I Couchsurfed for a night in Zurich, used BlaBlaCar to book a seat in a car to Stuttgart and stayed two nights in a relatively cheap hotel near the city center using Booking.com. I used Airbnb in Liechtenstein and then based myself in a hostel in downtown Lucerne for all but the final night of my trip, where I splurged for a nice hotel across the street from the FIFA Museum in Zurich ($100, which is the high end for me, but this was a last minute deal I found on Hotels.com). Zurich is well connected, so I was able to take the train from and to the airport and then a tram to get to where I stayed. I do love to walk a lot, especially when traveling, so no expensive taxis on this trip.

I lucked out by having a friend in Stuttgart to give me recommendations, and having an extremely knowledgeable and helpful host in Liechtenstein, who even drew me a map of Feldkirch, Austria and how to find a store to get a new backpack (did I mention that the airline lost my bag? I was traveling for a few days using grocery bags). I also got a ride from the head brewer at the Liechtensteiner Brauhaus, since he lived near where my Airbnb was. The Lucerne hostel was my least favorite because it was crowded and my dorm bed was a top bunk with low ceilings, which was an inconvenience for everyone when I had to make repeated trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Aside from the initial flight, the Couchsurfer in Zurich confirmed, and my Airbnb in Liechtenstein, everything else was planned/booked in-country on the fly. The timing was conducive to that, as it really was “shoulder season” before ski season started, so there weren’t quite as many tourists and therefore more availability. I also got a deal at Mt. Titlis, which is normally over 100 euros, but only cost me 65 the day I visited. The website didn’t even mention that discount, so it was a pleasant surprise.

I could easily go on and on, but my point is that it was a great trip, despite the luggage situation and a case of me overeating rich food and paying for it the next day. The airline eventually returned my bag after I had been home for a week and a half, reimbursed me for all of my clothing and related purchases, and gave me a $250 travel voucher. All’s well that ends well, and I re-learned that I really didn’t need that much to begin with.

I may have hit fifty countries, but I’m always still learning. Here are some lessons learned on this trip:

  • Don’t worry about lost luggage. Most airlines will reimburse you as much as $100 per day for each day the luggage was not delivered. Just keep all your receipts and be sure that the purchases are reasonable and necessary. I had to fill out paperwork and follow up, but the end result was a net gain for sure.
  • I’m not 25 anymore. I took a day trip to Bern from Lucerne and one of my planned stops was a brewery. As I typically do in the States, I ordered a sampler of their beers. They put five full beers in front of me…and of course, I drank them all. The next night in Lucerne I had a very delicious, but extremely rich (lots of cheese and cream) dish. I was up all night with horrendous indigestion.
  • Black Friday exists in Switzerland. Most shops were advertising “Black Days” or Black Friday deals for about three days. This was perfect timing for me to go shopping, since I needed clothes anyway. I wish I’d bought more, because the clothes are some of my favorites still today.
  • Charles DeGaulle Airport is a disappointment. Aside from macaron shops, there were very few places to eat or even shop, which surprised me for a city like Paris. I had a five hour layover, so most of the time I spent getting my steps in just walking around.
  • Pay attention to the fare zones when buying Swiss rail tickets. I almost purchased the wrong zone when buying my round trip ticket to Engelberg. The electronic kiosks are a bit confusing, and it was too early in the morning for the information desk to be open. The good news is that there are English options, and it takes careful reading to make sure you are getting what you want. The ticket I got was good for an entire zone, which meant that instead of a single return ticket to Engelberg, I could go anywhere within that fare zone during the specified time. On my trip back to Lucerne, I hopped off the train in a little town called Stans, and it so happened that they were filming a popular TV show in the main square, and there were food and drink stalls set up all over. Who knows, maybe I had a cameo and didn’t know it.

Pro Tips:

  • Stuttgart, Germany: Ascend to the top of the clock tower in the train station for a view of the city. There is fencing around the perimeter for safety, but it is covered with “locks of love” and makes for some cool photo ops. A revolving Mercedes-Benz logo whirls above. Speaking of Mercedes, be sure to go to the fantastic museum before you leave town.
  • Vaduz, Liechtenstein: If you plan to spend a day or more in the countryLiechtenstein_MuseumsUndErlebnispass_21-22Nov2017 copy, you must get the “Museums und Erlebnispass”. They have one- and two-day passes that include just about everything in the country with an admission charge as well as the wonderfully efficient bus system, and a few other perks like a free coffee and a wine tasting. I bought the two-day pass for only 29 euros and it more than paid for itself.
  • Lucerne, Switzerland: For a spectacular view without the price tag, head up to the Château Gütsch and order a tea and behold the beautiful city below.

 

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