Uber: a taxi service on your smartphone

If you’re looking for a cheap alternative to a hire car on your holidays, especially for city breaks, then Uber could be just what you need. It’s effectively a taxi service that you order directly from an app on your phone.

You’ve probably heard about Uber, because it’s become incredibly popular, and is often in the news. There’s no more trying to find a taxi rank, looking up the phone number of a minicab firm, or waiting outside in long queues.

Uber serves many cities within Europe, including the UK, so you can use Uber at home and abroad. Here is the full list of European cities supported by Uber.

Download Uber for iPhone
Download Uber for Android from the Google Play store

How Uber works
You download the Uber app onto your smartphone, which knows your location. Then you ask the app for a car to pick you up, and tell the app where you want to go.

The price of the journey is calculated within the app, so you know how much you’re going to pay before you get in the car. At peak times prices get more expensive, but off-peak you can get a real bargain.

Payment is also handled within the app (linked to your credit card), so you don’t have to mess around trying to pay the driver in an unfamiliar foreign currency.

The app shows you a map so you can see how far away your car is from you, and when it is likely to arrive.

Uber is very popular, and in our experience in several cities, it works well.

Staying safe
While millions of trips have been successfully completed on Uber, you should take the same sensible precautions as you would when getting into any cab.

Take a look at the Uber trip safety page for more info.

Uber promotional code for a free ride
There are almost always lots of promotional codes for free Uber rides or discounts, because Uber as a company is trying to expand rapidly. The codes change quite often, so just do a Google search for Uber promo codes when you download the app.

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Tips for visiting Christmas markets

Christmas markets are held in many towns and cities between the end of November and a day or two before Christmas. Medieval squares are decorated with Christmas trees and lights, making an enchanting backdrop to the bustling stalls where you can shop for charming gifts and decorations.

Here’s how to get the most out of your pre-Christmas city break:

Book your flight early
Cheap flights to the largest Christmas markets such as Munich, Cologne and Nuremberg sell out quickly, so book early to get the best deals, or check out flights to less well-known markets such as those held in Stuttgart and Hamburg. Price comparison sites such as Kayak and Skyscanner can show you the most competitive prices.

It is often better to book directly with the airline though. For example, easyJet does not allow anyone to sell their flights more cheaply than they do, so just book directly on easyJet.com. The longer you wait before buying your tickets, the more expensive they will be.

Think carefully about whether you need to take a suitcase with you. You will probably only be going away for a few days, so it’s tempting just to take hand luggage, but if you want to bring back lots of souvenirs and presents from the market, make sure you’ve got enough space to carry them home! Because of the need to take lots of warm clothes, it’s probably best to take a suitcase.

You may prefer to travel in an escorted group with a specialist operator: prices are from £299 for a four-day tour by Eurostar of some of the best markets. Google “Christmas market tour” to start researching your options.

Wrap up with layers
Germany can be very cold in winter: the festive markets are all held outdoors, and you will be standing outside for a few hours, so wearing several layers of clothing will help ward off chills. If you’re prone to getting cold feet, take some good thick socks!

Wear sensible shoes
The streets and squares of German towns are often paved with cobblestones that can sometimes be a little slippery. Flat shoes with non-slip soles are the best way to avoid trips and falls.

Sample local delicacies
Give your taste buds a treat when you try the local Christmas delicacies such as mulled cider and stollen, wild boar sausages and decorated cookies. You will be asked to pay a deposit, usually around 2 euros, for a mug of glühwein; you can sometimes then keep the pottery cup as a souvenir (although it’s best to ask!).

Photography
The colour and bustling crowds of Christmas markets offer wonderful opportunities for photographers: the scene really comes to life as darkness falls. Mobile phone cameras often don’t take great pictures when it’s dark, so if you have a digital camera, take it with you when you go out.

Take care of yourself
If you require medication, be sure to pack enough for your visit and keep it with you in your hand luggage. Even on a short break, health insurance is advisable or you could find yourself facing big bills should you be unfortunate enough fall ill.

If you plan on doing some serious eating and drinking – and why not? – then you might want to carry some indigestion tablets with you when you go out to the market!

Other Christmas markets
While we tend to think of Christmas markets as typically German, Krakow in Poland has held markets at Christmastime for centuries. Bruges Christmas market is equally authentic and the city is easily reached by Eurostar. Vienna, a beautiful and atmospheric city, also has a Christmas market.

Riga: a winter wonderland

The fairy-tale medieval city of Riga, in Latvia, makes an intriguing destination for a winter city break, despite the long hours of darkness and the freezing temperatures. There are plenty of interesting things to see and do, and it is much less crowded than during the summer months. Riga is the perfect destination to rediscover the joys of winter.

Things to See and Do in Riga
The tradition of decorating a Christmas tree is believed to originate in Riga, and the Old Town has a ridiculously Christmassy feel from November onwards.

Although Riga only has one Christmas market – held in the main square – it’s a very good one, and is an excellent place to sip mulled wine and buy local handicrafts, such as traditional woollen mittens.

Riga lends itself to exploring on foot. There are a number of free walking tours taking you on historic routes through the Jewish Quarter, the quaint Old Town with its maze-like qualities, and the Art Noveau district – did you know that Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world?

Riga is filled with museums, such as the beautiful Latvian National Museum of Art, the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation, and the Latvian War Museum. The splendid Dome Cathedral is also well worth a visit.

Snow is expected in Latvia every winter, so why not explore the untouched pine forests with a breathtakingly magical horse-drawn sleigh ride? Winter rides can be booked at the Tiraines Stalli farm, on the outskirts of Riga.

Discover Latvia’s Cuisine 
Sample Latvian cuisine at one of Riga’s many restaurants, such as Vincents, which offers delicious gourmet food, and Milda, a popular and friendly restaurant with a traditional menu. Look out for the potato dumplings and the Baltic antipasti.

Weather: What to Expect
In the winter months, Riga’s climate tends to hover around freezing, with highs of 4C (39F), although the wind can easily make it feel a lot colder than that! Cool crisp snowy days are common, although cannot be guaranteed. Wrap up warm!

Where to Stay
The Neiburgs Hotel won the 2016 Travellers’ Choice Awards and is a large modern hotel in the city centre with double rooms from £105 per night. There are numerous hotels offering plenty of off-season bargains, such as the Wellton Centrum and Spa Hotel, with rooms from as little as £56 per night.

Travel apps: weather and travel guides

Modern technology can give us a wealth of up-to-date information about our holiday destination. As Samuel Johnson said, when two English people meet, their first talk is of the weather, so let’s start there. 

WeatherPro covers weather for Europe

Having tried out a few weather apps, the best seems to be WeatherPro. It covers weather for the whole of Europe (and beyond), and gives forecasts for individual towns and cities, or sometimes even different places within the city. Of course, this means it will work at home as well as when you’re on holiday.

You get clear forecasts, broken down hour-by-hour, showing amounts of sun and rain forecast during the hour, which is very useful to plan when you want to do your outdoor activities like going to the beach, and when you want to be inside to avoid the rain.

You also get satellite and radar images, so you can see cloud and rain as they move across the skies, and see whether you think you’re going to avoid the showers!

Forecasts with WeatherPro are usually quite accurate for today and tomorrow, but science hasn’t yet really mastered making predictions beyond this, so no app will be particularly accurate once you get to three days out or more.

WeatherPro costs a few pounds for a yearly subscription, but in our experience it’s an app you will use every day, whether at home or on holiday.

See WeatherPro for iPhone or WeatherPro for Android

Travel guides on Kindle, written by locals

Traditional guidebooks still have their place, and at least the battery can’t run out with a book! But Amazon Kindle (and other similar eReaders) has opened up the world of travel writing to a much wider range of people. 

This means that locals who live in a town or city have started to write their own guidebooks, and sell them through Amazon quite cheaply. Often, you will see the publisher listed as “CreateSpace”, which is an Amazon-owned tool allowing people to publish their own books. This ability to sell their work means that the best writing is often on Amazon through these guides, rather than on free websites. 

The Kindle editions are often quite cheap, and you can keep them on the free Kindle app on your phone, to save them from bulking out your bag.

The self-published guides are often quite different to the Rough Guide, Lonely Planet, and Dorling Kindersley books. They tend to be shorter, and they often focus on some of the less touristy activities that you wouldn’t otherwise find out about. It’s also an interesting window into the culture of the locals, to see how they view the place they call home. 

Amazon tends to hide these guides that are written by locals, preferring to push the books by the big travel publishers, so you have to search around a bit. A search such as “Vienna by local” or “Paris by local” can get some good results though.

A few example guides written by locals: ViennaParisMilan.

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Travel tips: Preparing for an autumn trip to Europe

The autumn months are a good time to visit Europe: queues are shorter, cities are less crowded, and the scenery can be spectacular in its coat of gold and red foliage. Here are a few tips to prepare for travel in autumn:

Check opening times

Outside of larger cities, some tourist destinations either close or reduce their opening hours during the low season. 

Museums, parks, thermal baths and other attractions may not be open all day every day. The same is true for businesses: for instance, many shops and public services in Cyprus and the Greek islands reduce their opening hours from early to mid-October onwards, depending on how busy the resort is.

If you have a particular sight you can’t miss, make sure you check its low season opening hours when planning your trip. Monday seems to be a common day for attractions to be closed.

Take clothes with layers

Even on warm days, evenings can get a little chilly, so layered outfits are a good idea. A light cardigan or jumper doesn’t take up much room and will come in handy when night-time temperatures set in. Since the weather can vary a lot at this time of year, take a mix of lighter and heavier clothing, so you can be prepared.

Preparing for rain

To prepare for rain in advance, look on the internet before you travel, and plan a few activities and places you could go to if it’s raining. Then when you wake up and things look bleak, you won’t have to struggle to find something to do! This is a time of year when a guidebook can be handy. You can download a Kindle version onto your phone if you think you might need it when you’re out and about, or check travel apps like TripAdvisor.

Europe’s hot summer destinations stay mild throughout the autumn, but the weather can be a little unpredictable. For instance, Dubrovnik stays in the high teens and low twenties throughout much of the autumn, but rain showers are common, particularly in November. A light rain jacket or a travel umbrella will take care of any unexpected showers. 

Staying hydrated

Hike through Malta’s hilly countryside in July, and you’ll be very conscious of the bright sun. Walk the same terrain in October, and it won’t be as noticeable, but you’ll still be facing temperatures into the mid-twenties. In milder weather, we can sometimes forget that we still need to remain hydrated. Be sure to take a bottle of water with you when you go out.

Think about the sun

Even though the sun isn’t as strong, if you’re out in it for a long time you can still burn, so be sure to take some suncream with you, just in case.

With the sun being lower in the sky during autumn, you are still likely to need sunglasses, so don’t forget them.

Lower prices, smaller crowds and mild weather make autumn a great time to get away from the grey and visit Europe. With the right preparations, you’ll be enjoying the post-summer sun in no time.

Bavaria beyond the beer: visit Munich for Oktoberfest

As summer draws to a close, many travellers will be looking to snap up a low-season bargain, or make the most of the quieter destinations on the continent, with an early autumn getaway. While a secluded spot can be the perfect tonic for some, others are keen to keep the fun of the summer alive for just a little while longer.

For those firmly in the second camp, there is one attraction that beats them all. It is one of Europe’s most famous cultural attractions. It is – of course – the Oktoberfest.

The Oktoberfest is a month-long celebration of wine, beer, carnival attractions and music held annually in the Bavarian state capital of Munich. The festivities draw visitors from all across the globe and, with more than five million revellers expected to attend in 2016, it is the largest Volksfest in the world. 

But there is more to the Bavarian capital than just the beer and the schweinbraten (Bavarian roast pork). And, while the prices might be a little higher while the festival is running, and the streets a little busier, there really is no better time to visit Munich. There are city-wide amusements to bring in the tourists, and the competition for visitors means there are still plenty of special offers on attractions, accommodation, and dining to provide value for money throughout the month. 

A modern centre for European arts, culture, and sports, Munich is a fascinating city break for visitors wanting to experience the German way of life, and it has something for every taste – from the Deutsches Museum, to the huge ‘BMW World’, to the breathtakingly futuristic Allianz Arena: home to FC Bayern München. If you are planning on taking in several of the city’s cultural landmarks, then a combination pass is available, providing you with access to multiple attractions at a reduced rate.

But Munich is not only a thriving modern metropolis: it is also a city of great history and ancient architecture too. The Munich coat of arms pays tribute to the Benedictine monks who officially established the city in 1158, but Munich has been inhabited for much longer than that. 

A trip into the Old Town district in the centre of modern Munich is your gateway into the town’s long and illustrious history. Marienplatz is a perfect place to begin your journey back in time, with many noteworthy sites found close by. The Gothic splendour of the old town hall, and the imposing presence of its successor – the Neues Rathaus – are nearby tourist favourites, as is Peterskirche, the oldest building in the area, with a magnificent interior.

The good news is that travel to Munich could not be more straightforward for British tourists, even during the festival month. The city’s airport is Germany’s second largest – and one of the busiest in Europe – meaning direct flights are available from a number of cities across the UK. For example, easyJet flies to Munich from Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Manchester, and Edinburgh.

The Bavarian climate will seem incredibly familiar for British tourists, too – meaning hope for an Indian summer, but pack in preparation for a European autumn! Temperatures can reach unseasonable highs of the low to mid 20C (68F), but will typically be far cooler come October. Yet with so many festivities and cultural attractions to enjoy, Munich is one city break that can bring joy all year round.

Staying safe in the sun

Many of us a fully aware that our skin can suffer if it is exposed to excessive amounts of sunshine, something that we often go on holiday in order to find.

Applying sun cream and wearing a sun hat are obvious measures that we can all take when heading to sunnier destinations, but these are not the only things that you should do. The heat from the sun can have more debilitating effects than simply causing sunburn.

Here, we’ll take a look at some points you may not have considered. For more advice, see the NHS Sunscreen and Sun Safety page.

Sunscreen
For some, the only measure they take against the harmful UV rays that the sun throws out is to use a sunscreen, typically when they hit the beach. However, you should try to get into the habit of applying a sun cream before you head out, so that you can make sure your body is fully covered, particularly if you intend getting down to your swimsuit at some point.

Medical advice states that you should apply sunscreen half an hour before going out into the sun. The NHS recommends choosing a sun cream that is rated with at least SPF of 15 and at least four-star UVA rating (five-star cream is available too). Other creams might help, but not provide such strong protection. You should frequently reapply the protection, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Don’t forget that you can also get sunburn when it is cloudy!

If you don’t get on well with sun creams – perhaps you find them sticky or unpleasant – then you can now also get sprays that spray a liquid sunscreen. This can be more pleasant for some people than a cream, but sometimes the sprays are alcohol-based and can dry the skin a little.

Protect your eyes
As well as protecting your skin, it is important to make sure that your eyes are fully safe. Exposure to bright sunshine can lead to problems with your eyes such as cataracts. Therefore, invest in a good pair of sunglasses. Adequate ones will have a CE mark or a UV400 label on them. This way, you can be assured that they offer full UV protection. If you find that you are still squinting, then seek some shade or wear a brimmed hat to help offer your eyes more shelter.

Taking medicines? Take extra care in the sun!
Fair-skinned people, those with freckles or lots of moles, and children need to consider sun protection more than other groups.

However, some routinely taken medicines can also put you at risk. If you are taking a tetracycline, an oral hypoglycaemic drug or a diuretic, for example, take additional care or seek specific medical advice.

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke
To avoid these unpleasant and potentially serious conditions, drink plenty of water and avoid excessive activity in the heat of the midday sun.

For first aid if you suspect these conditions:

  • Lie down in a cool place
  • Remove any unnecessary clothing
  • Cool your skin with wet towels or wet sheets
  • Drink fluids, including water and a rehydration drink
  • Consider getting professional medical attention

It’s useful to take rehydration sachets on holiday: not only will they help if you get heat exhaustion or heatstroke, but if you get a dodgy tummy they can also be useful!

For more detailed advice, see the NHS advice on heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Travel apps: currency conversion and language translation

Let’s start this month with an essential type of app when you’re travelling abroad: a currency converter.

One of the most popular is XE Currency, which is free, and available for iPhone and Android. It gets live exchange rates from the internet when it can, or it uses the last rate it was able to get if you’re offline.

XE Currency for iPhone
XE Currency for Android

Unfortunately, most currency apps give you the exchange rates that banks themselves use, rather than the actual rates you’ll get as a tourist, so after you’ve done the conversion it’s best to think of everything as actually a little bit more expensive than the app is showing you.

The XE Currency app isn’t the easiest app in the world to use when you first get it, but it’s straightforward once you’ve figured it out. (It tries to get you to sign up for an account, but you can click a No Thanks link at the bottom to get rid of that!)

You can then convert euros to pounds, pounds to euros, or whatever else you fancy.

The app can also show you a currency chart of the pound vs. the euro, so you can guess whether the exchange rate is about to get better or worse! (Let’s not kid ourselves here, it’s a guess!)

When you’re abroad, here’s a tip to avoid extortionate data roaming fees. Load up your currency converter app when you’re in your hotel on wi-fi, let it get the latest exchange rates, then set your phone to aeroplane mode and use those exchange rates while you’re out and about for the day.

If you’re on the iPhone and you want a slightly simpler and easier to use currency converter app, try Currency.

Google Translate – foreign language translation
Moving on to look at another essential app, you don’t want to be without Google Translate. It’s free for iPhone or Android, and covers all the European languages you are likely to encounter.

Google Translate for iPhone
Google Translate for Android

The most common and useful way to use the app is to type in a word or a short phrase in the foreign language and have it converted to English. This is useful for reading signs and menus.

If you click the speaker icon, the app will pronounce foreign words to you, which can be very useful. Although it uses a computer-generated voice rather than recordings of real people, it’s still quite an accurate guide.

You can even hover your camera over a word, and the app will read the foreign text and translate it to English. At least, in theory you can do that – in practice this doesn’t usually work very reliably! But give it time, and it will get better; when it does work it’s pretty impressive though.

Since you will probably need to use Google Translate in places where you don’t have internet signal, you can go to the settings in the app and download a language. So if you’re going to Germany you can download the German language when you’ve got wi-fi, and then the app will still work when your phone isn’t connected to the internet.

Be safe – insure your gadgets
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Granada: a city overflowing with history

If Spain means more to you than just sun-soaked beaches, don’t miss the chance to visit the beautiful inland city of Granada. Nestling at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Granada makes a superb centre for a city break.

What to see in Granada
Everyone will tell you that you must visit the Alhambra – and everyone is absolutely right. You can spend hours at this astonishing medieval palace complex without seeing everything.

Built by the Moors in the early 14th century, the UNESCO World Heritage Site contains both extraordinarily intricate architecture, and stunning gardens added by later Christian rulers.

The city’s Moorish heritage is also on display in the Albayzin quarter, a short taxi ride from the Alhambra and among the oldest parts of Granada. The magnificent Renaissance cathedral was added after southern Spain’s return to Christian rule in 1492, and it towers over the winding lanes that thread their way through this intriguing district.

Culture and cuisine
Granada’s patron saint is celebrated on the last Sunday in September. Processions and festivals abound, while churches are decorated with large displays of flowers brought by the faithful.

On a different note, the Casa del Arte Flamenco regularly hosts superb performances by this traditional Spanish dance’s finest exponents.

If all that makes you hungry, enjoy Andalusian dishes such as gazpacho soup, enlivened by the use of garlic, pepper and other spices befitting the city’s Arab heritage. Alternatively, visit a Moorish-style tea room such as Teteria y Restaurante Marrakech and relax in splendour while tea is served from silver pots.

Where to stay
Despite Granada’s wealth of attractions, there are bargains to be found. The Palacio de Santa Ines, as palatial as its name suggests and a stone’s throw from the Alhambra, charges around £90 a night in mid-October.

Slightly further out, the Room Mate Leo costs around £80 a night and is renowned for its helpful staff; some rooms have private terraces, from which there are breathtaking views across the city.

Discover the hidden treasures of Majorca

With its beautiful beaches, crystal clear waters, and an agreeable year-round climate, it should come as no surprise that Majorca is Spain’s most popular island destination for tourists and sightseers of all ages.

Yet, over the years, this paradise in the Mediterranean gained a reputation for hosting some of the more raucous holidaymakers that head to the Med for a fortnight of sun, sea and sangria within the confines of the island’s many resorts.

But beneath the popular image of party towns and package holidays, there is another side to Majorca that is waiting to be discovered by the more adventurous visitor.

Natural beauty
It is an island of extreme natural beauty, ancient culture and monuments, and a calm, peaceful approach to life. It is, for this reason, that one of Europe’s top destinations is also something of a hidden treasure: Majorca is the perfect tonic for holidaymakers seeking relaxation by the sea.

The island has no shortage of spectacular sites and memorable landmarks to make this a holiday of a lifetime. The 550km of coastline is punctuated at regular intervals by rustic fishing villages and picturesque coves.

Three places worth a visit
To the very north of the island lies Alcudia, one of the island’s most attractive stretches of water. With its broad beach and clean, shallow waters, the bay makes for one of Majorca’s most popular seaside destinations. The area provides typical resort facilities, as well as water sports for those seeking an action-packed holiday experience.

However, the coastline is most popular for its tranquillity. Inland, you will take a trip back in time, walking among the ruins of ancient Pollentia, once the Roman capital city of the Balearics. This uniquely atmospheric location is irresistible for any visitor seeking an insight into the island’s long and distinguished history.

In the south, a short journey along the coastline from the famous resort town of Magaluf brings the promise of another of the island’s great cultural destinations: Palma de Mallorca. The gothic cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma (known locally as La Seu) dominates the skyline, and is a beautiful attraction both during the day and at night.

Great value for money
More than four decades ago, it was the affordable luxury of this island economy which helped to establish Majorca as a tourism hotspot. Today, while the costs are generally above the average of mainland Spain, the island continues to represent fantastic value for money, thanks to the high quality of services.

Look beyond the resort towns and the primary attractions, and the intrepid explorer will discover hospitality, accommodation, and local cuisine that all rank among the best in Europe.