Essen-time comes ever nearer – I leave in a mere 22 days for Europe… A few people have asked me how I get ready for the trip, and this seemed like a decent topic for the blog as well. There are so many things to consider when going to Essen, so I’m sure that this list isn’t exhaustive, but these are the things I’m thinking about this week
Travel – I generally fly into Duesseldorf (DUS). This is the closest major airport to Essen. When I arrive, it’s a short train into the Essen HBF and with my ticket, I can jump directly onto the Underground (U-Bahn) to get to the Messe. The ticket machines are found right by the train tracks at the airport station, and they will display in English, so it should be easy to navigate. Make sure you have cash. The machines will take chip-and-pin cards for sure, but I’ve only had moderate success with them taking non-chipped credit cards. There is a travel desk there where you can pay a slight upcharge to have a person sell you a ticket – but they will be able to process your credit card if you have no Euros. On the way back, we usually just get a taxi. First, our flight often leaves so early that I’m never sure if the trains are running yet… but more importantly, with 2 large bags, carry on and personal item per person – we’ve just never really been too excited about hauling that on foot to the U-Bahn, up the steps to the S-Bahn at the HBF and then onto the train to the airport and then to the check in desk. It’s not cheap, usually somewhere between 40-60 EUR, but it’s the only way I can figure out how to get all my stuff to the airport without wrenching my back is the taxi. We usually need to ask for a Kombi taxi – that is either a station wagon and an SUV-like vehicle given that the two Brothers Yu often have 4 large pieces of luggage, 2 carry ons and 2 backpacks. Try fitting that into the trunk of a European sedan!
Hotel – my personal preference is to stay within walking distance of the Messe. There are probably 8-10 hotels that fit this criteria, but of course YMMV. I prefer to be close because I can run back to the room quickly to get something or to drop off games or whatever. The HBF or main train station is 4 or 5 U-Bahn stops away, so you could also stay in the city center and only be a ~10 minutes away each direction. Booking.com still shows plenty of availability in the center of town. I prefer hotels with free breakfast, but that can really drive up the price of the room – some of these German hotels charge and arm and a leg for breakfast. Last year, I think the Atlantic Congress was charging 23 EUR each morning for the meal.
Money – you pretty much need cash at the fair. There are only one or two vendors who are set up for credit cards with traditional terminals, and there are a small but growing number of people who will have Square or PayPal swipers in their iPhones – but by and large, you’re going to need euros to buy stuff. I prefer to get my cash from the ATMs – my bank card works in Europe, and I pay about a 3 to 3.5% commission. The only downside is that I’m limited to $520ish per day. But, since I arrive early to Europe, I just take out money for the first day or two to give me a cushion and then I can simply go when I need afterwards. Also, don’t forget to both save your change and spend it. With the 1EUR and 2EUR coins, it’s not uncommon for me to be carrying around 15-20 EUR in change. While it’s nice to have, I try to spend most of it along the way, saving just enough for train ticket machines, etc. You can still use your credit cards at the hotel, most restaurants and the larger department stores. After 15 years of traveling to Germany, I’m still not 100% sure of what the “right” amount is to tip a server, so I just continue to fake it by usually rounding up to the nearest 5 EUR. This is surprisingly easy when paying cash, you can just ask for the desired amount back. I tend not to leave a tip on the table because I’ve never seen a European do that.
Luggage – I travel with 2 bags, a 31” traditional rectangular bag with spinner wheels and a large non-descript foot-locker shaped duffel bag. The duffel bag is the maximum 62 linear inches allowed and only weighs 3.5 lbs. That leaves me 46.5 pounds for games! This bag is empty on the way over and is tucked into my regular bag. (The regular bag is lightweight, about 12 lbs. empty) This way, I don’t have to pay for the second bag on the way over. Coming home, both bags are stuffed full of games and whatever clothes I brought. I would highly recommend a luggage scale to maximize the weight back. I also have a regular wheeled carry-on and a backpack which is my personal item. Most of my clothes would fit in just my backpack (it’s a big 45L backpack), so that leaves me plenty of room for games. I also try to save room with my spare pair of shoes. I like to have 2 sets of shoes in case one gets wet or muddy or whatever, but I bring an old beat up pair; usually one that is dead from a year of platform tennis. I simply leave them behind so that they don’t take up space on the way back. I’ve also been known to travel with a Scott-e-vest jacket that has tons of pockets, excellent for stashing away decks of cards, baggies of bits, etc.
Games – so, I come back with a lot of games. Last year, it was over 70. It’s hard to do that with the current weight restrictions of 50lbs per bag. There are a few tricks that can help increase your cargo capacity. First, if you have time, punch all your games and then throw out the sprues as well as rulebooks in languages that you don’t read. One year, this saved me over 20 pounds. I also bring large Ziploc bags to store all the bits to a game. I usually don’t worry about optimal bagging just yet – I just don’t want to lose anything. I will then try to nest boxes where possible to get as many into my bags as I can, and then fill the boxes with the baggies full of bits. Another great way to save weight is to take out all of the boards and pack my carry on top to bottom with those boards. There is theoretically a weight limit on carryons, but I have yet to be called on that. Last year, my poor little carryon weighed 42 or 43 pounds. I just try to be careful not to drop it with a thud onto the scanner belt when going thru security.
As far as playing games goes, you’ll have to find your own style. I tend to play almost no games at the fair itself. With over 800 new games this year, there’s not time to play them all! I try to get a feel for them by getting short demos or watching others play a round, but I am generally not going to spend 60-120 minutes learning a new game there to make up my mind about it. I will try to play games at night in the hotel – though in order for this to happen, one of us needs to have already acquired it!
Food – if your hotel offers it, free breakfast is a great way to make it through most of the day. In the past two years, I have generated a pretty good love affair with the spiral sliced fried potatoes, and I make a stop just about every day for one – but I know plenty of people who just eat 2 or 3 German breakfast deli meat sandwiches and plow thru the whole day. There are snack stands at the fair where you can get a bratwurst for 2,50 EUR as well as a bunch of food truck like stuff in the Galeria. After the fair, there are maybe 50 restaurants within walking distance of the Messe and gobs of stuff downtown near the HBF. My group often strays towards Doner, Pizza or Doner Pizza. Yum. Being Europe, it would not be out of the realm of possibility to spend 40 EUR on dinner and drinks (don’t forget that you’re likely paying even for your water)… but depending on your tastes, 20 EUR/day is more than do-able as well. The other thing that I will always indulge in is the German ice cream (Eis). It’s close to an Italian gelato, but yet not quite the same. You can find them all over the place. Being German, they are extremely efficient. If you order one scoop, you get a small cone. If you order 3-4 scoops, you now get a larger cone that will hold more scoops, etc… Only in Germany!
Clothes – I pack super light and in layers. It’s fairly cool in Germany in October, though as the dates get earlier and earlier, I’m expecting temps in the 20s now… usually for me, it’s a bag full of Bengals jerseys, long sleeve t-shirts underneath, 2 pairs of jeans, 2 pairs of shoes (one that will get left behind), and then an appropriate number of smalls. I still make a checklist after coming over to Germany one year with only one pair of socks (the ones I wore on the plane). Yes, I know that Germany makes and sells socks, but it’s kind of a pain to have to go out looking for them!
Electronics – I travel with 3 things. 1) My netbook – currently an Asus Transformer – which can be both a laptop and a tablet. I download all my rulesets via Dropbox onto this computer, and will use it to read rules on the plane. With the keyboard attached, I’ll try to write stuff for the blog at night. 2) My Kindle. I don’t go anywhere without the kindle. My travel Kindle is an old-school v2 Kindle which still has free worldwide 3G Whispernet service. It’s slower than dirt, but it’s a nice emergency web browser. 3) A phone. Well, this year, 2 phones. Verizon is a ripoff using abroad, so I carry my regular phone with me, but it essentially is turned off once I leave the US. I also have an unlocked 4G Amazon Fire phone – which is admittedly a real POS – but it works in Europe with a pre-paid sim card. I’ll likely buy a new card on my first day there, and pay for the most basic one month service (usually 10-20 EUR) – possibly a SIM that is Internet only. That will cover me for internet/texts for the whole week. It also gives me an emergency phone in case I need it, though that’s unlikely. I’ll use Google Chats or Skype to talk to the family back home using the hotel WiFi. Don’t count on free WiFi in Europe like you’d get here in the States. Free hotspots are rare IMHO other than Starbucks. I have stopped bringing a separate camera – i just use my phone(s) for that now.
Travel documents – I put copies of my passport and credit cards (and anything else in my travel wallet) on my desk at home so that if I lose my stuff, it’s easy for me (or my wife) to call and cancel things, etc. I also pack my Passport card with me in my wallet – I know it’s not valid like my real passport for European travel, but I’d hope that it would help prove citizenship and expedite a new passport were that to be needed. Of note, I keep a Capital One card in my travel wallet just for these trips as their credit cards have no international transaction fees. That 3-5% savings adds up, esp when the hotel bills can be 150-170 EUR/night!
Game Research – I do lots of reading (and writing) prior to each show. In general, I rely on three sources – 1 ) W. Eric Martin’s epic BGG preview on Boardgamegeek.com, 2) the new games list on spielbox.de, 3) lots of personal contacts, many of whom I pester with emails asking for info. By far, the majority of stuff comes from BGG. I scour the list and make a database with the games I’m interested in. I will download any rulesets that are available and place them in a Dropbox folder. That way, no matter which device I’m on – my computer at home or work, my phone, my tablet, etc – I can access them and read them when I have free time. As of 9/11, I have 82 Essen 2015 Rulebooks in the directory, about 40 of them have been read already – but I’m sure that many more will be posted to BGG soon, so it’s a never ending quest to read about all the new games!
I think that’s it for now… If I think of more, I’ll amend this or add it to next year’s piece on preparations!
Gotta go start packing