Visa-free travel by the numbers

Visa-free travel is easy travel. Procuring visas takes time, energy, and money, and is beyond debate a pain for frequent travelers. The erection of visa barriers responds to a number of factors, though it can be said without too many qualifications that the citizens of rich countries tend to have a much easier time accessing the world visa-free than do the citizens of poor countries.

The Henley Visa Restrictions Index Global Ranking 2011, excerpted in the Economist last week, was just published by Henley & Partners, an international law firm specializing in “international residence and citizenship planning.” Henley & Partners divide the world into 223 countries and territories.

And who gets to travel with few visa restrictions? The best citizenships for visa-free travel belong to nationals of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, at 173 apiece. On their Nordic heels is Germany at 172 and a mess of countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, United Kingdom) at 171. The United States isn’t too far down the list, tied in fifth place with Ireland at 169. The US comes in ahead of Switzerland (167), Canada (164), New Zealand (166), and Australia (166).

Some of the least lucky countries, according to the Henley Visa Restrictions Index survey: India (53), China (40), Iran (36), Lebanon (33), and Afghanistan (24).

[Image: Flickr | megoizzy]

Echternach, Luxembourg: Non-stop quirks in the Grand Duchy

I recently found myself entangled in a linguistic chess match with a Luxembourg waitress.

On a morning stroll of the cobbled avenue that comprises the city of Echternach’s main thoroughfare, the sight of white foam cresting over frosty, oversized beer steins unintentionally drew me to a corner table of an outdoor café. Though a mere 90 minutes had passed since finishing my morning coffee, the lust for some local imbibing had suddenly trumped my desire to explore.

As the blonde waitress casually approached my corner table, I mentally prepared myself for the verbal jigsaw puzzle Luxembourg frequently forced me to construct. Anxiously eying her smiling young face, something about her leisurely stride tipped the scales towards going with French. I decided to strike first.

“Bonjour”, I offered, my American accent completely butchering the romance of it.

“Gutentag”, she shot back, her blonde curls bouncing as she took the final step.

Ugh. German Not my strong suit.

“Gutentag. Bitte ein bier” I countered. (Everyone at least learns how to ask for a beer).

“Oui, une bière” came the half-expected French reply.

She was catering to me. I was catering to her. We had danced a full circle.

Before I could internally translate my next thought, however, I was unexpectedly struck by a hailstorm of guttural syllables. Luxembourgish: a language I didn’t even know existed until I had entered the country three days prior.

“Big”, I sheepishly guessed, my reply in English. We had finally succumbed to our Mother tongues.

“Oui”, she giggled, her blonde locks dancing off in the direction of my incoming beer.And so begins another day in Echternach, a city of 4500 people on the banks of Luxembourg’s Sauer River. Officially, Luxembourg is the world’s only Grand Duchy, though I’m still unsure exactly what that entails. From the marked difference between the opposing banks of the Sauer River, I’m guessing it has something to do with acting remarkably aristocratic. On the other side of the Sauer lies Germany, its riverbank populated by large trailer parks and dingy flea markets. Here on the Echternach side of things, however, there are manicured walking trails and sprawling historical gardens. I figure the difference must have to do with the Duchy.

During World War II, American troops stormed across this river in the epic fight that would become the Battle of the Bulge. A monument to their bravery stills stands outside of town today. A few kilometers from that monument rises the Abbey of Echternach, a massive concrete sanctuary constructed by the English monk St. Willibrord in 698 AD, thereby making Echternach the oldest city in one of the world’s smallest countries.

In perfectly quirky Luxembourgish fashion, for the last 500 years the Echternach dancing procession has taken place each Tuesday after Whit Sunday in the large square fronting the Abbey, though no one knows exactly why they are dancing. A curious celebration that features pairs of strangely clad Luxembourgish civilians hopping and clapping their way down the cobbled streets, the dance is officially recognized on the “UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity“.

When not filled with poofy-shirted dancers, an alarming amount of bars and outdoor cafes spring from the town’s two main streets, though this should come as little surprise seeing as the Luxembourgish population potentially consumes more alcohol per capita than any country on the planet. Wedged between the vineyards of France, the Traapist beers of Belgium, and the Oktoberfest mindset of Germany, there really is little room to blame them.

More than a city of dancing and drinking (though really, what else is there?), Echternhach is also regarded as being one of the best places in Luxembourg to embark on the Mullerthal Trail. Tracing the wooded hills for 110km through Luxembourg’s Mullerthal region, the trail passes a number of natural sights that are potentially more fun to say out loud than they are to look at. Places with names like Schnellert (a forest), Schiessentumpel (a waterfall), and Wolfsschlucht (a dramatic stone canyon known as the “Wolves’ Den”), spring up along the trail, all of them part of the remarkably scenic and comprehensive network of trails that criss-cross the forests of the Grand Duchy.

Back at my corner table, a curious clamor in the distance draws my attention away from perusing a pocket map of the Duchy. Cheerily in the midst of draining my second Belgian import, a rogue troop of nearly 30 local children are now marching down the main street beating a variety of drumsticks together in a mal-rhythmic terror. There are no words to accompany their impromptu march, just the clashing of wood on wood and little footsteps moving out of synch across the cobblestone. The blonde waitress shoots me a glance that she has no idea what’s going on either. It seems no one knows, yet oddly, no one seems to care. This is just another morning in Echternach, medieval Luxembourgish city of incessant curiosities.

Mastering the culinary experience on Benelux trains

Hitting the rails around Europe can be a blast, and I particularly enjoyed it in the so-called “Benelux” countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg). The scenery in the Netherlands was a bit thin, but the Belgian towns were incredibly cute, and it was fun to watch the Dutch signs yield to French as we approached the Luxembourg border.

And let’s face it: any alternative to air travel is a welcome one.

While the trains were a bit slow, they did offer plenty of space, and the ride was comfortable. The only downside was dining: some had a cart that was pushed around periodically, but that was the best available. In other cases, there was nothing at all.

So, if you’re going to hop the train to places like Amsterdam, Bruges, Brussels and Luxembourg, you’re going to want to pack your own grub. You can always pick something up at the train station, but packaged sandwiches and snacks pale in comparison to what you can accomplish with a little planning.

You can do better!

Below, you’ll find tips for giving yourself a better dining experience when you ride through Benelux:

%Gallery-129425%The Netherlands: let’s focus on Amsterdam; after all, it is the country’s major destination. You might be tempted to pick up a “spacecake” while they’re still available to tourists (the fun, for those who indulge, comes to a close at the end of the year), but that only appeals to one type of audience. Instead, head into town and pick up some of the local cheese – one of the few areas where Amsterdam truly excels in food and dining. You’ll wind up spending $10 to $15, but you’ll walk away with enough cheese to feed a village on a three-hour train ride. To make it a bit better, add some spicy mustard to your order (it complements the cheese nicely).

Plan ahead: the cheese and mustard will stay edible for a while, so spend the extra cash to get enough for several long train rides. You’ll be happy you did.

Belgium: in Bruges, there’s a great farmers market in the main market square. Visit it. While the vegetables look delicious, they do have a fairly short shelf life (unless you happen to travel with a refrigerator strapped to your back). So, you’re better off heading to the sausage stand. Pick up a few sausages, and make it interesting by selecting from a variety of animals. You’ll be able to dine on pig, bull and ass, among others. Bring some variety into your on-train meal, and you’ll have a better experience.

Remember the cheese you picked up in Amsterdam? And the mustard? If you bought enough, you can add some awesome sausages to the experience. The meal builds on itself! Again, plan for future train rides, and buy some extra sausage.

Luxembourg: you have cheese and mustard from Amsterdam. You just picked up sausages in Bruges. And, you’re Benelux trip will likely end with a trek from Luxembourg to Brussels or Amsterdam to catch your flight home. What’s missing from your meal on what could be the longest leg of your Benelux train experience?


Luxembourg’s local white wines are nothing short of delicious. Skip the Alsacian, French and German options in favor of what the locals produce. If the imbibing experience matters to you, spring for a few cheap wine glasses that you’re fine with tossing at the airport (or losing to breakage in your bags). Otherwise, a few plastic cups will do the job just fine. As you ride back to your final stop before leaving Benelux, you’ll wash down your accumulated sausage, cheese and mustard with something crisp, tasty and unlikely to be on the shelves of your local liquor store.

Five ways to get the most out of your Luxembourg trip

Luxembourg is a tiny, interesting place. It probably isn’t a destination in itself for most people, but it can be a great side trip from Paris, parts of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. If you can tack a few days onto your next vacation to that part of Europe, Luxembourg is a fun spot that you’d probably never visit otherwise.

Since your time in Luxembourg is likely to be short – and dependent upon other factors in your vacation – it can help to have a few ideas in mind before you hit the ground. You want to make the most of your experience, of course, while minimizing the aggravation that can come with going from Point A to Point B. Below, you’ll find five tips for making your Luxembourg visit easier and more enjoyable.

%Gallery-129220%1. Dip into the valley: up on the hill, Luxembourg is a city. It’s reasonably large and more interesting (as a city) than the likes of Amsterdam and Brussels, but it’s still a run-of-the-mill city. Step onto one of the walking paths, though, and you’ll descend into the Old Europe you’d expect from this microstate. Wander the winding streets, and enjoy the architecture that reminds you what the meaning of “classic” is. Interestingly, you’ll get a shock to the system when you see old and new side by side. There’s an interesting mix of contemporary and traditional architecture in Luxembourg, which gives the towns below a more organic vibe.

2. Drink the local wine: it’s old hat for most travelers to sample the local stuff when visiting a new place. Trying new food and drinks is part of the fun! The food in Luxembourg won’t strike you as particularly exotic (though you can find a good meal there), but the wine is a different story. Crisp, flavorful and a pure pleasure to drink, you’ll find the perfect afternoon kicking back bottle after bottle while sitting outside and watching the people pass by.

3. Don’t bother paying for the bus: in the mood for some international crime? The buses in Luxembourg provide the perfect opportunity. You have to pay to take them, but the bus drivers don’t check to see if you have a ticket. They don’t care. So, you can step onto the bus and go where you want without paying a dime. You are running a risk, however. The fines are steep if you get caught by the authorities tasked with spot-checking for tickets.

Of course, I’m not advocating such illicit behavior. Buy a damned ticket – they’re cheap.

4. Stay for the right amount of time: you don’t want to breeze through Luxembourg in an afternoon … but staying for a week probably doesn’t make sense. Give yourself two or three days, depending on how much time you want to invest in #2, above.

5. Spring for a hotel downtown: to save a few bucks, I stayed out in the business district. It was a lot cheaper, and bus access to the city was fast, easy and reliable. But, it’s still a lot more enjoyable to roll out of bed and head right into the action.

Are you ready for a once in a lifetime cycling holiday?

Pedalers Pub and Grille may sound like a place where you’d stop for some grub after a long day riding your bike, but in actually, its an adventure travel company that specializes in cycling holidays to some of the best destinations on the planet. To celebrate their 25th anniversary, the company has just announced a new tour that will take riders on an eight month, six continent odyssey that will truly be a once in a lifetime experience.

The trip will begin with a “get acquainted” ride through Vermont, which will give everyone who signs up for the tour a chance to get to know one another before the real excitement begins. That shakedown cruise will also give travelers an opportunity to work out the bugs of the trip, such as learning what to carry with them on their daily rides, how to pack and unpack the bikes, and how to endure the rigors of the open road.

From there, the route will take cyclists across Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, South America, and Central America, before eventually returning to the United States. In all, they will ride will through nearly 30 countries, including Ireland, France, Italy, Egypt, Kenya, India, Nepal, New Zealand, Peru, Costa Rica, and more. They’ll average anywhere form 45-60 miles (80-100km) per day on mostly paved roads with the occasional dirt track as well.

The Once In A Lifetime Tour won’t get underway until June of 2012, which gives you plenty of time to save your pennies. With a price tag of $95,000 the trip doesn’t come cheap, but that price does include all accommodations, most meals, all transportation costs, guides, tours, and even a custom built bike.

If you happen to have $100k and 8 months of free time coming your way, you may want to consider joining this trip. If nothing else, it sure seems like it’ll live up to its name and truly be a once in a lifetime experience.

[Photo credit: Pedalers Pub and Grille]