I love exploring Europe! My first visit to Europe was when my husband and I went on a Mediterranean cruise about 8 years ago. During that trip, we visited parts of Italy, Croatia, Montenegro and Greece.
We had such a great time, that we were hooked on Europe! Since then, we’ve made it a goal to try and visit Europe (preferably somewhere new) each year. Our travels have since taken us to countries like Germany, Poland, Portugal, Spain and France.
This year, we are embarking on our biggest European vacation yet! We’ll be visiting 9 different cities (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Hamburg, Berlin, Warsaw, Prague and Vienna) in 8 different countries across a period of about 18 days. Oh, and we’ll be throwing 9 Dave Matthews Band concerts in there as well!
I love to plan my own trips and I like to think I’m pretty good at it, but this one was a real challenge! I am not a travel agent nor am I a travel expert. However, I do have quite a few tips I’ve accumulated over my years of visiting Europe, so I thought I would share them with you. Keep reading for my Top 10 Tips to help you with your own visit to Europe.
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EUROPE TIP #1 – USE A TRAVEL AGENT!
So, I just got done telling you that I plan my own trips, yet my first tip is to use a travel agent? For most of you, the answer is yes – use a travel agent.
First, it is a lot of work to plan your own trip. And, if you don’t really know what you’re doing, you can make mistakes. If you find a good travel agent that has expertise in the place that you are visiting, they can take a lot of work off your plate.
Second, if you run into any issues while you are traveling – missed or canceled flights, hotel reservation issues, etc. – a travel agent can be invaluable.
Having said all that, don’t be afraid to question a travel agent. If you don’t want to stay in the chain hotel that they want to book you in, tell them you want to stay in that cute boutique hotel you found. You also don’t have to have the travel agent book everything for you. Maybe just use them for the big items – flights, hotels, car rentals, etc. – and figure out the rest yourself.
EUROPE TIP #2 – PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES – WHICH IS BEST?
One of the great things about Europe, is that traveling between cities and countries is pretty easy. So, if you are making the trip, don’t limit yourself to one city. Make sure you do some research to help you figure out the best mode of transportation to get you from place to place.
I love traveling by train in Europe. The trains are always on time, clean, comfortable, and very reasonable. Trains can typically be booked online 90 days in advance, so it’s something you can plan (and pay for) before you get there.
Booking train travel online can be a little tricky. By far, the best resource I have found out there for European train travel is The Man in Seat Sixty-One. When you go to the website, you simply pick the cities you are traveling between, and it will take you to a page with all of your options, as well as step by step instructions of how to book your ticket.
Air travel is typically very reasonable (by U.S. standards) within Europe. While I usually prefer the train, I booked a couple of flights to get me between cities for this upcoming trip. When I looked at the cost to fly, it was similar to the train and got me to my destination in a fraction of the time.
Just beware when booking flights – particularly on some of the low-cost regional carriers. That cheap fare might be very bare bones. Be sure you are clear on what is included – can you bring a carry-on bag, do you get a reserved seat, etc.
I have never rented a car in Europe. Once you are in a city, a car is typically not needed. Most European cities have excellent transit systems. Plus, like any big city anywhere, parking can be a challenge in some places.
If you do decide to rent a car, be sure you are aware of the rules of the road. I have heard horror stories of people being pulled over and handed pretty large tickets for not obeying the local traffic rules.
EUROPE TIP #3 – PACK THE ESSENTIALS
If you are going to be moving around a lot on your trip, you want to limit the amount of luggage you have to drag around with you. So, only pack the essentials!
Make sure you pack comfortable shoes. You will be doing a lot of walking. In addition, a lot of cities have cobblestone sidewalks, so leave the stilettos at home.
Plan on wearing layers. In certain places in Europe – particularly in the spring and fall – the weather can change quite a bit during the course of a day. Layers are your friend! And take an umbrella. At certain times of the year, parts of Europe can be very rainy.
Make sure to take your electrical converter. Not only does Europe have different outlets, but their voltage is different than ours in the U.S. Don’t blow up your hair dryer!
EUROPE TIP #4 – BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS
You are a tourist, and no matter how hard you try to look like you belong, most people will know you are a tourist. And that’s ok. Just be aware of your surroundings and take precautions.
Pickpockets can be very prevalent in parts of Europe – particularly around big tourist attractions. For men, keep your money in a money belt or in your front pocket – never in your back pocket. For women, get a small purse or wallet that straps across your body.
Don’t leave cameras or cell phones sitting out on the table – particularly if you are eating outside.
EUROPE TIP #5 – HOW DO I GET MONEY?
Do not exchange money at the airport at a currency exchange desk. Their exchange rates are horrible. If you feel more comfortable having some cash before you get there, go to your bank and exchange some money there. Otherwise, wait until you arrive and just take money out of the ATM.
Be sure you notify your bank and credit cards before you travel. Let them know what countries you are visiting and when you will be gone. There is nothing worse than getting there and trying to use your credit or debit card and being denied because the bank suspects fraudulent charges.
Keep a list of phone numbers for your credit cards and bank separate. If your cards are stolen, you want to be able to contact them right away.
If you are traveling with a companion, split up your cash and credit cards. That way if one person is the victim of a pickpocket, you will still have cash and credit cards available.
Cash is typically preferred in most places in Europe. However, if you use your credit card, ask that they charge you in the local currency rather than in U.S. dollars. You will usually get a better exchange rate through your credit card company. Also, check to see if your credit card charges a foreign transaction fee. Those charges can quickly add up!
EUROPE TIP #6 – LEAVE YOUR VALUABLES AT THE HOTEL
Once you check into your hotel, leave your passport in the safe of your hotel. Do not walk around with it. If you need identification for any reason, you should have your driver’s license or other state ID with you.
Just remember that if you are the victim of a pickpocket, credit cards and cash can be easily replaced. A passport is much harder.
I also make a photo copy of our passports and carry that around with me in case I need it. Also, make sure you know how to get in touch with the U.S. Embassy in the country you are visiting, just in case you have an issue.
EUROPE TIP #7 – LEARN SOME BASIC WORDS
The reality is that in most large European cities, a lot of people speak English. However, greeting someone in their native language and attempting to speak a few words often goes a long way!
Try to at least learn some basic greetings as well as please and thank you.
EUROPE TIP #8 – LEARN THE LOCAL CUSTOMS
In addition to learning a few words in the native language, learning a few customs can also go a long way. Something as simple as water with your meal can be tricky. In the U.S. it is very customary to ask for a glass of water with your meal, and the water is typically tap water and free. In Europe, you typically pay for water (and it can be more expensive than a glass of wine or a beer). They serve bottled water in Europe, so they charge you for it. They also drink water at room temperature (ice is very rare in any kind of drinks) and it is either regular or carbonated – order your water with gas (carbonated) or no gas (still).
Also, tipping is not customary in most places in Europe. When eating out or at a bar, it is customary to round your bill up to the nearest dollar, but not to leave an 18-20% tip like you would in the U.S.
EUROPE TIP #9 – DO YOUR RESEARCH!
If you are going to spend the money to travel to Europe, spend some time before you leave researching the country. There are a lot of resources out there for you to use!
One of my favorite resources on European travel is Rick Steves. He has a great website that has tons of information on it. There are also travel forums for each European country there, where fellow travelers can ask questions and share tips. His books are also fantastic. I have often followed his recommendations on tour guides, hotels, restaurants, etc. and never been disappointed.
EUROPE TIP #10 – DON’T BE AFRAID TO GET LOST!
Some of my favorite memories of visiting Europe include times that we just wandered around and happened upon a great bar or restaurant. Despite my warnings of pickpockets, most of Europe is very safe. It’s ok to wander off the beaten path and explore parts of the city.
Do your research, but don’t have every minute of every day planned out. What I try to do is set up some sort of tour at the beginning of the trip to help us figure out the lay of the land. In most cities you can find “free” walking tours by just heading to the main square and looking for tour companies. The tours are free – you just tip the tour guide what you think is right at the end of the trip. The tours are great because you get a quick review of the highlights of the city. You can then figure out what interests you most and decide what to focus your attention on during the rest of your trip.
I have also found that if you are into wine or beer, a great way to start off your trip is doing a wine/beer-related tour. We have done these in several cities and met some great fellow travelers – some of whom we are still in touch with today.
So, those are my tips for making the most of your European vacation. There are so many fantastic places in Europe, I hope you get the chance to explore some of them yourself!
Have you visited Europe? Do you have any tips to share? Let us know what you think by commenting below or e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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