It took me decades to leave North America and I’ve found myself in overdrive trying to catch up on lost time. As I’ve traveled to Europe, I’ve followed some good tips and created some of my own that allow me to have great experiences, to feel immersed in another culture, and to live completely in the moment. Planning a European vacation? The following Europe travel tips I learned through trial and error.I hope they help when planning your Euro trip!
- Do your homework—It may seem predictable that a history professor would start off with an assignment, but I find that my research and planning allows me to have care-free and special moments when I’m on the trip. Hubby teases me about my itineraries. “We’re on vacation,” he says. But he’s always happy when all the sights are open, we have advanced tickets, there aren’t huge crowds, and I know where to grab some tasty food. The following are questions that I consider when making a plan:
- What sights do I want to see? European destinations are filled with exciting things to see. I like to schedule two big sights a day so that my husband and I aren’t overwhelmed, but can also see the attractions that we will remember time and again.
- When are those sights open? Many European destinations have at least one day a week that they are closed. Knowing when they are open can make it so that you don’t have a disappointing day. Also, knowing their hours of operation can help you ascertain what time is best to travel there. I find Rick Steves guides invaluable for the information that he provides on best times to visit an attraction with fewer people.
- Are there eateries or shops that I would like to visit around specific sights? By planning ahead, I can make sure that I get to visit famed restaurants and shops and not have to double back to an area for one thing—this is very helpful when time is limited.
- Can I get tickets in advance? There is no better feeling than looking at the excruciatingly long line to get into the Vatican museums and knowing that I have a reserved entry time. Look online to see if the sight has advanced ticketing.
- City/museum passes—Most European destinations offer some type of pass that allows holders to bypass ticket lines–they are usually called a museum or city pass, like Roma Pass, Firenze Card, or Paris’ Museum Pass. Additionally, a city or museum pass may give you the ability to bypass the ticket line and may have additional benefits, like discounted transportation. Each pass is different as to its benefits, so I evaluate each one separately and weigh the cost of the pass versus the savings that it provides. I also put a price on the convenience of being able to bypass the line, for me, it’s well worth a few extra euro.
- Are there any festivals, markets, or special events? I love to go antiquing. By planning ahead, I can locate antique and flea markets. It’s also wonderful to get caught up in a local festival or parade.
- Maps—Especially when traveling to large cities, I download detailed maps of each district. By comparing the proximity of sights to one another, I can save time and money on transportation. Plus, by pouring over a European map I feel more grounded once I land.
- Embrace the culture—Europe is not the same as the U.S., but why would I travel so far to have the same experience as at home? I revel in the differences. If everything shuts down in the middle of the afternoon then I take it as a sign that I should relax, too. I meander around a park, stroll along a river, or take a nap so that I can better enjoy the city at night. I take time to stroll down side streets and, if I get lost, I enjoy the moment. Since I’m lost, whatever I stumble upon I will likely never find again so I savor those finds.
- Language—People may not speak English. Although many Europeans are bilingual, I like to apply the “do unto others” rule. I learn basic etiquette phrases so that I can try to converse in their language first. I’ve found that most Europeans take pity on me and speak English when they hear my accent. Google Translate is also nice to have on your phone and you can download the language that you are most likely to encounter (to save on data charges Google has a way to use the program offline). Phrasebooks can also be handy, but I find memorizing a few lines is best. Remember that if you are going to ask a question that you should know how to translate the response. In Greece, I found myself asking “How much” in Greek only to realize that when they gave me the price that I didn’t memorize Greek numbers. Oops!
- No ice—I find that many European restaurants/hotels do not have ice as readily available as we do in the states. If you are an iced-tea lover (like myself), I suggest visiting an American chain (Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc.) to get your ice fix.
- Accommodations—I don’t like leaving hotel reservations up to anyone. I know what is important to me, plus, it’s fun to find a great deal. For me, I want a city center location so that I can walk to most places. That being said, I do stay in hotels near metro stops so that I can travel longer distances easier. I set a reasonable budget and use Trip Advisor to find the best-rated hotels in my preferred location and budgetary confines. You might want to book directly through the hotel. Comparison shop with the big booking websites, but usually I find a better deal through the hotel’s personal website. Some amenities that Americans are used to aren’t readily available and it is always wise to double-check that the room has air conditioning (if you’re going at a warm time) and a private bath. Bed sizes may also be different than in the States, so make sure that your bed will fit your needs. I find that a simple email to the hotel helps me book a room that fits all my requirements. Be prepared for a small room and bath, especially in bigger cities as space is at a premium.
- Getting around by rail—Europe has an amazing rail system that is fast, comfortable, and budget-friendly. If you want to take a train from the airport to save on taxi fares, you might need to use an automated machine. This machine may or may not take cards, so I come to Europe with local currency ready. I find that my bank provides a more decent exchange rate than the airport. You can also use your debit card to withdraw cash, too—check your bank’s fees. Once you are ready to purchase your ticket, you need to press the “Union Jack” flag for English. If you are nervous, there might be a ticket window or an attendant nearby. I look at Rail Europe to get an idea about train frequency and pricing. However, no one should have their nerves frayed by trying to master train travel after a half day of traveling, so a taxi may be your best bet.
- Eating well—One of my favorite parts of traveling is getting to experience authentic cuisine that is lovingly prepared with fresh ingredients. Here are a few guidelines that I follow to eat well:
- Upon arriving, I scout out the local grocer. We load up on bottled water and snacks for the rest of the vacation. It saves us money not having to buy bottled water every place that we go and it’s nice to have snacks ready to go.
- I go to restaurants where most people are speaking the national language and the menu is written in that country’s native tongue. If the place looks like it’s been in business for a long time, all the better.
- To keep our food budget lower, I take advantage of any breakfast that the hotel may offer. I also like to visit food markets and pick up items for a picnic. Not only are food markets a feast for the eyes and nose, but they can provide a unique dining experience. Plus, I like eating my picnic is a park or other scenic area. We once had the most lovely dinner of pizza by the Seine river in Paris.
Everyone travels differently, but these are just a few travel tips that I’ve learned that have made my European vacations easier and more pleasurable. Euro travel has enhanced my life immensely. Exploring different cultures and seeing thousands of years of history up close makes my dreams come true. I’m always looking for travel tips though, so please share them with me on this blog or through my Twitter account @travelhistory1. I hope that your trip to Europe surpasses all your dreams!