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Last week, I started a post on the things they don’t tell you about traveling Europe—the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was getting pretty long, so I thought it best to break it up into smaller chunks to aid in digestion, and here are 17 more things they don’t tell you about traveling Europe. If you missed part one, you can read it here.
And again, some of these tips were recommended by Leslie, so a huge thanks to her for her input!
1. Not all hostels are created equal
There seem to be only two possible opinions of hostels: either they’re the best places ever and you aren’t a true traveler unless you’ve stayed in one, or they’re dirty, dangerous places and you’re crazy for even thinking about it. (Travel bloggers usually fall into the first category, parents in the second…) The truth is, it depends on the hostel. We stayed in some that were fabulous—clean, comfortable, fun atmospheres, safe, and priced reasonably. We also stayed at some that were a less fabulous—dirty, uncomfortable, crowded, hot, noisy, lacking in security, and seriously overpriced for the offerings. Some only offer the bare essentials or charge an arm and a leg for things like linen rentals or wifi. Others have all sorts of perks, like free walking tours, game rooms, video libraries, movie nights, free breakfast, free wifi, and secure lockers.
The trick is to decide what you’re looking for in a hostel. Do you want to meet people and make new friends, or do you just want a private space to sleep at night? Do you want to cook your own meals, or are you going to be eating out? Are you going tech-free for the trip, or will you need wifi to check your reservations? And once you’ve decided, do your research. Most booking sites (I recommend HostelWorld and Booking.com) have pretty detailed listings about what is and isn’t available at each hostel, and be sure to read the reviews. I usually take most reviews with a grain of salt because people only leave them when they really love or really hate a service or product, but we found that reviews of hostels tended to be pretty fair and accurate.
2. Bring a padlock
Most of the hostels we stayed at had lockers assigned to each bed, so we had a safe and secure place to leave our stuff. A few did not, but they did have lockers you could use or rent, but you often had to provide your own lock. Even if the hostel booking page says that they have lockers available, it’s a good idea to bring a lock in case your falls into the latter category.
The Unfortunate reality
3. You will hurt. A LOT.
Leslie and I were both a bit older than the average backpack-across-Europe crowd, and we often found ourselves saying, “There’s a reason people do this when they’re 18.” But even we had been spry, young, gap year travelers, I think we still would have been tired and sore at the end of the day. After all, you’ve been carrying a heavy pack, walking on cobblestone streets, hiking up and down hills or stairs, cramming yourself between strangers on trains and metros, and you’ve been on your feet for 16-18 hours. You’ve earned that pain, and it’s just a testament to how much fun you’ve been having.
If you want to mitigate the aches and exhaustion, remember to drink enough water, bring good shoes that you’re used to walking in, give yourself plenty of time to get a good night’s rest, and don’t try to cram too much into your day. Because we’re both LDS, we wanted to keep our Sundays pretty low key so that we didn’t feel like we were breaking the Sabbath, and having a break built into each week was actually really nice. Even if you’re not religious, planning regular rest days will go a long way to making sure you’ve got the energy to enjoy yourself.
4. You’re gonna stink.
This might be a little TMI for some readers, but this post is all about full disclosure, so I’m sorry. The fact is, many hostels, hotels, and rental apartments don’t have laundry facilities. And sometimes, frankly, you’re just having too much fun to want to spend a couple of hours watching your clothes finish a spin cycle. It can also be hard to find an open shower stall in a crowded hostel. But proper hygiene is important, so it might mean making some sacrifices so that you’re clean and healthy—and so that you don’t offend the locals. Bring some dry shampoo or a travel tube of baby powder to keep your hair looking fresh between showers, make sure you wear good deodorant, and wash your clothes regularly. Taking care of yourself will also help ensure that you have plenty of energy.
5. Toilets are the stuff of nightmares
There is absolutely nothing worse than having to go to the bathroom and realizing you don’t have enough change to pay for a public restroom. Always, always, always keep some small change on hand for when you need to use a toilet. There’s no consistency in prices, either. Sometimes, it’ll cost you 20c to use the loo, and other times, it’ll cost you up to 50c, so be sure to keep a variety of coins handy.
And get ready for some strange bathroom experiences. We encountered self-cleaning toilet seats, entire bathroom stalls that were completely sanitized after every use (and were, therefore, always wet), and gift shops inside bathrooms (you better believe I bought a postcard…). Going to the bathroom in Europe is always an adventure.
6. Trains are a great way to see the countryside, but you’ll probably be asleep for most of it
We did see a lot of beautiful countryside while traveling via trains across Europe, especially in Austria and Germany, so I’m not saying you won’t see anything. But take your tired body and add in the gentle rocking of a train and not much to do besides read and listen to music, and it’s often sweet dreams, sweetheart. That, and when you’re trying to cram as much into your days as you can, you learn to grab sleep whenever you can. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re counting on train time to admire some scenery, you might want to adjust that plan.
7. Parlez-vous francais?
The French get a bad rap for not speaking English with tourists, but honestly, it’s disrespectful and discourteous to expect them to. So many Americans expect visitors to speak English when they come to our country. Should we not hold ourselves to the same standard?
It’s super easy to learn a few useful phrases in the languages of every country you’ll visit. You’ll often want to ask directions to a train station, a bathroom, a hostel, etc. Even if all you learn is “Do you speak English?” in each language you’ll encounter, you’ll be glad you did. Having useful phrases in our repertoire came in handy so many times on our trip, and the people you speak with will really appreciate that you’re making an effort. While we found that most of the people we spoke to were happy to help, it did make a big difference if we at least tried to speak their language. They were often more patient and even helped us learn the correct words and pronunciation.
8. Read up on local customs
It goes without saying that we travel to experience other cultures, and often, those cultures come with a variety of customs we’re not used to—things like where to stand on an escalator in England (stand on the right, walk on the left), what to do with your bags on a metro in Italy (put them between your legs if you’re standing or under your seat if you’re sitting), whether or not to tip (and how much), and line etiquette (some countries have orderly queues, some just have a free-for-all). Make sure you familiarize yourself with those local customs so that you don’t look like a total jerk when you don’t follow the rules. I definitely messed up a few times and people were usually pretty patient, but I had one encounter that was particularly unpleasant. If I had known the customs a little better, I could have avoided that encounter completely.
9. There are a lot of Beggars
This one was really hard for me. I want to be the sort of person who helps every person in need who asks me for help, but if I gave even a single coin to every beggar I saw, I’d be broke in five minutes. It’s also frustrating to know that many of these “beggars” aren’t really beggars at all, but panhandlers—or worse, partners for pickpockets. Leslie and I actually discussed this a fair bit: how do we balance our desire to be Christlike and generous with protecting ourselves? And then I’d feel guilty giving money to a busker when I’d just turned down a beggar. To that conundrum, Leslie suggested that at least the buskers are making an effort to earn their coins. We recognize that some beggars are legitimate and may not be able to work for your donation, but Europe has many social programs to help people in need.
In the end, there are no easy answers, and it’s up to you to determine how you will deal with the beggars who ask for your charity. I decided that I would politely decline unless I felt moved by the Holy Ghost to donate, which did happen a few times. We also gave a few coins to the homeless man who helped us find the right bus stop in Lisbon. And since being home, I read and liked the suggestion that if you’d like to donate to help those in need, take your coins to a local church instead.
10. Know your scams
Europe also has an unfortunate amount of swindlers and pickpockets. We (thankfully) managed to avoid getting scammed, but that was due in large part to the fact that we both read up on common scams before making a trip. Some sites will tell you that certain scams are popular in different cities, but we experienced such a mishmash everywhere we went that I think it’s better to be on the watch for any of them at any time. A few of the potential scamming situations that we had to dodge included:
- Two guys who blocked our exit from a store in Paris and tried to trick us into pulling out our watches or phones.
- Large crowds of men who blocked the path on the hill up to Sacre Coeur and tried to tie friendship bracelets onto our wrists as we passed. “For free!” they’d say, but we knew from reading up that they’d demand payment if they managed to get the bands on our wrists.
- A gladiator in Rome who tried to make us pay 20€ for a photograph. (We did pay all of the buskers we interacted with or took pictures of. Just not 20€. Remember: you get to decide how much you pay the buskers. They don’t get to dictate how much you give them.)
- Little old ladies who would come up to us with bouquets of dead flowers and say they were for free. Like the bracelet guys, we knew that if we took these bouquets, they would then demand payment.
- People asking us to take surveys and donate to a charity that doesn’t actually exist.
11. Other tourists can be annoying
Some tourists are pushy and rude. I can’t tell you the number of heavy sighs I uttered when I had waited patiently for my turn to take a picture of some fabulous monument just to have someone else step right in front of me as I pressed the shutter button. I also lost track of the number of times I felt my blood boil when large groups of tourists would cut in front of us in lines (or people who would literally push on my back), or talk loudly in places that were meant to be quiet, or blatantly ignore the posted signs asking you not to take pictures or touch the artifacts. I. Just. Couldn’t. Even.
But then I remembered that they’re on the trip of their life, too, and many come from different cultures where things like personal space and orderly queues don’t exist. Be patient with them. Take a breath if you have to, put on a smile, and be patient.
And remember, DON’T BE THAT TOURIST. Pay attention to what is going on around you. Don’t step in front of people who are taking pictures. Wait your turn. Give people space. If you accidentally inconvenience someone, apologize to them. Be courteous to other people.
Remembering Your Trip
12. BRING A CAMERA You’re Comfortable With
I once knew a guy who got a fancy, schmancy camera right before going on a trip. He didn’t have the foggiest idea how to use it, so he spent most of his time fiddling with his settings and frowning at the back of his camera. He later expressed to a member of our group that he didn’t think he’d gotten a good camera because the pictures never turned out. No, deary. Your camera is fine. You just don’t know how to use it yet.
It might be tempting to get a nice dSLR right before your big adventure, but resist the urge unless you’re going to dedicate some serious time to learn how to use it before you leave. Otherwise, you might as well take a point-and-shoot or just use your phone camera, and trust me, those two options weigh a heck of a lot less than a dSLR. (If you decide you do want to invest in a new camera and have the time to devote to learning it, I’ve got some tips for finding the right camera for you.)
And regardless of what camera you end up bringing, don’t forget to use it! They say a picture is worth a thousand words, you know, and what better way to remember your trip than with photos of what you saw and did. Be sure to take pictures of yourself, too. I’ve ranted before about taking too many selfies, but Leslie points out that people who look at your photos after a trip want to see you in them, not just the places you went. Because I don’t ever remember to take them, Leslie and I had this great arrangement where I’d take the scenery shots and she’d take the selfies. It worked great, and I’m so glad we have pictures of us having fun.
13. Take a few minutes to Write in a journal every night
I’m a big fan of journaling (just started journal #71 yesterday!), so this one is a pet passion for me. To me, it was worth a little extra weight in my bag to carry a journal so that I could write about our adventures at the end of every day. I am so, so glad that I did because there are many little details that I’ve already forgotten, and it’s like experiencing them all over again when I read through that journal. If you don’t want to carry a heavy journal, you can also use a notekeeping app on your phone to write things out, then transfer it to a journal (or print it out) when you get home.
14. Capture sounds
Leslie used the voice memo app on her phone to record things like street musicians, church bells, train station sounds, etc., as we made our way across Europe. I would never have thought to do this, so I’m super grateful that she did. There’s nothing quite like a recorded sound to instantly transport you back to where you were when you heard it.
15. Pick souvenirs that are easy to pack
It can be super tempting to pick up lots of souvenirs while you’re traveling Europe, but souvenirs can add weight to your bag very quickly. Instead of loading up your luggage with lots of heavy or bulky items, pick things that are small and easy to pack. I did pick up a few kitschier items, like a model Lippizan horse from the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and a cute little wooden Saint Bernard from Switzerland, but my souvenir of choice is postcards. They’re cheap, easy to pack, and I love having a collection of matchy-matchy souvenirs. Plus, if you do decide to get postcards as souvenirs, you can always write a bit about what you saw on the back and then mail them home. That way you don’t have to carry them at all AND you’ve documented your trip. (Just be forewarned that mail from Europe to the US isn’t always super reliable. We mailed a couple of postcards that never arrived.)
16. No one will care about your trip as much as you do
You’re going to come home and be all excited to share stories of your trip with your friends and family. They’ll be excited to hear about it, too—at least at first. But I can almost guarantee that after a while, you’ll start to see their eyes glaze over and you’ll hear them muttering the occasional mmhmm or cool to make it sound like they’re listening. Because let’s be honest: who hasn’t fallen into the same trance when another friend has come home gushing about their latest adventure? Everyone is really and truly excited for you, but hearing about someone else’s trip isn’t nearly as exciting as going on your own.
So don’t be offended if people don’t want to hear all the details. Share the best stories, put the rest in a journal or a photo book, and remember that the person to whom this trip matters the most is you. Cherish those memories, and remember that you’ve got the rest of your life to pull out random stories of your trip at parties and family gatherings. You don’t have to tell them all at once.
17. You will be stuck with a sense of wanderlust for the rest of your life
This one is the absolute hardest. Ever since coming home to the states, I’ve been itching to go somewhere else. I see places I’ve visited in movies or read about them in books and it makes me ache to be there again. It’s a strange sensation, this homesickness for a place that isn’t technically home. But when you travel, you become a member of this club of wanderers whose hearts are scattered all over the world. And you know what they say: home is where the heart is.
So get ready for a life of feeling like you’ve got a plane to catch, because it is 127% worth it.
If you missed part one, you can read it here.
What are your tips for traveling Europe? And where have you left a piece of your heart?
And as always, if you’ve found this post useful, please remember to share it! Thanks!