When I first suggested to Leslie that we take a whirlwind tour of Europe together, I honestly had no idea what we were signing up for. The travel industry tends to glorify the good aspects of traveling Europe (or anywhere else in the world)—and can you blame them? It’s their livelihood after all. But all that glorification means that a lot of would-be travelers don’t have an accurate idea of what to really expect. They think it’s going to be sunshine and roses, and it can be discouraging when things don’t work out the way you hoped and planned.
I’m not trying to give the impression that traveling isn’t fabulous, because it is. I loved seeing Europe. It changed my life, and despite the struggles we sometimes had, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. But if I’d had a better idea of what to expect, many of those frustrations could have been avoided or at least mitigated. So with that in mind, here are 18 things no one told us about traveling Europe, in the hopes that it will help you set up for the best trip of your life. We have more tips than these, so be sure to watch out for Part II next week!
(Please note: many of these tips are from Leslie, so she gets equal credit for the authorship of this post. Thanks, Leslie!)
Before You Go
1. Keep family in mind
Leslie and I were both well established as grownups when we took this trip, but we still thought it best to leave copies of our itinerary with our parents. That way, they knew where we would be at any point in our trip, and it helped everyone feel safe. Along the way, we would keep in touch with emails and Skype visits when we had wifi. We also downloaded the app WhatsApp, which we used to keep in touch with family and hosts alike. Since most of our accommodations had wifi, it was fairly easy to keep in touch with loved ones back at home, and both of our parents really appreciated hearing from us to know we were safe.
2. Backup Important Documents
Thankfully, this tip is one that we didn’t have to cash in on, but I have heard personal accounts detailing the horror of losing passports and IDs—or worse, having them stolen—while traveling in a foreign country. Make sure someone at home has a copy of all important documents and email a copy to yourself too. As Leslie said, “You may never need them, but it sure made me feel better to know I had two backups if something were to happen to my originals.”
3. Ditch the suitcase
This one is a moot point if you’re already planning on backpacking Europe, but even if you’re not hoofing it, a suitcase will be a pain. So much of our time was spent walking on cobblestones or uneven surfaces or going up and down stairs. Dragging a rolling suitcase would have been difficult or impossible, and backpacks were definitely the better way to go.
4. Don’t bring a computer
I didn’t have much of a choice with this one, as I had been living abroad for a year and wasn’t about to ship my computer home to the US in a box. (I also needed it to finish my dissertation, which was due a week after our trip started…) And I’ll admit that it was handy to have something besides a phone that we could use to look things up, book tickets, send emails, etc. But it was also a bit of a stressor for me, as I was always having to worry about whether it was going to get damaged or stolen. I would have been much less worried about bringing a tablet, and many of our hostels even had computers labs you could use for a fee.
5. Have a wrinkle contingency plan
We knew we were going to be spending part of our Sundays at church, so both of us wanted to bring clothing that was Sunday appropriate. Even if you’re not a church-goer like we are, Europe is a classy place, and a dress or a skirt is an addition to your packing list that you won’t regret. (This is especially true if you plan on visiting a lot of cathedrals—many of them require long pants or skirts.)
But bringing nice clothes often means having to deal with wrinkles. I was able to find a lightweight dress that doesn’t wrinkle, and Leslie brought a small spray bottle for her clothes. She says, “If you dampen your clothes the night before, then hang them up somewhere and use your hand to brush out the wrinkles, your clothes will dry overnight and you can eliminate most of the wrinkles so you don’t look like a vagabond.” Haha!
6. Don’t Forget your student ID
Students get a lot of discounts in Europe, so be sure to bring your student ID if you’re eligible. Just remember to look for “concession” prices if you’re in England because they don’t have them listed as student prices. And sometimes, the student price isn’t readily identifiable on the price list, but if you ask at the ticket booth, they often have a special price that just isn’t advertised.
7. Conduct a Shakedown
At Philmont, before scout troops leave on their 10-12 day treks into the backcountry, the Rangers (staff who lead troops for the first few days and teach them the ropes) perform a “Shakedown.” Each backpack is given a thorough inspection, and anything that isn’t absolutely necessary for the hike is removed and saved for the scout’s return.
After you put together your initial packing list, it’s a good idea to review it and make sure you leave out anything that isn’t absolutely essential. There were definitely a few items in my bag that I used only rarely or not at all, so I wish I had been a little more judicious with my packing so that I didn’t have to carry the weight of things I wasn’t using regularly on our trip.
Remember to pack clothing that is easy to mix and match (and layer for colder weather) and make use of the laundry facilities (or sinks) at hostels to keep them fresh. Pack only the bare essentials when it comes to makeup, jewelry, and shoes. If you like to read, consider downloading ebooks to your phone or tablet instead of bringing along a heavy novel. And rent towels from your hostel instead of carrying one in your bag—especially since the last thing you’ll want to pack is a damp towel.
8. Bring Lady Stuff
Before our trip, we both saw the advice to not worry about packing feminine hygiene products since they’re cheaper in Europe. I respectfully suggest that they’re cheaper because they’re useless. I was seriously unimpressed by the selections available in stores and found that even the best products were *cough* ineffective. I’m gonna be a rebel here and say that you should probably bring what you’re used to because nothing ruins a day faster than… well, you know.
9. Don’t overlook the small towns
While we loved the bigger cities like London and Lisbon and Vienna, most of our favorite places were in smaller cities and towns. We loved having a car in Ireland, which gave us the freedom to explore small towns like Dingle and Ennis, places we couldn’t even get to by train. We also loved Sintra, Granada, Hohenschwangau, and Gruyères, all places we would have missed if we had stuck to big cities. Small cities and towns were a lovely change of pace from the big cities, too, so we would definitely recommend having a good mix of the two.
10. Allow for a whole day of travel even if your train trip is short
We had several stops on our itinerary that were only a short train trip from our starting location, so we figured that we would have plenty of time to explore once we arrived. WRONG. Trains are sometimes late (although that’s rare in Europe) or canceled altogether, or you might accidentally miss your connection and find that the next train isn’t for a few hours. Sometimes it takes longer to get checked in at your hotel or hostel than you expected. Whatever the case, we always regretted not giving ourselves a whole day dedicated to travel so that we had more time to explore. And in the event that everything goes perfectly, it just means you have a little extra time to see the sights or rest up for your next journey.
11. Always have a backup plan
There were a few times on our trip when an activity we had planned on taking a few hours of a day didn’t happen at all. (Lookin’ at you, closed Milka store in Munich. I’m still crying.) There were other times when the weather wasn’t quite conducive to walking around and just enjoying the sites. In those instances, it was nice to have some ideas in the back of our mind that weren’t on our WE MUST DO THIS list, but made for handy and fun fillers when needed. That’s how we ended up at the Deutsches Museum in Munich and the DaVinci Museum in Florence—and both were fabulous, so we were actually kind of glad our original plans didn’t pan out.
12. Research, Research, Research
Thanks to the internet, it’s incredibly easy to research travel details well in advance of your trip. Just make sure you actually do that—especially the “in advance of your trip” part. While many of our hostels and rental apartments had wifi, it wasn’t always reliable, and researching ahead of time saved our bacon more than once. Several of the places we visited offered discounts if you purchased online ahead of time and some places pretty much required it because tickets sell out so quickly, like the Alhambra and Neuschwanstein. We knew about those in advance but didn’t know that about Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, so we missed out on going inside. There were also a few times that we ended up buying a combined ticket at the time because it was cheaper, but then didn’t have time to visit all of the places we had paid entry for, like in Sintra. So research, research, research.
13. Don’t plan so much
All that being said, we sometimes tried to plan a little too much—or at least, I did. There were so many things I wanted to see in Europe, so I tried to cram as many into our itinerary as possible. But then we’d want to give ourselves time to really explore things, and there just wasn’t time to see everything. And honestly, sometimes it was just nice to sit and look at the people and architecture around us, and spontaneous adventures like a walk through Hyde Park or a visit to a spectacular chocolate shop in Paris were often unexpected highlights. The trick is to find the balance between having a plan that lets you make the most out of your trip and allowing yourself some flexibility to change that plan if you feel like it. After all, what’s an adventure without a little uncertainty?
14. Get a map. A GOOD map.
When we were in Lisbon, we picked up a free map of the city that showed where all the bus and tram stops were. Or at least, it was supposed to show where all the bus and tram stops were, but we found through sad experience that it was wildly inaccurate. We seriously considered buying a better map because it would have made life so much easier.
We often found it helpful to have Google maps downloaded on our phones. As long as we had them pre-downloaded, we could use them while out and about without using any data (which neither of us had because we opted not to buy local sim cards or pay the exorbitant international data fees). This worked great for getting around cities—but it’s still a good idea to have a paper map (even a substandard one) as a backup in case your phone dies. We avoided that frustration, thankfully, but there were definitely times when we came dangerously close.
Historical sites bring their own set of issues. Most of them gave us a map when we bought our tickets, but some of them (*cough* Pompeii *cough*) did not, so we were left to flying by the seat of our pants. It was fun to just explore, but we also missed pretty much all of the most interesting parts of the city because we didn’t know where to go or how to get there. It would be wise to download maps of the historical sites you’ll visit as well. You may not need it, but you’ll be glad you’ve got it in the event that you do.
15. Learn how to work the trains
Understanding train protocol is absolutely imperative unless you’re providing your own transportation. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Some trains require seat reservations, but many do not. If you don’t have to have a seat reservation, you might be able to save a few bucks by opting not to chose one. Just be aware that if you plan on buying your ticket on the day of travel, they sometimes fill up early.
- DO NOT FORGET TO VALIDATE YOUR TICKET. If you buy your ticket online, you might get a confirmation email, but then you’ll still have to get the actual ticket from a kiosk in the station. Some of those ticket kiosks automatically validate the ticket for you, but some do not. To validate your ticket, look for a barcode scanner or a punch machine (they are often yellow or red). If you don’t get your ticket validated, you may run into trouble with the conductors if they think you are trying to ride for free.
- Tickets usually don’t tell you which platform to go to, so look for departure screens in the terminal. They usually look like the ones in airports.
- Trains have first and second class just like planes do, and the train cars are marked on the outside. Some stations even have the platforms marked so you know where to stand to wait for the right train car. Make sure you get in the right car, or you can face fines for riding in an upgraded seat.
- Trains are usually identified by their final destination, which can get a little confusing. Some tracks will have multiple trains headed for the same end destination, but making different stops along the way. (This happened to us on our way back to Geneva from Montreux.) To help avoid this confusion, make sure the train number matches the number on your ticket. When in doubt, ask an official, as they are happy to help. That’s their job, after all.
- Trains will mark reserved seats either with a “Reserved” sign stuck in the top of the headrest or with a label next to the seat number above the window. Each train company seems to run things a little differently, so some will tell you at which stop the person who is supposed to be in that seat will be getting on, while others just tell you that at some point between A and B, that seat is reserved. But if no one is currently in that seat, it’s perfectly okay to sit there until they arrive. Just be courteous, and if someone has a ticket for that seat, find another one.
16. Get ready to never have leg room
Whether you’re taking a train or a ferry, get ready for some cramped quarters—especially if you’re backpacking. The overhead bins on trains often aren’t big enough for your backpack, so you’ll either have to keep it between your legs or leave it on the luggage rack at the back of the car. I’m always a tad bit paranoid, so I preferred having no leg room over not being able to see my bag from where I sat, but that’s entirely up to you. Ferries don’t even have overhead bins, so you’ll have to keep your bag with you unless you’ve got an extra seat next to you.
Ironically, the best legroom we had on this trip was when we flew…
17. You can’t be a foodie if you’re traveling on a budget
A lot of travel bloggers like to post gorgeous photos of delicious-looking food to their Instagram accounts. My mouth waters just thinking of all those scrumptious dishes. But if you’re traveling on a budget, that sort of food may be beyond your reach. It’s usually restaurant food, and while restaurants do tend to be cheaper in Europe than in the US, it still adds up quickly.
That’s not to say that you can’t have a perfectly satisfying meal on a budget, especially if you take advantage of your hostel or rental apartment’s kitchen. But if you’re not handy in the kitchen (or don’t have access to one) or you know you’re going to get tired of things like salads, sandwiches, or baguettes with cheese, you may want to build a little extra into your budget so that you can enjoy eating out. Just make sure you make a specific budget and stick to it, or you’ll come home to discover that all that pasta has wreaked havoc on your waistline and your bank account.
18. You will never get tired of gelato
Just go ahead and add a few extra hundred dollars to your food budget for this one, because after your first taste, you won’t be able to resist. Guaranteed.
That’s it for this week! Share your own European travel tips in the comments, and remember to watch for part II next week!
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