Top 10 tips for Americans traveling to Europe.
I love to travel! In my 27 years, I have already been to Peru, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Canada, Grand Cayman Islands, France, London, Monaco, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, Italy, Greece, and Spain. Those last four places mentioned my husband and I actually just visited last month on a 25 day belated Honeymoon, and that was my third trip to European countries. Obviously every country is different and unique in it's own way, but there are also some very big differences that almost all European countries have in common compared to the united states that are small but vital. There have also been some tips that I have picked up that have been SO helpful that I wanted to share with anyone planning or considering a trip to Europe, starting with:
1. KEEP AN OPEN MIND AND LOWER EXPECTATIONS.
Pintrest and TripAdvisor are really helpful for planning a trip, but can also be extremely deceiving in many ways. So many times I have gone to a certain place expecting it to look or feel a specific way, for example I had always heard how "romantic" Paris was. But when I got there, I was hit with a HUGE dose of reality when the city did NOT live up to this picture I had built up in my mind (it's also not very romantic when you are these with your sister...). The streets are dirty and crowded, public transportation is almost NEVER a pretty or enjoyable ride, and while the Eiffel tower is beautiful, the hours of lines, security checks, and thousands of peddlers in your face trying to sell you the exact same damn thing is NOT. Now being at the top of the Eiffel and watching the lights come on all over the city DID feel like a magical dream, but most of travel is... well kinda like going to a theme park: 80% sucks from standing in lines and walking around all day uncomfortable, and 20% is actually really fun and enjoyable. is it worth it? Absolutely, but if you enter with the mindset that traveling is going to have a lot of uncomfortable moments and hopefully some really awesome moments along the way, you will be off to a good start. And keep an open mind to places you may not have heard much about! I had no clue what to expect or do in both Barcelona and at Lake Como, and those ended up being my favorite places in all of Europe! Just stay realistic and remember that your "dream vacation" isn't actually a dream, but filled with some pretty harsh reality, which you will experience as SOON as you need to use the...
Or Water Closet they usually say While in many ways Europeans can feel more "refined" than us hillbilly 'Mericans, some of their bathrooms are just downright BARBARIC!!! Yep, I said it! I mean if you thought using a porta-potty was bad.... HAHA! HA! HA!!!! Boy are you in for a treat!!! Using a toilet in Europe, if you get even THREE of these at once you are extremely lucky: Clean, Door with working Lock , Toilet paper, Dry toilet sear, ANY Toilet SEAT at all, Soap,Working Flusher, Paper towel, Pleasant smelling, FREE. Yes, free. Many places you are not just SUGGESTED to tip, but are REQUIRED TO PAY before you are aloud to go, especially in any train/bus stations! ALWAYS take advantage of a free toilet around, such as in a restaurant you are eating at, but also ALWAYS carry change on you and bring your purse to go to the bathroom, or you may end up in tears after a long morning and you just walked 5 mins to get to the bathroom and left your purse with your sister and the freaking lady won't accept American quarters to let you pee! yup! That happened!
So come prepared and always carry on you:
AT LEAST 1 EU PER PERSON, TISSUES, AND HAND-SANITIZER.
Trust me. Oh and if you can, go with a buddy, because usually the doors lock is broken and won't close, or in my husbands case, won't let him out! Yep, good times...
However using a bidet is a fun new experience!
3. NO FREE WATER.
I'm actually not even sure Europeans EVER drink water, just tea and really tiny cups of coffee I think, but if they do they sure do charge enough for it! If you go anywhere to get food, they will ask if you want water and they WILL charge you for it. They will always ask if you want still or sparkling, and might ask to the size you want also. This can range anywhere from 1EURO to 5 Euro, so you might as well get wine! Don't bother bringing a refillable water bottle because the amount of drinkable water fountains around are pretty scarce. Best thing to do is to budget the expense of bottled water before you go on your trip. Or just don't drink water at all and then save money on using bathrooms as well.... #Thrifty
4. DO LOOK FOR A CITY PASS OR CARD BEFOREHAND.
On my last two trips to Europe these have been SO useful when visiting a major city! Most of these passes come with 24-72 hour transportation cards that are good for ALL the trains, trolleys and buses WITHIN the city. This alone makes most of these cards worth it for me as trying to figure out where and how to buy transportation tickets can be a nightmare! Many also come with a guide book as well as get you discounts or free entry into the local sights. if you only have a few days in a city, these passes will help you get to the main attractions faster and cheaper, and have ALWAYS been worth their value, or surpassed it! The only inconvenience is that most places make you go to a certain office to pick the pass up instead of mailing to you, so plan accordingly, know where your pickup location is, and DO print up the voucher (or they may charge you to have them print it up when your husband forgets the voucher...). Also, many of the extremely large cities (like Paris or Rome) have a MUSEUM pass that comes with it or for a little extra, if that is your thing...
5. CITY TRANSPORTATION.
This one is TRICKY because every city is a little different, but the best tool to use is definitely Google maps (if you have service or wifi). Which by the way, T-Mobile is the only provider that I know of that gives you FREE data outside of the US. It is definitely slower, and you pay for calls, but it is a LIFE SAVER when it comes to needing to text or navigate! Google is the best because you can put in a destination, pick public transportation, and it will show you the best route and train or bus schedules. Navigating and underground/metro/subway can be extremely confusing, but they usually follow basic rules. Pick your current location and your destination, find the COLOR of the best connects you, and then follow that color on the map ALL THE WAY TO THE END OF THE LINE in the direction you want to head. Whatever the LAST STOP is called is what you want to look for written on signs. Follow over head signs with that COLOR, train label (Like M1), and last destination to go the direction you want to go. Nearly all the train systems work like this, except Rome, which has the MOST confusing transportation I have ever seen. GOOD LUCK THERE! I can't help you, and apparently neither can half the people working there either...
Either way, if you can't use Google maps to navigate, do some research before you leave to find an App specific to the cities transportation or metro. You can download many of these and use them off-line and it can definitely be a life saver. Also, while you are at it do some research and find an app for Taxi's at your destination. DO NOT USE UBER in most of the countries, like Italy, because many only offer Uber BLACK, which is going to be about twice as much as a regular taxi (however, in France I remember it being cheaper and they had regular Uber, so maybe check but always have a back up app or taxi phone number in case you are in a bind!)
6. AIRBNB for the win!
If you are trying to travel on a budget, Airbnb is the way to go! I have stayed in hostels before, and I know many people love them, but at this point you can actually find a room on Airbnb for two people for cheaper than paying for two beds at a hostel, AND you get privacy. I even like them better than hotel rooms as you have more choices, and can choose to get a private room, or a room in a flat/house with only a FEW people, not 100's of people that wake you up all night yelling in the hallway. Both of my last two trips to Europe, I did Airbnb rooms nearly the whole time, and I had a great experience with them! Only one was semi questionable, but I was only there for a night so it wasn't a big deal. I love how in an Airbnb, you almost get to experience what life is really like in the area you are visiting. Most of the time you get to see what the residential neighborhoods are like and get away from the tourist attractions. If they speak English, the host can be so helpful in navigating the city or giving recommendations. Hosts will usually leave you little extras, like juice, tea, biscuits, FREE WATER, or even a bottle of wine! Definitely make sure to THOROUGHLY read through the bio and reviews before booking though, and be aware of check-in/out, cleaning fee's and down deposits, Daily City Tax, and any special house rules. RESEARCH what you are getting yourself into, don't just pick the cheapest one. If you haven't used Airbnb before, click HERE to get 40$ for a travel credit from me!
I know this is a weird, random little thing, but in most of Europe, the first floor is actually... the second. Ground floor in most elevators will be labeled as 0, ZERO, and then go up from there. Learning this made me realize why we called it Ground Zero after the Twin towers collapsed....
8. ORDERING A LATTE...
some times means you are ordering just plain milk, not a delicious coffee drink. Be careful with what you are ordering and clarify a latte macchiato, or just order an espresso or coffee! It definitely helps if you or someone with you know the basics of the language to save you from ordering strange raw meats, (thanks sis!) so start preparing now with DuoLingo! But if you don't have the time or patience for this make SURE you
download GOOGLE translate!
You never know WHEN you will need it to rescue your husband who is locked in the bathroom...
yep, true story!
Also, it's not the best tip for experiencing the culture, but if you eat at a restaurant closer to a main tourist attraction, they are more likely to have menu's in English or with pictures, and sometime you just want to know what the heck you are ordering! Hey, it's better than Mcdonalds, right?
9. GET A CREDIT CARD WITH NO FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES (but also always carry at least 100$ in cash).
I got THIS one through US bank, which has a 50$ yearly membership, but no foreign transaction fees, and we used this whenever we could the whole trip. We did bring some backup cards though, and we realized that we still had to use our Debit cards to with-draw cash. Unfortunately, for too many places in Europe still do cash ONLY, which is why I also suggest to always try to have at LEAST 100 on you at the beginning of the day. You never know when a restaurant will say their machine is broken, or your taxi driver only accepts cash and it's 1 am in the morning. We always withdrew money straight from an ATM while there instead of exchanging, because it is always so hard to know what places you can trust to give you a fair exchange rate. I felt I was better off just going with a small ATM charge but definitely do some research beforehand!
10. PACK LIGHT WEIGHT, DRESS ACCORDINGLY, AND HAVE MULTIPLE PAIRS OF COMFORTABLE SHOES.
Most likely, in order to see everything, you will be walking EVERYWHERE. And when your not walking, you are standing on a crowded bus or train (you have to be one lucky duck to get a seat during the day). On top of that you will probably be doing more stairs than a half hour on the stair master at the gym! No joke, my average steps per DAY in Europe was 25,000! ((At home I struggle to even hit my 10,000 step goal!) If you do this for more than three days in a row I can guarantee your feet will be THROBBING at night. Having different shoes to switch it up every day or two saves your feet from developing blisters (even if they are well worn!) and from putting pressure on the same spots constantly! Also smart to bring some sort of gel like Biofreeze or Icy Hot to put on at night, and DO NOT forget your pain killers! Taking a hot bath and sleeping with my feet elevated at night also really helped me.
When I say pack light, I don't mean for the whole trip (although keep in mind that you may have to carry your bag up stairs in the very likely scenario of no elevators around), but on the day to day basis for going out, pack as little as possible. Unless you have a whole family, I do NOT suggest bringing a whole backpack, especially since these are somewhat easy targets for pick pockets. Both on my trip with my sister and my husband, we would bring ONE purse for the whole day, and take turns carrying it to give our backs a rest. Even a bag that only weights about 3-5 pounds will feel like 100 by then end of carrying it for a whole day. We usually packed only essentials, like money in a pouch and always placed in the INNERMOST pocket, sunscreen, sun glasses, head phones for any audio tours, tissues, pain killers, PORTABLE CHARGER (MUST HAVE!!) and tickets/guide books for the day. I would also suggest getting some sort of a clip to easily attach other bags from shopping or water bottles and such.
LASTLY, dress appropriately not just for the weather, but where you are going to visit. I was shocked at how many Cathedrals and Basilicas had a "DRESS CODE", which usually required shoulders to be covered and sometimes knees ( like the Vatican!). If you are planning to go ANYWHERE religious the next day, I would suggest doing some research about this before hand, and to always bring at least a light sweater just in case. Otherwise you may end up buying a cute scarf or shawl as a souvenir like me!
Those are my top 10 tips for visiting Europe, and I'll throw in one extra which is if you have never been outside of the states to any European countries, start with BARCELONA! Clean streets, amazing architecture, parks everywhere, right on the water, and CHEAP, Barcelona is an AMAZING place to get your feet wet and visit a European country with out as much culture shock! The culture is vibrant and thriving, the whole city beautiful, and the small plates called TAPAS make it so you can try ALL THE FOOD! WIN WIN!