European Travel Tips From Expats, Writers and Travelers

Europe is an easy and accessible vacation destination for first time international tourists and experienced travelers alike. The continent holds so many iconic landmarks and world class cities and its storied history has inspired pilgrimage and sparked wanderlust for centuries.

But if you’ve never left your home country, going abroad can be intimidating. Europe holds so many diverse countries within a relatively small landmass and the sheer number of choices can be overwhelming. There are language barriers to fret about and itineraries to plan. Plus, we want to pack everything in to one vacation, to get the most bang for our buck and to somehow make this the Most. Epic. Dream Trip. Ever!!!

It’s enough to make you do what my high school friend Linda did when she asked me for European travel planning advice — throw up your hands and wonder “Where do you even start?” I decided to start with my own experiences and then ask other travelers, expats and writers (many of whom have lived in Europe themselves) for advice.

Here are some tips for planning your European vacation without losing your mind. Be sure to tell me your own tips in the comments below!

Plan your must-see list:
Go to the library or the book store and browse through a stack of travel books, dive into Pinterest for inspiration and discuss your must-see destinations with your travel mates. The images and places you just can’t get out of your head are make up your own personal must-see list.

Everybody’s list will be different, so don’t feel like it’s weird if your ideal trip is centered around watching your soccer team play in person or sitting on a bench in garden while the sun sets. These are the things that are emotionally resonant for you and they’re the experiences that will make your trip meaningful.

Pick the right neighborhood for you:
Next, choose a walkable neighborhood with good access to public transportation near most of the attractions on your must-see list. (More on public transportation later.) This will put you right in the middle of all that history and culture you came all this way to see and you can pop back to your room to grab a sweater or take a nap.

Some travelers are tempted by hotels further from the city center, lured by slightly lower prices, marginally larger rooms and the comfort of a familiar hotel name. You might save a little money, but you’ll spend more time in transit, especially during rush hour.

Schedule one must-see activity per day:
I’m a firm believer that the second a vacation becomes a strict, endless to do list, it’s work, not a vacation. Packing your day so full that you can’t allow for serendipity is a mistake. After all, you might want to spend more time at that must-see destination. It’s fun to wander and to discover new things. Plus, life happens. Trains are delayed, lines can get long, people need a snack, a break to sit down, to just sit and watch the world go by for a second. Rushing around sucks all the joy out of a trip.


Houseboats in a canal in Amsterdam

Greta Alms, of Pickles Travel Blog for Food and Family Travel has some more tips for us, many of which she learned firsthand. She’s lived in Spain (and Chile and Costa Rica), but now calls Minnesota home.

Don’t get hung up on international boundaries:
“Traveling from country to country in Europe is as easy as traveling from state to state in this US- except each country speaks a new language and has a different culture.”

Savor your meals:
“Europeans do meals much differently than we do. In the Midwest we are all about being efficient, whereas in Europe — especially Southern Europe — a meal is an experience meant to be enjoyed. Lunch can easily take 2 to 3 hours and the simple act of ordering and drinking an espresso is no longer so simple. Sitting, sipping and relishing in the flavors while chatting with friends and watching people walk by is the quintessential European experience.”


My silly (and blonde!) 20-year-old self in a London phone booth

Kylie Neuhaus is also an expert at balancing two cultures. She’s originally from the U.K. and now lives in Iowa. She writes about life as an expat at Between England and Iowa.

Don’t panic if you’re not bilingual:
“You can easily get by in the majority of the big European cities using English! Things such as signs and menus will have English translations.”

Research your cell phone plan before you go:
“Not all US cell phone providers will work in Europe. When I have WiFi or before I leave, I’ll screen shot different places and routes on Google Maps. They’ll be stored in my camera roll and can then be viewed without phone reception.”


The gardens of El Escorial, in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

My friend Joe Baur is an Ohio native, but now lives in Germany. He writes about off the beaten path destinations and car free travel for Without a Path.

Don’t drive:
“My biggest thing would be to not travel like you do in the States. Public transport is much more expansive and common to use. Your airline ticket should be revoked if you plan to rent a car. […]The systems are on Google Maps, so you always know what to take.”

Editor’s note: Not driving came up a lot in these interviews.

Walk:
“…Walking is much more pleasant and common. Eat a big breakfast and plan to walk anywhere from 5-10 miles if you’re exploring a new city on a larger scale.”

Learn a few phrases of the local language:
“If you’re traveling to a country that speaks a different language, make an effort. (I have a post on tips for this. There are enough apps and podcasts out there that you no longer have an excuse for not knowing the basic pleasantries.”


The Musée Rodin in Paris

Adrienne Huncek Miller, who writes for Destinations and Desserts, is an Iowa native who now makes her home in Indiana. She has some practical tips to share.

Choose credit cards wisely:
“Sign up for a credit card with no foreign transaction fees (there are many different ones available, including cards with no annual fee), and then use it as much as possible since credit cards tend to get an excellent exchange rate. Even a 3% transaction fee really adds up if you are using your credit card for most of your expenses.

Make sure to notify the credit card company about when and where you’re traveling (you can usually do this online or by calling them) or they may freeze your account the first time the card is used outside the United States.”

Don’t over schedule:
“Don’t try to do too much. It can be tempting on a first trip to Europe to try to hit several major cities like London, Paris, Barcelona and Rome, but unless you have several weeks to travel, the result is going to be breezing through each city in a day or two and not really seeing them in any depth. For a trip of a week to 10 days, I would recommend sticking to one country and spending time in both the country’s major city and one of the its better-known rural regions (for example, Paris + the Loire Valley).”

Make time for marquee attractions:
“Don’t be afraid to do touristy things. Yes, the Eiffel Tower, Buckingham Palace and the Vatican are extremely touristy, but they’re also things a first-time visitor shouldn’t miss. By all means, mix some more off-the-beaten path things into your itinerary, but don’t feel any shame about visiting the sites that are on all the postcards.”

My friend Katey K. blogs at Katey 911. She also wrote this post about the Azores Islands for me awhile back. Her advice makes me smile.

Be spontaneous:
“Be flexible. Don’t set your schedule TOO rigidly. Maybe the museum you wanted to see is closed on Monday (me, Uffizi). Maybe someone mentions a can’t-miss item that wasn’t on your agenda. Maybe there’s a pop-up Bieber concert in front of your hotel (gross). Give yourself the freedom to rethink your daily events based on what new information you receive.

My personal example is when I left San Jose, Costa Rica after one night to travel to Manuel Antonio with two girls I met at breakfast. The beach? With strangers? Why not?”

Be a tourist…a little:
“You’re in Europe. Ostensibly, you’re there to see things you can’t see at home. Do them! See them! Climb them! Photograph them! Gawk! It’s a pretty fair assumption that you’ll be ‘outed’ as a tourist right away, so don’t even worry about standing out. I was in Greece during the summer heat wave of 2003, yet only the locals were in jeans. There’s no way I could have ‘blended’ if I tried.

“On the flip side…Don’t be a tourist: Don’t lend support to the “stupid American” idea many others have. Don’t litter. Easy on the ketchup. Be polite. Have a few words ready in whatever language is spoken. Avoid McDonalds.”

Slow down:
“Last, don’t be afraid to take breaks. Navigating a foreign country, even if there’s no language barrier, can be exhausting. I always felt I had to GO GO GO because I had limited time. Sit at a cafe and people watch (but not creepily). Recharge. You’ll feel better, remember more, and have more enjoyment then if you exhaust yourself.”


What about you?
What European travel tips would you add?
Tell us about your first European trip?
If you haven’t been to Europe yet, where do you want to go and why?
What surprised you about Europe?
What do you wish you knew about travel that you learned along the way?

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