Vacationing in Europe for the first time is both exciting and daunting. With the anticipation of experiencing new sights and cultures, is an equal sense of uncertainty. As someone who’s been traveling to this corner of the globe for the past ten years, here are some of my general tips for making the most of your time, your money, and avoiding unnecessary stress, wherever you find yourself on the continent.
Easily at the top of every traveler’s priority list is having a working phone while abroad. Posting photos aside, having the ability to map a destination or communicate with those you’re traveling with can streamline an itinerary, thereby reducing stress. While my family specifically switched cellular plans several years ago due to the increase of our trips to Europe, I recommend first-time and infrequent visitors opt for a temporary international plan.
Base your needed level of coverage on how much calling and texting you think you’ll do. I wouldn’t factor in general data usage outside of utilizing a mapping program. It’s less expensive to limit all social media (and other data) usage to wi-fi (either in your hotel room or anywhere you can find access to a public network). Downloading images alone eats through large amounts of data. Some level of restraint is required, but the money you save as a result is worth it. Those who have existing plans with major carriers like T-Mobile, Verizon, or AT&T can find detailed information about international plans on their websites.
Cash and Credit/ATM Cards
Even before setting an itinerary, ensuring you have a variety of ways to access funds while abroad is essential. While I touch on this in the next section, I personally travel with one or two credit cards, an ATM card, and the equivalent of 50 dollars in the local currency at all times. As far as credit cards go, it’s a good idea to notify your company of your travels beforehand so they don’t block overseas charges, as well as ask about foreign transaction fees. It’s a small percentage of the overall transaction, but things can add up if you’re making larger purchases.
It’s also commonplace in smaller shops and restaurants to be cash-only, or have a minimum spending requirement. (If you’ve spent any time in New York City bodegas, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) The best advice is simply to check before committing to a purchase, especially at a restaurant. Usually, it’s just an owner wanting to avoid taxes on their income, and nothing personal to you as a foreigner. I steer clear of buying currency at my bank or at a currency exchange booth, and use my ATM card instead. Usually, you’ll get a better exchange rate and don’t have to commit to large amounts of cash at any one time. In the E.U., I withdraw 50 euros at a time. It’s enough cash to cover a few cheap meals and public transportation fees. Airports, large train stations, and bank branches will all have ATMs for public use. It’s also a good idea to check with your bank before you leave, and ensure that you have adequate funds in your account.
When a college friend of mine decided she was going to study abroad in Paris a few years ago, she confessed to me that one of her biggest worries was being robbed. A fear of being pickpocketed has become synonymous with European cities, usually tourists being the most common targets. Major cities that top the list include Rome, Barcelona, and Prague. I wasn’t going to tell her that she had nothing to worry about, since the problem is real. What I did share with her were some of my tips to decrease the chances of it happening. To this day, I’ve never had an issue.
First, I rarely carry a purse. It’s easier to keep track of your belongings when they’re physically on your person. Slim down what you’re carrying to essentials: phone, keys, one or two credit/debit cards, and no more than the equivalent of 50 dollars in cash. Store all of this in an inside coat pocket. Ladies, if you insist on a purse, consider one that zips with an over-the-shoulder strap. Guys, quit storing your wallet in your back pockets. It’s just an invitation for unwanted attention. If you have an expensive camera, either hang the strap over your neck tourist-style, or keep it in a carrying case (following the same logic as women’s purses) when you’re not using it. You also don’t need to carry your passport unless you’re duty-free shopping.
All that said, the best way to avoid pickpockets is to stay alert, and be aware of common scams. If you’re in a crowded space (the streets, a museum, public transportation, etc.) and someone tries to distract you, that’s a telltale sign to pay attention. Examples include someone asking you to sign a petition, claim a piece of jewelry they found on the ground, or even asking you for a photo. If anything feels off, keep moving, and you should be fine. In addition, if you follow the steps above, you should be less of a target to begin with. Thieves go for easy “prey”, not a challenge.
Top Five Attractions
Even if you don’t have a rigid travel itinerary in place, I recommend having five or so must-see attractions on your to-do list to plan your days around. In major European cities like London or Paris, having such a list will focus your energy, so you don’t get distracted by all there is to do. In less populated areas, like the Tuscan countryside, having “travel goals” will keep you from wasting time, or getting bored, when you have to journey farther for entertainment.
With that in mind, doing your research ahead of time is paramount. Most major attractions, like monuments and museums, have websites available in English with opening hours, exhibitions, transportation pointers, and cost of admission. If possible, look into buying tickets online. It can save you lots of money and help you avoid lines. For example, the Paris museum pass gets you free entry into over 50 museums in the city for a flat rate in two, four, or six-day increments. Less time waiting to see what’s on your list means you can do more in a shorter amount of time, especially if you’re only visiting your chosen destination for a few days.
Lay of the Land
When traveling somewhere new in Europe as a young teen, nothing perplexed me more than my parents spending the first few hours combing the area around our hotel to get a “lay of the land.” Once they got a read of everything within a 15-minute radius of our accommodations, then we’d finally start to tackle the things on our to-do list. It wasn’t until I did some traveling on my own in the spring of 2016 during a semester abroad that I realized how valuable of a travel practice it was.
What I saw as a few boring hours wandering around before the real fun began, my parents used this time to set up our “home territory.” They took note of nearby grocery stores, public transportation, ATMs, and restaurants. In addition, they noted opening and closing times. I advise you do the same, especially if you’re visiting somewhere for the first time. Once you get settled in at your destination, whether it’s a small town or a big city, take an hour or two to get to know your neighborhood. While it can be tempting to rush straight into tourist mode, knowing what nearby resources are available can pay off in the long run, even if it’s just a last-minute craving for a bag of chips.
When traveling somewhere new, no one expects you to be able to converse flawlessly in the native language. However, going into a country armed with a basic vocabulary of phrases will not only make it that much easier to get around, but usually will score you major kudos with the locals. You don’t necessarily need to purchase a language guidebook to get by. However, it can be a fun way to learn more about a culture, and pass the time if your travels involve any lengthy commuting. I recommend either checking Amazon, or hitting up the travel section of your local bookstore. Eyewitness Language Guides are particularly good.
A manageable list of useful phrases to know can also be found here. Bottom line, you should be able to say hello, ask someone if they speak English, and thank them for their help. Doing some additional research into language customs is also worth your time. For example, in France, it’s most polite to greet someone formally (“Bonjour madame/monsieur…”) instead of launching right into your request.
If you take away anything from this guide, the most important tip I can give for traveling in Europe is to be polite. Americans are fairly casual, so approaching any European culture with an little more formality is usually in your best interest. Blending in can actually be your greatest strength as a traveler. It shows you respect the place you’re visiting. Even if you can barely string together a sentence in the language, or are a bit wary of the cuisine, simply showing locals that you’re excited to learn about what makes their corner of the continent unique speaks volumes.
That being said, try to keep the volume of your own speaking at a reasonable level, take pains to dress well, and thank everyone who goes out of their way to help you. Many Europeans accommodate visiting Americans by learning English. Considering the same isn’t often as true when Europeans visit our country, try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes when they stumble over their words. Never doubt how far being considerate will take you. In my experience, people have been more than willing to bend over backwards to help when you approaching situation with a lack of entitlement, and a few well-chosen vocabulary words.