I have now taken 10 separate trips to Europe and visited 24 countries in the continent. I jokingly call it my annual pilgrimage to Europe, although some years I’ve been more than once. From my first trip in 2014 to Italy and France to my last this past summer when I spent more than 5 weeks in the Balkans and Western Europe, I have gathered some wisdom that I hope you will find useful. This post covers my 10 tips for visiting Europe that will hopefully help you both in the planning phase and once you get there!
1. Picking the Best Time to Go
First up on this 10 tips for visiting Europe list is picking the best time to visit! Europe is crowded in the summer. Most Europeans are on vacation and Americans love traveling to Europe in the summer too. May is usually when I make my annual pilgrimage to Europe as May is early enough to avoid the summer crowds. Shoulder season (May, September) in general is great because not only do you avoid the crowds, you also beat the heat and things can be cheaper.
Also, don’t fully dismiss winter! From Christmas markets to beautiful winter landscapes, a winter trip to Europe can be magical. Europe also has some relatively warm destinations (i.e., south of Italy, Malta, Portugal) if you are seeking a warmer destination. I have been to Spain, Portugal, Austria, Malta and Slovakia in the winter and they were all amazing!
One thing to call out is that some places may fully close during the off-season/winter or have limited places open, limited opening times or hours. For example, Santorini in Greece is not as exciting during the colder months. Check before you book!
2. Don’t Carry a Big Suitcase
Europe is not made for big suitcases in my opinion. Lugging a big suitcase on a beautiful cobblestone street in Europe can be a challenge at times. Another reason not to carry a big suitcase is if you are going to travel by train a lot. Train travel in Europe is fun (and my favorite mode of transportation around Europe), until of course you have to carry your suitcase up and down stairways of train stations and platforms. This can be stressful, especially if the connections are super tight (cough Deutsche Bahn…cough).
Another case for not carrying a big suitcase is to avoid lugging it up and down stairs of hotels and vacation rentals that don’t have a lift/elevator (remember that scene from Emily in Paris and Emily with her massive suitcase?…yeah it’s not fun!)
3. Check Currency Requirements
This is an important tip for visiting Europe in my opinion. Currency can differ from country to country within Europe. I think it’s a common misconception that all Schengen nations use the Euro. Countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic for example do not use the euro. Some non-Schengen countries (i.e., Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro) although they have their own legal tender may accept the euro. It’s always best to check before you go.
In addition to the currency, the payment mode also differs quite a bit. Iceland for example is mostly a card economy whereas it’s mostly cash only in countries like Croatia.
Some countries in Europe don’t take credit cards without the tap option, so make sure you have a tap credit card. Furthermore you may need a pin to use your credit card at certain fuel stations (i.e., Iceland) and at metro ticket kiosks (i.e., Spain). If you don’t have a pin for your credit card, make sure you request one from your card issuing company before you leave.
The best exchange rate you will find is at an ATM local to that country. The most important thing here is to find a local bank or a bank native to that country. You can research these ahead of time to find banks that don’t charge a fee. Avoid generic ATMs like Euronet at all cost.
4. Understand Borders if Traveling to Multiple Countries
If you are driving across borders it is important to understand the zone the two countries are a part of. Border crossings between two Schengen nations are pretty easy. Some are not even manned and your passport does not have to be presented or stamped. Going from a Schengen country to a non-Schengen country or vice versa will require a passport check and stamp. You will also have to factor in lines and wait times at borders too.
Another thing to research prior is documentation needed to cross a border. For example, you need minimum insurance called a green card to drive in Bosnia and Montenegro. Also look up toll requirements. For example, Slovenia requires a toll called a vignette and you cannot drive in Slovenia without this.
Even if you are flying from one country to another within the continent of Europe, it’s important to understand these differences as this would make a difference in the time you spend (or not) at the airport and/or passport control, especially if you have a connection.
5. Watch Out for Your Stuff
I know so many people, including myself who have lost either a phone, wallet, purse, passports or bags carrying important documents on a trip to Europe. Not saying it happens everywhere nor that it happens every time but it has happen to so many people I personally know now that it would be a disservice of me not to mention it on this tips for visiting Europe list. Cities like Paris, Rome, Lisbon, Athens and Barcelona are places where I know this has happened. A few tricks for safety and caution, especially if you are a solo traveler.
- Carry a money belt or something that’s hard to get to (I carry a cross bodies satchel with a zip and flap and make sure it’s in front always and that flap is turned towards my body)
- Keep money/credit cards in several places
- Take photocopies of important documents
- Carry an old/back-up phone
6. Buy a Sim Card Locally
The least expensive way to have connectivity during your trip to Europe is to get a sim locally. Sims bought in a Schengen country can usually be used any where in the Schengen zone (confirm before you buy). If you are going to multiple non-Schengen countries, then you may need to buy a sim from each country but it will still be cheaper than roaming. Of course I am speaking with American roaming charges in mind but I’m making the assumption that roaming is expensive in other parts of the world too. Please discard this tip if that’s not the case 🙂
The one caveat of buying a local sim is that you need an unlocked phone. You can easily get an old/unused phone unlocked and keep it for this purpose.
7. Book Major Attractions Ahead of Time
Certain attractions are so popular that ticket sell out months in advance. Book these as soon as you book your flight to avoid disappointment. Some examples of these are the Uffizi, the Vatican Museum, Alhambra, Painting of the Last Supper, Anne Frank House.
8. Trains vs. Flying
Europe has some of the best cross country train systems in the world! Taking a train from one end of a country to another or even crossing a border from country to another via train is one of my favorite things about tripping in Europe. This being said, flying can be faster than taking a train even with the time at the airport. Furthermore, it can also be cheaper to fly than take the train sometimes too. On a trip from London to Edinburgh, I found that it was significantly cheaper to fly than to take the train. Always check both options!
9. Not All Hotels and Rentals Have Air Conditioning
This is something that really surprised me about Europe the first few times. Especially because it does get hot in the summer months. Sometimes even four star hotels I have been to didn’t have air conditioning that could be controlled from the room itself. If air conditioning is important to you (like it is for this terribly spoiled American), then make sure you are booking a place that has it. Most accommodation websites like Booking.com have filters that you can apply when searching for hotels.
10. Coordinate your Arrivals and Departures
Coordinate your arrival and departures with your hotels, trains and rental car pick ups. Here are a few examples of what I mean by this:
- If your hotel is not ready at the time you arrive, ask them if you can leave your bag and come and check-in later
- If your vacation rental is not ready, research for a luggage storage place prior
- If you need to take a train after a flight, make sure there is ample time between the two
- If you need to pick up a rental car, make sure they are open at the hour that you land or arrive by train. Some rental car agencies are not at the airport itself. If this is the case, make sure there will be a shuttle or a way for you to get to that location after hours
- If you need to drop off your rental car at night, make sure the agency is open or have drop off instructions.
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