The first ‘big trip’ I took was a jaunt through Europe when I was 20 years old, and this novice traveller didn’t even consult a guide book or reserve all of her flights/hostels before going! Obviously this is not a crazy thing for most nomads, but it’s a huge deal for me! Anyway, I headed across the pond to visit eight countries in seven weeks, spending the first three weeks with a friend before meeting up with family friends for the last three, then had a few days by myself at the end. Needless to say, traipsing around the continent made me learn some solid travel lessons pretty fast! Here is my list of top 10 things to keep in mind if you’re heading to Europe.
1) You will get ABC’d
Another Bloody Church. Another Bloody Castle. Get the picture? If you’re trying to hit all the main sights on your bucket list—especially in a short period of time—you’ll likely get fatigued at the sight of yet another monument. I know, first world problems right?
But if the whole point of your trip is to get a shot of culture while still having fun, try to avoid packing your itinerary chock full of historical highlights.
Instead, dedicate one day to taking in the sites, then make sure you spend the next day wandering around aimlessly, spending the afternoon at an outdoor café or hitting the shops. Your feet will thank you, and you’ll be actually be able to appreciate the scenery you travelled all that way to take in.
2) Travelling alone? Book a hostel
Half the fun of travelling is getting to make lifelong friends…or at least meeting people you can call in a pinch when you find yourself in Denmark and need a couch to crash on. The easiest way to meet people is to book a room at a hostel, where you will be forced to talk to other people. This is especially important if you’re travelling solo, as a night at the pub is always more fun when you have someone to cheers with. You might be surprised by how friendly everyone is while on the road, and could even pick up some tips about another town worth heading to or a great restaurant. In Belgium, a fellow traveller even gifted me a train ticket he couldn’t use—score!
3) Embrace the languages…all 247 of them
OK so there aren’t 247 languages in Europe, but it sure seems like it sometimes. While Europe has banded together for the most part when it comes to currency, they’re still not even close when it comes to a standard language. Halfway through my Euro trip I was in a gift shop in Austria, and found myself confused about where I even was at times. By the time I left the store, I realized I’d said ‘Hello’ in English, ‘No thanks’ in French, ‘Yes’ in German and ‘Bye’ in Spanish. I DON’T EVEN SPEAK SPANISH. The shopkeeper must have thought I was nuts. Regardless, the locals will appreciate you at least attempting to communicate with them in their native tongue, so try to think back to junior high French class when ordering a coffee at that quaint outdoor café in Paris. The waiter will still be surly, but at least you tried.
4) Wine is cheaper than water
Yes, you read that right. Expect to pony up a few euros for ‘tafelwasser’ in places like Germany, while a glass of crisp Riesling will only set you back around €1.50. The ironic thing about it is that by the end of your trip, you won’t even WANT to drink liquor anymore! Embrace the sweet savings at the beginning of your trip, then be sure to cart around a big water bottle the rest of the time. Hydration is key, my friends.
5) Italians go on strike. A lot.
Travelling through beautiful Italia? You might be wise to come up with a Plan B, if you have a full itinerary booked.
Italians are infamous for being on strike. All. The. Time.
Shortly before I arrived in Rome, cab drivers decided to strike for a day, making it pretty tough for anyone to get to the airport in time for their flights home. I also know a group who encountered a similar problem when all of the trains got shut down, and they had to get to Rome from Venice in one day. They ended up paying a premium to rent a car, and had quite the time navigating the winding countryside! Moral of the story? If you are relying on public transportation for anything, consider yourself warned.
6) Embrace the scenic route
Speaking of scenic routes, there is something to be said for taking your time. Air travel in Europe is incredibly cheap which makes it a great option if you are zig-zagging across the continent in a short period of time (guilty as charged). However, you can’t see the rolling green hills of Austria or experience the thrill of the Autobahn from 30,000 feet above ground—a major advantage of hopping on the train or renting a vehicle. While a ride on the rails may take longer, the experience is often worth it, not to mention you won’t have to walk through airport security in your bare feet!
7) You might need another suitcase
I started off my jaunt in France, and make a total rookie mistake less than four days in to the trip: I purchased something breakable.
Yup, my friend and I paid a trip to the Champagne region, and just couldn’t leave the Piper-Heidsieck cellars without a bottle of bubbly and six champagne flutes. We then spent the next three weeks hauling our fragile goods through airports, bus stations and hostels, before my friend headed home and managed to pack them all in her carry-on. (Her mother dropped one of the flutes when she finally brought them home, but that’s a story for another day).
Expect to do a lot of shopping in Europe, whether it’s taking advantage of the great sales, bringing back a bottle of booze you can’t get at home (Absinthe, anyone?) or simply packing your suitcase full of souvenirs. It may be worth buying a small carry-on to pack everything into and sending it home halfway through your trip, so you’re not hauling extra bags. One way to combat this? Think hard before handing over any cash: about 80 per cent of the stuff I bought in Europe ended up in some sorry little box at the back of my closet, that hasn’t been seen since.
8) Locals know best
Nobody knows the ins-and-outs of a city like the locals, so wouldn’t it make sense to try to pick their brain for tips? This is why I’m a big fan of bed-and-breakfasts or hostels as opposed to a big hotel, since you’ll usually get some one-on-one time with the owner.
These guys know which buses to take, the best places to eat, and can even get you special access to sites.
The owner of the place we stayed at in Rome surprised us one morning with tickets to the weekly papal address, which he got from ‘the guy in a window around the corner from the Vatican.’ Right. Suffice it to say that getting passes straight from our pal Lucca was a lot easier than standing in line for hours in St. Peter’s Square, which is how you usually have to get your hands on tickets.
Another trick is to take part in the free walking tours on offer in many major cities. You’ll at least get the lay of the land, if nothing else.
9) Find a good base
If you’re the type who doesn’t mind being ABC’d (see above), you’ll eventually burn out. Travellers are also known to come down with a mean case of the shin splits weeks in, due to the cobblestones they’re forced to navigate in pretty much every city.
An easy way to combat fatigue is to quit moving around so much!
If you plan to be in a certain area for at least a week, it may be worth getting a short-term rental where you can actually unpack and buy some groceries. Not only will this be good for your waistline—yes, eating in restaurants DOES get old after a while—but you’ll also have a good hub to explore from and can easily take day trips. For example, a base in Paris means you can get a feel for the city while exploring nearby places like Versailles and Champagne. A one hour train ride will get you to Brussels or Luxembourg, and you can even make it to the Netherlands if you leave early enough.
10) Just go with it!
Finally…don’t plan too much! I know, I sound like a hypocrite saying that as I usually have my trips planned down to the very last detail. What can I say, I don’t like arriving in a big city without a bed reserved. But even I arrived in Europe without any idea of how I was actually getting back to Paris for my flight back to Canada. The open itinerary resulted in an unexpected, wonderful trip to Turkey and a journey through Belgium thanks to some fun Belgian girls I roomed with at a hostel in Spain. Having a few days to spare means you can loiter on the beach and rest your weary legs, nurse a hangover, or spend a day wandering the streets of London, hoping for a Pippa Middleton sighting (try the shopping districts). You’ll never regret spending an extra day in a place, but you’ll always think about the things you didn’t have time to see.
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