I’ve been traveling to Europe for twenty years, but with each trip I learn something new not only about the continent of course, but how best to travel there as well. Here are some tips for anyone traveling to Europe, be it for the first time of the tenth.
1. Don’t be scared by trains – Europe is blessed with an amazing network of trains linking even the smallest towns and villages with the rest of the world. Train travel can be economical and is the best way to explore Europe whether you’re there for a month or just a few days. However, Europeans are very used to their system and from a North American point of view, where very few of us ride trains with any regularity; it can be confusing at first. Before you leave home, try to map out which trains you want to take and when they leave. These schedules can of course change at a moment’s notice, but it’s smart to at least have a plan. If you purchase a Eurail pass, make sure you note which trains require extra reservations and which don’t. Most of the trains between the major cities will require a paid reservation in additional to the pass. Depending on the country, you will have to validate your ticket at the train station before boarding. Train officials are very picky, so make sure you don’t forget. Finally, have fun. Train travel in Europe isn’t just expedient, it’s also a lot of fun. It’s a great way to see parts of the landscape you wouldn’t otherwise see, so be sure to enjoy it.
2. Know what to expect at hotels – If you’re staying at independent, one-off hotels (which you probably will if you travel outside of major cities), make sure you do your homework. Before you make your reservation, do as much research as possible and pay attention to star ratings. We don’t use these as much in the US, but in Europe they’re a key statistic to keep in mind when choosing a hotel. There is a huge difference between a two-star and four-star hotel. Once you arrive, you should prepare to be flexible. Many hotels are built in older houses or buildings and have unique character. This can mean old fashioned locks, strange lighting, very few electrical outlets and no air conditioning. If you travel in the spring or autumn, the lack of air conditioning shouldn’t be a problem, an open window and a nice breeze is a great way to cool off the room. But if you’re visiting in the height of summer, do your research and find a hotel with air conditioning. Never assume that the hotel has anything that is not specifically mentioned during the reservation process or on their website.
3. Stop at the little towns – Believe me, I love the great cities of Europe as much as anyone. London, Paris, Munich, Rome – they’re all fantastic places to explore. But for a more honest look at both European character and culture, there’s nothing better than spending time in some of the smaller towns and villages. They may be hard to reach at times, but thanks to the ancient history of the continent almost every village has something notable about it and they are all a lot of fun to explore. Whether it be wandering around medieval streets in the southwest of France, or admiring the canals of Bruges in Belgium, these small towns are proud of their heritage and are just waiting to share it with visitors.
4. Learn a few words of the language – It is absolutely possible to get around Europe fairly easily without speaking any language other than English. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to understand more of the languages around you. This can be difficult if you’re visiting multiple countries, but learning at least a few words and phrases isn’t just helpful, it’s a good way to show respect to your hosts. You are guests in a foreign land and you should always remember that. People will warm up and be more helpful if you can demonstrate at least an effort to try to communicate. You’ll also learn a lot more about the local culture that way too.
5. Don’t underestimate Europe – I know from an American point of view it’s hard to look at the small countries in Europe and think that each one warrants more than a few days of exploration. But I am always amazed at just how very much there is to see and do all throughout Europe and how much time you could spending exploring the continent. I just spent a week in the southwest of France and I could spend months only in that part of France and still not see everything. I know most people don’t have a lot of time to travel, but don’t try to do too much. While traveling I ran into an American couple who were spending three weeks in France and France alone. That was a great idea on their part and is one of the best ways to experience the Old World.
What are some of your top European travel tips?