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?
21 thoughts on “Five Tips for Traveling in Europe”
We realized that it’s not always cheaper to get a rail pass. We are spending 3 weeks in Spain, visiting 6 cities. With the help of a grumbling rail ticket seller we realized one of our destinations was not accessible by train and when we calculated the cost of individual tickets vs a pass, individual was a better price. Maybe that would have been different if we had purchased a pass in advance.
We also discovered that traveling by bus in Spain cam be very nice. Very comfortable and good views from our raised vantage point.
You are absolutely right about the train tickets, we discovered the same thing in Belgium last year. A little research is important to determine the true value. And yes, I LOVE train travel. So great in so many different ways.
Great list of tips for traveling in Europe – thanks!
I agree, large cities are great to explore but nothing beats the feel of a smaller town. If anyone is traveling to Spain I highly recommend visiting Granada! It’s a great city in Southern Spain with a lot to see and do.
Thanks for sharing, Matt. I’ll definitely keep this tips in mind the next time I’m in Europe!
Very good points, especially about the hotels. The star system is so different as is the terminology. For instance, single, twin, double, triple are all terms that I had to learn relative to Europe.
Great tips Matt. Europe is FANTASTIC for trains. Can be a little intimidating at first but traveling on a train in Europe will make you wish we had more of these in the US (and I don’t mean the slow, expensive Amtrak trains here in the US).
One other thing to note about hotels. Note that most of these two star hotels don’t have elevators. That’s something else to consider as well. Another thing to note is the floors. The first floor in Europe is actually the second floor in the US (Floor 0 in Europe is our first floor).
As for small towns, one of the best things you can do in Europe is get away from the bib cities. See them of course but you will miss out on a lot so if you don’t check out what these places have to offer. Some of your best experiences and memories are in small town Europe.
Hi Matt. Great tips. I especially agree with #1 and #5. I love the trains in Europe and would rather take the train than a plane even if it costs more. Usually trains are faster and you go from city center to city center which save a lot of time.
As far as #5 goes I meet a lot of people who think they can hop all over Europe in a two week trip. I really try to talk them out of this because you spend so much time moving around that you do not get to experience the cultures of each country.. My first trip to Europe was a 5 week nonstop trip to as many countries as we could visit. Since then I have slowed down the pace to focus on one country at a time. I did three trips in a row to Spain and still think I need a lot more time there.
Thanks for the reading.. all tips great.
Im doing a three wk trip to Europe this August-bit of last min planning…Im also on a budget.. £800…eh i am willing to volnunteer on projects eco builds, sustainable communities that offer bed and food – food a bonus. Also thinking only one counrty, France Italy or Spain??
Thanks for sharing the great tips! very useful as I’m planning my European trip..
Although visiting smaller tows can give you best cultural experience, be aware of thugs and try to be polite in pubs, so you don’t run into troubles.
Very good tips – as an expat in Europe, I can only say that trains are the best way to get around, despite planes sometimes being faster. Trains are prettier, more comfortable, less stressful, and incredibly more fun.
Very good advice, especially regarding the trains. I learned the hard way that some trains require an extra reservation on top of the EuroRail pass. Thanks for the tips! Each time I visit Europe, I learn how much more I still have left to explore!
great post! I just found your blog – I really love it so far
I’m also a big advocate of learning at least a little bit of the language before you go. It can really open doors for you and you never know what situations may arise in which it could be endlessly useful.
Thanks for sharing these useful tips with the rest of the world. Being Dutch I particularly tip no. 4: learn a few words of the language. The Dutch will speak English with you anyway, since we love to show off our language skills ;-), but it is all the same indeed an expression of respect not to assume everybody will speak English.
I think that one of the extra advantages of a rail pass in Europe is that you do not need to plan.
You can choose to travel in a single day, for example (this is one I did) from Corniglia, to La Spezia, to Pisa (quick stop in at the leaning tower), to Florence, to Bologna, to Venice. All without having to muck around with buying specific tickets. Once your pass has been validated you can just hop on and hop off most trains (excluding the inter city/high speed options.
I think that flexibility is worth paying a little extra money. But if you are on a rigid itinerary then you can save money buy pre-booking point to point fares.
Great article Matt,
Europe is an amazing destination with so much to see and do that planning can be very overwhelming at times. You give some great tips on train, hotel and definitely agree with you on taking time to explore the smaller cities so you can really get a feel for the culture.
Great article and I totally agree! I love Europe especially the tiny towns people don’t usually go to.
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#3 – Little towns are absolutely adorable and they’re full of history. I’m glad we chose Brugge for a day trip from Paris instead of going to Brussels. It’s like being in a different age and time and the houses in Brugge were preserved. We had the freshest mussels there, too!
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