Five Ways To Improve Your European Travel Experience

Bordeaux, France

While it’s nearly impossible for me to name a favorite country I like to visit, I think it is fairly safe for me to say that Europe is my favorite region and continent. There’s just something about traveling there that stirs my soul and leaves me refreshed, no matter how much exploration I did during the trip. The history and beautiful landscapes tucked neatly into this compact continent means that it would take many lifetimes to fully explore it, but it’s at least worth a shot trying. Although it’s an easy place to get around, even for the first time visitor, there are some useful things you can do to make your European travel experience even more memorable.

1. What to wear – I appreciate the irony of clothing tips coming from a guy who usually wears old jeans and sweatshirts around the house, but what to wear when in Europe can be important. I don’t mean high fashion, I mean traveler chic. Every time we provide cultural clues to strangers that we are foreign creates more risk of pickpocketing or other scams. That’s why it’s important to fly under the radar when traveling and to try to look like everyone else around you. Granted, this is easier to do in Europe than in some other parts of the world, and yet I see so many people who ignore this rule.

  • Shorts – While some Europeans are wearing shorts more often, it’s still not incredibly common. So leave them at home and instead opt for a lightweight pair of travel pants or jeans. Jeans are universal and will help you fit in almost anywhere in the world. Except at nudist beaches, they don’t work well there.
  • T-Shirts – T-shirts are great and easy to pack, just try to avoid overly branded ones. Leave the UK Wildcats tee at home and instead pick up some plain, comfortable t-shirts you can wear around town. You can usually pick these up pretty cheaply and they have the benefit of not broadcasting to the world who you are and where you’re from.
  • Layer – Unless you’re traveling in the middle of summer, temperatures in European cities and towns can vary widely throughout the day. A freezing morning may become a steamy afternoon, so dress in layers that you can quickly store in a daypack of some sort.


2. Hotels: do your research – Ah, the European hotel. My great nemesis. Here in the US and Canada we have a preponderance of major brands and their subsidiaries and relative dearth of smaller, independent hotels. That means frankly that we know what to expect when booking hotel rooms. This isn’t as easy to do in Europe. Sure, the major cities and capitals have some major, international brands that you can trust, but the smaller cities and towns are almost entirely made up of small, one-off hotels. Many people prefer them, and that’s great, but what I don’t like is the uncertainty. There’s no way of knowing if it’s good or not until you show up, at which point it’s too late. So do your research and more importantly, ask people who have been there for recommendations. TripAdvisor is ok for giving a broad idea, but it’s great (one of them) failing is that how we perceive hotels is very subjective. Someone from the UK may not care if the room is comfortable or not, as long as there’s a bed and no visible blood stains. Whereas an American will be more picky, expecting spacious rooms, air conditioning and so forth. So be sure to consider the geographical source of those online reviews you read. Ultimately though, it’s a crap shoot and you have to eventually go with your gut after doing as much research as possible. Note: This is where some travel specialists come in handy as they have firsthand knowledge of the areas you plan to visit.

 Eiffel Tower Paris

3. Tourist hotspot versus trap – Western civilization, the Renaissance, the printed word, the Beatles and so much more, all started in Europe and all defined who we are as a people. Well maybe not the Beatles, I just like them. Along with this incredible history comes a litany of sights to see and places to visit. But not all are made the same and even the way you visit them can be a trap. You should absolutely visit places like the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey and even the Colosseum. But when you purchase a daily tourist pass you may notice other ‘hotspots’ being advertised, less auspicious ones like wax museums and Hard Rock cafes. These businesses enter into agreements with local tourism boards and try to pass themselves off as amazing experiences only to be found in those cities. They are not. So skip the duck boat tours and wax museums and instead pay attention to the real sights. Also, be aware that you don’t always need to pay to actually go into these places. This is personal preference of course, but personally I don’t need to see the inside of another royal apartment or cathedral for as long as I live. Instead, save your money for more notable experiences like private tours of Vatican City or a visit to a historical site that resonates with you. Just because it’s famous doesn’t mean you have to feel pressure to like it.


4. Eat all the food, but wisely – Some of my favorite foods in the world can be found in Europe, and it’s this culinary focus that draws many visitors in the first place. There’s nothing better than warm chocolate croissants in Paris, homemade pasta in Italy or even a schnitzel in Austria. These are important parts of the travel experience and shouldn’t be skipped. But they can also be expensive, and the daily food costs for three meals a day plus snacks can be considerable, so it’s important to plan. Breakfast is commonly included with room rates in Europe, so make sure that’s the case for your visit. This is the best way to get a ‘free’ breakfast and eat enough to either have a light lunch or skip it altogether. Second, do not eat within 3 blocks of a major tourist attraction. I know those crepes next to the Eiffel Tower look amazing, but you’ll pay half as much for one a few blocks away. The same holds true for restaurants. The food near tourist sites is usually sub-par and overpriced, so skip it unless getting The View is important to you, but even then do it sparingly. Finally, always find the closest supermarket to your hotel. All urban centers have them and they can look unassuming, so ask the front desk staff for directions. Not only is walking through a foreign grocery store a fascinating cultural experience, you can pick up snacks and drinks at a fraction of the cost anywhere else.

 Guild Houses of the Grand Place, Brussels

5. Go slow but efficiently – Deciding how much to see and do in Europe is tricky, because there’s just so much of it. You could spend two weeks in a quiet corner of southwestern France and have the time of your life, never wanting for anything to do. However, most of us don’t have months to spend on vacation, 7-10 days is usually about it. The natural inclination is to do the grand tour and cram in as many cities and landmarks as possible in a short period of time. Of course you know what I’m about to say, don’t do that. While it’s true that isn’t the best way to go I do understand the necessity to fit in a lot in a short period of time. So my solution is to go slowish, but to be efficient at the same time. If you spend 10 days in Europe, I don’t see a problem with visiting several cities during that time as long as your schedule is well thought out. Pick a direction and continue with it, never backtracking. Or better yet, choose one city to base yourself and then do day trips to visit nearby cities and countries. That’s what my partner and I have done the last two times we’ve visited Europe together and it’s worked really well for us. One year we based in Brussels and did day trips to Paris, Bruges, Ghent, Amsterdam and more. Train travel is so easy and efficient in Europe that we were able to have full days in each city and still be back to our rented apartment in the evenings. Whatever you do though, please don’t try to see it all. You won’t be able to and you’ll just make yourself miserable in the process.

What are some of your tips for better travel through Europe?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

14 thoughts on “Five Ways To Improve Your European Travel Experience”

  1. Great advice Matt! I agree on all points and share your love of Europe. It’s soul stirring.

    I especially liked this piece of advice “This is where some travel specialists come in handy as they have firsthand knowledge of the areas you plan to visit.”It can save hours of Internet searching and why roll the dice? ;)

    Like you, I’m a slow travel advocate. For clients spending 10 days, my general rule is to limit destinations to no more than three, two is ideal. I love the idea of picking one place as a base, but only if most of the day trips can be within say 90 minutes. But even then, it’s tough – some places just deserve more time. Only a day in a major city is a no-no for me, but for a tiny village, sure. Though sometimes an overnight is really required to get a local feel for the place if it’s a popular spot for day trippers.

    And you know all that money you mentioned saving on museum or city passes you won’t use – yeah, that goes straight to my food and wine budget :)

    1. So glad you liked it! Means a lot coming from the pro. And I see your point about major cities, although I don’t necessarily agree. If I had to spend any more time in Florence I would’ve jumped off a roof :)

      1. That’s especially funny since Florence is one of my favorite cities ;) It just goes to show you that everyone is different and each has their own special place – the fun is getting out there to discover where those spots are!

  2. Precious advice! On number 3 I went a little further on my selection, I must be the only one that went to Paris and didn’t visit the Eiffel Tower. I was on a food capital there was so many other places to visit far more interesting :)

  3. Great article, Matt. I, too, love Europe and this is where I hope to send many of my clients as I build my new travel business. Thanks for this – “Note: This is where some travel specialists come in handy as they have firsthand knowledge of the areas you plan to visit.”While I agree with all your points, the point of slow travel resonates with me. It’s how I prefer to travel and I hope my clients will choose to travel. It’s so much more meaningful to move at a less frenetic pace and really take it in. I’m sharing this! Thanks!

  4. I uttered an ‘aaa’ of joy when I saw that first photo – currently living in that very same place and don’t often come across photos of this city in travel blogs. Hope you enjoyed it :)

  5. The tourist hotspot vs. Tourist trap is spot on! It makes me want to cry when people get super happy about going to a wax museum. To each their own, I know, but tourists/travelers should want more from the travel experience, especially in Europe that offers so much!

    All great tips!!!

  6. Great advice, Matt. Europe is my destination of choice, too but luckily I’m usually able to spend more than 10 days there on each visit (Aussies get 4 weeks annual leave per year).

    I’m also an advocate of slow travel. On my first trip to Europe way back when I did a 7 countries-in-10-days tour (cringe!) and can hardly remember some of the places we visited.

    Basing myself somewhere for 4 or 5 nights is what I prefer to do now – and it’s usually somewhere rural with a shimmering lake, snow-capped mountains or cobbled streets nearby!

    Great tip about the food prices, too – so true!

  7. Great advice :)

    The tip about not eating near major tourist destinations is absolutely true (with the exception of one of my favorite Parisian restaurants that happens to be located near the Eiffel)

  8. Great tips, Matt. We’ve spent more than four years traveling in Europe and I have to say you’ve distilled the essence of how to best do it…especially the part about leaving out the wax museums and Hard Rocks. Never been to either one, even in the US.

  9. Great tips – I particularly agree with the clothing one in not being an “obvious” tourist to improve your chances of safety and the hotspots vs traps stuff. I will admit that I’m not always a slow trip person – this summer I’m doing 8 countries in 29 days in Europe/The Baltics, but I find the quicker trips give me the chance to decide where I want to return to spend more time. Maybe I won’t like Estonia but love Norway — now I know where to go back when I next have a couple of weeks. There can be use in not going as slow as one might like. :D

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