Travelling To Europe Guide
The Joys of Traveling to Europe
Europe: the dream destination for millions of Americans each year. Whether you first dreamt of the castles (and there are so many) as a child, or whether your interest is in the history and beauty of the countries, you cannot help but be enchanted by the glory and the diversity of Europe’s countries.
Today, what we think of as Europe is actually a group of countries that are either members of the European Union (EU) or those that are not. There are 27 EU countries, but this number doesn’t include well-known European countries that you might still want to visit such as the United Kingdom or Norway. We’ll discuss the EU and what impact it might have on your travels later in this report.
From the warmth of Greece to the coldest parts of Norway, the landscape can change dramatically in just a few moments. As you travel through the different landscapes, you may pass everything from majestic, snow-capped mountains down to the brilliant white sand beaches of Spain, Italy, and Greece. No matter what kind of vacation you are looking for, you can find it in Europe.
There are other reasons to see the continent, though. The rich cultural heritage and traditions of the countries have been charming Americans for centuries. It’s rather incredible to realize that what we often consider ‘old’ in our country is actually modern in comparison to what you will see in Europe. Plus, so many of the traditions that you will see today have actually been happening in Europe for centuries in exactly the same way. With the combination of architecture and events, you will find it easy to imagine yourself back in time to an era where some of your ancestors may have been living and working.
In fact, that ancestry may be another reason for your visit to Europe. You may want to track down some long-lost relatives that perhaps remained in Europe while your great-grandparents made the voyage and took the risk to immigrate to the United States. Even if you haven’t already located these distant cousins, you might know the town that your family comes from. If you visit the town and start asking questions, you’ll be amazed at how much you can learn about your family from the locals.
No matter what your reasons are for visiting, you will never regret the experience. Especially if you take the time to learn about the places you will be visiting before you go. It’s an unfortunate fact that Americans have a reputation of being somewhat abrasive or rude when they visit European countries because they expect things to be the same as they are at home. If you can leave those expectations at home, you’ll be able to see the way things operate in Europe as a natural result of their culture and their priorities. This attitude will also give you the best chance of being able to move past the label of tourist and experience more of the ‘real’ country.
How to Choose Your Destinations
When you have made the decision to visit Europe, you literally have a continent to choose from. What you choose and how you decide to spend your time will depend on a number of factors such as your priorities, your available time, and your budget.
Prioritizing What You Want to See
Now that you’ve thought a bit more about why you want to spend some time in Europe, it’s time to plan how you will get the most out of you time there. You have a wide range of options, depending on how much time you have, your budget, and who it is traveling in your party.
If you really have no idea what you want to see, then you need to do some research first. You can look for information on the internet, find chat groups of people who have already been to some of the places you are considering, or do some old fashioned reading. Checking out history books, guidebooks, magazines, and videos from the local library is another great way to see what countries and attractions appeal the most to you.
Start by coming up with a list of the ‘must haves’ for your visit. You most likely have priority cities in mind. Perhaps you know that you absolutely have to see the Louvre and the Coliseum. That would mean that Paris and Rome must be on your itinerary plan. But maybe seeing the statue of Michelangelo’s David, while important, is not quite as high on your priority list. As you evaluate potential tours or timeframes and cost for individual travel options, you’ll be able to use the list for comparing which choices give you the best value.
In addition, itineraries help you understand what you might be ‘giving up’ if you change your plans while you are on the trip. It is inevitable that you will fall in love with a city while you are traveling in Europe. One of the best things about independent travel is that you could choose to alter your itinerary in order to spend more time in a city that you are enjoying. If you have your itinerary prepared, you’ll be able to quickly see what you might have to miss if you spend more time in one place.
Time and Budget
Next, you need to identify what your personal limits are for your vacation regarding time. For most of us, an itinerary will be limited by a specific timeframe. If you get two weeks of vacation and you plan to spend them all on this trip, then a realistic trip time that allows for jet-lag and flight timing would be about 12 days.
Even if you are lucky enough to have unlimited time, you still need to consider the amount of money that you have available. Budgeting for your trip will need to include several categories, depending on how you will travel. These could include:
- Cost of travel to Europe (flight or boat)
- Cost of travel within Europe
- Railpasses – the initial pass cost plus any supplements and reservation fees
- Local bus, tram, train, subway, ferry, or taxi costs
- Flights within Europe
- Car rental and gas costs
- Nightly accommodation
- Meals, snacks, and beverages
- Entrance fees to attractions
- Night time entertainment costs
- phone calls, internet or postage
- Miscellaneous costs such as for laundry or minor personal care needs
- Access to emergency funds in case of health issue or lost passport, tickets, etc.
You will want to decide what is more important to you: having more time in Europe but being able to spend less on accommodations, meals, entertainment, and souvenirs or having less time in Europe but spending more money on the different aspects of the trip.
If you have a United States passport, you will be able to travel in the EU without a visa for a period of up to three months. As part of the Schengen laws, the 22 participating EU countries have agreed to eliminate border checks between their countries. However, you will need to show your passport when you enter the first country. The 22 full Schengen EU countries are:
- Czech Republic
- The Netherlands
In addition to these countries, you can also travel to Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland without a visa, even though they are not EU members. Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania, while EU members, are not yet full Schengen members. For traveling to these countries, to Ireland, or the United Kingdom, you will need to show a valid passport.
You may also be asked for information that proves that your stay is less than three months. For example, you may be asked to show your round-trip ticket or to show a copy of your itinerary. These questions are designed to make sure you aren’t planning to come into Europe and stay indefinitely without work or studying as a reason for being there. Of course, if you are coming to Europe
If you want to visit a country that is not included in the information above, you will need a visa. The requirements to receive one and the length of time it will take to get one will vary by country. If one of these countries is on your list of destinations, start investigating now. You might find that it will be easier to visit a country such as Russia as part of a tour rather than attempting to get permission to visit on your own.
Tours vs. Independent Travel
This brings us to the discussion of whether or not to participate in a group tour or to plan and enjoy your trip entirely on your own. There are arguments for both choices, and of course you could always combine the two. If, for example, you are concerned about traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language, you could do the United Kingdom on your own but join a tour for France, Italy, and Spain.
The following information may help you to decide whether you are a tour or independent traveler at heart.
You will probably prefer a tour if:
- You would rather have someone else handle the details on accommodations, travel between locations, and meals
- You feel more comfortable being escorted through the different countries
- You are fine with having limited ‘on your own’ time to explore different cities
- You don’t mind that you could probably travel cheaper on your own
- You are looking for an ‘overview’ or a ‘basic introduction’ to the countries and cities you are visiting, knowing that you can come back to spend more time later in a city you love
- You are looking for a ‘themed’ visit or for others who share a similar interest with you.
Tours are certainly an excellent way to enjoy a country or countries without having to figure things out on your own. And if you want to share the experience with people who have similar interests, a tour is an excellent way to do that. For example, you can find tours that will focus on wine country, churches, the paths that famous writers took through an area, or that are composed of all seniors, singles, or gays and lesbians.
However, some people will have a better experience on their own. They prefer the freedom, control, and spontaneity that are possible for the independent traveler.
You will probably prefer independent travel if:
- Traveling on a tight budget is a priority
- You are comfortable traveling with the assistance of a guide book rather than a guide
- You don’t want to spend the entire trip with the same group of people
- You prefer having the flexibility to spend your day the way you want to, no matter what your original plan calls for
- You want to have the chance to get as close to the ‘real’ European lifestyle as possible, without the natural barrier that a tour can provide
- You feel confident that you know how to recognize and avoid potentially risky situations (see the last chapter for additional information)
It may be that you need to try both styles of traveling before you know which one is better suited to you and your preferences. There is no right answer. There is only the chance to create the best travel experience for you and your party that you can.
General Trip Planning Advice
As you are building your itinerary, you’ll want to consider several other factors that will help you to get the most enjoyment from your trip.
Be sure you have looked at the weather estimates for the time frame you will be visiting each country, not just for the continent as a whole. You don’t want to assume that because it’s 60 degrees in Rome that you won’t need to pack a coat for your next stop in Oslo. Even within one country, the temperatures can vary greatly from north to south or from the mountains to the seaside.
A good rule of thumb when planning for travel in Europe is to plan to spend the coolest days of the trip in the warmest places. For example, if you will be traveling for a month from June to July, start your trip in the most southern and hottest countries first and move further north as your trip goes on. That way you’ll minimize your exposure to extreme heat.
If you don’t mind winter weather, consider a trip during the winter months. Not only will you avoid extreme heat, but you’ll be able to take advantage of off-season savings on flights and hotels as well. There will be fewer tourists, meaning better deals on hotels, shorter lines for attractions, and overall a more pleasant experience.
Here’s the best advice you can get on packing: lay out what you want to take with you, and then cut the amount in half. Then cut it in half again. You will never wear everything that you think you will and you will never need half the things you think you will need.
Try to pack one bag and only one bag. Unless you are traveling first class all the way, where other people will be carrying your bag for you, the best thing to do for yourself is to lighten your own load. Think about the fact that you will need to be carrying the bag onto and off of trains, the metro and buses as well as on airplanes. You won’t need to check your bag if you keep it small, saving you time and money since some airlines are now charging for checked baggage.
If you do check your bag because you just can’t get your luggage limit down, remember that you should not lock it. The lock will be cut off anyway, wasting your money. But just in case, don’t pack anything of value in the checked baggage. Although it is rare, some people have complained of items being stolen from checked luggage.
Your choice of luggage will be important as well. Unless you want to carry a bag for blocks at a time by a hand strap, get one with either backpack straps or sturdy wheels. Make sure the wheels are large enough that they keep the base of the suitcase off the ground – you might be wheeling it through wet, dirty streets at some point.
If you are shopping for a suitcase online, read the reviews of other shoppers on a product before you buy it. The reviews can clue you in to information the manufacturer won’t share, like that the wheels tend to fall off or the handle is too short. It’s better to find these things out before you buy them rather than once you’re in Europe struggling up the second flight of stairs and losing your wheels.
When it comes to what to pack, remember that you can get most of the toiletries you need in Europe, so you don’t need to necessarily pack large bottles of anything to take with you. However, there may be certain medications or personal items that you prefer to use or that you know work for you, and you don’t want to risk that they won’t be available in Europe. You should take enough of these with you to meet your needs. You will also want to take your prescription medications, in the bottle that they came in. Otherwise you risk that they could be confiscated.
When selecting the clothing to take with you, remember that you can always do laundry during your trip. Some people will pack just three outfits and two pairs of shoes for a month long trip, mixing and matching tops and bottoms and doing laundry multiple times in order to benefit from not having the extra weight to carry around. Again, it depends on how you want to travel. If you can get into the habit of packing light, you’ll not regret it.
Other items you might want to take include:
- A basic phrase book
- A journal
- A set of plastic silverware for picnicking
- A foldable rain poncho or pocket umbrella
- A basic first aid kit
- A camera (unless your cell phone will work in Europe and has a camera)
- Photographs from your city and of your family and life in case you want to share them
- Women will want a scarf or shawl to cover bare shoulders for entering churches (particularly in Italy)
- A collapsible bag that you can pack with souvenirs for the return trip – when carrying luggage won’t matter as much to you.
A word about shorts: avoid them if you can. If you want to stand out and you don’t mind the fact that they will mark you as a tourist, you can certainly wear them. However, be aware that you might be prevented from entering certain churches if you have on shorts. If you are at the beach, they are ok, but otherwise, Europeans just don’t wear them.
When it comes to shoes, (ladies, this is especially true for you), don’t underestimate the value of comfort. You will be walking a great deal in Europe, and often on cobblestone streets. While you can learn to maneuver in heels, you will also suffer in doing so. If you want to bring a pair of shoes for evenings out, that’s fine – just think about cabbing it that night.
Watch for Festivals
Europe is full of opportunities to observe local festivals and celebrations. You can get a real taste of local culture by taking part in them. Imagine partaking in the original Oktoberfest in Munich or Carnival in Venice. There are many smaller celebrations as well, of course. Just remember, though, that you aren’t the only person wanting to be there. You will want to make hotel or other sleeping arrangements ahead of time, and be prepared for the crowds.
I leave here some tour, event and festival booking sites that we recommend for you. Good to review.
Plan a Realistic Pace for Your Party
Sure, you can visit 10 countries in 10 days. But will you be getting everything you want out of the experience? Also consider the needs of everyone traveling. If you are bringing a young child with you, it’s a guarantee that you need to add additional time to your itinerary since they may need naps, changing, or distraction and entertainment. Senior citizens may need a bit slower pace as well, and may prefer more time for relaxation than high-paced sight-seeing.
Anyone traveling with a physical disability will also need more time for moving around and negotiating a lot of places that don’t have the type of handicapped facilities you may be used to in the United States. You can identify some resources and advice for travelers with disabilities by visiting some of the following sites:
- Mobility International USA (MIUSA) – miusa.org – offers good resources and sometimes organizes exchange programs for people with disabilities around the world
- The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) – miusa.org/ncde – offers information for people with disabilities to pursue opportunities for working, studying, teaching, volunteering, or researching abroad.
Think Outside the Box
You have a whole continent to see and a limited amount of time and money to see what you want to see. So think creatively here. Many people may automatically think to spend one night in a city before moving on to the next city and the next hotel the next day. But a creative thinker might decide to choose one city as a home base for a number of days and travel to other cities nearby during the daytime, but return to the home base each night for rest. This saves time and the headaches associated with constant packing, unpacking, hauling luggage and checking into and out of hotels. Also consider the fact that you don’t have to fly roundtrip into a city. We’ll look at this more later on, but you could always choose to fly into one European city and out of another, limiting the need to get back to a city that is no longer close to you.
Once upon a time, only the wealthiest among us could afford to travel to Europe. Now, you can find travel deals on tickets to Europe that are barely more expensive than traveling to the opposite coast of the United States.
With research and planning, you can find excellent deals on flights to Europe. If you are on the East coast, it’s not impossible to get a round-trip ticket for about $750 or even less. The West coast will be more expensive since the distance traveled is farther, but remember that you can also look for discount airline tickets to get you to the East coast and then book a separate international flight if that ends up being cheaper.
The following sections will offer some basic tips on getting good prices when you book your flight.
You can often get incredible discounts by booking months ahead. At a minimum, you want to purchase your ticket 30 days ahead of time in order to get the best deals. Of course, you can also get some last-minute deals if you have that kind of flexibility. But most of us will be planning our trip months ahead of time.
When you are purchasing your flight, be sure you understand what the airline considers off-season and high-season. Starting early will let you plan around these dates if a few days one way or the other will make a big price difference on your ticket.
When it comes to finding the cheapest rate, a bit of flexibility can go a long way. A general rule is that flights on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday will be cheaper (and less crowded) than those on Friday – Monday.
When entering your flight dates, several online search engines also allow you to choose to search a few days before or after your selected dates in order to find the best deals. The search will return a matrix that shows flight costs by leave and return dates, letting you make the best match for price, time, and convenience.
You may also see an option that lets you choose the number of days you’d like to visit and the timeframe (say, a month or so) within which you want to make the trip. The system will then give you the best possible flights in that time frame.
If you are located near more than one major airport, try checking the flights from both of the airports. If driving 200 miles to the next state will save you $200 on your flight, you might find it worthwhile (as long as parking fees don’t override the savings benefit!)
The same advice can be said for where you arrive in Europe. Try a number of airports if you are planning to visit multiple countries, as long as the location wouldn’t require doubling-back or additional train costs that might override your flight savings (see strategic flying below).
Your first thought about booking a flight to Europe will probably be that you should purchase a round-trip ticket. Certainly, you want to come home again, but a round-trip ticket that flies you in and out of the same airport in Europe is not always the best choice if you apply some strategy.
This all depends on which countries you are seeing. If you plan only to tour France, then flying in and out of Paris Charles de Gaulle makes sense. You can plan to visit the cities you want to see in a kind of circular pattern, starting and ending in Paris.
But if you are planning to visit multiple countries, then flying in and out of the same city may no longer be your best choice. You can get creative here, getting the most bang for your flight buck.
Consider working with a travel agent to book one or more stop-overs on you flight. For example, you might take a British Air flight from New York to Rome but that stops in London. If you book it well, you may be able to spend a few days in London before continuing on to Rome. Then on your return flight, you could either fly non-stop or schedule a layover of only a few hours.
Another option if you are visiting multiple countries is to find the cheapest round-trip flight into any of the European countries that you plan to visit, then continue your travel either with cheap flights by European carriers (Ryan Air, for example) or by train or car. If you are planning to purchase a Eurail pass anyway, then you could find this a very cost-efficient option.
Still another strategy is known as open-jaw travel. If you are planning to visit multiple stops from the UK down to Greece, it wouldn’t be time or cost-efficient to try to get back to the UK to take the flight home. Instead, look at booking an open-jaw ticket. In this case, you purchase a round-trip ticket that has you arriving in one city and departing another. This kind of ticket may be slightly higher than a round-trip ticket to and from the same destination, because you will in effect be paying half the cost of a round-trip ticket to the arrival destination and half the cost of a round-trip ticket to the departure destination.
Finally, you can look for package deals that involve a flight. These are usually best when you plan to stay in the same city for all or most of your trip, but sometimes travel agents or tour companies may offer multi-city deals that include flight and hotel or even flight, hotel, and car rental.
Websites for Flight Deals
There is seemingly no end to the array of websites that claim to have the best offers on tickets. But here are some that have a good reputation for either following the best deals out there or offering excellent ticket prices.
Of course, you can also work with your favorite travel agent. Either way, you may be paying booking fees. Also be sure that the pricing you are given includes all the surcharges and taxes that are applied to international flights.
If you can, try to book the seat you want when you book the flight. That way if you prefer a window seat, you will know that you have it. Or if you have a tight connection, you’ll feel less stressed if your seat is at the front of the plane.
What to Expect on the Flight and on Arrival
Flying to Europe is an experience in itself. If you are flying from the East coast, your flight will be at least 6-7 hours for destinations in the UK, and as much as 9 or 10 hours for destinations further to the east. On the return flight, the time will be longer, since you will be flying against the rotation of the earth. You can expect at least another hour to two hours added onto your flight time on the way home.
Also remember that on the way there, you will be flying overnight. So when you leave here at 5pm on a Tuesday, you will be arriving sometime on Wednesday morning in your destination city. On the return trip, if you leave at noon in your destination city, it will be late afternoon the same day when you arrive back in the United States.
These time differences result in jet-lag, where your body is off-track in its normal rhythms. This means that the first day in Europe will probably be difficult for you, depending on how much sleep you were able to get on the plane. It would be wise to take this into account when planning your itinerary.
During Your Flight
On the flight itself, you can expect different levels of service depending on the airline. Some now offer in-seat entertainment even in coach, while others do not. Some will offer full meal and beverage service, while others may have sack meals offered. If you have questions about the amenities that will be available on the different flights you are considering, call the airlines before you book. Afterwards, it is too late to make a change without penalties.
Drink plenty of water while you are in-flight. Although it may be tempting, avoid alcohol if you want to avoid bad jet-lag. You should not count on getting enough drink service that you will have enough fluids, so bring your own bottled water or other drink with you on the flight.
At some point in the flight, the flight attendants will dim the cabin lights, when most people will attempt to sleep. You should not count on getting too much service from the flight crew during this time, though you can ring for them if needed, of course.
As you approach your destination, you may be handed paperwork to fill out from the airline staff. It will ask you about whether or not you are bringing anything into the country. You may be asked to show the document at immigration, depending on how strict the immigration police are being at that time.
When the flight lands, you may begin to notice that there are often differences at European airports compared to what you are used to. First, the plane may not pull all the way up to a gate. You may be disembarking down a flight of stairs onto the tarmac, and it could happen from both ends of the plane.
Once on the ground, you may either walk into the airport or be transported there on a tram or bus. The airport may have transportation within or it may not. You could be walking a great deal more than you are used to at American airports. On your departure, you may wait in one location until the gate crew arrive, at which point you will be allowed to move to the gate. Your plane may board at one end or two, and again you may be transported there and be climbing mobile steps to reach the doors. A good rule is just to follow the leader in these situations – or ask if you aren’t certain.
Next, you will go through immigration. Be sure you pay attention to the different lines. There will be lines for EU citizens that are returning to the EU and lines for non-EU citizens. Unless you carry both US and EU passports, you’ll need to join a non-EU citizen line. As mentioned before, you may be asked questions that seem odd to you, but that are meant to determine your intention to leave the EU again. However, many Americans will find that they will be ‘stamped through’ without any questions at all.
Next you will collect any checked baggage and head to customs. If you have anything to declare, now is the time to do so. You can walk through the ‘nothing to declare’ line, though occasionally the customs officials will pull people for a search anyway. Don’t be offended, and do cooperate – if you have nothing to declare you will be out of there in a few moments.
Signs will lead you to ground transportation. Be sure that if you plan to take a taxi into town that you wait at the official taxi stand. Do not allow someone to come up to you and offer you a special rate or taxi. You may end up getting hustled. If you are taking a train into the city center, also be sure that you take the correct one. There are often both ‘milk’ trains that stop at every town between you and the city, as well as rapid or express trains that bypass these stops and take you directly to the city center.
If you have always said that you want to see Europe but you are afraid of flying, there is another option. You can take a cruise to Europe. The Queen Elizabeth still makes the journey, and some commercial cruise liners will occasionally offer these one-way types of trips if they are repositioning their ships for the different seasons. Of course, to get to Europe this way, you have to have plenty of time – and plenty of money. This form of travel can certainly be relaxing, but takes multiple days to do what a flight accomplishes in a few hours. Plus, you are paying for your stay for all those days, making it an expensive way to travel to Europe. Still, if this is the only way you will ever make it there, it’s worth it.
If you are a cruise lover, this might also be the way to continue on and see Europe for you. Cruises are offered that cover different regions of the continent. Popular cruise itineraries cover the Baltic region, UK and France, or the Caribbean.
Cruises are beneficial in that you only unpack once. You return to all of your things every evening, and you only leave the ship for a few hours at a time. However, these facts also keep you distant from the very sites you are there to see. Part of the fun of being in Europe is to discover things like your own favorite little café, or to watch the locals in their rituals like the Italians in their nightly passegiata. If you have to be back on the boat for dinner, you are guaranteed to miss out on some of these smaller pleasures.
Discounts and Cost-Cutting Options
There are numerous ways to cut costs during your trip to Europe, but you will need to investigate them before you leave. These include discounts depending on your age and student status, as well as trip types that allow you to volunteer or provide a service in exchange for some of your flight or accommodation costs.
If you are a student, you have a number of discounts available to you. First, get the International Student Exchange (ISE) Card. It is actually also available to youth who might not be students and to teachers and faculty. It provides discounts on flights, train travel, admission to sites, and other benefits that vary by country. The card also offers you some emergency medical insurance, though it is a bit limited. We’ll address insurance later in this report. Visit www.isecard.com to learn how to apply and to see all of the benefits available in the places you’ll be traveling.
Even if you don’t have the card, you can ask whenever buying an admission ticket if they offer a discount to students. Your regular student identification card may work in these instances. With or without the ISE card, you will be eligible for significant savings on Eurail passes if you are a student, which we will also address later in this report.
If you are not a student but you know some, you may be able to arrange a creative means of getting a free trip to Europe. Tour companies such as EF often offer an adult chaperone a free trip if a certain number of students register and pay for their tour. Of course, you will be spending your entire trip with youngsters and will probably also be expected to have some oversight responsibilities for them. But teachers, parents, or adults with a high level of teen-tolerance may find this an excellent option for seeing Europe.
If you would like to spend your vacation doing some good for others, consider volunteer opportunities in Europe. You might find yourself cataloguing records in an old library or digging on an active archaeological site. Usually you will be offered free or reduced lodging in exchange for a certain number of hours of help in a week. Very rarely will the programs offer assistance on flight costs, however.
Finally, you could look into being a courier in order to get a free flight to Europe. If you are flexible, can fly with a single bag, and can jump on a plane with little notice, this might be a good option for you. Of course, be extremely cautious when dealing with courier companies. You will want to verify the business and even check local law enforcement and the Better Business Bureau to make sure you would not be unknowingly transporting illegal goods for a company.
For many Americans, the ease of getting around Europe without a car will come as quite a surprise. Between the rail system, internal flights, and regional and local transportation systems, a car is a luxury rather than a necessity. Of course, a car is still an option, and we’ll look at the pros and cons of car rental here as well.
Flights within Europe
Imagine flying from Rome, Italy to London, UK for under $50.00. Seem unreal? Well, it’s not impossible. In fact, some airlines in Europe specialize in discount flights within the continent, just like Jet Blue or Airtran in the United States.
While cheap, there is one drawback to these flights. They often do not fly out of the main airports. For example, Ryan Air flies into Stanstead, quite a ride by bus from London. However, if budget is more important than convenience, you can’t beat these fares.
There are over twenty low-cost airlines that are operating in Europe. So how do you find the best flights and fares? Luckily, one website has put that information together for you. Visit www.euroflights.info. You can choose the country and city that you want to fly to or from and the site will list all of the airlines that serve it. Or, you can choose to get a list of all of the bargain airlines and then browse them on your own.
There is nothing like riding a train in Europe. Not only is it relaxing, but it offers you incredible views of the countryside. You can also have some great conversations with locals or other travelers, making for some memorable moments on your trip. Add to this the fact that train travel is well-organized, covers an enormous amount of the cities you will want to see and is inexpensive, and you will likely find it your transportation of choice for much of your European trip.
Of course, to get the best deal on rail travel, you will want to buy a Eurail pass. The term Eurail refers to a pass that covers multiple countries in Europe. You have to buy them before you leave – they are not available in Europe. There are literally dozens of options for the type of pass to buy, depending on when, where, and how you want to travel. Here is the basic information on Eurail passes:
- You can buy them for all of Europe or only for specific regions, countries, or groups of countries. Some of these will not be Eurail passes, but will go by the name of the local train authority.
- You can buy them for consecutive-day travel, where you want to be able to travel every day of your trip, or you can buy a flexi-pass, which requires that you limit your train travel to a certain number of days within a specific length of time.
- You can buy saver passes if two to five people are traveling together
- You can get rail passes that also combine car rental, letting you choose which part of the trip you would like to drive and which part you want to use the train
You will want to research all of the possible combinations to see what the best option for you is. For example, if you will be in Europe for 21 days but will only be traveling for four of those days, then a flexipass is going to be cheaper than paying for a consecutive pass that allows you to travel each of those 21 days. If you will only be traveling between two cities, it may be even cheaper just to buy train tickets for that journey rather than a pass that you won’t use more than once.
Although the idea of a eurail pass is to let you have the most freedom possible in traveling, there are some limitations. Here are some facts that you need to understand when you are using a railpass:
- If you are 26 years old or older, you are required to purchase a first-class eurail pass. For this reason, you should consider how many days you will be traveling carefully. You might be better off buying 2nd class tickets if you don’t mind them, and saving money overall.
- However, some single-country rail passes are available in 2nd class to everyone, regardless of age.
- Some passes offer senior citizen discounts on 1st class tickets, though traveling 2nd class will still be cheaper.
- Children under four travel for free on your pass, and children between 4 and 11 normally get their passes for ½ the adult price.
- Reservations are still required on many trains, even when you have a railpass. Fast, long-distance, overnight or international trains often require reservations – and a supplemental fee. Again, this is a factor to consider when calculating the true cost of your railpass.
- If you have a 1st class ticket (or pass), you can also travel in 2nd If you have a 2nd class ticket (or pass), you will need to pay the difference if you want to travel in 1st class and there is room available.
- You will have to validate the railpass before you use it for the first time. Once you validate it, the clock is ticking on the days that it is valid.
Bonuses with Rail Passes
Some of the rail pass options will include other free or discounted travel options. Be sure that you read through the details of each bonus offering carefully so that you get the full discount or appropriate bonus. For the pass to include these bonuses, it must cover travel in the countries that the bonus occurs in or between. Some examples include:
- Free Ferry crossings from Italy to Greece
- Free KD Line boat travel on Germany’s rivers
- Free Swiss lake boats
- Discounts on ferry crossings in Scandinavia, between Ireland and France, between Italy and Spain, and between Amsterdam and Newcastle
- Discounts on the Swiss Jungfrau private railway, the German Romantic Road Bus, the Eurostar Chunnel, and the international sleeper trains in Spain
There are many more discounts available. For full information on the pass types, pricing, and discounts, see www.raileurope.com.
General Information on Train Travel
There are some things that every European train traveler should know, whether they have a Eurail pass or not.
First, be certain that you have validated your ticket before you get on the train. If you don’t, handwrite the date and time on the ticket. The conductor will come through and ask to see your ticket at least once during your trip, depending on how long the trip is and how many stops it makes.
When you get on the train, try to identify how reservations are noted. In cabins, reservations are usually noted in a chart on the outside of the cabin. The reserved spots will be filled with a name. In regular train cars, the reserved seats are often marked by a chart or by having a reserved card sticking out behind the headrest. If you have a reservation, sit where your name is indicated. If you don’t, the person who made the reservation might not show up – but if they do, you will have to move.
Reservations, when available, are highly recommended. Without one you might end up sitting on uncomfortable pull-down metal chairs in the train corridors or even standing for the length of the trip. The small fee is often a small price to pay when you see the faces of the miserable folks riding standing up.
Some trains offer dining cars or even snack service that will come through like beverage carts on an airplane. Other trains, even if they are traveling overnight, may not have any food or beverages available. Be sure you know that before you find yourself hungry and thirsty with nothing to eat or drink on the train with you and another ten hours until you reach your destination. Remember, the water on the trains is not potable – don’t risk it!
If you have reserved a sleeper cabin, be sure that you have paid attention to the labeling of the car. Some cars may be unhooked during the night and re-hooked to another train. Just be sure that you are on a car that will be traveling all the way to your destination.
When it’s time to get off the train, be ready. If you take a nap, set an alarm so that you don’t miss your stop. The stop times are often just a few minutes long, leaving you no time for leisurely gathering your things and strolling to the exit.
If you do want to nap, or you just want to be more comfortable, and you are in a cabin, here’s a tip: the seats often slide forward and connect to each other. If no one is in the seat opposite you, you can stretch out comfortably by pulling the seats together. If you are all alone in a cabin, you might even be able to make a bed-sized sleeping area by pulling all the seats forward.
We’ve already discussed some information on boat travel. Cruises to and around Europe can be a relaxing, if rather limited way to see some of the European countries.
However, you are more likely to spend some time on ferries in Europe than on cruise ships. As discussed in the last section, some of the ferry crossings between European countries may be covered by your rail pass. Whether the voyage will be covered or not, you will want to book passage on these ferries upon your arrival in the city you will be departing from. Don’t wait until the time that the ferry is scheduled to leave because, especially during the high season, the ferries may be full.
On long ferry rides, you can purchase sleeper cabins. This is an inexpensive way to avoid a hotel cost and still have reasonably comfortable accommodations overnight. The ferry sleeper cabins are similar to the train sleeper cabins – small, but more comfortable than trying to sleep sitting up.
Of course, you do have a unique opportunity on some ferries, particularly during summer. The lines between Italy and Greece are often full of people sleeping on the deck under the stars. If you don’t mind this version of ‘roughing it’, sleeping deckside can certainly be a romantic and memorable experience.
However, if you tend to suffer from seasickness, don’t forget to pack some medicine. The seas between, say, Ireland and France can get incredibly rough, making for some misery if you aren’t prepared.
Driving in Europe
Although public transportation is fantastic in Europe, there are some times when you just might want to rent a car. For example, if you are visiting a lot of countryside towns and villages or if you just want the experience of riding the Autobahn.
However, you will need to be prepared for driving in Europe. Not only can the cars be different, meaning they are usually much smaller than what we are accustomed to, but so can the laws, requirements, and general driving etiquette. Here are some tips for you to consider before renting a car.
- You should be comfortable with a manual transmission. Although some companies may offer to reserve an automatic transmission, they may not guarantee it. 99.9% of Europe’s cars have manual transmissions.
- Make sure you know the local driving laws. Not just which side of the road to use, as in the UK, but, for example, the fact that it is illegal to use your cell phone while driving in many parts of Europe.
- Get an international driver’s license before you leave the US. It is available from your local AAA office and will provide a translation of your US license into multiple languages. It will be helpful if you ever get pulled over while driving. However, you must always carry your US drivers license as well.
- If you do get pulled over, turn off the ignition and place the keys on the dash board. Do not get out of the car unless you are instructed to do so.
- Parking and gas are both at a premium in Europe. When planning the cost of your trip, remember that gas costs between four and five times what we pay here in the United States. Also add in a few Euros a day for parking and tolls. Be sure to consider whether or not a hotel includes free parking when you are looking for a place to stay.
- Be prepared for some radical driving, particularly the further south that you go. If you are not comfortable with being tailgated, having drivers ignore traffic lights, or seeing drivers turn two lanes into three, you may not want to drive in southern Europe.
- You can make reservations for international car rental online with some of the major companies. However, be absolutely certain that you understand what is included and what is not. You should be certain that you have full insurance coverage, either from a credit card company that you use to book the rental, through your own insurance company, or through insurance that you purchase from the rental company.
Metro, Local Train, Bus, and Tram Basics
Americans who don’t have a subway system or good local transportation system in their own city will find the local transportation system in European cities to be incredibly convenient. There are just a few things that you should know when you are preparing to ride them.
Tickets are often available at a discount if purchased in multiples. Or, a city may also sell passes for several days, weeks, or a month that covers the metro as well as buses and trams. Some tickets or passes may also cover only certain zones of the city, usually laid out in concentric circles. If you are traveling from one circle to the next, the price may be different than if you are traveling from the interior circle all the way to the exterior.
When you enter the subway, or board a train, bus or tram, be sure that you stamp your ticket. Otherwise you could get ticketed if officials are checking. If you arrive at the bottom of an escalator and see a bunch of people in uniform, or if a bunch of them get on your bus at a particular stop, this is probably what is happening.
When you are navigating through a subway or local station, be aware that more than one train may come by the same platform. Subway trains will usually show the destination on the front of the first car. Trains will usually list it on a sign outside the door, and of course the sign at the beginning of the train platform should also list the next train’s destination.
On buses, signs at the stop will often list the series of stops that the train will make. However, be aware of one thing; there may actually be multiple stops for each stop listed on a sign. For example, if the bus stop sign says a bus will go to Main Street, First Street, then Second Street, you cannot assume that the third stop is Second Street. The bus may actually stop six times on Main Street, three times on First Street, and so on. When in doubt, always ask.
Also, whenever you are on public transportation, be aware that you may be a target for pickpockets. It is incredible how fast they can be – lifting a flap, unzipping a pocket, and fishing out your cash before you even realize you’ve been touched. Stay alert, and when possible, keep a hand on any bag’s opening.
Finding and Choosing Your Accommodation
There are literally thousands and thousands of choices for hotels in most European countries. So how do you know how to choose the best one for you? You can make one round of eliminations based on price. If you have a budget that allows for $150 a night for accommodations, that will automatically narrow down the list.
Next, think about location. If you can afford to stay in the city center and can find a hotel that will let you walk to most everything you want to see, fantastic. But you don’t have to stay right in the middle of things. In fact, staying a bit off the beaten path may provide you with the opportunity to see more of the ‘normal’ daily life of the average person living there rather than just the touristy areas of town.
However, do choose a location that offers convenient public transportation nearby. For example, stay around the corner from a metro stop that is on a line that runs to the main station so that you can connect to anywhere you want to go. Or, stay near a bus stop that has regular, reliable service into town. Also think about what the hours are of the public transportation system. If you plan to be a night owl and party late into the night, be sure you can still get home when the party is over. Or at least that a taxi back to the hotel at the late hour wouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg.
When you book a hotel, consider a few other possibilities. You may find better deals through packages that include your flight. Or, you may save money by staying in the same hotel for multiple nights. In this case, you might want to plan day trips to other locations, returning to the same hotel each night. It may not only save you money, but also the stress of moving and unpacking repeatedly.
Also understand the ‘lingo’ of the local hotels. A bathroom may be included, but is a toilet considered part of a bathroom? Believe it or not, not always. Be sure you ask enough questions to know what you are getting. Also, don’t expect the same level of amenities that you may be used to in US hotels. Towels may be limited, if included, and water pressure will probably be lower. In fact, hot water may not last as long as you are used to either.
Although they are still called youth hostels, they are not just for the young anymore. Hostels are popular with every age group as a way to stretch their dollars while traveling in Europe. Some hostels can be just as pleasant as a hotel, and can be located in fascinating sites, like an old castle or a former palace. Of course, not all hostels are created equally, so you will want to read some reviews and even connect with other travelers through online forums to get the best insight on where to stay. To get the basic information on hostels and hostelling membership options, visit Roadiver Booking.
When you plan to stay in hostels, you will have a few different things on your packing list and will need to understand how hostels may be different from your hotel. Although the website above will give you a lot of this information, here are a few tips:
- Hostels often close during the day, requiring you to leave and not return until later that evening.
- You may not be assured a bed automatically for each night of your stay; this varies depending on the hostel.
- You can often get single or double rooms, though in most cases you’ll be sharing with multiple people.
- You will probably be required to bring your own linens and sheets or to pay for them. Most hostellers make a sleep-sack by sewing a king or queen sized sheet into a sleeping bag.
- Don’t expect toiletries or even soap to be provided – be sure to bring your own.
- Expect a ‘party’ type atmosphere in many hostels. If you need quiet and a good rest, spring for a single or even a hotel room every few nights in order to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Short-Term Apartment Rentals
If your travel plans have you staying in the same city for a week or so, a short-term apartment rental is an excellent option for several reasons. First, the apartment will normally be cheaper per night than for a hotel for the same number of nights. Second, short-term apartment rentals are usually located in the areas of town that are the most popular for tourists, meaning you will probably be very close to most of the sites you want to see. And third, you will have the experience of staying in a home that is similar to those that locals live in. In fact, it may even be one that a Parisian or Roman lives in most of the year, but that they rent out during the high season to earn some additional money.
When you choose a short-term apartment rental company, be certain that you have read the agreement thoroughly. You want to know exactly when you can arrive and exactly when you are expected to leave. You should understand what additional charges there might be for linens, cleaning, power or other utilities, or even for using the phone. If you have allergies, be sure that you have asked about whether or not pets live in or are allowed in the home, as well as whether or not smokers are allowed. Be certain to ask about cancellation fees as well, in case something changes in your plans.
Do you live in a major city like New York or Los Angeles? Or do you live near a major US attraction like Disney World or the Grand Canyon? If so, then you might be interested in house-swapping as a way to save money on your trip.
In a house-swap, you and a stranger in the city that you want to visit decide to exchange houses for a specific period of time. That way you each get to stay in the other location for free. Of course, there are risks involved in this kind of arrangement. However, there are businesses that will arrange swaps for you and will act as the intermediary, making sure that you have thought of everything you need to protect your property and even that there is some insurance provided for you against theft or damage. To explore this option more, visit www.homeexchange.com, www.homexchangevacation.com, or www. houseswap.com.
What Else to Know before You Go
When you are planning your trip to Europe, it’s important not to make assumptions about how things will work there versus at home.
Start by thinking about what you will need to use as far as communications equipment, small electronics, etc, and then ask yourself whether or not they will work in Europe.
In order for your small electronics to work there, you will need both a currency converter and an adapter for the plug. You can usually buy a set that will give you the converter and a number of different plug adapters that will work for the different countries you will be visiting.
Cellular Phones and Internet Service
As for your cellular phones, that depends. If you have a relatively new cell phone, it will probably work. However, you should contact your provider to understand how it will work, where, what you will need to dial to reach home or send text messages, and what kind of charges you will have to pay to do so. You may need to change your service plan temporarily as well.
Internet service is available everywhere in Europe at internet cafes, where you will pay by the minute to use their computers. Service at hotels and wireless spots within the main cities in Europe are becoming more and more common.
If internet coverage is important to you on your phone, then also be sure you discuss that with your provider before leaving home.
Money and Currency Exchanges
Years ago, traveling to Europe involved taking traveler’s checks and exchanging them as you moved across the various countries. Now that the Euro is the currency in the EU, you will not need to worry with different denominations unless you are visiting countries where the Euro is not used (for example, in the UK).
Today, it is often easiest just to use your credit cards or debit cards for most purchases or withdrawals. However, you will want to do your homework first to make certain this is accurate, since rates and costs fluctuate. If your debit card will work in Europe, that may very well be the easiest way to get money out. If you do plan to use your credit cards, be sure that you have requested a PIN for them from your bank, as it may be requested in some European locations for purchases, not just for cash withdrawals.
Emergency Preparedness, Safety & Precautions
It’s every traveler’s worst nightmare – your passport and wallet get stolen. But you can prepare for this kind of emergency by taking a few steps before you leave home.
Make copies of your passport, driver’s license and international permit, and even your plane tickets. Leave a copy at home with a friend or family member and pack another copy in your luggage, separate from your passport and wallet or money belt. Those copies will help you to get replacements faster.
Leave one credit card at home that can be over-nighted to you in case of an emergency. Or, leave it in the hotel safe, or packed in a different location than where you keep the rest of your money. That way you won’t have to be completely without funds.
Also leave a copy of your itinerary with friends and family, particularly if you are traveling on your own. You can also register your presence with the local US Embassy if you plan to be in one location for long.
If you have some kind of emergency while you are in Europe, you will want to know the numbers 211. This is the equivalent of 911 in America.
When it comes to safety during your visit, you will want to use common sense. Violent crime is very rare in Europe – you are much more likely to be pick pocketed than anything else. To avoid this, invest in a good money belt. It is a carrier for your passport, ticket, and funds that you can carry under your clothing. That way you can keep it with you at all times. A word of caution – never take the belt out in public in order to pay for something. Keep some ‘pocket money’ in a bag or pocket for your daily purchases. When you need more money, use a bathroom to take it out in private.
Women should also be aware of the differences between men in some European countries and those at home. In some areas of Europe, particularly in southern Europe, direct eye contact or a smile can be interpreted as a come-on. A woman traveling alone may also be perceived as being ‘on the prowl,’ so just be aware of your environment and trust your instincts.
Enjoying Cultural Differences
As you explore Europe, you will undoubtedly come across some unexpected situations. For example, ice won’t be served with your soda, if you order it. Instead, water and wine or beer will be the normal beverages served. For southerners, you can expect iced tea to be nonexistent in restaurants, though you can sometimes find it in cans in stores.
You may find that personal space boundaries are different, so that you find yourself being bumped more than you’re used to, or perhaps being touched on the arm by your new friend and dinner companion sooner than you would normally be used to in America.
But if you keep your mind open, for every difference you might find inconvenient or uncomfortable, you can find dozens more that are delightful. The way that people linger over meals, making events out of them, or the way that they preserve and are proud of their history, stories, and lore. Remember always that you are a guest in the country you are visiting. You can honor your hosts and hostesses by watching and learning rather than judging, and by inquiring rather than demanding.
Think of yourself as an ambassador of the United States when you interact with the people in the countries you visit. You will be amazed to find that many Europeans know more about American politics and events than many Americans. To be an interesting visitor, brush up on current events and politics, both here and abroad. Show them that you recognize there is a world beyond the American border and you will go miles towards having great, memorable conversations, and maybe even a new friend or two as well.
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