LIVE FREE: Tour groups are tempting because they are low risk and easy. While certain places or experiences are conducive or even favorable for joining a group tour (try to keep the group as small as possible), for the vast majority of the time, seeing Europe on your own schedule, eating where you want, and doing what you want will ultimately give you a far more rewarding experience and lead to far greater memories. At least, it has for us. With the internet everywhere (it’s far better in Europe than in the US) and a fully functioning computer in the palm of your hand, there is no reason to join the herd and march along in a crowd, being told when to leave and where you’re going next. Do your research, plan your itinerary, and go out and experience Europe on your own.
WHEN TO SLEEP: This one is pretty well known, but is worth repeating. When you land in Europe, after your overnight flight, don’t go to sleep until at least 6-7pm that first night. It can be difficult to stay awake if you didn’t sleep on the plane, but if you can tough it out, you’ll probably get up at 6-7am that next morning and then you’ll be right on a normal schedule.
WHAT TO WEAR: Every time we get on an overseas flight, we shake our heads at someone wearing tight jeans or some women in high heels, looking as if she’s about to go clubbing and not sitting on a plane for 6-12 hours. Do yourself a favor, even if you’re in business class, wear sweatpants, a comfortable, soft, long sleeve shirt, and bring a pullover or light jacket. Have Kleenex, a few Snickers, bags of almonds or other snacks, your phone charger, anti-bacteria gel and any medication handy.
ITEMS WE ALWAYS BRING TO EUROPE:
- A cheap, small, battery operated fan – even in 5-star hotels, not all rooms have A/C like you’re used to in the US. The fan also helps with noise.
- A headphone adapter for the plane
- A few anti-bacteria wipes for planes/trains (in addition to regular for washing hands).
- Mophie® – Don’t let your phone die on you mid-day.
- Laundry bags – it doesn’t sound like much, but they really help you stay organized if you live out of your suitcase and hop around a lot to different places.
- Pharmacy – Depending on where you’re going, you might want to pack a few day and night time cold relief, decongestant, antacid, etc. While pharmacies are available in most places, it takes time out of your day, can be difficult to find the right medication, and there is something nice about using the brand you’re used to using. That said, if you do have to visit a foreign pharmacy, there are apps you can download that show you the medical drug name of all the US drug brands so you’ll know what European equivalent brand to look for.
- Blister band-aids – read our story about Budapest…ever since then we always have these!
- Back-ups – We always bring at least 2 phone chargers each, and the last few years we even bring an extra phone. We lost a phone to the ocean one time in Ireland, so now we bring a later-model iPhone® with us just in case that happens again. You don’t even need a sim card as you just need it for Internet access. I also bring 2 mouth guards for sleeping, and Shea brings two or three pillow cases since her sensitive skin doesn’t mesh well with the harsh laundry detergent used by most hotels.
- Emergen-C (or equivalent) – With all we are exposed to during flights and in hotels, as well as the lack of sleep and the daily alcohol consumption, we drink at least one or two of these per day to keep our immune system up and to stay hydrated.
AVOIDING CROWDS: One of the things that can most get in the way of a spectacularly memorable day in Europe is the crowds. Since we are traveling without children, we aren’t limited to being able to schedule travel during breaks in school, and are able to travel during “shoulder” season to avoid crowds (also cheaper). Of course, we realize that sometimes June, July or August or a spring/winter break is the only time you are able to travel, but these tricks can make a huge difference in crowds – meaning a huge difference in the enjoyment of the vacation.
- Go to landmarks early or late. Be the first/last one at any of the top tourist attractions to avoid focusing more on not running into people than what you’re there to see in the first place. Google Maps has a great feature that shows you the average crowd levels by hour. Simply type the name of the landmark, restaurant, or attraction you want to visit into Google Maps, and on the left side of the screen will pull up opening hours, contact info, and other great info such as the hours that are most/least crowded.
- Buy your tickets online or get a City Pass. Always pay extra for any “VIP” or “Skip the Line” options. The city “Card” or “Pass” isn’t always a good buy, as it depends on the city you’re visiting and they type of things you want to do (more on this later), but the VIP and Skip the Line benefits are a lifesaver – always get them! (Don’t do Florence without the “Firenze Card”).
- During the prime hours of the day, say 10:30am – 3:30pm, do something that isn’t listed as one of the top “things to do” on every tour guide. Explore a local neighborhood instead of the tourist zone. Take a hike (the physical element will rule out a solid percentage of US tourists right away). Take a day trip to a place just outside the city. Have a few drinks at local pubs. Go to some of the second-tier churches, museums, etc., and you’ll find some of them preferable to the city’s main attractions anyway, with the bonus of being not very crowded.
- Walk one street over. Every European city has a main shopping and tourist street. While these streets rate very low on my “things to do” list anyway, because at this point most of the stores are the same ones you see in every mall back in the states, you often find yourself taking a walk down the top rated shopping/tourist boulevard. It’s fairly amazing to see what happens if you simply take a side street one block over and walk a parallel street. This is true not only for the main shopping street but for most streets in the center or old district of town. In most cases, one street over is quiet, less crowded, is less commercial, and has the bonus of having (typically) more locally owned or boutique stores. So, when you’re navigating a city in the peak crowded season, use Google Maps to take back roads or alternative routes and avoid main pedestrian avenues.
- If you’re at a destination that is frequented by cruise ships, be sure to check online for which cruise ships are in port which days. Understand that cruise passengers have only 4-8 hours to “see” a city, so the majority of them will make a b-line straight to the top one, two or three tourist attractions. Plan ahead. Know that (typically) by 4-5pm all the cruise passengers will be heading back to the boat, so wait until then (or go before they arrive) if you want to visit a top tourist attraction. We spent 8 days in Norway in July and never experienced any kind of crowds or difficulty. We set up our itinerary to avoid places if/when they had more than 1-2 cruise ships in port, and we went out on hike, drives, or bike rides during the day, then came back to the hotel about the time the place was completely emptying out. In Flam, for example, we enjoyed the famous Flambrygen Rail journey at 7:30am, before any cruise ships docked, in a car with only 3 other passengers. Every other departure was sold out that day. The point is that if you plan ahead, and be sure to do the top-rated attractions at the best times of the best days, you’ll be fine, even in the middle of summer.
- There are certain destinations that just aren’t going to be as enjoyable in the popular months. Venice is a top bucket list destination for most travelers, but all you have to do is look at a few pictures of Venice in August to understand that it’s just not going to be the memory and experience you want it to be if you go at that time – no matter how many crowd avoiding tricks you attempt. You’ll run into similar frustration if you go to key, popular summer or winter destinations during the times they are most popular. If you are going to travel to a coveted destination during its peak season, it’ll be even more important to pre-book everything you can. Our recommendation, though, is to go somewhere that isn’t a top, coveted destination for that time of year. There are plenty of places in Europe that are just as spectacular, but simply aren’t as well known.
- Even during peak travel season, some cities are simply big enough to absorb the crowd. Cities like London, Paris, Madrid, and Berlin are always crowded, so the time of year you visit doesn’t make as big of an impact as going to places like the Amalfi Coast, the Greek Islands, or the French Riviera during peak, summer months.
HOW TO PAY FOR THINGS IN EUROPE:
- Don’t use Travelex, or any of the exchange companies at the airport, you’ll lose at least 10% on every transaction.
- Get a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees.
- Use credit cards wherever and whenever possible
- Keeping “c” above in mind, Europe is still generally a more cash-heavy society than the US, so you will want to carry some cash around. Use the ATM at the baggage claim of the airport to get a little cash, but try to get most of your cash from ATM’s in the city, and try to use your bank’s International Partners whenever possible to avoid fees. For example, if you’re Bank of America, then you can use any BNP Parnibus ATM and not pay any transaction fee.
- Be sure to call your credit card before you go (or some allow you to note travel on their websites) to make sure they know which countries you’re visiting. If you don’t, they might freeze your card thinking it’s been stolen.
MAKE USE OF YOUR JET LAG: If you can’t sleep, consider going out for a walk around 4-5am. This of course depends on where you are for safety reasons, but keep in mind that in the late spring to late summer months in Europe, the sun comes up very early. We were in Budapest in July and the sun was up by 5am. Of course, in Norway or Iceland during certain months, it never really gets dark at all. I love walking through fairytale Europe with no crowds, no sounds, and watching the sun come up. It’s a wonderful experience and makes for exceptional photos!
GETTING AROUND EUROPE: Don’t just assume you’ll get around Europe by train. When most people think of Europe, they immediately associate it with train travel. There are still, without question, certain destination to destination routes where trains are the best option, but I implore you to also look into air travel and renting a car. Europe has far more discount airlines than the US, and you’d be surprised at the relatively short flight times between European cities. In the amount of time it takes me to fly from Austin to Atlanta, I can fly from Madrid to Zurich, or from Rome to Berlin. Best of all, Europe has a ton of low-cost airlines and flying is way cheaper on most routes than taking the train. We also love renting a car and making the journey to our next destination part of the adventure. Driving yourself allows you to stop at local places for meals, see the countryside, make short stops at small, beautiful villages or towns that are worth seeing but not worth using up too much of your vacation time, and you will have the freedom to change your plans if warranted. While it can be intimidating to drive through the center of Paris or in countries where you drive on the other side of the road, the vast majority of roads in Europe are in great shape and quite easy to navigate.
HOW TO HAVE UNIQUE EXPERIENCES YOU’LL REMEMBER MORE THAN THE MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Don’t be pressured to do the top attractions – Look, almost every major city in Europe has a multitude of highly ranked museums that make every guide book’s top 10 list. If you’re an art lover, great, but my wife and I realized that we don’t really get art, so unless it’s a famous piece (think The Last Supper or of course the disappointing Mona Lisa) that we want to see just so we can say “we saw that”, we aren’t going to waste our time with it. For us, visiting with a local wine expert in Madrid tasting Spanish wines and cheeses while looking out on the cute streets is more enjoyable than anything we’d see at the Prado. This tip might sound self-explanatory, but there is a weird need people tend to feel to do the “top attractions” when you visit a city. Don’t be afraid to look deeper down the list of things to do, and don’t be afraid to do the #17 rated attraction over the #7 rated attraction if it looks like it’s something more to your liking
HOW TO DO IT ALL WHILE SAVING MONEY AND TIME: Almost every large city in Europe has a “City Pass” or “City Card” that you can buy for 2, 3 or 4 days and provides free or discounted admission to museums and attractions, use of public transportation, and other benefits. These can be indispensable in some cities and pointless in others. While the Passes can include some desirable places, and the transportation benefits usually make the pass worthwhile, a majority of the places they get you into tend to be the cheesy tourist traps you want to skip. The good news is the math isn’t that hard. Simply look at the list of museums or attractions you know you want to visit, and see if the individual entrance fees add up to the amount of the pass. For us, our rule of thumb is if the passes include unlimited Metro/public transportation and at least 2 of the attractions we want to visit, they are worthwhile…or if they are the only way to skip the line for one or two of the attractions, then they are worth the price. These cards are no-brainers in Florence, Paris, Lisbon and Berlin.
HOW TO EXIT THE AIRPORT: Don’t just show up at the airport thinking you’ll figure out how to get to your hotel. Some European cities (Copenhagen; London) have excellent express trains directly from the airport into the center of town. Other European cities have private car transfer at such reasonable rates it makes no sense to ride public transportation (Prague; Zagreb); You may also be better off renting a car, taking a taxi, or even if there isn’t an express train, the public metro. Go to the cities airport web site and read about options for getting into town. While we don’t use Viator.com to book many activities, we do use them frequently to book private transportation to/from the airport.
HOW TO LEARN ABOUT ATTRACTIONS WITHOUT HAVING TO BE A PART OF THE HERD OR OVERPAY FOR A GUIDED TOUR: In today’s world, almost every tourist attraction has an app, or at the very least a website with all the information you ever wanted to know about any museum or other attraction in Europe. Instead of paying for the audio guide, or getting stuck with a slow-moving tour group, download the app or read ahead of time and be your own guide. It’s cheaper, saves time, and lets you focus only on the parts you find most interesting. Rick Steves has a number of these tours. They are informative, fun to follow, and allow you to be on your own without following someone holding up a flag and wearing a headset.
HOW TO STAY ORGANIZED: Bring two empty laundry bags. They don’t weigh anything, but you can put your dirty clothes in them as your vacation transpires. While it doesn’t sound like much, it’ll help you locate your clothes in your suitcase if you don’t unpack (we don’t), and it’ll help you stay organized.