A First Timer’s Guide to Europe

So you’ve finally decided that its time to hop across the pond, well, congrats! Europe, or any international travel, can be quite daunting the first go-around. I’ve decided to make a comprehensive guide that will answer you’re questions all in one place. Let’s get to it!

Where do you plan on going and for how long?

The first decision you need to make is what countries/cities you want to see and how long you plan to stay in those. For most European cities, three days will allow you to see the big attractions at a reasonable pace. Another thing to consider is travel between cities, are you flying to various locations or opting for a scenic train ride? Geographically, your route should make sense, while also taking roundtrip flights into consideration. For my trip to Belgium, we had a flight deal in/out of Brussels. While staying in a hotel in the center of Brussels, we were able to travel via train to various cities in Belgium and cover serious ground.

If you’re choosing to more of a “tour de Europe” and hit multiple cities/countries, I recommend checking out Rome2Rio. Rome2Rio is an incredible travel search engine that shows you the various routes, methods and prices of how to get from Point A to Point B. For example, say I want to start in London, make my way to Munich, and end in Amsterdam, simply search those routes and the quickest, cheapest, and most effective routes will populate. The site even connects to Expedia for easy bookings. If you plan on doing a lot of rail travel, I also recommend checking out the Eurail passes to try and save some $$$$. More on flight and hotel bookings later…

Is your passport up-to-date?

Currently, US citizens with a valid passport can stay in the Schengen Area of Europe (26 countries including Spain, France, Germany, etc) for up to 90 days without a visa. In 2021, this policy is set to change through the installation of the ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System). After some research, ETIAS will  require “pre-travel screening for security and migration risks of travellers benefiting from visa-free access to the Schengen area.” You can apply for this wavier online (here) for a small fee. The wavier lasts three years and allows multiply entry. Another thing to note is that most travel requires you to have a passport valid for three to six months after you intended trip.

Planning the trip

Now that you’ve decided where you want to go and confirmed that you have a valid passport, its time to begin planning! I like to start with flights when I begin any trip itinerary. By following Scott’s Cheap Flights and the Points Guy, I receive notifications for cheap flight deals. Often times, the flights are out of bigger airports like Chicago, New York, or Boston, but sometimes highlight smaller airports as well. The deals usually last a couple days and if you act fast, you can be headed to Europe for less than $300 (the key here is flexibility – being able to book and travel more last minute). Once I’ve found my deal, I head to Rakuten to snag cash back on my trip. If you have an account, and click onto Expedia through Rakuten, you can earn up to 8% back on your purchase via check in the mail. On Expedia, I search the dates/routes suggested by Scott’s/Points Guy, find the deal, and check hotel availability.

In recent trips, I’ve found great hotel deals through Expedia when booking in combination with my roundtrip flight. If you’re opting for a more local experience, check out AirBnBs in the area. If you’re looking to meet fellow travelers, hostels are a great cheap way to do so (future post on AirBnBs/Hostels/Hotels to come). When booking a place to stay, the KEY is to look at the map of the city. You are likely going to want to stay as close to the center of town as possible, so that you will be in walking distance to everything. It is 100% worth a couple extra dollars to be centrally located than it is to be hiking a mile just to grab lunch.

Making an itinerary

With my flights and hotels booked, I start researching the attractions, museums, and must-see spots. I like to make a rough long list of all the things that I would potentially like to do along with entrance fee details. With the list made, I head over good old Google Maps and create two lists: one for attractions and one for restaurants. I save each of the attractions onto the list and do the same for any restaurants that I have been recommended (or spotted on instagram). With the two lists, I am able to see where everything is located in relation to each other and can plan my days out strategically. For many cities, it is unrealistic to spend your day hopping all over the place. If you don’t opt to look at the map, you will likely end up spending more time walking or in a taxi or on the subway than you do enjoying your time. It also allows you to plan some meals at specific restaurants and how you’ll travel between places (metro, taxi, or walking). Lastly, once you’ve planned you days out, it is important to look at when things are opened/closed. Some markets are closed on Sundays, some things close at 6 PM. You have your day organized, so all you have to do is appropriately assign that day to a day of the week where you’ll get the most out of the experience.

Side note: While it may be tempting to taxi or Uber everywhere you go out of convenience, I recommend giving the local buses and trains a try. Google Maps will tell you the route you need to take, and locals are most always willing to help a tourist out if you ask politely. This will save you a ton of money in the long run.

I like to book most of my excursions, day trips, etc in advance. Basically any tour or entrance fee that can be paid online, I do in advance for a few reasons. One, it adds structure to the itinerary having specific things at specific times. Two, it usually says money. I tend to book my things through Expedia using points (accessing Expedia through my Rakuten link of course) and using my Venture card. With my Venture card, I can cover my purchases with credit card points, making most things free! Then, the only expenses I have on the trip is food, shopping and incidentals.

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What to bring

So what do your bring on your epic European getaway? First, let’s talk fashion. Athleisure and baseball caps are less accepted across the pond and for good reason. Opt for layers, depending on the season. Of course, comfortable shoes is the most important part of any trip abroad. Be prepared to walk upwards of 15,000 steps any given day. I’ve had days in Rome and Croatia where I walked 12+ miles a day.

Next up, bring proper currency. While most countries in the EU are on the Euro, not all are (ex: Croatia and England). I like to take a couple hundred US dollars with me each trip and warn my bank of my travels incase I need to use an ATM. Depending on the country and city, they may be a more cash-based society (Germany is a good example of this). Be warned, you usually face foreign fees from your bank when you withdrawal internationally, so keep your ATM trips to a minimum. I like to instead use my credit card where excepted (restaurants, tourist attractions, and shopping). Other option that my father likes to use, is sending himself Western Unions of money while in the US and then picks it up when he arrives in that country. I haven’t done this myself, but its a good way to avoid those pesky exchange fees.

Lastly, make sure that you have the right travel adaptor for the country (or countries) that you are traveling to. The United Kingdom is different than the rest of Europe, a fact that I learned the hard way. Another thing to check is that your hair tools are able to function at the different voltage, otherwise, you may end up with a fried hair straightener and frizzy fair. Laptops and phone chargers are almost always dual voltage so there’s less to worry about there.

Another side note: Nearly every time I’m in Europe, I end up having to carry my suitcase up stairs, or far distances on cobblestone. Just make sure that you are able to carry your suitcase if you come across these scenarios (because you 100% will) and you will definitely regret over packing.

Fitting in

You’ve made it to Europe and its time to navigate a whole new culture. I think the biggest thing people discuss is the tipping culture. While each country varies, for the most part, tipping is closer to 10% at most restaurants. Why? Because the wait staff is paid a fair wage where they do not have to rely on tips to make a living. Some countries even venture towards less than 10%, example: in Germany, we often just left coins. In general, I find Europe to be a more relaxed environment. Many places take a “siesta” or time to relax with friends and family over small plates and alcohol around mid-afternoon. Join in on this, sit at the beer garden, snack on the peanuts, and simply reconnect/relax with your travel partner. Dinner is often much later at night and is enjoyed for hours – no 5 PM half an hour rush here!

Lastly, let’s talk about coffee. “Americano” is likely what you’ll order because you well it must be like coffee in America! Nope. Americano is watered down espresso that originated when American soldiers wanted something to remotely resemble our beloved drip coffee here. While its tempting to order, I recommend branching out. Try an espresso shot in Rome, drink a cuppa white tea in England, put the whiskey in your coffee in Ireland. I promise you that drinking whatever the local beside you is drinking will be better than ordering an Americano and it just not hitting the same as Starbucks back home.

Hopefully, this little guide helps you in your planning or encourages you to take the leap of faith and book the flight! If you have any questions, leave them below and I’ll see how I can help.

Interested in my Google Maps lists of great attractions and my favorite restaurants in various European cities? Let me know and I can find a way to share them!

Happy planning!

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the person behind annabroad.com

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