Having just returned from Europe, there are so many things that can catch a new traveler by surprise. From my recent trip to France, the Vatican and Italy, I hit a few of those speed bumps. The vast majority of lessons learned are not things that will actually ruin your vacation, but if avoided it will certainly lead you away from discomfort. Here are my recent lessons in no certain order:
- Places to stay. We prefer staying in apartments or houses that I book using Airbnb, Homeaway or just plain bed and breakfasts. It adds a level of “local” for us that we enjoy and can be very good on a budget. When booking those places, make sure you check the following amenities:
- air conditioning . . . kind of an oddity in Europe, especially away from major cities and in the northern areas of Europe.
- parking . . . near apartment? paid? free?
- elevator . . . if booked in an apartment building or multi-level house
- check in . . . stay in touch with your landlord prior to your arrival to be very clear on how you check in. Different places have different ways of doing things.
- luggage . . . depending on your flight time, see if a “luggage drop” is available prior to the actual check-in
- Voltage adapter. Make sure that your voltage adapter is actually modifying the voltage, not just a plug adapter, or you will burn up your hairdryer, cellphone and other things.
- Getting around. Moving around a big city or a medium-size village, it is good to plan ahead. Consider these options:
- Uber vs. Taxi . . . sometimes one is faaaaar cheaper than the other, depending on where you are. Negotiate and talk to people around you. Also, check to make sure about a shuttle service to and from airport.
- Public transportation (subway or bus) . . . learn the public transportation map of various cities. They are online. Find out how to purchase tickets (sometimes bundles are cheaper) and where to go to get from A to Z. This will save money vs. taxis or Uber.
- Bicycles, mopeds, ect . . . know the laws about helmets and traffic flow and laws. Claiming that you are a tourist or visitor will not suffice.
- Valuables . . . keep everything in a zippered travel bag that you keep in front of you. There are major rings of thieves that target tourists, using small kids as pickpockets. Men, do not be scared of a “man purse” or fanny pack in Europe. They are widely used.
- Packing. Do not weigh yourself down with huge bags of luggage. Pack for three or four days then wash and dry your clothes in a laundromat. In Europe these places are available just about everywhere and very simple to use. Most of them are very clean and well maintained. Even two loads of laundry will not take more than an hour, at most.
- Booking flights. Yes, there are very cheap flights on website that bundle various flights together but beware. Airlines like Easyjet are cheap but get you on the backend with ridiculous luggage fees and charging for ALL refreshments on the flight. Through a friend, I received a tip about traveling to Europe that works out quite well. Boston and New York City have the cheapest flights to Europe, almost by HALF! Just use your flight miles or points or a hop to get to one of those cities; then it is straight to Europe.
- Rental Car. To rent a car in Europe is easy BUT there is no option of whether or not you have insurance on the rental car . . . and it comes at a cost of almost the cost of the rental itself. Many times, your credit card will have insurance attached to your rental as a convenience, but those vary from card to card. Sometimes your own car insurance will have that amenity, but check with them before you leave and have your paperwork with you.
- Postcards. Sending postcards to friends and family is a great way to share the trip. The cards are cheap but the postage . . . not so much. We mailed five postcards from the Vatican to America for 15 Euros at the post office! Do your homework and find out which places have cheaper postage. Also, remember it takes over a week for the cards to arrive at their destination.
- Cellular Data. Using your cellphone in Europe is a perfect way to, of course, take pictures and share in an album with friends, but it is also a great way to get around with maps. The data you use must be set with your carrier BEFORE you leave and make sure it is international.
- Beware of Wifi . . . there are criminals out there who set up “free” Wifi stations and name them something clever that matches where you are. These Wifi stations can be dangerous by obtaining your IP address and stealing information. You can block with a strong VPN, with sites like http://www.nordvpn.com and the cost is fairly low. There are many VPN services available.
- Budget. There is always the unexpected on vacations. Here are some things to think about:
- Euros or any foreign currency . . . plan ahead and get your local bank to order Euros before you leave. it can take up to two weeks to get them, but you will be glad you did. Using an ATM or getting foreign currency at the airport will eat you up in exchange rates.
- Food and drink . . . carry a refillable bottle with a built-in filter to hydrate. Buying water at 2-3 Euros each will add up quickly. Plan on one sit-down meal a day. The other meals can be a grab-and-go sandwich or bagel.
- Yes, there are grocery stores in Europe. If you are going to be in a place for a while, go shopping for breakfast food or sandwich stuff that you pack up for the day.
- Use a credit card, instead of cash. I know . . . but let me explain. There are credit cards out there that have phenomenal exchange rates. Just keep up with what you spend and pay it off when you get home. You can limit the amount of foreign currency you carry around and only for little things or places that will not accept a card (very few).
Doing your homework is the key to . . . well, anything really, but when traveling is crucial. Being in the know will relieve a ton of stress. You do not have to plan every single detail, but eliminate as much of the unknown as you can and enjoy your trip!