My travels abroad have only occurred in Europe (unfortunate, I know, but I just keep going back!). I love just about everything about the continent and return every chance I get. As a result of my extensive European travels, I’ve figured out lots of tips for travel in Europe—mostly through trial and error. Without further ado, read on to find my best tips for travel in Europe!
Withdraw money from an ATM once you arrive
The best way to avoid absurd exchange rates and money-changing scams when visiting Europe? Don’t exchange money before you go or visit a currency exchange when you arrive. Instead, head straight to an ATM and withdraw your money there. You can find ATMs in train stations and airports as well as on the street.
If you’re worried about ATM fees, lots of travel-oriented cards offer no-fee ATM withdrawals. In addition, many American banks have partners in Europe that waive fees. Check your bank’s website to see who their partners are in the country you’re visiting.
Learn the language
Okay, maybe not the *entire* language, but learning a few words and phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting will go a long way. Yes, most (not all) people I came across spoke English, but it will make a difference in your travels. It’s respectful and shows locals that you actually care enough to try—plus locals will be more willing to open up and chat if you give their mother tongue a try!
Don’t be that loud American
Yes, Americans are loud. I sometimes avoid identifying myself as American when traveling because the loud Americans are the worst people to be. You can easily spot them in any foreign country by their loud conversations, basically yelling instead of talking. If you want to blend in, in any way whatsoever, keep your volume in check.
Don’t ask for anything at a restaurant “to-go”
Portions in Europe are smaller, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finishing your food. But asking for something to-go is a major faux pas. I know from my European friends that asking for meals to-go makes you look like you are too stingy to afford to eat different meals every day.
Exception: street foods and takeaway sandwich shops or cafes are obvious exceptions.
Get off the beaten path
There is more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower. There is more to Rome than the Colosseum. There’s more to London than Big Ben. Don’t get me wrong, you should still see the iconic sites, but make sure you squeeze some time in to explore the back roads and discover quieter parts of the city.
I wouldn’t be called Life Well Wandered if I didn’t advocate wandering (much to the chagrin of my mother, who begrudgingly follows as I meander around for miles and miles)! If you wander with no destination in mind, chances are you’ll find something special and off-the-beaten-path. Some of the best things I’ve found on my travels have from wandering. You won’t regret it!
No one wants to drag heavy bags up and down train platforms and along cobblestone streets. Pack as light as you can. If you want to know how much you should bring, put everything you think you’d need on your bed and then only pack half of what’s there.
Use public transport
Many of the European cities I’ve visited have great metro or tram systems. Take advantage of them and explore like a local! My favorite app for using public transportation is Citymapper. I use it every day in New York City and used it in London and Paris as well. Each city you visit will also have it’s own apps and websites for public transport as well.
Try local foods
Goulash in Prague; Pierogies in Poland; Currywurst in Berlin; Tarte-flambée in Strasbourg. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, food-wise. The food in Europe is delicious and incredibly diverse and much better than American food, in my opinion.
Take a train to a new country
During my five weeks of travel in Europe, my friend and I traveled exclusively by train. No TSA, no luggage requirements (well, almost none anyway), no electronic regulations, and stations in the city center: what more could you ask for?
Train travel is relatively easy to figure out in Western Europe and a little more complicated in Eastern Europe. My advice? Use this website to see if train travel from one city to another is affordable and feasible.
Pro tip: larger cities tend to have more than one train station. Pay attention to which one you book your return travel to as you could leave from and arrive in different stations in the same city!
Car rentals: you’ll pay more for automatic
Renting cars in Europe is relatively cheap. However, most European cars are manual. You’ll have to pay more for automatic transmissions.
Many people I’ve talked to have mentioned how the quality of their trip was greatly diminished because they spent a lot of it on the train to and from the city center instead of exploring. While it might be harder to find affordable housing in city centers in Paris or London, it’s definitely feasible in Central and Eastern Europe.
Most city centers in Europe are very safe, but it can be helpful to research what area best suits your needs. Staying in Shoreditch in London but not a hipster? Might want to consider a location change.
My advice: Stay with Airbnb. While there are some horror stories, I’m a firm believer in the good of people and well-researched hosts. For example, I wouldn’t stay in a place with zero reviews, at least as a female traveler at this point in my life. However, my numerous Airbnb experiences have all been positive and have provided for local advice and interesting conversations with longtime residents. Click here for $40 in travel credit when you sign up for Airbnb!
If you can’t find an Airbnb, look into staying at a local guesthouse or BnB. You’ll get a local experience and support local businesses.
Travel during the offseason
Europe gets really crowded in the summer and around the winter holidays. It makes sense—schools are on holiday and people generally have more time off. This can make for some unpleasant experiences when visiting Europe. If possible, book travel in the offseason, or just before or after really busy seasons. Want to see the Christmas markets? They tend to open at the end of November. Want long daylight hours and warmer weather? Head to Europe in early May or late August. Cities will have fewer crowds.
Ask for tap water
Tap water is free in France and the UK, you just have to ask for it (tap water in the UK and un carafe d’eau in France). You’ll have to pay for water in countries like The Netherlands and Denmark. But also keep in mind that sometimes beer is cheaper than water!
Public toilets cost money
Be prepared to pay about 50¢ for public restrooms in train stations and other public places. It’s annoying, yes, but they tend to be pretty well maintained.
Tipping is different in each country
In the United States, it’s customary to tip 15-20% in restaurants because servers don’t make a living wage. Across Europe, tipping is less widespread and often included in the cost of your meals. For example, tipping in France is usually included in your bill (look for service compris written on the check). When traveling in Europe, I tend to round up, which is customary, or add an extra 5-10% to the bill unless the service is truly exceptional.
If you’re looking for country-by-country tipping guides, check this guide.
Read the news before you go
While the political science nerd in me always advocates for keeping abreast of current events, this is especially important leading up to a trip. THere are lots of strikes in France with the air and rail unions, which could significantly impact your trip. Brexit will likely impact travel in the future. The migrant crisis has impacted travel in the past couple of years. While negative events shouldn’t deter you from travel, it is helpful to be aware of what’s going on and plan accordingly.
Live like a local
Research local etiquette and customs. Beware that some places close earlier or sometimes around lunchtime. Many places are closed on Sundays as that day is time normally spent with family. Dress modestly in churches in Rome, the Vatican, and Poland (and other conservative Catholic or Orthodox churches). Learn the tipping culture—it’s not customary to tip, as service tends to already be included. However, this isn’t already the case. Try to absorb as much of the local culture as possible to make the most of your visit to Europe and you’ll have an amazing journey.
- Check out what I should think you should see on your first visit there.
- Read about my favorite quiet spots in the capital city
- Check out these day trips to get out of the city and learn more about the UK
- Here’s what you need to eat.
- Consider taking a trip to Strasbourg, one of my other favorite cities in France.
- Take a day trip to Mont Saint-Michel to visit a real-life fairytale castle!