Sorry for the radio silence on the blog for the past few weeks. I promise it's for a good reason and we will share all the details soon :) Until then, if you or someone you know is planning a trip to Europe, I hope that these tips are helpful!
Any trip, whether domestic, international, or even within a few hours from your home, can be exciting, and stressful, if your not prepared. I remember back to my first trip abroad. I was 17 (oh my gosh, that was over 10 years ago, #ifeelold), fresh out of high school, and I was going with a group organised through my school. Best of all, my sister and I were going together and we were going to England! Needless to say, we were excited, but also nervous. Between the flight, the time change, the new currency, and new foods, we weren't exactly sure what to expect.
Being young and naïve was, in hindsight, a benefit. We didn't know what we didn't know, and were able to just go with the flow. Regardless, there were somethings that we were glad we knew ahead of time (like no bare shoulders in the cathedrals, and shorts/shirts must come at least to the knees). Now, when Aaron and I travel, there are certain things we do to prepare for a visit to a new country. I recently have had a few friends take their first from the United States to Europe and I asked my friends what they wish they would have known before making their first trip to Europe. So if you're planning a trip to Europe, here are some tips for that first time:
- Roads and cities grew and evolved organically in Europe, meaning that they rarely travel in a straight line, randomly end, change names, or are one way (for those of you driving). This can make navigation difficult. to save yourself the hassle, download the Here app - available for Android, iOS and Microsoft. It's free, and allows you to download country and region maps that can be used for turn by turn navigation, offline. We use this in EVERY foreign country we travel to and it is, easily, the #1 tool we use when traveling.
- Study up on the local language. There is no way you will become fluent in a new language quickly, but even learning the basics like thank you, please, where is the toilet, etc. in the local language will go a long way with interacting with people. Most people will speak some level of English, especially in the tourist cities, but it's nice, not to mention considerate, to at least try to say a few pleasantries in the local language.
- Make sure your financials are in order before you travel. Call your bank to let them know you will be traveling abroad (nothing sucks more than trying to take money out of an ATM, and being denied). Same goes for any credit cards you plan on using. An extra tip would be to make sure that any credit cards you plan on using have a chip in them. Many places in Europe will not accept a card without one of these chips.
- Cash is king! Always make sure you have cash on you. Credit cards are not as universally accepted in Europe, and they often have a minimum purchase required. Cash is always easier to pay with.
- Make copies of all your travel documents and leave them with a family member at home. Also, it might be a good idea to carry a photocopy of them in your luggage, but in a different spot than the rest of your travel documents. What documents am I talking about? Passport and drivers license for sure, but it might be helpful to leave copies of flight itineraries and any hotel bookings with someone at home, just in case anything happens.
- Register with the US Embassy in the country where you are going. By registering, you will get up to date information regarding safety and security in your host country. Also, heaven forbid, if something happens, they know your plans and can notify family and take action. Europe is pretty safe, but it's something simple and never hurts. You can easily find an embassy by just googling "American Embassy + country". Registration can be done on the State Department website here.
- Make sure you know the local practice for restaurants, especially tipping. In our experience, most of Europe does not tip the standard 10-20% that is typical in the US. Technically, since wait staff are paid a wage independent of tips, they are not required. However, we generally round up to at least the next whole Euro, but more often, we add a couple of extra Euros. It's an appreciated gesture, especially as a foreigner.
- Bring appropriate footwear. Flip flops are not common, not to mention they aren't that great for walking, which you will probably be doing a lot of. Tennis shoes are good for walking, but they pretty much scream American. Nonetheless, a good quality pair of walking shoes are a must. And don't buy a brand spanking new pair to bring with you - do yourself a favor and break those puppies in for a few weeks before your trip. Your feet will thank you.
- There are tons of posts out there about what clothing to pack for a European trip, so this is one that I will let go. It really could warrant an entire series of posts, but I will give a few, quick, tips. Pack nice jeans and maybe a pair of pants that are not jeans, dress in layers, bring a decent jacket that is suitable for the weather you are likely to encounter, try to stick to a single color pallet as it will maximize your options, but minimize the amount of stuff you will need to pack. And bring wool socks. They are warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and keep your feet comfortable, even when they are wet.
- These days, smart phones are everywhere. Most of them are capable of working globally, but, beware that global data, SMS, and phone rates can be pretty high. Call your cell phone provider and let them know where you'll be traveling and to add an international aspect to your plan. You can also clarify with them how your particular phone will work (it can be pretty technical, i.e. CDMA versus GSM networks). The other option, and it can be a little tricky, is to buy a new SIM card for your phone once you have reached your destination. For shorter trips, I don't know how necessary this is, especially given the easy availability of WiFi. A couple of apps we personally use to keep in contact that work well on WiFi are What's App and Facebook Messenger. Both allow you to send and receive both text messages and phone calls over WiFi, saving you a bundle on international charges.
Do you have any tips for first time travelers to Europe? Traveling to Europe for the first time yourself and have questions? Feel free to share or ask in the comments!