Top Tips for Europe Travel-Part 1 (A quick and dirty guide in 8 minutes or less)

My sister and brother-in-law are planning their first trip to Europe and she asked for advice on things to do and see. Here’s my rambling, way-too-long notes page. Not included: opening hours, admission prices or travel time.What you will find–the things that brought delight and smiles to our family.

General Notes

Back home, I can’t live without my trusty credit card; but in Europe, it’s the cards with chip and pin technology that make life easy. When possible, we purchased everything we could online–lodging, plane and ticket reservations, admissions tickets to just about everything– and kept confirmation on our phones. And while paying by cash is rare in the states, we often carried 200 euro in cash while traveling. This makes haggling for bargain prices for souvenirs so much easier.

Pickpocketers are a special breed of people–they really are invisible. Be vigilant. Any time there is crowd, (like the metro that’s packed with people), it’s likely someone is trying to lift your wallet. Money belts are good; wearing a backpack in the front also works. And, for goodness sakes, don’t take your wallet out and verify you’ve got enough cash and your metro tickets “safely” tucked away.

Having a phone while in Europe is essential. T-Mobile had a great deal for us and using Whatsapp allowed us to “call home” to check in with the family without international charges. We also carried a mini iPad to check email, buy tickets and get recommendations for dinner. WiFi is plentiful and free in most major European cities..and don’t forget you’re best friend–fast food restaurants like Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC…

When you are dining at a restaurant, you can stay at your table as long as you like. No pesky waiter will ask you to leave. This means, the bill will not come to you automatically after finishing your meal, so you’ll need to ask for the check. Simply raise your hand and make the “signature gesture”.

It is normal for the hotel front desk to hold your passports during your stay. Some hotels may ask you to leave your room key at front desk when you leave for the day.

When selecting lodging, check the distance to the nearest metro station.  1/2 mile may seem pretty close, but it’s NOT. It is a LONG distance after a day of touring.

Getting Around

We often drove between countries because we lived there and had a car! However, Rome is NOT a city anyone should drive in. Paris too is a bear. We did a fair share of flying between cities and using public transportation (bus and metro/city train) from the airports to the city sights. We rarely got a taxi–because, well, we’re cheap. Train station info kiosks and Metro station attendants are very helpful across Europe. We never had a language problem. and were our go-to websites for flights.  Rick Steves on flying in Europe:

Norwegian Air—rock bottom prices to Europe. Seats are narrow and packed and you’ll pay extra for assigned seats and additional luggage. Good service overall

Ryan Air/Tui/Alitalia/EasyJet/Pegasus—we’ve done just about all of them. They are strict about weight limits for carry on bags but we’ve had good experiences. Our flights have never been cancelled, we’ve never been bumped and all have pretty much taken off on time.

Many airports and train stations have luggage drop for a fee. We’ve used it up to 48 hours for our suitcases and then packed a day’s worth of clothing in our backpacks. This is a fabulous way to experience London and Florence.

We’ve done a fair share of train travel in Europe. My advice–plan for delays and practice patience. We found that trains stop along the way; This can make the trip slow. Occasionally, we had to switch trains on the trip and if you’re not paying attention, missing the connection is a costly mistake. Train conductors are not terribly helpful. Always have a ticket purchased before boarding. Trains in Italy are the worst (a little dirty, a little unkempt, and not so timely) trains in Amsterdam and Germany are delightful! and were our go-to websites for flights. 

Sometimes you can get an overnight train from one city to the next…Amsterdam to Paris is one idea. That way, you can ” sleep on the train” and not have to pay for a hotel room the night. I caution this because we felt so tired and miserable the following day and it was 48 hours of exhaustion– I would have preferred staying at a cheap hotel for the night.

I always looked online for FREE WALKING TOURS (Sandemans is one operator) to orient us in a new place. These are often led by college grad students who make a little money off tips from people taking the tour.  We’ve always been pleased with these and choose this over the city hop on-hop off bus tour. (we tip about $25 per tour…not per person!)