12 Travel Tips for Your First Visit to Europe
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Are you going to Europe for the first time? Congratulations! We’re super stoked for you.
We travel to Europe several times each year, spending about 6 weeks there in 2017 alone. It’s a wonderful corner of the world, full of rich history, wonderful people, and distinct cultures. Honestly, once you’ve been there, you’ll want to keep coming back. No matter where you are on the continent, there is something incredible to discover around every European corner.
Now, Europe is a big place… like really big. Although these 50 independent countries are packed pretty tightly together, crossing a single border can make it seem like you’re in a completely different world. So, while these tips aren’t right for every area of the continent, they should serve you well as you prepare for your first visit to Europe.
European Travel Tips for First-Time Visitors
#1) Travel for Free With Rewards Cards
Regardless of when you travel to Europe, most of the expense lies in just getting there. Using points and miles to pay for your airfare can save you thousands of dollars. If you plan ahead, you may even be able to earn enough points to make your flights free. Find our favorite travel rewards cards, or contact us for free rewards travel advice here.
#2) Travel Off-Peak
Traveling to Europe gets expensive, but you can save up to 50% (or more) by travelling “off-peak.” Summer is peak travel season across the continent, so it makes sense for prices to reflect that. Try heading to Europe between November and March. You’ll typically save a significant amount of money, and you’ll avoid the huge crowds too. That’s a win-win!
#3) Use a Sightseeing Pass
If you’re going through the trouble to make a trip across the pond, chances are that you’ll be doing a lot of sightseeing. Purchasing a sightseeing pass is usually a great way for first-time visitors to Europe to save time and money. Sightseeing passes typically include free entry to a city’s busiest historical sites, museums, and other attractions. As importantly, these cards save hours of waiting in line with their “skip the line” features. Some may even include use of the public transit system. Search for a sightseeing card to meet your travel plans here.
#4) Remember the Exchange Rate
When you’re in Europe, currency conversion can play tricks on your mind. To stay “on budget,” it’s important that you remember to convert the exchange rate – whether that’s in Euros, British Pounds, or something else. Here’s an embarassing little tidbit: The first time we went to London, we found a nice little breakfast shop selling egg and cheese sandwiches for just £5. We had them every day, never bothering to figure the exchange rate. In our head, we were paying $5 per sandwich. In reality, we were paying $8 – a 60% difference. While it’s not a big deal on a small scale, imagine how quickly costs can spiral out of control when failing to convert the costs for a whole week!
#5) Try a Rail Pass
Trains are a great way to move within or between countries. They are fast, efficient, and cheap. For some travelers, a rail pass can make train fares even cheaper. Options for traveling within one or multiple countries are available. You’ll also need to choose how many days you’ll be traveling. While they’re not right for everybody, if you’ll be moving around quite a bit, a rail pass is a convenient and budget-friendly way to get around. Learn more about available rail passes here.
#6) Pay Attention to Guest Limits
Throughout the majority of Europe, booking hotels for a family vacation can get a little bit tricky. You’ll quickly find that many hotels allow no more than 2 people to a room. Not only will additional guests not fit, cramming them in could be against fire code. Most European hotels follow these rules strictly, so don’t plan on sneaking in an extra child or guest because they almost certainly have a doorman. If you get caught, you may be charged an additional fee. You could even be kicked out of the hotel, which would definitely put a damper on your trip.
#7) Try a VRBO
So, what options do families of four or more have when traveling to Europe? Instead of booking multiple hotel rooms, you could try renting a VRBO or Airbnb instead. Many cities have dozens of apartments available near the major tourist centers. These places accommodate more travelers, often come with a kitchen, and might even save you money. When budgeting for the final total, remember to include any taxes and fees.
#8) Get Up and Go
Avoid the temptation to catch up on sleep when you first land at your destination. Sleeping will completely screw up your internal clock, and you’ll almost certainly lose a day of your trip due to exhaustion. To avoid serious jet lag, try to sleep on the plane. Then, hit the ground running when you arrive – especially if it is morning in Europe. Retire early on Day 1, get a good night’s sleep, and your body will be pretty well adjusted by Day 2. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!
#9) Do Some Research
To make the most of your experience, do some research on what you’re seeing before you go. While impressive in their own right, many of the sites and museums become even more interesting when you know the stories behind them. I always like to learn a little before, during, and after each visit. I use a guidebook to read a bit about each site the night before we visit. Then, I reread each section afterwards to reinforce what I just learned. Knowing the history behind each site helps me appreciate it’s importance even more.
#10) Avoid Restaurants with Photos of Food
If a restaurant has pictures of the food on the menu, it’s usually best to avoid it. Menus with pictures are meant to lure in tourists. It’s usually a sign that the food is mediocre and probably overpriced. Walk a street or two off the beaten path and eat where the locals eat instead. You’ll usually get better food at a cheaper price.
#11) Here’s a Tip – Don’t Do It
As a general rule of thumb, tipping in European countries is neither common nor expected. In many places, service industry workers are paid a regular wage. You may also see a service charge already added to your bill, especially in restaurants. Although this is highly dependent upon the area you’re visiting and the service being provided, tipping is usually considered unnecessary. Some cultures may even find it offensive. If you still feel the need to tip, a few Euros is usually plenty.
#12) Be Nice
And now, for my golden rule about traveling internationally: Don’t be a jerk. Always remember that you are a visitor in somebody else’s country. The language may be different, the culture may be different, and the food will almost certainly be different. It’s your responsibility to prepare for it. While you can easily get around most of Europe using English alone (especially Western Europe), it’s always good to know a few key “survival phrases” in the official language of the country you’re visiting. At a minimum, I always try to learn the phrases for “please” and “thank you.” A little effort goes a long way.
Visiting Europe for the first time is extremely exciting, but it can also be stressful when you don’t know what to expect. I hope these tips help ease your anxieties and limit the stress on your wallet.
Don’t forget, if you need assistance planning a trip with rewards, we’re glad to help. Check out our free rewards advice page and we’ll create a rewards plan specifically for your needs.
Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave any questions or comments below. Enjoy your trip, and – until next time – happy traveling!
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Agreed! Also be prepared to pay to use public restrooms and for most of the water to be carbonated. Also, ketchup isn’t really a thing. I remember when we moved over there it was a huge culture shock to me as a ketchup-lover lol. 🙂
Ha! I love it. (We’re a ketchup loving family too!) And good tip on the restrooms – most public toilets require coins.
Traveling off peak is about so much more than saving money, its also about avoiding the crowds.
European tourist attractions can get CRAZY in the summer, this doesn’t make for a very fun experience. Travelling off peak means you can enjoy the sites with about a quarter the people. Plus going to restaurants and enjoying the culture is so much more authentic when you’re not surrounded by other tourists.
We went to Italy in May for our honeymoon and it was amazing. Smaller crowds. Lower prices. It was awesome.
We’ve now been to Italy in both the fall and the early summer, and the fall is definitely less crowded (and cooler). I love traveling off-peak, but unfortunately that can’t always happen.