Europe Travel Tips (Know Before You Go)

Summer is coming, and for many folks that means a trip to Europe – maybe even your very first trip to Europe. Traveling abroad is a lot of fun, and whether you are going to Paris, Barcelona or Rome, you will find plenty to do. However, there are some important travel tips that can help you plan a more enjoyable and less expensive trip. Let’s take a look at some of my favorite Europe travel tips.

A night view of the acropolis in Athens lit up at dusk.  European travel tips.
The Acropolis in Athens.

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Europe Travel Tip 1 – Get Your Cash at the ATM

This is a common mistake that many new travelers to Europe (and more experienced travelers) often make. The traveler brings with them hundreds (or thousand) dollars in cash. Upon landing, they exchange the dollars (often the full amount) at the airport to local currency. This is a costly mistake. The exchange places at the airport (and beyond) offer poor exchange rates. This means you’ll often give up to 3% to 10% of your money for the privilege of using the kiosk. To exchange a thousand dollars you might pay as much as $100. The exchange places often advertise “no fee” as a way to attract customers. But they don’t mention that their exchange rate is much lower than it should be.

Instead, use an ATM machine. You’ll probably need to pay an ATM fee, both to your bank and the ATM provider. But your bank gets the currency wholesale and their rates will always be rock bottom. So you may pay $5 or $8 upfront – and save a hundred. This is one easy to implement tip for travel in Europe – always get your cash at the ATM.

The famous ronda bridge in Ronda, spain, with water gushing out of the opening.  European travel tips.
Travel Tips for Europe – Ronda, Spain

European Travel Tip 2: Beware of the European Pickpockets

Let’s be honest – pickpockets are a problem in many of the world’s major cities. This is not an issue limited to Europe. Pickpockets tend to target people in crowded areas, people who are out of their familiar surroundings and those who look well dressed. In short, if you are a tourist, you fit the bill. If you are going to Europe on vacation you are likely to hit up many famous attractions such as the Louver, the Coliseum, and the Tower of London. Take some basic precautions and avoid losing your necessities to pickpockets while traveling.

  • Don’t carry a passport with you. Although ID is sometimes required, a photocopy of your passport and your original driver’s license are much better than carrying your passport around.
  • Buy a discreet money belt to fit under your clothes. Forget the fanny packs of the 1980s. Today’s money belts are flat and small, and you’ll forget you are wearing one. Tuck into it a credit card, some cash, and your ID. If anything goes wrong you’ll be glad you are prepared.
  • Don’t flash your valuables in crowded areas. I am not saying you shouldn’t dress the way you want to on vacation – but don’t take out stacks of cash.
  • And most important, don’t stress. Pickpockets tend to target people who look like they are unaware of the danger – just by reading this article and being aware, you are already taking steps to protect yourself.
Iceland is one place in Europe where definitely need car insurance. It will cost you close to what a car rental will cost, if you buy at the counter.

Travel Tips for Europe 3 – Wear Comfortable Shoes

Europe is a continent of beautiful little streets and convenient public transportation. While on vacation in Europe, you’ll be exploring major cities and little towns mostly on foot. Having a great pair of comfortable shoes is important – but since you are on vacation you want to look good too. An attractive, high-quality sneaker is ideal to take with you on a European vacation. Just be sure to break it in a little before you go, the last thing you want is blisters on your holiday. Don’t count on wearing heels or even flats your whole trip. You’ll be on your feet a lot – prepare wisely. For more ideas on what to bring to Europe, check out the Ultimate Packing List for Europe.

European travel tips - midday on a quaint old cobblestone narrow street in Romania with a tower rising in the background.
Exploring little streets in Romania on my trip in 2018.

Travel Tips for Europe 4 – Know your Credit Cards and When to Use Them

With the many benefits of credit cards over cash, I recommend you use a credit card as often as you can in Europe. However, in less touristy places, you’ll find many vendors don’t accept plastic. Be sure to always have plenty of cash with you. Many restaurants don’t even tell you “cash only” in advance – they just assume you know.

International transaction fees are also important to keep in mind. Some credit cards will charge you a special fee (the international transaction fee) each time you’ll use a card in Europe. But there are lots of cards that don’t charge a fee – call yours to find out before you travel. This is not the kind of surprise you want on your statement.

If a retailer ever offers to charge your credit card in US dollars, rather than the local currency, don’t accept the offer. This means the retailer is using their own exchange rate – sure to be less favorable than the one your credit card gives you. Using a good credit card without an international transaction fee is a Europe travel tip that can pay off quickly.

Lapland, Finland. Credit cards are widely accepted in Finland and many other northern European countries.

Europe Travel Tip 5 – Cars and Hotels are Smaller in Europe

Hotels rooms in Europe are much smaller than the rooms in the States. I remember the first time I went to Amsterdam – I was shocked at the almost doll house size of my room. Many hotels are old construction residences (build in the 19th century or earlier) and homes in Europe are smaller. You do get used to it. But if you want more room, consider renting a private apartment instead – I find many good deals on hotels.com

Cars too are very small. An economy car in Europe is about 3/4 of the size of an economy car in the states. One of the reasons for smaller cars in Europe is that gasoline costs a lot more. In addition, the street, and the roads are much narrower. You might need to drive through an old town area, where only one car can fit at a time – but the road is used as a two-way street. I like to park outside of old towns and walk to my hotel on foot. If you do want to rent a larger car, consider first if you feel comfortable driving very narrow streets.

Most car rental companies only have a couple of automatic cars available. Manual is still very popular in Europe. If you plan on renting a vehicle, rent an automatic, online in advance. I suggest you go for an automatic unless you are very comfortable with manual – narrow, hilly streets are no place to learn a complex new driving skill. For the best deals, use a rental aggregate website like Hotwire.

european travel tips - landscape of amsterdam from adam point, Amsterdam's central station featuring the name of the city (amsterdam) on its rooftop, views of buildings in the background, wide water way with ships in the foreground.
The view of Amsterdam, Netherlands from Adam point.

European Travel Tips 6 – Pre-book Major Attractions in Advance

If you usually travel within the United States, you are probably not in the habit of purchasing tickets in advance for big attractions. Yes, sometimes there is a line – but it usually goes quickly, and you are almost never turned away. In Europe, especially during the busy summer travel season, this is a bad idea. For the biggest European attractions, always book your ticket in advance online. I like to check Viator for skip the line tickets and tours. Viator is a great way to save time or find a personal guide. Viator also offers a generous cancellation policy – full refund for most tours if you cancel at least 24 hours before your tour. Additionally, you can also purchase advanced tickets from the attraction website directly.

If you don’t book in advance the line for the Eiffel tower in Paris can be as long as 3 to 4 hours. And in Granada, the Alhambra sells out by 9 am – so if you didn’t get your tickets in advance you won’t get in. Even an experienced traveler can make this mistake – as I did on my last trip to Spain.

european travel tips - the view of eiffel tower in paris in sunset, paris skyline in the background.
Buy a ticket to the Eiffel tower in advance online – and avoid 3 hours of waiting in line.

Europe Travel Tip 7 – Bring Your Meds and Pharmacy Essentials

If there is a true emergency, you can count on good medical care while on vacation in Europe, and your travel insurance should cover it. But for any minor aches or pains, bring your meds and save yourself some time and money. Although there is no shortage of pharmacies in all major cities, some products aren’t as widely available, and some are only made for the American market.

For instance, I had trouble finding quality bandages for blisters on my last trip. I also couldn’t find any zinc medicine, which is clinically proven to shorten the duration of a cold. Widely available in the states, the pharmacist in the Netherlands had never heard of it. Yes, it’s a small thing, but going out of your way to find something you probably already have at home is a waste of your precious vacation time (and money). Of course, if you have prescriptions don’t forget to take them. If you do forget your prescription meds while in Europe, just go to any pharmacy. The pharmacist can contact your doctor in the states and eventually fill it – it will, however, take some time. Depending on the country you might need to be seen by a local doctor as well.

The Pantheon in Greece

Travel Tip 8 – Avoid Cabs

If you are traveling to Europe from the United States, you might be used to taking a cab from the airport to your hotel, and to get around. For most people who are traveling to Europe, this would be a mistake. Cabs are expensive and slow (those little streets are designed for horses not cars after all). Public transport is the way to go, especially if you are traveling on the lighter side. The metro is very efficient, fast – and cheap. Don’t forget that gas and the minimum wage is higher in Europe which drives up taxi fares.

If you are not sure how to get to your hotel, look for the information booth in the airport terminal. Provide the clerk with the exact address and they will explain multiple efficient routes to get to your hotel. You don’t need to preplan this part in advance or buy advanced tickets unless you are traveling between cities.

Travel Tip 9 – Be Aware of the Cultural Differences Across Europe

Although I’ve been discussing Europe as though it is one cultural monolith, the reality is of course much more nuanced. There are major differences across European countries, and to help prepare for your vacation it is important to keep in mind the country and the region where you’ll be traveling.

There are exceptions to this, but it is useful to think of the continent as divided into four areas – North, South, East, and West. The North encompasses Scandinavian and bordering countries – from Norway to the Netherlands, Iceland, Finland, and the like. The south encompasses well… southern counties. France, Italy, Spain, Greece and so forth. The West is all those countries we just mentioned that were not occupied by the Soviet Union, and the east is those countries that were occupied.

Northern Europe Travel Tips

Traveling in the north often means locals and services stick to a precise time table. Things almost always run on time, credit cards are widely accepted. People generally follow the rules of the road, so driving is very easy. The north countries tend to be more expensive to travel.

When you travel to Northern Europe, take lots of public transport. Watch your budget and be prepared to pay high prices for everything. Dress for the weather – it can get cold even in the summer. Show up on time for everything and strictly abide by all traffic rules.

Tips to Travel to Southern Europe

The south means a more relaxed approach to life – a time schedule may or may not mean much. On the other hand, food is amazing and travel here is generally cheaper. Renting a car can be a little iffier as more people break the rules – but still very doable.

When traveling in Southern Europe, be prepared for public transportation to be late. Show up early, and don’t count on last-minute anything. Credit cards are less widely accepted here so carry some cash. Enjoy the great food and lower prices. In the summer expect very high temperatures, especially in July and August.

Western Europe

Anywhere in western Europe is developed, with generally better medicine and a better handle on emergencies. If you get in trouble, you are likely to receive fast and efficient medical care in most of Western Europe. Roads are of high quality, and the train network is fantastic. You can easily travel the entirety of Western Europe by efficient rail system – and many people do so.

Travel Tips for Eastern Europe

Much of Eastern Europe doesn’t have an efficient public transport system, so you’ll likely use more cabs around here. The countries themselves are developing quickly but medical care can be lacking especially outside of big cities. Renting a car to get from town to town is often a more efficient path than the train. Everything is cheaper in the east – enjoy the prices.

Americans are often treated really well in the East – I feel like I got a special treatment everywhere I went. Knowing some Russian language can be helpful, especially outside of large cities. Credit cards are less accepted, so have cash on you. Driving a car can be iffy but sometimes necessary to get around, if you have the budget for it hiring a private driver in Eastern Europe is often a good option.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and found the Europe travel tips useful. What other Travel Tips articles would you like to see? Is there anything you’d like to learn about traveling in Europe that I didn’t cover in this article? Let me know in comments!

Thank you for reading, and see you on the road.

Viktoria aka Traveltipster

First time Europe travel tips. Includes how to save money and time.  Budget hacks, hotels, and much more!
#europe #traveltips #firsttime #savemoney
#savetime
#hotels
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Always practical, accompanied by beautiful photography and a bit of history, my goal is to help you create – and fulfill – the ultimate travel bucket list.  I look forward to your comments and questions, and happy traveling!

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