12 Tips for How to Plan Your Trip to Europe
Planning a trip to Europe is not like any other trip. It’s requires more than throwing in a few clothes and your camera into a small overnight bag and taking off. As with all trips, there is budget concerns and your travel bucket list to consider – and then there’s the packing issues. Here are my tips for making the initial stages of your planning your trip to Europe much easier.
We’re planning our next European vacation!
Our 25th Anniversary Trip. Y’all know The Hubbs and I are Anglophiles to the extreme. We are all about anything British and then some. But, this year we have decided to spend some time in France and Germany. That said, every time we watch something on PBS Masterpiece Theatre we look at each other with sad, puppy dog eyes and know we are each thinking the exact same thing – let’s go back to England instead. 😀
I have been wanting to write this post for several years. Years! I know, right? Calling all procrastinators! I thought now would be a great time since all of this info is running through my head right now. We will be flying via Space-A this go round. It’s a special type of flight for military personnel that requires its own how-to. But soon, I will write a post on how I watch for the best flights and book rental cars and hotels, etc, at a later time. Let’s get started shall we?
1.) Pack Your Passport – Don’t Leave Home Without It!
I know, I know. Who would leave for an overseas trip without their passport? Luckily we haven’t ever done that but I can tell you others have! Most of the time it’s a matter of “I thought you grabbed the passports?” and “”No, I thought YOU did.” Our passports are the first thing we pack. The day we leave we wear them around our necks! While I am at it, here are the passport pouches we wear while we travel overseas.
This pouch holds not only our passports but it has extra pockets for money and credit cards. The important thing about this pouch is that it features RFID Blocking? What is that, you say? Hackers have developed sneaky ways to scan your credit cards while they are standing beside you. This pouch is lined with (RFID) Radio Frequency Shielding Material which blocks unwanted scans, ensuring that your cards and personal information remain private and confidential. The last thing you want to happen is for some thief to wipe out your bank accounts while you’re overseas. These pouches allow you to keep your valuables safe while you are out and about! I cannot stress this enough. I was attacked by two female gypsies in Rome when my son and husband were walking several steps ahead of me. I looked like the perfect target. Little did they know I was a former police officer and had them both in a head lock when my husband got to me. (Wouldn’t that have made the perfect postcard moment?) 😀 My money and passport was tucked safely within my shirt, out of their reach. DO NOT carry a purse and do NOT carry an across-the-shoulder bag.
2.) Pack Light…You Can Do It!
Seriously! See this guy above? DON’T be this guy! If you take nothing else away from this post, take my advice on this one. I pack light and still find I have way too many clothes. Europeans dress casually and generally they wear black/white/gray combinations. I try to dress so I will not stand out as a tourist or an American and that specifically means NO white tennis shoes. 🙂 I generally take 3-4 tops, 4-5 pants, scarves I can mix and match, rain gear that will roll up into itself, and a sweater because even in the Summer months the evenings can be cooler if it rains. I take two pairs of shoes plus the pair I am wearing. We have started taking one dressy outfit because we dine out at least once at a 5-star restaurant when we can. We have a small carry on bag and another smaller backpack which also includes my iPad and chargers and that’s it. It takes some determination because as women we want to have a cute outfit for each day and we are known to pack for the “what if’s?” I get it. But, trust me – dragging a 50 pound bag across cobblestones streets or squeezing onto a packed train – or walking a 1/2 mile from the train station to your hotel in those cute wedge shoes you bought especially for your trip will NOT be fun. I cannot stress comfort enough. You will be doing a LOT of walking and a LOT of moving around.
Here are some of the items we use to help us pack:
Packing Cubes <— click this link for more examples
These little babies make packing and staying organized soooo easy. I use one for pants and one for tops and one for underwear/bras, etc.
Compression Bags <— click this link for more info
These bags do NOT require a vacuum or a pump to compress them. We use these when we are traveling in the Winter time and require thicker sweaters and clothes.
Rain Gear <— click here for more types/colors
You fashion savvy types may be saying “I would never be caught dead in this.” You’ve obviously never tried to sight see in London in the pouring rain. Look – when you spend thousands of dollars on a dream vacation to Europe, the last thing you want to do is end up sick from a cold because you got soaking wet, or worse yet sit inside a hotel room waiting for the rain to stop. (It may not stop for several days!) Again, I am all about fashion – but I am going to stay dry and keep moving. Besides, I think my Burberry-look Rain Boots aka Wellies look pretty good with this rain suit. 😀
3.) Call Your Credit Card Companies and Banks
Prior to leaving for your overseas trip, it is IMPERATIVE that you contact all of your credit card companies and banks and let them know you will be in a foreign country (or countries) and let them know for how long. If not, you could find yourself with credit cards that do not work because fraud protection has kicked in. Also, find out what the charges are for foreign purchases. I was shocked to find this out. Some of these fees are quite high, too. It may pay you to open a new card that doesn’t charge any fees and while you are at it, you may as well open a card that offers great travel points because you will be racking up some great points.
4.) You Don’t Need a Lot of Foreign Currency Before You Leave
Whenever we prepare to leave, we actually have very little Euros or Pounds (if we are going to the UK) for the trip. We will get about $100 American dollars worth to cover taxis, etc, once we arrive. Remember when we used to have to go to the bank and buy travelers checks? (I am not even sure they are accepted any longer?) Once we arrive and get a ways from the airport, we will find an ATM machine and get out some currency of the country we are in. You will not need a lot of cash as almost all businesses accept credit and debit cards. It’s always good to have some cash on hand, though. But we have found the rates in country are better than we get here in the States. That is why its best to wait. Also, the reason I mentioned it’s best to use an ATM away from the airport is that you will get better rates. If you need, get a small amount of cash at the airport until you find another ATM. ATM’s are just as abundant in larger cities in the Europe and UK as they are in the States. There is also a user fee, fyi.
5.) Call Your Insurance Companies
Notifying your insurance companies are imperative and I would suggest doing this several weeks in advance of your PLANNING stage, not your packing stage. Let’s talk about the various insurances:
1.) Travel Insurance: I cannot stress enough the need for travel insurance. You will be spending thousands of dollars on airline tickets and sometimes hotel reservations that are non-cancelable. *( I book as many rooms as I can through booking.com and pay the higher rate for a cancelable room.) Some smaller Inns where you have to book direct may not offer a cancelable room rate. Anything, sadly, can happen prior to your trip – sickness, a death in the family, injury. You need a good travel insurance that will cover you in the event you are unable to go. There are various companies which offer travel insurance. We do not use the same one each time, we shop around. Our luggage loss is covered by American Express when we purchase our airline tickets. If you don’t know if you have any travel coverage on your credit card, call them and ask. Make sure you know the coverage you are getting and paying for. We often pay about $250 for both of us and it covers a 100% refund for almost any reason. ***Important: many travel insurance policies must be in place PRIOR to purchasing your airline tickets or they may not be covered. Again, shop around and get all of the details prior to purchasing your flights.
2.) Health Insurance – please, please call your health insurance carrier and see if you are covered in foreign countries. You may be surprised to learn you are not. Or, you may need to purchase a small travel policy to cover you while you are gone.
3.) Car Insurance – Do you plan on renting a car? If so, call your insurance carrier and see if you are covered in a foreign country. If not, it may be just as inexpensive to buy insurance coverage when you rent the car. Weigh all of your options well. Don’t forget to take along your insurance card as the rental companies may require a copy. Also, is there a special 1-800# to call if an accident should happen? Does your insurance company have a special protocol? Have all of this info in a file to keep with you while you travel.
6.) Cell Phones, Tablets and Wi-Fi
Several years ago, prior to one of our trips to England, we prepared by calling our cell phone carrier and was talked into an International Plan. BIG Mistake! Our coverage was terrible and it ended up being quite costly. I did some research and figured out what was the better option. If you have a smart phone with a removable SD card, perfect! Once you arrive at your final destination, find a cell phone kiosk in the airport. Purchase a one month plan (or pay for one month in advance, according to the plan) and also purchase an SD card. The people at the kiosk will even load your new SD card for you if you are unsure how. You will get a much better plan and much better coverage, too. I think we paid about $25 for an SD card (we save all of our cards for future travel and mark what country we got them in) and our plan was about $35. Both my husband and I got SD cards because we wanted to be able to reach each other should we get separated. (often he will go to a museum etc while I go antiquing) You can decide if you can do with just one phone or not.
Most all hotels and even smaller Inns offer free wi-fi. I will tell you that, especially in the UK, their wi-fi and cell phone coverage often is nowhere near as good as we have here in the States, especially in the countryside. It is what it is. You will survive. 🙂 We Skyped with our family when we were in the hotels and also checked emails, downloaded images from our camera, etc. I do take my iPad and use it quite a bit but that is a personal decision.
7.) Download Google Maps
You’re not renting a car or driving anywhere, so why do you need Google maps? I cannot tell you how valuable Google Maps was when we were touring various towns. Google Maps features not only driving routes and times, but more importantly it has walking routes and times. This feature is especially helpful in larger cities, and it allows you to be paper map-free. Is there anything more frustrating than a paper map? 🙂 But even more, we could pull up near-by restaurants, drug stores ATM’s and more. Download this app on your phone prior to traveling if you haven’t got it already. It will automatically update to your location with your new SD card.
8.) City/Travel Apps and More
I never realized just how much our smart phone would help us when we traveled in Europe. Other than calling back home, etc, and Google Maps as I talked about above – we used a variety of apps that helped make our trip so much easier and allow us to travel with less paper documentation. For example, the booking.com app tracked all of our hotels and lodging for us, to include our confirmation numbers. Most all larger cities have their own apps, too. For instance, when we travel to the UK and stay in London, we use the Underground App to help us figure out the subway system. Do some research. Simply type “Germany Travel Apps” for example into Google, or put in the specific name of the town you are going to. Having the public transit apps on your phone will make your life immensely easier while there.
Another app I like to have available on my phone is the currency converter. Both OIS and Androids have their own systems. This comes in very handy when you are making larger purchases. I don’t know about you, but my mind doesn’t work that fast when it comes to converting currencies. I prefer the app.
Two other apps we rely on quite heavily is Spotted by Locals and Tripadvisor. We much prefer going to local pubs and restaurants and these two apps help you not only locate them but real life travelers like you and I give honest feedback.
One of my absolute fave apps? The Send a Postcard app. It does exactly what it sounds like. Postgram allows you to take a picture on your phone and convert it into a cute, customizable “postcard.” There is a 99-cents charge per postcard but its fun to send one or two.
If you think you will not need an SD card because you can survive on texts and free wi-fi alone, there is a messaging app called WhatApp that allows free international text messaging. A German friend told me about this.
Worried about being in France and you speak zero French? First of all, other than some upper Eastern block countries I traveled to finding someone who could speak English was never as issue. But, if you want here are several language translation apps you can download. Google Translator is one.
Lastly, make sure you have your bank apps downloaded to easily check your account balances on a regular basis.
9.) Create a Travel Notebook
Okay, I know it sounds like I am contradicting myself when I tell you to create a paper notebook. I am all about convenience and ease while you are traveling, but I am also about having a back up plan should some of these convenient apps not work. What if you lost your phone or had no cell phone service, etc? We may rarely use this notebook or it may live in our hotel room most of the time, but it is comforting to know all the important info pertaining to our trip is at hand. We usually purchase a small journal type notebook. I have several of these types of planners…
Travel Planners <— click here to see more like this!
We use small paperclips to create sections to help organize everything. These tabbed sections include airline/flight info and itineraries, printed out hotel info and confirmations, copies of insurance cards, copies of our passports and credit cards and anything else that may be needed. I also use this notebook to save entry tickets into places we have been or I may add a postcard or two. For example, I saved our entry tickets when we spent Christmas Eve at the church service at Westminster Abby in London. I actually save these small notebooks not only for the sake of memories but I have referred back to them for other trips or when friends/family needed some travel input. Its always best to be safe!
*With the increasing dangers we are facing in this world, I just wanted to add that I always have the address and contact information to the American Embassy in the country/countries we will be traveling too. Not only for safety reasons should something disastrous happen, it’s also where you would go for passport issues.
10.) Pre-Purchase Travel/Discount Packages
I am often asked if we purchase train and rail packages in advance for use in country. First of all, we rarely use any kind of train because we choose to drive. That said, we purchase station to station type passes in country but rail passes must be pre-purchased before arriving in Europe. Do the research. It may be cheaper to purchase point-to-point type rail passes within the same country and purchase a rail pass to use to travel between countries. This may prove to be the most complicated aspect of planning your travel. Rick Steves offers a line of books that will answer a lot of your questions concerning rail travel. Don’t be afraid to combine some rail travel with air travel, especially if you are on a tight schedule and want to cover a lot of ground. Yes, it’s relatively fast to get around Europe in general but air is always going to be your fastest (and sometimes cheapest) bet. We love to use Ryan Air to hop from country to country. You can sometimes get one way tickets from country to country under $100/pp. (I would suggest downloading the Ryan Air app)
Also, do some research into Tourist Packages in the cities you are traveling to. For example, the last time we went to England we found a combination Train and Entry Pass which allowed a 2-for-1 entry price on most historical sights within England. It saved us a TON of money. We purchased the discount passes while still in America. How do you find out about these types of discount packages? Research, research, research. Google is your friend.
11.) “When In Rome…”
I truly believe that traveling to Europe is when we Americans can step out of the box and live! I think we get so bogged down with life it’s just easier to go along with the main stream and walk the easiest trails of life. Don’t pass by once in a lifetime opportunities you may never have again. For instance, we try our hardest not to stay in chain hotels. Rather, we choose 700-year old former Coaching Inns or a Mom and Pop B&B. And never, ever eat at a chain restaurant in Europe. Yes, there are McDonald’s and KFC’s and Starbucks, but you are missing out on fabulous local faire and the appeal of the country if you do that. To a degree, you HAVE to be a tourist when seeing the sights. I mean we go to Rome to see the Coliseum and Trevi Fountain, for example. But don’t be afraid to take a day trip to an off the path village for a wine tasting. We love to attend church locally even if we can’t understand the language. There is sooo much to see and do that isn’t always on the suggested “Top 10 Things to To” lists. It may take a little digging and research, but they are there. Live life like a local!
10.) Rome wasn’t built in a day – you won’t see it in a day, either!
I totally understand that the fact that my family lived in Europe for over three years and traveled extensively gaves us a bit of an advantage. We were able to see a lot during that three years and now we choose to dig deep into a particular area and stay in place for 2-3 days or a week at a time. But, if you are planning your first trip to Europe – or if this trip is that once in a lifetime chance – I understand your need to see as much as you can. But to be honest, many times travelers fail because they try to pack too much into a short amount of time and end up barely touching the tip of the iceberg. This is the main reason we refuse to travel in tour groups. We want to see what we want to see on our own timeframe. Depending on how long you will be gone, I would allow 2-3 days per city/area with a day between for traveling. It’s also easier to stay on the Continent of Europe or within the UK/Ireland, although it is perfectly doable to hop around. I recently helped a friend plan a London/Paris/Rome trip. Obviously some extensive travel between cities was involved but we did it and they had a marvelous trip. I would recommend creating a “Priorities” list of countries/cities you wish to see. Will this be your one and only trip to Europe? Then shorten that list and choose your “bucket list” cities. Will you be able to return to Europe in the future? Then possibly concentrate on 1-2 or perhaps 3 cities at most where you can travel back and forth relatively easy. You won’t see all of Europe at once unless you plan on staying a few months and spending a lot of money. But, you can see the best of the highlights and truly – isn’t see some of Europe better than never seeing any?
I realize traveling to Europe isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. But I cannot tell you how much we love going and hope anyone who wishes to go can. I do want to touch base on something because I am asked this a lot. Do I feel its dangerous to travel in Europe currently? Yes. It’s also dangerous to travel in parts of the United Stated and Mexico and almost any country you go. You just have to use your smarts. If you are unfamiliar with the country stay close to the touristy areas where it’s usually safer. If you and your travel partner are not comfortable traveling alone then join one of the many planned tour groups available – or possibly a cruise. (Just please check their reviews.) Just because that mode of travel isn’t our preferred mode doesn’t mean you won’t have a good time. I find the initial planning stages a challenge that I enjoy figuring out but you may prefer a set itinerary that someone has already established. That’s okay, too. Just go! Choose a date and make plans to go! I promise you will thank yourself for this opportunity. Happy Traveling!
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