Advice for your first trip to Europe
by Bruce Dehning
Plan in Advance
It is important to plan in advance. Planning ahead means knowing in advance how to avoid the headaches of finding a nice, cheap place to stay, how often the trains run from Point A to Point B, the cheapest way to go, etc. I would encourage you to buy a good guidebook. I think Rick Steves' Book Europe Through the Back Door is one of the best, but you might need a more comprehensive guidebook as well. In addition, Rick has a couple of books, Mona Winks and Europe 101 that are invaluable for background information and negotiating your way through the major art galleries of Europe without spending a lot of time or missing anything important.
On the other hand, feel free to deviate from your itinerary. Changing your schedule to see things you had not planned on usually turn out to be the best part of your trip. Listen to other travelers you meet. They always have the most current and reliable advice. Always be on the lookout for people to meet. I often buy some disposable cups and a bottle of wine or some food to share before getting on the train. Nothing will allow you to meet people faster than sharing a bottle of wine or some food.
e-Tickets or Paper Tickets?
Many travel professionals will advise you to carry paper tickets rather than e-tickets. They base this on the notion that if your plane flight is canceled you will have an easier time getting a flight on another airline if you have a paper ticket (e-tickets are not negotiable documents while paper tickets are negotiable documents). Although technically this is correct, they are wrong in their advice to carry paper tickets. You are thousands of times more likely to have your tickets forgotten, lost, or stolen than you are to need a paper ticket to catch a flight on another airline. Their advice is equivalent to saying “Instead of driving in a car, which is very dangerous, always travel by motorcycle.”
What To Do
I recommend concentrating on a particular region (British Isles, Central Europe, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, etc.). Theoretically Europe is small enough to go anywhere you want, but if you spread yourself out it costs a bit more and you waste time traveling between destinations. I think some people waste money by going somewhere in Europe and doing what they could do cheaper in the US. There are plenty of places in the US to lie on the beach, play golf, get drunk, go camping, meet interesting people, etc. The things you cannot do in the US are what you should do when you travel abroad.
For your first trip, I recommend a “museums, castles, and cathedrals tour.” Be a typical tourist, travel around and see a lot of sights, take tours, etc. Fitting in some large festivals and events along the way will enhance your experience. The book entitled 100 Things to Do Before You Die has a list of global events worth checking out, but there are numerous smaller festivals and sporting events that are equally enjoyable.
For many people their first trip to Europe is their last trip, for others it is the first of many trips. Either way, see as much as you can. If it is your last trip you will be happy you got to see so much. If it is the first of many trips, then when you return you already have an idea of where you would like to spend more time. However, never spend less than three days in any one country. Some people will criticize trying to see an entire country in three days. The idea is not to see an entire country in three days, but to get a flavor for the country in three days, and extend the stay in countries that suit your taste. Most of all, relax, enjoy, and have fun.
Do not over-pack. There are very few things you have to take that you cannot buy in Europe if you really need them. Be sure to put a change of clothes and all of your medication in your carry on bag. There is a good chance you will not have your luggage the first day or two.
Take an ATM card. When I get to a new country, I just find an ATM and withdraw cash. The last few years I have found ATM's within minutes of every train station in every big city. You avoid the hassle of banks and you get a good exchange rate. Just make sure your password is only four digits long (some ATM’s in Europe still only take 4-digit passwords). I guarantee you that you will have less hassle with an ATM card than with traveler's checks. You still need traveler's checks for small towns and some Eastern European countries, so take plenty of traveler's checks and just deposit the ones you did not use when you get back from your trip.
Take overnight trains whenever possible, and pay for the couchette. You will arrive at your next destination early in the morning, and you will have saved travel time and hotel expense for a night. It is possible to sleep on a train without paying the couchette supplement, but you usually do not get a good rest.
When you are going to be in one city for a few nights try to sleep in someone’s home to observe the culture first-hand. I am a big fan of imposing on people that I have met in the past that offered me a place to stay when I visit. Sometimes they didn’t really mean it, but usually it turns out to be wonderful. If you don’t know anyone, pay for a private room in someone’s home. In the summer people will hang around the train station trying to find someone to rent an overnight room in their house. It seems a bit suspicious at first, but they are just trying to earn some extra cash. Try to get one meal per day included in the price, even if you have to pay a bit more.
When you arrive in Europe avoid the temptation to take a nap the first few days. Spend the first day getting plenty of sunshine, fluids, and exercise such as brisk walking. Drink coffee or soda if you need a pick-me-up, and try to stay awake until at least 8pm. Right before you go to bed, take an over-the-counter sleep aid such as Nytol or Sominex (Diphenhydramine HCl). Although you will have no trouble falling asleep, the sleep aid will assure that you sleep in until a decent hour in the morning. Repeat this procedure the second day (sunshine and exercise, no nap, sleep aid) but try to stay awake until 9 or 10pm. Your jet lag should be over by the 3rd day, but if it is not, repeat the process one last time.
Almost everyone that travels to Europe will eventually experience crime first or second hand. Luckily, if you are careful, the damage will be mostly to your psyche. It is unusual for tourists to be involved in violent crimes. The most common crimes are pick-pocketing and purse-snatching, although amazingly many folks are still taken in by hustlers such as money changers and street merchants.
The most obvious advice is to keep your valuables where they can’t be stolen. This means the hotel safe and a good quality money belt. What might not be obvious is that you should also carry a wallet. Imagine that every time you want to buy an ice cream cone or board the metro that you have to dig under your clothes into your money belt, showing everyone around you exactly where your valuables are. Money belts are also susceptible to things falling out as you retrieve your money or ticket.
Every morning decide about how much you will spend that day, and transfer that to your wallet along with your metro/bus multi-day pass, and phone card. The idea is that when you get pick-pocketed, your day will be ruined, not your whole trip. Never put more than you can afford to lose in your wallet (and never more than $20). If you plan on spending a lot in one day, put a little in your wallet in the morning and then transfer more at lunch or as needed. Always keep your wallet in your front pocket. There is no reason to be foolish, even if you only stand to lose $20.
Take pictures of everyone you meet. In a year or two, the only pictures you cherish will be the ones with people in them (even yourself). Scenery and buildings are nice, but you might as well buy a postcard. Speaking of pictures and postcards, buy nice postcards to supplement your pictures. Put the postcards in your photo album when you get back, along with your pictures. The photographers are usually professionals, and have access to places and views you do not. I also pack one of those wide-angle disposable Kodak cameras. Some pictures really look better in a wide-angle lens, but carrying a heavy extra lens for your camera is not worth it.
Buy souvenirs. If you see something you think you like, buy it. You usually cannot go back after you leave. What do you do if you bought things that later you realize you do not want? Give them to someone as a gift. They will feel good that you remembered them (even if you didn't). Consider the $20 an added expense of your trip, small when considering the grand scheme of things, and the things you really don't want make the best gifts.
Most countries now have good rates on prepaid phone cards. There are two kinds of cards. The first kind has a smart chip that keeps track of your use. It is physically inserted into the phone. These are easy to use and available at most newspaper/tobacco kiosks. The second kind of card is similar to what we have in the USA. You first dial an access number, then a pin number, and then the phone number. These are fine, but the instructions are usually in the language of the country you are in and not in English, so you kind of have to figure out how to use them by trial and error.