“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” -- Mark Twain


Advice For Your First Trip To Europe.

(click here for a shorter version with just the key points)

Plan in Advance

            The book "Europe Through the Back Door" by Rick Steves is one of my favorite travel books of all time.  Rick has a great outlook on travel.  I hope you have time to skim through it or read it before you go.  I gave up giving advice to people on where to go, where to stay, etc.  Everyone discovers their own little treasures when they travel.  I would advise looking through Europe Through the Back Door and consider going where Rick recommends.

            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 (or check one out of the library).  The best places to go when you travel are the out-of-the-way-non-touristy-small towns (although some places like Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is a large-town exception).  I think Rick Steves’ Book Europe Through the Back Door is the best for this type of travel.  In addition, he has a couple of books, Mona Winks and Europe 101 which 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. (Note that Mona Winks is no longer for sale on Rick’s website and is probably not being updated.  You get the same information in his city books as in Mona Winks, for example "Rick Steves’ Paris" contains all the information for Paris found in "Mona Winks" and "Rick Steves’ France" — plus extra information on neighborhood walks, hotels, shopping tips, and advice for sightseeing with kids. The same holds true for the London and Rome guides).

            Do not try to follow a pre-set itinerary.  Changing your plans 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.  Rick Steves also has some recommendations on how to meet people in his book.


Do Not Over Pack.

            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 in 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.  To find out if there are ATM’s where you will be visiting, try the Visa ATM locator or MasterCard ATM locator before you go.



            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 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.  What is a drag is when you find something cool, buy it for someone, and then wish a few months later you had kept it for yourself.



            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 moneybelt.  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 moneybelt, showing everyone around you exactly where your valuables are.  Moneybelts 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 $15-$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 overnight trains whenever possible, and occasionally 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 real good nights sleep.  As far as hotels go, youth hostels, traveler's hotels, and one star hotels are good.  They are made for the traveler, usually safe, and a good place to meet people.  Even better is to sleep in someone’s home, and 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 did not really mean it, but usually it turns out to be wonderful.  I also heartily believe in trying to keep a spot on the floor or room on the couch available whenever anyone visits me in the states, because, as they say, what comes around goes around.

            A good alternative is to pay for a private room in someone’s house.  In the summer, many 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 most of them are literally “little old ladies” trying to earn some extra cash.  It is great if you can get a meal included in the price, even if you have to pay a bit more.

            Take a Therma-Rest so you can sleep in the train station if you have to, even to rest a few hours before catching a 2:00am train.  If you are going to get on an overnight train that did not originate from the city where you are boarding, pay the extra money for a reservation.  The beauty of a reserved seat is that you can kick someone else out of your seat if you need to, but you do not have to sit in it if you do not want to.  For example, many trains will only be half full, but the reserved cars are usually packed, because they do not space out the reservations.  If you find a car without many people in it so you can stretch out, just forgo your reserved seat.

            In addition to a Therma-Rest, I think a very lightweight sleeping bag is also nice, but probably not a necessity.  Forget about camping in Europe, it is not worth it.  Most cities will only let you pitch a tent in a designated camp site, the cost is not that much less than a hostel, and are usually not centrally located.  The extra weight hauling around a sleeping bag, tent, stove, etc. is not worth it.



             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 actually 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 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.  If you are going to be making a lot of calls back home (like calling home every day), shop around for a good phone card before you go.  I use the MCI card, which allows me to call my home phone for the same rate as if I was calling from home to that country.  Sign up for an International calling plan before you go, and that can mean ten to fifteen-cent-a-minute rates plus a small connection fee from most of Europe.


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 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.”



             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.


             When you return home, repeat the process.  The only difference is that you will need to take the sleep aid 30-60 minutes before you go to bed, as you might have a problem falling asleep.  Use an alarm clock to make sure that you do not sleep in too late, but usually this is not a problem.  Repeat this process the second or third day as necessary.


Don’t be an ugly American


What To Do

            There are four different types of trips I like to take.  The most obvious one is to be a typical tourist, travel around and see a lot of sights, take tours, etc.  I call this a “museum, castle, and cathedral tour.”  Another way to go is to try to take in as many festivals and events as possible.  In this type of trip you travel from event-to-event, seeing sights along the way depending on how much time you have.  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.  Here are examples of some of the larger and quirkier events that take place every summer in Europe:



·       Royal Ascot Races (England)

·       Paris Air Show (France)

·       Venice Biennale (Italy)

·       Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Tournament (Turkey)


·       Bastille Day (Fête Nationale) (France)

·       Running of the Bulls (Los Sanfermines) (Spain)

·       Santa Marta de Ribarteme "Near Death" Pilgrimage (Spain)

·       Love Parade (Germany)

·       Il Palio di Siena (The Palio) (Italy)


·       Basque Herri Kilorak (Rural Sports) (Spain)

·       La Tomatina (Bunol, Valencia, Spain)

·       World Bog Snorkeling Championships (Wales, U.K.)

·       National Birdman Championships (Eastbourne, England)

·       Festival of Vilafranca Del Penedes (Barcelona, Spain)


            One summer I went to Wimbledon, the Worlds Fair (Expo) in Spain, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and the Tour de France.  It is hard to explain why these large-scale types of events are so much fun, but they are.  I think it is probably because the atmosphere is different; there is true electricity in the air.

            The third way I like to travel is just to have fun and relax.  This involves hitting the beaches during the day, going out a lot at night, doing some diving and snorkeling or whatever.  I only advise this if you go to Europe often.

            The fourth way to travel is to try to live in one place long enough to really understand the local people.  This involves trying to stay with a family or friends in the country, and not move around too much.  My first trip (1983) was this way; I stayed with one family for five weeks in Halmstad, Sweden.  I have maintained a close friendship with them, all but one of them have been to the USA to visit me, and I have been back 4-5 times to visit them.

            For your first trip, I recommend the “museum, castle, and cathedral tour,” but fitting in some large festivals and events along the way will enhance your experience.  For many people, their first trip to Europe is their last trip, so they need to see as much as they can.  For others, it is the first of many trips.  The first time, see as much as you can, and then when you return, you already have an idea of where you would like to spend more time.  For all of the trips I mention below, try to spend more than three days in at least half of the countries.  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.


Where To Go

            I think there are six good trips to take in Europe the first time you visit.  Theoretically, Europe is small enough to go anywhere you want, but if you spread yourself out it costs a bit more, and you waste too much time traveling between destinations.  I recommend concentrating on a particular region.

            My first few trips were to countries like England, Sweden, Germany, France, etc.  I had fun, but it is not the type of travel that I am addicted to now.  I think my first real travel “experience” was when we went to China.  To travel in a third world or developing country is amazing.  Every second your senses are bombarded with different sights, sounds, and smells.  You never feel as alive as when you are surrounded by new experiences 24 hours a day.  They also have the added of advantage of being a lot cheaper, so you can stay longer.

            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, visit museums, 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.  I think these are primarily found in less developed countries.  I am not saying that I will not travel in Western Europe again, because there are many things I still have not seen, but consider what you want to get out of the trip and the best place for it.


Example Trips

            If you are planning your first trip to Europe, here are six recommendations of where to go and how much it might cost.


  • I think a Western Europe trip should include England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and maybe Ireland.
  • In Northern Europe, a good trip is the Netherlands, Northern Germany (inc. Berlin), Poland, Norway, Sweden, and maybe Finland.
  • A trip in the Heart of Europe would include Germany, Switzerland, Northern Italy, and Austria.
  • Central Europe is now my favorite, with Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary a great first trip.
  • A good South-Western Europe trip is Spain, (maybe Morocco), Portugal, France, and Monaco.
  • In Southern Europe, I would go to Slovenia or Croatia, Greece, Italy, and Turkey.



            Please note that the total cost for your trip can vary widely based on where you live (airfare differences) and how you travel (sleeping in hotels vs. sleeping in train stations).  The expenses below are for a one-month trip, following my advice above:





Other Transportation














WARNING!! The dollar is near recent record lows against most European currencies and high oil prices have added significantly to the cost of flying – these estimates may no longer be valid when you travel.