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Your ESSENTIAL Guide to Europe - California Globetrotter

Your Essential Guide to Europe

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When is the best time to come to Europe?

How far in advance should I book my ticket?

Is it better to travel by rail or car?

Should I tip? How much do I tip?

Before I uprooted my entire life to move to Europe, I wanted to come as often as possible and there were some of the questions I asked myself whenever I did attempt to come over. But I didn’t have the money or the travel skills that I have now. After living in Europe for 4 years already (how did that happen) and counting, I’ve learned a lot and I certainly made my fair share of mistakes along the way and I’m here now to share with you what I know now that I wish I had known then!

Picking Your Destinations and Making an Itinerary

Before you can do anything, you need to know WHERE you want to go and WHAT you want to see. There is so much to see and do here and while Europe is not even half the size of the United States and it is easy to drive from one end to the other, it’s best to pick where you want to start.

Try not to get too overwhelmed with the endless possibilities.

Do you want to hit up just the capitals of each country? Do you want to pick one country and see as much as possible? Do you want to explore one area in particular?

My recommendation is to go grab yourself a nice big map of Europe, either to pin on your wall or spread out on a table so you can visually picture all of your locations. The goal here is to form a clear and efficient route.

Booking Your Flights

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Before you go and start booking hotels and whatnot, it’s first important to start keeping an eye on flights. Try to be flexible and don’t settle with specific dates without some breathing room.

When searching for flights, always click the +/- a few days button to give yourself breathing room as sometimes cheaper days might be the day before or after your initial vacation dates.

If you’re keeping an eye on flights on various airlines, I highly suggest you to clear out your cookies as airline websites remember your search and are likely to increase the price because they know you’re looking. Set up alerts when flights drop so not to miss a good deal!

Like the US, all airlines have a main hub that they fly in and out of which generally offer cheaper flights. Lufthansa → Frankfurt, British Airways → London, Air France → Paris.

If you’re looking to hit up multiple cities on your holiday, consider a multi-city flight. This also often helps to lower airline fees. Or consider flying to Europe on a larger commercial airline and once in Europe catch a low-cost airline flight with RyanAir, EuroWings (operated by Lufthansa),  WOW air or easyJet to hop around within Europe.

Consider looking for flights via flight search engines such as Skyscanner.com, Kayak.com or Opodo.de.

Try to fly out mid-week as it’s usually cheaper!

Consider flying with other airlines such as Icelandair, AirBerlin, AirFrance compared to larger airlines such as Lufthansa or British Airways, preferably with a layover where you can stop and spend a few hours or a day. Definitely check out Iceland’s layover deal!

When Should I Go To Europe?

As most companies in America generally don’t allow more than 1-2 weeks off a year, I suggest coming for as long as possible. Personally, one week is not worth coming all this way when you loose 2 days flying and then dealing with jet lag the first couple of days of your trip. I suggest coming for at least 12 days if not more (if you’re lucky!)

Now, you need to decide whether or not you want to come during the summer when it’s likely to more MORE CROWDED but the weather is generally its best or do you want to come in the winter when its cold but LESS CROWDED.

Personally, I suggest coming either during the fall from September-October, during the winter when the Christmas markets are open or late spring from the end of April-end of June before peak season.

Europe is much cheaper and less crowded during these times

Be sure to consider whether or not you’re interested in attending some of Europe’s best festivals! Are you interested in Oktoberfest in Munich? Flower Carpet Festival in Brussels? Notting Hill Carnival in London?

Helpful tip: Google your top destination’s school semester schedule. You don’t want to be going on holiday the same time all of Germany or all of France is. Make for terrible traffic and long lines as Europeans head south.

Booking Your Hotel

First rule to booking a hotel is to never EVER book a room at a hotel near the airport as it will generally cost you a pretty penny!

Second rule: do try to steer clear of chain hotels like the Hilton or Marriott and stay with local hotels. They have so much more character than those big name brand hotels.

I highly recommend using Booking.com to find all of your hotels around Europe! It’s the one website I trust the most, most of the hotels offer free cancellation up to a few days prior to arrival. The website allows you to choose a hotel based on ratings, location, distance from city center and more. **Join their booking.genius travel rewards program and save 10% on hotel bookings as well as freebies and perks such as free airport shuttles!

Find hotels which include a kitchenette so that you can save some extra money by cooking at “home”. It’s also a great way to experience the country by perusing their local supermarkets!

It’s also worth booking an apartment instead of a typical hotel room. Especially if you have a group of people it becomes more affordable.

Getting Around: Transportation

By Car:

Take into consideration the option of driving around Europe. Personally, I enjoy traveling Europe by car so as to stop and squeeze things in along the way. As I said, you could drive from one end of Europe to the other in a day if you realllly wanted to. However, keep in mind that most car rentals have a one way drop off charging fee, therefore, think about a route that will allow you to start and end in the same location.

Avoid travel burnout by staying in one location more than one night!

Try to book your car rental through the airline at the same time as the purchase of your ticket as you’ll generally save some buckaroos than booking individually.

Keep in mind that most car rentals in Europe are STICK-SHIFT and even though you requested an automatic car, you may not get one.

Here are some car rental shops in Europe:

Keep in mind, many city hotels don’t always offer (free) parking and you may need to park in a parking garage which could cost you a lot of money. Therefore, seriously try to find only hotels which offer parking. Not just that, but European parking garages can be quite frustrating to maneuver a car in!

By Train:

Many people consider traveling Europe by EurRail, and while this is exciting, if you happen to be living in Europe and your spouse is a European citizen, you are not qualified to use it. However, you can use the InterRail which is actually cheaper!

Or, consider booking your own tickets between locations within each country. For example, here in Germany, through DeutschBahn each state in Germany has their own special Ticket. In Bavaria it is called the “Bayernticket” (Bavarian ticket) and you can have up to 5 people per ticket starting at 23€ and an extra 5€ per person on the ticket. The ticket is good all day, anywhere in Bavaria, as many times as needed! Monday-Friday the ticket is valid from 9am until 3am the following day. On the weekend, its good for the entire day. Each passenger must sign the ticket.

However, these tickets are not valid for ICE high-speed trains.

If you’re looking to take a high-speed train, you will need to make a reservation and book your seats.

Keep an eye out for ticket machines near the train where you MUST punch your train ticket, as many tickets are open ended and will be checked by train supervisors. Playing the dumb tourist will not get you out of a ticket!

Your COMPLETE Guide to Using the Deutsche Bahn in Germany!

Eating Out

Biergarten - 100 Interesting Facts About Germany - California Globetrotter

Each country has their own restaurant quirks which you should learn PRIOR to visiting. For example:

In Germany: Many restaurants require making a reservation prior to arriving, especially on the weekends when it’s busy. It’s OK to show up without a reservation, but don’t be surprised if you get turned away or told to finish eating by a certain time because all the tables have been reserved, even if they’re empty!

In Italy: Be careful if you want to sit INSIDE as restaurants have a dining-in fee between 2-5 €. If the weather is nice, enjoy your meal outside or take it to go. Also, be weary of restaurants enticing you to enjoy a bottle of wine. If they put it down on the table, it is NOT free and you will be charged for it, even if you don’t drink it.

In Spain (and many parts of Europe): Bread is NOT free! If you choose to eat the bread, you will be charged per slice of bread! Even if they put it down on your table!

In Italy and Spain, locals eat much later than Americans would like. Don’t be surprised if you find many restaurants closed around 5-6pm and reopening before dinner around 7-8pm.

Ordering a water is also not free and usually comes in a small glass bottle.

If you want water, I highly recommend buying bottled water when you’re out and about, preferably from the nearest grocery store. Otherwise, you can try to ask for tap water, but I can’t promise it will be in a large glass.

Beer is often cheaper than sodas!

While many hotels do offer breakfast included, be sure not to pay extra for the breakfast. A continental breakfast is most often served which is just bread, slices of cheese and salamis, jelly and Nutella and usually some form of egg and cereal. It’s pretty generic. Therefore, I highly recommend you to find a local bakery or a nice restaurant that offers traditional local breakfast.

Try to eat where the locals go! Try to avoid the overly touristy restaurants directly near city centers or tourist sites as they are generally more expansive and the quality of food is lower.

When eating at a restaurant, be sure to check if tip is already included, which it usually is. Never ever leave the tip sitting on the table. Be sure to give it directly to the server. But don’t be surprised either if they refuse your tip as it is not always customary to leave a tip. In Europe, most tipping is around 10% or simply rounding up.

Get More For Your Money

Currently, America is enjoying some pretty good exchange rates to Europe and the UK (Thank you Brexit!), however, keep an eye on your account and don’t forget even if you are paying for something that is 7, when you get home your account will say $10. It sneaks up on ya!

I highly recommend hitting up some of the countries in Eastern Europe which have yet to start using the Euro as the exchange rate against the dollar (and euro) are REALLY good! Visit the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Croatia.

Be careful visiting the UK, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland as they don’t use the Euro so exchange rates are VERY good and therefore more expensive!

Try to carry cash on you at ALL times as many small towns, restaurants and shops STILL don’t offer the use of credit/debit cards.

As a former banker, DO NOT use or bring travel checks as many places rarely use them anymore. This isn’t 1999 anymore!

Never EVER exchange your money at the airport or train stations as it is a complete RIP OFF and exchange rates are terrible. It’s better to just find the nearest bank and withdraw your money there.

I highly recommend asking your bank which banks have a free withdraw transaction fee.

For example, Bank of America has many International partners which has a free withdrawal transaction fee.

Carry change with you at all times as good public restrooms require paying between 50cents and a euro. It’s a nuisance but it is nice to have a freshly cleaned toilet!

Using all your change at the toilets is a great way to spend money you won’t be able to transfer back into dollars.

Visiting the Sites

Best Travel Sunsets - California Globetrotter

Rome, Italy

Many of the main hot spots like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, The Eiffel Tower now require you to book your tickets online prior to your arrival. The plus side to this is you no longer have to wait in long lines. The downside is tickets are not always refundable or flexible to change dates. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t still buy tickets in person.

I highly recommend getting an early start and arriving at the main attraction as early as possible to avoid long lines and you can still enjoy the site in peace.

The early bird gets the worm!

Always search for “free guided walking tours” in whichever city you are about toe embark upon. While the tour is free, it is highly recommended that you tip the guide based on how much you enjoyed the tour. Or search for do-it-yourself walking tours.

In London and other locations, many museums are free to enter or on Sundays.

Dress The Part!

Do try NOT to look like a tourist! Nothing stands out more than a person who is clearly a tourist. I’m talking to you, Americans, who wear the American flag as an entire ensemble!

Try to dress like you belong! You’re less likely to be taken advantage of if you blend in!

Ladies- During the coolers months, bring comfortable and stylish boots that are made for walkin’, some leggings or jeggings, cute scarves, and adorable winter coats. Be sure to bring a side satchel purse to wear across your torso. In the summer months, bring some cute dresses, a stylist hat and some big sunglasses! Trendy colors here generally include either black, navy blue, grey or bright neon colors.

Bumbling Around in Bamberg, Germany - California Globetrotter

Men – During colder seasons bring a stylish jacket or peacoat with a scarf. During the summer months, add some color to your to your wardrobe by wearing some shorts paired with a nice polo or V-neck t-shirt.

Be careful how much you pack in that suitcase of yours! It’s not gonna move itself and as you’re traveling around Europe, you’re likely to buy new clothes or souvenirs which add weight to an already packed suitcase! Pack only a few days clothes and either wash them or buy some cute new stylist clothes!

Packing Your Suitcase

Do try to bring only ONE SUITCASE and a carry on. If you can, one backpack carry on as it makes it a helluva lot easier to run after that train you’re about to miss! Plus, storage space on trains is limited and a bitch to find a place for that big ol’ suitcase!

Don’t forget to pack some Tylenol or Advil in case of headaches or hangovers!

Do leave your precious valuables at home! No need to bring your Meemaw’s diamond necklace. It may get lost, stolen or break during a rowdy night dancing at a disco!

Bag it and tag it my friend! Everyone else has that same black suitcase! Tag your bags with a special ribbon to help your bag stand out from the rest!

Don’t forget your TSA-approved toiletry plastic baggie for your carry on – keep your items under 3.5 fluid ounces. It will make going through security much easier!

Definitely pack some clean wipes because you never know when you might need to freshen up and the public restroom has ran out of toilet paper!

Put your shampoo and conditioner in a plastic baggie to avoid accidents in your suitcase.

Leave your sex toys at home. You do NOT want your bag being pulled aside because of a vibration. This is a real problem. No, this did not happen to me!

Do not put your fancy schmancy electronic goods (cameras, iPhones, iPads, laptops etc) in your suitcase! These are carry on items!

Other Tidbits

If you plan on traveling long term throughout Europe, I highly recommend having your iPhone unlocked and getting a SIM card. Or consider getting a MiFi Device if you need to be constantly connected.

Be careful of taxi drivers and they usually charge a hefty starting price, drive like maniacs and are sometimes sketchy. Don’t be surprised in Budapest if they hunt you down and offer you a taxi ride.

Take public transport as often as possible as it’s definitely affordable and easy to get around with.

Brush up on your military time – Europeans use that pesky 24-hour clock where 3:00pm actually means 15:00.

Before booking hotels or eating at a restaurant, see what TripAdvisor has to say! User-reviews can add helpful information companies aren’t likely to share with you, but keep in mind that these reviews are not professional.

If you’re interested in visiting Europe and are looking for more information, I highly recommend using the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Europe! Without these guides, I would be lost! This is my travel Bible!

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you click on one and make a purchase, I might make a little extra spending money, at no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own and these products/services have been found useful during our travels and come highly recommended to you from yours truly!

Other related posts:

Tips for Traveling to Germany

9 Tips for How to AVOID Crowds When Traveling

Your COMPLETE Guide to Using the Deutsche Bahn in Germany!

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Author: California Globetrotter

At 14 I started traveling the world with my parents and was hooked! By 21 I was studying abroad in Heidelberg, Germany. By 26 I sold all of my belongings and bought a one way ticket to Germany to teach English. Little did I know, I'd meet the love of my life and end up traveling to the most romantic and idyllic towns in Europe and becoming a long-term expat in Bavaria! My name is Lorelei and I'm just your typical CaliGirl, Sunset Chaser, Fairytale Dreamer, Dress Lover, Traveloholic, Beer Drinker!

64 thoughts on “Your Essential Guide to Europe

  1. As a European it’s fun to read this☺ I absolutely love the post and your tips. And your outfits! However, Finland does use the euro. It’s expensive anyway. And in Sweden you do get tap water (and bread!) for free. Which is the least they can do as eating (and drinking ) out is really expensive.

  2. Great tips! You thought of everything and then some!

  3. This is such a great and useful guide! I”m so excited to be visiting friends who are currently living in Italy for my first European vacation, and we totally picked September as a time to visit because of Oktoberfest!

  4. Excellent advice! As someone born and raised in Europe, I agree with every single point you’ve made. As for leaving the sex toys at home… ha,ha,ha! I would have never thought someone would load their luggage with that when they travel.

  5. This post is really informative. I devoured every piece of information. I am going to Europe soon and I am trying to absorb as much information as possible in order to save money.

  6. Lots of really useful tips.
    It has been some years since I last travelled to Europe. I hadn’t heard about the sneeky bottle of wine. However I did hear stories of people who had their luggage stolen whilst on the train – hence the introduction of the Pacsafe. With this wire mesh you could wrap your bag in the safety meh and padlock it to the luggage rail. No need to worry if you nod off to sleep or pop off to the loo.

  7. Nice comprehensive guide to Europe! I laughed at beer is cheaper than sodas. That’s absolutely true – I guess especially in Prague.

  8. Love this! Such a great guide! I also do very much agree with you with the hotels, I never book branded hotels because I would rather spend my money to support the local businesses plus they are really more charming and does have a lot more character.🙂

  9. Great overview! I definitely recommend visiting during the shoulder seasons in Spring and Fall. For Americans with limited vacation time, doing a trip to Europe over Thanksgiving can be a good way to save a few vacation days. #citytripping

  10. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Europe a few times over the past few years, and this list is right on! Although I have to say my summer trip there (even with the crowds) was AMAZING.🙂 I definitely agree with your tips on packing. It is way too easy to overpack and I ALWAYS end up losing or breaking a piece of jewelry. It’s costume jewelry, but it saddens me none-the-less. I’d love it if you could do a post on the train system and how the pricing works in various countries. I had no idea that the Bavarian train cost could be different and used differently than other train costs. #citytripping

  11. Top list of top tips! I especially like the advice about type no ribbon to your suitcase.
    #CityTripping

  12. Love that you’ve covered all the bases! I kept nodding my head yes – yes – YES, over and over again. Great post! And I do think you should do a German train post, it would be really popular and helpful!!!

  13. Love your tips – right on the money and very fun to read as a a European, especially the idea it’s easy to drive from one side to the other! I guess when you’re used to US distances though🙂 #citytripping

  14. An incredible guide! And you have certainly taught me a thing or too! The Spanish charge for bread and the Italians fir sitting inside? Never knew that! I love how you’ve adapted it to your fellow American folk. As for the vibrator… I feel there is a story behind that about someone you know! 😳 Thanks for linking to #citytripping

  15. Great tips! We always try to travel around September-October like you suggest. It’s definitely cheaper and less crowded. We’ve always had pretty nice weather too.

    The early bird gets the worm is one of my favorite tips for sightseeing. My mom and I were in London and Paris a few years ago and tried to get to places when they opened in the morning. We hardly ever hit crowds or long waits. It’s a great way to get pictures without a bunch of people in them too. We have pictures from the Palace of Versailles where we were the only ones in that main courtyard. By the time we were leaving, that area was packed with people.

  16. Haha.. Thanks to Brexit, many Singaporeans are planning to visit UK or Europe, me included! I managed to get an amazing fare deal via Kayak for next year and I’m super excited. The part that really confuses me is which countries are considered Europe and which are not. And their currencies totally confuse me!! Like I thought I could get away with just using Euros everywhere, then I found out Denmark doesn’t accept Euros and I start wondering whether Denmark is part of Europe. And I was like what the… I wanted to go Europe because of good exchange rate for Euros and now you’re telling me I need Danish Krones and Swedish Kronas, not Euros?? I’m going crazy!! #CityTripping

  17. Great advice – the bread thing always threw me off. Another thing is how in Germany the servers want you to tell them how much change you want. If you don’t say anything and they make all the change and they you hand some back they seem to get annoyed.

  18. Very thorough! I will save this for future reference! I enjoyed reading this!

  19. Great tips. As a European I can definitely endorse your suggestion to come outside the summer holidays when it’s very busy #citytripping

  20. Thank you for all of the great tips for visiting Europe! I find that the airfare is the most expensive and hardest thing for me to book. I have never used RyanAir but I think I’m going to give them a try. The next time I go back I want to visit at least two places as it’s a long flight for me from Florida and I get terrible jet lag so I may as well stay a while.

  21. This is such a great guide for planning a trip to Europe. For booking a car, I would also add the site rentalcars.com, as it gives you the price from a lot of different companies and even local ones. That’s how I found the cheapest car in Italy, haha.

  22. Being German, I had the privilige to travel around Europe already as a child so personally, I feel like I’ve seen the most spots in Europe now and would like to explore North America instead! Could you write a guide to the US for me?😀 Anyway, totally agree about flying midweek – although now that I have a full-time job, I absolutely hate that that’s the way it is. Oh one thing you might want to know, you don’t actually need cash in Scandinavia. They take cards even for the smallest amounts here and I literally never have cash on me!

  23. My next big trip is going to be Europe (again). I was originally thinking of flying to Amsterdam and heading down to Switzerland via train with several stop in between, but now I’m thinking of flying to Berlin & heading to Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest while they’re still cheaper options! Pinned this!

  24. This is a great comprehensive guide. I never think to check school schedules for things like spring or fall break, but that could make such a huge difference when you’re there!

  25. This is such a complete guide! So awesome! A few of my friends just went to Europe for the first time and were asking me alllll sorts of questions right up this alley. Wish I had this post then, but definitely saving now for later!😀

  26. A great guide, it’s always fun when you know about all of those things that you didn’t used to know anything about!
    Europe is such an easy place to travel in🙂

  27. Pingback: How to Avoid the Crowds When Traveling | California Globetrotter

  28. Wow! Impressive and such a great guide. Well done. Thanks for sharing! #WanderfulWednesday

  29. Beer and wine are cheaper than sodas or bottled water. Europe amazes me. Great list!

  30. Always fun to see a “foreigner’s” view🙂 I’ve never planned a several weeks vacation through Europe.

  31. interesting!🙂 #monday escapes

  32. Lots of great tips here and fun to see your view of Europe and the things that need pointing out! I have never come across the thing about being charged for wine and eating inside in Italy ever, in years of travel there. Where did this happen to you? Just for your info, tap water in a carafe is always free in France. #mondayescapes

    • Thanks! I was in Florence when that happened! They stood outside the restaurant enticed us to come in, we sat down at the table and then they opened a wine at our table even though we didn’t order it. So we tried to leave but they wouldn’t let us leave unless we paid for the wine and threatened to call the police. So we bought the wine and and left and drank it on the steps of the Duomo.

  33. Great tips!. I’ve had first hand experience of the wine bottle and bread basket trick.
    #MondayEscapes

  34. This is great advice. The last time I was in Europe was in 2010. We have plans to make it back some day. I’ll definitely remember these tips.

  35. Great post. The money thing can be such a hassle (and you pay for it!)

  36. This is a seriously comprehensive guide! Nice going! #mondayescapes

  37. Pingback: HOW You Can Save Money Traveling as a Couple | California Globetrotter

  38. This is such a useful guide! I really enjoy reading about Europe from an American’s perspective. Depending on the country, I’ll always ask for free tap water in restaurants. It’s just as good and there’s no need to pay for something you can get for free, right? Definitely ok to drink tap water in the Uk for example.

  39. Even I´m from Europe, there are so many places I don´t see yet. I hope you are enjoying your staying in Europe. If you have time, I´ll be happy if you can join my TRAVEL INSPIRATION link up.

    Anna xoxo
    http://www.glamadventure.com

  40. Liked the booking.com tip. I generally go through tripadvisor reviews and then contact B&B and hotels directly to do the booking. So, I checked out your tip and tried out booking.com for my next trip and am happy with the ease of booking and found some great deals. Thanks, Lorelei!

  41. Pingback: The BEST Tips to AVOID Looking Like a Tourist | California Globetrotter

  42. Pingback: Your COMPLETE Guide to Using the Deutsche Bahn in Germany | California Globetrotter

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