If you can go to Europe when you are young, you should. You are better equipped and can put up with the long flights and possible layovers, less than ideal hotels, less of a target to pickpockets, and will have more energy to do and see the things you want to do and see.
Europe is affordable and if you use the following basic guidelines it can be done relatively inexpensively. This is written for those travelers on a budget. If money is no object, hire a travel agent. That way, if something goes wrong you have someone who’s Job it is to make it right. But not all of us can do this, including myself, so I wanted to provide some tips for people in a similar situation financially and otherwise as myself.
I was a travel agent for two years, and have traveled to Europe on vacation exclusively six times over the past ten years. I’ve been to England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia. I hope to go to many, many more. My wife is my typical travel companion, but I’ve also gone with friends as well. We make a modest living, but do well saving up for the trip. I am going to go over many of the important parts of a European trip as well as provide some helpful tips and some travel stories from my own adventures in Europe.
You want to go to Europe: How long and where to go?
There are so many excellent cities and countries in Europe that the choices can seem overwhelming. Some people know they want to see Paris, or Prague, and they plan on going only there. However if you’re not set on one or two places, pick up a magazine to help you decide. My favorites are Budget Travel and National Geographic Traveler, but at your local bookstore there are even more. When I took my wife on her first trip to Europe we knew we wanted to go to Rome, but we weren’t sure where else. I read in a magazine about Slovenia and Croatia, and we wound up going to both Ljubljana, Slovenia and Zagreb, Croatia and had a great time. Before I saw that magazine article I wouldn’t have thought about either place, but I am so glad I was able to travel to both.
Also maybe there is a band you want to see that are playing at some small venue in Europe, or a famous orchestra or ballet or other type of cultural event, and that’s always a good excuse to go and see a place.
Choosing where to go also depends on how long you plan on going. I think most large cities deserve at least two days up to four days. I recommend(and I go) between ten and fourteen days, because that is usually the amount of vacation time I get from work. So a ten day trip you should see three to four cities, and a fourteen day trip four to five cities. Factor in half a day for travel time between each city, especially if you are flying.
Now that you’ve chosen your cities, the next step is choosing what time of year to go, and how you will get there.
Getting There: Deciding when to go
I have always traveled in the Springtime(April-May) or late fall(October-early November). The reasons why are threefold: one, flights are almost always cheaper right before or after the much more expensive summer season, two, you avoid the major crowds and massive amounts of children that seem to populate every single place you want to visit, and third, the weather is cool enough that walking around all day does not leave one sweaty and exhausted.
A quick example of reason number two from my own travels: My wife and I decided to see Rome, specifically the Sistine Chapel. Walking through the Ceiling of Michelangelo, there were still people wall to wall, but it moved at a slow progression and we were able to see everything we wanted to on the ceiling. For the third reason, the climb to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica was a tiring trek, however since we were in Rome in November the air was cool and there were many fewer people making the trek to the top, which allowed us to take our time and enjoy it.
Next is researching flights from the US. It will be cheaper if you are on the eastern seaboard and will get more expensive the farther west you go. In any case I recommend taking a non-stop flight if possible, as it will greatly cut down on travel time. I live in St. Louis but typically drive to Chicago as I can take a non-stop flight from there and the flight cost is cheaper. Also be aware of direct flights versus non-stop. Direct flights will make a stop to pick up passengers however you will not de-board the plane. This can add to travel time as well.
Deciding what city to fly into is also important. If you only want to see Paris, then fly into Paris. However if you want to see multiple cities, London is typically the cheapest city to fly into. Dublin is also inexpensive more often than not, as is Frankfurt. A very important tip is to fly into and out of the same city. That will save a lot of money as airlines charge a lot more to fly into one city and fly out of another.
My last trip to Europe we flew into and out of Amsterdam. We spent one day in Amsterdam, which is easily accessible from the airport, and then flew to Barcelona, and then flew back from Madrid to Amsterdam, and then back home. It was much cheaper to find one way flights to and from different cities in Europe. I also recommend getting back to the city you will fly home from at least a day early. You never know when inclement weather, or a plane issue may occur, and as the most expensive flight you’ll take is the one back to the US, you do not want to miss that flight and have to pay for another ticket.
Use the internet and websites like www.kayak.com to find the cheapest flights, but also check the airline websites themselves as sometimes you’ll find a better deal on the airlines own website. You can book your tickets 330 days in advance, but that can be hard for most people including myself. I look to book four to six months from the days I will travel. If you need to have specific dates that can be more expensive, so if you can travel three days before or after(which kayak allows you to search) that will provide you the best deal.
Once you are over in Europe there are many ways to get around including air, train, and renting a car. I have written an article on inexpensive air travel in Europe, as I have found this to be the best deal in terms of time and cost, and it can be found here: www.associatedcontent.com/article/9633/fly_around_europe_on_the_cheap.html?cat=16. Rail travel and the Eurorail pass are more expensive and time consuming, however we took trains on our last trip(from Barcelona to Valencia to Madrid) and had a fine time. In our case the train allowed us to stop in Valencia and I have to say that city was the highlight of my trip. If the train is the same amount of time as a plane and the price is comparable or better definitely consider it. I do not recommend renting a car because then you need things like insurance and gas and what if you get lost or the car breaks down. Driving rules in other countries may differ, as well as the road signs may not be in languages you or I understand.
Hotels(and hostels and bed and breakfasts)
Hotels, ah hotels. Before we delve into hotels, first off, let me address hostels. I know people that swear by hostels, but since I travel with my wife and she needs a hairdryer and private shower, hostels are not an option for us. If you are travelling alone they are an inexpensive bed and you’ll meet other young people, and that sounds fine to me.
Another option to consider are Bed and Breakfasts. I’ve stayed at a couple in Europe, and they vary from excellent to horrible. It’s harder to find out good information on B&Bs but if they are your cup of tea definitely look into it. They allow the opportunity to talk with the native population and they’ll provide you tips only a native would know. They may also have fifteen children as well, so be aware.
My personal choice is a hotel. If you want a room to yourselves, stay in a hotel. I am of the opinion that a trip should be about getting out of your hotel room, so I look at hotels priced in the $100-150 a night range. These are typically two-three star hotels with a private bathroom and maybe a small TV. I only sleep in the hotel room on trips to Europe, so anything more costly takes away from my budget to do or see something else.
Finding the right hotel for you
Know what kind of traveler you are. I know that sounds simple enough but many people do not do this. For example, when my wife and I were in Rome we stayed at an inexpensive hotel near Termini train station. We planned on taking the train in Rome, so being only a block from Termini worked very well for us. The reviews we had read were mixed, but the price was right. The room was subpar, but it had a working shower and a bed, and that was all we needed.
A few years later a good friend of my wife was planning her honeymoon, and they were going to Rome. She asked my wife about the hotel, and my wife told her it was average, not great, but it was inexpensive. She mentioned it might not be a good honeymoon hotel, but the friend booked it anyway. You know what happens next, that she and her husband had a bad experience with the hotel, because it wasn’t suited to their travel needs.
The point I’m trying to make is know yourself. Read as many other traveler reviews as possible, and a great many can be found on www.Tripadvisor.com, which is where I inspect the reviews written by our fellow travelers. If you’re a person bothered by things like cracked paint or a dirty carpet or if the hotel is right above a bar, then take note of those things and do not book that room. Other reviewers will tell you all you need to know about a certain hotel.
Many hotels also have their own websites, and if they do, even if they’re not an English, they usually offer pictures or you can email if you have a question and they almost always will have someone on staff who can respond in English. If you’re not sure if the shower is in the room itself, or down the hall, email them.
Here’s another great tip that has helped me throughout. Find the best rate for a hotel on a website like www.kayak.com or www.hotels.com or www.looktobook.com or the myriad of other hotel websites. Then call or email the hotel itself and see if they will match the online price. Nine times out of ten they will, and I have found I am treated better and have been given free upgrades or drink/meal coupons when I have booked directly with the hotel than when I’ve used an online booking website.
Paying for the Trip
Since we all in different financial situations I will simply explain my process for paying for the trips that I have taken(and plan in the future to take). First I purchase all the travel tickets, including airplane tickets and train tickets. I buy these well in advance because once I confirm the dates and find the right price there is no reason to wait, as more often than not the price will go up. These costs have to be paid up front, right when you book, so plan accordingly.
Then after I have decided on what hotels I want to stay at I book these, like I mentioned above directly with the hotel if possible. The great thing about booking hotels directly is that you do not have to pay upfront. You provide a credit card in case of cancellation, but every hotel I’ve stayed in has a 24-48 hour cancellation policy where you are not charged if you cancel more than 48 hours out. This allows you to pay for the hotel when you check out, and also allows you to save up money as well.
For daily spending, sightseeing and food/drinks a good rule of thumb is between $50-100 a day per person. This cost should be factored into when you are planning how many days you want to go for, and how many cities, etc. There are many free things to do in a city, and sometimes you can just sit at an outdoor café and drink coffee all day, which is cheaper than seeing three museums and eating dinner at a five star restaurant. If you are into museums like I am I always go to the specific museum website and find the cost per person, whether or not there is a free or reduced cost ticket day, and things to that effect.
If you are a foodie that can also get expensive, and I recommend for most meals eating at local café’s or even street food. My wife and I’s favorite restaurant in Amsterdam is called de Mol where she is fond of the Turkish Pizza and me the Sharoma wrap. It’s inexpensive, the proprietor is always cordial and friendly, and we wind up eating there a few times per trip. But sometimes it is nice to splurge and have a meal at a fine dining establishment. What I am saying is that if fine dining, or going to nightclubs, or museums, or whatever your interests are, plan your spending according to those.
Researching the Trip
Back when I first started traveling to Europe I would buy the latest Rick Steeves Guide to whatever country I was going to, but anymore even the most current guide can be outdated. The internet is your best tool for information on a place. I use www.en.wikipedia.org to research the city and/or country I will be travelling to, and then for the things to do and see I use www.TripAdvisor.com because for every city there will be a list, “Top Rated things to do,” which provides options on things to do I may not have even heard of before.
As with hotels and flights research is the key. Read as much as you can before you go, because I have heard and seen people who buy a guidebook days before their trip and then read it while they are walking around a European city and stick out like a sore thumb. This not only makes their trip less enjoyable because the guidebook can and will be outdated, so they’ll be searching for a restaurant that changed locations three months ago. In all seriousness is also makes them an easy target for thieves.
Also when you arrive in a city, either at the airport or at the train station there should be a visitors center or tourist information booth. They will almost always speak English and be able to provide you with a map for free or at a low cost, and they if you tell them sites you would like to see they can circle them on the map for you and also usually tell you the best and easiest way to get there.
So do your research. I promise you it will make your trip more enjoyable. I do most of the research when my wife and I travel and then I tell her about what I’ve found. If something piques her interest then she will research it more, so that when we are on our trip we each can take the reins leading us around a foreign city we’ve never traveled to before. If you share in the research with the people you are going with you will have a better time.
Public Transportation and Taxi Cabs
For some of us we live in cities where public transportation is our only means of transportation, but in most places it is an afterthought or non-existent. The same is true in European cities.
If you will be in a city three days or longer it can help to get to know public transportation. I have used the trains in Barcelona and Rome extensively as they are very clear and easy to use and I highly recommend using them. In Valencia the trains were a bit more confusing and since we were only there for two days we took cabs to where we needed to go. When in Spain I highly recommend cabs as they are very inexpensive.
In Dublin we took the bus to Kilmainham Gaol(Jail) and on the way back we simply stood on the other side of the street to take the bus back into Dublin. Lo and behold the bus back was on the other side of the Jail which we learned from some very kind Irish people. So public transportation will also allow you to meet more locals and have a better experience.
Another tip: If you are planning to see Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona I highly recommend taking a cab there, as it is at a higher point of elevation from most of the city(and thus provides spectacular views) and then walking back down.
Your hotel should also be able to help provide directions on how to use and where to find public transportation. In Zagreb we took the tram all over the city as it was very inexpensive as well as the funicular in downtown Zagreb based on the recommendation of our hotel. They also provided us with a free map that had two separate walking tours of the city which gave us something to do and also took us by many of the famous city sights.
What to wear
I won’t spend much time on this as we all have our own style, but blending in has its own built in advantages. One, you will be less of a target for pickpockets and thieves if you look like you belong. You also might be mistaken for a native, which can be an enjoyable experience. We were at the Royal Palace in Madrid and I went to buy a book of pictures from the museum and when I went to pay the clerk asked if I was sure I wanted the English version. I nodded yes and she asked again, and then I told her I was American and she laughed and apologized, which made me laugh. It was a funny and enjoyable experience.
What you should not wear: T-shirts with print logos, like US sports teams. Sneakers and running shoes. Shorts. Baseball caps. Pink polo shirts. What you should wear: Neutral or dark colored shirts, jeans, khaki pants, leather shoes.
You may also want to bring a nice outfit or two if you plan on having a fancy dinner or going to the theater. Remember it’s not a good idea to bring too much clothing as you will have to carry it around. I pack one suitcase or duffle bag with enough clothes for half the trip and then plan on doing laundry once. You also could purchase clothes there and thus bring less clothes with you.
Laundry can be a hard thing to find, when we were in Valencia there was only one Laundromat but we found it and spent a couple of hours doing laundry. In larger cities there should be more and your hotel can typically point you in the direction to find them. We have also brought along a small container of laundry detergent and will wash our clothes in the bathtub and then hang them up to dry. The reason we do this is that it is immensely cheaper. Hotels will do your laundry for you, however at rates of $5 a shirt and even $3 per pair of socks. That can add up quickly, so we will either wash the clothes in our room or find a Laundromat once a trip.
If you see the letters WC, this stands for Wash Closet, or bathroom. Not every public bathroom is free to use, in fact most aren’t. So if you stop by a café just to use the bathroom it will be frowned upon, and you may be refused. So plan on buying a drink, or have an appetizer or some tapas or a croissant. If you are eating a meal, make sure to use the bathroom even if you don’t really have to. Also consider making your hotel room a centralized location because you can always use the bathroom at your hotel.
Be Open: Don’t ask why, Ask why not?
Traveling to Europe is not a common thing for most people, so feel special about your choice to experience a different country with its own culture, food and art. Be open to free tours, or sometimes just listen in on another tour that is in English. The last story I’ll share from my travels happened at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and speaks to that point.
My wife and I heard a thirty-something Irishman talking about the different Popes and their monuments within the Basilica, and he invited us as well as any other English speaker to listen as he gave a tour. He was quite informative and passionate about the tour, and when it was over he gave us a brochure, as well as to the fifty or so other English speakers following him around. He said that evening at five o’clock he was giving a three hour tour of Rome, hitting all the big sites, for only 20 Euros per person plus any gratuity.
We had never taken a paid tour before(something one usually avoid by doing a lot of research) but he was so knowledgeable about St. Peters we figured it was worth it. We also figured everyone that took the St. Peter’s tour would be there. We met him at the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II(aka the Typewriter) and we were shocked to find out it was only us and a retired Irish couple. He said he would still do the tour, so for three hours we got a personal tour of Rome! It was truly our most memorable experience of Rome and it was all because we thought, hey, why not?
I hope you enjoyed and have gotten use out of this article, it was quite fun to write and recall so many fond memories, and made me excited about my next trip and I hope it makes you excited to go! If you have any travel questions, please feel free to email me at [email protected] and I will try and help. Good luck on your travels and remember, you already did all the research for this trip, so now it’s time to have fun and enjoy yourself!