The very first time I went to Europe, 24 years old me was bright eyed and oblivious to a lot of things. Heck, I didn’t even know how to navigate my way through the metro system.
As a first-time solo traveler, I made a lot of newbie mistakes. I ate in places with pictures on the menu. I used money changers and I constantly planned my next move. Honestly speaking, I cringe at the thought of some of my I’ve-never-been-to-Europe mistakes.
After almost three years of nomadic full-time travel, I am wiser (and older) and very pleased to say that I am now well versed with all the tricks of the trade for traveling Europe. To help you make the most of your trip, here are a few essential tips that I wish I knew when during my first trip.
Travel Tips for Europe
Avoid Restaurants with Photos of the Menu
When I first got to Europe, I thought it was super convenient that the menus had photos in them. After a week or so, I caught on to the fact that the tourist menus were usually poor imitations of the real deal (and double the price). A rule of thumb I like to follow is to never eat in restaurants near tourist attractions. Yeah, that’s right.
Walk away from the uber expensive restaurant in front of the Colosseum. If you have the money, go for it but if you’re on a budget and want something more authentic, walk a few blocks down, duck into some random alleyway and pick a spot that has the most locals inside.
On another note, if a bottle of water and a basket of bread appears on your table….don’t expect them to be free.
Skip the Line
While I usually hate planning tours and attractions ahead of time, for the big ticket stuff that you know you want to do, it pays to book a ticket in advance so you can avoid the long lines. Places like the Louvre, the Vatican Museum, and the Colosseum can all be booked online saving you a good chunk of time.
Most museums have free admission days so don’t forget to check ahead of time before purchasing tickets. Bringing a student ID can also give you a few discounts.
I brought my old university ID and despite it being a couple of years old, I was still able to get a few good deals.
Familiarize Yourself with Basic Safety Tips
Before you go on a trip, it is best to familiarize yourself with basic scams in the area. While Europe is perfectly safe, petty crime like pickpocketing is pretty rampant. Get yourself a RFID wallet and a good bag that you can keep with you at all times.
Whenever you’re connecting to public wifi, make sure you use a VPN service to protect yourself from identity theft and hackers. Wifi in airports, train stations and hostels are hotspots for these so be weary! We use NordVPN and find the entire interface easy to use and straight forward.
Join Alternative Tours
While it’s easy to pre-plan and join every tour that interests you, this leaves little to see and explore. While I enjoy going on tours, sometimes I find them too touristy. With the rise of sharing platforms and meaningful tour experiences, looking at alternative tours whenever you get to a place is something I highly recommend you do.
For example, if you’re looking for things to do in Barcelona, rather than joining traditional tours, you can opt to join companies like Withlocals who connects you with local people who offer Tapas tours, Spanish cooking classes, or tours around some of their favorite Gaudi inspired art.
They also offer skip-the-line tours where the local guides take you to lesser known entrances to avoid crowds as well as an app if you prefer to book things on the go! Joining local tours like this helps add a local’s perspective to the city you’re visiting, creating unique travel experiences that you otherwise wouldn’t get from regular tours.
Take the Time to See Eastern Europe
While it’s so easy to stick to the well-known cities and destinations like Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and Greece (I know I did when I first planned my trip), Eastern Europe has a wealth of things to see and do.
The best part is, most of these destinations are very affordable compared to the prices of Western Europe. So yes, go ahead and plan that trip to Croatia to see the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Go ruin bar hopping in Budapest, as well as experience the beautiful attractions all over Prague. Not only will your budget last longer, visiting low key places will be bound to be less touristy.
Use Price Comparison Transport Websites
Every day, I still marvel at how tech continuously makes travel more affordable and accessible. One of my favorite tips when finding transportation is to use comparison websites to help you get the best deal.
During my second trip to Europe, we relied heavily on GoEuro, an app which you can use to compare the price of buses, flights, and trains. Through the app, I was able to score some cheap deals which saved me both time and money! €30 flight to London vs. a €48 7-hour bus ride. Saving money = having more money for wine!
Skip the Money Exchange Counters and Find an ATM
Traveling 101- Never ever use money changing counters (especially the ones located by airports). They usually have horrible exchange rates and are a complete rip-off. Instead, speak with your bank and inform them that you will be using your ATM in a foreign country.
Doing this is super important as you don’t want your bank to suspend your card due to irregular activities (again, rookie mistake #2) If you want to go a step further, look into cards that don’t charge any ATM fees or top-up cards like Revolut to avoid bank skimming etc.
Picnics are the Way to Go
For those traveling on a tight budget, picnics are the way to go. Head to a local grocery store, buy some bread, cheese, and a cheap bottle of wine and voila! You’re good to go. The first time I was in Europe, I was on a super tight budget so I rarely ate in restaurants.
Instead, I had solo picnics as I gazed at some of the best views imaginable. The Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, by the canals of Amsterdam, while sitting in some random park in Bruges. See that photo below? That’s me, enjoying my €2 sandwich while enjoying a stellar view.
P.S. Restaurants around me were all charging a minimum of €15 a meal! Honestly, picnics are the way to go! If you go to Italy, stay on the look out for Aperitif Hour where all you have to do is purchase a drink which often comes with appetizers.
Related: How I survived Europe on a Budget
Learn the Language
Anywhere I go (and I travel a lot), I make sure to cover at least the basics. Please, hello, thank you, can I have a beer. Learning the language (or at least downloading Google Translator) will help you in sticky situations.
While most people in big cities will be able to speak English, it still won’t hurt anyone if you can communicate with them better. It will also avoid embarrassing charades games as you try to signal that you need the toilet while in the middle of the street.
Don’t Be Afraid to Use Budget Airlines
Getting from point A to point B in Europe has never been easier (and cheaper). Make use of budget airlines and save yourself a lot of time and money.
If you’re traveling light (carry-on only), budget airlines are heaven sent. Easy Jet and Ryan Air and just two examples of the many providers that fly all over Europe for almost nothing.
Bring a Water Bottle with You
While some restaurants charge for water, you will save a lot of money if you refill your bottle before going out. I love these little foldable water bottles which don’t take up any space in your day bag.
Wear Proper Footwear
While packing for Europe can be tricky, one of the most important things to consider is bringing the right footwear. You will be walking for long periods of time so not only does your footwear have to be comfortable, it also has to be able to walk on all sorts of terrain.
Cobblestone streets, short hikes, and through busy cities. Also, remember to pack light! One of the things I regret the most is having too much stuff with me. This resulted in many hours of me huffing and puffing as I carry my bag from one place to the next.
Check out our Packing List for Europe Guide to make sure you don’t forget anything important!
Make Use of Free Walking Tours
Free walking tours are generally good ways to get to know a city. As soon as I get to any place, I usually check if there are any free walking tours either through my hostel or through companies like Sandeman. I use this to orient myself on what’s around me as well as to ask the tour guide their recommendations on the best local places to eat.
Be Adventurous: Go Local
Whenever I am in a new city, I make it a point to eat local. I prefer to support local mom and pop stores and restaurants over big chains. I also make sure that I try the local cuisine. Resist the urge to eat the familiar. Instead, eat as the locals do.
So yeah, venture past the usual sandwich and try pasta. Instead, try out pulpo while in Spain (octopus), some Haring or ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’ while in the Netherlands, or some Moules-Frites in Belgium. You might not like all of them, but at least you tried!
Part of the fun of traveling (okay who am I kidding, all of the fun in traveling) is about tasting new flavors and trying out new things. I once had to eat raw herring for breakfast when I was in the Netherlands. While I hated it and could barely chew it down, I’m still glad I tried it.
Get a Bike Lock
Unless your bag has built-in locks which can wrap around poles, carrying a thin yet durable bike lock can allow you to tie up your bag, especially when you go on long overnight train rides. I was traveling with a few people whose bags got nicked when they were on the train.
As you usually have to leave your backpack in the compartments in between carriages, making sure they are locked up and safe will give you peace of mind during your journey.
Take Your Time and Don’t Over Plan
Last but not least, don’t feel pressured to see and do everything. Take the day off to sit around in a cafe and read a book. Stay in your hotel and relax. Often, the urge to do everything and sightsee all day will wear you out.
Enjoy the little things that make Europe such a spectacular place to visit. Two hour coffee breaks, a glass of wine at ten in the morning, a siesta in the afternoon. During my first trip, I had everything planned out for the first month. As soon as I got there, I realized that sometimes, having no plan was the best plan. This led to many spontaneous adventures (like flying back to Amsterdam for a music festival) and epic experiences.
Hopefully, these tips have given you ideas on how to save time and money to help you plan an epic trip. Just remember to enjoy the experience and make the most out of every moment.
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Where to Stay in Europe
To help you plan your trip, here are a few of our top recommendations on places to stay in Europe.
- Where to Stay in Madrid
- Where to Stay in Paris
- Where to Stay in London
- Where to Stay in Rome
- Where to Stay in Interlaken