My first time travelling to Europe, I took two weeks to explore Italy. My second time, I took two weeks and visited London and Paris. (My next trip, I will be visiting Portugal and Spain.) Both times, I fell in love with so much about the way of life, the people, the food, and the sights. And both times, I was thankful I didn’t cram in 5 countries in 10 days. Here are some of the lessons I learned from travelling to Europe.
Tours are fast-paced
Know the pros and cons of guided tours before you commit to taking one. On a tour, you will get a great overview of your destination with included sightseeing and a knowledgeable guide. You will have the company of your tour group, and experience peace of mind knowing everything is organized for you. Alternatively, travelling independently gives you more freedom to spend your time as you please and challenges you to navigate foreign places and focus on what you really want to get out of your travels. Don’t be afraid to book a tour and then extend your trip in your arrival or departure city (or both if they’re different) to re-explore the areas you felt you didn’t dive into enough.
You will not, and can not, see everything
This is the hardest lesson to come to terms with. In reality, you may spend loads of money and use up your vacation days to come home and realize you missed something important you wanted to see or do. You will always feel like you need more time to sightsee, whether you’re on a hectic tour or are staying two weeks in one country: there is always so much to explore, even in our hometowns. In Paris, I didn’t see the Mona Lisa or participate in a cooking class or dinner in a local’s home – something I was really looking forward to. Lack of time and planning presented me with these small hurdles, where I had to decide how to spend my time. Before you leave for vacation, determine what you must see while you’re there, what you want to see, and what you’ll be okay with not seeing if time runs short. Leave room for something popping up last minute, especially if you’re getting local recommendations once you’re there.
Bring the correct electrical adapters and converters
Most of Europe’s electricity is 220 volts, while most of Canada uses 110 volts. Because most new electronics are dual voltage, you will most likely not need a voltage converter (make sure your electronics state a range of 110-220 V). You will, however, need an adapter to charge your phone, laptop, hair dryer, and other electronics you need to plug in. North American style plugs have two flat prongs, or two prongs and a round plug. Most sockets in Europe take two round or rectangular prongs while the UK takes three. Read more on electrical outlets here.
Hotels are not the same quality as home
Get used to it. You’re not travelling to stay in a hotel room, you’re there to explore the city. As long as there are no bugs or mould, the toilet flushes, and there’s warm running water, I’m okay. European hotels are often much smaller than North American ones. I once struggled with finding space to even place and open my luggage on the floor. You may also want to know that a room with two twin beds means that they are often pushed quite close together, if not completely touching. So if you don’t know your travel partner really well, get comfortable!
Know your currency
Budget how much you will spend in the destination’s local currency and make sure you exchange enough of your Canadian money so you don’t have to worry about withdrawing money from the bank machine while you’re there. Some banks even have a limit on how much you can withdraw. Remember to inform your bank if you will be using your debit or credit card to ensure the transactions are accepted and store them in different places in case one gets lost or stolen. I like to use cash and store enough spending money on me for that day, while locking the remainder in my luggage or hotel safe. Currency converter apps are useful to determine if a restaurant is outrageously expensive or when a purchase is a bargain. This seems simple, but touring different countries can become a bit tricky. Have a wallet or compartmented storage space for different currencies.
Take advantage of technology
Download travel apps like translators, currency converters, travel guides, and trip journals to help you navigate your destination. Remember, you can never have enough photos, so take as many selfies at the Eiffel Tower as you’d like. You’ll be grateful you have something to look back on and reminisce on your special moments. That being said, take it all in and experience your time in Europe through your eyes and not just through a camera lens. There is no need to constantly check social media (okay, a couple of posts to make your friends jealous is acceptable). Having your vacation memories as your memories, rather than sharing them with the world as they happen, is also something special. You’ll have more fun telling friends your stories when you get home if they didn’t get a play-by-play everyday you were gone on Facebook.
Seek hidden gems
If you take a tour, set some time for yourself and leave the group behind. If you’re travelling with friends or totally solo, ask locals for recommendations and leave extra time in your schedule for meandering. It will surely be filled up with something unique and you will come across hidden gems that might end up being the highlight of your trip. Explore down that alley or under that bridge. Skip the restaurant in the main plaza and opt for the family-run corner shop. Find neighbourhoods that don’t make the popular must-see lists that you can add to your own. My favourite places are always the cobbled streets off the main strip, with the quaint shops and cafes that just say: Now you’re in Europe. Be curious and keep asking questions about what you may find if only you keep walking…and do, walk as much as you can. You miss out on all the gems you drive past.
You need to try gelato in Italy and a crepe in Paris. And by try, I mean have on the regular. A vacation is not a good time to diet. Water will come bottled at restaurants – if you don’t want carbonated, make sure to specify no gas. Most places also charge for water and bring bottles by default. Breakfast usually consists of just a pastry and coffee, or a meat-heavy breakfast in Eastern Europe which can take some getting used to if you normally just opt for cereal. Ask locals for their favourite spots for food or ambiance. Don’t be afraid to try unfamiliar foods and ethnic dishes. Dining is a satisfying cultural experience that is part of travel. Don’t opt for the fast food chains you could get at home, but if you’re on the run in the airport, you might find some interesting menu additions, like deep-fried broccoli (at McDonald’s in Poland) or panzarottis (at McDonald’s in Italy). (Confession: I ate McDonald’s twice in London. Restaurant kitchens close by 10pm FYI). Opt for the restaurants that don’t have their menus in English – that’s the good stuff.
Pack for the weather
If you will be travelling through the continent, you could be going from the warmth of Italy to the cold of Switzerland all within the same month. Not only could the changes in temperature affect your health, but you need to pack for both the hot and cold weather, depending on your itinerary so you’re not wasting valuable vacation time shopping for an extra pair of socks. You may even want to bring boots (for rain) and a jacket, even in the summer. If you’re worried about your luggage weight, wear your heaviest clothing items on the plane. Most people recommend comfort over style (bring running shoes!), but if a pair of stilettos slip into your bag, that’s okay too! You never know where you’ll end up.
Arrive a day or two early if you’re starting a tour
Flights are unpredictable and may be delayed or overbooked. Play it safe and arrive at your destination a couple of days earlier to settle in and ensure you catch your tour group on time. Arriving early is also beneficial for fighting jet lag so you are refreshed and prepared when the time comes to conquer the city.
Be prepared to pay for washrooms
What frustrated me most on my trip to Italy was the vicious cycle of paying €3 for a water bottle and then up to €1.50 to use the washroom. Sometimes, actually finding a public washroom was the biggest challenge of all. In Verona, I came across a stand-alone washroom (as in, hole in the ground). In Paris, there were impressively sanitary, free, stand-up washrooms on the street that self-cleaned after use. Conclusion: Bring extra tissues with you, stay hydrated – but not too hydrated – and when you see a free washroom, use it!
Use public transportation
Major cities in Europe have fantastic public transportation systems that are much cheaper than taking a taxi. The metro systems are extremely easy to navigate, quick to get the hang of, and can take you almost anywhere you need to go. Day passes are convenient for hopping on and off for a busy day of touring.
Learn language basics
Travelling is all about new experiences, and attempting to communicate in the local tongue will make your experience even more authentic. The effort to learn greetings and basic questions is appreciated by locals and will make you feel more part of the culture when you use it. Many Europeans can speak English but say they don’t: a simple hello or thank you in the local language could mean they’re willing to open up and try English. (Saying “your English is better than my ___” can help start a conversation and encourage people, too!)
Soak up all you can, but don’t sweat the small stuff
You’re in Europe. It doesn’t matter if you hop on the wrong subway line, have to pay to use the washroom, or wait in an hour line-up to get into a museum. Decide what you want to do and stick with it. You don’t have to visit landmarks just to say “been there, done that” for a photo. Don’t get overwhelmed with all the options, just choose one and continue on. The happiest moments are often the simplest. Slow down and savour the experience.