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Your First Trip to Europe - Advice from Experienced Travelers

Kathy Wood

In early 2006 I developed a class called "Planning Your European Vacation," which is now offered through the continuing education department of the University of Tennessee. In preparation for my first class, I posted on the Slow Travel message board asking fellow travelers to share their most important "lessons learned" which would be of value to inexperienced European travelers, lessons that would make a first trip to Europe more pleasurable, memorable, economical, and stress-free. I received input from 29 Slow Travelers. Their ideas really enhanced my class.

These notes are a result of that very interesting Slow Travel discussion. I've organized the various ideas into topics and have done some editing to help with flow and consistency. I've also included some of my own suggestions.

Thanks to my fellow Slow Travelers who contributed their travel wisdom to these notes: Alessandra Federici, Annie M, Em, Barb (and Art), BGE, Doug S & Judith G, ellens, Gail Hecko, girasoli, jgk, jinni, juliaO, k-k-kenny, katecoleman, Kim C, Leslie, MarionP, Marta, Mezzaluna, motherjudy, Palma, Pauline, Roz, Saint_Bambi, Sandra Pierce, SharonZ, Steve and Linda Jones, suncoast, trekcapri. Thanks to all of you!

Planning Your Trip

Keep reminding yourself that you can visit Europe many times. Don't stress over trying to see everything on your first trip. Enjoy what you are able to do and realize that the things you miss this time can be done next time or the time after. A big mistake people make is to try to cram too much into a trip.

Don't view your trip as a once in a lifetime event! People who call their trip to Europe the "trip of a lifetime" seem to think "this is it, see it now or I never will." That mentality puts a lot of pressure on a traveler to do and see everything. More important is just to relax and enjoy whatever it is you do, wherever it is you are.

Be careful about asking: "What should I be sure not to miss?" Remember that if you miss something, you can see it next time. After the first trip you learn so much that it would be a shame not to take advantage of that knowledge to make your NEXT trip even better, and to see all the stuff you missed the first time!

Figure out what you need to be comfortable, and then take all the steps necessary to care for yourself and make sure that you have arranged for whatever makes you comfortable. If you love small boutique hotels, stay in them! If a long series of flights with plane changes in the middle is an ordeal for you, book a break in the middle of the journey.

Don't visit a tourist place that doesn't interest you intensely because it is a "must see". If it is not YOUR must see, it's a waste of valuable vacation time. Do enough research to learn what is available, but don't spend all day at an art museum if what you really want to do is taste wine or search for ceramics! It is supposed to be fun, not a school trip!

Go with an open mind. Nowadays there is so much available information on Europe. People have preferences and will express their opinion to friends and relatives and others. Don't let that influence you! If you want to see Florence, go see Florence. If you want to see the Cinque Terre, go see it, despite what someone else told you.

Don't just head for the popular tourist destinations. Seek out roads less traveled.

>> Read more - You Don't Have to See the Must-Sees

Before you go

Check yours and everybody else's passports. Be sure they're up to date and are valid for at least six months after your trip.

Make a photocopy of your passport, and keep it in a place separate from the original. Give a copy to a relative back home. You may want to do the same thing with other important documents.

Strongly consider the extra money to buy travel insurance. It's well worth the peace of mind and can cover you for lost luggage, flight and rental cancellations, life insurance, and medical evacuation.

Check with your health insurance company to determine what procedures you must follow if you become ill during your trip.

Notify your credit and debit card companies that you will be using your card overseas so they don't automatically suspect fraud and freeze access to it.

Organize your trip information into a small lightweight notebook to carry with you. This can include hotel names and numbers, car rental reservation #, etc. Make a section of the notebook of what you want to see and do in each location-for example, specific museums you want to see, what their closing day is, and their hours of operation. Also note recommendations for restaurants or other ideas you've read about.

>> Read more - Trip Checklist

On the Plane

Set your watch to destination time when you board the plane.

Drink lots of water during the flight.

Try to sleep on the plane on the way over. Talk to your doctor and try a prescription before you leave to see how you will react to it. Be sure to take ear plugs.

>> Read more - Coping with Jet Lag

Attitude and flexibility

In a foreign country, you're the foreigner. Adapt to their ways. Attitude is everything. Enjoy the differences. That is why you travel. Expect Murphy's Law now and then.

If something in your plan goes wrong don't stress and don't panic. There's always a way to get problems resolved. Keep your sense of humor. You can usually find someone to help you, especially if you don't get angry or too upset.

Experience each place for what it is. These cities and towns aren't just here for tourism; you'll see factories and areas that aren't always appealing. Don't fault a place for not living up to your fantasies.

Remember that Europeans are very generous people and want to share their country's jewels with people who want to share, not people who walk in expecting nastiness or something. The whole trip should be a growth opportunity, even if only in a small way.

Don't expect Europe to be like the U.S. The people are different, the customs are different, the food is different - and every European country has its very distinct differences. If you realize that upfront, it will be easier to deal with when you are there. Know that dinner will be served later, that not everyone will respect a queue, that service may be slower. Be prepared to "go with the flow."

Remember that when we travel abroad, every one of us is an Ambassador of our own country. Don't show them the "ugly & rude" American. Avoid any sense of superiority or entitlement to be catered to because you are Americans. Try new tastes, and experience new things without a sense of judgment or an "ours is better" attitude.

When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.

Be gracious and appreciative of how economical and environmentally-wise most Europeans are. Notice how little trash there is on streets from convenience foods. Celebrate the opportunity to live life differently and on a slightly smaller scale.

Bring your sense of humor and your sense of adventure. Don't go home regretting that you didn't try something new.

Communicating

Learn a few words and phrases of their language. This is always helpful and will be very much appreciated. A simple "Hello," "goodbye," "please," and "thank-you" will go a long, LONG way!

If you don't speak the language, learn how to say in the language that you're sorry, you don't speak French/Italian etc. Don't just ask "Do you speak English?" as if it's expected that they should speak English. You can find a way to communicate.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Most locals will be happy to help you and it's much better than wandering around aimlessly and frustrated. Swallow your pride and ask for help.

Be sensitive that some information is communicated differently. Remember that Europeans use military time for transportation and dates are stated differently. Amounts are written with decimal points and commas reversed compared to the US method.

Talk to local people. They'll become your best memories.

Don't be afraid to ask: which way, how much, where is, etc.

If someone doesn't understand what you're saying, stay calm. YOU are speaking the foreign language. You'll find a way to communicate.

Be very polite and respectful. Most Europeans more formal than most Americans. Use the local terms for sir or madam, please and thank you. Smile and say hello to people you pass on the street in small villages, even the people at the next table in a cafe. Be especially polite and complimentary to the owners of small restaurants-you'll get good service and sometimes extra food!

>> Read more - Italian Language Lessons, French Language Lessons

Eating Out

Prepare for differences when you eat out. Learn to how to read a menu and have access to a good guide for translating menus. Know what to expect regarding the pace and type of courses. Understand the typical time for dinner, which varies considerably between European countries.

Avoid restaurants with "tourist menus." Walk a block or two from touristy areas to find cheaper better food and people who will be delighted to see you. Consider staying someplace where you can cook a few basic meals and have fun shopping for some food locally.

Realize that hotel-included breakfasts may be quite minimal, consisting perhaps of only coffee and a hard roll with some jam. Butter may (or may not) be available.

Don't expect the huge portion sizes of soft drinks that you get with a half pound of ice shavings in the USA. Everything in Europe will be smaller and ice is uncommon.

Unless you are traveling with children screaming for a Happy Meal, wait to eat at McDonalds until you're back home!

Don't jump to the wrong conclusions about mistakes at restaurants. If the amount on your bill, the change given to you, or the amount on the credit card slip is wrong, it's usually just a simple mistake. Everyone will be happy to fix the problem; just tell the waiter or ask for the owner and explain politely.

Enjoy more leisurely meals. Don't get impatient if the service is slower than what you're used to in most eating places at home. Lunch and dinner are more extended experiences, a time to socialize and enjoy the food. And there are usually many fewer people waiting on tables. If you're really in a hurry to eat, don't go to a restaurant, instead go to a self-service cafeteria-type place or buy something to take away from a stand on the street.

>> Read more - Each country section on Slow Travel has a "Restaurants" section with tips for reading menus and ordering in restaurants and cafes.

Accommodations

Don't stay in American chain hotels. A Holiday Inn or Sheraton is the same everywhere. Why travel that far to stay in another one? Try bed and breakfasts or rentals. You'll save money and usually get to meet some local people and/or other travelers.

Print out email confirmations of ALL reservations, just in case there is a problem.

Don't "freak-out" if the person at the hotel desk asks to hold on to your passport for a bit; he's merely reporting your stay at the hotel as per the law.

Don't take the big hotel key with you - leave it at the desk when you go out!

Expect smallness. Small hotel rooms with tiny bathrooms are the norm. Beds are narrower; space between the bed and the rest of the room will be practically non-existent. European hotels are often very old. They may be quirky: not your standard USA chain-hotel room standard. Expect the TV to mostly have Italian stations if you are in Italy; and French stations if you are in France. Marvel at the tiny sinks and very tiny showers (if you have one) in your bathroom. Admire the cleverness of European compact kitchen designs.

Expect to hear noises in Europe that you may be unaccustomed to: the buzz-buzz of hundreds of mopeds at all times of night and day; police and ambulances with a very different and piercing sound; and family chatter and exuberant laughter around the dining room table that somehow spills out into the streets. Those narrow streets in old European cities, wide-open windows in summer (with no air conditioning), and the small size of apartments are all factors which "up" the ambient noise level. The division between private and public space may feel smaller. European cities and historic centers are alive, vibrant and pulsating with real people who live, eat, sleep, shop and work there - as they have done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

>> Read more - Hotels in Europe, Vacation Rentals in Europe

Getting Around

If your plane connections get hopelessly messed up, there is almost always a train!

Print a map from the airport/train station to your hotel. If the taxi driver does not speak English (and most don't) this can be a huge help!

Read up on how to use the train system before your trip. Research the different options for purchasing train tickets. Learn how to read the train arrival/departure boards. Recognize that some trains don't always leave on the original track stated.

Expect that European cars will be much smaller than you ever imagined possible! Parking spaces will be very tight. Streets will be incredibly narrow. There will be more mopeds and push bikes than you have ever seen in your life.

Be prepared to walk, walk, walk. Europeans are not like us in taking a car to go around the corner. They walk! In many places, the terrain is quite hilly. Just remember that all that exercise allows you to eat as much gelato as you want without gaining weight.

Exercise before your trip. Start walking about a month ahead of departure. Not just around the block, but for a few miles every day. In comfortable shoes. In all kinds of weather.

>> Read more - Car Rentals. Each country section in Slow Travel has a section on driving and on trains.

Packing

Pack as light as you possibly can! It really can be done.

Pack your basic essentials (clean underwear, medications, a change of clothes) in your carry on bag. You will be glad you did if your luggage is delayed.

Pack a small travel case with medications and valuable, and pack it in your carry-on. That way, if the airline refuses to let you check your carryon, you simply open it, take out the little travel case, hand the carryon to the airline and go on with your trip.

Remember that everything you pack, you'll have to transport from place to place. Even if you rent a car, the trunk may be much smaller than you're used to.

If you are doing any traveling by train, absolutely minimize your luggage. Try to limit your luggage to a small rolling bag and a manageable carryon bag. Remember that you will have to get your luggage on and off the train (a steep step up and down) and find a place to stow it on board. You may have very little time to get on or off a train.

Bring half the clothes you think you'd need and bring (or have access to) twice as much money as you need.

Buy small sizes of your health and beauty supplies or fill up little travel-sized plastic bottles. Take only what you'll need for your trip. Toiletries take up a lot of space and also weigh a lot. Consider cutting back on some of the health and beauty products you normally use.

>> Read More - Packing for a Trip to Europe

Things to Take

Check the weather history where you're going and make room for a rain jacket and collapsible umbrella if necessary.

Pack lots of zip lock bags, as they have multiple uses: the jumbo ones work well for packing clothing, socks, etc. If you have to unpack your bag at the airport it will make the job easier. If your bag or pack gets soaking wet, your things will stay dry. Also, by removing excess air, you can compress some items, such as a polar fleece. If your sink-washed undies don't quite dry overnight, the zip lock bag will be handy if you need to pack up. You can also use it for dirty laundry.

Don't pack grooming/medical supplies as though you're going to a third world nation. Pharmacies are wonderful, and are excellent resources for common ailments. It is easy and fun to buy shampoo, soap, etc. These things only add weight to your luggage as you travel.

Take a collapsed tote bag or a string bag. There are many styles available. This can be used for a market bag, a daily tote for maps and snacks etc. or to carry home extra items you have purchased.

Take wide rubber bands, for a workout anywhere. They take up practically no space in luggage.

Clip and take a few crossword puzzles. They will keep your mind active for several hours and take up no space in your bag.

Be careful about taking too many books, especially guidebooks. Tear the pages you need out of guidebooks or make copies of information. For recreational reading, buy used paperback books and leave them behind as you finish them.

Give careful thought to what kind of purse you take. Consider a purse that has a substantial strap and goes across your body diagonally.

Take a coin purse for marketing and routine shopping and tipping and keep just a small amount of money in it. That way, when buying a gelato or something, you don't have to take out the wallet that has your passport, credit cards and other important things. Those things stay tucked away and are never taken out unless really needed.

Bring a face cloth or two, if you can't live without one. Most places don't provide them.

Take postcards from your area to show people you meet. Or take small inexpensive gifts that represent your area.

Take an extra memory card(s) for digital pictures. You can also easily have pictures put on a DVD at photo stores in less than an hour in many places.

Medications

Bring along over-the-counter medications that you might need/want. Although pharmacies are readily available and well stocked all over Europe, when you're feeling unwell you just want relief, and something you're familiar with is preferable. It doesn't take much room or add much weight to bring along some aspirin or other pain/fever medication, benadryl, antacid, laxative and anti-diarrhea medicine. You probably just need one or two doses.

Make sure you have enough of any prescription medications to get through the trip, and for at least three days after you return, so you don't have to drag your jet-lagged self to the pharmacy for refills. Make sure the prescriptions are in original packaging. It's best to carry copies of prescriptions (or a signed/stamped doctor's letter detailing your prescriptions) with you. If you have medical conditions like asthma or diabetes, wear a medical bracelet.

Be careful with over-the-counter remedies. Some things that are perfectly legal without a prescription in one country (e.g., small doses of codeine found in some UK headache preparations) may not be legal without a prescription in other countries. The US can be one of the more restrictive countries, so be especially careful if buying OTC remedies overseas, then bringing them back to the US.

What to Wear

Don't dress like a tourist. Fit in as best as you can.

Wear neutral colors (black, brown, navy, tan). Bright colors or white sneakers will label you as an American tourist.

Don't worry about dressing just like the locals. Somehow it never really works. Dress to be neat, comfortable and appropriate - for the culture, for your age, for the environment you will be in.

Build your wardrobe around layers. You can mix and match various pieces and layer up or down based on the weather. Plan to wear each piece several times.

Make sure your shoes are well broken in, comfortable, and in good condition. Take two to three pairs so your feet have a different venue. Even if you have good walking shoes, take mole skin & band aids.

Be sure to take one pair of shoes that you KNOW are always comfortable, that you can wear now matter how many blisters you have or how exhausted your feet feel. They may be ugly but you will end up wearing them more than you expect.

Don't try to pack for every conceivable occasion. One pair of comfortable shoes and one handbag can suffice if they are chosen carefully.

Daily Activities

Don't try to cram too much in your daily schedule. Allow time for spontaneous discoveries and experiences.

Have a general plan for each day, but stay flexible. You may have four things on the list, but realize you may not do all of them. Then each night, take a few minutes to re-prioritize your list for the next day. You'll likely always want to do more than you have time for.

Don't just sightsee and rush around checking things off a list. Take time to experience new cultures, foods and people. Try to travel more slowly. Less is really more!

Research hours of operation and closing days for places you really want to see. Know if you need a reservation for something that's really important to you.

Always be early for whatever you are doing: museum tours, train trips, guided walking tours. Arrive about 15 minutes early to get time to settle in and meet the other people and the guide.

Remember that many places close in the afternoon and so don't plan to arrive about 2pm to visit a little town unless you want to spend all your time in the one open bar.

Always try at least one place where you know you won't be surrounded by tourists. Many of the less-known places are just as charming, if not more so because of the lack of tourists. It's really worth seeking out the lesser-known places.

Go for a walk. Take a map with you if you must. Maybe a camera, but only in a bag, not slung round your neck. But definitely no guidebook. Keep walking until you find a place that tells you to sit down - a park, a square, a cafe, a church perhaps. It is a place whose name is unfamiliar to you, despite the hours you have spent poring over the guidebooks. You do not know its history. Then sit there. And watch. Watch, in particular, the very old and the very young, for whom this place has special meaning. Stay there a good long time. You may take a photo when you leave, but it's just to remind you of the experience you had, not a substitute for that experience. Afterwards, you may read about this place in the guidebook or elsewhere. Maybe it is famous for some reason. Maybe it is not. But that won't matter one little bit.

Shopping

Buy that one-of-a-kind special thing when you first see it, because it's very likely you won't ever see it again

When you go into a small shop, acknowledge the presence of the owner or the clerk and say hello or good morning/afternoon in their language. Ask if you may look around. Don't get upset if they come after you and show everything - this is just a cultural difference.

Try not to handle the merchandise. Point to what you want.

Be sure about your purchases when you buy. You cannot normally return an item after you purchased it unless it is defective. (In that case you will be offered a change of item or the money back.)

Buy special things you can incorporate into your life at home. Don't buy souvenirs or trinkets.

Memories

Keep a travel journal. Not only can you do this to remember the who, what, where, when, why, and how of your trip, but you can also record your reactions to what you're experiencing. Save ticket stubs, restaurant cards, brochures from places you visit. These all help you remember your experiences and retain important information.

Take the time at the end of each day or during a quiet moment, to record your thoughts while you travel. This will help you keep perspective that you're not in a theme park or watching a movie, but that you're having a marvelous life-experience.

Consider keeping a food and wine journal. Record the name and location of each restaurant, price range and what you liked or didn't like.

Use a travel art set if you'd rather draw or sketch your memories.

If you take lots of photos, keep a photo journal. Write down what photos you took each day, and where and why. This will help you later when you're organizing your photos and sharing them with others.

Take lots of people-pictures, not just scenery. Be sure you are in some of your pictures!

>> Send your trip reports and reviews (vacation rentals, hotels, restaurants) to Slow Travel.

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