10 Tips For Traveling to Europe Simply and Successfully!

10 Tips For Traveling to Europe Simply and Successfully!

5 years ago, I would’ve never imagined that I would be writing to you fresh off of a 3 week European adventure! 4 countries, 8 cities, all within 3 weeks! WHEW! I’m exhausted just thinking back to it! You see, despite growing up with a father in the military, the idea of traveling was never that big for me. I’m an introvert. I’m shy. I don’t like change and will choose my comfort zone over trying new things ANY DAY. I spent 3 years in Korea as a toddler, but once Virginia became home in Kindergarten, I never had much desire to go elsewhere. Looking back, isn’t that so unfortunate to live with that mentality?

It wasn’t until I started dating “The One” (Read my book, “Recovering After a Bad Break Up: Getting Your Joy, Happiness, and Fight Back” for details) that I even gave traveling internationally a thought. I remember being on the phone, and he said, “Hey, so, if you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?” I was stumped. Besides wanting to go to Mexico to test-drive my minimal Spanish speaking skills, no other country was on my bucket list. I replied, “Hm. Probably nowhere other than Mexico.” He laughed and said, “You’re kidding. This big, big world, and you want to pretty much stay right where you are? I want to go to Paris and travel in Europe.” I felt a little embarrassed. Like, did he just call me basic for not wanting to travel? I think that’s pretty much what he was saying lol. Traveling would come up in our conversations more often. In addition to having grown up in a different country, he was in the military, awaiting a 3 year job, excitedly, traveling to different countries to live for 1 year deployments. He’d tell me to consider stepping out of my comfort zone to see other cultures and be exposed to new people; even buying me language books to encourage me (And I’m still monolingual.. yikes).
That year I decided to take a little bit of a plunge, or so I thought, and booked a weekend trip to Miami to celebrate finishing my first year as a teacher. Returning from Miami, I felt like I needed to travel again, so I booked a trip to Mexico with my sister. To be honest, getting out of America to experience the culture of a different country was so refreshing. American living is so different, in comparison to many other countries. To make a long story short, I was bit by the travel bug and haven’t looked back since. I’ve since been to Mexico 3 times, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, San Diego, Los Angeles, England, Italy, Spain, and France. Traveling is my new addiction. I’m already making plans to take a trip somewhere this Fall, and 3 other places next summer.
To travel is to take a journey into yourself. -Danny Kaye.

I’m so grateful that I was encouraged to travel. It’s seriously life-changing. God has been pushing me and growing me in so many areas; showing me how to be content in every stage of my life. Right now, that stage is being single and living for Him; being well-rounded and able to minister to others. Traveling shifts my focus from myself and my comfort zone, to having a global perspective, being more aware of others, and interacting more with people who I may not always find myself around.

After navigating an entirely different continent for 3 weeks, I feel like it’s only right to share my successes and STRUGGLES with others to 1) encourage them to travel and 2) save them from mistakes!
Overview of My European Adventure:
  • Dates: 3 weeks, June 22- July 13
    • 5 days in the UK, AirBnB in Brixton, London, England
    • 5 days in Italy. AirBnB in Roma, Italy
      • Day trip to Venice via train
      • Day trip to Florence via train
    • 5 days in Spain. AirBnB in Madrid, Spain
      • 2 Day trip in Barcelona
    • 5 days in France. AirBnB in Paris, France
  • Flight from East Coast to London & from Paris to East Coast per person: $1100
  • 3 weeks of AirBnb per person: $1000
  • Total airfare from country to country: $250
  • International phone coverage through Verizon ($10 a day): $210
  • Activities, Food, Shopping, etc.: $2000
TOTAL: about $4,500 (Flight and AirBnbs were paid for in January & March. Everything was paid for during May-July)

  1. Plan in advance! Research. Be organized.
Originally, I just wanted to go to Spain, teach English to a family there, and travel on the weekends. That was back in August. It wasn’t until I invited my friend with me that I was convinced that we could get so much more bang for our buck with just a little bit of planning.

Europe is much different than America, in that, traveling from place to place is quite easy and cheap. How often will you get a chance to fly to a different continent? Maybe not annually, so you might as well make the most of it. As a teacher, I have summers off, and my friend stored up enough leave to take 3 weeks off. We originally planned 4 weeks, but narrowed it down to 3.

We created shared Pinterest boards, collaborative spreadsheets of expenses through Google Sheets and Google Docs, and watched fluctuating airfare for months. Sure, it’s easy to find a travel agent or look for travel packages online, but do you know how much money you’ll save by doing it yourself? Tons. It’s 2016- there are tons of online reviews of the sights and attractions in every European country, as well as sightseeing schedules made by people who have frequented European countries often. USE THEM. Some of them we used verbatim. Examples: “How to Experience The Best of Rome in 3 Days”, “What To See in One Day in Florence”

  1. Consider AirBnb instead of hotels.
I’m a Westin or W girl. In the past, when I was looking for places to travel to, I would look at which countries had Westin Resorts, and that’s how I chose. Going to Europe for 3 weeks and staying in hotels every day was completely out of the question, so we turned to AirBnb.

I have to be honest- the thought of traveling internationally and staying in strangers’ properties took some getting used to. We researched apartments, combed through reviews, zoomed in to see every ounce of property pictures, and finally found the perfect locations.We had absolutely NO problems with AirBnb. All of our hosts had great reviews and were helpful. The properties looked exactly like the pictures.To reserve the AirBnBs, we had to provide numerous forms of identification, so it helped in feeling more secure.

NOTE: Properties vary from country to country. Example: we paid the most for our apartment in London, and it was the smallest. We literally had a bed and bathroom. We couldn’t even move around the room at the same time lol. Our cheapest apartment was in Italy, and it was the biggest. Just know- you’ll see a variance in costs and size in each country.
  1. Weigh the options of flying from country to country vs. taking the high-speed trains.
Everyone says to take the trains in Europe, and while the high-speed trains are great options, at times, flying is cheaper. We looked at getting a Rail Pass to travel to and through the countries, and it was going to be about $400 or so. This isn’t bad, considering we were traveling about 4 countries, but then we were able to find airfare tickets for $50-$100 from country to country. So we flew.

Don’t be leary of the budget airlines like we were! We researched them! They have great flight track records; they just cut corners in their manpower, amenities, and customer service. If you don’t expect much, you’ll be ok lol. For example, we always had to walk out to our planes, about 500 ft or so, and we had to pay for our luggage. It was still reasonable and cheaper in the end.

  1. Invest in a global phone plan. Be sure to have space for helpful apps.
I’ve seen plenty of people who mention special SIM cards and other tricks to have phone access in Europe, but I’m a simple gal, so I just went to Verizon and asked what to do lol. They have a Travel Pass where you pay $10 a day for your US plan to be extended to wherever you travel. That was so simple and the best decision ever. We could talk, text, and use data unlimitedly, like we would in the US, but just paid $10. We had no problem with service there; our phones just connected to a cell phone carrier in that country.

This is going to come in handy because you will NEED your phone/apps to navigate these countries safely. Don’t think that being Wifi-dependent is going to help you. Some countries you won’t even find Wifi readily accessible. Since we had our phones, we relied on:
  • Google Maps (Navigation from place to place; Showed us what metro and/or buses to catch). Apple Maps only worked in London :-/
  • Yelp and Trip Advisor for finding restaurants that were worthwhile to eat at (NOTE: I found that TripAdvisor is more commonly used in Europe than Yelp. Restaurants that had 5 reviews on Yelp, had 450 on Trip Advisor)
  • Google Translate (Not perfect, but it will help with the basic. EXCEPT for when GoogleTranslate was my accomplice in ordering a hotdog and fries pizza :-/)
  • News App- If you have a News app or use the News app with iPhone, update it to include the news of the countries you’re visiting, so that way you’re abreast of what’s going on.
  • Currency Exchange App- There are tons, but as you go from country to country, you’ll want to be able to readily convert currency to USD so you know how much you’re actually spending. 5 pounds for a coffee sounds great, until you realize it’s $7 USD.
  1. Consider a credit card without foreign transactions that will give you rewards for your spending.
In my research, I saw that a lot of people recommend that you DO NOT take your bank card with you overseas. Bank cards tend to be connected to all of our bills, so if, God forbid, your card is lost or stolen overseas, it’ll force you to scramble to try to determine how to get everything paid with a closed account. Instead, opt for taking a credit card. Here’s what I did:
  • Saved $2,000 for spending. Left it in my savings.
  • Signed up for Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card, knowing that I could only spend $2,000 on it
    • I typically flow Southwest Airlines in the states, so using this card would allow me to accumulate points to fly within the US during the remainder of the year. Once you spend $2,000, you earn 50,000 points.
    • Banks typically charge you 3% of everything you buy for foreign transaction fees. So, for example, a $10 purchase, add on $0.30 or for a $100 purchase, add on $3. Doesn’t sound big, but try being card-dependent for 3 weeks and they add up. I swiped my card MINIMALLY, 5 times a day times 21 days, that’s 105 purchases that Southwest saved me from paying 3% on.
    • When I got home, since I had the money in my savings already, I paid the card off! But now, I have thousands of points to continue my travel addiction with!! SCORE!
  1. Buy tickets in advance.
Western Europe is a popular place, so it goes without saying that you’ll be one of thousands of tourists in any given location. Plan accordingly by buying tickets in advance. Buy them online through official ticket offices (it may also save you foreign transaction fees), and print them. I printed all of our ticket reservations, in addition to creating a folder in my email that I saved all of our confirmations in so that no matter what, I had everything readily available.
  1. Know your limits! Don’t try to see it all!
We went SOOO hard in Europe that I got to France (our last country) and slept through it. Seriously, I would wake up at 4:00 in the afternoon. I was so exhausted.Understand that, if “Rome wasn’t built in a day” then you don’t need to try to see it all in a day. Plan breaks throughout the day so that you’re not so exhausted. Don’t book day trips back-to-back. Take it easy so that you can actually enjoy everything! OH and get the right shoes! According to the app on my phone, we walked the equivalent of 100 miles while in Europe, I wore $12 target sandals, and it made me miserable! At some points, my feet were swollen! I bought the Dr. Scholl’s gel insoles which helped, but I still don’t recommend that to ANYONE!

  1. Differentiate between what you want to see and explore vs. what you just want photo proof of.
Let’s be honest. Some things in Europe look the same. Once you’ve seen one Roman cathedral, you’ve kind of seen them all. Don’t convince yourself that you have to go in everything. Make a list of what you want to see and tour vs. what you just want a picture of. In London, we took pictures of every famous sight & landmark, but we only did tours of Westminster and the Tower of London. In Rome, we went inside everything, but looking back, the only thing we really were interested in touring was the Colosseum. We could’ve done without the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, especially after staying in lines for hours. Sometimes, photo proof is really all you need. People back home in America won’t know the difference! LOL.

  1. Don’t be afraid of public transportation!
We rode the metro and bus in every country and had no problems! We took an Uber once in London which was a waste (my Metro card was out of money and the stations were closed), and we took a taxi in Spain (the bus had stopped running), but those were both emergency cases. Each country we went to had 5 day Travel Passes where we paid a flat fee for unlimited transportation for those 5 days. Fees varied, but it was about $50 or less for 5 days. Also, all of our AirBnB’s were by metro stations, so between that and Google Maps telling us exactly what to take, we had no problem navigating, even with everything being in different languages. We saved tons of money by not having to rely on shuttles, taxis, or Ubers.

  1. Learn the language and cultural traditions. Don’t be the ignorant American who refuses to even attempt to assimilate.
Let the Duolingo app be your friend! It wasn’t until I first went to Mexico where I realized how spoiled Americans can be. Seriously, America is one of the few places where being monolingual is the norm. If you travel and don’t make any attempts to learn the language or cultural traditions of that country, you’re selling yourself short and limiting yourself from truly being engulfed in the experience. I loved traveling to the different markets in the boroughs of London with the locals, drinking coffee standing at the bar in Italian ristorantes, and attempting Spanish while ordering tapas I’d never tasted. My Italian skills were trash, but people are much more likely to be accommodating and inviting when they see that you’re trying! By the time we got to France, I was so tired, I did not try the language and that probably contributed to why I struggled in France :-/ As soon as you book your trip, start working on learning the basics of the languages you’ll need to know. Don’t count on everyone helping you and speaking English to you.

Other things to note: 1) Not every country readily accepts credit cards, such as Italy. Get some cash.
2) Some countries like Italy and Spain believe in face-to-face conversation lol. Don’t be the American with a fork in one hand while staring at your phone in the other.
3) Don’t forget that countries vary on driving on the left or right. Know which way to look when crossing the street.
4) Most places in Western Europe have safe drinking water, in fact, in Rome, you can refill your water bottles at any of the fountains you see in the streets because the water is drinkable. Restaurants will still bring you bottled water. You can ask for tap though.
5) If places take credit cards, typically it’s contactless (Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Android Pay).
6) Restaurants in Italy and Spain, we found, are open much later… like until 2 or 3AM.
7) Many places in Europe use “military time”, so know that if something says 1645, it’s 4:45.
8) The weather is disrespectful. It rained every day in London, and we experienced teachers from 57 degrees to 100 degrees all during our 3 weeks.
9) Try the culinary staples of each country at least once… You can’t go to Italy and not have gelato, or Spain without having patatas bravas!

So there you have it! My top 10 tips! Now, go book your trip! It doesn’t have to be a 3 week adventure; work with what you can do, but you WILL NOT regret traveling. It seriously will change your life!