Are you READY for EUROPE?! Eeeeekkk! How exciting to take your first trip to this amazing cluster of countries! Feeling a bit nervous? That’s perfectly normal but let’s see if we can help with some of our top tips.
Traveling to Europe is a dream for many and if it’s the first time you’ve left your home country, it could be very confusing to understand what’s going on. Europe has so many countries, cultures, languages, and many types of food. Some customs translate from northern European countries to southern ones, and some don’t make any sense at all.
To help combat some of the initial confusion and to help get you super excited to visit Europe, here are my top tips for traveling in Europe! Do you have anything to add? Please leave them in a comment below.
Realize and embrace that things will be different when traveling in Europe
Things are not weird or strange…just different from what you know. This is obvious in the language and money, but it seems to surprise people that others act differently as well. They may be louder than where you come from, they may not smile at a stranger, they may not appreciate small talk, and they may just confuse the heck out of you.
I remember moving to Amsterdam and just smiling at people on the street. I know it’s not really a thing here, but I still do it anyway. In the bigger cities, people understand that visitors don’t act the same as they do, so don’t worry too much about sticking out like a sore thumb. But, to make things easier, maybe do a bit of research about the area you are visiting before you go.
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Know the money situation and be prepared
Always have some cash. You do not need to take out a bunch of Euros from your bank at home before arriving and can use an ATM to get the best exchange rate. Many airports have ATMs from actual banks, but you can also find ATMs from companies like TravelEx. I would suggest to always use a bank ATM for the best rate.
Be sure to let your banks (for debit and credit cards) know you will be abroad. You can do this online with some, but check on how to do it with your bank early. Some of mine have to put it through a process so you need to do it a few days before you leave.
If possible, always have a card of some kind. It can vary whether places will take Visa/Mastercard/American Express, but in general, I suggest Mastercard. We have two cards when we travel: our Dutch Maestro card (debit), and an American Mastercard (credit). So, if you have an American Visa debit card, but an American Mastercard, that should be a fine combination.
This is what I consider an ideal scenario. If can only have one card, then that’s what you have. Just make sure you have a little more cash on you and check shops before ordering or going to check out to see if they accept the card you have or if they don’t accept cash. Just a note that American Express is not accepted in many places.
If you want a card to use abroad, the Transferwise Borderless card and account might be something to look into. I haven’t needed the card, but I do use other Transferwise services every month and recommend it to anyone. The way it works is that you can add funds from your bank electronically and use the debit card which is a Mastercard.
To reiterate, always check if places take your card/only cards/only cash. I reiterate because we have many places in Amsterdam where only cards are accepted. This is becoming more normal because people don’t want the hassle of cash as a small business. But similarly, buses and trams will only take cards as well. This is a safety issue for the drivers. If you need a ticket, there are machines at the most popular stops and there are more popping up all over the city, or just grab a daily card instead.
You may find that you have to pay for a toilet
Always have coins on you for toilets. Toilets range from about .50 cents up to a Euro. If you are eating in a restaurant, you do not have to pay. Some shopping centers don’t make you pay either. But if you are in a train station, at a festival and some other businesses, be prepared to pay. Some accept cards that allow you to tap and pay, but it’s safer just to have some Euro coins.
Download the proper taxi app for where you are going
Transportation is always my biggest stressor, so this one is key for me. Google where you are going with “taxi app” and find the best one for your destination and set it up before you go. We’ve had so many issues thinking we didn’t have to worry about it until we got there and then data would be spotty and wifi be bad.
There will be times that they don’t accept your card or your phone number. We’ve had both happen. Typically, there are at least two apps that service and area, so try the other. If you are anti-Uber, we’ve found that local taxi apps can be easily used and they use the local taxis in their app. Check out our post on European apps for suggestions on which to use.
Download the proper public transportation app
More and more destinations are using apps for public transit. I’ve found it useful in Reykjavik, Iceland (search “Strætó” in your download store) and Trentino, Italy (search OpenMove, or go through the Visit Trentino app). But I’ve downloaded them for many other places like Venice (download here), but we just tend to get the day passes and not worry about it. Stress-free living 😉
Have good walking shoes
Invest in well-fitting and comfortable shoes you can actually walk around in for hours. Please break them in before you leave or you will hate yourself later. Some people love Birkenstocks for the summer (there are some great new styles!), and I tend to use regular New Balance shoes and I have plenty of friends who love Chucks. For trekking, I travel with my Merrells…which I actually bought in Lisbon because the sidewalks are surprisingly slippery and hilly and I was wearing Toms (learn from my mistakes!). My other favorite brands for travel shoes are Keen and Clarks which Sean currently wears as well.
Don’t try to live in flip-flops unless you are just hanging out at the beach. And might I suggest something that will change your travel life? These foot massaging balls are everything. I kick myself when I forget them. They were a lucky find at TK Maxx (TJ Maxx in the U.S.A.), but here’s a link if you want them for yourself.
Hospitality and service will not be the same as at home
In the United States, there is a very specific service culture around tipping. I’m not going to get into that debate, but just know that things are different in other parts of the world. Service is different depending on where you go. Tipping is different depending on where you go. Do your research ahead of time.
In some parts of Europe, you need to get your server’s attention to order and pay. They do not want to interrupt your meal to ask if everything is okay. It is assumed that if it is not okay, you will let them know. This is not rude, but how they do things. Unless it is a busy restaurant, it’s unlikely you will be rushed to leave as well. So linger over the wine or coffee. Wait a bit before you order dessert. It’s all okay.
Meal times may be different
Especially in southern Europe meal times tend to be later than normal. While you can still eat earlier than the locals if that’s what you are used to, restaurants may open later for dinner. Check restaurant opening times to avoid disappointment. Also, look into whether it is wise to make a reservation. At fine dining restaurants, I would always make a reservation. However, in major cities, restaurants get full quickly, so to have peace of mind, I like to reserve if we know where we want to go.
Just as a note: For dinner in Amsterdam, pretty much anywhere you want to go, I suggest making a reservation if they accept them
City card for visitors can be a good investment
If you are short of time and want to see and do the most in that time, look into city cards. They usually include public transportation, a bunch of museums and attractions, and sometimes discounts into other attractions and restaurants.
You’ll want to review everything you get to see if it’s worth it because some people want to take it slow and not do much each day while others want to squish in as much as possible. It’s best for when you are looking to squish like for a long weekend for example.
A sampling of city passes:
Amsterdam, Netherlands (read more about Amsterdam)
Hamburg, Germany (read more about Hamburg)
Berlin, Germany (read more about Berlin)
Stockholm, Sweden (read more about Stockholm)
Get day passes for public transportation
If the public transportation is good and you don’t want to buy a city pass, we suggest getting a multi-day unlimited pass to have less stress. That way, you don’t have to worry about the app, if you have the right kind and amount of cash, and you don’t have to bother the driver.
Be sure to understand how to use the card. Sometimes you have to tap it when you board and when you get off (Amsterdam), sometimes it’s only when you board (London), sometimes you just activate it once and keep it with you in case it is checked (Venice). It’s always a mix of systems throughout Europe. Just ask a local or do a quick search before you go.
Explore outside the major cities
If you are in the planning phase and want to go to more off-the-beaten-path places (yay, you!!) check out rome2rio, or Google Maps to figure out how to get there. There are incredible day trips to take from any major city, but keep in mind, you can also just stay a few days as well!
Trains in Europe are an easy way to get around, but there are other options like renting a car, taking a budget bus (we’ve done Flixbus a couple of times), taking a cruise (more of a long term thing), or taking a quick flight.
Whatever you do, we highly encourage you to get out of the city for at least one day if you can. It will probably be less touristy and have much more to offer in terms of culture and places to wow you that you didn’t even know existed!
If you need to purchase transit tickets between cities and/countries, check out Omio (especially for trains and buses). This app/website is especially helpful in places like southern Italy when it’s harder to find websites and information in English. We use it frequently and have an entire post on how to book a ticket!
You may want to read: Day trips from Amsterdam
Have any tips to share?
We’ll add to this list when we have more tips to share, but we also want to hear from you! If you’ve traveled to Europe recently, what are some things you want other people to know before a visit?
Thanks for reading! Did you find these tips helpful? Share with a friend 🙂
Wishing you joy and travels!