Why we need rules for European Travel
Quite simply, we need rules for European travel because we have a bad habit of getting in our own way (on top of everyone else’s). As an avid traveler myself, I’ve seen first hand how not following some simple principles can wreck a trip you’ve dreamed of and saved up for. I always want my clients (and my followers!) to get the most out of their vacation days and dollars, so I’ve put together this primer on some critical do’s and don’ts of European travel. I hope it helps you out and that you’ll come back to me with your future travel questions!
#1: Thou shalt know the difference between a continent and a country.
This is not about passing your 9th grade geography test, it is about taking a realistic approach to the size and scope of your destination!
Traveling Between Countries
Let me address a major misnomer: you cannot just “hop on a train and get anywhere in a couple of hours.” I hear people say this all the time and it drives me bonkers. There are basically two kinds of trains in Europe: TGV trains (the fast ones) and regional trains (the slow, sometimes scenic ones). TGV trains will get you somewhere super fast, but that doesn’t mean they go where you want them to go. And it also doesn’t mean they’re cheap. Do your research before making assumptions, because it may work out faster and cheaper to take a regional flight.
I’m as guilty as anyone for making generalizations about “Europeans,” but we all need to try to remember that Europe is a continent made up of very diverse countries. And, naturally, very diverse regions exist within those countries.
Think about your experience as an American. Texans and New Yorkers may both reside in the U.S. of A., but we are verrrryyyyyy different culturally speaking. So, it only makes sense that the Brits have a totally different culture than Bulgarians or Spaniards. And speaking of Spaniards, there is a difference between Catalan and Basque. Northern and Southern Italy are as different as night and day. And Parisians and Burgundians have very different opinions on what it is to be French. Let’s remember to approach each region with a sense of humility and open-mindedness if we want to truly explore their culture.
#2: Thou shalt not overpack…or else be prepared to shell out for it!
This is another lesson I need also to take to heart! I am getting better, but I have not yet managed to master the carry-on only policy that I wish my clients would embrace. My issue isn’t so much what I want to take, it’s what I plan to bring home! I love to shop while I’m abroad—especially for wine and certain food products (like cheese, oils, and vinegars), but also for lotions, soaps, and candles—all of which will weigh down a suitcase in a hurry.
However, it is tough to shlep a big suitcase around Europe! It’s not just about the cobblestone streets and train rides. The cars are smaller and just cannot accommodate a lot of luggage. So, if you’re a family of four and everyone has a bag, you’re going to require a van for that airport transfer. Hotel rooms are also almost always smaller than what you’re used to domestically, so that suitcase may take up a lot of precious floor space.
I’ve posted tons of packing tips on my Pinterest board, so check them out if you need some inspiration. Another huge help is having good packing supplies to compress your clothes and keep your stuff organized. I love treating myself to goodies from Flight 001.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if the extra luggage is worth the hassle and associated surcharges. As long as you have a plan and are prepared, you’ll be fine. Which leads me to my next rule…
#3: Thou shalt plan ahead!
I know, I know…some of you are last minute people! I get it! While I used to plan my own travels ridiculously early in advance, I have to admit that my day job has resulted in laziness about my personal vacations. However, this is an occupational hazard for me, NOT for you! YOU can hire me to do your planning in advance, so you really don’t have an excuse ;).
This isn’t just about the skeleton of your itinerary (accommodations and transportation). I’m telling you that you have got to have some kind of a plan before going to Europe! You cannot just show up and expect to have a good experience—even if you’ve been before. No, you don’t have to have a minute-by-minute itinerary (and you shouldn’t have something inflexible anyways), but you need to have an idea of what you want to see and do. Then, you need to follow up and get at least some basic info on these places. Open times, ticket prices, and optional line passes can make or break your trip.
#4: Thou shalt not complain about thy hamburger.
I would rather title this one, “Thou shalt not order a hamburger,” but truthfully, there are some pretty stellar burgers to be found in Europe! You have to be open-minded though. Food—even “American food”—tastes very different in foreign countries. You know, kinda like “Italian food” tastes a little different at Olive Garden ;). I’m pretty sure a visiting German would be horrified to walk into a Weinerschnitzel, and I can’t even imagine what the French would say about La Madeleine’s cuisine. Show a little grace when Europe’s version of a traditionally American dish comes out a little…non-traditional.
#5: Thou shalt live as locals do.
You can have it both ways. You can be a tourist and a local at the same time. Touring is simply what you do. Plenty of locals do touristy things, trust me. They just don’t behave like tourists when they do them! Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Location is everything. The best way to live like a local is to get yourself sucked in to neighborhood life. Don’t stay in the super-touristy areas if you can avoid it (picture Times Square).
- Eat on their schedule, not yours. Just about everywhere in Europe has a guideline for appropriate eating, and savvy travelers know that one simply doesn’t arrive at a restaurant at 4pm and expect anything other than cocktails (or a closed sign).
- Stay away from recognizable chains. It should go without saying that I do not endorse eating at a McDonald’s while abroad (though I relented once for my child while in Paris, I myself did not partake). The same goes for the stores you shop in and the products you buy. They’ve got some pretty awesome stuff over there, so this is your opportunity to experiment, support the local economy, and procure some fantastic souvenirs.
- Use public transportation at least a couple of times. This will give you a fantastically honest look at local life.
- Dilligently follow rule #6.
#6: Thou shalt walk.
Ok, so I live in a very pedestrian un-friendly location. It’s not that we are unhealthy and don’t like walking, so much as everything is just super spread out so it makes no sense. Once you’re in the habit of driving, you sort of drive to all the places, regardless of their proximity.
Not so in most European cities! You have to walk. Even if you plan to use public transportation, you will do some walking. And this is a good thing!!! Besides being a great way to burn off some heavy meals, walking is where you discover the city. It’s how you stumble upon the best boutiques, bump into street performers, and find charming cafés that have no cause or need for a website. Certainly there are times when the walk doesn’t make sense, but if the weather is nice and your shoes are comfortable, try to spend as much time as you can on foot.
#7: Thou shalt see more than sights.
Y’all, it’s great to do the tourist thing, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But, you should also build in time to do un-touristy things, because those are where you actually experience the destination. At no time is this more true than traveling with children. It’s easy to fall into the over-scheduled trap when your kiddos are with you, but believe me that doing so benefits no one.
Whether you take young kids or not, travel is a time to abandon your hyper-scheduled life! So, sit at a table for meals, relax in a sunny park, get lost on winding streets or country roads. Just do it! Take it from an expert: you’ll get so much more out of your vacation if you just stop trying to suck every second dry.
#8: Thou shalt not be a cheapskate.
Two things I refuse to cheap out on are accommodations and tour guides.
Full disclosure: I’ve done both with disastrous results. This is why I just don’t design budget travel–for myself or my clients.
Where you sleep matters. Like, a lot. Even if all you do at your hotel is sleep and shower, don’t you at least want to do those things comfortably? And while you may be willing to put a pricetag on comfort, you can’t put one on convenience (if you’re staying in the city), local flavor, and safety.
A great tour guide can make or break a city. Why do people want so desperately to see a famous sight or visit a renowned museum, but have no interest in actually learning why this place is special? A reputable tour guide adds so much color to what can really amount to an otherwise boring visit. He or she can also get you into and out of places faster, which means while other tourists are still waiting in line, you’ll be enjoying gelato around the corner.
TIP: If you can’t afford a private guide or even a small group tour, do yourself a favor and rent the audio guide at the entrance (or download a free one – many locations have audio guides available on itunes).
“He or she who comes home with the most money does not win.” –Steve Smith (guidebook writer for Rick Steves)
#9: Thou shalt have realistic expectations.
This is a really deep issue for me, because it represents a lot of personal change. I’m so thankful that my husband is such a low-key, easygoing guy, because he definitely balances me out. He also has patiently traveled with me all over the place for the last 13 years. Let’s just say that, for the first several of those, I was pretty tough to please. It didn’t matter how splendid a resort was, how great the food tasted, or how beautiful the weather happened to be, I had something to complain about. And I am NOT a complainer in my day-to-day life!
What my sweet hubby realized was that the reality of our circumstances often did not measure up to my expectations…and since I usually was the one who planned our trip, these little shortcomings felt like a blow to the gut.
My husband started pointing out this unpleasant attitude in other people, and one day it clicked. They were missing out on all the good stuff because they were worried about all the wrong stuff. So how do you deal when expectations are greater than reality?
As a reformed Negative Nellie, here’s my advice: use the same critical eye to find the good that you use to find the bad. You know that old adage about it being easier to smile than it is to frown? Same thing applies. The more you focus on the slow-moving waitstaff, the longer your drink will take; but shifting your focus to the sunshine and people watching will actually cause you to be blissfully thankful that you have even longer to enjoy lunch at a Parisian bistro.
#10: Thou shalt check thy entitlement at the door!
Quite simply, you’re on their playground, so you better play by their rules. This commandment applies to all of your travels, and following it nearly makes the other nine irrelevant. Why? Because ignoring that entitled little toddler in your head that says, “Hey! We paid for this vacation so we deserve for it to be just so!” usually allows you to do all the things I’ve already told you to do. However, giving in to that little voice usually makes you do jerky things that go viral on Facebook.
Bottom line: If your experiences abroad are different than what you’re used to, good! That means you’re getting what you paid for.
Do you have questions about an upcoming trip that I can answer for you? Need some feedback on your itinerary or some help putting your plan together? Use the form in the sidebar and ask away! I am more than happy to offer a little free advice.