So far, my husband and I have had wonderful European travels with some unexpected moments. We witnessed a parade of bagpipers in Edinburgh, and a few days later, rebooked our flight due to weather and drove 440 miles (708 km) from Edinburgh to Gatwick Airport in a snowstorm through the dark Scottish Highlands.
Another time, while heading home from Stockholm, we had to drive our car onto an icebreaker to get across a bay in the Baltic Sea. We came across wild horses as we climbed the Pratomagno (Italy), and took an escalator up to Cortona—an Etruscan Italian mountain town. We walked through the English Gardens in Munich and saw people surfing in a stream, and this last October, we had to stop on a small mountain road to let 25 big, white bulls maneuver around our car as they walked home.
These unexpected moments added so much more flavor to the experience. Through our journeys, we’ve also experienced good and bad foods, laws we were unaware of, and good and bad places to stay and things to do. These trips taught us a few lessons of what to do and what not to do. I thought I’d share our experiences and lessons with you.
1) Have An Open Mind: If you’re considering a European vacation, it’s most likely because you want to experience the history and beauty of the terrain, meet people of other cultures, and enjoy new cuisines. And if that’s the case, I suggest you disregard comparisons. Europe is not America. It doesn’t have big rooms, bathrooms, and you will find many different, sometimes odd things, you are unaccustomed to. It’s okay. Just have an open mind to all these experiences.
Leave all American and other non-European cultures and life at home. Open your mind to exploring new places, interacting with people, experiencing their everyday life, along with tasting local foods.
My first trek to Europe was in 1998, and what a shocker it was for me. We went to Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice. I remember going to a washroom by Notre Dame, paying two francs for a roll of toilet paper that I had to bring back to the washroom attendant. I also remember a café near Notre Dame, which only had a hole in the ground for a toilet. My second visit was in 2007 to England, then 2009 to Germany.
All of these experiences were eye-openers. I didn’t have any expectations, but some things took me by surprise. When we went to Scotland, we stayed in a house where they turned the heating off. It was the end of November, dipping down into the 20s and we froze our butts off. The only way to get heat was pulling a string in the washroom to heat the floor. YIKES! In Germany, you have to pay to use the public washrooms, and water is more expensive than beer. Germany isn’t the only European country to charge for public poops, either.
Instead of being disgusted or angry about these situations, I laughed at the experience and have wonderful memories. I had never encountered these things in the U.S., but that’s the beauty of traveling to another country and witnessing the cultures.
2) Use Your Time Wisely: Europe isn’t about seeing 7 countries in 9 days. It’s about experiencing each place through exploration and intermingling with locals, something you can’t do when you’re on the road to the next place. Americans have a tendency to book their European vacations with an itinerary filled with many countries. I get it, most of us don’t know if we’ll ever be back and we don’t get a lot of vacation days so we want to cram as much into the trip as possible.
I’m telling you most of it will be a blur. You WILL miss the little things that have a big impact. You might even miss those unexpected moments. Concentrate on a few main places you want to visit, and spend time there. Maybe have a few big cities in sight and go off the beaten path for a day or two to towns in the area. There’s so much more to Europe than the tourist areas. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the language, somehow you’ll be able to communicate. With today’s technology, you can’t get too lost out there. MWAHHH!
When I first went to London, I couldn’t believe how huge it was and didn’t think I’d be able to see it all. I didn’t see all of it, but I submersed myself in the city, and ventured outside its borders. I took a bus tour to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Oxford, and Warwick Castle. Then one day on my own, I hopped on a train to the town of Bath. Because I didn’t bog myself down with a bunch of countries, time spent in a car, train, or plane, I was able to see other things.
3) Enough Time: Unfortunately, Americans don’t get a lot of vacation time, so they need to make sure they have enough time to get where they’re going, enjoy the trip, and head back home. Take as much time as you can when going to Europe. You need to take into account your travel time. If you plan your trip from May 19 to 29, 10 days, then you need to understand you will lose a day coming to Europe. You’ll arrive on May 20. Since you’ll arrive on May 20 and leave on the 29th, it leaves you with 8 full days of vacation.
When I arrived in London, it was early morning the next day. I was tired and excited, so I decided to check some things out instead of sleep. I walked around the area of my hotel, which was actually a house converted into individual rooms. My room had its own private bathroom that I paid extra for. I also went to the Kensington tube station to buy a weekly pass. I was able to go to bed around 8:00 pm, so I could get up early on London time.
4) Off Season: Many people plan their travels around the summer, but it’s a lot cheaper to plan your European vacation in the off-season. This saves you from high temperatures, prices, and crowds of tourists. You might not get the best of weather, but you won’t be standing in lines and paying top prices for hotels and vacation homes.
I believe a great time to travel to Europe is between October to April. There are so many places to see for bargain deals. Last year was the second time my husband and I traveled during the summer. It was extremely hot everywhere we went, it was difficult finding cheap places to stay, and the tourists were in high form. It took some of the wind out of our sails, especially having to deal with some cultures that have no regard for other people. Even though we enjoyed ourselves, it made us appreciate our travels in the off-season.
5) Where To Stay: I can’t say it enough—rent a house. If you are going to be in an area where you can travel by train or car to other places, I suggest you rent a house and travel from that point. VRBO and Novasol are great sites to find a home at a reasonable price.
When my husband and I traveled in the summer for my 50th birthday, we rented a little condo in Waldkirchen, Germany. It was much cheaper than the Czech Republic and Austria. From there, we drove to the big towns we planned for our itinerary: Český Krumlov, Czech Republic (1-1/2 hours), drove another day to Salzburg, Austria (2 hours), and Munich, Germany (2 hours). In between these travels, we also saw nearby small towns. It was ideal.
This year, we booked our third Fall trip to Poppi, Tuscany in the same house through Novasol. The base price for 2-weeks, 2-bedrooms, large kitchen, fireplace, porch, and outside area with spectacular views came to 320 Euros (as of today, $364 USD).
1) Know Your Monies: When you’re planning your trip to Europe, have an idea of the exchange rate. This helps you understand what you’re getting for your money. Fx-exchange.com is a good reference.
When I went to London in 2007, I didn’t pay much attention to the exchange rate, so it was a huge surprise when I went to the exchange money booth at the airport. For $300 USD, I received 125 British pounds. I basically got a third of my money back. If I were traveling today, $300 USD is worth 227 British pounds—a lot more than in 2007.
This also brings up a very IMPORTANT tip my husband taught me. Bring as little money with you to the country you’re going to. It’s cheaper to exchange the money in the country you’re visiting than doing it prior. Also, DO NOT go to an airport exchange booth. Use your debit card to withdrawal money, and when asked if you want it converted to your homeland currency, select ‘no’. You ALWAYS want to pull money using the currency of the country you’re visiting. If you exchange it, the ATM provider will happily give you the worst possible exchange rate.
2) Rules of the Road: If you plan to drive in Europe, make sure you understand the rules of the road to a degree. Just to clarify, everyone in continental Europe is driving on the right side of the road, same as the U.S. You’ll find the opposite driving only in the U.K. and Ireland.
If you decide to drive in Germany, there are many areas on the autobahn where the speed limit is unlimited. You are to drive in the right hand lane, and move over to the left lane when you want to go around someone. It is illegal to pass a car on the right side. You want to keep the left lane clear unless you plan to go fast and can get over quickly. Sometimes cars come out of nowhere, like bullets, and you need to get over as fast as possible.
In Italy, my husband and I found out the hard way that you are not allowed to drive in the city centers of the big cities—they are limited traffic zones. When we went to Bologna, we kept driving around and into the city center looking for parking. There were cameras outside on the main roads, so every time we passed the camera, it clocked us for a ticket. Turned out, we racked up about $500 in tickets. The rental company contacted us informing us about the tickets. Luckily for us, Italy is slow on processing and we never received a ticket. Find out where the limited traffic zones are, and park outside of them. You’ll have to do some walking, but you’ll be doing a lot of that anyway.
And one more thing. Italians are very gracious, but when it comes to driving, they’re fast and aggressive. Speed limits are more like suggestions to them.
I hope some of this is helpful to you. I’m sure I’ll be posting more travels tips and experiences.
Have you been or do you live in Europe? Do you have any additional suggestions and warnings?
Auf Wiedersehen and Bis Bald,