With the busy travel season upon us, and the strong US Dollar, many will be heading across the pond this Summer. Having lived and traveled extensively throughout Europe, I have some important planning tips before traveling to Europe for you. Believe me, I’ve learned many of them the hard way, or watched others make some huge mistakes, so I figured I’d spare you that embarrassment!
Pick the Right Time
Summer is the busiest time to go. European schools have the same vacation times as the US, so everyone is traveling in the Summer. Unfortunately, it’s also the most expensive time to travel since airlines, home rentals, and hotels jack up their prices from June through August. If you have kids you may not be able to avoid Summer, so go early in June to avoid the massive crowds and plan ahead!
The best time to go is in late Spring or early Fall. September is my favorite month, because the prices have dropped and the weather is more reliable than in May in the northern and central parts of Europe. Also, September is still very warm in southern Europe, perfect for a beach vacation in Spain, France or Greece! Oh, and of course Oktoberfest in Munich starts in late September too! I could go on and on…
Book Your Flights Early
Book flights as early as possible, especially if you’re going in the Summer! Also, if you plan on using reward miles for flights you should book early because airlines only allow a certain number of seats for reward flights.
Seasoned travelers know that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the best days to book flights, because that’s when airlines publish new discounted fares. And try to avoid flying on a weekend, it’s usually more expensive.
Check budget airlines, like Norwegian, but be sure to include baggage fees when purchasing your ticket! Paying for bags at the counter will eliminate any discount you got on the flight.
Check Visa Requirements
As of right now, U.S. citizens do not require a visa to enter any of the European Schengen countries and can stay for up to 90 days. The Schengen countries consist of 26 countries basically all in northern, central and southern continental Europe (not the UK).
However, in 2021 that will be changing. U.S. citizens (and others presumably) will be required to register with the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) to enter any of the Schengen countries. There will be a short online application and a fee (probably €7) to pay for the authorization. A valid passport, email address, and credit/debit card will be required for the application.
The good news: the registration will be valid for 3 years and allow as many entries as needed during that time!
Bring Some Cash
Bring some cash in Euros for essentials upon arrival (like subways and taxis from the airport). Euros are available at any US bank. Be sure to avoid the money exchange offices at airports, cities and train stations…total rip off in fees and horrible exchange rates. Use your ATM (with microchip) for additional cash in Europe, but be sure to let your bank know about your travel plans ahead of time. Yeah, I forgot once and was stuck with no ATM because the bank cancelled it!
Also, bring a credit card that does not charge any foreign transaction fees. I use Capital One Venture Signature Visa (added bonus: it also covers rental car insurance!). Again, be sure to alert them of your travel plans.
Remember, NOT all countries in Europe use the Euro. Think Swiss Franc, British Pound, Croatian Kuna. Make sure to bring cash in the appropriate currency. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen people try to use Euros in those countries LOL.
Book Hotels in Advance
Be prepared and book your hotels in advance, especially during busy seasons and popular cities. Hotels and hostels fill up fast, not that I’m the hostel type of traveler. Try to avoid staying in international chains like Hilton, Hyatt, etc., and try a locally owned hotel instead. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with the personal service and most of them include a fabulous breakfast buffet in the price as well!
Check the locations of hotels on online maps, to be sure that you’re close to any attractions you want to see, and in the right part of town. The area around train stations is usually filled with unsavory peeps and crime. For instance, Frankfurt’s red light district is right across from the main train station, but if that’s your thing go for it! Zurich is an exception to that rule, Bahnhofstrasse is the Rodeo Drive of Zurich! Do some research before booking.
Travel by Train
Train travel is the bomb in Europe. Get a Eurail Pass, if you’re 27 you get a 23% discount by getting a Youth Eurail pass. Otherwise, if you plan ahead you can get great discounts on train tickets. Purchase them online through the individual country’s rail system (Deutsche Bahn for Germany), or through RailEurope which is North America’s official distributor of train tickets in Europe. Just be sure to compare prices, RailEurope often charges a fee.
Tip: discount tickets are available if you plan in advance. For example, in many countries you can purchase your tickets up to 6 months in advance and get great prices!
Don’t Try to See it All
Too often, people try to pack it all in during a two week vacation. Twelve countries in 14 days, seriously? Imagine packing and unpacking, schlepping that luggage and checking in and out of hotels every day. No thank you.
Book several days in a big city, like Paris, and take day trips by train or car. From Paris you can easily visit Versailles, Fontainebleau, Rouen and Giverny by train. Check out my post on Mont St. Michel for a great day trip from Paris.
Also, stay in some smaller towns to get a feel for the country and see some spectacular landscape. In Italy, stay in Florence for a few days and then venture into the hills of Tuscany for a few nights…priceless.
Purchase Attraction Tickets Online
Finally, one of my biggest tips before traveling to Europe is to purchase online tickets and/or tours to major attractions in big cities ahead of time. The Vatican, Colosseum, Buckingham Palace, Eiffel Tower, German Castles, and so many more can all be purchased ahead of time online. Do yourself a favor and avoid hours of standing in line with the sweaty masses!
Start planning that dream vacation to Europe now! Before you go, read 5 Must-Pack Essentials for Europe and 20 Europe Bucket List Experiences. Feel free to leave any questions or comments below. Travel on!