Over the past 10 years, I’ve taken several European vacations, as well as planned trips for countless friends and family members. Through that experience, and reading more than my fair share of guidebooks, blog posts, and online trip reviews, I’ve compiled a list of my Top 10 tips for making the most of your European vacation. Check out the list below, and let me know your favorite tips in the comments section!
- Do your research. I read guidebooks like they’re bestselling novels, so of course this is going to be my number one tip. But even if you’re not
super weird like mean avid reader of guidebooks, there are tons of resources you can utilize. Check out blogs (some of my favorites are Helene In Between, Rick Steves, and Two Feet One World), visit the city’s tourism website, do some general Googling, or ask for recommendations from friends and family. At a minimum, you should know the major attractions for your destination and have a general plan for which ones you definitely want to visit. (Or, if the thought of sifting through guidebooks and websites makes you want to break out in hives, I can help! Contact me for more details.)
- Prioritize. If you’re visiting a major city like Rome, London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Madrid, realize that you likely won’t be able to see everything. My preference for when I travel is to visit one or two key sights a day, but no more. I want to still have time to vacation, after all! Pick a handful of attractions that you have to see (your A list), and fill in the rest of your time with second- and third-tier sights.
- Plan to return. Building off the tip above, plan every visit as if it’s one of many, rather than as if it’s your one and only. I totally understand the pressure to SEE ALL THE THINGS because who knows when or if you’ll be back. I’ve found, though, that this is a recipe for disaster. It leads to overscheduling, which leads to exhaustion, frustration, and a lack of quality experiences. I’m going back to London in May for my fourth one-week visit, and I’ll STILL be seeing new things. It’s ok not to do everything this trip! Give yourself a reason to return.
- Don’t feel like you have to see something just because a guidebook/friend/the internet said so. Visiting Paris but not into royal palaces? Skip Versailles. In Berlin but old furniture isn’t your jam? Avoid the Pergamon Museum. This is your trip and with so many things to see or do, don’t waste your time on something that doesn’t make you happy. Give yourself permission to slow down and take a break if you need it.
- Buy tickets ahead of time for major attractions. This is especially important in big cities and absolutely crucial for blockbuster sights like the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, or Alhambra, or if you’re traveling with kids or older persons who have difficulty standing for long periods of time. Advance tickets usually lock you into a specific day or even a specific time, but the loss of flexibility is infinitely worth it when you bypass everyone standing miserably in the hours-long line, or the disappointment that comes with arriving at a highly-anticipated sight only to find out that tickets aren’t even available.
- Prepare to be uncomfortable. Whether it’s the stumbling over the language barrier, figuring out public transportation, navigating busy foreign markets, or encountering different cultural norms, at some point during your trip, you will be inevitably be outside of your comfort zone. This is completely normal and, I think, one of the most valuable parts of travel! Go into your trip with an open mind and a hefty dose of patience and be prepared to have your boundaries expanded.
- Plan to visit your must-see attractions at the beginning of your trip, but not on the first day. Union strikes, weather, unexpected restoration, or other factors may cause attractions to be closed suddenly and without warning. Although most strikes are planned and publicized well in advance, some are not and this could lead to major frustration. Visit your must-see sights early on so you can rearrange the rest of your itinerary if necessary, but don’t go on the very first day when you’ll assuredly be disoriented and jet-lagged.
- Learn a few key words before you go. This is not saying you need to be a linguistics wizard or fully fluent in the language before you travel. In general, most people you encounter in big cities (especially those in service industries) will be completely fluent in English or at least know enough so you can get by. But just knowing a few foreign phrases (“hello”, “goodbye”, “please”, “thank you”, “yes”, “no”, and “a glass of red wine”) will get you far. I’ve found that people are far more receptive and willing to help you when you can demonstrate that you’ve made an effort too. Guidebooks, Google translate, and the free app Duolinguo are my favorite resources for picking up a bit of the language before I travel.
- Immerse yourself in your destination before you go. This is another great tip if you’ll be visiting with kids, but I always find that reading a book or watching a movie set in my destination gets me even more excited for my upcoming trip. On Goodreads, you can easily search for your destination city to get book recommendations, and Googling for “movies set in _____” will yield you some great viewing recommendations. Recently, I’ve been reading Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and other Brontë books before we visit Haworth in West Yorkshire on our upcoming trip, and I’ve added Notting Hill, which was set in London, to my Netflix queue.
- Check the calendar for major holidays and festivals. One of the most famous holidays in Europe is Oktoberfest, held in Munich every fall, but other major events like religious holidays (Carnival, Easter, All Saint’s Day, Christmas, and Epiphany) or secular festivals (St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, Amsterdam Gay Pride in the Netherlands, or Paris Fashion Week in France) can bring increased crowds and higher hotel prices. If your dates are flexible, a few minutes of internet research before you book flights can save you hassles and headaches later.
Now it’s your turn to tell me – what is your favorite European travel tip?