Travel

40 Things You Need to Know Before Your First Trip To Europe

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Szechenyi Baths in Budapest | Ungvari Attila/shutterstock
Szechenyi Baths in Budapest | Ungvari Attila/shutterstock

So you’re ready to take your first trip to Europe. Rad! Flights across the pond are ludicrously cheap right now. But first, you surely have one hundred thousand questions -- not just about the coolest European cities or most beautiful places to visit -- but about how things… work. How much do you tip? Should you get a Eurail pass? Can you wear shorts? There’s a lot to consider, so take a page of advice from the people who’ve been before. (Us. We mean us.) Here we answer all your burning questions in one swoop, with our best travel tips, cautionary tales, and mistakes we made so you don’t have to miss a beat on your Euro vacation.

What’s the best way to find cheap flights to Europe?

There are apps for this! There are, in fact, too many apps for this, but some are actually useful. For cheap hostels and hotels, try HotelTonight, Hostelworld, or Agoda. For scoring cheap airfares you can brag about, there are several tried-and-true apps and sites: Momondo is great, but also look into Skyscanner. Hopper is nifty if you have a destination in mind but are flexible on dates. You plug in your destination of choice and Hopper notifies you when the cheapest time to book is. Timing is important! Which brings us to…

What’s the best time to go to Europe?

Under no circumstances are you to ever go to Rome in August. Or Paris. Or really any big city in Italy, France, or Spain. Everything’s closed, because most locals consider August an off-month and flee. It’s hot, and it’s price-gouged for tourists because they’re the only people around. If August is the window you have to work with and you simply must go to one of these countries, try Sardinia or Bunol.

Generally Europe is diverse enough in climate and culture that there’s no single best time to visit. I’d recommend trying a lot of the hotter, southern places in the off-season -- so, not summer. The Cyclades in Greece are the most beloved off-season recommendation I can give you, but Zermatt, Switzerland -- at the foot of the Matterhorn -- is among the most charming, storybook resort towns you’ll ever see under a soft blanket of snow. I am also contractually obligated at this juncture to ask if you’ve considered going to Reykjavik. (Have you? Iceland can be cheaper than you think.)

In college I studied in Prague, arriving from Texas in the dead of winter. It was January -- empty, bleak, brutally cold, and I fucking loved it. Everything looked severe and Gothic and mysterious and smelled like chimney smoke. There was room to explore and hole up in quiet bars with the locals, who generally seemed relaxed and maybe even a little bit friendly? Then June hit and it was Disneyland-on-steroids, Old Town was like the mall on the day before Christmas, and I saw how radically a flood of foreigners can alter the pace and color of everyday life in a place. Which is all to say, no matter where you go there will always be tourists -- you’re there, after all -- but if you can time it so there as few of you as possible, do that. -- Keller Powell

What are the best cheap places to visit?

Step into our office! Broadly speaking, the cheapest region of Europe is the former Eastern bloc -- countries like Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, and Croatia. Coincidentally, most of those Eastern countries have laid-back, multicultural cities that are all pretty safe and basically competing to be the hipster dance club capitals of the world, so, you should go. There are plenty of other beautiful affordable cities in Europe -- here are 16 for your consideration. If it’s a cheap beach vacation you’re after, check this out.

The most expensive countries in Europe -- and the happiest countries in the world, damn them -- are the Scandinavian ones. Also Switzerland, which is very beautiful, but I actually left early, driven back over the Italian border by the inescapable sensation that I was literally hemorrhaging money.

No matter where you go, the best way to save money when you’re traveling is to befriend the locals; people who will show you the cheap things to do and good places to eat that don’t just cater to tourists with a Lonely Planet guidebook.

How can I tell what places are touristy and what places are authentic?

Obviously there’s no 10/10 way to screen for this, because Europe is large and the notion of “authentic travel” is complicated and ever-evolving. But there are some basic precautions you can take so you aren’t spending money at what you’ll later realize was essentially the Olive Garden (bless it, though). Your hotel concierge will recommend touristy places because they often get kickbacks for doing so -- instead, ask your bartender where they like to go.

If you’re in a big ol’ city like Rome, avoid the oh-so-convenient establishments around the perimeter of the main square -- they’re the definition of tourist traps. Wander out a few blocks until you can no longer see any selfie sticks, and when you find an agreeable-looking venue, poke your head in and have a listen to determine whether the patrons are speaking English or the native language. And if a place bears a sign that advertises itself as “authentic,” consider that a sign to walk in a different direction.

What about tipping?

Appreciated, but not required. Not everywhere in the world avails itself of our bonkers system of leaving service workers at the whim of inebriated, tired, sunburned patrons. There will be service charges included in your bill, so just leave a euro or two on the table when you leave.

My first-ever stop in Europe was Dublin, so naturally my companion and I hauled our just-outta-college selves to the nearest pub to meet some friends who were studying there. I bought a round of Smithwick's and left a couple of Euros behind for a tip, and the bartender slid them back to me. I pushed them back to him. Finally the bartender blurted out 'you're a broke student and no one tips in bars here!' I returned to my friends who informed me that, indeed, tipping is not generally a part of the Irish drinking experience. -- Matt Lynch

Does everyone use the euro?

Nope. The European Union comprises 28 countries, and only 19 of them use the euro. Those 19 are known as the eurozone, or sometimes as the euro area.

What, pray tell, is the Schengen Area?

The Schengen Area (or Schengen Zone) refers to the 26 European countries between which you can pass freely, which is to say without a passport -- you can just drive or ride or walk or rollerblade across them, the way you would state lines here at home.

What’s the best way to get around Europe? Eurail?

Probably not rollerblading. If you’re going to be in Europe for a while and want to see as many places as possible, try a Global Eurail pass ($372, access to any of 28 countries). There are cheaper passes ($161) if you just want to see a couple of neighboring countries, and ones cheaper still ($65) if you want to stick to one country and just explore different cities within.

The first time I went to Italy I used Eurail to get between Venice, Milan, Florence, and Rome. My most vivid memory from this experience is that some guys were sitting in our seats (tickets were waaaaay oversold, which happens regularly and can create a bit of benign chaos) and after subjecting them to what I’m certain was a truly horrific amalgamation of Italian, Spanish, and Latin in an attempt to communicate, we figured out that the person in the wrong seat was actually this old lady next to them, who stoically got up and insisted I take my rightful seat while she leaned wearily on the armrest, and left me to spend the rest of the journey contemplating the myriad ways in which I deserved to go to hell, and if you thought this sentence was long I promise you that ride was longer. -- Kastalia Medrano

What about road-tripping around Europe?

If you’re going to be in Europe for at least a couple of weeks, want to move around a lot, and are willing to be somewhat uncomfortable, then the absolute best thing you can do for yourself is to lease a car, which sounds slightly cumbersome but is in fact easy as hell -- we’ll walk you through how and why you should do this here. If you have around 10 days for a European road trip, we’ve already planned your ideal itinerary right here.

How’s my phone going to work?

Back in the day you’d have to buy a whole new SIM card to swap into your Blackberry if you wanted to call your mom at home, but these days things are easier and no one has Blackberrys. If you have an iPhone 4S or newer, you should be in good shape.

Sprint and T-Mobile have free international roaming, meaning no additional charges. Verizon and AT&T do not, and usually charge a fee (in the $10 range) for every day you talk or use data abroad. I always sound like I’m schilling for T-Mobile when I talk about this, but I crossed over as a lifelong Verizon customer before I left for a year-plus of backpacking through Europe. My phone works as seamlessly there as it does at home. If you’ll be traveling with someone(s) for a while, consider starting a family plan with them. This is what my Boyfriend At The Time and I did, which admittedly does give the impression, on paper, of being either married or related, which is a little weird, but there’s no rule that you have to be legal family to get on a family plan. We’re actually still on it.

Do I need a visa?

You do not! Provided you stay no longer than 90 days. Funny story about that backpacking trip I mentioned -- when we arrived in Europe the line for customs and immigration was SO LONG, that since Boyfriend At The Time had Italian citizenship, we decided to try our luck in EU-resident line, which was empty. He showed his Italian passport and just said we were married. The checkpoint guy never even looked up, so there was no record of me entering Europe. We had never actually gotten around to hatching a plan for how I would stay longer than 90 days, so this worked great.

OK so can I wear shorts or what?

The rumors are true, people in Europe do not really wear shorts. This isn’t to say you can’t wear shorts -- you do you -- but culturally Europeans kind of view shorts (or “half-pants” as they sometimes call them) as a clothing option for babies, not adults. Other sartorial giveaways that you’re an American tourist: North Face fleeces, fanny packs, oversized backpacks, unnecessary amounts of jewelry.

What’s the deal with public toilets?

So glad you asked! You’ll want to carry a few euro in change at all times. Public bathrooms abound, but it’s common for them to cost 50 cents or 1 euro per use.

What is this “ground floor” business?

So while in the States the ground floor and the first floor are the same, in Europe you have the ground floor, then the first floor above that, then the second, etc. Just in case you get confused when someone tells you to go to the first floor and points up.

Can I drink the tap water?

There’s something of a misconception around whether water is “safe to drink” when you’re traveling. When people caution against it, it doesn’t always mean the water isn’t safe -- often it just means that it’s fine for locals to drink, but maybe not you, because your immune system has only developed to work with the stuff in your water back home. Same goes for brushing your teeth, washing your food, and using ice. If you don’t have a sensitive stomach, you’re probably fine -- if you see locals drinking the water then that’s the only real barometer that matters. If they drink bottled, you drink bottled too.

And what about street food, same thing?

Barring any food allergies? Yeah, same thing.

“O CLAQUE! O CLAQUE!” the man behind the gas station window yelled at me as I walked over, thinking I would get a snack. He rolled down the storefront gate: “Estamos fechados!” I turned back around toward the highway, and saw my dad reasoning with the attendant outside, who reluctantly allowed him to pump a tank-load of gas. We were on our first family road trip through the lovely Portuguese countryside: eating bacalhau, sipping wine, and listening to fado. And like my family, I speak the Brazilian flavor of the language pretty well, but I’d never before heard “claque” -- the word for organized fan associations in European Portuguese (like the “firms” of the UK). This was a Sunday afternoon, and a game had just wrapped up. That meant supporters of either team would be driving up or down the highway causing a ruckus. The panicked gas station owners had learned from experience that it was better to close up shop for a while. I forget what the next snack I ate was, but I’ll never forget the claque. -- Eric Vilas-Boas

Can I drink in public? Alcohol, I mean.

Lots of countries are chill when it comes to open-container laws -- you can walk around Denmark or Portugal or Spain or Germany beer in hand without repercussions. Within others, like France, it varies a bit depending on where you are. The drinking age in Europe is often 18 or even 16, and the attitude toward alcohol is generally much less … binge-y. Kids grow up having sips of wine with their parents.

Always get the local alcohol. I asked a liquor store guy for absinthe that was made closest to Barcelona and was given something that was probably made not all that close, but he was proud to tell me about it anyway. He also told me the best place to drink it outside, which happened to be underneath a fountain two blocks from the main part of town. What I later found out was that was the pregaming spot because a bunch of bars and clubs I didn’t see before opened there at 2am. -- Nickolaus Hines

How do I drink espresso in Italy without looking like a tourist?

Coffee-to-go culture is not a European thing; you drink your drink at the establishment from which you ordered it, in a real cup and everything. Order espresso or cappuccino in the morning -- never after lunch. In the same vein as the shorts thing, if you want to order a latte I can’t stop you -- just know that it’s considered a drink for old people and babies.

Where can I find really good red wine? But like, that I can afford?

Croatia.

That’s where those magic waterfalls are, right?

Plitviče Lakes National Park, yeah, but go to Krka National Park where you can actually swim in them.

Best meat you can eat?

Ćevapi. In the Balkans.

Most vegetarian-friendly?

Switzerland?

Where might an honest traveler go to smoke some weed?

You know how marijuana laws vary from state to state here at home? It’s the same from one European country to the next, too. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Spain are among the weed-friendliest countries. Portugal, meanwhile, has decriminalized drug use in a remarkably successful move to combat opioid addiction.

Are some of the beaches … nude beaches?

Oh most definitely. It’s not, like, everyone swimming completely naked everywhere all the time, but nudity on the beach isn’t a taboo thing the way it is in the States. As a baseline, it’s fairly regular for babies to run around with their baby buttcheeks out, and for women to be topless. Also, speedos are common, which doesn’t count as nudity per se but I just feel you should be warned in advance all the same. If you wanna go full nude, here are some of the best nude beaches in Europe.

As a queer person, what do I need to know to be safe and also have fun?

So, rooooughly speaking the farther north or west you are in Europe, the more progressive your surroundings are likely to be in terms of LGBTQ+ rights. The farther East/Southeast, the more likely you are to find yourself in a country that has more work to do. Your top options, should you find yourself on the fence, include Malta, Spain, Finland, Norway, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and of course Ireland.

As a woman, anything in particular I should know about traveling alone?

This is one of the optimal regions of the world for women traveling alone, in the sense that there aren’t many location-specific gender complications that compound the wide-angle, pre-existing ones. Iceland and the Nordic countries are among the top-tier options in terms of general safety and friendliness.

What do I need to know about the refugee and migrant crisis?

About three years ago I spent some time bouncing around refugee camps in Hungary, Croatia, Austria, and Serbia. These aren’t places you end up accidentally, so there’s no need to worry about stumbling into one after turning right instead of left. There are certain places, though, like the Greek island of Lesbos, where the crisis can’t be avoided. If you’re moved to volunteer, you can proceed freelance, so to speak, as I did, or find an org like Caritas Hellas.

Do I need a power adaptor plug? Like more than one?

Pick up a European (or universal) adaptor plug, especially if you’re staying at lower-budget places that aren’t likely to have spares. For continental Europe, you’re looking for the kind with two round prongs -- as opposed to the two flat prongs we have here. For the United Kingdom and Ireland you want the ones with three rectangular prongs.

American appliances run on a different voltage than European ones, so if you see the words “dual voltage” printed on something, you’re good to go. But if not (probably because the appliance in question is old) then you’ll need a converter.

If you need more expert packing tips, we’ve got those. If you’re packing for a big-ass backpacking trip, go here instead.

Can I use my credit card the same way I do at home? Is it better to rely on cash? Can I use my credit card to get cash?

I mean, you can use your credit card to withdraw from ATMs, but that does not mean you should. The mere sight of the foreign transaction fees flashing on the screen will hospitalize you.

Use a debit card to get cash. If you don’t have a checking account with a bank that reimburses ATM fees, now is the time to open one. One of the final things I did to prepare for backpacking through Europe was to open an account with Charles Schwab, through which I was able to withdraw cash in local currency all around the world without any fees. This option is ideal because it means you can simply take out whatever you need as you go along -- as opposed to carrying around a huge surplus of cash all the time, which is just a bad idea anywhere but as a tourist especially so.

You can check out our guide to the best credit cards for travelers, here. When you’re using a credit card, many places will helpfully offer you the choice between paying in euros (or whatever the local currency is) or USD. This. Is. A. Scam. No, the waitstaff isn’t targeting you personally, but this is a widespread system designed to trick you into spending slightly more money by capitalizing on a very common source of ignorance: the exchange rate. Most people don’t know what the currency exchange rate is between the euro and the dollar at any given moment, which is why many places will offer you a slightly higher one without you ever noticing. The takeaway: always pay in the local currency.

The first time I visited Paris, I took a taxi back to a borrowed apartment on Rue du Temple after a night of drinking pastis and smoking Gauloises at an outdoor cafe. When I tried to pay the fare with a credit card, the driver yelled something about the minimum and then added, in an admirably mocking English, "What, you are not French?!" and I don't think I've ever been so flattered. Incidentally, I just looked up the satellite view of that apartment and there's a corporate type convenience store on the ground floor, now. Europe -- they're just like us. -- Amber Sutherland-Namako

Back to the scamming thing though -- am I more likely to get scammed than I am in the States?

Kinda, yeah, because as a tourist you’re automatically a target for a roster of scams in a way you’re simply not when you’re at home. But you can avoid some of the more common ways you get ripped off while traveling, like checking to make sure your prospective taxi is licensed and not just a car whose owner is advertising it as a taxi. And make sure you agree on what the rate should be before you get into any taxi, and try to always carry some small bills to avoid the “Nope, Can’t Make Change” scam.

Don’t be embarrassed if you get got, it happens. But it tends to happen when you’re off-guard and unprepared -- as I was on my first day in Italy when a cab driver simply shrugged off my request for change and, disoriented and nervous and unable to speak the language, I didn’t know what to do besides just leave.

Avoid the people who stand outside restaurants and try to draw Americans in, especially if you’re by the beach. I was in Malaga, Spain and forgot to bring clothes to change into. The only food place that would bring me in was empty except for a guy standing by a giant menu with print so small I couldn’t read it. I dumbly walked in. All I learned is that no matter how starving or desperate you are, you didn’t fly to Spain to spend $20 on three floppy, chewy, previously frozen squid and I regret this to this day. Should have just stuck to the grocery store deli.  -- Nickolaus Hines

Are the Greek Islands worth it?

Yes.

Milan?

No.

Running with the bulls?

Fuck no.

Where should I go in France besides Paris?

Oh gosh, I was not expecting you to ask that. Hit Paris, because it’s Paris, but then move on to some of these.

Where should I go in Spain besides Barcelona?

Basque Country. But also there are lots of underrated cities there.

Where should I go in Italy besides Rome and Venice?

There so many cities in Italy worth visiting it’s kind of overwhelming. The smaller cities in the Emilia-Romagna region (Bologna, Parma, Modena, etc.) boast what is arguably the most delicious food in the country, which is saying something. If you’re into medieval towns and sweeping mountain vistas that will make your jaw drop not just figuratively, consider visiting the Italian Alps. Italy also rocks some gorgeous freshwater lakes, besides just Lake Como. If you’re mostly in it for the Instagram likes, go for the tiny villages along the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre.

Should I kiss the Blarney Stone?

I did?

Will my health insurance cover me in Europe? Do I need separate, special travel insurance?

To answer your first query -- it might! Plans from most of the big providers include provisions for when shit goes down on foreign soil. Medicare, notably, does not.

As for travel insurance, this is really between you and your personal god, but the short answer is that you do not. If you’re talking about insuring the trip itself -- so you’re not just eating the cost of prepaid things like plane tickets in the event that unforeseen circumstances prevent you from using them -- then it’s not really worth it, unless your trip has gotten big enough that it would be too much money for you to acceptably lose.

Then there’s medical coverage. If you don’t plan on seeing any regular, non-ER doctors during your trip and are in generally good health, there’s no real reason you need it. I never bought any, and I never needed any, but I was also lucky.

Do I need any travel immunization shots?

If you’re up to date on all your recommended vaccinations, probably not. You can take a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quiz to find out what you might need based on your specific destinations and medical history here.

What if I get sick? Or injured. What if I-

Okay, okay eeeeasy there. Shhhhhhh, shh shh shh. It’s okay. You’re okay. Honestly, you should be so lucky as to be hospitalized in the likes of Denmark, where they’ll remove whole-ass brain tumors free of charge. This is what happens when a country adopts universal healthcare instead of GoFundMe.

More questions? Send ’em to kmedrano@thrillist.com. There is no question too small, no assumption too dumb.

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.