I am not claiming to be an expert traveler, in fact, we have only been to Europe once. I figured, however, that I have some things to share in regards to what we learned when we did travel to Europe that may be helpful to somebody out there trying to do anything similar. There are plenty of posts that give sound advice, which I also used to help us plan, so here is my own compilation of what I found most helpful and what made our trip successful. Also, If you find yourself with a smaller budget, like us, you’ll probably find these tips more helpful than if you have more money to spend.
First thing, when you decide to travel overseas, I mean actually make that decision to shell out the big bucks for a once in a lifetime trip, you need to be prepared to spend lots of time planning (unless you’re able to afford a travel agent in which case a lot of what I suggest won’t really apply to you). For people like us who had never been overseas, seeing what all we needed to plan was a bit daunting at first.
Choosing what city you are going to fly into is a good first step, because, to be honest, it doesn’t really matter where you want to go in Europe. Your main objective should be to get over there the cheapest route possible, also keeping in mind the time it will take to make the trip. If that means flying into Barcelona and taking a local airline flight into London, just so you don’t have to pay a large amount of money to fly directly into Heathrow airport, then you do it. To do something like that requires a few more steps but is well worth it to save the hundreds (yes hundreds) of dollars to get to your destination the round about way.
For example: We flew into Dublin International because it was a cheaper hub, then worked our way to Rome from there by purchasing a cheap local airline ticket from Dublin to Rome. Cheap meaning $70.
There are cheaper cities than others to fly into, and by researching airline ticket prices for the time you want to go, you can price compare to find the best deal. We really like Priceline and Kayak for tickets from the states, then Ryanair and EasyJet for local European airlines. Generally, bigger cities like London and Paris are going to cost primo dollar to fly directly into from the states.
When we went to buy the tickets overseas, we kept a really close eye on prices for weeks, to see how they fluctuated up and down, then we were ready to buy when the best deal came through. Historically, it’s been cheapest to buy tickets on a Tuesday 6-8 weeks in advance, but lately, it looks like 20-22 weeks in advance on a Sunday is giving the best price for overseas fares. Have your money ready, and be prepared to pull the trigger on those flights when you notice the cheaper fare come up, it may not be there even hours later.
Ok, so you’ve bought your tickets overseas, now you can narrow down where you want to go. Of course, you want to go everywhere, because I’m assuming you are similar to myself, but narrowing your destinations down is key for a successful trip that doesn’t leave you feeling like you spent more time on planes and trains than actually having time to enjoy where you were. I assumed that we had a lot more time than we actually did to see various places, so certain cities needed to be bumped off the list.
Travel blogs were so helpful when we planned our trip, more so, than printed travel guides, although we looked through those too (we like fodors). My absolute favorite blogs have been Aspiring Kennedy (especially for planning England) and Entouriste. We have also found helpful information from Rick Steves by watching his free travel videos.
When planning what you are going to do in each destination remember: big cities are lovely to travel to but it’s nice to intersperse smaller cities (slower paced and less busy). We would plan a day filled with touristy sites and then make sure the next day was more laid back with a trip to a smaller outlying town by train, or time in the city with less we “had” to do. This gives your mind and body time to recover.
Purchasing tickets for attractions ahead of time can help to save money. We purchased the London pass and Paris museum pass beforehand. We scheduled our Vatican City tour as well.
Planning where to stay we discovered Airbnb, and we are now fans and plan on utilizing them for future trips. We had such success renting both a room of someones apartment and an entire flat. Renting a space with kitchen access allows you to buy your own groceries and save some money, mostly on breakfast, which adds up over the course of a trip.
In Paris, we had an entire flat to ourselves which meant we could cook our own meals. We bought eggs, a loaf of bread, and juice, that lasted us for most breakfasts while we were there, saving a good amount of money. We were still able to get a pastry here and there but didn’t have to spend $20-30 minimum for a full breakfast for the two of us.
Make it a point to pack as little as possible. Try to pack everything into a carry-on bag leaving a little room for some souvenirs, even if you’re going on a 3+ week trip. It may sound impossible, or so I thought at first, but it is quite doable, especially if you are renting an apartment with a washer/dryer. Using a carry on bag helps you to avoid the extra baggage fees on those local European airlines, and also makes it nice to not have to wait for your checked luggage once you arrive at your destination. If all that isn’t convincing then think of this, a large bag will make it very difficult to navigate the various train stations and underground platforms, whereas a small bag can flung around and carried up and down flights of stairs much easier. Each of us having our own small bag was a decision we never regretted.
-Measure your bag and make sure it fits the size restrictions of the local european airlines (if you’re using them), they are very strict and if your bag looks the slightest bit oversize, they’ll measure and you’ll end up like me paying 80 euro to check your bag plane side. (the bag was only 1 inch too long). Also pay attention to weight restrictions.
-Pack outfits that can be mixed and matched and pack clothing good for layering. No more than 2 pair of pants and 1 coat/jacket. Plain shirts, especially black, are easily paired with other things.
-Leave the books at home, opt for downloading books onto your smart devices.
-Roll your clothes instead of folding. Also, those packing cubes can be nice to shrink down the amount of space the clothes take up.
– Try to limit yourself to 2 pairs of shoes- preferably light weight and wear the heavier ones on travel days. Make them practical and comfortable, many cities have lots of cobblestones which are notoriously uneven, making it easy to get tripped up without the proper footwear. If you buy shoes specifically for the trip, wear them in beforehand so you don’t get blistered up.
– A small bar of soap instead of shower gel will help with the liquid limitation. I also used a compact powder foundation instead of liquid foundation.
For you girls I wanted to share: I have really curly, frizzy, and unruly hair that requires hair products to make it look decent. I ended up getting a hair straightening treatment (brazillian blowout) before I went. I didn’t want to mess with my hair or have to pack hair products, so the treatment was the best decision I made. This may sound a little eccentric, but it was so nice to be able to just blow dry my hair and go. No styling or hair products required. I also had found a good Groupon so it wasn’t expensive for me and the straightening lasted a few months. Win-win-win.
Have a few city maps on hand (these usually come in the travel guides)
Purchase your foreign currency from a bank a few weeks before you go. This will hopefully ensure the best exchange rate you can get and gives you cash to have on hand. We used a credit card with no foreign transaction fees for most of our purchases so we didn’t have to carry around a lot of cash.
Try and know a few key phrases or words in the local language. It will help you get where you need to go, or in my case, help you find a bathroom you desperately need to use (thank you Ryan and your ability to speak small french phrases).
Consider journaling while you are abroad. Any down time I had, I would journal and it helped me to pass the time. I taped ticket stubs, post cards, and various other little papers within a journal so I have something besides pictures to look back on.
Speaking of pictures, I was under the impression that if I had someone take a picture of us, they would steal my camera, which would have been my worst nightmare. I then realized, if I hand my camera to someone with a similar camera, they are most likely tourists like me and are not thieves. So pick and choose who you hand your camera to. The “you take for me- I take for you” situation is a universal understanding among tourists. You don’t need to speak the same language to understand that you aren’t wanting all your pictures to look too “selfy-ish”.