Looking back, I see the mistakes I made on my first trip to Europe. Two college friends and I spent 10 days exploring Europe, but we picked the wrong mode of transportation, packed too much into a short timeframe, overpaid at restaurants and more.
We must have done something right, though, because that trip ignited my love of Europe. I went home and told my parents I was moving to Vienna for school—and I did.
These days, I visit Europe as often as I can, but I’ve learned a few things through experience and from other travelers. Here are a few tips that will help your first trip to Europe go smoothly.
My friends and I rented a car to visit three countries on that first trip. That was, after all, how we often traveled in the States. Yet, driving a car in a new place can be stressful and take a lot of time. Unless you’re visiting rural areas, a rental car isn’t the best option to get around.
In Europe, it’s efficient and inexpensive to travel by train, bus, and plane. Budget airlines like EasyJet, Eurowings, and others offer discount pricing. A recent flight from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam cost me $90, for example.
Trains are also affordable and easy to use. A recent train ticket from Budapest to Vienna cost $48 and was a quick, relaxing journey. Buses are another good mode of transportation. While I’m not a fan of bus travel at home, I like the many bus lines that operate all over Europe. Buses often have restrooms and Wi-Fi. I recently traveled by bus from Austria to Italy for $32. The scenic drive was enjoyable and worry-free. I use Omio.com to compare travel times and ticket prices for bus, train, or air.
Once in your destination, don’t be afraid to use the public transportation system. It’s usually the best way to get around, especially if you’re in a city. In Vienna, I use their mobile app Qando Wien to buy tickets and route my journey using real-time information—all in English.
Create a Realistic Schedule
Many first-timers cram too many destinations into a short visit. This can leave you frustrated and exhausted. Instead, pick a few key destinations, and take time to explore each one. You’ll get to know your destination in a deeper way and won’t return home in need of another vacation.
You can buy almost everything you need in Europe, so don’t overpack with things you might need. Too much luggage can be a hindrance, especially in places like Venice, where you must pull your luggage over many bridges. Leave a little room in your suitcase to bring home souvenirs. (My favorite souvenirs are food items like coffee and chocolates that I can enjoy for weeks after at home.)
In many parts of Europe, meals are a leisurely, long affair. Service isn’t rushed, because they want you to savor your meal. You’ll often have to ask for the check since that is what polite service entails.
Don’t overtip. Most European restaurants include a service charge in the bill, and Europeans usually only round up a few coins as their tip, if any. If in doubt, as a local for advice.
Hotels and Inns
Many buildings in Europe are centuries old, so don’t be surprised if your hotel room is small or quirky. Not all hotels have elevators, and you might need to climb stairs. Check with your hotel before you go if you have questions on accessibility.
Many smaller or independent hotels still use large, old-fashioned keys. You don’t have to carry it around. Leave it at the front desk when you leave and pick it up when you come back. Don’t be concerned if the front desk asks for your passport when you check in. In Europe, hotels are required to log your name, nationality, and passport number.
Learn From a Local
You can learn most about a destination from a local. Before you go, check out the local tourism board’s website. They list events, give advice on getting around, and offer inside tips and knowledge. Local guides can be another wealth of knowledge. I like to join small guided tours or book an individual guide. I love hearing their stories—both historical and personal.
Book Tickets Ahead of Time
If you plan on visiting popular attractions—especially in Paris or Rome—consider booking your tickets online ahead of time. During peak times, tickets may sell out. If you book tickets ahead, you can avoid standing in long lines and risking possible disappointment.
Wear Comfortable Shoes
This may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ve traveled with several friends who have ended up with blisters on their feet. You’re going to be walking a lot, often on cobblestone. Bring shoes that you’ve already worn and are comfortable to walk in.
Slow Down and Enjoy the View
Some of my best memories in Europe have come from just sitting in outdoor cafes, in parks, or even in beautiful palace gardens. Europeans love to eat and drink outside as soon as the weather warms, and you’ll find the streets lined with outdoor patio seating. Join in and savor your time there. Joy can sometimes be found in the quiet, unexpected moments. Travel is no exception.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 45 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.