Europe is a brilliantly diverse and wonderful continent for travel. With over 50 countries offering vastly different landscapes and cultures, it’s not hard to see why it’s the most visited continent. Countries in Europe vary from very affordable to outright expensive, but with some tricks up your sleeve, you can have unforgettable experiences in even the most costly destinations.
The well-travelled have the benefit of learning from their experiences through trial and error, but this takes time. They stick to what works well and learn to spot and avoid pesky tourist traps.
When you learn to travel smarter and with more efficiency, you always have a more enjoyable time. If you’re not careful, you could end up paying a lot of money for the essentials like food and accommodation.
So if you don’t have much experience with travelling in Europe, how can you prepare yourself?
With this guide I’ll save you time and money you’d otherwise spend reading through a stack of guidebooks.
So let’s look at some ways of travelling smarter in the most visited continent on Earth.
Top Travel Tips for Europe
#1 Exchange currency wisely
Depending on where you are travelling from, you might not be guaranteed a better exchange rate if you choose to exchange it at home. Another temptation might be to exchange currency from one of the many exchange booths in the airport, these can also be costly.
Make sure you find somewhere with 0% commission on the exchange and always check the current rate online against what they are offering.
An alternative to that wild goose chase is to sign up for a digital bank, use a credit card with travel rewards or an ATM in a respected bank. If you want to know all about digital bank cards and how useful they are look no further.
A popular sight you’ll see a lot in tourist-heavy areas are the mobile EuroNet cash machines. It’s worth avoiding these as much as possible. They are located in these places for convenience, the down side however, is you’ll get a bad exchange rate and be charged between 8-10% for the transaction.
#2 Be aware of closing times
If you’re planning a trip in Europe, chances are you’ve probably heard of the ‘siesta’. If you haven’t, I can tell you it’s a lunchtime break (made famous by the Spanish) where most shops close for a few hours. In other European countries such as Italy, this break from trading is also common. It’s worth finding out what times shops and restaurants close so you can plan your day around this.
A common misconception is that everybody sleeps during this time, it’s not true and you don’t have to. During the warmer months, if you continue exploring under the baking sun you might find that your energy levels decrease much faster, leaving you lethargic in the early evening when everything comes back to life. Find a shady place, have a cold drink, maybe read a book or research some activities if you’re stuck for ideas.
Another factor you should consider are national holidays, often for religious days of significance. These dates vary from country to country and are important to check for the duration of your stay. If you arrive and are unlucky enough that it is a national holiday, you might find that even the supermarkets are closed all day. If you’re staying an apartment it’s worth stocking up on some supplies beforehand to prepare you for the closures.
#3 Befriend some locals
Forming a friendship with at least one local will give you new insights and knowledge for the location you’re visiting. It’s especially important when travelling alone. You probably don’t want to be on your own all the time – cities are rarely more interesting that way.
Learning how to greet people in the language used is a great way to promote a positive image of yourself as an outsider. Walking down the street in a non-touristic area with your camera might get you some stares, but people are often just curious. Remember, saying “hello” costs nothing and you almost always get a response. When I think back on how I struck unique friendships with locals on my travels, it was always through simply saying “hi” and either of us usually asking a question to take us further than just the greeting.
With a local friend you’ll find insights on secret places to eat on a budget, try delicious local food and discover the best coffee shops where the locals spend their time. I’ve found so many cool, underground places that travel guides don’t know about this way so give it a shot!
#4 Learn some history
Going to stare at beautiful, historic buildings is nice and all, but if you really want to enjoy Europe, you should learn a little history when you can. Europe has a massive history that’s at times hard to get your head around. By embracing the history of the place you’re exploring, you’ll get rich new context into what you’re looking at. Your trip will feel even more magical when you realise you’re eating an ice cream right beside Leonardo Da Vinci’s favourite spot to ponder on life.
In all major European cities, you can sign up for free walking tours with commentary from an expert. My advice is to tag along for as long as you can handle on the first day of your trip, scope out some locations and explore them in further detail in your own time. You’ll learn about the city and it’s beginnings, key events that took place, what the population have lived through and the meaning behind their art, culture and way of life. It’s a fantastic way to bring some authenticity to your travels and helps you understand those around you in more intimate detail.
#5 Get a taste of traditional food
The best travel experiences come when we leave our comfort zone. So trying to be more adventurous with what you eat is a great way to enjoy your adventures more and learn something new about yourself. Europe is home to a plethora of delicious food dishes, traditionally crafted from local ingredients. If you give it a chance, your expectations of how delicious food can be will often be exceeded.
For the most authentic experience, look for cafes and restaurants where you can see local people are eating and drinking. Pizzas and burgers are sometimes interesting if they have a local spin on them, but avoid restaurants and eateries that have laminated menus or waiters standing outside, trying to lure you inside. Remember, great restaurants don’t need to try and get people inside. If you see photos on a menu, chances are you’re ended up in a tourist trap with average quality food. It’s not rude to get up and leave if it’s not what you were looking for.
Restaurants that are busy during peak times is a great sign of good food. Look for daily specials written on a chalkboard outside and remember if nobody is eating there and it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, there’s a good reason for that. Keep searching.
#6 Explore deeper
When we talk about exploring a place deeper, we try to think beyond the well-known attractions and locations. The ‘tourist trail’ in European cities denotes the path that showcase all of the most iconic sights in the most efficient way. It’s far from adventurous and many tourists think once they’ve completed the trail, they’ve seen it all – imagine that!
By all means the main sights and attractions are known all over the world for good reason, so go and see them if you like. But once you’ve seen all the touristy stuff, what else is there to do? That’s where actual exploration and adventure begins. Taking more time to observe and taking unconventional routes brings huge advantages to your overall experience and allows you to gain a more wholesome perspective of a destination.
Step into the unknown, believing that there is more to see and you will almost always find something new and interesting that you didn’t know about. One way we like to explore a new place is to leave our accommodation in the morning and head in a direction away from the tourist center. Then, along the way we like to follow whatever we find interesting and this often leads us to many amazing discoveries!
In Florence, we discovered a whole other side to the city where tourists couldn’t be seen and true Italian life was shown in the truest form. We found hip coffee shops, interesting markets, overlooked architecture and friendly local people to meet. Best of all, we discovered it all for ourselves, we weren’t aware of any of it before, a map or guide didn’t lead us there and that made it even more special.
#7 Learn some of the local language
They say a smile goes a long way, so surely a greeting in the local language goes miles further. Learning useful phrases that you know you’ll need will greatly improve the hospitality you receive from locals. You’ll probably notice the locals are flattered that you’re making an effort and it’s only good things from there.
The essential greetings used throughout the day, manners and how to politely ask for things you want and need are great starting points. When pronunciation becomes challenging, let your phone or laptop say the phrase out loud for you so you can get the sounds right.
It’s not always easy but don’t worry, we all start somewhere. I remember spending almost a whole week in Prague trying to say “Děkuju” – it’s how you say “thank you” in Czech. I struggled so much as most locals I asked all spoke in a slightly different way. I did receive some giggles for my mistakes but I got there eventually, all I could do was laugh along with them.
Don’t worry if you think you are saying it wrong or if a local laughs a little at how you have said something, they will be more than happy to offer you the correct pronunciation. Above all, it feels incredible to be able to speak some of the romantic languages in Europe and really live like a local going about their business!
#8 Avoid irresistible deals and offers
Unfortunately, while you are out enjoying your holiday, there are people out there with bad intentions. Most interactions with people you don’t know are harmless and friendly. However, if you are being asked to part ways with money, allow the use of your phone or any behaviour that looks like misdirection, avoid it and walk away.
Common scams you might come across the street range from someone claiming they need some money to complete their journey, offers to exchange foreign currency in the street or that you have dropped a gold ring that doesn’t belong to you, but might initially look valuable.
Trust your instincts and gauge a persons intentions by their body language and whether they want anything from you. Tricksters and opportunists are often slimy individuals that have an aura of something “not feeling right”. If in doubt, just walk away. By all means don’t follow anyone anywhere or accept offers that seem like you will get a good deal out of something, think of how that would make sense for them.
It doesn’t mean you have to be skeptical about absolutely everything, by all means trust people when it feels right, but if you get any weird feelings about a situation, walk away and hold your belongings close.
In some cities like Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona, pickpockets are prominent in busy areas where it can be easy for someone to try and get into your bag. Stay well aware of your belongings at all times and in crowded places keep them close to your body.
Avoid interactions with strangers if it’s unclear what their intentions are or it looks like they are trying to distract or misdirect you. In the event of someone trying to steal your belongings, shout “pickpocket!” as loud as you can to alert others around you and keep you safe. Call the police immediately and if you feel scared enter the nearest store, cafe or restaurant.
#9 Find a balance
Travelling around Europe is almost considered a right of passage for young, twenty-something backpackers looking for a great introduction to world travel. Many spend all summer hopping around Europe but quite often they overdo it and end up too drunk, ill or injured. With so much to do all around you, forgetting to take a break is easily done.
Go easy on the beginning and end of your trip to keep your energy levels up, your body healthy, and embarrassing experiences to a minimum.
While European cities are full of charm and wonder, they are not all that is special about the continent. Europe is naturally beautiful, with mountain ranges, national parks, fjords, lakes, valleys, deltas and hundreds of miles of sparkling coastline to get lost in. The possibilities to connect with nature and wildlife are all around. When you are travelling around Europe for a long time it’s important to find a balance so that you don’t get burned-out.
The hustle-and-bustle of big towns and cities can become tiresome, but don’t let yourself become sick of them – find inner peace and relaxation with the calming remoteness of the wild.