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INSIDER SECRET: Traveling in the right season and knowing the local customs and culture ahead of time can help make your first trip to Europe a special experience.
If it’s your first trip to Europe, you’re probably excited — and maybe a little nervous. Whether you scored a cheap airfare or finally saved up enough points to head across the pond, getting that plane ticket in hand is just the beginning. Here are tips on preparing, planning and organizing your trip.
Choose your destination(s) with care
Just because you’re flying into London or Paris doesn’t mean that’s where you are staying. Europe is much smaller than the United States; flying, driving or taking the train between countries can be easy, quick and affordable. Choosing destinations relatively close to one another can make things a lot easier. For example, parts of southern France are just a short drive away from northern Spain. Dubrovnik, Croatia is just a 40-minute flight to many Italian hubs. So take a close look at the European map and start making plans.
Research your transport
Once you’ve decided on your destination(s), look for the easiest way to get there. Consider trains, car rentals or low-cost air carriers. The high-speed AVE trains can get you from Madrid to Barcelona in 2.5 hours versus a drive of several hours. Car rental in eastern Sicily can be as low as $10 per day in the off-season. Those on a budget will find that buses are affordable and safe in many European countries. If you plan to fly on a low-cost carrier (there are many options in Europe), make sure to read the fine print in order to understand the luggage requirements and any other rules.
Think about the season
High season in Europe (usually summer in most countries) brings crowds and higher prices. Lodging can be in high demand; plan to reserve accommodation way in advance. Each country or city may have different high seasons, so pay attention to specific holidays or events. Munich, Germany, for instance, will see a huge increase in visitors and prices during Oktoberfest, whereas Seville, Spain is extremely popular to visit around Easter week because of popular religious processions.
Consider the weather
In case you haven’t seen the pictures of Parisians swimming in the city’s fountains, Europe has seen a succession of heat waves this summer. However, many countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal are used to extreme temperatures in the summer months — and air-conditioning isn’t common. If you can’t stand the heat, visit during cooler months or make sure your accommodation has air-conditioning.
Don’t ignore hostels or home rentals
Europe has a number of hotels where you can use your points, but don’t discount home rentals, especially if you’re traveling with your family or a large group. And although the word hostel may conjure up images of bunk beds and backpackers, many hostels in Europe have private bathrooms and very comfortable, private rooms, similar to small or family-owned boutique hotels or B&Bs.
Study the language
Locals in many larger cities and tourist spots will speak English, but it’s best to be prepared with a dictionary or a translation app. Better yet, if you can manage to learn a few words of the new language — even just a “hello,” “thank you” or “good morning,” the locals will appreciate it.
Understand the exchange rate and have some cash
Here at Million Mile Secrets, we’re all about credit cards but sometimes it’s handy to have some local currency with you, especially if you plan to buy cheaper items, take taxis or frequent local bars or restaurants.
Also, remember, not every European country is on the euro. Confirm what currency is in use in your destination and try to memorize the exchange rate. Using an app to convert currency can also help, especially when you’re mid-purchase and have no idea how much you’re actually spending.
Check with your cell phone provider
Before traveling, check with your cell phone provider to see if roaming is included in your plan. If not, inquire about purchasing roaming plans ahead of time so you aren’t stuck with hefty charges incurred on your trip. If your phone is unlocked, most countries offer local SIM cards for purchase at an affordable price.
Register for STEP
STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) is a free service that allows US citizens traveling abroad to receive the latest security updates from the nearest US embassy or consulate. You’ll receive alerts related to safety or security situations, as well as any travel advisories. Using the program (it’s also an app) whenever you travel outside the US is a good idea.
Know the tipping rules
Tipping isn’t as common in many European countries as it is in the US. Each country has its own customs and you may be surprised to know that in some cases, you don’t need to tip at all. Research the norms for your destination to avoid tipping too much or too little.
Be flexible with different meal times and business closures
Citizens of European countries wake up, eat and go to sleep at different times. Sometimes businesses close at midday for lunch or a rest. It may not be what you’re used to and it’s easy to get grumpy when you’re tired or hungry and you can’t get what you need. Researching these differences ahead of time can help.
Expect jet lag
Jet lag affects frequent travelers the same way it affects first-time travelers — and it’s not fun. Do your best to get on European time as quickly as possible. Nap when you need to. Remember, you’re on vacation, so don’t stress about it. Being awake at off times or taking a siesta may actually help you adjust to local time and habits faster than you think, especially in countries like Spain, where taking naps midday is very socially acceptable. Follow these tips for more advice on dealing with jet lag.
Keep track of your personal belongings
Although the majority of European countries are very safe, pickpocketing can be common in some cities. Keep an eye on all of your personal belongings, especially in crowded places. And make sure to leave your passport in the hotel safe when walking around a city.
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