Planning a trip to Europe can be daunting for the novice traveler, as evidenced by the many questions we get on the topic during our weekly Travel chats. We combed through the past several years of chat transcripts to put together representative examples of our most frequent queries and expanded upon our responses.
Q: I have never visited Europe, but I want to go and have put aside 10 days of vacation to accomplish that goal. Some of my more traveled friends say I should spend the entire time really getting to know one country or region, while others say that’s plenty of time to get a taste of several different places. What do you think?
A: If this is the one-and-only time you cross the Atlantic, hit a few places that have always been on your bucket list. London is one of the easiest first-timer destinations for most Americans, with plenty of nonstop flights and no language barrier. From there, take the Eurostar train to Paris, a city that everyone should visit at least once. Adding a third city is dealer’s choice, but I’d go with Amsterdam, a 3½ -hour journey from Paris via high-speed Thalys train. All of these cities are walkable and offer mass transit, so no stress about driving a rental car in unfamiliar territory.
If this is only the first of many future trips to Europe, delving into one country makes sense. Italy would be my choice, as it offers so many different personalities. Rome, Florence and Venice are the top three cities for first-timers. Fly into Venice, take Trenitalia trains to Florence and Rome, then fly home from Rome. From Florence, add a day trip to the Tuscan countryside. From Venice, visit the Dolomites (Italian Alps). If renting a car isn’t an option, ask your concierge to recommend a driver for side trips or book day tours through a company such as City Wonders or Viator.
Q: What’s the best way to pay for hotels, meals, transportation, et cetera, during my upcoming trip to Europe? Should I rely on a credit card? Get cash advances at ATMs? Do I need to get euros, and, if I do, should I get them in advance or wait till I arrive?
A: I like to have some euros (or the currency of the country I’m visiting) in my pocket when I arrive at the airport, just in case I need a quick cup of coffee or want to jump in a cab without heading to an ATM first. Some banks have them in stock — Wells Fargo, for instance, offers euros at many of its branches. But waiting until you arrive in Europe will work. Use a debit card rather than a credit card to avoid cash-advance ATM fees, and use an ATM associated with a bank. Avoid currency-exchange booths, which will cost more.
Pay for most big-ticket items, such as hotels, with a credit card; Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted. Many smaller restaurants, shops, and even some rural hotels do not take credit cards in Europe, so keep enough cash on hand for those. Don’t fall for “we take dollars,” as the merchant’s exchange rate will not be advantageous.
Before departing, inform your credit-card issuers of travel plans so your cards do not get frozen. Ask if the credit card will incur foreign transaction fees. Some, such as Costco’s Anywhere Visa, and several versions of the Capitol One and Bank of America cards, incur no fees.
European credit cards work on a chip-and-PIN system, which is not widely used in the United States. This may be an issue in some countries at transit kiosks without human attendants to process transactions, so keep cash on hand for traveling via train or bus.
Q: I know I want to go on an escorted tour for my first trip to Europe, but how do I choose the right one?
A: Asking friends and family is a good place to start. For some travelers, a smaller group tour that costs more but explores out-of-the-way spots is the way to go. For others, a well-priced trip via large motor coach that visits all the tourism highlights makes sense. Decide parameters, including budget, trip length, destination, style, age group, et cetera.
Know what’s included in the price before choosing, as the exclusions can wind up costing a bunch. Breakfasts, for example, are typically included, but lunches and dinners are often extra. Sightseeing tours are sometimes optional, with additional costs. Airport transfers and tips can add up. If airfare is included, price it against the going rate to ensure it’s a bargain.
Organizations such as the United States Tour Operators Association or the National Tour Association can be helpful in identifying operators. Several of the best-known companies offering a wide selection of general European tours include Collette Vacations, Cosmos, Gate 1 Travel, Globus, Great Value Vacations, Ritz Tours, SmarTours, Trafalgar and Tauck World Discovery. There are also tour operators that cater to young people, such as Contiki and G Adventures, and older folks, including Road Scholar and Grand Circle Travel. But also think in terms of your special needs and interests. University-affiliated trips, for example, can be a good value. For hobbyists, nonprofits that represent specific areas of interest are a good resource.
Q: How do I get the best airfare?
A: Getting the cheapest deal is mostly dependent on flexibility. Are you willing to take a connecting flight that might include long layovers? Is offseason travel a possibility? Can you put up with a basic economy ticket, which probably means a middle seat assigned at the airport, taking one bag that fits under the seat and brown-bagging it? Is departing from a more far-flung airport doable? Is flying midweek an option?
Many studies have been done on the best days or how far in advance to purchase tickets, but they often contradict one another. Once your dates are fairly certain, keep checking websites such as Kayak, Google Flights and Hipmunk, and apps such as Hopper and Hitlist, and book as soon as you find a good fare. And if you think the airlines may be watching — a hotly debated topic — delete those browser cookies every so often while searching.
Check the airline sites directly. Several low-cost carriers serving the Washington area offer flights to Europe, including WOW Air, which flies nonstop from BWI to Reykjavik, Iceland; Condor Airlines, nonstop from BWI to Frankfurt; Aer Lingus, nonstop from Dulles to Dublin; Turkish Airlines, nonstop from Dulles to Istanbul; and Primera Air, scheduled to start flying from Dulles to London Stansted in late August. Compare prices on discount carriers to fares on legacy carriers. But add up the extras, such as checked bags and advance seat assignments, before buying the ticket. And check cabin comfort at a site such as Seatguru.com.
Q: I want to make that trip to Europe, but I hate jet lag. Any tips?
A: If you have time and are willing to spend at least one night in London, take United Flight 122 departing Dulles at 8:30 a.m., arriving at London Heathrow at 8:55 p.m. Grab a bite to eat, stay at an airport hotel and take a flight the next day to your final destination. Even better, spend a day or two in London. This strategy consumes time, but that first day of jet-lagged sightseeing is always a blur anyway after flying all night.
Another way to mitigate jet lag is to take the latest flight possible. Let’s say Munich is the destination: Choose the flight that leaves at 10:30 p.m. instead of the one that departs five hours earlier. Eat before boarding, get a window seat, tell the flight attendant that you won’t be needing anything, put on sleep shades and a neck pillow, and crash. Again, you’ll lose some sightseeing time, as the flight arrives close to 1 p.m., but that’s 7 a.m. back home, so more in keeping with a normal schedule.
Whatever time you fly, drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol.
Q: Is cruising a good way to see Europe? And how do I choose the right cruise?
A: Cruising is a good alternative for those who want to visit multiple locations without changing lodging venues, and who are just as happy visiting smaller towns as hitting the bigger inland cities. But cruising covers a wide array, from four-person barges plying the canals of France to 5,000-passenger behemoths sailing the Mediterranean.
Ocean cruises are typically on larger ships, with itineraries that include the Western Mediterranean (typically Spain and Italy), the Easter Mediterranean (Italy, Greece, Croatia), the Baltics (Russia and Scandinavia) and the British Isles. Just about every major oceangoing line, from budget to luxury, offers European itineraries.
River cruising has spread to just about every navigable waterway in Europe. Ships are smaller and more intimate, and the route often includes stops at small towns and villages. Most river cruises are relatively expensive, but sightseeing tours and wine/drinks with dinner are usually included. The clientele is typically older and well educated.
Specialty cruises also abound throughout Europe. Hurtigruten, for example, specializes in the Norwegian coast, while Star Clippers offers clipper-ship cruises of the Mediterranean. Cruise Critic is a good resource for identifying various lines.
Q: I love exploring on my own, so driving is the only way I can imagine getting to those out-of-the-way spots in the wilds of England and Ireland. I’m worried, however, about driving on the other side of the road. Is it really all that difficult? And do I need to purchase the insurance?
A: If you’re nervous about driving on the left side of the road, rent an automatic vehicle. It will cost more than Europe’s more common manual-shift rental cars, but it will mean one less thing to think about. Pay up for the GPS system, especially if driving solo. Rent a small car, as lanes are narrow, especially in the countryside. Get familiar with the car before heading out.
Structure the trip to avoid driving in major cities. When I visit Ireland later this year, I’ll do without the rental car in Dublin, but will rent a car once I arrive via train in Cork. Try to avoid driving at night, at least initially.
Look for pedestrians on the right. The phrases “hard left” and “wide right” may serve as reminders when making turns. Pay special attention in roundabouts and when exiting parking lots. Watch YouTube videos on Americans driving in England and Ireland.
Most car-rental agreements include liability insurance, but purchase the additional collision-damage-waiver insurance in advance through either the car-rental company or as part of a third-party insurance policy. Insurance that covers theft is usually a separate policy. Check with your credit card issuer before purchasing CDW insurance: Some include this insurance when you use the card for payment. Read the fine print before purchasing any policy. At Autoeurope.com, the firm offers an informative guide to renting a car.
Q: Rail pass or individual tickets? And should I buy my train tickets before I leave, or wait till I get there?
A: Rail passes, which are good over periods of time, need to be purchased ahead of time via sites such as Eurail.com or Raileurope.com. Passes may work for those traveling across many different countries over an extended period or for people under 28. But for most travelers, point-to-point tickets make better financial sense.
Purchasing before departure may help you snag advance-purchase discounts, especially if the trip is planned. In other words, if you need to get from Vienna to Innsbruck on a specific date, buy in advance. If traveling on popular or high-speed train routes during high season, such as those from Eurostar, TGV or Thalys, buy in advance. But if spontaneity is part of the experience, it’s just as easy to buy on the day of travel for many routes.
Purchasing directly from rail operators’ websites, some of which have English translations, can be more difficult than buying through a U.S.-based, third-party booking site, but is typically cheaper. Point-to-point tickets on many routes do not include seat reservations, which cost extra; again, best purchased on popular routes.
Q: I’ve heard that no one tips in Europe. Is that true?
A: Not exactly. In a restaurant, it’s customary to leave a small tip of about 5 percent; 10 percent is considered a generous tip. Service charges are typically added to the bill, so there’s no need to add an extra 20 percent on top of that. Use cash for tips.
For hotel porters, tour guides and other service people, a euro (or two if the tour was exceptionally good) per person is sufficient.
Q: I need to stay in touch with the folks back home while I’m vacationing. What’s the best way to do that? Ideally, I would like to have access to a phone with text and voice mail that won’t cost a fortune.
A: The simplest method is to use your own phone after signing up for an international calling plan with your carrier. Verizon Wireless, for example, charges $10 a day, and only charges on days the phone is used. Basically, the plan you own goes to Europe, so if it has data limits, they will continue to apply.
Buying a European SIM card is another option if your phone is unlocked, and it may be cheaper, but it’s not all that convenient. Upon arrival, you’ll have to locate a vendor at a newsstand, cellphone storefront or kiosk. The SIM card will include a new European phone number; calls to your U.S. number will go directly to voice mail. E.U. rules mandate that SIM cards work in all E.U. countries, but if traveling outside of the E.U., you may need to purchase local cards.
Tech-savvy travelers who want to stay connected while minimizing costs can stick to using free WiFi and using apps and software such as WhatsApp, Apple’s iMessage, Google Hangouts, Skype and Viber.
To ensure that data charges don’t add up when overseas, place the phone into airplane mode when it’s not being used. Or go into settings and turn off data roaming and cellular data. Don’t forget to turn off apps running in the background.
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