I just got back from Madrid late Sunday night, but was convinced on Thursday to hop back on a plane to hang out with J, who happens to be in Germany. So I bought my tickets nine hours before departure time, packed a bag and headed to Bavaria on three hours of shuteye!
It’s possible of course because travel within Europe is deliciously easy. And after five trips to continental Europe in the past five months, I’ve also got my trip planning down to a few simple steps that make traveling painless:
1. Buy tickets early whenever possible. Whether it’s for transport to one of London’s many airports or a discount airline ticket, buying earlier helps keep costs down.
- Airport connections: Southern, which connects to Gatwick, usually has online discounts; easybus, which I use to get to Luton, can be as low as £2-3 if you book early enough.
- Discount airlines: On Easyjet, the most I’ve paid for a roundtrip (or return) ticket is about £85, while the least I’ve paid is £40. There are more discount airlines, like Ryanair, so it’s worthwhile to do some price comparisons. I’ve heard it’s worth paying a few extra pounds to fly Easyjet because the experience is better overall. But it also depends on where you’re headed, as either airline might have more coverage in a given area.
- Eurostar: Roundtrip fares on Eurostar start at about £70, but as the travel date approaches the cheap seats get bought out and prices go up to over £200.
2. Get a good guidebook. As you can tell from the photo above, I’m partial to Rick Steves‘ guidebooks. His Europe travel books have great guided neighborhood walks and museum tours, telling you what to look for and trivia that adds interesting tidbits. They’re thoroughly researched, well-written and have great insider tips for each city, such as which museums are free on which days. The book also often gets you a discount with some tourist attractions, such as the Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg, which we took advantage of. Smaller guidebooks are handier for traveling, but I’d still take Rick Steves along any day.
3. Learn the language—a few key phrases will do! Travel Linguist has spot-on YouTube videos with basic phrases for travelers. If you have more time, you can download podcasts on the iTunes store as well. I always learn “Excuse me, do you speak English?” first. Even in Paris, that famed city of linguistic snobbery, I never encountered any unfriendliness as long as I opened with that line and a smile. Usually the response would be, “Only a little,” but people would be more kindly disposed to help. Even when I was in a fromagerie speaking with someone who genuinely spoke no English, she went out of her way in trying to communicate with me, finding diagrams to illustrate which cheeses were made from sheep’s, goat’s and cow’s milk. Very sweet.
4. Download travel apps and maps. If you have a smartphone, there are great resources for travelers. Search your app store for city guides that store offline information, since you probably won’t have data while you’re traveling. My favorite has been Triposo, which has free apps for many cities with maps, recommended sights, city info and more. There are also offline dictionaries and metro maps that come in handy when you’re trying to decipher a menu or navigate a new city.
Pro tip: pre-load Google Maps on your phone for offline browsing. It’s really simple, doesn’t require data and helps a lot with navigation! While you’ve got wifi access, load up the area you want to cover in the Google Maps app. Then type “OK maps” into the search bar… and BAM. The best thing that ever happened to you, just happened. [Check out Wired for more deets.]
5. Save on accommodation with flatshares and hostels. There’s hardly a need to splurge on a four-star hotel, unless you’re looking for a luxury experience. I’ve loved all my Airbnb experiences (which I used in Berlin, Prague and Vienna). Especially if you’re traveling with a friend, the cost is usually comparable to staying at a hostel, I’d say, around $25-30 per person depending on the cost of living in the city. But the experience is much better than staying at a hostel—you have your own room, you get more of the local experience, it’s spacious and clean.
My hostel experience wasn’t bad either; it was clean, comfortable and functional. If you like meeting lots of new people it’s a great way to do it, as you’ll be staying in a room with four to eight people. If you’re looking for hostels, I usually use Hostelworld to search, and Tripadvisor for reviews.
6. Pack light. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, you can save a lot by flying Easyjet, but they’ll charge you an arm and a leg for luggage! Especially since you have to carry it across vast airport terminals and public transit connections, shed any extraneous weight. I do 4-day/3-night trips with just one backpack: one all-in-one adapter (US, UK and continental Europe all have different plugs), clothes, one baggie of toiletries, travel documents, snacks, phone, camera, rolled-up daybag. That’s pretty much it. (NB: When Easyjet says one carry-on, they mean it. No personal item; everything has to fit in one bag, including anything you might buy at duty-free.)
At first I took my netbook along, but I was able to do all my online research on my phone so I dropped that. Plus, it cuts hassle when getting through airport security. Similarly to the US, you have to take out your liquids and computers. You don’t have to take off your shoes, but if they’re going to set off the metal detector, it’s worth doing so to avoid getting a full-body-massage-patdown.
7. Print what you need. I always arrive at the airport an hour and a half prior to departure for international flights, but I’ve done this enough times that I’m realizing I really don’t need quite that much extra time for weekend trips to Europe. (This doesn’t apply to longer international flights.) Once I print my boarding pass, I don’t need to check in or check baggage, so I breeze right past all that, go straight through security and end up waiting around for 45 minutes in the terminal. If you book other things like rail tickets, performances, etc., keep them handy as they’ll save time retrieving tickets at box offices or train stations.
8. Use ATMs, not cash exchanges, to take out local currency. Cash exchange offices add a hefty surcharge for exchanging money, making it well worth it to pay a $2 ATM fee or whatever your bank charges. It’s also not a bad idea to call your bank and increase your withdrawal limit so you can take out a good chunk of change and only pay the ATM fee once. When you call, also ask if your bank has partnerships with any banks in Europe. For example, I know that Bank of America has partnerships with Barclays in the UK and BNP Paribas in France, so you won’t get any ATM charges to withdraw at either of those banks.
9. Spreadsheets are your friend. Since I’m usually traveling with friends, we set up spreadsheets in Google Docs to keep track of our expenses. This helps eliminate the hassle of having to go dutch all the time, since we can take turns covering expenses at meals or museums and balance out the difference at the end of the trip. I’ve found this to be really helpful and hassle-free, although it does just mean that one person has to keep track of the money spent and enter it in the document later.
10. Look up the things you definitely want to do, but be flexible with the rest. In other words, remember to savor the experience! Make sure you get in all the local must-see, -do, and -eat experiences, but also leave time for ambling down random streets and learning by discovery.
So, that’s how I do my trips! What works for me may not work for you, but I just wanted to share the tips that I’ve gathered along the way. Happy travels!