First Time to Europe? 10 Travel Tips to Get You Started.
While Europe is one of the best DIY destinations even for a first time trip, it is by no means as simple as packing your bags and setting off, not for us Indians anyway. From the complexities of the Schengen visa, to reliable travel resources, maximizing your preciously saved money to the last rupee, and making the most of your trip, I’ve compiled travel tips from my personal experience and hope these will save you ‘basic research’ time on Google. Feel free to shoot me other questions you may have in the comments, and I’ll try my best to answer them.
1. Get a Schengen Visa & be smart about it.
Getting a European tourist visa is perhaps the most complicated when you hold an Indian passport, but there’s a method to the madness. If you intend to travel to two or more countries on your trip (and you should), apply for a Schengen Visa, which covers most countries in Western Europe & a few in Eastern Europe. To get a Schengen Visa, you need to show confirmed flight & hotel bookings, which is crazy because what if you pay for everything and don’t end up getting an approved visa? The best way to work around it is to book a completely refundable flight on your credit card, typically a full-fledged carrier like Lufthansa or Quantas. Similarly, book fully refundable hotels on Booking.com, the most reliable site when it comes to refunds. Soon as you get your visa, cancel your bookings and start your real research.
2. Research, research, research, then leave some things unplanned.
Everyone has a different travel style; while some like to plan to death, others like to leave it all to chance. For a trip to Europe from India, I recommend taking the middle path. Read and know enough to not burn your time at places that won’t interest you, but give yourself enough flexibility to stay longer or shorter at a place if you so choose. Below are some travel resources I swear by:
- Information on Wikitravel. Comprehensive & usually reliable travel guides.
- Inspiration on Lonely Planet. Their finesse with words can bring to life the entire globe.
- Events on What’s On When. Current & upcoming events in all major cities.
- Reviews on Travel Blogs. Travelogues that paint a realistic picture of what to expect.
- Recommendations on Twitter. There’s always someone who knows someone with a recommendation.
On my own first Euro trip, I largely had a plan for the places I wanted to cover, but a hotel booking only for Paris where I was landing. It wasn’t peak summer season and I was travelling to smaller towns & villages, so I booked a place only while leaving the previous one. That’s the only way I could stay to my heart’s content in Gargnano and cut my stay short in Paris.
3. Start early, and Google hard for value for money deals.
A good bargain is in our Indian blood, and our pockets thank us for it. While this might not be your street shopping negotiation, there are tons of great deals & bargains if you look hard and relentlessly. Start by subscribing on Facebook to the flights that fly to parts of Europe you’d like to land in, for instance Turkish Airlines & Qatar Airways for western Europe, and broaden your search with aggregators like Make My Trip & Clear Trip. With all discounts, promotional fares, special deals & contests landing in your newsfeed, thou shalt let no opportunity go.
National and regional tourism boards often have lucrative sightseeing deals on offer in major cities, while Trip Advisor lets you “watch” destinations for hotel promotions. Google to your heart’s content, go all out with your research, and only settle for the very best deals you can find. (I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you are not rich enough to want to pay a travel agent to do your research & bookings!)
If your trip is planned last minute and you don’t have enough time to wait for better deals, flight aggregators are your best bet for flight tickets, while Booking.com can find you the best bargains for accommodation. Rely on TripAdvisor reviews for the latter; I made pretty sound accommodation choices by trusting them.
An alternate way to save money is through Couch Surfing, where you stay with a local host in a city and reciprocate though offering your own house at home to travellers for free. To be honest, I haven’t tried it because the latter is not an option with my current living arrangement, and on some level, I’m not yet comfortable with the idea of not paying for my own space.
4. Stick to a budget & get a Eurail Pass.
Once you have a rough idea of the going price for your flights & hotels during your travel period, think about your budget for the entire trip. Set aside the costs for your flight, visa & rail pass, and set yourself a daily budget for the duration of your stay, that includes accommodation per night, meals and sightseeing; it’s very easy to spend a fortune in a single day if you land in Europe without a number in mind! Then think about how you’ll carry the money with you; try to exchange currency in a bigger city like Delhi where exchange rates tend to be more competitive, and consider the option of traveler’s cheques.
For most of my Euro trip, I set a budget of 50 Euros for myself, and often alternated between spending miserly in some places to credit the money for relative splurging in another. I’m not a fan of living on credit, so I took my credit card only for dire emergencies and never used it. I carried some cash with me, and since I didn’t want to bother with traveler’s cheques, I withdrew money in bulk at local ATMs in Europe.
Depending on how much time you intend to spend in Europe & the number of countries on your plan, getting a Eurail pass can lead to big savings, and the train is a great way to see the European countryside. I bought a month-long pass with 10 travel days under the youth (under 25) category, which gave me enough flexibility and saved me enough money. I found that France, on one extreme, was very strict with the seats on a train allotted to Eurail pass holders and travel had to be booked a day or 2 in advance, whereas Italy, on the other extreme, was very liberal.
5. Prep your vegetarian taste buds.
Before I left for Western Europe, I was warned several times about the astute lack of vegetarian food in the countries I was visiting. For everyone who thinks that way, I wrote about my vegetarian love affair with Europe, because even as someone not overly experimental with food, I loved everything from the breads in France to the pastas in Italy. What worked for me was knowing beforehand, the names of vegetarian ingredients in the local languages (easily found online). Italian menus for instance, are half filled with vegetarian dishes, but they do not often carry a green mark next to them or fall under an explicit ‘vegetarian’ section. Servers not well acquainted with the concept of vegetarian food might not be able to offer enough recommendations to create an impression of variety.
Before you leave, learn to say I’m vegetarian, no seafood (it’s considered vegetarian by many) in the local language, and make a physical / mental note of the names of vegetables in the most used language of the country, so you can refer to them while eating out. Your taste buds will thank you!
6. What’s in your backpack?
If you pack like my mom, you’ll probably curse yourself for having to lug around your bags on trains & buses, or worse still, while walking to the station. Europe is best seen on foot, and if you’re travelling on a budget, chances are you’ll often end up walking long distances with your luggage. Difficult as it might sound, try to limit your luggage to a single carry-on bag by planning your belongings well. Carry miniature versions of everything you can find, choose clothes that are easy to mix & match, and get rid of anything that only adds to the weight (like a hair dryer?). You can read about my self acquired wisdom on the art of packing on Women’s Web, or better still, get some inspiration from George Clooney’s An Empty Backpack speech in Up in the Air.
If I had carried anything more than a haversack on my Europe trip, I wouldn’t have survived the 3 km walk in the rain in Chamonix to our hotel, when we missed the last evening bus, and would’ve missed the train on two occasions in Italy that we made at the last minute after running up stairs and past hallways. And of course, since my backpack was always on me, there were no opportunities to lose any of my stuff!
7. See the countryside.
First Euro trips are often about seeing the maximum number of countries you can possibly squeeze in the limited number of days you have. If that floats your boat, so be it. But remember to skip the cities in some countries and escape to the countryside. Western Europe’s alpine meadows, seaside villages and lake towns are little pieces of paradise that let you indulge in slow living and experience country life. Wikitravel & Lonely Planet are good resources to find smaller towns & villages, as are local tourism offices in the cities. On my own month-long trip, I fell so hopelessly in love with the alpine countryside that I happily skipped most cities along the tourist circuit, and discovered 4 small towns in Western Europe you probably haven’t heard about.
8. Visit the local tourism board.
I’m not a big fan of seeking advise from people ‘officially’ offering it, maybe because of my many futile attempts with state tourism boards in India. I tried it first in Annecy in France, as a by the way thing, because few other locals could offer suggestions in English, and was surprised pleasantly enough to try it everywhere else. Unlike in Southeast Asia, where tourism board recommendations are very formalized, I received personal recommendations from many of the folks manning the tourism counters at train stations in various small towns. It’s how I found a delicious hand-made (nameless) pasta joint in Innsbruck and discovered the little ski resort of Seefeld.
9. Learn some phrases in the local language.
Cliche as it might sound, picking up phrases in the local language of some European countries you intend to visit can go a long way in making conversation with the locals and sometimes rescuing you. I learnt that the hard way. When I landed in France, I couldn’t even say I don’t speak French in French, and had atleast 3 instances of people coming to me and striking a conversation in French. I put on a dumb smile and nodded my head each time, with absolutely no clue of what they might be referring to. In fact, I soon realized that people in France were so much nicer to you when you tried to start a conversation in French and gradually switched to English (as my friend who spoke a little bit of French did), rather than delving head on into English (like I did, much like a cultural noob).
Luckily, I had brushed up my conversational Spanish for Italy, and I had a gala time. In one situation while leaving Cinque Terre, we needed to catch a train and our pizza order had taken a decade to show up. We didn’t have time to eat it, we couldn’t forego the precious money we had forked out for it, and we were starving. After many futile attempts in sign language at the counter of the food court, I strung together the words, pizza, mi casa (my house) to get the kind woman to give me a box to carry the pizza! So as respect for the local culture, or as a means to rescue yourself in sticky situations, pick up a few phrases in the local language. Better still, save them on your phone so you can make a quick reference every now & then.
10. Stay in touch.
If you compulsively need to keep in touch with parents / family that worry themselves sick if you don’t (like I have to), going online is the most cost-effective way. Many budget hotels throw in free wifi (deliberately look for them while booking), and if you have a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop, you can iMessage, email or Skype for free. Phone cards, while available, are often country specific and expensive to use. Pay phones are usually located outside most train stations and are convenient, though you need a fair amount of small change to call India.
Have you travelled to Europe? What other tips do you have for first timers?