Heading to Europe for the First Time? Here's What You Need to Know.

Oooh Europe.  The thought of it elicits thoughts of cobblestone-d alleys, towering medieval architecture and, let’s face it… the frothiest of beers.  If you are thinking of dipping your toes into Europe for the first time ever, first let us all congratulate you on this wondrous decision.

Yes, really.  Way to go, you!  

Traveling to Europe is a fantastic idea, but you know that already.  We don’t need a list of all of the things to see and do in Europe, because you know about all of that already too.

Here then, are some handy tips for how to handle some of the nitty-gritty daily happenings in Europe, like:

Do you tip?  Can you wear flip-flops?  Do you stay silent if you don’t know how to ask for something in Polish?

Right.  Ready?

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Make Your Reservations In Advance

Especially true if you plan on traveling in Europe during peak summer season, making your reservations in advance is a must.

How far in advance should you book?

For flights and accommodations, plan on booking 4-5 months ahead of time at least.  If you are super picky about where you stay and only want to stay in the fanciest of hotels, think about booking 7-9 months out.  

To book a hotel room for an April Surprise Honeymoon for example, I made sure to book in October!  Why?  

This hotel is rated the #1 romantic hotel in the city, is nutty gorgeous, and has plenty of amenities perfect for honeymooners (think: solo guitarist in the be-flowered lobby every evening).  To make sure I could book a room there for my clients, I found out when they would be accepting reservations, marked that date on my calendar, and booked.

If you want the same for yourself (and why not, really?) then make sure you book early.

For tours and other activities, watch the booking calendar that they have available on their websites.  For extremely popular tours, it may be worth booking well in advance.  For others, especially those that take place outdoors, I prefer to book when I can more accurately predict the weather.

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Pack Using Only a Carry-On

No matter how long your trip, you can fit everything you need into a carry-on.

Yes, really!  With all of the wicking fabrics, comfy shoes that are also super cute,  layering options and packable laundry detergent, there is absolutely no reason to lug a clunker suitcase around behind you.  

(Remember those cobblestones I mentioned?  They hate huge suitcases.)  

If you need help in this arena... say, with a super-amazing carry-on packing list, pop on down to my newsletter sign-up box and I’ll send one your way for signing up!

Watch What the Locals Do & Be Respectful

Europe is chock-full of insanely beautiful historic and religious sites.  For you, this site might just be another interesting spot to check off your must-see list.

For a local, this site might be where their child got married, where they buried their husband, or where a significant, emotionally-charged historical event took place.  

Think about those places in the US… the Alamo, the Lincoln Memorial, the Twin Towers Memorial.  How would you want international visitors dressing, acting, and speaking at those places?

If you are totally unsure of how to dress and act at a specific spot, this is okay!  All you need to do is hang about a bit and watch what the locals are doing.  

Are they taking off their shoes before they enter?  

Are they covering their shoulders?  Covering their heads?  Uncovering their heads?

Are they speaking in hushed tones, or not speaking at all?

Are they taking pictures?  

Just follow along with what you see the locals doing, and you’ll be fine.  And if you’d really like to take a picture but aren’t sure if you should, ask!  In many historical sites and churches in Europe you’ll see guards and signs.  Both are used to instructing visitors as to the do's and don'ts.

Tipping

Oh, ye generous Americans!  In the US, our gracious servers do not get paid a living wage (college-aged me is rolling her eyes) and so it is up to us to leave them the requisite (and often very deserved) 20-25%.

However, in Europe it is not the case that someone would be expected to work for free, and so the servers there are receiving a paycheck.  Imagine!

Though it is always wise to bone up on the tipping tips for your specific destination, as a rule, Europeans just expect you to round up to the nearest Euro if in the EU, or to leave a few extra coins if not.

Also, try to hand this directly to the server instead of leaving it on the table.  

Some other tips for restaurant etiquette:

  • Because the servers are getting paid by their employer, they usually do not have the same “turn and burn” mentality that our domestic servers have to live by to pay their bills.  Thus, you are invited to sit exactly where you are for as long as you wish!  
  • When you are ready for the bill, you’ll need to ask for it.  Servers will leave you alone (out of respect for your evening) until you are ready to move on.
  • Try something new!  If you don’t know what something is, and you don’t have any food allergies or aversions, order it!  At the very least you’ll have a fantastic story to tell.  
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Take Advantage of the Free Walking Tours

Free Walking Tours are the absolute BEST.  They are always a part of the recommended activities in the Whisked Away Surprise Travel itineraries because there is no better way to get to know your surprise destination in the first day or two than by getting a free tour with a local! 

Also, these tours are set up to be of excellent quality because they rely completely on tips.  You tip your guide (who just spent three hours of their Saturday dropping their knowledge on you) just as much as you think the tour was worth.  Then, if you super love the free tour, they have other paid tours you can take advantage of!

Pro-tip:  These paid tours are often so reasonably-priced and fantastic that you’ll feel like you just got another free tour.

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Here are the other things that are awesome about free tours:

  • They often include a lunch or drink break, so you can take a moment to rest your tootsies and meet other travelers.  This is especially awesome for solo travelers.
  • You have a knowledgeable local on hand to answer any questions you might have.  This is awesome for restaurant & bar recommendations that you may not find in a guidebook, or insider tips on how best to use the ATM (do I request local currency or no?) and what spots to avoid.
  • If you go the morning of your first full day (which you should) you can quickly get over your jet lag, get the blood pumping again and start to develop a plan for the spots you saw on your tour that you’d like to return to and explore more fully.

What To Do If You Only Speak English

Ok, friend.  Don’t get down on yourself if “hola” is the extent of your Spanish and your French "thank you" sounds more like “mercy!” than "merci."  You can still travel across Europe with relative ease and be sure that you’ll be understood.

But let me say this:  not speaking a second language fluently vs. not taking some time before your trip to learn some basic words and phrases are two totally different things.

The former is understandable, the latter is a twitch disrespectful.  There are so many quick phrase guidebooks, apps and other resources available now, it is totally expected and doable that you’ll seek one out and bring it with you on your trip.  (Psst!  Whisked Away includes a quick phrase/important words guide in each surprise envelope!)

Now, yes.  Most people you encounter will know MUCH more English than you know Czech.  This should not, however, be a reason that you don’t at least try.  Learn how to say hello, please and thank you.  Being polite will get you everywhere.

Another note on not knowing the language:  I have seen travelers cower in fear when it comes to this issue, resulting in them not speaking at all.  I beg of you, do not do this!  It is natural to feel a bit sheepish when asking (politely!) if someone speaks English but don’t let your discomfort keep you from meeting new people.

Because really... isn’t that kind of the whole point?

Do you have any other Euro-tips for our first-time travelers?  Drop some knowledge on us in the comments below. 

(Yes, really!)