6 Key Tips for Traveling through Europe
I’ve just returned from an epic family gallivant around Europe - a quest to experience 9 countries in 14 days. It was nonstop, drink-from-a-firehose, see-it-all-now-and-sleep-next-month magic, starting with a family wedding and ending with a triathlon in which my hubby was racing.
Along the way, I learned some useful tips about traveling to and within Europe, and what to expect - and prepare for - from a practical standpoint. Much of this post will pertain to traveling by car, but if you're touring by train, most of these tips will help you, too! So, if you’re headed to the land of castles and cathedrals, here are a few pointers to help you make the most of it:
1. Creativity = money in your pocket
Flying 5 adults round-trip to Europe during the summer high season can be exorbitant. So, we had to get a little creative. One of the best deals out there for Europe-bound Americans is the raspberry-pink budget air carrier out of Iceland: Wow Airlines.
This is how the five of us went, and our round-trip cost per person was less than $600 from Baltimore to Copenhagen, with a brief stop in Reykjavik. Even if WOW doesn’t fly to your destination city in Europe, you can catch a connecting flight on one of the many domestic European airlines, and save a lot of money.
That's what we did: Baltimore to Copenhagen on WOW, then we transferred to Scandinavian Airlines for the second leg to our destination: Rome. This was much cheaper than flying direct from the US to Rome, and it only added a few hours to the front end of our trip. WOW flies out of 12 US cities and connects to multiple European destinations through Reykjavik.
WOW has a great safety record, and while it’s not plush, you can schedule your WOW connecting flight so that you have a few hours layover in Reykjavik. You can spend this time soaking in the volcano-heated mineral baths of the Blue Lagoon, just a short bus ride from the Reykjavik airport. Very civilized!
2. Take a Picture Of Your Luggage!
When we arrived at the Rome airport, everyone's luggage was waiting for us...except mine. The lost and found service at Leonardo da Vinci airport is chaotic and, I'm sorry to say, their computer tracking system is about as ancient as Leonardo himself! When I reported my lost bag to the agent, she couldn't find the tracking number in her 1990's computer system ...she literally gave me a sad smile and a shrug.
The agent told me to come back the next day, to see if my bag might show up on a later flight. She then had me fill out a cursory report with pictures of about 10 types of suitcases, and told me to select the one that most 'resembled' my missing bag. (large, gray, soft sided with wheels... yawn...) From now on, I'm taking a picture of my luggage before I check it for international flights. That way, I'll have a clear visual record of what's missing and can pull it up on my phone if this happens again. And, it will pre-empt language barriers between me and the local lost-and-found agent. I highly recommend that you do the same!
Happy ending - my bag did show up on the next day's flight so I didn't have to show up at the wedding in my hotel bathrobe!
We chose to drive during our 2 weeks in Europe, rather than get a rail pass. Trains are a great way to see Europe, but the decision to go by car really came down to the ambitious itinerary we'd set for ourselves, and the fact that we didn’t want our trip to be constrained by train schedules. So, we drove from the Amalfi Coast, through the Swiss Alps, Leichtenstein, Austria and Germany with a pit stop in Slovenia, and then on to Venice. We turned in our car keys in Venice and flew back to Denmark, where we drove some more, including a quickie side trip to Sweden...(our girls like collecting passport stamps!)
Driving in Europe really isn’t impossible, but it isn’t easy, either. Particularly on the Amalfi Coast and in Rome, it mostly takes steady nerves! The cliffside roads of the Italian coast are insanely narrow with lots of switchbacks and traffic – everything from mopeds to tour buses, to the occasional cart-and-donkey. So, getting around takes time and a spirit of adventure. Once you get onto the main highways, though, it’s pretty efficient. People drive fast, but we didn’t see a single accident in 2 weeks.
It is worth noting that, in cities like Rome and Florence, street names are frequently engraved or painted on the side of buildings at intersections, rather than on standalone street signs. So, it can get confusing! Fortunately, rental cars (and your phone) have navigation apps, which made all the difference for us! How did people read maps and find their way around, before all-seeing Google came along...?
Speaking of car rentals...
3. Buy the Extra Insurance
It will give you peace of mind. I don't usually purchase this for domestic car rentals, but the driving conditions in Italy are dicey enough that it's worth the investment. The streets, parking spaces and public decks are tight, and we did get a small scratch on our car when extracting it from a "bodycon" parking deck space (rental cars in Italy should come with Spanx!) so the extra insurance was worth it. Which brings me to my next tip...
4. Dream Big, but Plan Small
Rent a car that's as small as you think you can comfortably fit your passengers and bags in. Trust me on this. We cheered when we got a free upgrade in Rome because we had 5 people and 3 big bags to squeeze in. Then we hit the narrow, twisting roads of Amalfi and felt like we'd been punked. Yikes! Smaller is better, and nimble is the name of the game. Keep this in mind when packing, too. We did okay with our packing efficiency, but could've done even better. One thing that can help is to pack your clothes in those plastic bags that you can suction the air out of with a vacuum cleaner. It definitely makes things more compact - (until you open the bag to wear the clothes, and everything blows up like the StayPuff Marshmallow Man!) But if you are traveling by car and staying at Air BnB's with access to a vacuum cleaner, you can re-suction things back down to manageable size before your flight home. This is what we did. And, in our case, we were attending a black tie wedding in Ravello, Italy, AND David was competing in an open-water triathlon in Denmark, so we had to squeeeeeeeeze a gown, a tux and a wetsuit into our luggage (the hubby said he felt like we were packing for a James Bond movie - LOL!)
In spite of this, the choice to get around by car was right for us, David did 90% of the driving and Google and I did the navigating (ok, Google did the navigating and I cheered her on, while eyeing great spots to pull over and take Instagram photos...we each have our role.) Despite the precarious diving conditions on the Amalfi Coast, this allowed us the freedom to explore far more than would have been possible if we'd been tied to a train schedule. Plus, we had a place to stash our stuff while we explored the many places we visited. In Rome, we were cautioned by our Air BnB host not to leave anything in the car, and we took that to heart. But everywhere else, we felt that our locked car and luggage were pretty safe.
5. Accommodations: Expect the Unexpected
My advice here is to pack light, bring quick-dry clothes... and just be flexible. For our trip through Europe, we divided our time pretty evenly between Air BnB's and small hotels. Most of our time in Italy, the AC was minimal and sporadic. We traveled in July, so it was HOT, and the lack of consistent air conditioning was a bit surprising. It also turns out that while hotels and Air BnB's may state that they have on-site laundry facilities, in Europe, this typically means a washer, but no dryer. We got pretty creative hanging our clothes to dry around the apartments we stayed in! It's worth packing a portable clothes line and even better, bringing clothes made of quick-dry fabrics like bamboo viscose and polyester (which also resists wrinkles.) Katie also brought a little portable fan that plugged into her phone charger, and that was a lifesaver on those especially hot and sultry nights when a little air movement made it possible to get a good night's sleep in the absence of reliable air conditioning. You can find all sorts of these on Amazon for less than $20.
6. Making Purchases - Have Cash & a Conversion App Handy
Surprisingly (to us), a lot of places in Italy, southern Germany and Austria did not accept credit cards. This was true even in restaurants and souvenir shops in the heart of popular tourist areas, so always have some Euros on hand to help avoid high ATM international fees.
Also, keep in mind that countries like Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Denmark have their own official currencies (Swiss Franc in the 1st two, and the Krone in Denmark). So, while some businesses may accept Euros, they are not legally required to do so, and you'll likely get change back in the local currency, possibly at a less-than-ideal exchange rate. A currency conversion app is a handy tool to have on your phone. Two popular currency conversion services are my currency converter and OFX - you can find many others in the App store on your phone.
There you go: 6 things I learned that I hope will help you, too! I have lots of itineraries and location-specific ideas and tips for the cities we visited along the way, but I'll write about these as separate posts, to make it easier to find content relevant to your own plans. And, I'd love to hear any tips or discoveries you want to share about Europe, too...because I plan to go back, just as soon as I can!
For now...here's to happy travels and big adventures for us all!