“Europe” is a big place; an entire continent made up of 50 different countries, each with their own languages, cultures, and history. So to say that many people dream of traveling to “Europe” is vague – but it’s also true!
The ubiquitous “Euro Trip,” or the “dream trip” to Italy or France or Ireland is a very real thing, especially for the many Americans who can trace their ancestry to different parts of Europe.
I haven’t yet traveled to every country in Europe, but I have been to more than 30 countries across the continent. So I feel like I’m qualified to share some general Europe travel tips with you to help ensure your first trip to Europe – no matter which country you go to – is memorable (in a good way)!
Note: Yes, I’m aware that experiences can vary from person to person and from country to country; the experience of visiting Bulgaria may not be the same as visiting Norway, which won’t be the same as visiting Spain. Obviously this is true! But these tips are broadly applicable to most countries in Europe, in my experience.
DOs and DON’Ts for a Europe trip
I myself have visited 30+ countries in Europe, and have spent cumulative months there over the years! Here are my top tips/things to know for planning a big, bucket list trip to Europe.
1. DON’T stress about language barriers
One of the most frequent questions I get from readers about traveling to basically any country that’s not English-speaking is: did you have a hard time communicating?
In some parts of the world, language barriers do still exist. I’ve used my fair share of pantomiming all around the world, before Google Translate became so easy to use.
In Europe, though, you don’t need to stress out about potential language barriers. The vast majority of Europeans speak excellent English, especially in bigger cities. And in smaller cities or more off-the-beaten path regions where English isn’t as common, you’ll still find that most people who work in tourism speak enough English to get by.
It’s always nice to learn a few basic polite phrases (like “hello” and “thank you”) in a local language, but if you walk up to the average person in Germany or France trying to stumble through German or French, it’s likely they’ll just automatically start speaking to you in English. (And don’t believe everything you hear about French people being standoffish; be sure to greet them with a “Bonjour!,” and they won’t hold it against you too much when you switch to English.)
If you’re at all stressed about a language barrier, have the native language of the country you’re traveling to loaded up in your Google Translate app. You can take a photo of a menu or road sign and have it instantly translated, or you can even record yourself (or someone else) speaking a phrase and have it translated in real time. Newer versions of Apple’s iOS even have built-in text translation through the iPhone Camera app.
(The only instances I’ve encountered in recent years where someone I was interacting with didn’t speak ANY English usually revolved around taxi drivers. And in those cases, you can usually just show them the address of where you want to go; no talking needed.)
2. DON’T wait too long to book flights and hotels
The bad news about the increase in travel demand for certain places in Europe is that there’s not really a “low season” in many popular European travel destinations these days. Want to wing it in Paris? Visit Rome without crowds? Good luck.
Unless you’re going somewhere fairly off-the-beaten path, you won’t want to leave your flight until the last minute, and you will want to pre-book your accommodation well in advance.
There’s no magic window for flights, but definitely book more than 2 months in advance. And if you’re traveling somewhere during high season or around a special event, you’ll want to book hotels as soon as you know your travel plans (book ones with free cancelation if this makes you nervous!).
I’ve made the mistake of waiting to long to book hotels many times before, and it just makes everything more stressful. (For example… planning an Iceland road trip during the summer months? Because there aren’t a ton of large hotels outside of Reykjavik, a lot of hotels and guesthouses book up MONTHS in advance!)
3. DO book attractions/restaurants in advance
Speaking of booking things in advance, this applies to day tours, museum tickets, and even restaurants in popular destinations. Many museums switched over to pre-booked, timed entry during COVID, and never went back to the old system of long ticket lines for overcrowded museums/attractions.
If there are certain things you KNOW you want to do on your trip, book tickets ahead of time. This goes for tours (I recommend GetYourGuide in Europe for day tours and walking tours) and lots of museum/attraction entries.
Some of these (like museum entry) you can leave until a day or two before your trip. But popular tours (like maybe a tour of the Vatican, or a day trip to Versailles) should be booked further out. (And if you want to go to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland? Better book that one a month ahead if you can!)
Pro tip: If you need a tool to help you keep track of all these bookings you’re making, I swear by the TripIt app for organizing all my travel plans!
And in some cities, making restaurant reservations in advance is also highly recommended. (In Paris, for example, it’s pretty much required if you want to dine at a sit-down restaurant for dinner. Use TheFork app to make bookings easy!)
4. DON’T eat near big tourist attractions
When it comes to restaurants, you’ve probably already heard this tip before: avoid restaurants directly next to big tourist attractions.
This means skip the restaurants around St. Mark’s Square in Venice; spots immediately near the Eiffel Tower in Paris; the restaurants surrounding Praça do Comércio in Lisbon and along La Rambla in Barcelona; and so on.
Restaurants in the most touristy areas of any city are going to be geared towards tourists. They won’t have great (or authentic) food, the prices will be higher, and service might be lacking. Skip these spots, and instead head one or two streets over from the tourist attraction for much better food options.
5. DON’T be surprised by restaurant differences
The restaurant experience in Europe is NOT the same as what you find in, say, the United States. In the US, servers rely on tips for their wages, and service is very hands-on. You also get a lot of free things at US restaurants that you won’t find in Europe!
Here are a few things you’ll find throughout Europe at restaurants that might be surprising:
- Water isn’t always free – When you go to a restaurant in Europe, you may be asked whether you prefer still or sparkling water. If you choose one of these, you’ll usually be brought a bottle of water and then charged for it on your bill. If you want *free* water, you’ll need to ask for tap water (which, yes, is safe to drink throughout Europe).
- Refills are not a thing – If you order a soda or other drink off a menu in Europe, you’ll likely be brought a bottle of said drink. Fountain drinks are not a thing in restaurants, and therefore free refills won’t be offered. If you want more Coke, you’ll have to pay for another one. (Also, things like iced tea and lemonade are not common in Europe.)
- Don’t expect ice – Ice in drinks? Not really a thing in Europe. They also tend to serve beer at room temperature, which I know my beer-loving friends often complain about.
- Servers may not check on you – Servers in Europe generally make a living wage, and tipping is not relied upon (or even expected, in some countries) the way it is in the US. Some say this makes servers in Europe less attentive, but I think it’s just a cultural thing. Your server may not check on you at all after your meal has been delivered.
- You’ll have to ask for the check – No one will try to hurry you along at most restaurants in Europe. Meals are supposed to take a while in places like France and Greece and Spain. So when you’re ready to go, you’ll likely need to flag down your server and ask for the check. (And then if you’re paying with a card, they’ll bring the machine right to your table.)
Dining out in Europe is a different experience. It’s usually not rushed (some will say service is slow, actually), and you won’t feel like you’re being sold to or pressured to leave a big tip.
6. DO be aware of pickpockets
The biggest risk in traveling to Europe for most tourists is the threat of petty crime – usually theft via pickpocketing.
Crowded trains and areas around famous tourist attractions are often where the vast majority of pickpocketing happens, but there are also common scams to be aware of in certain cities (like people with clipboards in Paris, or men handing you flowers at the Trevi fountain) where theft is the end goal.
Be aware of your surroundings, don’t keep your wallet in a back pocket, and read up on common scams in the city/cities you plan to visit so you know what you look out for.
I also am a big fan of theft-proof purses and backpacks (I’m a Pacsafe fangirl through and through!), which can help give you some extra peace of mind. (This anti-theft purse and this theft-proof backpack are good buys.)
7. DON’T carry too much cash
The best way to avoid being robbed is to not be carrying flashy valuables or too much cash when you’re out and about. No one can steal what you don’t have on you. (You also don’t need to carry your passport around in Europe!)
But more than this, many countries in Europe (and especially in western Europe and Scandinavia) have moved to an almost cashless society. You can use contactless payment on the Tube in London, and many places I recently visited in Iceland, Norway, and Finland specifically said “no cash” or “credit/contactless only” when you went to pay for something.
Having a little cash on you might be useful if you want to buy a soda or handmade souvenir, but in most cases, plastic (credit cards) is king throughout much of Europe*.
*This isn’t universal in Europe yet, though, so you’ll still want to do some homework before your trip. In smaller towns in Slovenia last summer, for example, cash was still preferred!
8. DON’T get caught out on credit card fees
Speaking of contactless payments and credit cards, though, don’t get caught out with foreign transaction fees!
Two major credit card tips to keep in mind:
- Use the right credit card – If you don’t already have a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees, consider getting one if your credit and spending habits allow. Then you won’t have any surprise currency conversion charges when you get home. (Bonus if you get a travel card that earns you extra points on travel expenses! I like the Chase Sapphire cards for travel.)
- Never convert the price when you pay – For some transactions in Europe, you’ll be asked whether you want to pay in US dollars (or your home currency) or the local currency (often Euros in Europe). Do NOT select the “pay in USD” option. Always pay in the local currency with your card that doesn’t have transaction fees. The other option will always cost you more.
And if you do need cash for your trip, avoid using the currency exchange counters at the airport. They always give you the worst possible exchange rate.
Instead, you can take your cash to a local bank to exchange, or you can travel with a debit card and use an ATM just like you would at home (just be sure to alert your bank that you’ll be traveling ahead of time). You likely will get charged a transaction fee when using a debit card, though, so be sure to get out the cash you think you’ll need all at once.
9. DO try to use public transport
Unlike in many US cities, cities throughout Europe have really robust public transport options. There’s no need for a car in cities like London or Paris or Rome or Dublin or Berlin or Oslo or Budapest or Madrid, and taking a metro or tram or bus will usually be cheaper and faster than taking a taxi/Uber.
Plus, public transit is so much better for the environment when compared to using a car!
I realize that public transport can be daunting if it’s not something you use at home. But cities throughout Europe offer smartphone apps and contactless payment options to make it easier, and you can always consult Google Maps for really detailed instructions on how to get from Point A to Point B using public transit.
Try it at least once – you may find it a lot less confusing than it initially seems!
(And if you’re traveling somewhere like Sweden, the Stockholm metro stations are a tourist attraction in and of themselves!)
10. DON’T choose fashion over function
Let’s change the subject and talk about what to wear in Europe!
You may have heard that people in Europe are much more fashionable than they are in, say, the United States. And in some ways this is absolutely true – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone shopping in sweats or pajama pants in big cities in Europe, for example.
But this doesn’t mean that you should choose fashion over function when packing for your trip.
You’re going to “look like a tourist” no matter what you wear, simply because you ARE a tourist and will likely be doing touristy things. So who cares what you’re wearing?
Pack things you’ll be comfortable wearing all day while out sightseeing. Check the weather forecast before your trip. And DON’T skip out on comfortable shoes! (On this front, it’s at least nice that sneakers are in fashion in Europe at the moment, so you won’t even feel out of place!)
11. DO prepare to do a ton of walking
Since you’ll be sightseeing a bunch and perhaps using public transit, you likely will be on your feet a lot in Europe. Comfortable shoes are a MUST. (I’m not joking; walking 20,000+ steps a day in a European city is totally normal!)
The “best” shoe for Europe is subjective – just make sure you bring ones that are comfortable for you!
Pro tip: If you’re buying new shoes specifically for a trip to Europe, be sure to test them out/break them in at home well before you travel. Nobody likes surprise blisters on vacation!
12. DO try to pack light
Keep in mind that cities in Europe are old. You’re going to encounter cobblestones and stairs and sometimes buildings and attractions that don’t excel in accessibility simply because of when they were built.
Because of this, if you need to be moving your luggage on your own a lot, you’re going to want to try to pack light.
Taking suitcases on trains, rolling them over cobbled streets, and dragging them up hotel stairwells (elevators are not a given in old buildings!) are just a couple reasons smaller bags are better in Europe. (Also, cars are smaller in Europe, so if you’re planning any sort of road trip, huge suitcases will fill up a trunk very quickly.)
Unless you need special outfits for different occasions during your trip, don’t pack more than you actually need. Learn to perfect the capsule wardrobe (i.e. one where you can mix and match things), and remember that you can re-wear outfits without anyone knowing.
You can also do laundry along the way if you really need to! (I personally always pack some detergent for quick sink washes.)
13. DON’T expect to pee for free
I already mentioned not getting water or drink refills for free – but you also shouldn’t expect to pee for free in public in Europe!
Inside a restaurant or museum you can expect access to a toilet for free. But public restrooms (like ones at a train station, or near a tourist attraction) in many European countries charge a small fee to use them. The good news is that paid restrooms* are usually cleaner and better stocked than public restrooms in, say, the US.
The fee is usually less than 1 Euro, and can usually be paid using coins – though I’ve seen contactless payment options cropping up in the last couple years, too.
*Note that the word “restroom” is not used in Europe. “Toilet” is universally understood, though, and signs that say “WC” (short for “water closet”) also denote a restroom.
14. DO get an eSIM
Wifi is pretty widely available across Europe these days in places like hotels and cafes. In some countries, you’ll also find free wifi in museums, on buses, and even in public places like parks.
Many US mobile companies (like Verizon and AT&T) offer “international plans,” too, usually costing around $10 per day for a set amount of data usage.
But if you don’t want to rely on free wifi zones or pay $10 a day for data, getting a country- or region-specific eSIM for your phone is another good option. Most newer cell phones can use eSIM cards, which are virtual SIM “cards” that allow you to connect to a local mobile network while you travel.
I have used Airalo in several European countries, and find their eSIMs very easy to install and use. You choose the amount of data you want to pay for, which means you have more control over how much you spend. If you won’t use your phone off wifi very much, you could potentially spend less than $10 on data for your whole trip!
15. DON’T forget your travel adapters
Europe uses different wall plugs and electric voltage than North America does.
First, you’ll need an adapter for the wall outlets for your chargers. Mainland Europe uses a different wall plug than the Ireland and the UK, too, so keep that in mind if you’re visiting someplace like London or Dublin and also a city on the continent.
I usually travel with a universal adapter like this one, but you can also find region-specific ones that take up less space, too.
You don’t need to worry about traveling with a voltage converter these days for your average electronics (like cell phones, cameras, laptops, Kindles, etc.), as most chargers can handle multiple voltages. But if you’re traveling with any tools that conduct heat (like hair dryers, curling irons, etc.), then you DO need to pay attention to the voltage – I recommend purchasing a dual-voltage version of your favorite tool to take on a trip.
16. DO manage your expectations
A trend on TikTok this past summer consisted of people traveling to social media-famous places in Europe (like Positano) and sharing “Instagram vs. Reality” videos, suggesting they’d been duped into believing these tourist hotspots weren’t really as crowded as they are.
Newsflash: The popular places in Europe are popular for a reason, and if you travel to them during the high season, chances are they ARE going to be crowded!
If you’re going to a really popular place that’s also quite small (like Positano or the Cinque Terre in Italy, or Santorini in Greece, or Dubrovnik in Croatia), you definitely won’t be the only one who had the thought to go there. So just try to manage those expectations a little bit when traveling to the popular spots in Europe.
17. DO get off the tourist trail
I’m not saying you should skip the most popular spots in Europe. Go see the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Amsterdam and the London Eye and the Colosseum in Rome. I am all for being a full-on tourist, and love seeing all the famous sites for myself!
But allow some time to get off the usual tourist trail, too. This could be as simple as visiting a quieter neighborhood in a major city, or as involved as visiting smaller, more under-the-radar cities and towns – or full countries! (Don’t sleep on cities like Helsinki, Porto, and Ljubljana, folks!)
18. DON’T just visit in summer
I know “spending the summer in Europe” has become such a cliche in the travel influencing space, but you don’t HAVE to go to Europe in the summer! In fact, some of my absolute favorite trips have been in any season BUT the summer!
I love visiting places like Ireland and the Scotland in spring and autumn; Greek Island hopping was far more laid-back in October; and winter in Norway is magical. (Also… Christmas markets, people!!)
Unless school/work schedules dictate that you *have* to travel from late June-August, I would actually recommend completely avoiding those months in most of Europe.
This is of course not an exhaustive list of Europe travel tips, but it’s a good start to ensure that you’re prepared for an epic trip to Europe.
If you want to read more about my own trips to Europe, head over to my Destinations page, where you can find a full list of all the countries I’ve visited.
What questions have YOU had in the past about traveling to Europe? If you’ve been already, what are some things that surprised you?