How to Maximize Your European Vacation

How to Maximize Your European Vacation

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When you can afford to do so, traveling to a foreign country is an amazing and rewarding experience. I’ve had the travel itch for as long as I can remember and every year, I act on it. From Australia to Estonia to Sweden to New Zealand, I’ve made it my priority to travel the world. I’m not going to go on one of those rants where I talk about how you can sell everything and move abroad, because I don’t really know how feasible that dream is, but I can tell you this: If you make travel a priority and plan really carefully, you can afford it. Here are a few tips to get you started!

Pick a location before anything else. First things first, you need to know where you’re going, and you need to know how much time you have to spend there. If you have two weeks, go ahead and pick a couple different locations, but if you’re working with one week or less, it might be more fun to stick to one country. No matter what, don’t pick too many locations. If you’re country hopping each night, you’re not going to get to embed yourself in the culture of one country or city, not to mention that it’s expensive and exhausting. When I travel to Europe, I pick one or two countries (last year was Sweden and Estonia, the year before that was Iceland). If you pick two, they should be relatively close together to make traveling between them simple and time efficient.

Check the CDC and State Department websites. Before you book anything, visit the CDC travel website to learn about vaccinations that you may need before your trip and check for health notices. The CDC may recommend that people avoid traveling to certain areas if there’s a disease outbreak or a lack of healthcare infrastructure. They will tell you what shots you need to stay healthy while you’re abroad. The Hepatitis A and B vaccines are often on the list for travelers, depending on what you’ll be doing in country. Check, too, the State Department website for any travel advisories. These inform you about the level of safety and security that exists in a foreign country. If an advisory says “Reconsider Travel” or “Do Not Travel,” listen to it and pick a different location.

Create an itinerary ahead of time. You don’t have to plan everything out to the minute, but you should do some research to get a good idea of your “must-see” sights. For example, if you went to Paris but missed the Eiffel Tower and Musée du Louvre, it would be a little unfortunate. Do some online research and start drafting a day-to-day itinerary for the time you’ll be in Europe. Make sure you leave plenty of free time to explore and visit sights that you find when you get there!

Book your flights early. Typically, the longer you wait to book your flights, the more expensive they become. Save yourself hundreds of dollars by booking your flight at least two months in advance. You may find that purchasing your ticket on a Tuesday will save you some money as well. Clear your browser cookies or use a private browsing window for the best prices. You can also try the Hopper app, which compares ticket prices and suggests when you should buy. However, I’ve found that while you might get a good price, you may also be getting the worst layovers and terrible flight times. Long layovers dig into the time you can spend in Europe, so take that into consideration when choosing a flight.

Get your documentation straight. You’re leaving the country, so you’re going to need to make sure that your passport is travel ready. Check it’s expiration date. If it’s within six months of when you’ll be traveling, you may be in trouble. No, it’s technically not expired, but foreign countries may not let you in if your passport could expire in a shorter amount of time than their tourist visas (generally three to six months). If you’re nearing your expiration date and you’ve got time, it’s safest to just renew. If you’re not nearing your expiration date just yet, make sure that you have a few blank pages for stamps when you arrive in the country. You can find each country’s requirements here.

Use a packing list. Check the average weather for your dates and destination and make sure that you bring appropriate attire. You can’t predict everything, but if you’re traveling in the winter, it’s a safe bet you’ll need a coat, and if you’re traveling in the summer, you’ll want a hat or sunblock. Of course, you can always buy extras if you didn’t pack well. When I went to Ireland, I hadn’t predicted cold rain every day and ended up buying a warm hat. It happens.

Skip the rental car. Unless you’re cruising the entire Ring Road in Iceland or doing something similar, you probably don’t need a rental car. Most big European cities have excellent public transportation, and the European train system as a whole can get you just about anywhere. If you’re set on seeing that one sight that’s outside of the city and not on the metro line, check local buses and tour companies. You may be able to get in on a group tour and skip the hassle of renting a car abroad.

Book accommodations in the city center. If you’re traveling to a city, do yourself a favor and stay in the city. You may pay a bit of a premium, but you’ll be close to everything, so you’ll save a boatload of money on taxis and transportation. Plus, if you really want to experience a city, you need to immerse yourself in it. What better way than “living” there?

Prebook your must-see items. For things like the Eiffel Tour in Paris and the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, it makes sense to book your tickets ahead of time. For local museums or outdoor experiences, though, it may not be necessary. You don’t want to lock yourself into such a tight schedule that there’s no room for error, so only book the famous “must-see” sights ahead of time.

Call your bank. If you’re going to use your credit or debit card abroad and don’t want your bank to mark it as fraud, call them ahead of time and let them know when and where you’ll be traveling. It’s much easier to make a phone call (and at some banks you can even set travel notifications online) than it is to deal with the aftermath of your card(s) being denied.

Know the exchange rate and use an ATM. Traveling involves a lot of math, but it’s important to do if you want to keep an eye on how much you’re spending. Know the exchange rate between the dollar and the currency of the country you’re visiting. (Most of Europe uses the Euro, but you’ll find that Iceland, Denmark, and Norway, among others, use a different form of currency.) You may be tempted to visit the currency exchange center in the airport when you first arrive, but you’ll likely get better rates taking cash out at an ATM. Watch out for ATM and foreign transaction fees, though.

Tell someone when and where you’re going. There was at least one time when my partner and I went to the airport to fly abroad and realized that we’d forgotten to tell his family when we were leaving. Do not follow my example! Send your parents or friends your itinerary so that someone at home knows where you are and where you’ll be staying while you’re away. In case anything happens, you’re going to want that information in the hands of someone trustworthy. You can also enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program through the State Department, which registers your travel with the nearest embassy or consulate.

Do as the locals do. The best way to experience a foreign country? Do as the locals do. Yes, you’ll want to see the sights and visit some of the tourist destinations, but when it comes shopping? Skip the stores that you can visit at your local mall and try to find authentic souvenirs. And eating meals? Skip the Hard Rock Cafe and go somewhere local. Try foods that you can’t get at home. Sip on the national liquor (if you’re 21+). My final tip is all about the food: Sign up for a walking food tour of the city you’re visiting. You’ll try local food, see important sites, and be guided around by someone who lives there. It’s the best of all worlds.

What’s on your travel bucket list?

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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