Our Best European Travel Tips: Lessons Learned While Traveling

Our Best European Travel Tips + Lessons Learned While Traveling

Every time we travel, we learn a few lessons along the way making notes for the next time we head overseas.  Whether it’s items we want to make sure we bring along, how we toured, or what we would do differently, travel is a constantly evolving process!

As frequent travelers, we have some tips to pass along to make travel as smooth as possible.  After all with time, effort, and money put into travel one needs to enjoy the trip as much as possible.  Whether it’s your first time or tenth time to Europe, we hope you find these tips useful.  While this information may pertain to other continents as well, our experience lies with traveling to Europe for the time being, so that is how we approach this guide.

Passports & Visas

PASSPORTS

The number one most important thing to look into, of course, is making sure your passports are up to date.  At the time of this writing in 2023, passports are taking approximately 10-13 weeks for general applications/renewals and 7-9 weeks (plus an additional $60 fee) for expedited.  For the most up to date information, check out the U.S. State Department website at:

https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports.html 

The State Department website also shares all the documents you need to get your passport, payment information, and the need for a passport photo.  We renew our passports at our local post office.  Applying for our passports here includes passport photo services for an additional fee.  It is worth it for us to apply and get our photos taken all at one location.  Check out the USPS website for information on passport applications:

https://www.usps.com/international/passports.htm

Children’s passports are valid for 5 years while adult passports are generally valid for 10 years.  Passport renewals for 16 & 17 year olds are slightly different than for children and adults.  For the most up-to-date information  visit the U.S. State Department website:

https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports.html

An important thing to note is that many countries require passports are valid 3-6 months beyond travel dates.  For example, if you are traveling in June of 2023 your passport may need to be valid through December of 2023.  If you have a trip planned within six months of expiry date, you may want to consider renewing your passports early, taking into account the current turn around time.

I make a point of checking our passport expiration dates in January of every year.

VISAS

The need for a visa differs from country to country.  Currently, US Citizens do not need a visa to travel to Europe but that is changing in 2024.  US Citizens will need to register with the ETIAS system ahead of time in order to attain visa free entry. 

NOTE:  Only US Citizens entering European countries part of the Schengen Area as well a few other countries (a total of 60 countries as of 2023) will need to register on ETIAS. This is not a visa but rather a travel authorization for visa-free travel. Once granted, your travel authorization will be valid for three years or until your passport expires, whichever comes first.

WHAT IS A SCHENGEN COUNTRY?  In a nutshell, it is a free travel area located in Europe.  Not every European Union country is part of the Schengen Area and not every country in the European Union is a Schengen country…whew!  For the most up-to-date list of countries that are a part of the Schengen Area, check out the website:

https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/schengen-visa-countries-list/

Once you enter a country part of the Schengen area you can travel freely to other Schengen countries.  So, if you are in Spain and you want to hop the border to France, you can do so because you entered Spain and had your documents checked there.  

Always check visa requirements of the country you are traveling to and familiarize yourself with the process.  

How to Pay – Cash or Credit?

Your best option for paying in Europe is a credit card with no foreign transaction fee.  You will most likely be using your credit card for payment for most transactions and foreign transactions fees can be high.  

When completing a transaction with your credit card, always select the currency to be in that of the visiting country.  So when checking out, always select the “Euros” option, not “USD” on the credit card machine.  There is a fee to convert to USD and businesses can take a cut as well.  If you need to know your total in your home country’s currency, convert it on your own afterwards.

Lastly, if you want cash in the country you will be visiting, withdraw it from the ATM once you arrive.  If you convert cash at a changing bureau you will be subject to conversion fees and will not necessarily get the best rate.  Withdrawing cash as needed is your best bet.  Most places prefer payment via credit cards anyway!  

Things to Bring

The general list of what to bring is personal of course, however there are a few things that are generally necessary to take along to Europe:

  • Converters – Electricity in Europe runs on 220 volts while electricity runs on 110 volts in the United States. To avoid blowing up your electronics and hand held appliances, such as a blowdryer, you will need a converter to convert to the visiting country’s voltage. 
  • Adapters – European countries also differ in terms of the type of plug that goes into the outlet on the wall. The United States has the two flat prong style plugs.  These will not plug into any European outlets without an adapter.  Not all countries in Europe have the same outlet.  Again, check into the type of outlet the country you will be visiting has.  A universal adapter works for many different countries.  Here is a highly rated on on Amazon.
  • Medication – when bringing along prescription medication be sure to pack extra in case of any unforeseen circumstances.  Always bring the prescription label, too, if carrying it outside of its original container.  That way, in case of a need to refill, you can bring the label into a local pharmacy to be filled.

What Not to Bring

Most countries have food and plant restrictions so as to not introduce foreign pests.  As a general rule of thumb, don’t bring fruits, vegetables, or meat products into another country.  If you bring those items on the plane, they need to be consumed or disposed of before arrival.  If you fail to do so, you can face a fine.

What happens if you forget a toiletry product or want to pack light?  Consider purchasing items on arrival!  Shampoo, toothpaste, and soap are all readily available, of course!  I prefer to pack my familiar products, but if an items is forgotten or you need to replenish along the way, rest assured you’ll be able to find a substitute.  It is actually a fun adventure shopping for everyday items in foreign countries!

Luggage

We evaded lost luggage for years so we got a bit complacent.  Everything was packed in our own suitcases and our carryons had only our valuables such as cameras and laptops and items we would need on the flight.

Well, we learned our lesson during our last trip to Europe.  We arrived in Spain only to discover 2 of the 3 checked bags were still in the US.  It took 2 1/2 days for the luggage to arrive which did put a bit of a damper on our plans.  Thankfully, we used AirTags in our suitcases so we could pinpoint their location.  We reported the luggage lost as soon as we landed because we could see they were not with us, thanks to the AirTags.  The website we were given to check their status never updated.  Had we not had the AirTags, we would have been frustrated not knowing their status.  Instead, we could track their journey to us in Spain and knew when they were about to arrive via courier.

This leads us into the second part of our lesson – always carry at least one change of clothes in your carry on.  We will definitely be doing this from now on!  We also suggest putting a few things in one another’s suitcases.  For example, when our luggage was delayed only my suitcase arrived.  I had a few items of Mike’s in mine so he was able to get by for those few days while his luggage was delayed.  There is no rhyme or reason as to why 1 suitcase made it and the other 2 did not, but thankfully he had some clothes for the first few days.  We are not carry on only travelers, especially on longer trips overseas.  But with bringing a change of clothes in our carry on and putting some things in one another’s suitcases, lost luggage for a few days will no longer dampen our plans!

Read up on car rental pick up location

Every airport is different and that also goes for the car rental process.  When we rented a car in Spain, we went through National, our preferred company.  National, however, is located off site from the airport.  The shuttle took a long time to arrive, without proper signage directing us to the site.  We walked around outside, finally asking someone where to go.  It was frustrating as we were jet lagged as well.  

On departure day, we knew we had to arrive extra early to return the car off site and ride the shuttle back to the terminal.  This process was very frustrating.  First, we had an early morning flight which meant a very early morning car rental drop.  National was not open during these hours but a third party company was, who we were to drop the keys with.  We had to park on the fifth floor of the parking garage.  Cars were parked so tight all along the way that we had to drive very slow and do three-point turns just to get around a corner, five stories up.  This took a very long time.  Then we had to wait for the shuttle in the wee hours of the morning.  Several folks were turned away and had to wait for the next shuttle due to lack of room.  

It was a frustratingly slow process.  Had we gone with a car rental company on site at the airport, we would have alleviated all this wasted time.  Lesson learned:  even if you have a preferred car rental company, go with convenience.  Rent a car with a company that is located on site!

Learn Common Lingo and a Few Phrases

While it may not be feasible to be fluent in a language before you travel, it is helpful to at least learn a few key phrases.  Hello, goodbye, and thank you are the bare minimum of what you should know in the language of the country you’ll be visiting.  It’s the respectful thing to do!  Most likely, especially, in touristy areas, you will be able to speak English and get by.  However, we always made a point of learning a few key phrases and greetings when walking into a store or while ordering in a restaurant.

Common lingo is easier for the host country’s folks to understand as well.  Try using “WC” (which stands for water closet) instead of bathroom; use the word “queue” instead of line; “petrol” for gasoline.  Our American lingo is not as well known as “British English”, which is what is commonly taught in schools in Europe.  And again, it feels more respectful to use terms that will be familiar with your host country.

We also download Google Translate.  It magically translates words right before your eyes.  We mostly use this while grocery shopping and while trying to use the appliances in our Airbnb 😉

Look Up Local Holidays

Europe celebrates holidays big! With festivals throughout and many businesses being affected with limited hours, you will want to know ahead of time if this will affect your travel plans.

When we visited Spain it was the week leading up to Easter.  We were excited to watch the Semana Santa procession through the streets of the town of Nerja, where we stayed.  It was one of our favorite travel experiences! 

We were in Malaga, Spain on Good Friday.  Streets were shutting down for their big Semana Santa procession and businesses closed early.  We weren’t able to do all that we had wanted to do in Malaga because of the city essentially shutting down for the procession.  It is a good idea to know about holidays because they can have a big impact – good or bad – on your travel plans.

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