If you’ve never traveled abroad before, Europe is a fantastic place to start. Even if you’re a seasoned wanderer of other continents, your first time traveling in Europe will be something special.
But planning your trip to Europe? That can be a bit overwhelming (major understatement). You have to consider costs, travel time, where to visit, etc….
And since it’s your first time, you’d probably like to see as much as you can. While Europe is a small continent and very well connected by transportation (trains are awesome!), stuffing your itinerary to the brim isn’t the best idea for your first (or second) time.
Having traveled Europe non-stop for 13 months, we’ve learned quite a bit about this place. 13 months probably sounds like forever but we still haven’t even seen every country! Thanks Schengen Zone…
So, from the must-sees to the lesser-known, let’s talk about traveling to Europe for the first time and how you can make it the trip of a lifetime.
Take it Easy
First and foremost, there’s no need to rush Europe!
Seriously, we could write an entire post about how you should take it slow and savor your trip.
The whole 1 day in this city and 1 day in another thing isn’t practical. In fact, we think it’s detrimental to a Europe trip itinerary.
Cities in Europe are full of history, culture and most importantly, deliciousness. How can you truly enjoy what destinations have to offer (beyond normal tourist attractions) if you’re constantly rushing around?
Whether you’re doing the big stops like Paris and Amsterdam or you’re exploring a single country, leaving time for relaxation and some naive exploration will enhance your trip and make you eager to return!
And yes, you will return to Europe for a second time (or more) so don’t feel the need to cram it all in one trip.
Don’t Expect it to Be Like the Movies (or Instagram)
If you’ve ever seen Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, then you’ll know the scene where they waltz right up to the mouth of truth in Rome to “test their honesty”.
But it’s nothing like that nowadays.
There’s an insanely long line of people waiting to just stick their hand in for a second. They snap a photo then move on so the next person can do the same thing. But most people skip the church from the 8th century that’s attached to it; it’s free to enter and beautiful!
Is Europe magical? Yes!
Will you have the popular sights all to yourself? No!
Obviously, you won’t be the only tourist in town and many visitors will be wanting the same picture, view or experience as you. This can get pretty frustrating in the major cities in Europe. Think Barcelona, London, Paris and many more!
We’re not trying to say you’ll have a bad time (no way!); we’re here to make you aware that there are A LOT of other travelers out there doing the same thing. However, if seeking out more authentic experiences interests you then be sure and look elsewhere than touristic cities
We’ve visited the lesser-traveled places like Albania and North Macedonia but we’ve also been to London, Rome, Paris and Vienna. We’ve loved it all but we’ve made better memories where there was more authenticity and less crowds.
In the end, it boils down to you and your preferences! Just know that it’s not really like Hollywood (or Instagram) sometimes portrays it!
How to Get Around Europe
You can find tons of information out there about getting around Europe.
Trains are probably the most popular for first time travelers. Who doesn’t like a scenic ride on the rails of a gorgeous continent?
But is a train always the best idea? It depends!
If your Europe itinerary revolves around nearby cities (think Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava) then trains will be a great option.
But what if you’re seeing cities that are further apart? For example, if you’re going from Copenhagen to Amsterdam, flights are the best in this case because that train is a long one! A 15 hour train ride can really cut into your itinerary’s fun time!
Flights within Europe are very cheap and there’s almost always a deal from one city to another. Using Google Flights is a quick and easy way to check for any cheap deals.
What about bus?
Buses don’t usually get as much love from travelers but they’re actually a convenient way of getting around Europe. They’re cheaper and mostly similar in travel time to trains (except the high speed rails).
We used FlixBus to get from Croatia to Italy because it was a fraction of the price of the train. It was also faster!
So, when you’re planning your first trip to Europe, keep an open mind when it comes to transportation!
But perhaps importantly, book your tickets in advance. This goes for many countries in Europe but not all of them. For example, a French train at the last minute from Nice to Orleans would have cost us over 300 euros! A couple months earlier, the price was less than half of that. Unfortunately, we put off buying them and had to finds other means of travel!
In our opinion, the Eurail pass is too expensive for our budget travel but if you’re just hopping between major cities during your trip to Europe, then it may make sense for you.
Lastly, let’s talk about rental cars. Seeing Europe behind the wheel is the best way to see it! However, if you’re just hanging out in the big cities then we recommend avoiding cars! Traffic is a fun killer and it’s more stressful in a foreign country.
If you’d like to discover more of the countryside then a rental car is a must! You won’t be tied down by train or bus times and you’ll be able to take that spur of the moment turn down a scenic road.
Driving in Europe is straightforward but driving in the UK is a different story, especially for travelers used to the other side of the road. Read up on some UK driving tips before going!
Set Your Clock to 24 Hour Time (Military Time)
Europe uses the 24 hour clock, also known as military time. It’s a good idea to change your phone before your trip so you’re used to the new time format.
Being familiar with military time will be very useful when booking transportation or visiting a museum.
Get Ready to Walk
You’ve probably seen plenty of those romantic pictures of old cobblestone streets in Europe. They’re everywhere!
So be prepared to walk! Cities in Europe typically have great public transportation (metro, tram, bus) but city centers are meant to be discovered on foot.
Europe is full of pedestrian-only zones and you’ll find many attractions located in these areas. Be sure to pack a comfortable and functional pair of shoes.
And don’t leave a city without going on a free walking tour first! Walking tours are a priority for us when we visit a new city in Europe.
You’ll get your layout of the city, some tips from your local guide on where to eat and what to see, plus you’ll learn some interesting history and fun facts!
Walking tours are widely available, friendly and “free”. The tour guides operate on tips. If you thought it was a good tour, feel free to tip your guide at the end. A typical amount is 10 euros per person.
Wherever your itinerary takes you in Europe, be sure and search “free walking tour” for your destination and you’ll find it!
Give Airbnb a Try
Hotels, as well as hostels, are very popular when it comes to accommodation. However, you’ll find hotels to be full of tourists (duh) and hostels to be loud and pretty busy.
While neither hotels or hostels are bad, we think Airbnb (or a similar service) is better. With Airbnb, travelers can stay in a local neighborhood outside of the city center and see a different side of their destination.
You can meet your Airbnb host, get local tips, or you can even rent a private room and stay with a local.
Staying in an Airbnb can drastically alter your viewpoint of a destination. Think about it: staying in a hotel with other tourists or staying in an apartment in a local neighborhood. Those are two very different experiences!
If you’ve never tried Airbnb before or you’re considering it for traveling in Europe, read up on some pros and cons of Airbnb before you decide!
Airbnbs also help with the “take it easy” mentality. Instead of coming back to a hotel room or crowded hostel dorm, you can have your own home away from home.
Many cities have some sort of attraction pass. You usually have the option of choosing how many days you want the pass for and it gives you entry into most or all of the main attractions in that city. For larger cities, these passes often include public transportation (awesome!).
Even smaller cities and towns have started adopting passes. In this case, you typically can’t get into one or multiple attractions without buying the pass. Siena and San Gimignano (Italy), and Split (Croatia) all have attraction passes that you have to buy if you want to enter certain attractions.
Buy Attraction Tickets in Advance
Many people traveling to Europe for the first time want to visit cities like Amsterdam, London, Paris or Rome. These cities can be fun-filled and enlightening but not if you’re standing in line for hours at a time.
Most major tourist attractions (think the Louvre, Colosseum, Tower of London) give you the option to purchase tickets online. In most places purchasing your tickets online will actually save you a little money and time. Two major exceptions to this would be Paris and Amsterdam.
In Paris, the tickets are slightly more expensive online but the increase in price is worth it if you don’t have to wait an hour in line for the Louvre. Be sure to look up the other 3 entrances to the Louvre beforehand to see if they’re open and hopefully save you some time.
In Amsterdam, museums like the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House only offer tickets online and they tend to sell out fast so be sure to book in advance. The Anne Frank House sells 20% of their daily tickets every morning (only online) so there’s still a chance you can get in.
There are so many museums in Europe. So if you’re wanting to visit some then do your research ahead of time!
Pick One Region
This is the most enjoyable part about planning a trip to Europe: deciding where you’re going to travel!
To emphasize the point we made earlier about taking it easy, pick one region and stay there! Whether it’s the UK and Ireland or Central Europe (Austria, for example), try to confine your itinerary to one area and really discover it.
This is super beneficial for your first time in Europe. You’ll save money and time on traveling between places and enjoy where you are instead.
Europe is full of so many unique and eye-opening places but if you don’t take time to notice them, you’re going to miss out.
If you have any questions about which itineraries or cities are best for your first time, don’t hesitate to ask!
Don’t Carry Lots of Cash
No matter where you are in the world, carrying a lot of cash on you is never a good idea. The same is true in Europe and those traveling for the first time should take note!
Europe is a very safe place but theft/scams are common, especially in popular tourist spots and during peak travel season. How do you avoid these thieves? Firstly, be smart about where you’re carrying your wallet and if you have a purse, make sure it’s a cross-body purse! You should always be aware of your belongings.
But some thieves are just that good. Well, the best way to avoid theft is to not have valuables on your person. Carry a small amount of cash and your passport and call it good! After 13 months in Europe we’ve never had an incident but if your accommodation has a safe then make use of it!
What about exchange rates?
Traveling with money may seem a little complicated due to exchange rates/fees. However, we highly recommend that you avoid currency exchange booths, especially the ones in the airport!
Instead of dealing with currency rates and all that jazz, we think withdrawing from a bank ATM is the better option.
But what about ATM fees?
Well, withdrawing frequently can really add up in fees but if you spread your withdrawals out, it shouldn’t be too bad.
OR you can avoid ATM and foreign transaction fees altogether with a Charles Schwab checking account. It’s been a huge money saver for us during our travels around the world. We don’t have to mess with exchanges and ATM fees. Pretty awesome!
Pro Tip: Withdraw from official bank ATMs and always jiggle the card slot. If you can remove it then don’t use it!
Even though you shouldn’t carry lots of cash on you at one time, it’s always a good idea to have at least some on hand. Tipping isn’t the norm in most places but it seems more common in places like Romania or the UK.
Head to the Parks
We’ll never forget our time in Vienna’s Volksgarten, one of our favorite parks. It was the perfect spot to wind down after a day of exploring. The weather was delightful and people were having a ball just lying on the grass. Some were on a picnic with friends; others were taking a snoozer; some were reading.
Even though parks and nature aren’t on all the “must-see” lists in European cities, we think they’re one of the most underrated things to see as a traveler. Bring some snacks and drinks, grab a spot, and live the good life for a bit in Europe’s beautiful parks!
Avoid Restaurants in the Center and Bring an Appetite
No one likes tourist traps and Europe, as popular as it is, is full of them. This is especially true in cities like Paris, London, Rome and Venice. The happening areas of these popular destinations are full of restaurants and shops. However, these restaurants and shops are very overpriced.
Even just a few blocks away from the touristy center, you can find cheaper food (just as or even more delicious!), less crowds, and more locals. And if you see a lot of locals in the restaurant, it’s a good sign!
But since it’s your first time traveling in Europe, we understand the urge to eat in a beautiful place. So it’s okay to splurge. The Piazza del Campo in Siena comes to mind!
Regardless of where you eat, we hope you bring an appetite. If people ask us about our favorite things in Europe, 8 out of 10 are about food. The cheese, chocolate, alcohol, milk, bread, it’s all to die for.
Every country we’ve visited has a specialty. It’s a traveler’s dream. If you love trying different cuisines then you’re going to love Europe! Whether it’s pierogi in Poland, kolace in Czechia or shopska salad in North Macedonia (so good!), indulge and don’t look back.
Europe has different power outlets than the US. If you’re traveling to Europe for the first time you should buy a couple of universal adapters so that you can charge your phone, laptop, and use your hairdryer or other appliances and devices.
Make sure you buy a universal adapter. Don’t just buy an adapter for “Europe” because if you plan on going to Ireland or the United Kingdom then your adapter, that works just fine on mainland Europe, will not fit in the sockets in Ireland or the United Kingdom!
Pro Tip: Many wall sockets on mainland Europe are recessed in the wall so make sure the adapter you purchase will factor in enough length so that it’ll fit into recessed sockets.
Worst case scenario: you purchase an adapter after landing.
We’ve done fine, for the most part, without phone plans while traveling around Europe. Most major cities offer public wifi and it’s not hard to find cafes or restaurants with complimentary wifi. Many phones come with the option to send texts and make calls over wifi without incurring extra charges while abroad.
But we understand if you want to have a phone plan while traveling; it especially makes sense to have a phone plan if you’re renting a car and driving the countryside.
You have quite a few options when it comes to phone plans.
The first option is to look at the travel plans offered by your U.S. carrier.
T-Mobile’s Magenta plans allow you to text and use data and the Essentials plan allows you to text abroad at no extra cost.
Google Fi offers you the same rates abroad as you have back home AND you can pause and unpause your service as you please to save money (this is what we do!).
Verizon and AT&T offer daily travel plans. They’re both about $10 a day and you just pay for the days you use your phone.
The second option is to look into getting a travel hotspot. These can sometimes be more affordable than using your carrier’s travel plan.
For example, if your phone has wifi texting and calling enabled then a cheap travel hotspot rental will allow you to use your phone normally.
The last option is to see what tourist SIM card plans your destination offers. In Croatia, we bought unlimited data plans for a week from T-Hrvatski Telekom (T-Mobile) for $12USD.
If you have more than one country on your itinerary then you should make sure the tourist SIM card or hotspot rental will work in all of the countries you plan on visiting.
Shoulder Season is Where it’s at
Our last piece of advice for those traveling to Europe for the first time: go in shoulder season! Shoulder season is on both sides of the peak travel season. So, around late March-May and September-November.
Travelers will find the weather to be pleasant, crowds to be somewhat thinner, and attractions should be operating.
However, if you’re visiting Paris, London or Amsterdam (or any other major destination), don’t expect less crowds just because it’s not peak season. We’re pretty certain that crowds just never go away in these places!
We traveled through Italy in September, France in October, and the UK from March-May. The summer heat wave was on vacation, smaller towns were much more pleasant and shops weren’t closed. You’ll find that some shops in Italy and France will close during late summer as the owners are on vacation.
But, of course, if you find a cheap flight deal and your plans for Europe are coming together in the summer or winter, then you should act! We’ve been in Europe for all seasons and you’ll love it no matter the time of year!
Summary of Traveling to Europe for the First Time
We’ve thrown a lot of info at you, we know, but we’ve learned a lot about Europe this past year that we didn’t know when we first arrived. We hope this guide aids you in your Europe travel plans and we hope you have a wonderful time!
We’re always here if you have any questions!
I always travel shoulder season to Europe, specifically either April or October. Our timeshares are fully booked between them during summer and it’s too cold for me between them during winter, And I love all your other tips!
Glad to hear you love our tips! Shoulder season really is the best.