After traveling to Europe three times, I am compelled to write this. Haven’t booked your trip to Europe yet? This guide will help you get over the hump. Need activity ideas? Yep, I’ll cover that too. Most importantly, I will fill you in with the most important part of traveling. Hint: It sure as hell is not sightseeing.
Where have I Traveled to in Europe?
Spain, France, Netherlands, Italy, Greece (mainland and islands), Russia, Sweden, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Germany. I’m going a 4th round in 2017.
Where to Start
If your flight/trip is already booked, you can skip this section. It is meant as more of a push, more than anything else (for those of you who are hesitating).
Book the Flight
If you haven’t booked the flight yet, do it. Waiting on friends to go with you? Bad excuse. You can lead the way. If they don’t end up coming, this guide will make sure you have an amazing time either way. Every time I travel many of my friends are “definitely going.” At the end of the day it’s usually only one or two friends that end up actually going. This waiting on other people thing will ensure that you will be dead before you do any traveling. So, please, don’t do it! Just book the flight.
Do you need Visas?
As a US citizen, there are only a few places I know of in Europe which you will need a visa. The big one is Russia. There is also Belarus. You can stay updated on Visa requirements here.
When traveling to Russia, we used the It’s Easy Passport & Visa service. The process was very simple and we had no issues when arriving or departing Moscow. There are other websites that offer similar services.
You can also do this process yourself. I wouldn’t recommend this for first time travelers that need a visa, unless you know someone who can help you.
Traveling is About People First, Sightseeing Second
Traveling is about meeting new people and being submerged into different cultures. It’s not about seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Coliseum. If you don’t get lost once or twice and have to ask a local where the hell you are, you’re probably doing it wrong!
All jokes aside, the people you meet during your trip to Europe will undoubtedly be the thing you remember most. I will tell you one thing. You aren’t going to meet these people by staying in fancy hotels or private AirBnB’s. You are going to have to venture into the land of hostels.
When Americans think of hostels, they think of a horror movie. Most wouldn’t be caught dead at a hostel because these people have their head so far up their ass. Let me tell you: some of the best times of my life happened at hostels. Staying at a hostel will force you to run into people from all over the world.
How to Book a Good Hostel
Just like there are bad hotels, there are bad hostels. Luckily, we have this thing called the Internet to filter through the bullshit and ensure we have the best hostel experience possible. Use Hostel World to research and book the best hostels. The site is great because you can book right through it and filter through any specific facilities that you might need.
The best hostel I have stayed at is the Flying Pig (Downtown) in Amsterdam. Hands down.
If for some reason, you cannot wrap your head around staying in a Hostel and still want to have a great time, I have a little hack for you. It’s called a pub crawl. Most cities in Europe have them and they are a great way to meet both locals and other travelers from around the world.
What is a Pub Crawl?
A pub crawl is this amazing invention that leads you to 4-5 local bars/nightclubs. You get free drinks and meet some wonderful people from around the world. All for the very high price of $20. Many times, they throw in a t-shirt as well. This happened to us both in Rome and in Amsterdam.
I’m not big on drinking. I think it’s fucking stupid. I will say though, there is nothing quite like drinking with people from other countries. Hopefully, Heaven is filled with this many laughs.
Pub Crawl Tips
- Get to know the pub crawl leaders: These people are organizing the whole thing for you and they can teach you a lot about the culture of wherever you are, whether it’s Moscow or Barcelona.
- Break the ice: Just start talking to people. Even if you don’t speak their language. You will learn something.
- Pace yourself: You’re headed for a long night. Often times the night never ends after the pub crawl hits its last bar or club.
Above, I have mentioned two ways to meet locals. Hostel workers and pub crawl leaders are both great opportunities to hang with the locals.
Some other ways are to simply strike up a conversation with a worker wherever you are. The bartender, supermarket worker, attend a meetup group, etc.
Travel with a Friend
It’s always better to travel with a friend. This, of course, is assuming the person can take care of themselves. There is nothing worse than traveling with other people who need you by their side all the time.
Plan Around Festivals
Music and cultural festivals are a great way to meet people and adapt to cultures. There are festivals that are local and mostly locals attend. There are also festivals that have national appeal. Many of these are music festivals. So far, I have only been to festivals that have national appeal. Music festivals allow you to connect with people from around the world with the one thing that could actually produce those kinds of results: Music. Everyone speaks music. Below is a little bit about the two festivals I have been to, in case you would like to check them out.
In 2016 I camped at Sziget. Sziget is held yearly in Budapest. It takes place on an island dubbed: “The Island of Freedom.” It was an awesome experience. If you’re looking for a good shower and everything to be perfect, this is not the place. Find a hotel. This is all about immersing yourself around people from hundreds of countries. The music stages will play sounds you have never heard. You might find yourself dancing around to German rap songs or striking up a conversation with one of the Hungarian workers. This one is a must go. Plan around it. More info here: http://szigetfestival.com
In 2014 I attended Rock Werchter. This is a rock festival outside of Brussels, Belgium. Seeing Metallica in a field in the middle of nowhere was something I will never forget. Rock Werchter has expanded beyond Rock music and features some EDM. For example, Skrillex was performing while I was there. It looks like in 2017 they are having the Chainsmokers. The festival is still majority Rock and you will have a blast. Be prepared to drink a lot of Jupiler beer. Check out Rock Werchter here: http://www.rockwerchter.be/en
How to Get Around – Trains, Planes & Uber!
Getting around in Europe is not as hard as it might seem.
Trains in Europe
First, I have to get something out of the way…. Many tourist pay a premium for a rail pass. It is completely unnecessary. The only way I would recommend to book trains is through the local train websites within that country. How do you find those? It is not as hard as it might seem. Simply call the hostel or hotel where you are staying and ask them. They will immediately know. In Poland, for example, we were directed to https://www.intercity.pl/en/. It took a minute to figure out, but it’s much cheaper to book what you need than spend a shit ton of money for some pass. Many travelers we met didn’t buy their ticket until the day of or night before. Simply put, do your homework before you spend a ton of money.
Now that you know the truth about those “passes,” train travel is definitely the way to go in Europe. Traveling by train can be a fun experience. Many of the long-distance trains have a bar/food. It is a great way to meet people. It is also a wonderful way to see the countryside.
Most of the bus transits will be from an airport to a major city. Many times, this is the most convenient way if a rail/train option does not exist. For example, in Spain I paid 2 Euro for an hour trip from the Airport to Barcelona.
Once you shell out the money for your initial flight to Europe, you will be happy to know that the fares get much cheaper from within Europe. We used comparison-travel sites like Orbitz to compare rates and easily book these flights within Europe.
Uber / Lyft – Check Ahead of Time
It is surprising how many places have Uber. I didn’t think Moscow, Russia would have Uber; yet they do. It worked wonderfully from transporting from the airport to the city. However, it’s important to check ahead of time if these places have a ride-sharing option like Lyft or Uber. If they don’t, you will have to go with a taxi, shuttle or other option.
Taxi… if You Have To
If there is no other option, take a taxi. It should be your last resort because a taxi is less safe and less transparent. In Uber, you can type in your exact address and see as you move along on the map. In a taxi, you are verbally telling someone and hoping they understand. This is especially hard when you do not speak their native tongue. Use taxi as a last resort.
The best part about Europe is walking around (and taunting everyone back home with my Fitbit steps). We decided to walk around the first day in Moscow and 26 miles later, we had covered a lot of ground. It was way better than driving as it allowed us to see how locals live and pass by things we might have missed if we had taken an Uber.
Some of my best memories in Europe are walking around.
Don’t Rent a Car
I would not recommend renting a car in Europe. Some places it may be ok; but in general, it’s a bad idea. It will put a lot of extra baggage on your travel. You can get almost anywhere by rail. If not, you can take an Uber. If your goal is to see only the countryside and stay away from the city, maybe a rental will work out better.
I have heard stories from other travelers that if an accident happens, many times the police will take the side of the locals. This is simply because they cannot understand your point of view. We thought strongly about renting a car the first Euro trip and decided against it. Not driving for 42 days takes a lot of stress off. It also makes driving fun again when you return home!
Things Will Go Wrong, Stay Calm
When you travel, shit will hit the fan. Sparks will fly. It is important that you and anyone you are traveling with stay calm. Google maps will fail you. You might end up using hand signals to try to explain things to locals. It is ok, this is all part of the experience.
One of the most memorable/scary moments I had was in Belgium. We had everything mapped out for our train ride to the South Brussels airport. We bought the ticket and barely made it onto the train. Literally, slipped in and then boom. Doors closed. When we got off at the “airport stop,” there was no airport in site. It looks like a town straight out of the walking dead. Complete silence. Looked like no one even lived in the town. I was freaking out a little bit, then came to my senses. The train station was so abandoned that it was flooded at the bottom, so we had to go across the tracks to get to the other side. Our flight was in an hour.
We just decided to start walking. Eventually we came up on what looked like a gas station. My friend went in while I watched all of our luggage. The guy initially said he was going to call us a taxi. Then he decided to close down his gas station and drive us to the airport. My friend said, “What do you think? Kinda sketchy?” I said, “There are two of us and one of him. It will be fine.” Turns out, our drive with Manuel was more than fine. We all bonded over TV shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. We were using our translator app to communicate through broken English. He was cracking jokes that we somehow understood. When we finally arrived at the airport, we tried to pay Manuel 50 Euro. He declined. He would not take any payment. He was just excited to see someone different. It turns out that the town we were dropped off in is basically an abandoned mining town. Everyone lost their jobs a few years back. According to Manuel, it was depressing to live there.
Once you have traveled enough, all souvenirs start to look the same. The shot glass with the city. The fancy pen. The bottle opener. The list goes on.
If you really want a meaningful souvenir, then try to find a local craftsman that has a small shop. Some of these people might even sell their stuff on the street. I got a beautiful carved cat for my girlfriend while in Poland, for example.
Postcards are sometimes overlooked as just another souvenir. A postcard with a thoughtful message on it can go a long way though. For those of you who can’t find anything else, send a postcard!
What Should You Pack?
Bring at least 10 pairs of underwear. 10 pairs of socks. 5 shirts. 2 pairs of jeans. 1 or 2 swim suits.
You will be able to find laundry services along the way. If you are looking, simply search CITY NAME + Laundry Service, in Google. You will be sure to find something. Check with your hostel, hotel, or Airbnb as well.
I have overpacked in the past and find that I normally use only 30% of what I bring. It is sad when you realize you have all this extra shit you must carry around the rest of the trip! Focus on the important stuff.
Specific Recommendations in Europe
Auschwitz Concentration Camp (Krakow, Poland)
Ann Frank House (Amsterdam)
Red Square (Moscow)
Lenin’s Tomb (Moscow)
Honestly, I’ve met people along the way that are younger than I am and have traveled longer and lighter than I have. These people are amazing and I envy them. Most people were from the UK, Australia, or within Europe.
It is my hope that this post helps a few of you out there to close the deal on your Euro trip and make your dream a reality. It will surely end up differently than how you imagine it. Just remember: Traveling is about people. The characters you will meet. In some cases, these people will become lifelong friends.