Secret Planning Tips for Americans Going To Europe for the First Time

Pink Paris sunset from Observatoire de la Tour Montparnasse

I realized that, prior to writing about some of my favorite cities (many of which are abroad), I wanted to provide some generic European travel pointers.

I know that there are LOTS of resources for travelling, but I have some specific advice that I don’t feel is shared as clearly as it should to prepare Americans for the eccentricities of visiting Europe.

I studied in London in the fall semester of 1992 and have been there about 10 times, totaling approximately 6 months of my life.

I have never worked in London or traveled to London for business; rather, I have traveled on my own dime, as a student and tourist, and simply because I love London (and much of Europe)! In fact, I’m already planning my next trip to London, which will include a quick trip to Venice (my first time).

In Europe, I have also traveled to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Amsterdam, France, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Austria. I still have so many countries and cities to visit!

I will share additional insights into London and other cities from my perspective, but today I wanted to step back and help you prepare for your potential European trip more generally with my personal tips.

My beloved London: the Thames and Big Ben

Obviously, you have to factor in your budget, best time of year, and destination(s). There are lots of resources out there to help you with those decisions.

I want to help your decision-making beyond those things. My travel companions, such as my son (13), mother, or other less-experienced travelers, have greatly impacted my decision-making and forced me to consider some serious questions, such as: (1) How much pressure do I want to put on myself and others to maximize every minute of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip abroad, (2) How ambitious can I make my itinerary, and (3) How independent should our group be regarding tours, renting cars, and accommodations? These are important questions that should be factored in as best as possible before you leave for your vacation, particularly one that involves so much expense and time.

When approaching your itinerary, you must be realistic about your expectations. Unless you are traveling with someone who is very savvy about the city or region, EVERYTHING will take longer than you anticipate. The combination of different food, currency, stores, gas stations or other transportation concerns, bathrooms (really!), and potential shut-downs of trains, buses, sights, and/or roads make for uncertainties. During my recent trip to Paris, two major train routes were down and impacted my travel plans.

Even using the bathroom in Europe is a challenge! Sometimes you have to pay to use the bathroom. It is always advisable to use the bathroom if you have access to one. It can be a long time until you find another one that’s available for public use. Anyone who has been to Europe will confirm this! Finding a bathroom in the US is almost always very easy in the middle of the day, but one cannot make that assumption when in Europe!

Killing time at the Tuileries Gardens overlooking the Louvre while waiting for the Dior Exhibit to open

The hours in Europe are very different than in America. London stays open fairly late now, but most European cities (including Paris) have much more abbreviated hours than we are accustomed to in the States. The restaurants, sights, and museums can have very strange hours or be closed entirely for weeks or months at a time. Restaurants in Provence were often closed from 2–5. I attended an amazing exhibit in Paris that didn’t open until 11 am. Several sights and museums in London close at 4! It can be very challenging to hit all the sights you might want to in one or two days simply because of logistics and hours. Very few museums and sights are open at 8 or 9 am, though there are a few exceptions. Certain museums (such as the Louvre) stay open late till 9 or 10 pm on a particular night. You must check the days and hours for every single store, museum, and sight you wish to visit in Europe. Some very popular exhibits must be booked online because all the time-slots will be booked in advance and if you wait to buy tickets that day, you may find few or no time-slots available. You cannot make any assumptions. Very popular sights (like Versailles or the Tower of London) require navigating very long lines if you have not planned ahead. Double-check the schedule for anything on your list that is very important to you so that you don’t find yourself having to miss it entirely due to it being closed a particular day or not having enough time to get to a second activity because your first activity ran long.

Overall travel conditions might be important for your group. In which case, utilizing premium economy or business class for the longest portions of travel might allow the group the best start to the vacation, setting the tone for the whole trip. I maximize my airline miles in every possible way because flying business class has enhanced my overall trip so significantly that I make it a priority for me. Jetlag is brutal on almost everyone. It is a myth that all children handle jetlag better. My son does not tolerate jetlag AT ALL. He is exhausted, crabby, and just wants to sleep. No sight or adventure is tempting. So, the first day is pretty much shot. A walk, a nap, and maybe a play that night is all he can handle. I have discovered that business class allows me to be in a much clearer state of mind and able to navigate the change of scenery much more smoothly. (Because I have been to London so many times, usually my companion(s) look to me for competency in logistics, particularly that first day.) I don’t drink alcohol and my food budget is very minimal, so I use those resources toward my travel and better accommodations to increase my comfort. Everyone is different, but I strongly prefer to be in the best spirits possible on the first day of my trip.

My favorite London hotel, Corinthia, just steps from the Thames and Trafalgar Square

Other travel aspects include: trains, the Tube (or other underground transportation), buses, and crowded streets and sights. Navigating all of this can be unusual for Americans who are accustomed to driving everywhere. The currency, the signage, the crowds. It can be overwhelming, exhausting, and time-consuming. And don’t get me started on renting a car! Many of the streets in Europe are based on medieval roads: tiny, narrow, and impractical to navigate. If you are traveling with a larger group with a fair amount of luggage, you may find it VERY challenging to get around certain towns. Driving in the heart of Avignon, for instance, with anything larger than a mini-Cooper is ill-advised! During extensive research about driving a car in Provence, NO ONE clearly communicated just how difficult it is to drive on the tiny streets in towns like Avignon or Uzes. Parking was a challenge, at best, and often a frustrating nightmare. High season in Provence is truly crazy with so many people and cars with little parking and space. I would forego a rental car altogether in larger European cities.

Aside from airfare to Europe, accommodation is usually one of the other biggest expenses. I will admit that I prefer to be very centrally-located when visiting major cities. I am strictly a central/Westend London girl! Having said that, securing a reputable B&B or flat with kitchen facilities can make lots of sense for those traveling with special food issues, young children, larger groups, or on a very tight budget. I will make some specific recommendations of hotels I like in future posts, but for today’s story I simply wanted to share that, yes, your accommodations are an important factor in your budget and overall enjoyment of your trip. How important is it to you to have a large space? Do you want to be centrally-located? Do you have dietary/kitchen needs? Is your budget really tight? How easily do you sleep in strange places? How big is your group? Finding hotel rooms in Europe for parties of 3 or 4 is VERY challenging (unlike the US). It was difficult for me to find rooms for my mom, son, and myself, but if we had been a party of four, it would have been almost impossible. Most European hotels only allow 2 people per room. This is not something that is commonly acknowledged, so it was very important to me to communicate that today. This is true throughout Europe!

Retro Tour shenanigans — such a unique way to see Paris

When I was younger, I really disliked most tours. The occasional 2 or 3 hour walking tour with a specific purpose appealed to me, but otherwise I preferred maximum flexibility to my schedule. As I get older, the idea of utilizing a tour becomes more appealing especially when traveling with a larger, multi-generational party. Personally, I am a fan of a private tour guide combined with some days on my own. A private tour guide is not necessarily cheap, but allows you to maximize your time in a city with virtually no stress and the knowledge that this person will make sure your itinerary happens (barring weather issues or some sort of emergency). If you have a very limited amount of time in a city, know that it is unlikely you will come back, and you have some meaningful things to visit, I think a private tour guide is a wise investment. Paying someone to navigate the language, travel, parking, crowds, and food decisions allows you the ability to relax and enjoy the moment. If you are in the financial position to do this, it’s a wonderful way to see your special European destination! I can heartily recommend the daring Retro Tours, the fabulous Michael Osman, and the patient, knowledgeable Naked Tour guides in Prague.

As a compromise, you could incorporate walking or biking tours with small groups that might prove a better price-point depending on the size of your party. I also like days on my own — I think it’s important to get lost a little, use the public transportation, find your own food. That means your day might not go the way you want. At all. But it’s part of the adventure of traveling abroad. The rocky days make you appreciate the smoother days. Getting lost might allow you to find a surprise piece of jewelry (that happened to me twice in Paris), find the best eclaire, discover a new garden or gallery, see a beautiful door or railing or killer car, or meet someone new. Getting lost might also frustrate you, make you sad or angry. (Tears were shed in Avignon.) But know that that’s normal and okay. That’s traveling abroad!

Monet’s Giverney, where happenstance led me to befriend the lovely Julia Lee (photographer of this shot)

And if you’ve done it right, you should have STORIES. Not just things you checked off a list. Have stories of amazing things, delightful people, wonderful or strange food, exquisite art, world-class sports, iconic architecture, whatever your thing is! Pay attention to the sunset, to the color of the sky, to the taste of the beer or the wine or the fruit or tea, to the color of the Mediterranean or Thames or Seine, to the smiles, the laughs, the absurdity (because there will be that, too). My advice would be: focus less on checking boxes, instead savor the moments and the things that you most want to experience.

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Queen of mixtapes. Lover of music, travel, and fashion. Authentic sharer of life lessons and dating foibles.

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Bonnie Barton

Bonnie Barton

Queen of mixtapes. Lover of music, travel, and fashion. Authentic sharer of life lessons and dating foibles.

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