10 Things to Do Before Your First Trip to Europe to help you make the most memories without any needless stress!
Today’s post is the first in my new Travel series. I usually share travel posts on & off throughout the year, depending on the traveling we have been doing, but I’ve decided that it’s time to be consistent. My goal is to start sharing 2 posts a month, every other Sunday, with travel tips, ideas, & inspiration. I have more than enough posts planned for the rest of the year & I am excited to get started!
So to start off these new consistent travel posts I am going to share with you 10 Things to Do Before Your First Trip to Europe. And what better place to begin as we recently returned from our first trip to Europe last month!
For those of you who follow me on Instagram, specifically Instagram Stories, you know that for Christmas Roger & I skipped the presents & decided to buy each other a trip to Europe through Groupon. (Ps. I will be sharing a post with tips & experiences on buying vacations through Groupon in the future, be sure to subscribe by clicking here so you don’t miss it!) Neither of us had ever traveled through Europe & it’s always been a dream of ours to do so before we have kids. And so we decided there is no time like the present! (Pun intended!)
In 8 days we traveled from Atlanta to Paris, to Barcelona, to Rome, & back to Atlanta. What a whirlwind of a trip for first timers like us! So here are a few tips that we used & learned along the way on our first trip to Europe!
1. The Right Paperwork
Things are constantly changing. We only needed our passports (which we updated a few months before our trip), but rumor is that in 2018 you will need a Visa to travel abroad along with your passport. Several months before your trip check to make sure you have all of the right paperwork & documents you need to get everywhere you need to go & back into your country.
2. Luggage & Connecting European Flights
One of the things I researched before we left was luggage costs for all of our connecting flights. In 8 days we flew from Atlanta to Paris, to Barcelona, to Rome, & back to Atlanta & we did not want to pay a lot of extra fees for extra luggage.
At the time we traveled we read that we could each check one bag for free on all of our flights. Originally our plan was to just check the large suitcase & to keep the other bag with us (that had some of our clothes in it), just in case our luggage was lost. However, when we got there the idea of lugging around the bag was not appealing. We ended up checking the suitcase under his name & the bag under my name. It was so nice to only have our two small backpacks to carry around the airports.
Every country & city is different. The last thing you want is to land in a new country & have no idea what the best way is to get from point A to point B by the quickest & cheapest means possible. Whether that be by metro, bus, taxi, walking, etc.
As this was our first trip to Europe, & we had some very early morning flights (arriving in Paris at 5:30 am & leaving our hotel in Barcelona at 3 am), we decided to purchase car service transfers for our trip. We will not do this again when we return to Europe in a few years. Instead, we will take a taxi (just be sure they start running the meter as soon as they start driving, we didn’t have a problem with this, but I’ve heard of others who have) from the airport to the hotel & back at the end of our trip.
Another young couple who had also purchased the same package from Groupon, who had several more suitcases than we did, took the metro with all of their luggage. I must say they are way more adventurous than us. We only had our 2 small backpacks, one large suitcase, & a bag (the size of a carryon) & I still can’t imagine lugging those things up & down the steps at a metro station. However, we saw a surprising number of people/travelers lugging their luggage on & off the Metro throughout our trip.
In Paris & Barcelona we used the metro to get from location to location, but when we arrived in Rome we discovered the workers of the Metro were on strike & the Metro was closed. Turns out it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Our hotel in Rome was more centrally located than in Paris & Barcelona & we just walked everywhere. We only took a taxi back to our hotel once because of exhaustion, but it only cost about 14 euros plus tip.
4. Important Words & Phrases
Before we left I made 3 notes on my phone for each city with important phrases we would need. After extensive research, we learned that most people in those cities speak English, but that they responded more kindly & courteously if you begin by speaking in their language. So I had lists of phrases for greetings that varied by time of day & city. I also included phrases for things like the restroom & ordering vegetarian food.
But we ended up using very little of them, mainly just the vegetarian phrases. As we traveled through all 3 cities we would greet someone in their language & they would immediately begin speaking in English, at times it even felt like we might have annoyed people by greeting them in their language. Even still, when we return I will continue to greet others in their language because it can’t hurt & you never know when it will be beneficial. Plus, as Paris was our favorite city, I’m going to attempt to learn a decent amount of French before we return to France.
5. Your Phone Plan
Speaking of phones. We only used my phone on our trip. With our Verizon plan, it only cost $10 a day (per phone) to use our current Verizon plan in Europe. At first, my husband said we would just use it the first day & see how it went. HA! We used my phone every day! I honestly don’t know how we would have traveled Europe without it!
First, we used it for navigation. Not just while wandering the streets as a guide to specific destinations, but also on the Metro. Paris has an awesome app for their metro station that will help you navigate all of the different lines & get you to where you need to be. (We used this Paris Metro Map, but there is also one called the Metro Paris Subway.) I wish every city would create a similar app, it was so handy! We also used my phone’s map whenever we took a taxi to make sure they were headed toward the right hotel &/or location. As a first-time European traveler, we were a little extra cautious & probably always will be.
Second, we used it for food. We ate our way through every city (& somehow didn’t gain weight thanks to all of the walking & biking we did), but we didn’t just want to eat anywhere, we wanted to eat at the best! While we had some restaurants already planned (more on this below), we also changed our plans occasionally or would come across a bakery that looked good that we wanted to try. Before entering an establishment we would do a quick search of their ratings. We simply went to maps, hit the “current location” button, & then clicked on the restaurant on the map to see the ratings & reviews. By doing so we only ended up eating at one restaurant that didn’t meet our expectations during our whole trip.
Third, I used it to photograph our trip on Domestically Blissful’s Instagram Stories & to let our parents know that we were safe. I know we are in our late 20s, but all of our parents kept asking us to send them messages letting them know we were safe when we arrived at every city, which is super sweet. So I used Instagram Stories as a way to let them know what we were up to throughout each day. When I got home my father (who is literally never on Instagram), told me that he checked my Instagram stories many times every day to see my stories. Seriously, how cute is that!?
6. Plan Your Food
If you are a food enthusiast like us, or if you have any dietary restrictions, planning your food ahead of time is something you will really want to do. We had made a schedule (more like a proposed semi-flexible guideline) for each city, so we had a pretty good idea where we were going to be each morning & afternoon. This allowed us to research restaurants in those areas & make reservations if needed (& if you go during the busy season you will need them or at least wish you had them).
Even though we had some reservations & pre-planned restaurants, we also made sure to stay flexible. If we saw something that looked good we looked at the reviews & then made a decision. Also, one of my favorite experiences of the trip was spur of the moment, although if it had been the busy season in Paris we never would have gotten a table. We had pre-booked a tour (that was one of the options on our Groupon) to visit the Eiffel Tower.
So here is what happened. We had pre-booked a tour (that was one of the options on our Groupon) to visit the Eiffel Tower. The tour began by us loading onto a mainly empty double decker bus (got to love the off season), & riding through the streets of Paris with an audio tour of the city (which was awesome!!). We then deboarded the bus & went up to the 2nd floor of the Eiffel Tower where we decided to purchase tickets (only a few Euros each) to go to the very top, the 3rd floor. The view was spectacular.
Afterward, we went on a little cruise down the Seine (which was also a part of our tour). Amidst the incredible experience, we fell in love with Paris & I didn’t want the day to end. So I immediately began looking up the best places to eat with a view of the Eiffel Tour. One of the first ones I saw was a restaurant with a glass roof ceiling with a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower & after reading the reviews I discovered they have a vegetarian menu.
I immediately called & got us a reservation, which we wouldn’t have been able to do last minute if it hadn’t been the off season in Paris. This was an afternoon & evening I will never forget. If you are in Paris you must try Les Ombres, the experience was unforgettable & their butternut soup was the best I have ever had, my favorite dish on the trip!
When I first started looking for restaurants I discovered there weren’t a lot of vegetarian options, so I decide to do something I often don’t do (& I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life), I began to specifically look up vegetarian restaurants. My husband was immediately against the idea, but I had already done a bunch of research & picked out the best ones, so I forced him to sit down & look at my top picks.
Turns out, of our top 3 restaurants 2 of them were vegetarian restaurants. European vegetarian restaurants are hands down way better than any vegetarian restaurant I have been to in the states. Maybe I’m just going to the all the wrong ones here, but boy the European ones were delicious!!
So the moral of the story is to get reservations for the restaurants you really want to go to, but also don’t be afraid to try a restaurant that you simply stumble upon.
7. Book Tickets in Advance
One of the things I wish we had done was to book more tickets in advance. Luckily, it was the off season & there weren’t very long lines, however, if you plan to visit during the busy season you will want to buy your tickets in advance for places like the Louvre, Versaille, the Colosseum, etc. Also, do some research in advance on how to get into these places the quickest.
For example, the line to get into the Louvre at the pyramid can & will take forever (even in the off-season), however on the second day, since we already had our ticket, we were able to go through security on a side entrance & skip the horrendous line in the rain.
8. Book Tours
We booked two tours through our Groupon trip. The first one was in Paris which included an audio city tour on a bus, the Eiffel Tower (to the second floor), & a riverboat cruise on the Seine. The second was in Rome to the Colosseum & the surrounding ruins. Instead of booking a tour through Groupon for Barcelona my husband found a biking tour in Barcelona which ended up being a fun addition to our trip. We biked all over Barcelona, seeing the sights & learning their history.
I’m a bit out of shape (to say the least), but this was a relatively flat bike ride with only a slow incline during the middle section of the tour. If we ever return to Barcelona in the slow season I would enjoy doing this again, however, it seems like it would be a nightmare to do this in the busy season because of the heat & crowds. Although to be fair, going to Europe in general during the busy season sounds very unpleasant to me.
About 36 hours before our trip we realized we should probably have some Euros on hand to tip our driver when we landed in Paris. I called our bank & learned that they could get us Euros, but they would need at least 48 hours to get them at our branch… Oops! We ended up getting them at an ATM at the airport, but we could have saved time & money if we had done this ahead of time at our bank.
We also took two cards with us, my credit card & his debit card (to withdraw cash). Be sure to call your credit card companies in advance to let them know when, where, & for how long you will be traveling. And because I’ve had trouble in the past with my credit card company shutting down my card when I made a big purchase (even after calling them ahead of time to let them know I would be making that specific purchase for that specific amount at Lowe’s for our kitchen), I decided to call them twice. Once a week before we left & a second time on the way to the airport to verify they had made the necessary notes in their records.
This ended up being a very smart move as the lady at first couldn’t find any record of my call. And luckily we had no problems while traveling through Europe with our credit cards.
10. Pack the Right Gear
I will be writing a whole post about what to pack, probably in the next few weeks (be sure to subscribe by clicking here so you don’t miss this post), with a full packing list (not only for Europe but also Hawaii). However, I will say that some of my favorite gear was a small extra battery charger for my purse (although I wish I had brought 2 so that one was always fully charged & ready to go), my purse with a chain strap, my husbands RFID wallet, & a European Power Voltage Converter (I also wish I had brought two of these).
11. European Hotels
And on a side note, we discovered that at all of the hotels we stayed at while in Europe you had to use your room key to turn on the lights. I thought this was brilliant because then hotels never wasted electricity with lights being left on by accident, but it was also a bit frustrating because you couldn’t leave anything in your hotel room to charge. This is the main reason I wish we had brought 2 extra phone charger sticks & two European Power Voltage Converters.
12. Research City Scams
I know I was going to stop at 10, but I keep thinking of more tips! One of the things that we did before leaving was to make sure that we were aware of the tricks & scams of each city in order to better avoid them. Don’t let the stories scare you, let them make you be better aware of your surroundings & better prepared to avoid them.
My motto, never talk to strangers with clipboards or souvenier paraphernalia that are targeting tourists. Simply avoid eye contact. Don’t let them bully you into doing or signing something you don’t want to. Just keep moving & have a great adventure!
What is your favorite way to enjoy gnocchi?
I’d love to hear from you!
Feel free to comment below, email me, or tweet me on Twitter.
With love, G
For the wages of sin is death,
but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
More Domestically Blissful Confessions: