Although I often travel to a variety of places around the world, Europe tends to be a siren call that I can’t ignore. It’s relatively easy to reach from the East Coast where I live and the diversity of the cultures found there guarantees that I’ll never be bored. After spending a lot of time touring around the continent, I’ve picked up on a few best practices that I first shared in a couple of years ago. Since then I’ve been back many times and have created a new list of things I think every visitor to Europe should do to maximize their travel time and more importantly, to have an amazing trip.
Rent a car
Not everyone will be comfortable doing this, but it will transform your trip in ways you can’t even predict. We love to think of Europe as the perfect place for train travel, and it is. I, like many of my fellow Americans, love the transportation promise that only Europe can fulfill. And if you’re only going between major cities then it probably is your best option in all reality. But there’s a lot more to Europe than its major cities, as I will soon expand upon, and there is so much to see and do that is only accessible by car. Aside from the smaller towns and villages, I think a big part of any trip to Europe should be spent exploring its more natural side. I remember the first time I left Paris and traveled through the French countryside. I was shocked by how many farms and large open spaces I found; beautiful landscapes as bucolic as any I’d ever seen. Europe is of course well loved for its history and important landmarks, but it’s also home to gorgeous lakes, rivers and mountains – all places that really need a car to better visit. So on your next trip to Europe, cast aside any fears you may have and take to the roads, I don’t think you’ll regret it.
Visit smaller towns
The great capital cities of Europe are the stuff of travel dreams. Who doesn’t love the idea of visiting metropolitan centers like London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Rome? And you’re right, they are all amazing and well worth our time as travelers. But Europe is shockingly big and not only that, but in my experience there hasn’t been a small town or village that hasn’t had something interesting to share. Europe’s secondary cities and even smaller more rural hamlets are also an important part of the European experience and are necessary to visit I think if you really want to delve deeper and learn more about whatever country you’re visiting. In Germany, Berlin and Munich are great but so are Freiburg and Esslingen and while you can usually visit these towns via train, renting a car is typically much easier. As you leave the very large cities, train travel is more limited and to reach some areas takes far longer than it should with connections that can at times be confusing. Renting a car can turn a 4-hour trip into a 1-hour jaunt and gives you the flexibility to go where you want when you want, a travel luxury that I always relish.
I’ve said this before, I’m saying this now and I will most likely say it again – don’t be afraid to be a corny tourist. None of us are Anthony Bourdain or Rick Steves and we shouldn’t try to be. We’re on vacation, traveling and we need to make sure we enjoy the experience. This means that it is in fact OK to be a camera toting, crepe eating, Colosseum visiting tourist. Don’t let the hipsters and egocentric travelers tell you to always get off the beaten path and to only go local. Sure, this is good once in a while as I just wrote about, but on the whole don’t be afraid to embrace your inner tourist. There’s a reason why everyone who visits Paris goes to the Eiffel Tower, in London Westminster Abbey and in Rome the Forum. They’re awesome! They have always been awesome, they will always be awesome and you should see them. So ignore those nay-sayers and instead go, see the famous sites and enjoy yourself.
Hotels can be an issue in Europe. Absent, for the most part, are those brands many of us have come to trust and in their places are smaller, boutique hotels the quality of which are unknown. Choosing a hotel outside of the major capital cities can be a challenge. They mostly all look fine online and the reviews tend to be almost entirely useless. When in doubt I try to find the nearest 5-star hotel, but in many smaller cities and towns those simply don’t exist. In their place are a hodge podge of 3 & 4 star accommodations unknown in their service, standards and quality. There’s no way of knowing if it’s good or not until you show up, at which point it’s too late. So do your research and more importantly, ask people who have been there for recommendations. TripAdvisor is ok for giving a broad idea, but it’s great (one of them) failing is that how we perceive hotels is very subjective. Someone from the UK may not care if the room is comfortable or not, as long as there’s a bed and no visible evidence of a murder having been committed on the premises. Whereas an American will be more picky, expecting spacious rooms, air conditioning and so forth. So be sure to consider the geographical source of those online reviews you read. Ultimately though, it’s a crap shoot and you have to eventually go with your gut after doing as much research as possible. Note: This is where some travel specialists come in handy as they have firsthand knowledge of the areas you plan to visit.
Don’t be afraid
Travel has always been a scary proposition for many travelers, especially if it’s their first time leaving the country and heading overseas. Recent events around the world involving terrorists honestly haven’t helped things either. Many in the travel industry have reacted in one of two ways; they either ignore that a problem exists or just tell tourists to ignore it in a blanket statement. While I agree that tourists shouldn’t let terrorism affect their travel plans, I think it’s amazingly narrow-minded to ignore that those fears exists. Travel can be scary. Terrorism is scary. Combining the two doesn’t create warm and fuzzy feelings. So we in the travel world have a responsibility to 1) encourage travelers to keep visiting Europe but 2) also helping them work through whatever fears they may have. My best advice is to travel as you would normally, but to always be smart and stay aware of your surroundings. That’s good advice anywhere you go to be honest and should be at the heart of our travel security experience. But don’t let the bad guys keep you from visiting some of the most beautiful cities and regions found anywhere in the world. Europe is special, there’s nothing quite like it and is a continent and assemblage of countries I will never, ever get tired of visiting. These places both simultaneously live up to our preconceptions of them while surprising us with new and wondrous sights. It’s a place with warmhearted people, delicious food and a history that boggles the mind. You owe it to yourself to visit and visit as often as you can, but do so with your head held up high in defiance of those thugs who would prefer you stay holed up in your home, afraid of the world around you.