Above: Grassy tram tracks outside UPF in Barcelona, 2022
If you're planning a trip to Europe for the first time, you might feel a little overwhelmed. So much to see and do - where do you go? How do you plan your travel across the continent once you get there?
Besides our custom travel plans, we have some advice for those planning their first European trip. Here are some mistakes first-time travelers make, and how to avoid them.
Problem 1 - Flying around Europe instead of using Flight-Free travel options
Above : Flying over Scotland
If you're visiting the continent from elsewhere in the world, you'll surely be flying in, likely arriving at a large airport like London Heathrow, Madrid Barajas, Frankfurt, or Paris Charles de Gaulle.
However, don't feel the need to hop around the continent by plane once you're there - not only is this terrible for the environment, but you'll miss so much hopping over everything! Trains, ferries, and coaches also allow you to experience more scenery and form part of a place's local fabric in a way planes never can.
Problem 2 - Trying to do the whole continent at once
Above : Inside Karlsruhe Bahnhof
Europe is an entire continent - even if you're here for weeks, you aren't going to see all of it! Many are tempted to try and see everywhere when undertaking such a long journey, but you will end up rushing past everything if you're not careful.
It's the same in reverse - anyone visiting large countries like India, the USA, or Brazil would never be able to see everything in one trip unless they went for months or more! While many European countries are very small by comparison, they add up to make a potentially overwhelming range of destinations for the unprepared traveler.
Problem 3 - Only visiting the Big Cities
Above: Puigcerda, a small but fantastic town in the Catalan Pyrenees
So many visitors, especially first-timers, focus on big cities like London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Rome, but these give very specific kinds of experiences. You can have a great time in these big capitals, of course, but you miss out on so much if you limit your trip to these cities.
These global cities and national capitals tend to have a very different character to the rest of their surrounding nations. On the one hand, that's precisely part of their appeal - their unique qualities - but you need to take that into account when trip planning. If you want to see what Germany is like, you'll only get a fraction of that in Berlin, for example. It would be like visiting just New York and claiming to have 'seen the USA'. As great as that city is, you wouldn't have a full picture of the country at all!
Take the chance to see some villages, towns, and generally make the experience of visiting Europe all your own. Plenty of towns still have good transport connections and amenities for quiet trips, especially if you want to go hiking, swimming, or do other active pursuits.
Problem 4 - Debit/credit cards don't always work everywhere
Above: A cafe price list in Grenoble, 2023
Some countries across Europe are happy to take card payment for everything, while others prefer cash. For example, in the Netherlands and Denmark, electronic payment is accepted everywhere: Denmark is almost cashless. That said, the Netherlands doesn't like VISA cards very much - while this is improving, bear this in mind if you want to visit Amsterdam! On the other end of things, expect to use more cash when in Balkan countries like Serbia. Most of all, carry plenty of Euros when you're in Germany - it's common there for even city center restaurants to have very restrictive card payment policies.
Above: Utrecht canalside
Once you've flown into Europe, plan to travel by public transport - you don't need to fly again! You can still travel long distances, but remember that you won't be able to see the whole continent in one go. That means you probably want to pick a country, a region, or set of cities that suits your interests best.
Maybe the Italian Alps, the French Mediterranean coast, the big cities of Belgium and the Netherlands… a tour of Bulgaria, ferry-hopping around the Baltic Sea, or just spending a week based in Vienna and exploring the surrounding area by a series of day trips out of the city.
When you know exactly where you want to go in Europe, take full advantage of trains, coaches, and buses to get out into towns, large and small alike. You'll get a much more individual experience that way and see a more 'real', honest side of wherever you're going.
It just takes a little travel planning - look at your options in advance, but take advantage of regular transport schedules to be spontaneous where possible! For visitors from the USA or Canada - don't expect train travel in Europe to resemble domestic air travel. Those who only have experience of Amtrak or VIA Rail may understandably expect trains in Europe to resemble domestic air travel, with advance booking required, security and baggage checks, and infrequent departures only a few times a day…
With only a few exceptions (namely the Eurostar from London to Paris/Brussels/Amsterdam), trains in Europe just let you walk up and get on - you need a ticket or pass, but many can be bought on the spot if necessary. Longer high-speed or international train journeys still need more planning and advance booking, and you really should reserve a seat on any German ICE (intercity express). Speaking of long-distance trains, remember that night trains are an option. This is especially true if your trip goes through Vienna at any point - the city is Europe's night-train hub!
However, for public transport within any given country, take advantage of frequent, cheap departures and use trains as the backbone of your first Europe trip. Save money, reduce your carbon footprint, and most of all, have a better time on your first visit to Europe! If we can help, get in touch and take advantage of our custom trip planning services.