Your first trip "across the pond" is an exciting milestone - and it can also be a bit intimidating! Check out these tips to help you feel more informed and prepared for your first trip to Europe!
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It's taken me a while to feel confident enough to write this post, but here we go! I'm so excited to finally be giving advice for a first trip to Europe! While you're here, be sure to poke around the rest of the website and look up specifics for the country you'll be visiting!
For Americans, visiting Europe is hugely exciting, and feels almost like a right of passage. We've grown up learning about it, but never seeing it, and not having access to anything even close to as old as the vast majority of buildings we'll get to explore on our trips!
That said, I've compiled quite a few tips that I think Americans should know before we go to Europe. I'll continue adding to it, as I travel more and think of even more pointers! I took my first trip to Europe when I was 26, though I had quite a bit of experience traveling in the U.S. and surrounding areas over on our side of the Atlantic. While at the time I felt that it had taken me "forever" to "finally get to Europe," in hindsight, it allowed me to glean a lot from the experience, and to notice a lot of differences and travel tips to pass along, as I was an adult. If you're interested in a similar post about taking your first long haul flight, check out What You Need to Know Before a Long Haul Flight!
A couple of housekeeping points before we get started: First, I am American. I'm not European and I cannot pretend to know all there is to know about being in Europe! However, I have been to Europe 5 separate times in the last 4 years, with two upcoming trips on the books, and I hope to offer some insights as a traveler to my fellow travelers. If you have additional insights to offer, please pop by the comment section!
Additionally, I'm going to include tips about visiting the UK in this post - though in a few places, I'll call out differences that I'm aware of between the UK and other places in Europe. The UK is similar to the US in many, many ways, but many of the practicalities, such as using your cellphone, will apply across the board to international travel, regardless of whether you're in Europe or the UK.
Here we go!
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A First Timer's Guide to Europe: Where to visit in Europe
First things first! Where in Europe are you going to visit during your first trip? Most likely, you're going to want to start with one of the "major" tourist destinations for visiting Americans: London/Scotland, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam. In those major destinations, you'll have tons to see (more than enough for one visit in any of these places), easy day trips, lots of English speakers, and tourist-friendly spots. While you'll have a great time in any of those places, for me, I think Edinburgh, Scotland is a great destination for a first trip to Europe for Americans. Edinburgh is served by a nice, but small and manageable airport, and the city itself is an absolute gem. Of course there's no language barrier, and the UK has great and easy transit, so you can pop all around the country for day trips!
For more on why you'll love Scotland, check out the full post, and for more help picking where to go in Europe, check out the full post!
A First Timer's Guide to Europe: What to expect at European hotels
Ah visiting hotels in foreign countries! Always an adventure!
The good news for my American readers is that European hotel rooms aren't too terribly different from those you're used to in the States, at least on the big, important points. They have similar "star" ranking systems, relating to amenities and relatively "niceness" of the hotels and you can generally expect to find similar things to what you would find in American hotels: work-out rooms, dining options, etc.
That said, don't expect European hotels to be identical to American ones. It is actually these differences that motivated me to write this post. When I'm booking my trips, I often find the most *scathing* reviews of European hotels by Americans who just don't seem to know that some of these differences are just what you're going to find at any hotel in Europe. I'm definitely not saying that you have to love these differences, but they are just what you get when you're "across the pond!"
European hotels rooms are small
Are hotel rooms in Europe small? Yes. They're tiny. This is just something you need to be prepared for. Their small size is a factor of a few things: first, European hotels are often in old buildings that were either converted from a previous use, or have been taverns/inns for centuries. Of course, you're likely to be visiting a major city, in which hotels rooms are going to always be smaller. And, finally, there is just less space in Europe. They don't have massive, sprawling cities where they can just plop a new hotel room out past the interstate, especially close to the areas where tourists want to visit! They also choose to have more densely populated cities and have a different city structure than Americans (expensive areas in Europe are often in the heart of the city, whereas in the US wealthy residents often tend to live in suburbs, though of course this isn't always the case in either place).
What does this mean for you?
When picking a hotel, read the dimensions of the room you're booking. You may be shocked how small it is. We almost always want to upgrade at least one level above the "basic" hotel room. Also, be sure to check what type of bed you're getting. Europeans tend to sleep in smaller beds than Americans. Many rooms for two people will actually have a "double" bed (European friends - this is almost unheard of in American hotel rooms) which is sometimes two twin beds pushed together, or sometimes just a small bed that can technically accommodate two people. If you need a big bed, you're most likely to find them in upgraded rooms or in American hotel chains. And, be prepared with your packing to be able to put everything away in the tiny room. I like packing cubes for this purpose- keeps everything organized!
Getting your caffeine fix
The vast majority of European hotels that I have stayed in have "coffee or tea facilities" in the hotel rooms. That said, Europeans do not constantly guzzle "drip" coffee in the same way that we Americans do. Depending on the country you're visiting, they tend to focus more on tea (UK) or plain espresso and espresso-based drinks (Spain, Italy, France).
So, you will likely find either a Nespresso maker (which is a lower-powered version of an espresso machine), or a "kettle"/"jet boiler" that heats hot water, accompanied by little baggies of instant coffee or bags of tea. It's definitely enough to keep you from getting a lack-of-caffeine headache, first thing in the morning, even if it's not what you're used to! This will likely be your first introduction to the struggle (not really a struggle) to find coffee. More on that later.
Navigating bathrooms in European hotels
On the whole, bathrooms aren't largely different in European hotels from most American ones. They do have a *slightly* more lax view of shared bathrooms, so just be sure that your booking references "private" or "en suite" bathroom, though this isn't an issue at higher end hotels.
While the bathtub/shower combo is a mainstay of American homes and hotels, not so in Europe, and a lot of European find our "usual" set-up odd. You are likely to find a separate bath and shower. Meaning that most European hotels will have only a shower - it can't also serve a bath. When it can serve as a bath as well, they have recently adopted this super inefficient partial glass barrier to keep the water in, rather than a shower curtain. And, it tends to leak into the bathroom, no matter what you do to prevent it. This is not a failing of your particular hotel, it's just how they do it. I try to just move the shower head so that it's hitting the wall more so than this flimsy glass shower protector thing. I say this only because I have read this complain SO MANY TIMES on TripAdvisor, with Americans saying that their hotel wasn't nice because of it. It may be annoying, but you can't blame any hotel specifically, since most of them are designed that way.
In some countries (such as Italy), you may find a bidet in addition to a toilet. We are 100% not going into detail on that, just an FYI.
Charging your devices in European hotels
Something that is probably worrying you a bit more than it should is how you're going to charge your cellphone, computer, tablet, etc. in a European hotel. First things first, keep in mind that all European countries use different "plugs" than American ones - your hair straightener and, of course, any charging plug for a laptop, phone, tablet will not be able to be directly plugged into the wall without some form of a power adapter.
Before your trip, you should buy a few power converters that will allow your American plugs to plug into the wall at your hotel.
Important note: Not all countries use the same converters. You need to look up which one to use, depending on where you're going (it says in the Amazon description).
That said, many hotels are accommodating the range of plugs across the world by installing plugs next to the bed that have USB plugs or (more rarely) they'll have a variety of plug options or adapters for you. So, you can pull the "plug" part off of most phone chargers and just plug that USB into the wall. Not all hotels will have that, however, and even if they do, they're often just for small devices, so you'll definitely want to have at least some converters. But, you probably don't need to go wild buying converters so that your whole family can charge at the same time, if your hotel has this handy USB hook-up!
A First Timer's Guide to Europe: Dining
Ordering coffee in Europe
Let's work through dining chronologically, starting with your morning coffee! Having already discussed what you may encounter in your hotel room when trying to get caffeinated, let's discuss ordering coffee when you're out and about.
There is a persistent and unassailable assumption by Europeans that Americans drink Americanos. As Americans, we all know that this is untrue. What is an Americano, you ask? An Americano is espresso and super hot water. Ick. The drink was derived by European baristas during WWII, to try to give American GI's the closest thing they could to drip coffee, hence the name. I'm a huge coffee drinker...and I hate Americanos. They're crazy hot, they don't taste good, and they cost 3x as much as drip coffee, since they involve espresso.
The other weird part of Americanos is that it seems to bring European baristas great joy to serve Americanos to Americans. Even when there's a language barrier, I have more than once had a barista declare "Americano!!!" in all seriousness when I'm trying to order and then proudly give me the boiling concoction.
My advice? Just go with it. Pour some milk in it to water it down and cool it off.
Ok, so there are tons of coffee chains throughout Europe, like in the US, including Cafe Nero, Pret a Manger, and of course they have Starbucks. A lot of these places will have "drip" coffee, if you really need it. My advice would be to follow the coffee culture of the place where you are. Drip coffee will be home in your Keurig when you get back. Have a cappuccino in Italy! Drink tea in England!
If you secure "drip" or "American" coffee, or are landed with the ubiquitous Americano, they may ask "white or black?" Which just means do you want milk :)
Different classes of restaurants: pubs, cafes, and restaurants
When picking somewhere to eat, Europeans *tend* to be more open about "categories" of what we broadly call "restaurants" than we are. The type with the least "service" would be a coffee shop - which are just like coffee shops/ Starbucks in the US - order at the counter, pick-up at the counter, you can sit, but you don't have to. Food is often limited to croissants, muffins, or pre-packaged, small items.
One note: at coffee shops or fast dining establishments, like Pret A Manger, sometimes you do have to pay slightly more if you're eating "in," so they may ask that at the counter whether you're dining "in." It's a bit more than "for here or to go," so you need to be honest...and can't really change your mind.
In the UK, the mainstay for basic meals are "pubs" aka my favorite places in the world. Key note for Americans (Brit friends - this almost never happens in the US) - at a pub, you order both your drinks and your food at the bar. You will wait and carry your drinks back to your table, but they will generally give you a number and bring the food to your table (but not always). You can sit at the table all day waiting for someone to wait on you, but that's just not how it works. I love pubs, for the atmosphere, and the more relaxed dining approach. You can stay as long as you please over your pints, and if after an hour you decide you want some food, pop up to the bar and ask for a menu. Much less pressure all around.
The next "level" would be a cafe. Less formal than a restaurant, when I think cafe I think Paris, though of course they have them across Europe. We have cafes in the U.S. - like casual lunch places that often have outdoor dining. You will nearly always have a waiter and menus, as we're used to. "Restaurants" are the same, but generally a bit nicer than a cafe - more of a "dinner" than a lunch place, or the type of lunch place where you'll have a glass of wine.
Longer meals; less attention from your waiter; and less tipping
Let's discuss a few differences in sit-down dining between Europe and the U.S.. This would pertain to "cafes" and "restaurants."
A First Timer's Guide to Europe: Social etiquette
To me, learning about how people interact differently across the globe is part of the fun of travel. That said, it can also be stressful. As we'll discuss below, most people with whom you will interact will speak some English. Learn some basic phrases in the local language, to be polite, as that is the extent of the interaction you will have with many people.
Beyond that, my overall tips are to always say hello and goodbye when you enter and leave shops, never assume anyone speaks English - always ask first before you start chatting at them in English (even if they do speak English, they may consider this too forward), speak more quietly than you are used to, and be mindful of lines. You can never go wrong by backing off, not cutting people, or apologizing. In big cities, always follow the walk on the left, stand on the right rule on escalators (even in England - they don't reverse which side they walk on, just because they drive on the other side from us). Don't talk to strangers. For a discussion of common scams, check out my post on Visiting the Eiffel Tower and Paris's Left Bank.
If you're heading to France, please check out my full post, How to Charm the French, for a discussion of French manners.
A First Timer's Guide to Europe: Practicalities
Will my cellphone work in Europe?
Without paying extra, on most US cellphone plans, the plain answer is no. Your phone will not be able to use "data" when you're abroad, without paying more (sometimes significantly more). That means you'll have to get used to not being able to whip out your phone to look up directions or connect with fellow travelers or people back home.
I always put my phone on "airplane" mode when I step onto the plane, and leave it in "airplane" mode the entire time in in Europe. That way it doesn't try to use data. That said, on my Verizon plan, my phone is able to perform many functions when connected to WiFi (I can iMessage and use WhatsApp, and search the internet). As time goes on, WiFi access is increasingly easy to come by, particularly in areas frequented by tourists. Always download or take pictures of maps, directions, and contact information in case your phone cannot connect to the internet when you were expecting it to. Sometimes the phones just have a hard time connecting to WiFi or the WiFi is bad.
So, with most US cellphone plans, you aren't charged when using your phone's Internet connection capacity, when connected to Internet, to message and keep up with social media. Most hotels have internet, and most pubs, cafes, and coffee shops have accessible internet. Heck, I've been on *buses* that have internet. It's increasingly easy to stay connected while you're abroad. If there are people you need to stay in touch with back home, try connecting with What's App - which is an app that's compatible with WiFi usage.
That said, check with your cellphone carrier before your trip to understand what your plan allows for. I repeat - confirm what you can and can't do before you go!! If you are going to need to be more connected than what I've just described, or if you aren't able to adapt to random WiFi outages or places that should have WiFi but don't, you can usually get cell coverage enabled abroad from your carrier on your existing phone. You'll have to pay extra for this access, but talk to them to see how much that will cost.
Can I use my credit card in Europe?
As with the cell phone, you need to check with your credit card company before you leave the U.S. (Regardless, you want to check with your card company to confirm that they know you're going abroad - you don't want your card to get frozen on suspicion of fraud!).
I have a "travel card" from a major US bank that does not have international transaction fees. Generally, I can use my credit card in the vast majority of places we visited. Occasionally, there are places that do not take credit cards, but this is increasingly rare. During my first trip in 2015, our credit card didn't have a "chip" (I know, right?) and that caused some problems, but now, with a chip, and without international transaction fees, I generally use my credit card for the vast majority of purchases in Europe.
Always have some cash. This is just a best practice. AND, get that cash before you leave home. Many banks will convert money for little or no charge on the front end, but once you're in Europe, you'll be largely at the mercy of companies that charge a fee to change US money into Euros, pounds, etc. Even if it says "no fee," they are generally still making a profit, often by giving you an unfavorable exchange rate. If it seems too good to be true...
A First Timer's Guide to Europe: Visiting tourist attractions
I write a lot about visiting specific places, so you may want to check-out my posts on France/Italy/England/Scotland to learn about individual cities. But as an overall tip, Europeans have a much different approach, on the whole, to buying tickets to tourist attractions than Americans. There is this whole culture of buying tickets "in advance" as opposed to once you arrive.
Interestingly, even if you buy tickets "in advance" or like "skip the line" tickets, you often still have to wait in line. I find this odd on so many levels, but it's actually really important. BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE IF POSSIBLE. It will save you so much time and stress. Always buy tickets directly from the tourist attraction, if you can. There are a lot of "tours" and "skip the line special entry" tickets that are scams (they aren't always, but a lot of them are). Just safe yourself the hassle and buy directly from the museum/location online, in advance.
Other than that, you won't find too many other significant differences when visiting major tourist attractions in Europe. You can rent audioguides, and entry prices will vary depending on which country you are in and how the site is managed. Government-owned locations are generally cheaper than privately-run ones, but that's not always the case.
A First Timer's Guide to Europe: What to Wear in Europe
If you've been following the blog for a while, you'll know that this is one of my absolute favorite parts of travel blogging! I'm fascinated by what people wear in different countries and what's most comfortable and convenient for visitors in those countries.
In general, Europeans dress up more than Americans. They generally do not wear athletic gear/pajamas in public, so put your best foot forward! They can be very touchy about tennis shoes - even nice ones. A lot of places have "no trainer (tennis shoe)" policies and some don't allow jeans/shirts with writing. Be mindful of dress codes, also, in places of worship, which sometimes require modest attire.
Not going to re-hash all of that here, but I will direct you to my existing posts!!
A First Timer's Guide to Europe: Do people speak English in Europe?
In general, yes. In areas that accommodate tourists, most people will speak at least enough English to undertake a transaction, as English is also the "universal" language among Europeans. Definitely take the time to learn a few common phrases in the language of the country you're visiting, just to be polite and fit in. If all else fails, pointing and gesturing is always Ok!
A note on people who do not speak English. Obviously, no one is "obligated" to speak English. I have occasionally heard tourists getting frustrated with staff who did not speak English...a topic for another day. That said, there is also a somewhat common misunderstanding between Europeans and English-speaking tourists. Occasionally, when asked if they "speak English," people will say "no," even if they do speak a bit of English. Though I certainly can't speak for everyone, I have been told by multiple people that this is generally embarrassment or concern at the fact they are not fluent in English. It can be a significant social class issue in certain countries - people who go to elite schools or have international jobs are more likely to speak English - and some people may feel uncomfortable about the fact they do not speak English well and would rather avoid the situation. Similarly, people will often unnecessarily apologize when their English isn't "perfect," even though half the time it's better than mine!
Just be patient, and remember how incredibly lucky we are that our native language is the current lingua franca of Europe!
Thanks for visiting!
Thank you so much for checking out these tips! I hope you have a fabulous first trip to Europe, and don't forget to take tons of pictures. And hey, if you get bitten by the travel bug, maybe you, too, should start a travel blog! xx
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