On my first trip to Europe in 1980 I only visited London but made memories that will last a lifetime. I won’t lie, though, I had a bit of a rocky start. I got off the train from Gatwick Airport at Victoria Station and nervously hailed a cab. I read out my hotel address and the cab driver drove me the two blocks to my hotel! Clearly, I had a thing or two to learn. I settled in and was thrilled to visit the classic museums, hang out in the parks and shop in the iconic London department stores. I learned a trip like that can be a great introduction to travel abroad. You don’t have to have a crazy, adventure experience to make wonderful memories. While I am by no means an expert, in the last couple of years I have learned more about traveling through Europe and how to make it a comfortable AND fabulous experience. These are my quick five tips for a first European vacation.
1. Start in a small country. Often fares to Ireland, Denmark, or Portugal are less expensive than the biggest cities. These are great destinations to start out your trip. Small countries have smaller airports and the logistics of getting to your hotel or Airbnb are much simpler. Starting your trip at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris can be really overwhelming. I found the people in smaller countries tend to be friendly and helpful to first-time visitors.
2. Start in a country where English is common. Europe is wonderfully different from America even when you don’t factor in the language differences. If you begin your trip in Edinburgh, you will get a taste of those differences and yet still be able to manage the challenges of being in a completely new place. Again, Denmark, Sweden, and Ireland are great starting points. We struggled to find the Ice Bar in Stockholm and needed to stop at least half a dozen people to get directions. Everyone spoke perfect English and was incredibly helpful.
3. Explore your neighborhood first. Fight the urge to run to the Louvre the minute you hit Paris. After years of waiting to see the spots on your bucket list, it can be tough to hold yourself back but if you spend some time making your neighborhood a home base your entire trip will feel more comfortable and relaxed. Naturally the big sites are packed with tourists and can feel overwhelming. If you spend some time sitting in a local café, people watching and getting the lay of the land you will learn so much about the amazing European culture you came to see. Then see the Louvre!
4. Plan the important stuff and leave the rest to chance. We always make sure we know how to get from the airport to the hotel and what form of transportation we plan to take in a new city. We check online before we leave to see if our most important sites require advanced tickets or have unusual hours. We would have waited in a huge line at the Hamburg Minatur Wunderland if we hadn’t bought our tickets before we left home. This was an important stop for us so we made sure to plan ahead. Also leave some things to chance. The parks we just stumbled on in Hamburg turned out to be a highlight of our time there.
5. Meet the people. On the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm we chose to not sit together and this led to a lovely morning chatting with a Swedish gentleman headed to a month alone on his family’s own island. The times we got out of our comfort zone and asked for help or were just willing to start a conversation with a stranger led to some of our favorite memories. It really is about the people.
Do you have any tips for first timers?
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