Europe for beginners: what you need to know
Step one: slow down. Take your time.
It's tempting, when you plan that big first trip to Europe, to try to do everything, to fit every single highlight into a whirlwind tour around perhaps the planet's most diverse continent. You want to eat pasta in Rome, and stand on top of the Eiffel Tower, and smoke a joint in Amsterdam, and party in Dubrovnik, and, and...
You can't do it all. Unless you've got years up your sleeve, you're going to have to do some culling. That's one of the keys to enjoying your first stint.
I got an email a few weeks ago from a guy who's about to set off on his first overseas adventure. His question – "Got any tips for a first-time visitor to Europe?" – sounded like a perfect topic. So here we go.
First, the culling. Europe is an incredibly diverse continent full of bucket-list, postcard locations, and you can't do them all. If you even attempt to do them all you'll spend more time on buses, trains and planes that you will actually seeing things.
So here's a tip: choose a top five, your must-dos for that first OS adventure. Maybe it's drinking in the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, or eating tapas in Barcelona, or visiting the Tate Modern in London. Whatever it is, mark those down and plan your trip around them. The between bits will start to fall into place.
Then you have to figure out how you're getting around. Gnarled old travel dudes like me will tell you to forget about tours and go independent, but that's not necessarily the case. Think about what's right for you. People might sneer at the drunken tour passengers, but the drunken tour passengers are having a ball.
Maybe start off with a short tour, a 10-dayer, to find your feet in Europe and meet some people. If you fancy the idea of an organised tour like a Contiki or a Topdeck, go for it. If you'd rather a bit more freedom, think about something like Busabout – your transfers and accommodation are organised, but you have far more spare time to explore.
Prefer to go independent? It's easy enough in Europe. Book hostels ahead using sites like HostelBookers and HostelWorld. Book train tickets online. Book budget flights well in advance. And remember that using intercity buses is often much cheaper than trains or planes.
Don't avoid the clichés. The Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower and Charles Bridgeare all extremely popular with tourists for a reason: they're amazing. Don't feel you have to get off the beaten track just for the sake of it. If the big-ticket items appeal to you, then go and see them.
By the same token, don't do everything the guidebook tells you. It might say the Louvre is an absolute must-do on a trip to Paris, but maybe you'd have a better day searching for Blek le Rat pieces on alley walls.
Travel in the shoulder seasons. July, August and September are mental in Europe, when you'll be sharing every single experience with millions and millions of your closest friends. Accommodation will be booked out, or expensive. Trains will be full.
Think about going in autumn or spring. Or better yet, if you don't mind the cold, go in winter. You'll feel like you have the place to yourself.
Another thing to consider when you're timing your trip, however, is festivals. Europe does a mean festival, from Oktoberfest to San Fermin to La Tomatina to Biennale to Glastonbury to Exit to Tomorrowland. Get along to any one of those and your holiday just became a lot more memorable.
Be wary of scams. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That hot Eastern European girl isn't necessarily talking to you because you're so charming. Those guys aren't befriending you because you seem like such a cool Aussie. Go with your instincts.
Try to get to at least one of Budapest, Krakow or Lisbon. They're all amazing, and underrated. (Although when planning this, take the "do what you want" paragraphs into account.)
Learn at least a tiny bit of the local language. Even if it's just asking, "Do you speak English?" This very small amount of effort will get you a long way.
Pack light. You don't need three pairs of jeans in a European summer. You don't need a big tub of laundry detergent. You don't need special "travel" clothes with extra zips bought from some rip-off store.
You do, however, need a towel. And at least one set of decent clothes to wear when you decide to go for that fancy dinner and don't want to look like a backpacker for a night.
Lash out on a few amazing experiences that are out of your price range. Budget travel will make your trip last longer but if you plan for one expensive dinner, or a night in a big hotel, or gondola ride in Venice, or high tea in London, or anything similar, you'll never forget it.
And on that note, my last tip is probably the most important: take lots of money. Lots of money. As much as you can possibly save. And then some more. Don't be the people drinking in the hostel lounge at night because they can't afford to go out. You didn't come all this way to not see the sights.
Take a few more months to save before you go. Be stingy at home so you can lash out when you're away.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/travel/blogs/the-backpacker/europe-for-beginners-what-you-need-to-know-20131029-2we34.html