10 Things to Know Before Going to Europe

Over the summer, I did what many people dream of- I took a European tour. It was my graduation gift (only a year late, but it allowed us to save up the money to make it more extravagant). My mom and I took our first international flight together for a nearly three-week-long, multi-country trip. We booked the group tour through an agency and traveled via motorcoach with the same people and the same guide the entire time. We went to six different cities in Italy, Switzerland, France and England. After taking such a wonderful trip with my mother, we learned a lot of things that we would do differently. Here are 10 things to know before going to Europe!

Photo by Courtney White

Burano Island, Italy - My mom and I after a seafood lunch (I had chicken and fries)

  1. 1. When booking through an agency, know what extras they charge for.

    Often, when you go through a tour group, they have little excursions you can go on. If you go on a cheaper trip, they tend to have hotels rather far from the city center (for example, our hotel “in Venice” was nearly a half-hour away from the dockyards to get into the city). They do this so you go on their excursions that they charge extra for. Sometimes, it’s better to get into a city and do your own thing rather than following around the guide. It’ll also save you money in the long run.

  2. 2. In many places (especially Italy) you have to pay for bathrooms.

    Italy is infamous for this; all these tourist spots tend to be outdoor locations that are many centuries old. They also have to deal with hundreds of thousands of tourists a day. In a way, it makes sense to charge for the bathrooms. Often, they're very well cleaned too because of the pay going into them. In Pisa, there’s a McDonald's that make you show them your purchase a receipt to use the restroom (my mom and I got a small french fry). Our guide was also helpful in pointing out free, clean restrooms at every spot. Just make sure you carry some spare change in case you gotta go!

  3. 3. Where are the condiments?

    A lot of places in Europe have little to no condiments. Sometimes, they’ll actually charge you for some. And lord have mercy on your soul if you ask for extra cheese in Italy. Ketchup isn't exactly a hot commodity in Europe. The one thing you may find is vinegar for fries in England. You can always ask for some at a restaurant.

  4. 4. Sometimes, alcohol is cheaper than water.

    In Italy and France, it was often cheaper to get a glass of wine than it is to get a bottle of water. Switzerland is moving toward this as well as they try to do away with plastic bottles of water. Europe also doesn't really tend to care how old you are if you ask for a glass of merlot (England being the only place I got carded). My mom and I bought a bottle at JFK before even leaving the US and we continued to refill it. In Italy, almost all fountains are drinkable. The water in Switzerland is also very good because so much of the land is clean and fresh.

  5. 5. Learn bits of the language.

    A little goes a long way. There are key phrases to learn in all languages that I believe are essential to travel. Saying “hello”, and “thank you” to the cashier at the gift shops in their language is always a nice thing to know. Our tour guide taught us how to say “hello”, “thank you”, “you’re welcome”, and “goodbye” in Italian, French, and Swiss German.

  6. 6. Watch for pickpockets!

    There’s a lot of pickpocketing in Europe. My mom and I both bought theft-proof backpacks that have zippers on the inside. This way, they can’t be unzipped from the outside. It’s also a good idea to carry your passport instead of leaving it at the hotel.

  7. 7. Download apps about public transit.

    Although we had transport to and from our hotel and to and from cities, we needed to figure out how to get from location to location. In Paris, my mom and I had to navigate our way from the Musee D’Orsay to the Palace of Versailles (a dream for me to see in person). The palace is about 14 miles from Paris’ city center so it was a short train ride. We downloaded public transit apps for Paris and London and it saved us many times. We were able to navigate the city and see everything we wanted.

  8. 8. Google is gonna be your new bestie.

    Google is so useful for many reasons when abroad. Google Translate, Google Maps, and Image Search are the best. Translate is great for places that don't have menus in English or for translating bus and train stops. Google Maps is useful for finding what's nearby and what there is to see. Image search is great for when you go to eat, and you have no idea what you're ordering. We did this in London when we got Indian food.

  9. 9. Some of the great tourist spots are not always what you expect.

    Some are better, some aren't as you thought; Pisa was one that shocked me. I was thinking “it's just a tilted tower”. But no, it’s much better. The tower leans, like a lot. The basilica there is also breathtaking. Then there’s Versailles. It was astonishing don’t get me wrong, but nothing like I had expected. For starters, there were about 4,000 people in line and we were told the wait was three hours. Needless to say, my mom and I snuck into the line by looking like we knew what we were doing but it was just as crowded on the inside. Do some research!

  10. 10. Enjoy every single second.

    Enjoy it all. Don't spend that time on your phone. I got to know half the people in our group and made some lifelong friendships with people from all over the world. Take as many pictures as humanly possible. Try some weird foods. Buy some dumb knickknack (my personal favorite was a magnet of a portion of the Statue of David). If I could go back and do the trip all over again with my mom, I would in a heartbeat. 

Photo by Courtney White

Venice, Italy - It rained this day and I didn’t bring a jacket so we bought this super cute “Italian landmark” umbrella