Once upon a time, a nineteen-year-old me was sitting in Brisbane’s International Airport lounge, waiting to embark on the grand adventure that was Europe. If I could turn back the sands of time and talk to that pre-departed me, I would hand her this list and tell her to treat it like gospel. And, get her to stop fake tanning her legs (seriously, it doesn’t work out). Here are 25 things I wish I knew before I travelled to Europe.
1. Unless you’re Superman Junior, chances are that you’re going to get sick within a few weeks of setting foot overseas. It’s like, guaranteed. The best rule of thumb is to play it safe. Ensure you’re taking the right medication, keep hydrated and don’t be afraid to get an extra few hours of beauty sleep.
2. In most parts of Europe, you must fork out the funds to use public toilets. This charge can range from €0.50 cents to €1.00, and is used to cover the expenses of maintaining the porcelain throne rooms. Some places are governed by a turnstile, which only lets you in after you’ve paid the correct change; others by an attendant or an honesty bowl. To save yourself some hassle (and holding up the line), ensure you keep some small change on your person.
3. While most European countries have banned smoking inside public buildings or transport, everywhere else is free reign. So, whether you want to or not, you’ll have to become more tolerant of smoking.
4. Buy food and alcohol at the local supermarket, rather than when you’re out. This saves you a tonne of moolah – especially in places like Switzerland, where a 500ml bottle of beer can cost almost six dollars more than its retail companion.
5. Neck pillows are a supportive and versatile travel companion. They can be a head pillow, a lower-back supporter, a bottom cushioner, a knee reliever or even a laptop elevator. Who knew?
6. Learning some basic phrases before heading overseas is a huge bonus. Communicating with the people you meet in their native language – even if your wayward attempt is a little butchered or simplistic – shows manners, consideration and resolve. Locals will appreciate the extra effort and, in some cases, even reward you for it (hello, enthusiastic customer service!). Some must-know phrases to learn include: ‘hello’; ‘goodbye’; ‘yes’; ‘no’; ‘thank-you’; and, ‘sorry’.
7. Ziploc bags are God’s gift to travelers. These little plastic wonders are great for things that are wet (like damp towels or togs) or things that might unscrew themselves and leak all over the inside of your suitcase (we’re looking at you, sun cream).
8. You should keep a water bottle in your bag. Water bubblers are often few and far in between in most European cities (except in Rome, where there’s over two thousand), so keep a water bottle with you to keep yourself hydrated. Otherwise, you’ll spend a large hunk of your trip searching for a lick of H2O.
9. Don’t use a car for sightseeing around big city centres. Often, hair-tearing pains such as gridlocked traffic and one-way streets will waste huge chunks of your sightseeing time. On top of THAT, parking fees are so extortionate in most major cities that you’ll consider taking out a second student loan. Just nope.
10. Regardless of whatever justifications you have in your head while packing, stick to the mantra that if you didn’t need it at home, then you won’t need it overseas. Because with that little titbit in mind, you’ll be sure to weed out the non-necessities and free up some space for some well-deserved souvenirs.
11. Not all hostels offer towels. So, one thing’s for sure: if you bring your own towel then there’s no reason to buy one. Simples.
12. Always keep a map on you. When the Norwegian road signs begin to muddle your fuddle, it’s time to whip out the all-appealing English-labelled map. For phone lovers, the maps.me app is perfect for keeping you oriented, and doesn’t require internet. For travelers who love the feel of paper in hand, then you can pick a detailed map up from most information or tourist centres.
13. Each city has its own little quirks when it comes to public transportation. In Paris, for example, you need a ticket to get into a Metro station. In London, however, you need a ticket to both enter and exit an Underground station. Spending an extra five minutes to understand each city’s unique differences (and NOT binning your rather expensive train ticket) will save you a whole world of pain.
14. Not all countries in Europe have ‘clean’ tap water so check that the water is safe to drink before putting it in your mouth. Drinking unsafe tap water can unleash Pandora’s box on your digestive system, and give you diarrhoea, typhoid or cholera. Yikes! A quick research online often reveals if the tap water is a-okay.
15. In some places, trains are better than buses for localized travel; while in others, buses or trams have the top spot. Think of it like a game of paper, scissors, rock. Find out which public transportation beats out the others to ensure you get maximum free time during your travels.
16. Most hotel showers in Europe have a weird glass thing that only half-covers the potential water spray area. Don’t bother trying to understand it – it’s beyond useless. Just don’t slip and twist an ankle on the huge puddles of water that will inevitably end up on your bathroom floor… despite your collection of bathroom mats.
17. If a street vendor even makes you feel pressured or discomforted when trying to sell you something, be polite but firm. Don’t string them along just because they’re waving their selfie sticks all up in your face. Tell them you don’t want their products, and then hightail it out of there.
18. An umbrella in the bag means you won’t hit a snag. A small, compactable umbrella is a must-have for European travelers. In the hotter climates, you can use the umbrella to shield yourself from the sun, and in wetter climates, the umbrella can shield you from the rain (duh). Plus, a collapsed umbrella hoisted in the air is also a great way to keep track of friends in crowded areas.
19. When temperatures start to sore, prepare for the inevitable back sweat, because AC hasn’t quite made its way into Europe yet. Instead, you’ll have to make-do with open windows and plug-in fans.
20. That small flat white you’re eyeing up might look cheap, but remember the conversion rates. The €2.85 you’re thinking of forking out converts to around $4.10 Australian dollars. And I think we can all agree no one except a caffeine-deprive coffee addict would pay that much for such a small pick-me-up.
21. If you’re not interested, don’t go. Don’t squander your time and well-earned dollars seeing countries, cities or places you’re not interested in. Spend it on the places you’d give your right arm to see – after all, you never know when you might be back!
22. Understand that you won’t always have time to see everything. This is one of those heartbreakingly frank things about life that we each must come to terms with (que sad violin music). The key to this little hiccup is prioritizing the things you absolutely MUST see over those sites that’ll make you go ‘meh’.
23. Renting a bike is a great way to see most European cities. It’s affordable, allows you to do your own thing at your own pace and (let’s be honest here) a great way to shape up those legs. Beats taking the Tube!
24. Where there’s a beach, there’s boobs. Europe (especially France) has different cultural concepts when it comes to nudity. There, uncovered breasts (both male and female) are an accepted part of beach bathing.
25. In most places in Europe, the tips are included in the bill. If they aren’t, then an appropriate tip is five to eight per cent of the bill, which should be paid in cash.