Guide to travel in Europe

A guide to travelling in Europe.  Mostly aimed at if you haven’t been before, but hopefully there’s something here for everyone.  We’re going to do guides to travelling in South America and South East Asia as well.  They’ll be up sometime soon, so keep an eye out for them.

I guess the first question to ask is do you want to travel yourself, or do you want someone to organise it for you?  We think that for the most part, tours are a shitty way to travel around mainland Europe.  It’s a lot cheaper to do it yourself, and easy enough to organise. From our experience of tours in Europe (making a few generalisations here):

  • If you do an organised tour, you almost never spend as long in a place.  They tend to be a bit rushed
  • The cost, even for the cheapest tours, is generally at least double what you’d pay if you did it yourself.
  • It’s almost always just a bunch of Aussies getting drunk every night.

There are some great tours out there, but they tend to be in less popular places that are a bit harder to travel around.

 

Nah, we can’t really tell you that.  There are no places you HAVE to go.  There are no MUST SEE places.  Where you go is going to be based on what you like and are interested in, not what everyone else likes and does.  If you don’t want to go to Paris, don’t go.  If going to Rome was your childhood dream, go there.  The best thing to do is just do a bit of research online based on the sort of places you want to see.

We did put together three articles here that might help.  They’re not MUST SEE places.  One is just the generally popular places.  And the other two are just a collection of our favourite places.  Which you may love or hate.  But we thought they were cool, so they made the list.

If you’re stuck with how to link all these places up into a nice trip, we made some itineraries based on what we did when we were in Europe.  We called them Journey Ideas, and you can find them here.

Again, there is no real answer to this.
Europe offers lots of different experiences at lots of different times of the year. But here are a few things to consider.

1.  The most popular time to visit Europe is from the end of May to the end of September, which is roughly summertime. The days are longer, the weather is warmer, and you probably won’t get much rain. For most people taking their first trip to Europe, this is when they tend to go.

2.  The negative of going at this time is the amount of other people that have the same idea, and there will be a fuckload of people there. The tourist problem in Europe seems to be getting worse every year. The worst times for this are July and August. We’d recommend avoiding the tourist hotspots at this time. That means Italy pretty well as a whole, Paris, Dubrovnik, Barcelona, and maybe the Greek Islands.

3.  If you can’t go in summer, winter is definitely still an option. A bonus of this is there will be a lot less people in winter.  There are great christmas markets to check out, and Europe has some great ski fields in Europe if you want to ski or snowboard.  And if you’re up north, you might see the northern lights.  Things to remember though:  1) it will be really cold and 2) the daylight hours can be quite limited in a lot of places.

Visas are a little difficult to talk about generally, because whether or not you need one will depend on where you’re from.  So your best bet is to try a quick google search to see if you need one for specific countries.  Saying that, we’ve picked up a bit of handy info along the way, so here are a few things to note.

  1. The Schengen Zone. If you’re travelling in Europe, a lot of the continent (26 countries to be exact) have a free movement agreement that is known as the Schengen Agreement, and are part of what is called the Schengen Zone. For more info on this and a list of all the countries, click here.  The way that it works is that within this zone, you travel passport free – that is, you don’t need to show your passport when moving from country to country.  Essentially, for the purpose of travel, the zone acts as if it were one big country.
    1. How long you can stay in the Schengen zone very much depends on where you are from. For Australia / the US / New Zealand / Canada and 58 other countries that are classed as Annex 2, it’s a maximum of 90 days in every 180 day period.  (see a full list of annex 2 countries with this agreement here)
    2. EU citizens, and citizens of countries in the European Economic Community, don’t need to worry, they can stay visa free as long as they like.
  2. For countries outside the Schengen zone, you really do just have to google and double check that you don’t need a visa.  For the majority you probably won’t but there are a few exceptions (notably Russia and Turkey) so double check before you go.

If you’re looking at going to Europe and spending over three months there, you just have to be careful to only spend three months in Schengen zone countries, and then three months outside of the zone.  This is quite easy to do, as countries such as the UK, Ireland and a lot of Eastern Europe are outside of the  Schengen zone.

Finally, if you’re from New Zealand, you’re in luck.  Some of our kiwi friends have let us know that New Zealand actually has an agreement with many Schengen Zone countries that allows them to stay an extra three months in these countries visa free.  This is apparently due to an old agreement that these countries still honour.  You do need to double check with each embassy and email them before you stay on though.  We found a really good post that details all of this info by Bren on the Road, which you can find here.

If you’re doing a big trip, or even a shorter one, there’s quite a few things that are handy to take.  So we’ve tried to create a bit of a list of things to consider.

A bag / backpack

Ok so you obviously need something to take all of your stuff in. So what should it be? bag? backpack? How big?

  • The first rule is don’t overpack.  You can get away with not taking a lot of clothes and other things, particularly it’s going to be summer and quite warm wherever you’re going.
  • Second, if you’re going to Europe, we’d recommend a backpack over a suitcase.  There are lots of cobbled streets, hostels and hotels will quite often have many flights of stairs, and it won’t be unusual to walk 15-20 minutes to get from a train or bus station to your hostel.  Having travelled with both, a backpack is certainly much easier to handle.
  • Make sure your backpack is properly fitted and supportive.  Most places will do this when you buy them, but it’s pretty simple.  Make sure the bag is tight on your back, and sitting well over your hips.  Tighten the belt strap slightly more than the shoulders, and this should transfer the weight of the bag more onto your hips than your shoulders and back.
  • If you’re looking for specific recommendations… there are a few brands that stand out, and one in particular.  Osprey.  They seem to be the most popular brand with the most positive reviews.  After a lot of research, talking to people and reading online forums, We’d recommend the bag that we have ourselves, the Osprey Farpoint 55L.  Used it on the last trip and it was the best we’ve used so far.

 

 

Things to put in your bag / backpack:

This is going to be quite variable, depending on who you are and how you travel.  So again, we’ll just give you a few different ideas.

 

The main things:

  • Clothes.  Obviously.  But don’t overpack them.  We usually take just enough to get you through 6-7 days, and you can wash after that.
    • Avoid bulky jackets if you can, they just take up too much space.
    • A couple of pairs of shoes (at least one good walking pair) and a pair of flip flops / thongs / jandals / whatever you call them is enough.
    • If it’s summer, one pair of jeans and one warm jumper is more than enough.
  • Toiletries.  If you’re going for a long trip, probably forget about the little travel size ones, as you’ll just run out.  Make sure you don’t forget sunscreen and mosquito repellant.
  • A towel.  Lots of people travel with microfibre towels because of their size.  They’re pretty horrible though.  So up to you if you opt for one of those or just a normal towel
    • A lot of the time you’ll have to travel just after showering and your towel will still be wet.  So hang it to the outside of your bag to let it dry while you’re on the move.

Other things we usually take:

  • A kindle, or the kindle app on your phone.  Lots of long train and bus trips, it’s always handy to have something to read
  • A tablet or a laptop.  Up to you, but if you’re booking an organising things on the go, this can be easier than trying to do it on your phone or on a hostel / hotel computer.
  • Some sort of knife with corkscrew.  The knife for making lunches.  The corkscrew because most bottles of wine in Europe are corked.
  • Combination padlocks to lock your bag and locker.
  • A travel pillow (one that turns inside out is great, and you can clip it to the outside of your bag to save on space)
  • A little bag to put all your chargers and cords in.  It helps a lot with organisation.

 

A camera

Lots of people actually travel without a camera now, and just take photos on their phone.  Which is generally fine as well. If you want to get photos that are just a little bit higher quality though, it can be worth getting yourself a camera. We won’t pretend to be absolute experts in cameras, but we’ve used a few different types, and here’s what we’ve picked up:

  • For high quality, more professional photos, get an SLR camera. The downside to this is the size, and that they take a bit of getting used to.
  • For a lot of action shots, get a go-pro.  They are great for swimming, snow sports and extreme activities.  The picture quality is not quite as good as a DSLR though
  • For ease and practicality, get a compact travel zoom camera. This is what we’ve used the most.  Panasonic has a great TZ series (we’ve used the Tz70), and sony has a great RX series (we’ve used the RX 100).  Most of these now have wifi too, so you can transfer your photos straight to your phone or tablet to upload.
Organising a strategy as to how you’re going to pay for things and use your phone when you’re overseas will save you a lot.  We like to travel cheaply, so it’s something we always research quite a lot before we leave.

A way to pay for things:

Organising a way to pay for things overseas can save you a huge amount of money.  So it’s important to research and organise the best card to use before you go. Depending on where you’re from, what you get will be different.  We can only really speak for Australians, as that’s where we’re from.  So, for Aussies:

  • Hands down the best card to travel with is a Citibank debit mastercard. You can apply for it online.  It gives you free ATM withdrawals worldwide, and you get the listed exchange rate (rather than one set by the bank)
  • The other option is 28 degrees mastercard.  This card does charge for ATM withdrawals and cash advances, at a rate of 3%, so it’s not great to use at ATMs. But you won’t get charged for international transactions, so you can pay for things on your card without a fee.  You’ll also get the listed exchange rate, rather than one set by the bank.
  • Avoid using your own bank card, or any of the travel money cards that the banks or post offices have.  The exchange rates are much worse.

There are also a few general rules that we usually follow when overseas:

  • Avoid exchanging money at the airport.  The exchange rates are terrible.
  • Where possible, avoid exchanging cash at all.  You’re much better to get a good card and withdraw your money from an ATM.  If you’ve done your research, you’ll almost always get a better rate.
  • If you do want to exchange and take a little cash for when you arrive, make it a minimal amount.  Lots of people like to do this for security.  There’s generally not too much of a need for it though, as there will always be an ATM at the airport or train station.

 

Your Phone

 

A pretty common question is what to do with your phone when you go overseas. Unfortunately for those of us who don’t live in Europe, most carriers still charge ridiculous international roaming rates.  This means that using your own number overseas isn’t really an option.

As of July 2017, all countries within the European Union have free international roaming. What this means is that you can buy a sim card in any EU country, and you can use the card both there and anywhere else that you travel within the EU.  This is easily the best and cheapest option. You just need to check that your phone is unlocked before you leave, so you can use other sim cards.

Use WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook Messenger, rather than texting or calling.  As long as you have data to use, it’s a lot cheaper and easier.

If you desperately need to use your own number overseas, and it’s not a European number, learn how to toggle international data roaming on and off, so that you don’t have it on and get charged a huge bill.

 

Booking flights overseas can be one of the most daunting things to do.  It can also be quite expensive.  But there are a few general tips and rules that you can follow to make sure you get the cheapest flights you can.  We’ve put together an article on how to find cheap flights that outlines all the tips and tricks that we’ve picked up.  Have a read of that for some more in depth info.  And as far as some general tips go…

  • Search your flights on large websites like skyscanner to get an idea of the average price and journey time.
  • Book early.  The best times tend to be quite a few months prior to the flight (if you’re super organised), or around 6 weeks before you leave.
  • Be flexible with your days and times.  Flying on weekdays and early morning / late night can be cheaper.
  • If you’re not sure which airline to take, head to a website like airlineratings.com to get an overview and read reviews.
  • When you actually do book, go to the actual airline website and book directly through there.
There are a huge number of options and things to consider when booking your accommodation, most of which deserves it’s own article (which we’re working on and will hopefully have up soon).  But here is a quick guide to get you started:

 

What are the options

Hostels. Our number one option, particularly if you’re travelling solo and want to meet people.   We always use Hostelworld to search for hostels and book online, and it seems to be the easiest and most popular hostel booking site.  A lot of the hostel experience can depend on whether or not you pick a good one, so have a look at our article on finding a good hostel.

Hotels.  We usually use booking.com to search for and book any hotels.  More expensive, but good to book into for a night or two if you need to relax (or longer if you have a bigger budget).

Airbnb.  For a cheaper alternative to a hotel, head to airbnb.com. In our opinion this is better than a hotel. You can find some really nice Airbnb places to stay, and it’s generally a lot cheaper.  Our general advice would be to look at these in the really big cities like London Paris or Rome, where the hostels can be more expensive and usually aren’t as good.  They can also be a good alternative in smaller places where there aren’t a lot of hostels.

Couchsurfing.  If you’re on a super tight budget, head to couchsurfing.com.   It’s a community of people sharing their couches for accommodation.  It’s a little more difficult as you have to complete a full profile, and it can be harder to find places to stay when you want, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.  Even if you don’t use couchsurfing as a place to stay, the site also organises meet-ups and activities at different times, which are great to check out and a good way to meet people too.

 

Do you need to book far in advance

This really depends where you are going. Europe is getting more popular by the year, and in July and August in particular we definitely recommend booking early as places sell out quickly. The more popular places you probably need to book at least a few weeks in advance.

If you’re going to be somewhere over a weekend, book early as well, as places do book out faster. A couple of weeks in advance and you’ll generally be ok.

For less popular places, or if you’re travelling outside of peak times, if you book accommodation just a few days in advance you’ll never really get stuck. But hey, even if you do, that’s all part of the journey.

If you are really flexible, you can book places on the go, either the day before you go or the day you arrive.  It’s not as easy as it was a few years ago, mainly due to how popular Europe has become the last few years.  Places do tend to book out, so you might find yourself stuck at times or not being exactly where you want when you want.  But if that doesn’t worry you too much, it’s quite a fun way to travel!

Getting around Europe is relatively easy, particularly when compared with other continents. The entire continent has a great transport system with a huge number of links between different cities, via bus, train, plane and car. So what are the options, what’s best, and how do you book?

Before explaining all the options, it’s worth noting that a lot of your transport you can book quite easily on the go. There are a few exceptions, but most of the time you wouldn’t need to book anything more than a day or two in advance. It can sometimes be cheaper to book earlier (for example if you’re taking a long train journey that crosses borders, or when visiting certain countries like Germany or France), most of the time you won’t lose out on too much by booking a little later. And we think it’s worth it to have that extra bit of flexibility rather than having to stick too tightly to a schedule.

 

Train travel in Europe

When a lot of people think of travelling around Europe, they think of travelling by train. Inter-railing, with a Eurail pass, seems to be what a lot of people associate with European travel. So a little about this:  Unless you get your rail pass on a super special, it’s definitely not worth it. The deals are generally restrictive on the number of trips and timeframe that you have to use them, and it doesn’t work out all that cheaply anyway when compared with other options.

For train travel in general, whether or not you take the train will depend on which country you are in. For some countries, it’s by far the most efficient way to travel (Italy, Germany, France, Switzerland, England / UK). However, it’s definitely a little (or at times a lot) more expensive than either the bus or even flying.

As far as booking goes, there are a few options, but here is what we would generally do:

  1. Browse timetables on an easy to use website like thetrainline or raileurope.
  2. Go to the actual railway website of the specific country if you’re going to book online, to avoid fees.
  3. Double check that you can pick your tickets up at the station / you can do online bookings.
  4. If not, don’t stress, you can just go to the station and book there before you leave.

Seal tip: As far as travelling between countries and crossing borders goes, the train is almost never the cheapest option. Prices seem to go up exponentially if you’re crossing a border, and if you have the time, you’re much better off to cross borders via bus.

 

Bus Travel in Europe

The bus network in Europe is generally great. The company that you take will depend on where you are, but they are all generally good and reasonably comfortable, and many now also have wifi and powerplugs to charge your phone / laptop / camera / whatever else you have.

Go Euro is generally our go to website for this.  It’s a site that will show you all of the different bus options for getting from A to B. It’s really easy to use. If you search on there first, then when you come to book it usually links you to the specific company website to book through.

Flixbus is the biggest and most popular bus company. They have great connections, comfortable buses, and a lot of the time have wifi (although often it’s not great). Their website is easy to use, and they also have an app, where you can store all of your tickets as well as buy new tickets. It’s super easy to use, and a must have if you’re heading over to Europe.

Busabout is another company that you may hear about and use while in Europe.  They offer a hop on hop off bus service that travels around most of Europe.  Compared with the other options, Busabout is a lot more expensive, and we wouldn’t really recommend it as a good cheap way to get about.  The company also offers guided tours of some places, which are popular, but again always quite expensive in comparison with doing it yourself.

For more region specific advice, take a look at either our journey ideas or country overviews, as we’ll always try and include specific info on the transport options for each place.

 

Plane travel in Europe

Flying is an ok way to get around, but we wouldn’t recommend relying on it as your primary means of getting around Europe. Getting to and from airports can be tricky and expensive, particularly for early morning departures or late night arrivals.  It’s also really time consuming, first getting to the airport early, then going through security, checking in and so on. Saying all of that, sometimes if you’re travelling a long distance it’s definitely still going to be the best option.

For more detailed advice on booking flights, have a look at our article on how to find cheap flights.  Here are a few general recommendations.

  • Go to skyscanner to search for the cheapest flights for your route.
  • There are a few cheap airlines to look out for in Europe.  In particular, RyanAir and EasyJet have a lot of cheap flights and service a lot of Europe.
  • Keep in mind that a lot of the cheap flights will be early morning or late night – think about how you’ll get to and from airport, as this can be tricky at these hours and add to the cost of your trip.
  • Always book your flight directly through the airline website, rather than third party websites.

 

Car travel in Europe

There are two options for car travel in Europe. one is to hire a car, and the other is to use ride share services such as BlaBlaCar.  There is also a third, hitchhiking, for those who are a bit braver and more flexible.

Hiring a car: Hiring a car in Europe is a really good way to get around. It’s relatively cheap, and you can see so much more than if you are relying on buses and trains. From our experience, some places seem to be more popular than others among travellers for care hire.  Some of these include:

  • The UK
  • Ireland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Spain
  • Croatia

However, just do a bit of research, as it can realistically be a good option anywhere.  Also, a word of advice. While car hire is great for visiting a lot of smaller towns, it can be pretty difficult if you’re heading to the bigger cities and have to worry about traffic, parking and so on.  So if you’re hiring a car, we’d recommend to plan visiting smaller places where you won’t have to worry too much about that.

BlaBlaCar:  BlaBlaCar is a ride share service, where people offer a seat in their cars when travelling from one place to another. It’s a great alternative option for getting around, and generally quite cheap too. It can be a little hard to plan though, so it’s not really something you can rely on. Rides can sometimes be cancelled last minute, and often you can’t find the particular route that you want on a particular day.  It’s definitely another option to be aware of though, incase you’re ever stuck.

 

So which is best / how do i figure it all out?

All of the info and options on getting around can seem a little overwhelming at first, and you might not know where to start.  Don’t worry though, after you get the hang of it, it’ll be no problem at all.  Here’s our advice for getting started:

To start with, if you’re heading along the same route as one of our journey suggestions, we’ve tried to provide all the info that you’ll need for getting from A to B, including where to check schedules, where to book, and what the best option is.

If you’re taking a different route, there’s a few things that you can do that will make sorting it all out a lot easier.  We’d normally do these things, in this order, to find the best way from A to B.

  • Talk to people around you!  Lots of people will have already done the trip that you’re looking to do, and can give you all the advice you need.  Customer service people at train and bus stations are a wealth of knowledge too. Be aware though that there still might be options they hadn’t considered.
  • A simple google search of “getting from A to B” is a good starting point, as it generally brings up all the relevant sites and options.
  • Search on Rome2Rio:  This is a great website, where you can put in your destinations and it will show you all the options for getting from A to B. (note for longer journeys it sometimes won’t give you all the connections, but it’s a great first point of reference to see options).  You can then click through the specific options to learn more and book online.
  • Search on Go Euro,  thetrainline.eu and Rail Europe. These sites will show you all of the bus and train options between the two cities. Remember though
  • Search on Flixbus.  it’s really easy to use, and you can search all their different routes. Sometimes you might have to connect a couple of routes up to get from one city to the other, but it’s worth it.
  • Search on Skyscanner.  Generally only for longer journeys, or if you’re really stuck.
  • Search on BlaBlaCar.  Because it’s a bit harder to find the right connections on here sometimes, it’s usually further down the list.

That can seem like a lot, but with a bit of practice it generally wouldn’t take longer than 5-10 minutes before it becomes clear what the best and cheapest option is, and you can save a huge amount of money by doing your research and making the right decision!

So this is the million dollar question… and the question to which there is no easy answer. We can only give some very general advice, and let you do the rest.

  • If you want to travel on a budget, have a look at our article on budget travel tips for ideas on doing things cheaply in Europe.

Cost wise, if you’re trying to budget travel through Europe, we’d suggest a figure of somewhere between €1500 and €2000 a month. But take that with a grain of salt, as it’s going to vary hugely. It all depends on which countries you are in, how long you spend in each, what your travel style is, and how and when you are booking. So that figure would be based on:

  • Staying mainly in hostels
  • Eating out a few times a week
  • Doing the main tourist attractions but nothing overly expensive
  • Moving from place to place once every few days

It’s also averaged out across Europe, so for example if you are in Eastern Europe you could certainly travel a lot cheaper than that, but in places such as Scandinavia or Switzerland you would be very unlikely to keep to that budget.  And remember, it’s just a rough figure, and we certainly know people who spend a lot less than this when travelling in Europe.  But we also know people who spend a lot more.

As a rough guide to the general costs of different places in Europe:

  • Scandinavia and Switzerland are by far the most expensive places that you can travel in Europe, so you will blow your budget there in no time.  Hostels here will cost you upwards of €40 a night, and a meal out might cost €30 or more.
  • France, the UK and Ireland would probably be the next most expensive places.  Particularly in London and Paris, hostels are only slightly cheaper than the Scandinavian countries. A meal out might cost you around €20, and it’s still relatively expensive to buy drinks when you’re out when compared with many European countries.
  • Italy, Germany and the western part of Central Europe would be the next most expensive, followed by Spain and Portugal.  Here hostels might be €20-25, or less if you find the right places.  Meals out are slightly cheaper too.  In some of these countries, the beer and alcohol is quite cheap as well.  The main tourist attractions can still be a little expensive though (especially in Italy)
  • Eastern Europe is by far the cheapest place you can travel.  You’ll probably find a hostel for under €20 (depending on where you are of course), and meals out and beer will rarely be super expensive.  Travel, particularly by bus, is relatively cheap here as well, and you’ll never pay too much for tourist attractions.

We hope this guide to travel in Europe helps you out a bit if you’re getting started. If you have any questions, send us a message on Facebook, and we’ll try and get back to you as soon as we can. Happy travelling