It’s Europe time again (read: 5 reasons to visit Europe in spring) and for the next four months, all roads are going to be leading to Rome (or Paris or Barcelona or Amsterdam). Readers of this blog will know that I am an absolute Europe devotee. Vibrant cities, gorgeous countryside, picturesque villages, stunning churches, a cornucopia of museums, the food… what is not to like?
But while Europe is a great choice for a holiday for any kind of traveller – families with kids, couples seeking some together time, backpackers, groups of friends or solo travellers – planning a trip to Europe can be a daunting task. Especially if this is your first visit.
Schengen visa, flight deals, hotel bookings, strange languages, the quest for familiar food, constant Euro to Rupee mental conversion…
Here is my guide to getting the best out of Europe, all the way from planning your trip to seeing the sights.
1. How do I get a Schengen visa?
The Schengen visa covers a large number of countries in both Western and Eastern Europe, with new countries coming into the fold every year – the latest addition is Croatia in 2013. Once you have a Schengen visa, you can travel easily between Schengen countries without the hassle of border checks.
If you are travelling to more than 2-3 countries, be smart about the Schengen visa (but do check on the Consulate / VFS website with your travel agent since these rules keep changing all the time). Apply for a visa at the Consulate of the country which is your point of entry or exit. Or at the country where you intend to spend the maximum number of days. This will work in your favour since some embassies are super quick in processing your visa while some take up to 15 working days.
Apart from your bank and tax statements, you need to also submit flight tickets and hotel bookings. Make sure to make refundable bookings in case of your hotel; once you have the visa in hand, you can switch to your choice of accommodation.
2. What kind of flight fares will I get?
I constantly look for cheap fare deals on websites like kayak.com and have had some pleasant surprises. While looking for flights to Europe, don’t look for direct flights alone. Consider airlines like Turkish which often offer fares which are much cheaper than many of the usual suspects. Who knows, you may be able to squeeze in a couple of days at Istanbul on you way in. In general, the earlier you book your tickets, the better the fare.
3. Where should I stay?
While it feels the safest to book yourself into a hotel, consider other options when you go to Europe. I always prefer to stay in small B&Bs or family run guesthouses. Several reasons for this. They come much cheaper than the large hotels (and in Europe, even the small hotels can be expensive) and you usually end up with a sunny room with a large breakfast thrown in. Having stayed in cheerful B&Bs and guesthouses, now the thought of spending nights in a characterless hotel room feels depressing to me.
Then there is the fun of staying with locals – for me, the more important consideration. In my experience, B&B owners are a friendly bunch and willing to share with you secrets about their city. Ask for recommendations especially on shopping and eating.
Hostels are also a great way of saving money and meeting other travellers, a perfect choice if you are a solo traveller. And if you are travelling as a group of more than 3-4 people, think about renting an apartment
4. Where should I go?
While travelling to Europe, the temptation to cram in as many countries as possible is very high. And it is perfectly valid. After all, with the conversion rates and the hassle of all the travel arrangements, it is not a destination you can visit again and again in a short period, and so you would want to see it all and do it all.
Pick one absolute must-go country and build a smart itinerary around it, including one or two neighbours. In any trip, my advice is not not pack in more than three countries, since there is so much to explore in every destination you could choose. For instance, if you want to go to France, why not add in Belgium and Holland? Or Switzerland?
And why not consider Eastern Europe? Sure, if you have not seen Europe at all, then your heart is probably set on Paris and Rome. But here is my take on this – Paris and Rome will always be around, and just as expensive. Why not go to Ljubljana or Budapest, which are much cheaper than Western European cities and are equally enchanting?
Also, do step out of the big cities into the smaller towns and villages. You get to see the lush countryside this way and get a glimpse into life away from the noise and crowds (if you are lucky).
5. What do I carry?
First time travellers from India to Europe always end up making the mistake of carrying an oversized suitcase. Be warned: most buildings in Europe are very old and even large hotels sometimes do not have lifts. Railway stations do not have porters and at many airports, you will have to pay to use a luggage trolley (only 1-2 Euros, but why pay that?).
You will end up lugging your stuff up and down several flights of stairs everywhere. And dragging it on cobblestone lanes that look oh, so pretty but are a killer on the back and knees when you have a massive suitcase with you.
Having said that, be absolutely sure to pack these: a sturdy pair of walking shoes, a light jacket that is rainproof and your personal cosmetics. All European hotels are not generous with their soaps and shampoos as we are used to in India and most parts of Asia.
6. How do I get around?
The best way to explore Europe thoroughly is use every means to travel – think trains, trams, metro, buses. Get the appropriate travel card as soon as you reach the city – they go from a few hours all the way to a week and allow you travel on most local transport means. Some of them also come with bargains and discounts stacked on, so look out for those.
Don’t rush out to buy a Eurail pass as soon as you decide on a holiday in Europe. Spend some time on the internet to evaluate single ticket options. I have found them almost always cheaper, unless you plan to travel between cities on every day of your holiday.
Also consider self drive holidays. There are great deals on rental cars available on the internet. The European countryside is a joy to drive through and this gives you the flexibility to turn off the beaten track and explore those tiny places which look inviting. A valid Indian driver’s licence is enough for most countries that you are likely to visit on a Schengen visa.
There is a lot of walking to be done, wherever you are. So be ready for that and pack accordingly.
7. Where do I get information?
As soon as you step into a European city, hit the local tourist information kiosk – they are present at railway stations, airports and at several key places inside the city. These kiosks are the best way to arm yourself with a map and a list of things to see and do in your time there. Even if you have done a lot of research prior to your trip, you get the latest event listings, restaurant and shopping options here.
Another strong recommendation is to join a walking tour on your first day in any new city – there are plenty of options to suit all kinds of interests, from a general overview tour to specialist history or food tours. These give you a good orientation of the city and you can mark out places which seem interesting, where you want to go back and explore at leisure.
Ask for suggestions from your hotel staff or your host at the guesthouse, chat with locals and fellow travellers at pubs and browse through local markets for a real feel of the place you are in.
I have got to experience some lovely local food and music just by chatting with cafe owners over a meal or with other travellers at my place of stay (read: thoughts on being a tourist).
8. What should I see?
In Europe, you will be spoilt for choice on things to see, do and experience. Churches and museums top the list for those culturally oriented but even if you are not the “museum types” try spending an hour at one of them to just be awed by how efficiently and reverently Europeans treat their history and heritage.
In peak season, the line for entry into popular museums can be quite a bit, so see if you can book them in advance over the internet. That way, you save the time of standing in line for tickets and some places also have separate (shorter) queues for those with advance passes.
9. What can I eat?
Most of Europe (especially the West and increasingly the East too) has enough familiar and comfortable options for the Indian traveller – from the ever-dependable pizza and pasta to drippingly yummy falafels to exotic meats and grills. If you are vegetarian, it will help to learn to say “no meat or fish” in the local language or at least say “I am vegetarian” – although some people may not even understand the concept (get more tips in A vegetarian’s guide to Prague).
If you are open to experimentation, there is enough to make sure you will not go hungry – even though Scandinavian countries, Spain, Germany and some far Eastern European countries may pose a problem you will always find soups, salads and sandwiches to get by on.
10. How do I stay safe?
Finally, the question of safety. Some European countries are notorious for pickpockets and petty thieves and everyone we know has a story of how someone they know lost their bag containing their passport and all their money while in Spain or Italy. In most places, it is not necessary for you to carry your passport around, as long as you have a copy of it with you and some valid form of identification.
Keep your money, credit cards and important documents (if you happen to be carrying them around) close to your person and don’t let that bag out of sight even if you are seated at a cafe or a seemingly safe place.
Europe is otherwise safe, even for solo women travellers. Stay close to the main areas after dark and always keep someone informed about your plans.
That’s my Europe planning guide in a nutshell for you. Go forth and enjoy!