Useful tips for traveling to Europe
Despite the relative ease of traveling throughout Europe, there are some bureaucratic things that you should keep in mind. You need a valid passport to travel, and with an American passport, you are limited to staying in the Schengen zone for a maximum of three months. Be sure to keep a small supply of cash handy, but it’s best not to carry around large amounts of cash – ATMs are widely available in Europe, making travel that much more secure.
Visa and Schengen
The first thing you should check is whether you have a valid passport. Keep in mind that some countries require your passport to be valid for up to six months after your scheduled date of return.
About half of Europe’s countries are part of the Schengen agreement (beware that not all EU countries are a part of this agreement and vice versa). If you know you will be traveling only in these countries, you don’t need a visa. The list is as follows: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland,France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands,Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Map of members of the Schengen agreement
Non-Schengen countries usually have their own immigration policies. This also applies to the United Kingdom, although US citizens won’t need a visa, just their passport.
Although many of the EU countries use euro as their currency, it is certainly not a rule. The so-called “eurozone” countries are as follows: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.
Map of countries using euro
If traveling to other European countries, be ready to use their own currency. However, countries that are in the EU usually accept euros, although the exchange rate may be unfavorable. Note that the United Kingdom still uses pounds and is not obliged to accept euros (the same goes with Denmark and their crowns).
If you prefer to use cash, currency exchanges can be found almost anywhere and the rates are negotiable, especially if exchanging money on the street and not in a bank. You might want to double-check the rates and fees, especially in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, counterfeit bank notes are very rare in Europe.
In most countries, ATMs are available and probably your best bet when it comes to obtaining the local currency. You can’t avoid the fees, but the exchange rates are decent and ATMs usually have English instructions. Save on fees by withdrawing larger amounts at once. Before you leave, make sure to inform your bank that you will be traveling and ask if your card will work in Europe. European ATMs have only numbers on their keypads, so make sure you know how your letter PIN code translates to numbers.
Credit cards might not be accepted universally, but most hotels and big shops should not have a problem with them. If shopping or eating at a smaller establishment, have cash ready. Visa and Mastercard are widely used across Europe, and western European countries might accept American Express in some shops.
As far as tipping, the only thing we can say is that in general tips are lower in Europe than in the USA. The usual custom is either rounding up your bill or tipping 10% if you were satisfied; there is no need for 20% tips since the workers earn more than the minimum wage. Always be sure to check your bill to see if service is included – this is the case in quite a few places. If you’re not sure, ask your server.
If you are planning on spending larger amounts of money in certain shops, you should know that non-EU visitors can claim a VAT refund. This way, you could reclaim a substantial amount of money, since the VAT rate is around 20% in most European countries. To qualify, you need to spend a certain amount of money in one shop (the amount differs depending on the country) and have the merchant fill out a form for this purpose. Then, before going home or leaving the EU, present the paperwork at the airport customs desk and be ready to show them the goods. Then find the refund company’s office (usually Global Blue or Premier Tax Free) and collect your money. The process is not simple, but if you want to save money, it is a good way to do so. Beware that when entering the US, you may need to pay additional customs fees on selected goods.
If you are coming from North America, there is a chance that your phone won’t work if you are signed up with Verizon or Sprint, since Europe uses the GSM system, not the CDMA system. Contact your operator in advance and ask them if your phone will work in Europe. Alternatively, you can check the manual yourself - “tri-band” and “quad-band” are the words you’re searching for. Note that the roaming charges will likely be huge in some countries - consider switching off your mobile data connection and relying only on local Wi-Fi to avoid high costs.
You can also ask your operator to “unlock” your phone if it runs on GSM frequencies - this way, you will be able to use local SIM cards and reduce costs significantly. In some countries, SIM cards can be bought in supermarkets freely, while in others, you might need to fill in some paperwork.
If you own a smartphone, download any useful apps before leaving home! Consider downloading a dictionary or Tripomatic’s trip planning app with offline maps.
Staying connected in Europe is generally quite simple. You have several options: cybercafés, your hotel or hostel’s internet service, using Wi-Fi in restaurants, cafés or libraries, public municipal Wi-Fi or you can use your mobile provider’s internet service.
Internet cafes in Europe
Internet (or cyber) cafés are a traditional option, although they are slowly dying out especially in Western Europe. Nonetheless, most bigger cities should have several of these cafés with prices of around 1-2 € for an hour. The advantage is that you don’t have to use your own device here. Be prepared for foreign language versions of Windows and also different keyboard layouts (e.g. in France). If you are traveling to Russia or other eastern countries, you might also have to deal with the Cyrillic alphabet. When using a computer that is not yours, be sure to always log out from all services before leaving the computer!
Finding a Wi-Fi in Europe
You can also use the connection provided by your hotel. However, make sure that the hotel or hostel provides internet connection for their guests! If this information is not listed on the hotel’s website, enquire through e-mail or the phone. Another thing you need to consider is that hotels often charge exorbitant rates for internet connection, especially in luxury hotels.
In most countries where a tourist would commonly wander, free internet connections can also be found at various restaurants, cafés and fast food restaurants. You will need to order and ask the waiter for the Wi-Fi password, but sitting down in a café with your laptop and enjoying a nice cup of coffee or tea and something sweet has its own charm, so it’s not much of a disadvantage.
Some western European countries have covered their city centers with free public Wi-Fi. However, logging in can be a hassle (you often need to verify your identity somehow) and it’s not very convenient for laptop users. However, if you have a smartphone, this is also a convenient option.
Getting the local SIM
And finally, if you want to be totally independent, you can connect to the internet on your own through your mobile phone. We do not recommend data roaming as the fees are outrageous. Instead, you should make sure your phone is unlocked (capable of using SIM cards other than your provider’s) and get a local SIM card. These are usually very cheap and if you research the data plans before you go, you can save a significant amount of money. To find out more about operators in European countries and what data plans they provide, head to this website. In July 2012, “euroaming” deals were introduced. These enable you to use one European SIM card across a number of countries for lower prices, although if you are traveling around fewer than three countries, getting a separate SIM card for each might still be more convenient.
Creating your own hotspot
If you don’t want to buy a local SIM card, there is another option - borrowing a MiFi router. It is a device that creates your own Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing you to connect to the internet anywhere. There is usually a data limit that is included in the rental; anything above the limit is automatically charged to your credit card. There are many companies who rent these routers, for example Cellhire or XCom Global (which offers unlimited data)
DOs & DO NOT’s
- DO read up on airline restrictions.
- DO prepare as many things for your trip as you can from home.
- DO consider getting the ISIC card if you are a student, the discounts are well worth it.
- DO think about travel insurance - it could save you in a pinch.
- DO have fun!
- DO NOT forget to make copies of important travel documents.
- DO NOT try to stuff too many activities into one day - Europe can be overwhelming!
- DO NOT let any of your travel documents expire while on the road.
- DO NOT expect everybody to know English; try to learn at least some basic phrases in the local language – hello, good-bye, please and thank you combined with a smile will take you a long way.
Tripomatic is an online trip planning tool. Create a trip plan from suggested activities and print out a detailed itinerary or sync your trip to your mobile phone. To start planning your trip to Europe, check out our template itineraries or start a new trip plan from scratch.