Europe is a fascinating continent in the world that everyone should visit in the lifetime. Thanks to the technology and well-developed railway system, it is easy to travel from one European country to another. But, it could still be challenging to plan your first trip to Europe in multiple countries due to the different language, currency, network system and so on.
After doing a massive amount of research, I have done a trip of a lifetime by travelling to 15 countries in 64 days on my first trip to Europe. I have compiled my experience and categorised them into 9 sections on this post. This is a guide from a general perspective; if you want to know more about a specific destination, please read here (summary) or here (details).
In the beginning, you will most likely get overwhelmed with too much info from different sources. I strongly recommend writing your plan down, either handwriting on papers or typing on any software. I like to use Excel spreadsheets and will share them later.
1. Itinerary 📜
Drawing your own map is a good way to get started/ inspired. To give you an idea, below is my map (and detailed itinerary in Excel). Since everyone’s interest is different, we will never have the same itinerary. I focus my first trip to Europe in central, south and eastern Europe.
Paris (France) → Luxembourg City (Luxembourg) → Brussels (Belgium) → Bruges (Belgium) → Holland (The Netherlands) → Berlin (Germany) → Copenhagen (Denmark) → Krakow (Poland) → Bratislava (Slovakia) → Prague (Czech Repubic) → Munich (Germany) → Interlaken (Switzerland) → Venice (Italy) → Florence (Italy) → Rome (Italy) → Athens (Greece) → Santorini (Greece) → Bucharest (Romania) → Budapest (Hungary) → Vienna (Austria)
FREE RESOURCE: Here is my itinerary excel spreadsheet showing what to do in each city. Feel free to re-use the spreadsheet for your trip.
You should decide where to go based on your heart. Write down your dream destinations and what you really want to see. It may not be the top attractions but should be something interesting for you. Don’t worry – you can always change your plan. I did not follow my itinerary completely because sometimes it depends on my mood or the weather or the suggestions from other backpackers. But it is always good to have a plan that you can refer to.
You have to make painful choices because you can’t see everything in one go: If you are travelling from a far country like me, chances are that you want to visit as many European countries as possible, at the same time you know it is too rush for visiting so many places in one trip. My rule of thumb is to try to spend at least 2 days in a city and 4 days in a country in average. Of course, plan more days if you can afford so and slow down your plan as much as you can.
And more importantly, ignore what other people say (except useful advice). No matter how well is your plan, one will always find something to criticise. Someone said I visited too many places in 2 months, and some said I burnt too much money. Well, it takes about 30 hours to travel from the place I stay (New Zealand) to France, how can I not utilise my trip as much as I can? So, forget what people say; you decide for yourself because it is your trip. 🙂
2. Data Plan 📱
Having a data plan makes your life easier as you can use GPS, browse the webs, Facebook, read online reviews on the spot, contact your family/ friends and etc. It is really helpful especially if this is your first trip to Europe. Some people told me that they hate buying a new sim card in each European country that they visit, and I replied: you should just buy one sim card:
Orange Mundo Prepaid sim card lets you use mobile data in most of the European countries. It is reliable and cheaper than other options. It is one of the best things I have bought for my trip. I wrote a comprehensive review about this sim card so you know how to get the sim card, and what are the pros and cons.
If you decide not to have a data plan, maybe you can save Offline Map on Google so you don’t get lost. 😉 Also, some places have free WiFi.
3. When to go ☀️
Try to arrange your first trip to Europe in shoulder season. Because it can be very cold in winter, and the tourist crowds may disappoint you in summer. Although the season for each European country is different, in general, the shoulder seasons in Europe are April through mid-June and September through October.
Look for events. Joining an event in a foreign country is a memorable experience, and you may need to arrange your itinerary to accommodate the events. For example, I wanted to go Oktoberfest (on my bucket list) so I planned a stay in Munich in late September. You can check Eurail website to see if there is an event at the specific destination during your visit. Just click on the country that you want to visit, for example, click Austria and choose “Events in Austria”.
4. Where to stay 🏘
There are plenty of accommodation booking websites and I think they are more or less the same (thanks to the competition) … So I will not focus too much on it. For your information, my favourite booking websites are Booking, Hostelworld, Hotels and Airbnb.
Usually, I stay nearby the main train station, provided it is not too far away from the city centre. I like to use Booking because I can search for the hotels/ hostels nearby the railway station. For example, type ‘Rome Termini’ (main train station in Rome), and it will suggest the list of hotels nearby as well as the distance.
5. Free Walking Tour 🚶♀️
Free walking tour is an excellent way to get to know the city and you can do it in almost all major European cities. I always join the tour when I arrived in a new city on the first/ second day. By joining the tour, you will explore the destination by foot with a free tour guide. The tour usually last about 2-3 hours.
There are many reasons to join free walking tour: First, it is best to ‘feel the city’ by walking. Besides, most of the tour guides are passionate about their job and helpful (so they can earn your tips 😝). And most importantly, I usually do not need to make any reservation (during the non-peak period), just go whenever I want – highly flexible!
Is it really free?
Unlike conventional tour where you need to pay in advance and only find the tour disappointing in the end, you only give tips after the tour ends and the amount depends on how much you think the tour worth it. There is no obligation to give tips (in fact many people do not give), but I always give some as I respect their job as a tour guide.
How to find the tour?
Most of the European city has the free walking tour. You can look for such tour over on Google, as each place has different tour companies. The meetup place & time will be stated on their website.
6. Transportation 🚃
Flying is usually the fastest way to travel, either from/to your home country or within the countries in Europe.
Here are some tips for you:
- Google Flight is the best flight searching tool in my opinion. The quoted price is accurate and it also provides suggestions to save money. (extra tips: you can put Europe as your destination!)
- Actually flying is not my favourite option to travel across the countries in Europe because (1) in some cities, the airport is very far away from the city centre, (2) it is time-consuming to check-in and check-out the flight.
- However, taking a flight is sometimes much cheaper than a train, and also save you a lot of precious time. So you should compare both options for each destination.
Taking the train is the best way to travel across the countries in Europe.
- Benefits of taking the train: cheaper and easier, in addition, you can enjoy the scenery along the trip. Also, the main railway stations in many cities are close to the city centre making it convenient for travellers.
- Seat61 has the most completed train information in Europe. Since each country has its own railway system, this website is helpful for you to know what train to take or if you should book the ticket in advance (sometimes it is cheaper to book online).
- Consider Eurail Global Pass, a flexible pass that gives you unlimited rail travel between 28 European countries within a certain period. It is expensive but gives you flexibility, making your first trip to Europe easier.
- Install Rail Planner app on your mobile phone. This is a very useful app, so you can check train timetable and routes even when you are offline.
UBER is very useful in Europe.
- I like to use UBER from the airport/ train station to the hostel. It is cheaper (than a taxi), safe and convenient especially if you are carrying a big luggage.
- In some countries, UBER pool is available which means you can share the ride with other people and save more money.
- However, you can’t use UBER in some places, such as Hungary and Venice.
Bus is a cheap option
- Taking long haul bus is cheaper than the trains, but usually take much longer time and could be troublesome.
- Taking local bus is a good way to explore the city. If you don’t know which bus to take, use Google Map and select public transportation mode. So far it does a decent job for me!
7. Safety 🛡
I am worried about my safety because I am an Asian lady travelling in Europe alone (which obviously look like a tourist and can easily become a target). But surprisingly, travelling in Europe is very safe for solo female traveller. There are many pickpockets in Europe, but most of them are non-violent. Also, there are many ways to keep you safe:
- Understand the common scams/ tricks in Europe so you do not fall in one of them. Read them carefully and memorise them!
- Save your worries by using bags with safety features. My recommendation is the Pacsafe brand. I am using Pacsafe Citysafe CS300 and it is nearly impossible to steal anything from me! 😎
- Check the security alert for the countries that you are planning to visit from US or AU government website, so you know what is happening in that country at the moment, such as terrorist attacks, strikes, degree of racism, etc…
- Be extra careful when you are in poorer countries such as in Eastern Europe; do not go out alone in the night and avoid talking to strangers
- Be extra careful in any train station which is one of the most unsafe places in any city of Europe
- Trust your instinct. If you feel something is not right, just run! Read my personal story.
8. Money 💰
I spent NZD$13k (€8.5k) for my 2-months semi-budget trip in Europe. It is a semi-budget trip because I have done both cheap and expensive things. For example, sometimes I stayed in the dorm room in the hostels and sometimes the private room in the luxury hotels. I was stingy for food, but occasionally I had big meals in nice restaurants. If my budget is tight, it is possible to cut my budget to below NZD$8k (€5.2k).
A few tips on managing money in Europe:
The best way to minimise currency exchange impact is to withdraw money from the oversea ATM. Also, withdraw in a big lump sum amount to avoid paying too much transaction fee. Beware of the ATM scams, e.g. steal information or the thieves take away your cash quickly. Make sure you only withdraw money from the ATMs located in the safe place, e.g. airport, inside the bank or big shopping mall.
Not all European countries use Euro. Each country has its own currency. For some countries like Poland and Romania, you may not be able to exchange their currency in your home country. The best way is to withdraw money from the ATM in the country that you are visiting. So it is important to tell your bank that you are going oversea or otherwise they may block your card!
Travel money card is very useful no matter where you travel. With this card, you load the foreign currency and then use it like a debit card. Although I have my own debit and credit card, I still use travel money card because (1) for safety – I put only a small amount of money on my travel money card, so I won’t worried if the card is lost or stolen by thieves as it always happens in Europe (2) fixed the exchange rate to avoid the impact of currency fluctuation (3) If I need money urgently, it is easy for my family or friends to top up online for me.
A few tips on saving money in Europe:
- Stay in the dorm room in hostels (most of them are quite good)
- Take budget airlines, such as Ryanair and WizzAir
- Book train tickets early as the price may be significantly lower
- Eat street food in Europe, or cook if possible
- Do cheap activities, e.g. join free walking tours
9. Other Considerations
- Research the general information of each place such as spoken language, visa required, safety info, currency and etc. It is very easy to find them online. Again, it is important to write down (see my sample in excel), as it will help you to decide the destinations that you will choose in the end.
- About communication barrier. Most of the countries in Europe has their own language, and many of them cannot speak English. It is good to learn a few basic phrases in the local language. Also, get the Google Translate app installed on your smartphone – the translate function through camera is extremely helpful! Well, at least it helps you to understand the words on the sign or the food on the restaurant’s menu.
- Always check the tipping culture. If you are dining in a restaurant, the last thing you want to do is to leave nothing on the table while someone is expecting you to give some tips.
- Knowing some history of the places that you are visiting will help you to appreciate them. Europe is rich in history. It is full of ancient buildings and stories. You can’t come to Europe without knowing who is Hitler or what is communism!
- Insurance is important. Each country has different travel insurance plan. I bought insurance in New Zealand since I live there. There are also some global insurance plans available online such as World Nomads but I have never used them. The point is… you should buy one!
Suggested post to read on: Europe is my Dream & Why it is Worth Pursuing
Read more about each destination: Europe: by Destination
Thanks for reading. I am trying my best to help anyone who is planning for the first trip to Europe. Please let me know if you find outdated information in this post or if you have something to add-on. Your feedback would be much appreciated. 🙂