If you're heading to Europe for the first time, you are in for a treat! You're about to embark on an adventure in an extraordinarily diverse continent with a ridiculously high concentration of things to do and places to explore. You'll never run out of things to do—but at the same time, you should also be aware of what
to do. Avoiding the most common first-timer mistakes will ensure that you get the most out of your first time in Europe.
It might sound pretty obvious, but you're going to need your passport. You won't clear the first check-in desk without it. But that doesn't mean you're done with it as soon as you step outside the airport. Your passport is the most important form of ID you have while you're traveling abroad. You never know when you're going to need it. If you're worried your passport will fall out of your handbag or pocket, there are special neck scarves with hidden pockets perfect for keeping it tucked away safe. And you'll look like a local, too—Europeans are all about scarves. Talk about smart and stylish!
In the US, our electronics and appliances run on a measly 110 volts. In Europe, the voltage is pretty much double that. That means if you want to charge your phone or anything else, you're going to need an all-in-one power adapter, so your electronics don't get fried. Your American plugs won't fit in European outlets anyway. Granted, many places have universal USBs but don't count on that. They're not everywhere. Another tip: unless your hair dryer is dual-voltage, leave it at home. Messing around with electricity at high voltages can be pretty shocking.
Make sure you let your bank and credit card company know you're traveling abroad, or your cards will be blocked. Tell them the exact dates and which countries you will be visiting, even if it's just a layover. The fact that banks block foreign transactions is a great way to prevent identity fraud. But it's not so great when you're jet-lagged in a foreign country and can't access your money.
There's a reason minimalist travel is so trendy nowadays—traveling light is liberating. You really don't need to stuff half your wardrobe in your suitcase, even if you're doing a month-long tour of the European continent. Lugging around heavy luggage is a real drag, literally. Not only does it slow you down, but you also pay extra fees at the airport, and you have more stuff to worry about losing. If your suitcase is too heavy to lift over your head, chances are you've overpacked. Pack the bare essentials and make do. If you really need something, you can always buy it at your destination—and bring it home as a souvenir.
When it comes to Europe, less is more. Understandably, you want to make the most of your limited vacation time and squeeze as much as possible into your trip. Don't do this. You'll be spending most of your time in transit, rushing from city to city, relying on schedules and sitting on buses and trains. This is the opposite of a vacation—it's a commute! Instead, pick one small region and focus deeply on it. This is a much more rewarding way to travel. You'll start to feel a genuine connection to the area, and probably experience more culture than you would spend staring at the back of a seat for hours.
We live in a country that is designed for the automobile. While you might think renting a car in Europe equals freedom like it does here, it might be more trouble than it's worth. European countries are simply not as car-centric as we are. Space is tight, the roads are narrow, and people drive very fast. You might struggle to find parking spots, and you'll find you can cover more ground on foot anyway. Check bus and train timetables and routes. You'll be surprised at just how much of Europe you can see using public transportation—after all, that's how most people who live there get around! Why not let someone else do the driving for a change?
The tipping culture in America hasn't quite caught on in Europe yet. Service workers tend to be better paid there, and tips are not expected to make up for low wages like they are in the States. Though every country is different, anything over 10% is generally regarded as pretty extravagant. You can tell your taxi driver to keep the change, but be wary that a service charge is often already worked into your bill at a restaurant. Save your coins for public toilets—in Europe, it's not always free to pee.
Everyone knows that Europeans are stereotypically well-dressed, so you might be tempted to wear your cutest shoes. Don't do this! When you go to Europe, you will probably be walking a lot more than you're used to. You won't see locals strolling down city streets in designer heels anyway—most people wear comfortable sneakers and flats. That doesn't mean you don't have to forgo style for comfort. Believe it or not, there are stylish but comfy shoes out there. You might want to give whatever shoes you plan to bring a good test run before you bring them, to make sure they really feel good on your feet all day long.
It's true, almost everyone in major European cities speaks English. For that reason, we native English speakers are pretty spoiled—we know we can find other English speakers and travel assistance in our language almost everywhere we go. Still, any effort to learn a few basic phrases in the local language is greatly appreciated. Don't worry about mispronouncing words. You will generally be understood. All that matters is that you are trying. You'll find you will get a much friendlier response from locals, even in the tourist industry, if you make an effort. At the very least, learn the words for hello and goodbye, please and thank you, and how to ask for directions.
We Americans like to make sure our voices are heard, and we also like to show our enthusiasm for everything. That means we have a reputation for being loud. Very loud. Even if you think you speak quietly, your voice is probably loud by European standards. Everyone who's ever traveled outside of the U.S. cringes a little when they hear other American tourists because only then do we realize just how noisy we actually are! Remember kindergarten, when the teacher would tell the class to use an "indoor voice"? Use that voice in public places, especially in restaurants and on public transportation.
You don't have to be paranoid, but don't get so distracted by your environment that you become a target for thieves or scammers. Stay aware of your surroundings—especially your pockets or the bag you're carrying. If you want a bit of extra security, invest in a bag with additional theft-resistant features. It's always best to stay on main streets, especially after dark, and avoid poorly lit or deserted places. You should also learn how to reach the local emergency services, just in case. Staying on high alert 24/7 is a pretty good way to ruin your trip, but just be wary of local scams and use your common sense.
No matter how prepared you are, how well you plan your trip, or how many phrases in the local language you've memorized, you're going to make mistakes. Things won't go to plan. You might forget or lose something. Your flight might be delayed or canceled. That's just life. Remember, the only difference between an ordeal and an adventure is your attitude. At the end of the day, you're on vacation in an amazing place. Take a deep breath and enjoy!