I. Pre-Travel PLANNING AND RESEARCH TIPS for a trip to Europe:
I had 6 months to plan for this trip, so I did a lot of research.
When booking plane tickets, check first to see how many miles you'll need and then see if you have enough. You might be pleasantly surprised, as we were. To get the best seat choices, I like to use the website Seat Guru to figure out which seats are the most comfortable and well liked from former travelers (yes, there is even a site for this!). I also app Gate Guru to research the airport to see the restaurant offerings in the terminal we would be in while waiting for our connecting flights.
After securing your plane tickets, I suggest you book your hotels next. The most helpful site for us was Trip Advisor. Note that many hotels in Europe do not have air conditioning so, if that is important to you, you should make sure the hotels that you select do. We did a lot of research before selecting our hotels, and were happy with all of our choices. I highly recommend each of the hotels on this list. My review above has more details about each of the hotels where we stayed.
Here is a list of the hotels we stayed in the 5 cities we visited:
The website Visit A City is very useful. Just put in the city you will be visiting and the number of days you'll be there. It will then set up a suggested itinerary for you, which you can edit by adding or deleting different attractions, switching the times around, and adding your hotel. It will give you step-by-step instructions on how to get from one attraction to the next, and also a description of each attraction.
Visit Rick Steves' website, download his podcasts, and buy his books for the countries you will be visiting. We really enjoyed visiting museums while listening to his podcasts, as he offers a wealth of information on the most popular pieces of art, and guides you through the museum in an organized manner. He also has podcasts of walking tours of the cities, which are great.
Read the forums on TripAdvisor. Ask questions if you have any. There are so many members waiting to give you advice. They even gave me directions on the best way to get from the train station or airport to our hotels.
Take note of the airports that you will be flying into or out of and see if you need to sign up ahead of time to become a member to get free Wi-Fi.
Purchase tickets in advance for the Eiffel Tower, Anne Frank House, and train rides (Eurostar and Thalys). Eiffel Tower and Anne Frank House sell out months in advance, and Eurostar and Thalys prices increase as you get closer to the date.
Purchase a "London Pass," "Paris Pass," and the "I Am Amsterdam" card if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing. I found that we were motivated to visit more places (if only for a short time) because we didn’t have to pay a separate entrance fee each time. As an added bonus: many of the places had a special entrance (with no waiting) for pass-holders, so we didn’t have to wait so long to get inside.
Many cities offer free walking tours and you just tip the guide. You can google search for these types of walks. You can plan and reserve these walking tours ahead of time.
Contact your cellular company and find out what type of international plans they have. I am with AT&T so I purchased the passport plan. This gave me unlimited texting, as well as discount calling rates and a small amount of data. To make sure I didn’t get charged for Internet usage by mistake, I turned off my cellular date roaming and disabled all apps that use cellular data.
There are several good apps that you can download that will show you the money conversion rate. I used and liked XE. You can also print out a pocket currency converter to have easy access to money conversions. Here is a sample: Pocket currency converter
Choose credit cards that do not add foreign transaction fees. I have credit cards with both Chase and Citibank that waived foreign transaction fees. I am also a Chase Private Client, so they waive ATM fees up to 5 times in one month, so I was able to easily get currency in the different countries without it costing me additional fees. I did get some foreign currency from my bank before I left so I would have money when I arrived at the airport or train station. American Express is not widely accepted in stores Europe (although some of their cards offer no transaction fees and all hotels did accept AMEX), so be sure to bring a Visa or MasterCard too. Call your credit card companies about 1-2 weeks before you leave to let them know your travel dates so they can anticipate your different spending patterns. You can also ask them what their transaction fees are.
II. PACKING TIPS
Pack a few extra plastic bags for dirty laundry, as well as envelopes or plastic baggies for receipts.
Make a copy of important documents (passports and tickets) and credit cards and keep one copy with you in a separate baggage or with a person you trust in case you lose your original documents. Be sure to photocopy both sides of your credit cards so you have the number to call if you lose your cards. I like to take a photo of my important documents and luggage and store them on my phone in case I lose them.
Pack plug adapters for the cities you'll be in. Not all hotels offer these.
Bring a washcloth; not all hotels offer them.
Bring clips if you want to close the drapes completely to avoid the sunlight coming in.
Pack and wear a money belt (especially for when you will be in crowded places)
Bring your own headphones.
Expect to do a lot of walking. Buy the best walking shoes you can afford, and wear them a few times on long walks before you leave for your trip to make sure you can walk long distances in them.
Bring a small purse/messenger "cross-body" bag that will hold your wallet and necessary items for the day. Keep this bag in front of you (not on your side or back). It's also great to bring a foldable (microfiber) tote bag that you can fold up and then take out if you make some larger purchases.
Bring a good (foldable) hat and sunglasses if you like to protect your eyes.
III. TRAVEL TIPS WHILE IN EUROPE
In London and Paris, UBER or Taxi is the best way to get from the airport/central train station to your B&B or hotel, because some of the train stations have many stairs and no elevators and it's hard to navigate luggage through the metro (Paris) or tube (London).
There are many people out there ready to pick your pockets. In fact, it happened to me: while in the macaron store, we were waiting in line to order our macaron selections (and of course, distracted), when all of a sudden I felt something and looked up. A man was standing very close to me. When he knew I felt something, he immediately "apologized" and moved away; I then noticed that my purse was unzipped! I accused him of trying to steal my wallet; he (of course) denied this, and stood still in the store for another minute before leaving without buying anything. Luckily, I had taken precautions and put my credit card and money in a smaller coin purse and zipped that inside a smaller zipped pocket in my purse, so he did not get to it. I highly recommend putting your valuables in another zipped area in your purse (then they have to get through two zippered pockets instead of one). I had read about pickpockets and was prepared, yet I easily could have had my wallet stolen if not for the secondary security measure I took that day.
When using credit cards with a chip (necessary all over Europe), you need to leave your credit card in the card reader while they run it, and then you sign the receipt. You must remember to take your credit card back (since you don't hand your card to a cashier, and they never touch it, they don't usually remind you to take it out of the card reader). I made the mistake of leaving my card in the card reader machine at the busy macaron store, so we had to go all the way back to the store to retrieve it.
WI-FI: Most cities in Europe do not have free Wi-Fi. This can be extremely frustrating, especially if you get lost, as we did. It is hard to find Wi-Fi in the cities, unless you are at a cafe that has a Wi-Fi password and allows customers to use it. There are several things that you can do, most of which we learned too late:
You can go to the Orange store, where we heard you could purchase a Wi-Fi access card for your smart phone or iPad. We were so busy seeing sites that we never found the Orange store until our last day in Paris, when it was too late. If I travel there again, I'd go there on my first day. This would have saved us a lot of time and aggravation.
Download directions to places you are going BEFORE you leave your hotel. This takes advance planning and thought.
Ask your hotel concierge to give you explicit directions for each site you plan to go to.
We heard that in London, you can get free Wi-Fi if you set up a free account with The Cloud. We did that, but it didn't work everywhere. Eat at cafes and restaurants that offer free Wi-Fi, so that you can plan your route for the next part of your day.
Use your hotel's Wi-Fi to download apps for the museums you are going to, as well as Rick Steves’ city and museum tours, the night before. Many museum apps are free and have great audio tours. (Best to download these apps prior to leaving on vacation).
Write down the name, address and telephone number of your hotel and have it on a piece of paper that you can show your taxi or Uber driver, so he knows where you want to go.
Use Google street view to see the surrounding areas of your hotel and get a better feel for where you will be staying. It also helps you to know what to look for once you arrive.
Check with your hotel concierge to make sure that the sites you want to go to are open that day and that the exhibits you want to see are still running.
Be sure to bring and keep your VAT (value added tax) refunds in a separate envelope, and allow enough time at the airport to claim your VAT refunds before you leave.