Tips for a pair of 22 year olds travelling around Europe in the summer?
April 22, 2014 8:58 AM   Subscribe

I’m searching for tips for my girlfriend and I (male) while we spend 3 months travelling around Europe this summer. Details over the fold.

We’re west-coast Canadian; neither of us have done a ton of travelling before but have both travelled internationally. We’ll be staying mostly in AirBnB’s and family connections and a couple hostels. We’re interested in really everything: nightlife, art museums, beaches, hikes, restaurants, etc. So I’m asking for recommendations on A) travelling in Europe; B) travelling with a significant other; and C) how to make the most out of travelling in general. NB: NOT looking for tips on how to streamline our route; we have a couple requirements that make the odd leaps necessary.

Our general itinerary for the three months is
Bruges; Frankfurt; Berlin; Budapest; Porec; Split; Salamanca; Barcelona; Palermo; Florence; Grenoble; Charmousse; Dijon; Paris.

Thank you for any help!
posted by Cpt. The Mango to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like fun!

Be prepared for things to be messed up. No room at the inn, having to split up in a hostel, etc. Have enough dough and some connections for a backup plan.

Have a planning session together where you talk about what each of your expectations are. If she's up and at 'em, go get 'em, and you want to lounge around in bed for an extra hour, that could cause friction. Be honest.

Set aside part of the day, perhaps at dinner, or at bed time, where you talk about what you liked about the day, something that perhaps left something to be desired, and any ideas you may have going forward for making changes.

Agree on money. Some people will be happy eating nothing but crepes and nutella. Some people want to sit down to a hot meal. Sort that out ahead of time. Be flexible.

Make copies of every document you have and keep them separate from you (in a bag) from your originals. Be aware, tourists are pickpocketed. It's happened to me, it's happened to my Dad, it's happened to my friend. Be mindful and don't be afraid of looking weird about it. It's okay.

Buy some Canadian Flag Pins and put them on your bags, and your lapels. Americans piss people off, Canadians are universally enjoyed (well, if you remember to tip.)

Dijon is AMAZING. The food is good. There's a neat hostel outside of town, good breakfast, private rooms with shower, and it is a bit of a schlep to town, but I really liked it. I LOVED the musée des beaux-arts Dijon.

One way to save is to take overnight trains. No room needed for the night.

Don't try to do everything, accept that you can't and enjoy what you see. Shit will go wrong. Don't fret about missing a train, or arriving on a holiday and everything is closed. Be flexible. If you meet some cool people and decide to go in their direction for a while, why not?

You can have a total blast, if you remember to hang loose, plan to avoid hassles and to meet in the middle as much as possible.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:11 AM on April 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Take as much time as you need to do your own thing and be separate--during daylight hours, of course, and only in areas where you both feel safe.

There is SO much joy to be had in wandering around a strange place alone, and you'll have more to talk about later if you experience a few things separately. And you'll be less at each others' throats when frustrating things happen (which is inevitable). Personally, I need breathers built in like that or I go crazy spending too much time with someone.

And don't worry too much about taking photos. A loose journal/travelogue might be a better way to remember the trip, and you'll be more there more presently if you're not hunting for photo ops all the time.
posted by magdalemon at 9:14 AM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

One thing I learned the hard way on my first overseas trip as an adult: before you commit to buying something, ask how much it costs. You're going to be an obviously American tourist even if you try to blend in, and unscrupulous shopkeepers will try to take advantage of that if they can.
posted by something something at 9:27 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

a. Be loose about time but have some firm agreed-upon boundaries. I once had someone report my disappearance because I was 90 minutes late to dinner. I suggest it doesn't make sense to have everything planned to the hour, but you shouldn't be out of touch for days at a time either.

b. Consider rotating between spending the day together and the day apart (day meaning the daylight hours).

c. Pick your backpack carefully and load it wisely. Maybe a Gregory?
posted by 99percentfake at 9:27 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's an old cliche, but it's 100% true: bring half as much stuff and twice as much money as you think you will need. Pack lighter than you think is possible. Plan to hit up an H&M or thrift shop as necessary. I have a lot of "souvenir" clothes that I still wear but wouldn't have bought if not for wardrobe malfunctions. (Cue montage of me walking through various locales with giant, bum-exposing holes in my trousers.)

I don't bother making copies of my documents anymore but I do scan them in and keep them in Google Drive, Dropbox, and as email attachments. The key ones for me are my passport and my eyeglasses/contacts prescription; drivers' license is not a bad idea.

I really agree about getting some alone time. When was the last time you spent 24 hours a day with a person for three months straight? Possibly when you were an infant. Don't expect to be able to spend 24 hours a day together, and make plans keeping that in mind.
posted by mskyle at 9:41 AM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sometimes, just hanging out is better than exhaustion-marching between sightseeing opportunities, and giving each other alone time is critical - one person gets the room for a while and the other goes and pokes around a grocery store or runs errands for more socks (you never take enough socks no matter how hard you try). Everybody needs a little peace to do their hair or scratch their ass or poop without their partner 3 feet away on the other side of a thin wall.

You can also split up at a museum or zoo or other contained place, just agree to meet at the giraffe statue in two hours or whatever. That way if someone just wants to sit on a bench near the flamingoes and read a book, that's cool.

Stuff will go wrong, and as long as you're not in real danger you should embrace those things as adventures. The place you really wanted to see is closed the only day you're in town, there's some sort of weird transportation strike, and you have to decide on Plan B on the fly. Or Plan A is going perfectly well, but a random stranger tells you there's a massive folk music festival in the town square, complete with local vendors and performances by schoolchildren - a year from now, would you rather have seen that painting you can examine on your monitor in HD or watch 5-year-olds try to clog dance? You have to be ready to be flexible and embrace the absurd, and know that you're always missing out on something and be okay with that.

On packing: you'll be moving around too much for anybody to notice you wore the same pants four times in a week. If you don't want to look like a tourist and can stand the mild discomfort, dress business casual all the time and just adjust shoes slightly for requirements. Dark trousers and button-downs or nice pullover shirts for you, dark pants or skirts with coordinating tops for her (sundresses of the pretty-but-comfortable type will also work, but she needs to have something to cover her shoulders, like a pashmina or shrug she can shove in her bag). No yoga pants, no undershirts - don't treat Europe like your gym locker room and they won't treat you as much like Americans, or worse: American students.

Do some advance research to figure out what websites have the most useful tips for you in the places you'll be going. This is not necessarily to make firm plans now, but to know where to look when the weather or strikes or other dependencies create a Plan B situation.

Restaurants are by far your biggest money suck. Always identify your local grocery store and the inexpensive vectors for ready-to-eat food, whether that's a corner store or deli or street cart. it sounds like a lot of the places you are staying will have kitchen facilities of some kind, which is fantastic. It could cost the two of you $20 every day for coffee and some kind of protein-containing breakfast out, or you can spend $40 for a week's worth of eggs, butter, bread, cold cuts, milk, yogurt, and Nescafe'. Save your restaurant money for actual good restaurants and eat a lot of cornflakes in your lodgings.

I assume you'll have phone-based cameras with you all the time, and you can use them to document more than just landscapes - take pictures of your tickets and posters for exhibitions and the menu of the restaurant you really liked. Also use them to snap the written address (with basic directions in the local language if possible) of your lodgings for showing to cab drivers, locker numbers if you store your stuff somewhere, coat check tickets, etc. Stuff can turn into a blur after a while.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:11 AM on April 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Have a vacation from your vacation. Every so often (for me its after a couple weeks of intense sightseeing), take a break.

Go somewhere for a few days and don't try to see everything. Sit on a beach or in a small town or splurge on a fancy hotel for a couple of nights. Read a book and relax.

Taking The Grand Tour is great, but it can also be tiring. Allow yourself time to relax.

Find something consistent to use as a way to document your travels: street cats, doors, rooftops, each day's breakfast, view from your window every morning, toilets, happy hour beverage, whatever.

Take a snapshot of it every day and each night write something about your day. The photo will help jog your memory later on.
posted by jindc at 10:16 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you have or can you get chip-and-pin debit or credit cards before you go? Some ticket machines will not accept cards unless they are chip-and-pin. There can be ways around this, like buying a ticket at a window, but that can take longer. If you are in a store, you may need to tell them to swipe a card if it only has a mag stripe.

Since you are going to Croatia in the middle, put all of your Euros in another wallet or even just a plastic bag while you are there using kuna. It drives me crazy to dig through more than one kind of currency when trying to pay for something, especially coins that all look alike. When leaving, it can help you make sure you have spent all the local cash you have left (that you don't want as a souvenir).

I assume you have told your banks that you will be gone. One of my cards will only let you put a 30 day travel advisory on your account. If any of yours are like that, be sure to have their international number so you can put another on when the first one expires. Most banks accept collect calls from traveling customers. It is a good idea to have the contact info for all of your accounts listed somewhere other than the back of the card.

General travel advice: Take notes or keep a journal, even if it just a list of what you did. Exchange pictures with your travel partners. Whenever you remove your photos from your phone/camera, copy them to at least two places (laptop and jump drive or CD and Flickr).
posted by soelo at 10:19 AM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sounds like fun!

Out of those cities, I've only been to Florence, personally...which is a beautiful city! After a day of wandering around all the museum, take a trip up to Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy the view. Also when in Italy, you can take advantage of aperitivo, which is basically like happy hour with free food.

For Italy, be aware of workers' strikes on public transportation, taxis, etc. The Italian word for "strike" is "sciopero" and this might be a helpful word to learn in other languages for the countries you are visiting.

Grocery stores + parks = inexpensive picnic lunch. A great way to enjoy the outdoors and get in some people-watching.

As far as traveling with a SO, I think you need to be honest with each other about how much alone time you need, and what things you are hoping to get out of the trip. What things do you need to have to be comfortable? What can you be flexible on? What are your personal MUST See's and Do's?

Definitely tell your banks and credit card companies that you are leaving. I always bring a couple of cards and keep one seperate from my wallet with cash and copies of my ID in case my wallet gets stolen. Make sure your PIN # will work in European ATMs.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 10:30 AM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Give yourself (and each other) permission to occasionally just spend the day in the hotel/b&b room, resting and watching TV or reading. Even for the really extroverted, being in a foreign country and feeling the "need" to see all the things can be really exhausting, and can contribute to totally unnecessary arguments.
posted by rtha at 10:32 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best way to travel: have a loose plan but be prepared to stumble upon things. Do not become a slave to a schedule or what your guidebook / favorite travel website said you must do.

One thing I notice about your itinerary is that most of the locations you've picked are major tourist destinations in Europe. But some of my richest travel experiences have been off-the-beaten-track. You will get to meet locals who are not sick of seeing tourists every day.

Before you go, be sure to read Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson. He describes the whole Euro trip experience very well.

Backpacking in Europe for the first time can be an amazing fun experience. Enjoy.
posted by jacobean at 10:43 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Keep a journal, don't just take photos. Stick all sorts of weird bits in the journal, tickets stubs, coasters anything and everything you can think of. Write how places feel, record the smells and sounds. Take time to really stop and look at things. Don't try and see all the things, but really be present for the things you do decide to go and do and see. Going to see something just to tick it off an imaginary list is the wrong reason to go.

Never ever ever cut connections for flights, or whatever close it's not worth it.

Remember things will go wrong, that's when the fun really starts and where you will get your stories you will tell for the rest of your life.

People are mostly good and helpful I like to travel because it throws me onto the kindness of strangers more often and reminds me of that. This doesn't mean you shouldn't be careful about the security of yourself and your belongings, listen to your doubts if a person or situation triggers any alarm bells.
posted by wwax at 10:47 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing talk to your bank, tell them you'll be away, and get a chip-and-pin card. My mom's bank calls them "traveler's debit cards".

Two other things:

1. You should assume there are pickpockets EVERYWHERE. This doesn't mean you need to freak out and wear an under-the-clothes money belt or anything, but be alert and aware of your belongings at all times.

2. Pay the 3€ or whatever to go up in the tower and walk around the roof of the cathedral in Salamanca. It is fantastic, and deliciously creepy if you go at night.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 12:12 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Salamanca: say hello to the froggy and the astronaut, and get a reproduction of the threat of excommunication for book thieves in the library.

If you want to see another old Spanish university town, Alcalá de Henares is relatively close (possibly better as a short train trip from Madrid).

Generally, if a restaurant has a translation of items in English and other languages (so it's obviously for tourists), watch for the prices and if there's a hidden charge for "cubierto" (seating charge).

Pickpockets are especially abundant in the most touristy spots and they prey on touristy-looking people because they're less likely to go to the police to complain: in Barcelona, *really* watch out for pickpockets in Las Ramblas. No, really, mind your wallets and phones. Keep your backpacks on your front (it will look goofy, but it's safer) and the purses zippered up.

Frankfurt is *tiny*, or at least the historical part (which was also flattened in WW2). There's the skyline, the major square, and little else. The city museum is nice, though, but IMO not half as interesting as the Roman-Germanic Museum in Köln.
posted by sukeban at 12:38 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Good luck, it looks like a great trip!

Two things which can be difficult to reconcile: you are going during summer, when most of the places you are visiting will be very, very hot. And as mentioned above, Europeans are slightly more formal than North Americans, even when young. Today I saw a young man wearing shorts, but with a white collared shirt and a very good fitted wool sweater (not a sweatshirt), and this was in the most run-down part of town. Well I guess it says it all that I noticed he was wearing shorts. I've been scolded by a stranger for wearing a tracksuit on the street in Oslo, and the further you go south, the more formal people get. Obviously, this applies even more when visiting cathedrals and monasteries.
Some places, an informal clothes style can lead to bad service or even rudeness - a clerk at the station will ignore you, someone at a street market will try to cheat you. Nothing really bad but still think about bringing clothes you can easily wash and dry or iron.
Looking "American" will definitely make you a lot more vulnerable to theft. There are really pickpockets everywhere, but pickpockets are lazy people, who go for the easy victims, and tourists are easier for a number of reasons. At resorts this is not so much of a problem, since Europeans wear casual clothes there as well.

In many parts of Europe, a small local restaurant with a full menu will be cheaper than a snack bar, a sandwich stand or even McD's. Yes, there will be a cover charge, but it will still be cheaper. And almost everywhere, you can get the local grocery store or supermarket to make you a sandwich for 2 or 3 €, probably even less in Hungary and Croatia.
An exception from this rule is sliced pizza places in Italy. They are really cheap and really good. And tapas bars in Spain. Like Lyn Never said: eat cheap, cook at home, so you can spurge a couple of times a week for lunch or dinner.

Get to know people. Even though it's summer, go to bars and cheap restaurants near the universities, this always worked for me when I travelled during my twenties. Some universities have university bars. You'll meet people in the trains and planes as well. A lot of people will find you interesting and invite you to join them for activities at home or in town. Say yes! Ask these people where they go to relax. Maybe they know a local beach or a special nice place in the mountains, where only locals go.

Go outside the city centers. It's true, Frankfurt can be "done" in a couple of days, but in Darmstadt, 30 mins away, there is the wonderful garden suburb Mathildenhöhe, with it's own museum and a fascinating history. Near Berlin, you have Potsdam. I once stayed at a hostel in Potsdam, it was a completely different experience from staying in Berlin proper. Near Paris, there is Versailles. B&B's out of the centre are better value for money, too. Well, if you are going to Chamrousse, you are already on to that, so this is just a suggestion to repeat that method. Specially since you are going during the summer when the cities are nearly unbearable.

Look for the lesser known museums and attractions. Some things you have to see: the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the Hospice de Beaune near Dijon, the great cathedrals everywhere. But apart from that, you might as well choose some less know, but equally important sites. Frankfurt has a multitude of really amazing museums, as does Berlin and Paris. I'd rather go to the Palais de Tokyo than the Louvre in Paris, and I much prefer the Städel to the main art museum in Frankfurt.
You can go to the famous Gellert baths in Budapest, but there are also many fascinating original Turkish baths. Do some research together before you take of. The research may be a great part of the trip.

For the main sites: get up early in the morning. Really early. And if you can make prior reservations, like you can for the Uffici in Florence, do so.

Go to the main markets everywhere, both for the food and for the glimpse of everyday life you can get there. You'll get a really good idea of how people are dressed, how they interact, what they prioritize.

Also n'thing the scrapbooks - I still look at mine often, while I've lost a lot of the pictures (computer breakdowns etc.).
posted by mumimor at 1:52 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

When you are in Barcelona, stop by one of my bars (Rubi or The Limehouse) and ask for me (Con). I'll buy you a drink to stretch your dollars a little bit!
posted by conifer at 3:03 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

You may have to be careful about your budget but don't get obsessed with living off $3 (or whatever) a day, if your trip becomes drudgery it misses the whole point, this is fairly easy to do over time. Splurge now and again.

It can also be easy to get into a mindset where you say 'Well this is Berlin so we have to do x, y and z museums and buildings, who knows when we might be here again?', some places its worth saying screw it, let's hang out in the park today and not get absorbed into a tick list which we're not really enjoying. ( I've been to Berlin about 4 times and an only slightly embarrassed never to have been in any of the museums on the museum island, it remains one of my favorite cities though.)

If you are about to reject any visits to major sites on the grounds it makes you look like a tourist stop and reevaluate your priorities.

Plan a few side trips that you can do in a day or with maybe an overnight stop from some of the big cities, these can add variety and seem much more of an adventure.

Everyone talks about saving the price of a hotel room by overnighting on a train but that's not the only upside. I always loved being on a major station like Munich or Milan and getting ready to board one of what be 24 or so platforms of sleeper trains, all with little destination board by each door and ready to go off into the night all over Europe. Crossing the railway bridge into Venice at 7am with a perfect new sun was also incredibly memorable.
posted by biffa at 3:28 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Book in an "admin day" (or half day) every week - a day where you get your laundry done, go to the post office, sort out train tickets, go to the supermarket, catch up on emails, and spend the rest of the day hanging out in a cafe. Good for mental health, and frees up the rest of the time for having fun.

Eat as well as you can afford - getting by on bread and cheese and pizza gets wearing after a while.

As for travelling with your SO - one thing that I regret about some of my trips is that I dutifully went to everything that my then SO wanted to see. Even though I was bored/hot/tired/hungry. It's perfectly OK to not want to see the same stuff. Just make a time and a place to meet up again.
posted by girlgenius at 4:57 PM on April 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Echoing what others have said, don't feel guilty about skipping a certain site or day trip or cutting an entire destination out of your itinerary if you're feeling exhausted or testy. Allow yourself to just chillll in one place if you need to. My favorite memories from trips are always from the places I stayed the longest (usually because I went with my gut and decided to stay longer some place that "felt right" and cut out superfluous destinations I didn't have the energy for.) Remember: the hard/stressful part of traveling is the actual transport component (finding the train station, lugging your stuff, worrying about tickets, finding the hostel, etc.) so if you are feeling burnt out, cut down the amount of location-changes.

Related: when you are staying in a place more than a couple nights, don't be afraid to frequent the same places more than once and feel as if you've got a homey little routine. If you like a cafe, go back again the next day. Spend time in the same park having a picnic lunch. You'll have a slightly different experience of the place and save yourself the mental wear and tear or constantly figuring out someplace new to try.
posted by dahliachewswell at 12:07 AM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thank you so much for the answers, everyone, you've been super helpful!
posted by Cpt. The Mango at 1:02 AM on April 23, 2014

I spent six months in Europe (covered something like 25 countries) when I was 22 with only a regular school-sized pack-back (one pair of denim, one pair of khakis, a few socks, few underwear, two tshirts, 1 sweater, 1 laptop, notebooks, and rotating books). I was travelling alone and had no particular plan, so my route and itinerary were very flexible. For me, that worked well. It meant that when I fell in love with Berlin I rented an apartment and stayed for a month. It meant that, after listening to someone tell me about their experiences in Kosovo, I had the flexibility to decide to head that way the next day. Sometimes I met a group of people I liked and would travel along with them for a few days or a week. And travelling light meant I was never tied anywhere and not burdened when something went wrong - if I missed a bus and had to sleep in a park for a few hours that was okay (backback as pillow, arm through arm loop to prevent theft).

I haven't quite mastered this flexibility when travelling with a companion, but talking about expectations should go a long way to getting you both on the same page. If you decide you want to keep to the itinerary and route, perhaps it's worth considering taking a day a week to go do your own thing in a city. This way you can meet up together for dinner and talk about what you did, and you might find you each stumble upon small adventures of your own, or simply guilt-free enjoy an activity that your partner doesn't so much enjoy. Regardless, you can still work to keep things flexible even when travelling together or with a pre-set plan. You can't control everything while travelling and learning to accept that is a huge part of the fun. Learning to accept that together might also be very rewarding.

Also, the language barrier. I kept a small notepad with me which came in very handy when trying to book tickets/buses/trains. I could write down a time or the ticket-seller could scribble down a time for me, or denominations of money. You can always draw a bus or a taxi or a picture of a band-aid if that's what you're looking for. Lots of buses and train routes are posted and easy to find yourself, but in smaller places these can still be rather ad-hoc. I remember in one coastal town I was told a bus would leave the next day at x time. There was no sign posted and I had very little reason to believe any bus would ever come to rescue me from the blaring sun, but sure enough, one did.

I managed to do all of this on a very small budget. I stayed at hostels and churches and couch surfed, and, as above, rented short-term sublets. I also stayed in Italy for a few weeks in a rented room - though I suspect airbnb might be the easier way to do this - short term sublets on housing sites can save extra money.

I had a small lock and chain - lock the two zippers on your luggage together so it can't be opened and use the chain to secure the bag to the luggage rails on a train. This made sleeping in-transit a little less worrying. I also kept my passport on my physical person in a passport belt under my clothes, along with an extra credit card and spare cash. At least if I was mugged I would only lose a portion of my money, and it helped me worry less about losing my passport, or godforbid, ending up unidentifiable in a hospital.

Also - SD cards. If you're shooting photos that are particularly significant to you, spread these out on multiple SD cards and keep some in your passport belt. If your camera is stolen you don't want to lose all your photos. (I remember one notable visit to an Albania police station to report a lost camera...)

I'd also like to suggest - which I still consult before heading off to a new destination. And of course Lonely Planet (my travel guide of choice).

I also loved the journal suggestion above. I kept a livejournal during my trip so my friends & family knew where I was, but it means now that I have a good record of all my adventures and experiences and how many different beds I slept in over those months and how many volcanoes I climbed (only 1 - Vesuvius - in Napels, land of delicious pizza).

Finally, as a single woman travelling alone. Italy. Italy was unbearable. Italy was endless suffering and constant attention and one particularly awful walk being followed by a car I could not lose. Be careful.
posted by offrecord at 12:08 PM on April 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

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