For Americans or other tourists traveling to Europe for the first time, a lot of aspects of local life may be new or confusing. There are many intricacies when it comes to navigating restaurant dining, transportation, and other experiences that you’d probably be well to study up on in advance. The better informed you are and the more accurate your expectations, the more enjoyable and stress-free your trip will be. Here are the most important 50 tips for your first trip to Europe.
Entering and leaving Europe
1. You go through passport control at your first Schengen Area country.
The Schengen Area is a union of 27 European nations that facilitates movement between each region. This means that once you enter the Schengen zone, you can move about without having to go through passport control. For example, if you’re flying from New York to Rome to Zurich, you will go through passport control in Rome but not Zurich.
This is important to remember when you’re booking flight itineraries. You want to ensure that you have ample time not only to find the gate of your connecting flight, but also to clear the passport control line at your first entry in the Schengen Area.
2. You have to go through passport control to leave Europe as well.
Unlike the US, where taking a domestic flight doesn’t differ significantly from taking an international flight, you will have to go through customs on the way out of the Schengen zone as well. So you want to make sure you have enough time at your departure point out of the Schengen zone to do this.
3. If you’re going to more than one European country in one trip, don’t bother with a round trip flight.
This is more of a general travel tip than just a European travel tip. If you’re country-hopping in Europe, you’ll save yourself a lot of time if you plan your trip with an entry at your starting point and your exit at the departure point. For example, if you’re traveling to Portugal and the Germany in the same trip, you’ll be adding at least half a day of travel time (even though it’s only a 3-hour flight) if you have to round back to your starting point to go home.
Getting around in European cities
4. Cobblestone streets are cute, but they’re hell on your feet.
Most European cities are many centuries old, and the same look that makes them so quaint can also make them hard to get around. Streets are bumpy and uneven, paved with cobblestones or slippery tile. This can make heels a precarious choice. Wear practical footwear.
5. You can use Google Maps to get around on foot or public transportation.
You don’t need a silly little hotel map to get around in Europe anymore. You can use Google Maps to get up-to-the-minute information about how to get anywhere. You’ll be able to map a walking route or compare public transportation routes including current delays or changes.
6. You should pack light.
There’s a reason why backpacking in Europe is so popular. Getting around with a lot of bags can be a hassle. Hauling a lot of bags down into metro stations or onto crowded trams is a nightmare. If you’re thinking, “who cares, I can take a taxi,” here’s the reality. A lot of popular areas in major European cities and especially in small villages or islands are not car-friendly. So your taxi or Uber driver will probably dump you “close enough,” and you’ll still have to drag your stuff over bumpy cobblestones, sometimes uphill.
And if you’re thinking that the inconvenience ends on the way to your hotel, you’ll be horrified to learn that many hotels don’t have elevators. So you might find yourself hauling your heavy bags up several flights of narrow stairs – multiple times during your trip if you’re making several stops. Save yourself the headache and pack reasonably. It’s less of a hassle to do laundry than it is to take a million outfits you probably won’t end up wearing.
7. Many public transportation systems in Europe work on the honor system.
This is confusing to a lot of people because they’re used to seeing barriers and turnstiles to access trains and metros. This doesn’t mean you can just ride for free. You’re always expected to carry a valid ticket with you to cover your entire trip. If a transportation system has barrier-free entry, it also has ticket checkers randomly spot checking. They’re often in plain clothes to make themselves harder to avoid. If you’re caught without a ticket, you’ll be responsible for a hefty fine.
8. Not validating your ticket is the equivalent of not having one at all.
Unless you’re purchasing a ticket on board a bus or tram, a ticket won’t be usable until it’s validated. This is often done by putting it into a machine that stamps the time when it was first used. This is even true of multi-day transport passes, though these have to be validated just once upon initial use. If a ticket checker catches you with an unvalidated ticket, you will still be fined.
9. Seats on public transport for the injured or elderly are actually used by the injured or elderly.
Public transport in a lot of countries is a free-for-all. But in Europe, seats marked for special persons like pregnant women, elderly riders, and injured riders are reserved for them. If you’re sitting in one and someone in need walks into the tram or metro, you’re expected to give up your seat. If you don’t, you may even be asked to by a passerby or the transport driver.
10. Always let people off public transport before you try to shove your way in.
One simple way that Europeans keep transportation use efficient is by waiting patiently beside open transport doors while everyone on board files out. Don’t try to push through as soon as the doors open; you will have enough time to get on, and it’ll prevent a log-jam at the entrance.
Traveling between cities and countries
11. Trains are the most comfortable way to get around Europe.
Train travel is the preferred method of transportation for a lot of European travelers for any trip that is less than 5 hours. It’s roomier, it’s usually faster, and it’s easily accessible from city center. Even if a flight is short and cheap, you have to account for the time it takes to get to the airport at your start and end point. So a 3-hour train ride and a 30-minute flight often end up actually taking the same amount of time.
If you’re traveling a longer distance, night trains are also a great option, combining travel and accommodation into one. They’re safe and comfortable without being too expensive.
12. You can arrive at the train station 20 minutes before your train.
Unlike a flight which requires long lines for check-in and security, there is no reason to get to a train station absurdly early. You won’t know what platform your train is departing from until a few minutes before your departure time. Often times, you won’t even be able to board early because the train isn’t just sitting there waiting to depart; it’s en route from the previous station.
13. If you didn’t reserve a seat on the train, you have to find one in your booked class that is unlabeled.
You can usually reserve a specific seat for a small fee in addition to the cost of your ticket. Though this system varies from place to place, generally speaking, train seats are labeled as either “Reserved” or with the specific part of the train route it’s reserved for (Ex: Praha-Dresden). If you didn’t reserve a seat, you must find a seat that is unreserved, or you’ll probably get kicked out of it at some point on your journey by the people who reserved it.
14. Buses are also a great option to help you move around Europe.
Bus travel is another convenient way to get from one city to another. They’re often cheaper than trains, and they pick up and drop off in very convenient areas of town. Buses may be the optimal choice if you want to avoid confusing train connections. They often travel between cities that don’t have other direct connections by train or air.
15. You may need an international license to rent a car.
Depending on where you’re coming from or going to, an International Driving Permit (IDP) may be a must. This is basically an official translation of your US license into many languages. If your license isn’t already in the Latin alphabet, you may have some trouble renting a car without one.
Even if you manage to rent a car without an IDP, that doesn’t mean you don’t need it. A lot of rental companies don’t care about the IDP as long as you have a license, but it is legally required in many European countries. This means that if you end up getting into a traffic incident and police get involved, you may be in hot water if you don’t have it. The cops are not going to care that your rental company has lax requirements. Not having it could also invalidate your rental insurance, since you’re technically driving around without the legally required IDP.
16. You probably won’t need a car.
Rental requirements aside, Europe is so small and well-covered by regional transportation that it’s unlikely you will need a car unless you want to see some remote sites like national parks or mountainous regions. A car within a city is not only unnecessary but a hinderance. Parking is limited and may be expensive, and driving around in busy cities is stressful.
17. Those low-cost flights are never just 15 euro.
If you’re tempted to use low-cost airlines to get around Europe, be very cautious about what your ticket includes (likely nothing). Sometimes you’ll get charged 100 euro for printing your boarding pass at the airport. The free baggage requirements are a pittance, so you will most likely be forced to buy baggage. They will use a measuring tape if it means squeezing out another 50-100 bucks. Ensure that when you compare the cost of other airlines, trains, or buses, that you factor in all these hidden fees.
Eating and drinking in Europe
18. Yes, it’s safe to drink the water.
Europe has high-quality drinking water, so you don’t have to be afraid of catching a bug if you drink water in your hotel room or you’re served tap water in a restaurant.
19. The restaurant menu is not negotiable.
A lot of tourists – Americans in particular – are used to treating restaurants like it’s their personal kitchen – substituting items, requesting modifications, even ordering things not on the menu. In Europe, you’re likely to get some sneers if you’re too fussy about the menu. The server isn’t going to check with the kitchen staff to see if your request is possible. So choose dishes you want to eat as is.
That being said, if you have a dietary restriction, menus are clearly labeled with vegan or vegetarian options and allergy information. It’s never a bad idea to peruse the menu in advance so you’re sure there are options you want or can have.
20. Europeans don’t use ice.
Water is typically served at room temperature, and other drinks are served as refrigerated. You can always ask for ice if you really need your drink ice-cold, but it may not always be available.
21. There are no free refills.
If you request multiple refills, you will be charged for each individual drink.
22. Drinking alcohol is sometimes cheaper than water or juice.
Beer and wine are staples of European dining. And sometimes a draft beer or glass of wine is cheaper than ordering a homemade lemonade or bottled water.
23. The conventional perception of tipping in Europe isn’t always true.
It’s well-known that tipping is not common in Europe. Sure, servers get paid a livable wage and most locals leave their change or nothing at all. But if you’re staying in touristy areas, you will be expected and even asked to pay. It never hurts to be kind, so I always recommend to tip.
24. If you want to tip on a card, you have to tell the server.
Receipts are not printed with the option to add in a tip in Europe, and those little tipping screens have not become commonplace yet. If you’re paying by card, you can either leave a cash tip or tell the server how much you want to add to your bill before they run the card.
25. You’re expected to use napkins conservatively.
Europeans are very environmentally conscious. And a simple way that they do this is by avoiding unnecessary waste. So it’s common to only get one napkin at a restaurant and be expected to use it wisely for the duration of your meal. If you’re anywhere where you can grab your own napkins, it’s frowned upon to grab a whole stack. You’re probably not going to need all of them, and you’ll end up throwing them away.
26. Checks are split by item.
Splitting checks is common. Servers often ask if you want to pay the bill all together or separately. However, it’s not possible to evenly split the cost of a meal two or three ways. So usually, you’ll have to go to the cash register and tell the server everything you ordered to pay your portion.
27. It’s common to be able to get up and pay at the cash register instead of requesting a check be brought to your table.
This is not true across all of Europe or for all types of dining establishments, but many casual restaurants and cafes don’t bother with the song and dance of bringing you the check and then a card reader. You can often just get up when you’re ready to go and pay at the register. When in doubt, take a look at how other people around you are paying and do what they do.
28. No one is going to bring you a check unless you ask.
A lot of people have the perception that service in Europe is terrible because you have to wait forever for anything – especially the check. That’s because servers in Europe aren’t trying to turn over tables. They don’t care if you sit there sipping water for three hours after you finish your meal, and some people like to do that. So they’re not going to “push you out” by offering you the check until you ask for it or simply get up to pay. If you want the check or anything else, just get the server’s attention and ask. Otherwise, you might feel neglected as its customary to let people dine in peace rather than checking in too much.
29. If a restaurant has a menu with a bunch of flags denoting the languages it’s translated into, the food is probably overpriced and terrible.
Most places that see a lot of tourist traffic cater to a lot of different people from around the world. Though this seems convenient, this is guaranteed to be a bad meal. These restaurants are usually garbage, they’re more expensive, and servers who have to deal with rude or clueless tourists all day are more likely to be actually rude.
30. Many beer gardens or street festivals will take a deposit for glassware or plastic cups.
If you stumble upon an outdoor beer garden or some pop-up food and drink festival in some park, you should know that you’re paying for your drinkware if you’re served drinks in reusable plastic cups or even glassware. They’re not trying to purposefully give you back the wrong change. This is another way Europeans conserve by avoiding plastic waste. If that’s the case, you can either keep your glass or return it to the bar to get your deposit back.
Being a tourist in Europe
31. The water at European beaches is pretty cold most of the year.
European beaches are stunning. Nothing seems more romantic and inviting than white sand beaches surrounded by dramatic cliffs. You know what’s not inviting? Water that is 55.6 °F (13.1 °C) all year round. The Mediterranean and other European bodies of water are freezing to most people. It’s like going to the beach in Canada. By comparison, Caribbean waters are around 80°F (27°C) all year. So if you want to have a fun splashy beach vacation, go to Jamaica.
32. It’s worth it to buy tickets in advance for popular tourist spots.
Many of the things you’ll want to visit as a first-time tourist in Europe will have a line. Crowded tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower are the biggest disappointment to a lot of people. One way to avoid waiting in the hot sun and wasting a lot of time is to book tickets online in advance so you can skip the ticket line.
33. Public restrooms cost money.
Unless you’re in a restaurant or museum, you’ll have to pay to use public restrooms. You can’t just pop into a store and use theirs. It’s common to find paid restrooms (labeled as WC) in busy parts of town, in malls, or in metro and train stations. It’s typically no more than a euro, so it’s good to have some coins. Sometimes you can pay by card at a machine or get change from an attendant. But your best bet is to just have some change on hand.
34. Tourist scams are rampant.
Many tourists coming to Europe are easily identifiable by the way they behave, so they’re easy marks for people who want to make a quick buck. Scammers bank on ignorance about the way things work or take advantage of people’s kindness. If anyone approaches you on the street, chances are better than not that they’re just trying to scam you. Don’t accept “gifts” from anyone. Avoid people who may be collecting “donations.” Don’t give money to anyone trying to sell you a transportation pass. A simple “no thank you” will suffice.
Though it’s not as nefarious as street scams, a lot of attractions or restaurants may leave you feeling scammed as well. It’s always a good idea to check online reviews for boutique museums and attractions that are in popular tourist areas. As a general rule, if a restaurant has to flag people down on the street to eat there, it’s not going to be good.
35. Exchange places are basically institutionalized scams.
You almost never want to come to Europe with large sums of cash of any currency. Most places accept card, and if you need a little pocket money, you can use your bank card at local ATMs to get a fair rate. Exchange offices give you their own fixed rate (that benefits them the most) and usually charge a percentage in commission, so you end up losing a ton of money.
If you end up with local currency leftover, you can usually exchange it for a fair rate at your bank back home. But it’s usually better to take out only a little bit of cash at a time and make sure you spend it all before you leave so you don’t have to exchange it at all.
36. Euronet ATMs are going to cost you.
Though you probably won’t be able to avoid a fee from your own bank for using your card abroad, you can avoid ATM fees by finding a reputable ATM. Euronet has a monopoly on ATMs that are conveniently placed where a lot of tourists need cash. But they have terrible conversion rates and high fees. Instead, find local banks and use their ATMs.
You almost always want to take out money in the local currency and let your bank make the conversion. Don’t ever use the rate offered by local ATMs; it’s not usually favorable for you. This is also true when you pay by card in local shops or restaurants; always pay in the local currency.
37. Almost everyone speaks English but it’s rude to assume so.
English is commonly spoken across Europe, especially in large cities you are likely to visit. That being said, no one wants to be approached by a foreigner assuming you speak their language. A good rule of thumb is that you can get in almost anyone’s good graces (yes, even the French) by learning to say hello in the local language and then politely asking if they speak English. Even if they don’t, you’d be surprised by how often people are just willing to mime information to help you out.
38. Google Translate is your friend.
In cases where you’re struggling with the language, translation apps are useful. To avoid issues with unreliable cell service or no WiFi, you should download the foreign language to your phone ahead of your trip. You can use the picture translation function to instantly translate menus, signage, and even information posted in museums or other sights that may not be translated. In a pinch, Google Translate can also help you communicate with people. Simply write what you need and show them the phone or try your best to say the translated phrase.
39. Many Western and Central European countries use quiet voices in public.
Though this is not applicable across all European countries, it’s more often the case than not. Spain, Portugal, and Italy may be notable exceptions. Outside of that, public spaces, especially train stations, airports, and all forms of public transport often sound like a library. That’s because people tend to be considerate of how noise affects others, so they simply don’t make any or speak in hushed tones. If you don’t realize that, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb or get dirty looks out in public.
This extends in part to dining establishments. Obviously, people don’t eat their food in total silence, but you usually won’t hear the loud roar of voices that you might in other countries (America… looking at you). It’s always good to gauge the vibe of the place where you are and adjust your speaking volume accordingly.
40. It’s rude to pet other people’s dogs without asking permission.
Europe is very dog-friendly, and you’ll often see adorable dogs of all shapes and sizes on public transport, in restaurants, or leashed outside shops waiting for their owners. Part of what makes this possible is consistent training. So approaching someone’s dog and touching it might break the pattern they’re used to. Another aspect of this is that our dogs are an extension of our personal space, so it’s considered rude to assume they would be receptive to interacting with strangers without checking with the owner. Always ask first.
Accommodations in Europe
41. Hostels are not scary, but they are full of obnoxious young people.
Despite the impression you may have gotten from horror movies like “Hostel,” violent (or completely demented) crime is not terribly common in Europe. Hostels are usually centrally located and perfectly safe. If you’re looking to keep your first European trip affordable, you can stay at hostels in great areas of town for as little as 10 or 20 euros per night. Many hostels offer gendered rooms, so you’re only sleeping with people of your own gender. You can always lock up your belongings to keep yourself safe from theft.
So the biggest downside of hostels is that you’ll be surrounded by people you may or may not like. The young people that often stay in hostels can be loud, dirty, come back to the room at all hours of the night, and they may bring guests.
42. Sometimes hotel rooms have shared bathrooms.
It’s common for hostels with dorm-style accommodations to have shared bathrooms. But you may be surprised to find that private accommodations also sometimes have shared bathrooms. It’s always a good idea to double check the room description, especially if you’re looking for bargain prices.
43. Many accommodations don’t have air conditioning.
Historically, Europeans haven’t needed air conditioning. Summers are not very long, and nights are usually mild even in the summer. Many old buildings would have to be redesigned to accommodate air conditioning. Over time, however, summers have gotten hotter and hotter, and heat waves have become more common. So if you’re coming to Europe during warm months, make sure you’re booking a hotel or private apartment that has air conditioning. Even if you could sleep comfortably with the window open, the noise through an open window can be disturbing, especially in touristy areas of town that never really sleep.
44. Many accommodations don’t have elevators.
It’s hard to get around Europe if you have accessibility issues. It’s always a good idea to double check that your hotel has an elevator if you need or prefer it. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if you have to go up several flights of stairs every time you’re coming back to your room.
45. Your accommodation usually registers you with local authorities so it’s normal that they’ll ask for a lot of information.
A lot of people get suspicious if they stay at an Airbnb and the host asks to make a copy of your passport or ask questions about your travel plans. Hotels often ask for this information too. That’s because tourism businesses are required to submit guest information to local authorities, usually the police. Airbnb is tightly regulated in a lot of European countries, so that includes Airbnb hosts.
Health and safety
46. You have to talk to a pharmacist if you need medication.
If you find yourself feeling under the weather, you can’t just go to into a CVS and pick out your own cocktail of pills. Medication is actually dispensed “over-the-counter,” which is necessary anyway since brands and drugs you’re familiar with probably won’t be available. At the pharmacy, you can just explain what you’re feeling, and the pharmacist will give you a suitable treatment.
47. Bring a mask.
Mask-wearing mandates vary by country, so you may be required to use a mask to ride public transport, take taxis, or visit doctors. You may even be required to put on a mask in the middle of a train ride if you’re crossing into a country with different masking requirements. It’s best to carry one or two with you in case you find yourself in such a situation unexpectedly. As a general rule, the N95 is your best bet. Surgical and cloth masks don’t generally meet masking requirements.
48. The emergency number is 112.
If you need the police or medical assistance, there is an emergency phone line covering all EU member states: 112. They generally speak English and several other languages, and they can route your call to proper local authorities. I’ve lived in Europe for over 6 years and never needed to call 112, but it’s probably a good idea to know the number just in case.
49. Petty theft is the most common crime against tourists in Europe.
One of the biggest threats to safety is to personal property. A lot of tourists find themselves in closer contact to a lot of people than usual in busy tourist areas. This, combined with carelessness makes tourists easy to pickpocket. Keep your belongings close to you in public transport and busy pedestrian areas. Avoid handing strangers your phone or camera so they can take your picture; they may take off with your brand new iPhone.
50. If you need medical assistance, it’s available and affordable.
Don’t put off getting medical help if you’re feeling bad. Many public clinics and all hospitals in Europe accept foreigners with no insurance. Out-of-pocket costs are extremely low, and many doctors throughout Europe speak English. Support staff is another story, but don’t let that keep you from getting medical treatment if you need it. If it costs about as much as a meal and it’ll significantly improve your health so you can enjoy your trip, seeing a doctor is probably worth it.
Bonus tip: Europe is many countries, and they have their own unique customs and idiosyncrasies.
Although I’ve spent this entire list generalizing across all European countries for simplicity, the continent is vast, and cultures and customs can vary quite intensely from one country to another. You never want to assume anything about everyone in Europe based on your experiences in one country. Making generalizations like “Europeans are so rude” because you had some bad service in Madrid might make you sound ignorant. So it’s important to acknowledge people’s local and national identity when you interact with them. And for the love of God, never tell a Portuguese or Spanish person that Spain and Portugal are practically the same.