Tips for Travel to Europe

This was first written by Rob as a note on Facebook in early 2011. We are posting this here on our blog so that the information is easier to find for those who are thinking of visiting us, and anyone on the interwebs who happens to come across it (hi there!). Because Rob lived in San Luis Obispo for many years, it was originally written for friends coming from that area, however most of the advice is applicable to people traveling from any part of the U.S.

Before you start:

You have a current passport, right? Don’t delay. The longer you wait the more $$$ it will cost!  In most cases, it’s not necessary to apply for a visa because the U.S. is part of the Shengen agreement which allows Americans to travel freely within any participating nations (most of Europe; notable exceptions are the U.K. and the Balkans) as long as they leave within 90 days of your arrival in the first Shengen country you visit.  But don’t take my word for this; make sure all the countries you’re traveling to are Shengen countries, and that these rules have not changed since the writing of this article.

Getting there:

When you’re thinking of going to Europe one of the first things you need to ask yourself if it’s more important to get a cheap flight and make it there by hook or by crook or if you want to have an easier trip.

If you’re traveling from SLO, the former means flying out of LAX or SFO and driving there. Consider that you will need to find a place to park your car, pay for parking, pay for gas, deal with traffic and take more time off into account. Add up all of these costs when consider it your travel plans.

If you want to take it easier and pay a little more, then flying out of SLO (SBP) is good for you. Sometimes flying out of SBP can be as little as $50 more when you purchase an international ticket. And compared to the hassle of going to SF/LA, $50 is a good deal. At a $150 more, it becomes a little more of a question.

Buying cheap plane tickets is an exercise of your internet skills. You’re going to spend a lot of time looking for the right combo of tickets, times and prices. You’ll need to look at a bunch of sites and check back for ticket prices as they change pretty often. You should attempt to purchase your tickets with as much lead time as you can for peak travel times. (April 15 – Aug 15). The off peak times are a different story since airlines have a lot of airfare sales in the fall/winter.

That leads to the question as to when you should go. Peak times things get more expensive, tickets can be harder to find, reservations for hotels can be hard to get and Europe is crawling with tourists. Attractions will be more packed and you’ll find everything more full, but the weather is bound to be better. If you can deal with maybe not so perfect weather consider traveling early April or late Sept. Things will be cheaper and less crowded.

Now to find cheap flights:

http://expedia.com

http://cheaptickets.com

http://orbitz.com

http://airlineconsolidator.com

http://kayak.com

http://www.hipmunk.com

https://www.google.com/flights

Start with one of these sites and get comfortable with the price ranges you’re looking at. Consider the following tips on picking good flights:

– Number of flights: Look for non-stop flights from the west coast to one of the hubs (CDG, LHR, FRA, AMS, MUC). If you’re leaving from LAX/SFO you should only have two flights ideally. From SBP 3 flights is good. Any more than that and you’re spending more time traveling than needed, but you might save money.

– Layovers: You should have at least 2 hours of layover before a trans atlantic flight. When changing in  London Heathrow (LHR) for an international flight you want 3 hours! More if you need to reclaim and recheck luggage at LHR. Shorter layovers are often reasons for lost luggage and missed connections. Maybe give yourself more time on the outbound flight to encounter less trouble to get your vacation started.

– Avoid flights that stop in the US. Avoid Chicago and NYC like the plague. Newark and DC are ok, but still best to avoid.

– Don’t buy flights on separate tickets! If one airline gets you to your designation late and you’re late for your next ticket, your next airline might be a bitch and cancel your ticket. Or charge you a fee for being late to your flight. If you travel all on one ticket, your airline must get you to your destination, even if a connection is late. If you must buy separate tickets, leave extra layover time to make sure you get your flight.

– When coming back, you may need to catch a flight to one of the hubs (CDG, LHR, FRA, AMS, MUC) to catch a transatlantic flight. Sometimes you have two choices of flights: Painful 6/7am feeder flight to a hub or 9/10am feeder flights. Avoid the comfy 9/10am feeder flights — if you have a delay getting to your hub you’re probably spending another night in Europe since all flights to the US are usually gone by 2pm. The early flight is an utter nightmare, but it can save you from a much worse nightmare later. Do yourself a favor, get a Taxi for your early flight — its usually not very expensive early in the morning.

– Good airports: FRA (Frankfurt), MUC (Munich), AMS (Amsterdam)

– So-so airports: LHR (London Heathrow) — sometimes excellent, sometimes hell. Bad during peak travel times.

– Bad airports: CDG (Paris Charles du Gaulle) If you’re going to Paris this is your only real option. deal.

– If you can, fly an EU airline: Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic. Better service, newspapers and free booze make all the difference. Avoid US carriers and especially Delta, American Airlines, US Airways. Once in Europe, forget about trying to switch to a cheap airline to save money. They usually fly from different airports that are a pain to get to. Plus that costs $$$ and time, so you don’t really end up saving anything and you’ll just be more frustrated.

– Name-your-price deals: using Priceline and the like is not worth the savings for flights. You might end up with a horrible airline that’s likely to lose your luggage, bad travel times (6am flight or redeye), horrible layovers (make sure you have at least 1 hour to get to your next flight when you’re unfamiliar with the airport and don’t speak the language – even longer if your layover is in Paris!) and too many segments. Hotels are not much better — you could get a crappy hotel in a bad part of town. You might end up spending tons of money on cabs and not really save money in the end.

Ok, you’ve internalized all that, right? Ok, now start digging in to find cheap flights. It helps to hunt around and try different sites — they sometimes give you much different prices. And if one site offers a cheap price for a flight and you select the flight and it says: “This is not longer available” or “Costs have changed”, go try another site and see if you can lock in the prices.

When you’re convinced you’ve got a great deal on your hands, don’t dally. Be ready to purchase at any time! You’ll need complete names of all the travelers, and having passport numbers and expiration dates on hand is also useful.

Interlude:

Once you have tickets, go to your doctor and tell them you’re afraid of flying AND that you would like to sleep on your flight. Your friend recommended Xanax for this purpose. Ask them for enough for the flight there and back, plus a little more to help you sleep while jetlagged (more on this below).

An alternative to prescription sleep meds is an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl that lists drowsiness as a side effect.  If you know that it has this effect on you, then you can use the “side effect” to your advantage while you travel!  One advantage that Benadryl has over prescription sleep meds is that the duration is only 4 hours, which is perfect for times when you have less than 8 hours of sleep time available to you and need some assistance falling asleep.

Seats:

Once you’ve purchased tickets, go find yourself some seats if you didn’t already do that. Waiting to get seats at the airport is a guaranteed disaster! Flights under two hours don’t matter much, but the long flights are critical to get good seats. I normally opt for window seats on short flights, and aisle seats on long flights where you can get up anytime you want. Pro tip: If you’re going for a window seat, make sure to do that ahead of the wing, or well behind it. You can’t see shit over the wing. If you have a short layover somewhere, find seats in the front of the plane that brings you to your short layover; sometimes the extra 2 minutes makes a big difference.

For help with seats, look to see what type of plane you have and go here:

http://seatguru.com

The same plane type for different airlines will have different layouts, so make sure you get the right plane-type and airline. Also, a 737-200 and 737-700 are quite different on the inside. Make sure you look up the right plane.

Hotels:

Major hotel chains are really expensive in Europe, especially in the north. Stay in small hotels that are usually family operated for a much better price. My favorite site for finding them is:

http://www.venere.com

I’ve booked with them a bunch of times and their site is awesome. Look for hotels that are cheap, centrally located or near public transit. Make sure to read the reviews! Note that many hotels and pensions in Europe offer cheaper lodging with shared bathrooms.  Read carefully to make sure you know what you’re getting based on your preference (saving money vs. private bathroom).

Surviving the trip there and back:

Some things I always travel with:

– Swiss army knife (put into your checked luggage!)

– Ear plugs & eyemask (in your carry-on!)

– Multivitamins and EmegenC packets (carry on)

– iPod & headphones (carry on)

– Sleep meds if you have them (in carry on, see “Interlude” above)

– Toothbrush & toothpaste (carry on)

– A water bottle (carry on)

– Melatonin (suitcase)

Surviving the 10-hour flight to Europe is the most critical challenge for you! If you can get some sleep and not be totally cranky once you get to your destination, we’ve won! Here is my routine for the trans-atlantic flight from the West Cost to Europe:

– As the plane finishes boarding, walk to the galley and have the crew fill your water bottle. Then take a multi-vitamin and an EmergenC packet to bolster your immune system. If there is even one person on the plane with a cold, you stand a decent chance of getting it. This improves your chances of not getting sick on your trip. Trust me, being sick while traveling internationally is NO FUN!

– About an hour into the flight, you’ll be served dinner. If you brought sleep meds, take them before you eat, otherwise they sit on top of your food and will take a lot longer before they kick in.

– Eat your dinner. If you’re offered free booze, decline. It’s not good for on a plane. Sounds wrong, but still, trust me.

– If you care to brush your teeth before sleeping, don’t wait for them to collect your dishes — you may pass out first if you just took your sleep meds!

– Hand your dishes to a person next to you and get up. You can make it to the bathroom with no lines while others are still stuck with their dishes in front of them. Brush your teeth and get back to your seat.

– Put in your earplugs and don your eyemask.

– Zonk out. Hopefully you’ll be out for 6-8 hours!

Make sure to drink lots of water on the flight, both before and after you sleep! Having to pee more frequently is inconvenient, but staying hydrated will also help your immune system resist any germs that you are exposed to while traveling.

Trouble while traveling:

If you encounter bad weather and your airline gets you to your connection point late and you miss the last flight of the day, they are NOT required to provide you with a hotel room. (bad weather is considered an act of god (seriously!) and those are not covered for hotel rooms). If the airline has a mechanical problem or is late not due to an act of god, they owe you a hotel room.

If your flight is canceled or severely delayed, immediately get your ass to the nearest ticket counter. Be polite and exceedingly nice to the people making you new arrangements. There will be pissed off people and loud assholes who will make this suck for everyone. They will not get the good treatment — those who are nice and polite will get better treatment.

If you have an internet capable mobile phone, use it to look for flights (on your airline or their partner airlines) to get you where you need to go. If you have a clue of options you can sometimes help the person behind the desk. If you know what you want and its not unreasonable, they’re liable to give it to you.

Jet Lag:

Jet lag sucks ass. Some people don’t experience it at all, other are incapacitated by it. You’ll need to figure out what works best for yourself, but here are a few tricks I’ve learned that work well for me:

  • When you arrive, make sure that you stay up until a reasonable bed time (9pm by my standards). Even if you arrive at 7am, you need to stay awake the whole day. Drink loads of caffeine if need be! Before going to bed take a melatonin supplement; it helps to reset your biological clock to the new time zone.
  • If you wake up at 4am the next morning, don’t get up. Stay in bed, don’t read. Just try to keep sleeping or at least try to fool your body into thinking that you’re sleeping. The more you can act on your local timezone, the better. It takes about 1 hour per day to get rid of jetlag. So for EU @ 9 hours, thats 9 days! If you’re well trained you can ignore jetlag after 3 days, but that does take some practice. If you have sleep meds, you can use this for ensuring you sleep when you want to be sleeping.

While in Europe:

Forget travelers checks — they just suck money and are a pain. Use your ATM card in any machine — sometime you will see an ATM in a lobby in front of a bank, but the door to the lobby is closed. Look for a card reader near the door lock — usually they are not marked very well — slide/swipe your card and it will let you in to the lobby. ATMs will give you the best conversion rate and are easy to deal with. Be aware that your bank will charge you a fee for international withdrawals. Mine charges $5/transaction. Other banks charge a percentage of every foreign transaction. So it’s always a tricky game to not make too many withdrawals, but not carry too much cash with you.

Credit cards are not universally accepted. When you go into a restaurant make sure you can get yourself back out. For instance if they don’t take cards, and you don’t have cash, one of you will need to find an ATM and be able to take out enough cash. And, some banks have international withdrawal limits per day (300€ I’ve found) — check with your bank.

Getting around

Use public transit! In most cities across Europe, public transit works great! Don’t rent a car unless you have to. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. Parking a car in London or Paris is an utter nightmare! The only reason for renting a car is to get out of the city and into the country; and even then trains may go where you want to go. When renting a car, be careful of congestion zones in cities like London. If you drive into one of these or even near these, you have to pay. And they’ll hunt you down if you don’t.

http://www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging/

Rail in Europe is great! It’s not cheap, but it’s reliable and fast. You can check all the schedules/prices online to figure out what things cost. Google is great for finding the rail sites for your country. I like bahn.de since it covers lots of other countries as well:

http://www.bahn.de/i/view/USA/en/index.shtml

TGV/ICE/EuroStar/X2000 are the high speed trains — they are really fun and really expensive. An InterCity or InterRegio type train can be slower, but much cheaper. This all depends on your goals and your budget. Night trains can also be fun, but its hard to get a good night on a night train, even if you pay for a spot in a couchette (6 bunk sleeping cabin — bring earplugs!!)

Europe is all about walking. Make sure to bring good shoes that are broken in! 

For picking good restaurants, recommendations from friends and locals are invaluable. Picking up a travel guide for your city is also wise. Look for TimeOut guides — they are excellent! (TimeOut also has a city guide app for most major cities in Europe that you can install on your mobile.) Make sure to take a look at local supermarkets and cruise all the aisles. See what you can find that is interesting. Also, go to the open air/weekly markets for the real fresh goods. Don’t be freaked out by some of the things you see. Smile and keep walking towards the pretty flowers if the grinning naked sheep head bothers you. :)

Mobile phones & phone numbers:

If you have an AT&T or T-Mobile phone, it will work in Europe, but don’t you dare use it. You’ll go broke. I used it once to make one call and check my email while in the plane in Paris (total time 5 minutes). That was a $60 pleasure. Fuck you AT&T! If you have Verizon it may not work at all.

I find a mobile phone quite useful to call for taxis, make reservations and get a hold of friends. But most important is having Google maps in your pocket! Its easy to get lost in medieval cities and google maps makes for a great tool to help you explore. I have a travel phone you’re welcome to borrow — you may need to go to an mobile operator and buy yourself a SIM card for 20€-30€, but that will be worth having the connectivity if you’re into that.

If you see a phone number that looks like +44 234 998 0388, you can learn that 44 is the country code (UK) and the rest is the phone number. If you see a number written as (0) 234 998 0388 that means you need to dial the 0 if you’re in that country and then the rest of the number. If you’re in a different country that then number, you add the country code and drop the 0.

So, if you are in Germany (49) trying to call (0) 234 998 0388 in the UK you dial +44 234 998 0388. If you’re in the UK, you dial 0 234 998 0388. Quiz: Do you know why you put a 1 in front of US numbers when you are not in the same area code? Because 1 is the country code for the US! To write a US number as an international number you write: +1 800 555 1212.

Happy, safe, convenient and cheap travel to you!