If you’re planning a Europe trip, there are some things you should know!
Eurail travel passes are expensive and unnecessary. It is almost always better to buy tickets from individual rail service websites (SNCF, Trenitalia, DB Bahn – use Google Chrome to automatically translate these sites) or at the station on the day of your trip. Remember to validate your tickets if required (ugh)! The Man in Seat Sixty-One gives pretty solid advice.
Couchettes (sleeping cars) are uncomfortable. If you are a light sleeper, do not use. While it seems like a way to save time and money by combining sleep and travel, chances are you’ll require a nap the next day, offsetting your time savings. You might even spend less on a plane trip plus an extra night in a hostel.
Also, don’t be afraid to fly! Plane trips are competitive with train trips and definitely get you there faster (even counting the whole security song and dance). Airlines like easyJet let you purchase carbon offsets, if you’re a hippy.
We used OffMaps ($2) to download entire city maps to our iPhones. A few dollars more ($1 per city) and we could have also downloaded an index of all of the places in each city, but instead we bookmarked where we wanted to go with the help of our laptop at the beginning of each day.
We also bought a Kindle 3G, which, while providing us with reading material for travel, also provided us with completely free Internet access everywhere. Sure, the screen’s grayscale and refreshes like a snail, but that’s a small price to pay for the ability to use a WebKit-based web browser wherever there’s a data signal. I don’t expect that this capability will be around forever, but this could even be helpful in the States, if for some reason you wanted to go without a mobile data plan for a while.
Almost everyone speaks English in every major European city. We never had any trouble finding our way through any situation. (We did come across a menu that was only in Dutch, but Google Translate on the Kindle helped us through). This isn’t to say that knowing another language doesn’t hurt – learn just one Romance language and you should be able to figure the others out relatively easily. English is half Germanic, half Romance, so we weren’t in the dark linguistically at any point.
Walking tours aren’t bad. There are definitely some tours you don’t need to take – ones that take you through a single monument like the Eiffel Tower or Colosseum, for instance – but many of them, especially the ones through SANDEMANs, are fun and insightful. We toured our way through Berlin and found that it was probably the best way to see the city in a short period of time.
Finding places to see is easy. Locals and guides will often tell you to visit the same monuments. Finding places to eat, though, is probably much more important. You’ll want to consult friends who have lived or traveled where you’re going, local food blogs, travel blogs (see below!), and review sites like Yelp, Qype and TripAdvisor, but probably as a last resort. You’ll spend half of your day eating or going to eat, so it’s important that you choose wisely. You’ll find great new routes, neighborhoods, cuisines and customs if you eat off the beaten path.
About eating: there are different payment and tipping customs wherever you go. Don’t expect to be able to leave a tip after your card is charged. Some places don’t expect to receive tips regularly, since waitstaff often receive a living wage.