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Travel to Europe

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What You Need to Do Resources - Article by James Martin

6 months before you go - Choose Your Destination! Now (or even sooner) is the time to choose your general destination. There are lots of resources on the right to help you. Remember that while Europe is quite compact compared to the US, the travel times between countries may be longer than you think. Once you've chosen your primary destination, you'll be able to go on to the next things on the list.
Language
Let's say you've chosen France as your destination and you'd really like to get to know the country and its people. Well, now is the time to start thinking of learning a bit of the language. A single beginner's course in spoken French at your local community college will teach you the basics cheaply enough. We also have extensive resources for learning European languages here on the About network. Please, at least think about learning the "politeness" words--natives will thank you for trying and will likely be more receptive to your questions. See Languages for the Tourist on the right to find out how easy it is.

Renting a House or Apartment
Now is the time to think about reserving that perfect apartment for the week (or month). You can wait until later to do this, but the best go fast. Living in the country you're visiting gets you into the swing of daily life: you'll be able to go to the open air markets and cook the food you buy, you won't have to think about maids (unless you want to) or checking in, and things can be as secure as you make them.

Guidebooks
Once you've figured out where you'd like to spend most of your time, it may be time to pick out a guidebook. You can purchase guidebooks that cover all of Western Europe, just a single country, or even a province or region like Tuscany.

3-4 months before you go - Start Checking Airfares
You can start checking sooner--although we've found searching 3-4 months before your flight is a pretty good bet; the airlines are starting to discount in order to reward early bookers and yet there's still time to wait if prices aren't to your liking. The airline computers are constantly revising the pricing based on the latest demand, so the cheapest prices might turn up anytime--but you might not want to wait that long. Use the Finding Bargain Airfares link if you're unfamiliar with the bargain hunting process.

Apply for a Passport if you don't already have one
If you don't have a passport, this is the time to start thinking of applying. While the literature says it takes 6 weeks to procure a US passport, you don't want to leave it to the last possible moment--it's a vacation killer if something goes wrong. And despite what you may have heard or read in the past, a separate passport is required for each and every family member traveling with you. First-time applicants 13 years of age and over must appear in person at a U.S. passport office, a designated courthouse or the Post Office. You'll need a birth certificate or proof of citizenship, a photo identification, two recent 2" x 2" photos of your face, and a bundle of money. You'll find the latest requirements and downloadable application form by clicking Passport Links there on the right. (You don't need a health certificate in Western Europe and you won't need to worry about a visa as long as you're staying fewer than 90 days and aren't going to Turkey.)

Shoes and Walking
Now is a good time to pick up some walking shoes and start getting them broken in. You'll walk a lot in Europe, even if you have a car; much of the city centers in Europe are pedestrian only zones. Be prepared.

6 weeks to 2 months before you go - Reserve Lodging - Hotel
If you haven't already reserved the hotels you've seen on the web and fallen in love with, now is the time to do so. But do you need to reserve in every city you're planning to visit? Here's what I do: I reserve a hotel for my arrival and departure days as well as any long-term apartment rentals I've selected. The rest I leave to chance. You may feel uncomfortable with this arrangement, but, with a few exceptions, it's worked just fine for me. When traveling by train, I prefer to arrive at my destination early, take a hotel by the train station and just drop my bags there and explore the city on foot. You can read the whole strategy in my Footloose Travel article.

Car or Train?
If you haven't already chosen, now would be a good time to select your primary mode of transportation. Select Train or Car? from the links on the right if you just can't seem to decide which is best for what you want to see.

Rail Pass
Do you need one? Here are some tips:

Trains in the south-Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece--are pretty cheap. If you're going to one or several of these places you might find that a pass isn't necessary. Just go to the station and buy a ticket. EurRail passes offer great savings if you plan right. For a saver pass you'll need to plan to take several long trips so that you can spend the travel days mostly on the train. Save money by going overnight; you'll save on hotel costs and make maximum use of your pass. Check the types of passes available carefully, to use them to an advantage, you may have to juggle some travel plans. Car Rental or Leasing and an International Driver's License Leasing a car is sometimes better than renting, especially if you're staying in Europe for more than 17 days. Leasing gets you a brand new car without rental company stickers on it and the pricing includes everything you need. When you turn it in at the end of your trip a lucky European will get to purchase that almost-new car for much less than a completely new one (This comes about because taxes on a new car are much higher than the taxes on even a slightly used one, so both parties benefit from this arrangement).
If you've chosen driving as your primary mode of transport in Europe, you should get an International Driver's License. Available at Auto Clubs, they're just a translation of your License into European languages. Sometimes police won't demand them, accepting your original license instead. But still, it doesn't hurt to get one, and they're pretty cheap. A couple of passport-sized pictures are required. Even though you can usually just walk into your auto club and come out with an International Driver's License, I recommend not putting this off: the paperwork needed is often "out of stock."

1 Month before you go - Travel Insurance
Now is the time to think about insurance. If your health insurance doesn't cover you overseas, or your homeowners insurance doesn't cover loss of material goods, then there are some temporary plans that might set your mind at ease. Check our Insurance Links for more.

Luggage How's your luggage? Is it easy to carry? Got more than a foot and a half of duct tape holding it together? If you want to be mobile, maybe you want to see if you can fit everything into a carry-on. It's not all that hard to do in the summer when you probably won't be needing heavy clothes. Rick Steves recommends walking around with all the stuff you think you'll need, then discarding half of it. I like the method I learned in Boy Scouts. Separate everything into three piles: stuff you absolutely need and use often, stuff you'll use occasionally, and stuff you probably won't use at all. Then eliminate the last two piles. Remember: Europe isn't lacking material goods. If you need a heavy sweater because it's unusually cold in August, chances are you won't be more then 50 feet from someone who'll sell you a great one. Don't forget, laundries are pretty easy to find (but usually expensive) and laundromats are are starting to show up in most popular tourist areas. Besides, if you rent a house or apartment it may include a clothes washer and possibly a dryer (but more probably a clothesline).

Cameras
If you've bought one for this trip, learn how to use it. If you need one, now is the time to purchase--don't put it off until the last minute and then end up standing in front of the Louvre all befuddled because you can't figure the danged thing out.
Film
If you're going to use film (how so very 90's!) you might consider purchasing one of those lead-lined bags to take it in. These reduce (but don't eliminate) the radiation from airport x-ray machines and thus the chance of film fogging. What I do to bypass this possibility is to buy and process my film in Europe. Sure, guidebooks say film and processing is more expensive overseas (but not much these days), but I look at it this way: are you gonna worry about fogging or are you willing to spend a buck and a half more per roll for peace of mind out of the thousands you're gonna spend on your vacation in total. Seems like false economy to me. Plus I get to show my pictures around to other travelers while I'm in Europe.

Cell Phones
If you need to be in constant touch with the office or someone special, you can rent cell phones that work throughout Europe. Often your car rental company can handle this, or you can check our Cell Phone Rental links for companies that'll rent phones for the short term.

Email
It's time to think about how you're going to handle your email in Europe, if that's important to you. If you have several accounts you want to check, you'll need to set up an online system for getting all your email. I use webbox, but other options are explained in the article Staying Connected.

Money
Yeah, it's time to get the long green together. I take some traveler's checks as a back-up, but mostly use the plentiful ATM machines in Europe to get cash. You need to have a 4-digit pin number to use many European ATMs. Watch one thing though: plan to have enough money to last through weekends--some people are reporting that certain banks in Europe don't update the customer's daily limit on Saturdays and Sundays and so if you've maxed out your daily allowance on Friday, you might find that you can't get more until Monday. You might also think about getting some Euros (or local currency for countries that don't use Euros) for the first day or two, if only to get used to them and assure yourself that you'll be able to afford a coffee in the airport.

How much Money?
Well, that varies, of course. A couple like Martha and I can get by on on $150 a day in most Mediterranean countries, although it's becoming a stretch these days. That'll get you a two or three star hotel with breakfast and two other meals taken in a restaurant with wine, plus entrance fees to museums and such. It's an average over the whole period of vacation--some days you'll get soaked, some days you'll find bargains. Students and the young-at-heart set willing to stay in hostels and eat street food or make their own grub in the Hostel kitchen will be able to do it for much less, of course.

Keeping your money and documents secure
You'll need a way to keep your passport and important items away from thieves. While Europe is still safer from violent crimes than the US, high tourist volumes in major cities tend to attract the slash and run crowd. Use a money belt or pouch that goes inside your clothing like seasoned travelers do. Keep your passport and important documents together in it. Don't wear a fanny pack with the pack turned around to actually ride on your fanny. It looks stupid and is a magnet for thieves. Women should avoid big purses with shoulder straps as those straps can be cut easily and the purse removed by a well-trained thief in seconds. Whatever can be said about European petty thieves and pickpockets one thing stands out when you talk to people who've been hit: they're good at what they do. Find recommended security stuff and other indispensable items under Travel Accessories.

Voltage and Plugs
European voltage is twice that of the wimpy American 110. The wall plugs are different as well. If you plan on using electrical appliances you may need to purchase adapters and power converters now. Check out my article European Electricity and the Connected Tourist for the skinny on what you'll need to make your stuff work in Europe. Me? I don't carry much more than the battery charger I bought in Italy to recharge my digital camera's batteries.

Maps
You should be far enough along in your travel planning to think about what maps you'll need. If you're in a car and like to get off the main highways, you'll need to purchase good maps. We use Michelin country and regional maps when we drive, purchasing the regional maps for areas we're staying in for a week or longer. You can get European driving maps from your auto club, but they're often not detailed enough to get you to the back roads.

Keeping in Touch
If you're the postcard-writing type, you'll need to have a means of keeping all those addresses where you can find them. Before the era of PDAs and email, I made sheets of labels for everyone who'd want a postcard so I could just slap one on and be done with it. Now I email friends and keep all their addresses on my Palm Pilot.

Check for Travel Dangers
The US government doesn't just meddle in overseas affairs, it also alerts travelers to dangers and uprisings in other countries. You might want to check conditions now and right before you leave.



Travel Dangers

Department of State Travel Warnings
Last minute - Oops, Forgot the Passport. Help!
Well, you can get one expedited, especially if you already have tickets. See our Passport Expediting Company links for more.

Make Copies
Now is the time to think about keeping back-ups of your travel documents. Make at least two photocopies of your itinerary, your passport information page (the one with your picture and passport number) and copies of your credit cards showing the cc numbers. Give one copy to your mother, or someone else you trust and can get a hold of any time of day or night. Keep a copy of your passport and credit card info with you but in a different place than the original items.

Final Check
The basic stuff you need to carry are these: Passport, tickets, car rental agreements, hotel reservation receipts, credit cards, medications (and prescriptions, if required), addresses/password information and an open mind with a sense of wonder. Check them twice. Then go have fun in Europe.