This guest post is the start of an occasional series featuring every day Millennials who made their travel dreams come true without the big price tag. Today, Harold Reed discusses how to travel Europe like a pro and things to know when traveling to Europe for the first time.
Traveling overseas is an exciting and daunting experience. You can see and experience civilizations and cultures that you have read about or seen on TV, but you can also have a not so great experience. It truly depends on how much time you spend on your preparation and your tolerance to just winging it. I winged it mostly, so this is a good story of some bad examples that I had and what I would have done differently. Here are 5 things I wish I knew before traveling to Europe.
5 things I wish I knew before traveling to Europe
1. Flights and Itinerary
One of the things I wish I knew before traveling to Europe was how to book a flight.
I have always treated traveling in the US with little regard to time and solely focused on price. I would take a look at Southwest airlines and find the cheapest flight at a reasonable time that had the shortest amount of flight time. I applied this logic to booking my overseas trip and had horrible results.
First, I waited until approximately three weeks out to book my ticket, and this is not enough time to book international flights. What I saw were ticket prices that were astronomically high and working on a budget, I turned to book tickets solely based on the lowest price, and this was a huge mistake.
I booked a flight from JFK to FIO for $495 through Aeroflot. A direct flight would have cost me an extra $800 at this point, so I booked this ticket.
After booking my airline ticket, I learned why Aeroflot was so cheap. Aeroflot sends all of its planes to its hub in Russia (since it’s a Russian airline) first. Flight time direct to FIO would have been only 8 hours direct, but Aeroflot increased this time to 16 hours since I would have to fly an additional 3 hours to Russia and then re-fly that same 3 hours back to FIO.
On paper, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but being on an airplane for that long is mind-numbing. I would say the right choice of mine was to wait to final call before boarding. I am typically a punctual person and always early, but I knew it was going to be a long flight so, I wanted to take advantage of all the time I could have to walk around freely. Another win would be selecting the kosher meals.
2. Connecting Flights
I will first say if you can fly direct, DO IT! If you can’t, pay attention to your layover time and be prepared just in case your luggage doesn’t arrive.
In my case, I packed a single change of clothes in my carry-on, but I would suggest packing at least two. My luggage didn’t make the transfer due to being on the ground for less than an hour. I would say a good rule of thumb would be if your layover is under one hour, you’re more than likely not getting your luggage when you get to your destination.
Another win for myself was that I did have travel insurance (Maggie’s note: Always have travel insurance!), so they were able to help cover the costs of everything that I had to buy until my luggage arrived.
3. Being Abroad
This part of my trip is where I wish I would’ve spent a lot more time on preparation. Being abroad is such a fantastic experience, and I wish I spent more time preparing for the part of the trip that I spent alone.
I was in Rome, so it’s a touristy city, so there was a lot to do, but I approached the time aimlessly. I wandered the city for hours, which was fun, but I didn’t cover too much ground since there was no plan or direction.
Interacting with the citizens and people was another loss for me. I wish I would have spent time learning the basic phrases. I was banking on the citizens knowing English, and that was ill form by me. I have never felt so out of place and uneducated as to when I am speaking English to someone who isn’t speaking English to me.
I felt embarrassed by my arrogance every time this played out, so I stayed away from the local shops and went only to the national brands that I recognized. This affected my lodging, eating, and exploring. I chose a hotel (NH Hotels) over an Airbnb/hostel/or local accommodation, I shopped at Nike, Lush and other American stores rather than exploring the local shops and ate McDonald’s (the menu was better than the U.S.).
I was living my American life in a foreign country, and I was just a tourist. Ultimately, I wish I would’ve given the local culture more respect and tried to be a part of it rather than expect them to accommodate me adequately.
4. How to Travel Europe Like a Pro
I can make the above criticism of the time I spent on the ground alone was due to seeing how drastically my experience change once I met up with my girlfriend.
She was in Italy for six weeks before my arrival, and she is a citizen of the world. I met up with her in Rome, and from there, we traveled to Naples. I will admit that Naples is exceptionally different from Rome, but I loved every minute of it.
Being with someone who spent the time embracing the culture and learning the language increased my enjoyment and experiences. Since my girlfriend took the time and care to learn the language and venture out of her comfort zone, we were able to eat local, stay at a local accommodation, and learned how to use public transportation.
Looking back, I wish spent the time to find a local accommodation, such as a hostel, bed and breakfast or locally owned Airbnb, rather than a hotel in Rome.
Our Airbnb host was excellent, and he gave us a lot of insight on the best places to eat and what to avoid. She also showed me that I was not using a vital resource at the hotel, which is the concierge. Talking to the locals was something that I didn’t do too well, and I wish I would’ve done more.
Eating was one of my favorite things to do. The house wine at every restaurant was delicious, and I have never been a wine drinker at all. Traveling the subway was also a treat. Arriving in Italy with no research on what I was doing, I didn’t know how to read subway maps, and I assumed just because I didn’t know the language so I wouldn’t know how to read the routes accurately. After three rides and 10 minutes of reading, I was able to map and chart our journeys and how many stops and directions to take to get to destinations.
By the time we left Italy, after traveling to Salerno, I was more worldly. I still didn’t know any of the language other than “due” when I ordered gelato.
After Italy, I would say my cultural experience ended due to traveling to more westernized countries, and they all spoke English.
5. Looking Back
Being abroad was excellent, but what I wish I would have known beforehand was ways to save money. I had an excellent time and loved staying in posh hotels, but you can have a better time staying in a local accommodation as we did in Naples.
Secondly, I would advise anyone traveling abroad to take the time and learn some of the languages. You will feel a lot better even if you’re attempting to converse in their language.
Lastly, add time to your itinerary to account for the unknowns and, most importantly, pack more than one change of clothes in your carry-on.
Harold Reed graduated with his MBA in 2020. He currenlty works as a department manager for a healthcare finance company. When he’s not planning his next European adventure, he enjoys exploring the Lawrence and Kansas City area.
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