(Collage left to right: Milano, Bruxelles, Lago Maggiore, Venezia, Cinque Terre, Lago di Como, Madrid, Madrid, Paris, Bruges, San Nicolo di Comelico, Copenhagen, Milano, Barcelona, Wroclaw)
I have been to Europe 3 times for a total of 10 countries, 29 cities, and 152 days (just under 5.5 months). Though I still have a lot to explore and learn about Europe, I thought I might share the few bits of knowledge that I've gained over the years.
The first website I go to is WikiTravel. It might not always have the best food or activity recommendations, but it gives a great overview of the city/country. Even when I'm feeling lazy and don't want to spend a lot of time researching or planning, I always check the "Get In" or "Get Around" sections on the page. Those sections give great info on how to get from the airport to the city (mode of transportation, time, cost, etc.) and give a good sense of how big a city is. It was helpful for me to understand if I'd be spending most of my time on a subway or bus, in a car or vespa, or walking around.
I like travel blogs the best because they are up to date and catered to your preferences. You can choose a blog or writer that has similar tastes or travel goals as you do. Some of the best food, hotel, and bar recommendations are found on blogs. They also often include hidden local treasures. (Find blogs through google searches and links from other blogs.)
The other resources are good for major tourist attractions and information on logistics.
2. PASSPORT / VISA REQUIREMENTS
This is very obvious, but too important to miss. Make sure you know the requirements and have this squared away as soon as possible!
3. PHONE / DATA
Depending on the length of my stay, I decide whether or not to get a SIM card for the trip. I've gotten an Italian SIM card when I studied abroad for 4 months, and again when I returned for a month-long trip. For trips that were 3 weeks or less, I didn't feel the need to get one. SIM cards in Europe don't cost too much, and the plans aren't that pricey either (especially compared to American telecom companies!) For example, I paid 15 euros/month for 200 minutes, 200 texts, and 1 GB at Vodafone Italy.
Otherwise, I really enjoy being offline and experiencing Europe without checking my phone every few minutes. You can always pop into a Starbucks or McDonald's for wifi if you really need to get online.
I try to avoid currency exchanges as much as possible because they tend to rip you off. I use my credit card the most.
1) Make sure your credit card has a smart chip, or it won't work in most places in Europe
2) For both credit and debit cards, check with your company to see if they have any foreign transaction, foreign exchange, or ATM fees.
3) Be sure to call your bank and credit card companies ahead of time and let them know that you'll be traveling abroad. This way they don't lock your card when they see "unusual activity" in a new place.
When I need cash, I usually head to banks with my debit card. I have Bank of America, which has a lot of partnerships with various European banks. (Click on "International Locations" link on this page) I don't get any fees when I get cash from these partner banks. Check with your bank to see what kind of partnerships or deals they have in Europe. Even if I am in a country without a partnership bank, I rather get cash from a random bank's ATM than from a currency exchange.
5. HOTEL / HOSTELS
I think that hostels are the most fun places to stay while in Europe. I love that they provide an opportunity to meet people and share stories. I tend to book hostels based on ideal location, cleanliness, and price. HostelBookers and HostelWorld have a great section for directions, so be sure to print a copy or screenshot it on your smartphone before your plane takes off.
Be careful of getting your stuff stolen. Most hostels have a locker to store away your things while you are out exploring. Also, if you're planning on staying at a hostel, pack a towel.
6. GET AROUND
In addition to the "Get Around" section of WikiTravel, and the directions section of HostelBookers and HostelWorld, I always load a map of the area I am going to on my smartphone while I still have access to data or wifi. As an added measure, I sometimes take screenshots of the area that my hotel is in. That way, when I get there and have no access to data, I at least have street names to reference. It's the 21st century version of a physical map.
Once I get to the hotel or hostel, I ask the front desk if they have a physical map and use that in addition to my smartphone map, especially if I don't have data on my phone.
Note that some cities, such as Venice, Italy, are best explored without a map. (The canals and roads are so small and windy in Venice that having a map would make you more lost than just wandering around without one.)
7. FLIGHTS TO EUROPE
Google Flights, Kayak, and Priceline are my two go-to websites. I use Google Flights to see which dates to a ctiy might be cheapest. I use Kayak to see which locations might be cheap to fly to. I usually use Priceline to book at the end. If you have flexibility in arrival and departure times, use Priceline's Name Your Own Price auction function.
You can also scan for deals on theflightdeal, Travelzoo, and Groupon Getaways. Pay attention to the base advertised price versus what you actually pay at the end with all the taxes and fees when you checkout. I usually book through Priceline because it's quite difficult to find a deal that fits into my schedule or travel plans.
Getting into Europe, there are certain cities or airports that are cheaper to fly into. For instance, Milan Linate tends to cheaper than Milan Malpensa. Flying to Dublin might be cheaper than flying to London. Try researching different options and also try using the Kayak Explore function.
8. TRAVEL WITHIN EUROPE
One of the best things about going to Europe is how easy it is to go from country to country. Air travel and trains are convenient and affordable.
1) If have a lot of time and want to wander around Europe leisurely with a lot of luggage, I suggest taking trains. If you want to country-hop without a specific plan, you might want to look into the Eurail Global Pass.
2) However, flights may be cheaper and a better option if you have less time and a tight schedule.
3) If you're confident about driving, renting cars might be an option, though I have no personal experience with this. Here are a couple links that might help if you want to do this: one, two, three, four.
4) Cheap buses such as megabus or eurolines might be a good option if you're really on a tight budget.
I fly with Ryanair or Easyjet most of the time. I use skyscanner.com sometimes as well to see which dates might be the cheapest for flying. Plan and book early if you can! I booked a round trip form Milan to Paris for $50 USD because I booked it 6 weeks in advance! I prefer Easyjet because their service is slightly better and they fly to more of the major airports that are closer to the city center.
For example, a Ryanair flight to a smaller airport might be 10-15 euros cheaper than an Easyjet flight to the major airport in the same city. The Ryanair flight might be cheaper, but you have to also consider the time/costs of getting to and from the smaller airport versus the major airport. It is probably more expensive to get to the city center from the smaller airport that is further away. You might not be saving money in the end, and spending more time getting to and from the airport.
Note on Ryanair and Easyjet:
1) PAY ATTENTION TO THEIR ONE BAG AND BAG SIZE POLICY. You really don't want to spend 50-100 euros checking bags because your bag was too big, or you accidentally brought a carry-on AND a purse.
2) Check in and print your boarding passes before you get to the airport. Ryanair requires you to get your passport/visa checked and your boarding passes stamped.
In my bag, I'll carry my wallet, passport, DSLR camera, and iPhone along with my other miscellaneous items. I rather carry my passport with me than to leave it at the hotel and risk getting it stolen. (At least I have control over where it is and what happens to it)
For you ladies out there (and dudes who carry bags!), it is really important to get a reliable bag that can hold all your stuff. Make sure that you get a bag with a zipper and that you feel comfortable carrying it around all day. The zipper should close all the way. This will help protect you against pickpockets and to ensure nothing falls out during the day.
I find that crossbody bags are the most comfortable, but I carry my Longchamp everywhere because I haven't found a crossbody that can fit all my stuff including my DSLR (kind of like carrying around a mini baby), as mentioned in this post. And so far, I'm been careful and lucky enough to never been pick-pocketed or robbed (knock on wood).
Even if you have to spend a little more money on a high quality bag, it's definitely worth the investment. The last thing you want to do is walk around a city with a broken strap or zipper, trying to find a replacement bag.
10. MONEY BELTS
Money belts are belts you wear under your clothes to hide your cash, passport, and other small valuables. Unless you're walking around with 1000's of euros in paper bills, I don't really suggest it. Some people swear by them, but I've been careful enough with my bags and usually don't carry too much cash all at once.
Being an American, I think that Europe and the rest of the world use weird plugs (especially the UK). Buy a universal adapter, because each country may have different plugs. Buy more than one! This one is my favorite.
Note on voltage: America uses 110 volts, while Europe uses 220 volts. Most chargers nowadays (laptop, smart phone, camera/battery, hair irons) will accommodate a range of voltages, but just double check to make sure you're not going to fry your electronics. Usually you can find the information on the side of your charger or electronic itself.
12. GET THE MOST OF YOUR STAY
Besides general research, make sure that you check websites for different attractions. For instance, you can skip the line at busy places if you buy tickets ahead of time. Some places require you to sign up before you go, such as the David statue in Florence.
Wake up early! You don't want to waste precious day light hours when you're at a place for a limited amount of time.
13. SCAMS / PICKPOCKETS
These are abundant in Europe. Just be smart, don't give strangers money, be careful in crowded places (especially public transport), don't go to dark alleyways, and always be mindful of your bags and pockets.
Everyone has their own preferences, so it's really all up to you! Each European country and city is unique and has its own special charm, you can't really go wrong. I've learned a lot even from places that I didn't like. It really depends on what you like, time constraints, and season/weather.
My favorite cities so far: Cinque Terre, Venice, Florence (pretty much anywhere in Italy), Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona, Copenhagen
My top wishlist destinations: Amalfi Coast, South of France & Spain, Budapest, Prague, Greece, Berlin, Croatia
I'll be posting more city-specific guides in the future, so be on the look out for that.