How we survived Europe as a young, urban, sight-seeing, Canadian couple.
Yes, it was our first trip to Europe, and yes, some experiences were better than others. We went in August, the peak of high season, when a lot of Europeans also take their vacations. Here’s what I would do differently if we got the chance to do it all over again.
1. Plan in advance
Write down locations/directions, landmarks, points of interest, restaurants, transportation facilities before you even leave. Understand how local transportation works & where to buy the tickets. Decide on your best options for your local transportation passes.
Book everything early! And by early, I mean 11 months out, especially your accommodations as the best spots book up fast. If you’re traveling as a couple, many hostels have private rooms, but they sell out fast, so book ahead. We loved using Booking.com to choose from the best rated B&Bs and Boutique Hotels in the area as well as Hostels International for affordable private rooms in consistently good venues.
2. Don’t let public transportation become the enemy
For local transportation, remember to budget the expense and even buy your pass before you travel, if possible. Keep in mind that transportation from the airport is often not covered by municipal passes and could be up to $30 per person. Velib bike rentals are great transportation for medium distances from place to place within Paris (charges extra over 30min, so watch the time).
As for travel between cities or countries, train or car should be your best bet (although a repositioning cruise might not be a bad idea either). To take the trains, you don’t necessarily have to buy a Eurail pass. Look into the price of just buying individual tickets (prices for both can be found at RailEurope.com). It may save you a pretty penny. Then compare the cost of your train tickets to the cost of a car rental, and use Michelin’s maps to estimate the cost of tolls and gas. Sometimes the cost of driving a car is comparable to the cost of the train (especially when travelling as a couple) and, outside of big cities, comes with way less headaches.
If you do decide to take the Eurail train lines (SNCF), schedule ample time on your day of departure to find the train station way in advance of the departure time. Then leave yourself at extra 30 minutes to get on the train, in case something happens to delay you. Make sure you bring your rail pass AND your reservation ticket (a reservation ticket only will not suffice) on train rides with you, or else you’ll be fined when they come around to validate tickets. Most stops are 2-3 minutes max, so make sure you have your bags ready & waiting at the door when it’s time to get off. If you take a night train, you need to set an alarm so that you’re ready for your departure (they don’t announce the stops over the speaker like on regular trains). Have all your bags packed and be standing at the door at least 15mins prior to your stop.
3. Manage the language barrier
In France, most people don’t speak English, nor do they seem to want to, even if they can. Most tourists aren’t English speaking either, so don’t rely too heavily on somebody being around to help you. There are a few French phrases that will come in handy.
- “Parlez-vous Anglais?”
- “Je ne comprend pas”
- “Je voudrais”
- “Bonjour” (Hello, during the day)
- “Bonsoir” (Hello, after 6pm)
When in doubt about pronunciation, the last letter of French words is usually silent. Don’t embarrass yourself when trying to order the drink, “Orangina”. It’s pronounced “Or-aun-jeen”.
4. Let jetlag work for you
Jetlag can be a bummer, but it doesn’t have to be all that bad. Tourist zones aren’t busy before 9:00am. We found ourselves waking up naturally around 5-6am, getting ready for the day, getting to where we need to go and beating the lines before 8am. In the same way, it was nice to be home around 6pm to unwind and asleep by 9-10pm.
5. Pack smart
We used a carry-on sized, hard-cased, rolling suitcase instead of a large suitcase or a backpack (my shoulders thank you, Rick Steeve’s, for that great advice). It was tough to pack light, but it was worth it. We didn’t look as cool or as rugged as some of the backpackers out there, but when we had to walk around on the streets for hours with our luggage, were we sure glad it wasn’t on our backs.
As for specific things to pack, a GPS is certainly handy. Bring hand sanitizer. You’ll always need water – a collapsible bottle works great because when you’re done with it, it doesn’t take up room. Bring a side bag and a theft-proof camera strap to wear over shoulder. Bring a travel guide book. There’s not much free wifi and it’s often difficult to find help in English, so a book of English travel advice is definitely worth the weight & space in your bag. Bring Sunglasses. Laundry soap and a line. A couple of outlet converters. If you’re travelling from Canada, you don’t need to convert the power supply voltages, just your devices’ prongs. Bring a few so you don’t have to unplug your charging devices to use your hairdryer.
6. Prep your cell phone
North American cell phones cannot connect to European data networks (even if the phone is unlocked and your buy a European SIM). I had my HTC One-S unlocked and bought an Orange SIM card in France that had pay-as-you-go talk, text and data. I could make calls with the SIM but, even with the data package, could not connect to their data networks. In talking with some other Canadians on the trip, the consensus was that the best solution is to buy an international data package ($50-$100) from your cell phone provider before you leave.
There are a few apps we found indispensable in Paris and throughout the rest of Europe: the Trip Advisor City Guides and Rick Steeves Audio Guides (pre-download media files–bring headphones) were immensely helpful. The Trip Advisor City Guide includes a GPS map of your location in the city that works even without data connection and the Rick Steeves Audio Guides provide free audio commentary at popular attractions, save you from having to rent audio guides at tourist spots, which can really add up. If you’re going to be taking the train a lot in Paris, the Paris by Train app is also very handy.
7. Eat well
Don’t get caught in tourist traps. A friendly traveler warned that “There are many restaurants in France but few good ones.” We found this true, especially in tourist areas. Trust your senses and use your gut as a guide.
At the same time, you don’t get hung up trying to get to a certain restaurant. If you’re traveling in August, you might run around all day looking for a restaurant only to find that it’s closed because the owner is on holidays. If it’s the type of restaurant that has a good chef, call ahead and make reservations. Our best dining experience was one where we decided to call ahead.
Breakfast is not a big deal in France. Consider it a snack and have a great lunch. They also eat a lot of bread. Be prepared for a lot of carbs (at least you’re walking everywhere, right?). And don’t order beef (beuof) without asking if it’s hot (est-ce chaud?), unless you like raw meat.
8. Dress for success
Whatever this means to you. To me, it meant blending in to try to get a feel for local life. To others, it may mean wearing something comfortable.
Tourists (families especially) travel in packs wearing runners. If you don’t want to stick out, don’t wear runners. I switched between wearing two pairs of regular sandals that I had broken in already, and it worked great for me.
If you really want to blend in, pack a few skirts & casual dresses (for girls, obviously). Dressing up a little goes a long way, and, in my opinion, shows respect for the culture.
In the big cities, cough up the cash to stay somewhere central. It’s fully worth it to be able to pop outside of your place in the morning and not waste time with a long commute to get wherever you need to go. If you book far enough in advance, you might not even need to pay all that much extra for a good location.
If you’re going to Paris, stay within Zone 1 (the centre of the bull’s-eye on this map). If you stay outside of Zone 1, plan to spend at least 3+ euro per day per person on transportation.
Unless you’re spending your whole vacation in 1 or 2 places, you probably only need 3-4 days in the big cities to get through all the tourist spots.
10. Expect some culture shock
Allow the first day as a blank canvas to adjust to your new life away from home. If at all possible, start in a smaller city or English speaking area to help work yourself in.
Europe’s standards for street cleanliness is just not the same as in Canada. Be prepared to adjust to constant whiffs of cigarette smoke or urine as you walk about. Small town France is nicer than the big cities, but the people are less likely to understand or speak any English.
Also, understand that people are generally more abrasive abroad than here in Canada. Polite things, such as letting others go in line before you or saying sorry when you bump into someone, isn’t the standard. Listen to your gut & trust the systems that are in place. If you know what you want or someone is trying to get you to do something you don’t want, you may have to be assertive to get your way. Let rude or unkind interactions roll off your back.
With all this in mind, remember that everyone’s travels are unique to their own. We all have our own preferences, likes and dislikes. Planning a trip can be stressful, but once you’re there, live with an easy mind and enjoy yourself. Both monumental memories and frustrating situations will come your way. The most important thing is what you take away from it.