Europe is officially defined as 50 independent states, including parts of Russia and Turkey, which are also both part of Asia. It is the second smallest continent in the world but perhaps one of the most interesting and potentially easy to travel. European countries share definite similarities, geographically, politically and culturally, while at the same time they each hold onto to individual cultural traditions, languages and customs that let travelers experience something totally new and interesting with just the cross of a border.
With the creation of the European Union, currently at 28 member states, the countries began to merge both politically and economically, which also provides a great benefit for travelers. Easy border crossings and no need to change currencies provide convenience that is unavailable in almost all other parts of the world. For this reason, exploring Europe may be the first stop for many first-timers but also for travel veterans. The mix of tradition with the evolution and integration of modern ideas makes Europe a place you always want to go back to.
But how to explore without getting caught up in the ever-present tourist attractions and money traps? How to see something new and different in a place that has been a popular travel destination for over a half-century?
1. Book early and be prepared
This is a tip that can be applicable for anywhere, but is especially true for exploring Europe. Most European countries enjoy economic and political stability, the standard of living is quite high and therefore it is usually relatively expensive compared to other parts of the world. You can almost always get cheaper flights, hotels/hostels and trains or buses if you buy ahead of time. A good time span is generally 3-6 months before you plan to travel for flights and 2-4 months ahead of time for hostels/train/buses. Besides saving you some money that could be spent on much better things (tapas, anyone?) booking ahead also can give you a better chance of getting more for the money. All kinds of travelers head to Europe every year with many of the same bucket lists, booking ahead means that you can get the better train or bus times and lodging closer to the center of things.
Most countries also provide a reasonably well-developed infrastructure. You can book online, transportation schedules are (mostly) stuck to and you can get around without major issues. When problems arise such as flight delays or cancellations, you or someone in your party gets injured or your wallet gets stolen have an idea of a backup plan.
2. Practice your foreign language skills
Many Europeans, especially in the northern countries speak at least two languages, typically their native language and English. This is both a blessing and a curse. Knowing that you can get around with English, as it is typically the common language, means that communication barriers are usually not an issue. However, having some knowledge of the native language of the country you are visiting may open up doors that would otherwise not be possible if you choose to only communicate in English. This is not always the case, but at times locals may be more friendly or open when they see you are taking the time to learn their language. Furthermore, even in the countries where English is widely spoken, some of the best experiences and made in places where tourism is not common. Driving through the country means that you will make stops in smaller villages, where you may not be able to communicate with the locals. As much fun as it is to play the charades game of body language to try to communicate, there may be a time when you really need to get information across and it definitely can only benefit you to be able to do it in the native language.
3. Look for local festivals/events
As a place with deep-rooted traditions and culture, local festivals are a huge part of European life. If you have exact dates of when you are traveling, look to see what activities are planned during your stay. If you have open travel dates, try to see which festivals interest you the most and visit during that time. There are the most famous ones such as Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany or the Running with the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, but also look for more local events. The most popular can tend to be major tourist destinations and some of the event is catered to be more tourist friendly. Going to a festival that is not as famous means you get an up close and personal look at the real lives of residents.
Sausages in Germany, Pizza in Italy, Olives in Greece! Exploring European food culture is one of the coolest ways to spend your trip. The cuisine varies greatly depending on what country or region you are in. Eating out can get expensive during the evening, a good option could be to go for the lunch special, which typically offers the same food in smaller portions for less money. Or take advantage of local traditions. In Italy, for example, they have aperitivo, considered to be a version of “happy hour”. This custom consists of a pre-dinner drink accompanied by a small snack intended to encourage you to feel hungry. A new concept that has risen is the “apericena”, a combination of “aperitivo” and “cena” (the Italian word for dinner). This is when bars will offer a small buffet for the cost of one drink. This can be a cheap way to sample many little dishes. When in Italian look to see which places offer the best aperitivo!
5. Explore the unexplored
Any European exploration wouldn’t be complete without visiting the major sites. Countries like France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany and Holland are typically the most frequented and the one where travelers feel the most comfortable visiting. Some of the real magic can start to happen once you venture out of the typical destinations to countries that are still developing such as Croatia, Serbia, Romania or Bulgaria. The Balkans, for example, went through major unrest in the last 20 years, giving it the misconception by some that it is an unsafe region. While safety is of course an issue in all your travels, visiting a place that may not by the “typical” destination will get you closer to local customs and will most likely be less expensive.