I have already written twice about planing a driving trip around Europe, but since those articles I have also done a non-driving European travelling holiday, and am currently planning another trip. This post is intended as a comprehensive starting point for planning any trip around Europe.
Travelling by car
Documents, paperwork, equipment & regulations
There are a range of travel documents that you should take with you if you are driving in Europe. You must of course take your drivers license in case you are required to prove you are entitled to drive the car. You may also be asked for proof of ownership of the vehicle so take your V05 document. An insurance certificate is also often requested at the border of some countries so it is advisable to take a copy of this, including a “green card” if you can obtain one from your insurer. Finally, an “international driving permit” is advisable and only costs £5 from the post office. The AA has more information about IDP’s. Another formal document I always take is a European accident report form — these can be used in the event of an accident with another party where neither of you speak the language of the other. Hopefully this isn’t something you’ll ever need to use, but the peace of mind is valuable. These forms can be downloaded for free. The last paper thing I advise taking is an up-to-date European road atlas, just in case you get lost and your technology fails.
A range of safety equipment is also required when driving in many European countries. Since most of it is fairly small and none is too expensive it isn’t a bad idea to get a full set and keep it in your car even in the UK. These include 2 breathalysers, a warning triangle, a first aid kit, a reflective vest, headlight converters, a GB sticker, a fire extinguisher, a set of spare bulbs, and a set of spare fuses. I also like to take a small torch. It goes without saying that you should take a spare wheel and the tools to change a wheel in the event of a flat tyre. Some countries actually require that you carry a “full size” spare, but in all honesty we have ignored this and taken whatever spare came with the car.
The last official information you should make yourself aware of are the driving regulations for each country you plan to pass through. These include speed limits, the meanings of signs, and other specifics, for example the use of headlights is required even in daylight in some countries, whilst speed camera databases are banned in others. The AA has a good list of all the various regulations for each country.
Tax and Tolls
If you are used to driving in the UK you probably aren’t used to paying tolls to drive on the roads. Many European countries do however have significant road tolls, including our nearest neighbour France. Others, for example Germany, have free roads like the UK. Having an idea of these costs is important so that you can take into the account the cost of various routes, and so that you have the appropriate currency available. Some countries also require you to purchase road tax with either an electronic number-plate recognition system, or with visibly displayed tax discs inside the car. The route-planning website ViaMichelin provides pretty accurate information about the costs of any route. For specific information about the taxes and tolls in each country I recommend Tolls.eu. Many of the tax discs can be paid for in advance, the most comprehensive site I have found is TollTickets.com, although it isn’t always quite as cheap as official outlets.
Fuel has different names in Europe — it is worth making a note of these in advance to ensure you don’t end up putting the wrong fuel in your car. “Diesel” is a fairly widespread term for Diesel fuel, but it is also sometimes called “gazole”. Petrol is usually identifiable by the 95 or 98 after the name, with 95 being regular unleaded and 98 being premium unleaded. Petrol is also often called “super” or “euro” or a combination of the 2.
Typical fuel prices can be found on fuel-prices-europe.info. The prices there are kept up-to-date and tend to be reasonably accurate. As in the UK the cheapest forecourts are often at supermarkets, whilst motorway service stations often have a premium price. Prices do vary by country so it is worth thinking about where you will fill up.
It is sometimes possible to buy fuel from garages in “no mans land” between borders. The prices at such stations are often very cheap, but I have never taken the chance as these garages are effectively operating outside any clear legal jurisdiction.
Eating on route
On some journeys you might want to eat on route near the road without diverting especially for food. There are of course service stations along most major European routes just like there are along UK motorways. Heston Blumenthal wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper a few years ago identifying a few of the best. Other than these I understand the Italian AutoGrill chain are regarded as better than most, and the German Nordsee chain apparently do good quality fish and seafood which is certainly a step up from the standard UK offerings of fried chicken, burgers and chips.
If you aren’t travelling a major route with service stations, or don’t want to stop at all, you might want to take a range of car snacks. This is generally a good idea anyway, especially if taking children. There are lots of websites out there offering car friendly recipes, but a lot of them are clearly designed with cool boxes and stopping at picnic spots in mind, whereas “car snacks” to me means food you eat inside the car whilst moving. The key difference is that messy foods aren’t suitable for eating in a car that you might be spending many hours in. There are still foods which make satisfying snacks, make little mess, and will last for more than 1 day without refrigeration. A list of snacks I recommend is below
Travelling by public transport
You can visit almost anywhere in Europe by train, and usually at good speed and in good comfort. If there are several people the train does seem to work out a little more expensive than driving (your own car), but you can do other things whilst on the train, and it gets you directly from city centre to city centre much faster than the car. This has the obvious advantages that the majority of interesting sights, hotels, and restaurants are in city centres.
standard fares are often overprices, just as they usually are in the UK. Much better value fares are available if you know where to look. The site for planning rail travel in Europe is undoubtedly ‘The Man in Seat Sixty-One’ which has everything you could possibly want to know about how to get between major European cities in the fastest, most scenic and best value ways. The German rail site bahn.com is an excellent back-up for finding journey times, routes, and sometimes prices, for just about any route you can imagine.
Ferries are probably the trickiest thing to successfully book in Europe. Many routes don’t run every day, most have very different schedules in different seasons, and a lot don’t publish their timetables more than a few months in advance on the English language parts of their sites. In general it is best to book directly via the operator if possible as I have experienced instances of travel agents selling tickets for a route that the operator stops sailing. This last summer we arrived at Piraeus to collect our tickets on the day of travel, only to be told the tickets had been cancelled and that I had been refunded. Of course when I double checked I hadn’t been either notified or refunded. We were lucky that we found an alternative ferry company on the day that had spaces available. To find the operators of the routes you need it is usually easiest to start with a site like Direct Ferries, but I still recommend booking directly with the operator if possible.
Another tip with regard to ferries is not to be unduly worried by stories or reviews online claiming that ferries are unpleasant, dirty, etc. I have sailed on a good number of ferries in the Mediterranean, operated by French, Italians, and Greeks, and in all cases the boats have been very similar the the sort of boats encountered when crossing the channel.
Getting cheap flights
If you want to include flights on your travels, by far the best cheap-flight website I have found is SkyScanner. Fares in peak season to and from the UK are still pricey, but flights within Europe can be found very cheaply.
Where to go and what to see
The obvious place to start for places to visit is the mighty Trip Advisor. You can easily get reviews and ratings for the majority of visitor attractions anywhere in Europe. However, trip advisor does act like a popularity contest — the things the almost everyone liked will be at the top, but if you want to experience the best places that aren’t swamped with tourists they’re unlikely to be on trip advisor! Finding “off the beaten track” places online is obviously difficult because once someone has written about them they gradually stop being “off the beaten track”. At the time of writing the best countries for escaping the tourists are the former communist states and new EU members Romania and Albania (and to some extent Bulgaria). By the time you read this they may well be the new darling of the tourist world — let’s hope they don’t get spoiled by their own success.
Regardless of what country you visit, it is always possible to find places that are less visited, but finding them requires more research and ideally some specialist local knowledge. To get started, the European Parliament has a yearly list of places to see that are little-known, with one in each member state. So far they have published lists in 2013, and 2014, but sadly there hasn’t been an edition for 2015. If you are mainly planning to visit major European cities then Spotted by Locals has some useful city guides. The guides unfortunately aren’t free, but for only $2-$3 per city they are affordable on all but the tightest budgets.
The best way to find less visited places to visit is by following local knowledge. Realistically this means finding specialist websites for each country, or even region. Below I have listed sites that I can recommend. The list is currently very limited but I will keep it updated with any other sites I find and will also add any good sites that are recommended in the comments. If you have any recommendations please let us know.
Greece, Greek Islands, Cyprus
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania
Where to stay
Choosing places to stay is a very personal thing so I wont be recommending specific hotels, or even types of accommodation. Each trip I’ve booked I’ve been looking for slightly different combinations of facilities and prices myself, and finding the most suitable accommodation is probably the most significant part of the planning of a trip for me. I’ve used lots of sites over the years, but have settled on a combination that has worked well for the last few years.
Start by making a list of “must haves” and “good to haves” and a target price point. Also think carefully about the location — if you are using trains to get around most cities have a central station so city centre hotels make the most sense. If you are driving then I recommend looking at accommodation on the outskirts of town so you don’t have to drive into city centres which is stressful and time consuming. I have always managed to find good accommodation on the edges of cities and by checking metro / underground routes and services, it is usually possible to stay near the motorway and near rapid transport via which you can visit the city
Once you have an idea of the price, facilities, and location it is time to start finding possible properties. I always start with booking.com because their search allows the selection of lots of facilities and options, and they have a lot of accommodation in every city. If you select “business” as your travel purpose, you can select “free cancellation” as an option which is something that I have found really useful in the past. If like me you have several criteria (a score of at least 7/10, air conditioning, free parking, WiFi, free cancellation) and an approximate location in mind you will be able to narrow down your options to a manageable list. I then search for each of these options on Trip Advisor to see what the general review score is like. Don’t let the odd poor review put you off, especially if the author has a small number of reviews — trip advisor doesn’t verify reviews. If you input your dates Trip Advisor will also find the price to book on a range of sites including booking.com so you can check that the price on booking.com is competitive. It usually is, but not always!
A couple of final things to check before you book are the check-in and check-out times, and the bed configuration. If you are travelling with friends you probably want twin rooms with two single beds, rather than double rooms with one double bed. This is the one thing I always forget and usually only realise just as I’m about to book. This is frustrating, because if the accommodation only offers double beds and you want singles you have no choice but to go back to your original list and start looking again
If you are unable to find suitable accommodation this way then you can widen your search by going back to trip advisor and searching there. The search options are not as powerful and you will have to spend longer checking each option to see if it meets all the criteria you are looking for. If trip advisor also fails to turn up suitable accommodation I recommend trying Hostel Bookers, Hostel World and Expedia
If all of the above fail you can try your luck with some of the hotel comparison sites but you will probably have to reduce the number of facilities you require, increase your budget, or visit somewhere else!
The introduction of the Euro has made travel money in Europe quite a bit simpler, but there are still a significant number of countries that don’t use the Euro. It is easy to find both currencies and exchange rates via google so I wont cover those here, instead, I think more useful advice is the best way to get and change money.
Credit and debit cards have several advantages over cash, and for some hotel and almost all car rentals a card is required. Almost all businesses in major European cities accept Visa and Mastercard cards, and cards are now accepted even in many more rural parts of southern and eastern Europe. Most work with the chip and pin system, but don’t be surprised if you are also asked to sign.
It is a good idea to notify your card issuer that you are travelling as some may block transactions from abroad unless they have been notified that you are travelling. I have never had this happen to me, but I know other people who have, it seems to depend on your card issuer. I travel regularly, so my card issuers are used to foreign card use. It is also highly advisable to take more than 1 card. I once watched as a fuel station attendant idly flexed my fathers credit card in his hand whilst filling the tank with petrol, and without warning the card snapped in half, if we hadn’t had other cards it could have made the holiday very difficult.
The best way to spend money abroad in general is on a credit card, especially if you can get one that gives you the true exchange rate without any fees. At the time of writing there is a Mastercard offered by the post office which has no fees and uses the Mastercard daily rate which I used successfully for several years. There are also a few other cards currently which offer equally good deals. Money Saving Expert always has an up-to-date guide, so take a look there.
Debit cards are generally not as good, and cash withdrawals almost always entail being charged a fee somewhere in the chain. Always withdraw cash in the local currency — not in pounds. Many cash machines will offer to do the conversion for you — the rates for doing this are very poor — you will be better off letting your bank do the conversion.
If you want to take a significant amount of cash with you, you will want to get the best rate possible in the UK. Money Saving Expert again has the best tool for comparing a large range of online bureaux services. The range of deals available is complex but by using the tool and putting in how much you want to exchange it will find the best overall deal. Deals tend to be better the more cash you get, so if several of your travel party need cash it might be worth clubbing together and doing a single order. Pay with debit card, as a credit card will treat the transaction as a cash withdrawal which will usually come with fees or charges.
Security is understandably one of the biggest concerns for many travellers, with many European cities being notorious for pick pocketing, theft and petty scams. On the positive side, European cities are generally much safer than most other parts of the world in terms of violent crime, so once you’ve taken reasonable steps to secure your possessions you shouldn’t have too many other concerns.
As a general rule thieves targeting tourists are creatures of opportunity — you job is to reduce the opportunities that you present. My favourite analogy is the life tip “you don’t have to run faster than a bear, you just have to run faster than the person next to you”. A typical thief will identify the easiest high value targets — so take steps to avoid being one of them. The most important thing is being alert and aware all the time — you don’t want to be bumped, brushed or distracted, so try to anticipate these kind of things and steer clear of them. Of course, in major cities, especially on public transport, this is often easier said than done, so any other ways your can convince thieves that you’re a poor target are worth considering.
Small items: Cash, cards, phones, etc
Try to avoid carrying large sums of cash. If you use the cards recommended in the “money” section it is quite possible to tour around Europe without ever having more than €100 or so on your person. Keep your valuables somewhere secure — either in a good sized wallet in a tight pocket (e.g. your front jeans pocket), or in a money belt, worn around your waist under your clothes. A good pickpocket may still be able to get at these, but you’re not trying to outrun the bear! If there aren’t many people about it is easy to keep space between you and potential pickpockets, if you’re in a busy space then there will be easier pickings!
Reduce your apparent value
If you choose to stroll around covered in gold and diamonds, don’t be surprised if you attract unwanted attention. Think about your appearance and try to avoid looking too flashy. The same goes for using cash — don’t flash a wallet full of €100 notes to a crowd of people — stick with €5, €10, and €20 notes like the ones you’d use at home.
Record the serial numbers of valuable electronic items (phones, cameras, laptops, etc) and register them (for free) with Immobilise, a database used by the police when they recover stolen property. Immobilise also sell security stickers which are small but easily catch the eye. A thief may well be able to get the sticker off, but it’s extra work, and if you’ve bothered with a sticker you might have taken other steps (e.g. recording the IMEI number of your phone and getting it blocked if stolen) that could make anything stolen worthless. Like many of the other tips here, it’s no guarantee, but you just made yourself a lower value target
Digital cameras, especially digital SLR’s, are very common possessions for a tourists. They’re also valuable and easily resellable on the black market. Of course, if you have the strap well secured (e.g. diagonally across your chest) they’re harder to steal. Thieves will generally only target unsecured ones so don’t leave it on the table of the road-side cafe whilst you have a drink! If you have a high value camera however, some thieves are willing to try other ways to take it, for example slashing the strap with a knife and then zooming off on a motorbike. You can address both your risk of being targeted and the chance that the thief will succeed by replacing the strap on your camera. Many cameras print the make and model of the camera on the strap — a huge “steal me” flag to thieves who know which models are valuable. I can personally recommend the PacSafe Carry Safe straps which are available for around £30. This strap gives no clue as to the make and model of the camera, and even if a thief did try a slash and run, it contains steel wire which would prevent the strap from being cut.
It is unusual to get bags or possessions stolen from private rooms in hotels, because any hotel where this happened could expect it’s reputation on sites like Trip Advisor to take a significant hit. Your bags are much more likely to be targeted whilst on your back, or if you sleep on transport (e.g. ferries or night trains). A small lock on the zipper of a bag is enough to discourage most opportunistic thieves when you have the bag on you.
The most common attempts to steal from a bag on trains and boats seems to be an attempt to quietly take the whole bag whilst you are sleeping. Secure your bag with a lock to a solid object like the leg of a bed, a radiator, or similar.
Below is my standard starting-point packing list for a European holiday.
Internet access & communication
A majority of accommodation across Europe now offers WiFi, usually for free. This is great for whilst you are at your hotel, but I find I mainly use internet access for google maps navigation, and for trip advisor for places to eat when out and about and so another option is needed
There are often free WiFi hotspots in cafe’s etc, which can work when out and about. If you are a BT broadband customer then you will have access to their large network of “FON” hotspots which can be very useful. Many public buildings, for example museums, often also offer free WiFi. Some people may be able to get by just using WiFi in this way
Mobile phone roaming
All mobile phone networks in the UK now offer some kind of roaming deal for Europe. “Three” is best known for its “feel at home” deals which extend to some European countries, but by no means all. European legislation will (hopefully) eventually make roaming free across the EU (June 2017 is apparently the date for this), but until then the offers continue to change on a regular basis, so I advise looking at Money Saving Expert for an up-to-date guide. One option I can suggest considering is iD Mobile from carphone warehouse. This network “piggy-backs” on Three, and with their “TakeAway” packages offers free roaming in all EU countries. A warning though — not all of the plans are “TakeAway” plans, so check carefully what plans you’re looking at. I used roaming data without restricting myself for 2 weeks in summer 2015 and used around 1Gb in a 2 week period.
Information to pre-prepare
I usually produce a “travel document” with a page for each day that contains the key information. This havs proven really handy over the years as a quick reference in the morning. Below is an example image
As well as the above daily planning document I usually take a range of other information including a sports fixture list, metro maps, and detailed information about transport links in cities — e.g. what metro line do I need, what is the terminus station in the direction I’m going (because they’re always labelled in the direction of the terminus they are travelling towards), what stop do I want to get off, and how many stops is that from where I get on.
The following is a generic “starting point” list of camera settings for a range of scenes you might want to photograph on holiday. It is aimed at people using DSLR or similarly customisable cameras
Mountains, the big outdoors
- Wide angle lens – around 15mm ideal
- Use the built-in “spirit level” system
- ND grad filter – to address the sky being much brighter than the ground
- Small aperture – ideally around f/16 – f/22
- Evaluative metering – accounts for the whole scene
- Check histogram – if it doesn’t reach the right hand end the filter is too dark
- AF point on the eyes
- Use a 50–100mm lens a bit of distance away to avoid distortion
- Use A/V mode and use a large aperture, e.g. f/1.8
- Burst mode – take multiple shots
- For multiple people use smaller apertures – around f/8
- Try avoid flash at night, but DO use it in the day!
- Shoot into the sun with the subject blocking it
- Facial shadows are tricky at midday
- Use small aperture – f/13 – f/16
- ISO 100–200
- Use a polariser
- Use distance and a medium focal length to avoid distortion
- Zoom in on details
- Sun behind you usually best
- Make sure horizon is horizontal – could use tripod and built in “spirit level”
- Use wide angle – 10–24mm
- Use an interesting foreground
- Use ND8 filter with long exposures – around 0.5sec for waves
- Use 30sec exposure to blur the sea
- For wave crashing use burst mode
- Long night exposures also work
- For bright sand consider using +1 exposure compensation to stop it looking grey rather than white
- Sun behind you usually best
From moving car
- Use Shutter priority – TV mode
- Use a fast shutter – 1⁄1000 minimum
- Use a wide aperture – f/2.8 — f/5.6 to blur window stains and get plenty of light in despite the fast shutter
- Get the camera as close to the window as possible
- Use ISO to get more light if needed, up to 2000
- Servo focus mode as distances will change
- Use burst mode
- Could put ISO on auto and use the “limit” setting to prevent it going too high
- Tripod essential
- Exposure 15 – 30 seconds. Longer will show “star trails”
- Largest possible aperture – e.g. f/2.8
- ISO maximum without noise – around 2000 or so
- Widest possible angle lens – fisheye great
- Use mirror lock-up to reduce camera shake
- Use RAW so post-processing can improve the colours
- Maximum zoom – 400mm ideally
- Mirror lockup
- Low ISO – 100–200
- Medium aperture for maximum clarify – around f/8
- Plenty of light so fast exposure should work – around 1/125sec
- Auto white balance often works best, if it’s too orange, use tungsten or cloudy
People at night
- Stick to 1/60sec or faster
- Use lenses which can get to f/2.8 or better
- Use ISO 1600–3200
City skylines at night
- Use aperture priority with medium aperture around f/8
- Keep the ISO low 100–200
- Use long exposure – up to 30sec
- Use bracketed multiple exposures – basically the auto HDR mode
- Post process using luminosity masks
- Take multiple exposures for car trails
- Post-process for barrel distortion in wide angle
General night scenes without movement blur
- Use -1 exposure compensation to keep background dark
- Use fairly high ISO – 1600
Moving light sources
- g. fireworks, fairground rides, traffic, lightning
- f/11 or so
- Long exposure 15–30secs
- Low ISO – 100
- Use daylight white balance
- Consider an ND filter
- Use a small aperture – f/13 or so
- Use a fast exposure
- Rule of 2 thirds
- Angled backlighting needed
- Use the white balance settings in the evening
- No flash
- 1/60sec exposure or faster
- Highish aperture – around f/2.8 – f/5.6
- Keep under ISO 1600
I have a separate post with suggestions and brief reviews of a range of travel books.
See my separate post with lots of google maps of Europe and European cities.
Whilst digital maps, like those above, are great, it is often handy to have a paper map available. Several publishers produce “pop-up” map books which easily fit into a pocket and contain detailed maps of city centres along with other useful information.
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