I have been incredibly blessed to travel so many times to Europe in my short little 24 years of life, and even more fortunate to be able to live here. Luckily I grew up in a household where spontaneous adventure travel was just what we did. My mom allowed my brother and I to travel and skip school as long as we were on top of our school work. Seriously, in February when I was home my mom had to go to Disney for work, and she texted my brother and said, “wanna skip school and go to Disneyworld for the weekend?” And we did just that. So if anyone ever wondered where my love for travel, adventure, and Europe came from, look no further than Mama Ginger.
Here I answer questions a lot of people have asked me, never thought to ask, I have seen false information being spread on forums, and maybe you’re just too embarrassed to google. No worries, I got your back. Here is all the information I think you would need to have before coming to Europe for the first time!
Passports, Visas, & The Schengen Zone
1. You do need a Passport
I know this seems really obvious, but you would be surprised how many travel forums I am in where people ask if they need a passport. Yes, you do need a passport for every country in Europe. Moving on.
2. You don’t need a visa to come to Europe
Europe is almost entirely travel visa-free for Americans and Canadians!
So what does this mean? When you are issued a US or Canadian passport this gives you a lot of freedom, we can access both 158 countries visa-free, though surprisingly neither country has the strongest passport in the world, Germany wins the spot for the strongest passport with 160 visa-free countries.
You do not need a travel visa to enter any country in Europe other than Russia and Turkey! Turkey’s can be issued on arrival or you can purchase one for 20 dollars before arriving and print it out. Russia’s visa is a little different unless you enter St Petersburg on a cruise ship, then you have to have a visa to enter Russia before arriving at border control. There was a governmental hiccup in fall of 2017 where Americans were no longer granted visas into Turkey, we are now again granted visas.
There was some scare earlier in 2017 where the EU was going to vote to abolish visa-free travel for the US because we did not grant 5 countries, who are members of the EU, visa-free travel access to the US. Don’t worry this has been dismissed!
3. What the heck is the Schengen Zone?
The Schengen Zone and I have a love-hate relationship. If you know me very well, you know while I am currently waiting for my Polish visa I have to leave the Schengen Zone every 90 days, but what does that mean ‘leave the Schengen Zone?’ Schengen is a small village in Luxembourg where the treaty was signed, and it essentially grants people free movement from these countries in the Zone.
You know how once you’re in the US you don’t need to permission to move around each state? Well, think of European countries as states within the EU (European Union), and the Schengen Zone allows people to move, travel, work freely between the borders.
Now, this will get a little confusing. Not every country in the EU is in the Schengen Zone (free movement zone), meaning you will have your passport checked arriving and leaving The United Kingdom, Croatia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania. And countries in the Schengen Zone aren’t always in the EU Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland all allow free movement but aren’t members of the European Parliment, but they are members of the European Free Trade Association.
Ultimately, my point is this have your passport ready when you travel to and from the United Kingdom, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania.
4. But what about those 90 days you mentioned?
Oh! Thank you for reminding me. So, while you’re allowed visa-free entry into the Schengen Zone you are only allocated up to 90 days in a 6 month period. A lot of people will tell you different information about this, and a lot of countries have different guidelines on these rules. For example, Spain and Italy’s economies depend on tourism so they tend to allow people to come and go as they please, as long as they didn’t stay their 90 days at one time. But good luck trying to enter into Germany or Norway after you exhausted your 90 days; they are just more strict about it.
5. But you just said 90 days in 6 months? How are you still there?
Ah, yes. Poland and America have a bilateral agreement. Which isn’t super bilateral, it’s more just America, because Polish citizens need a tourist visa to come to America, but this is a whole separate rant for another day. But essentially Americans can re-enter Poland as long and they never exceed 90 days. But this doesn’t really help you as I doubt you will spend this much time in Poland. So let’s move on.
6. What is Brexit?
While this might not help you, I think this is something every American should know about or maybe you have heard about this one and didn’t really understand it. Essentially in August of 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union–they were not part of the Schengen zone before nor were using the Euro. But they voted to leave. The Prime Minister stepped down and the man leading the campaign to leave the EU suddenly flipped and regretted it a lot. I’m not gonna get super political on this like I normally do, but essentially The UK now really doesn’t want this to go through. We shall see what happens. If you have more questions on this, then I would love to talk.
7. Does every country use the Euro?
Nope! Surprisingly not even half of the countries in Europe use the Euro. Austria, Belgium, Italy, Cyprus, Finland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Greece, Ireland, The Netherlands, Slovenia, Slovakia, Montenegro, Monaco, Malta, Luxembourg, Kosovo all use the Euro.
8. Are the Dollar and Euro the same?
The exchange between the USD/CAD and the Euro fluctuate daily by some odd change. Currently, as I write this every 1 USD, is worth .80 Euro. 1 CAD is worth .65 Euro. (Please note if you read this any other day besides January 31, 2018, this will not be the currency it was just an example). Google is your friend for this!
9. What currencies do countries in Europe use if not the Euro?
There are 25 other currencies in Europe. The United Kingdom used the Pound, Poland uses the Złoty, Czech Republic uses Koruna, Hungary uses Forint, Croatia uses Kuna, etc etc. I am not going to list these all out. Because we are all adults and can use google, but surprisingly this is the question I am asked a lot. Double check what currency a country uses, and how much that actually is in your currency.
10. Do I need to take cash out or use a card?
This is totally up to you! But I seriously would advise going to an atm and taking cash out. It totally depends how long you are there for but I would say about 150 dollars per city for about 3 days. The atm will charge you, yes. But not that much. You can, of course, ask your bank to order the currency for you beforehand in the States, but this is quite expensive. Even if you take too much out, don’t stress. You can easily find exchanges in every city. Remember the dodgier and sketchier and less easy to find the cheap their rates are.
And if you do use your card, remember to always choose the local currency. Your bank will charge you a cheaper rate internally than the rate the card machine will charge you. I cannot stress this enough. Sometimes you will see that it is x amount in xyz currency, which equals x in dollars. But if you charge dollars on the card machine it will charge you maybe 2 or 3 dollars per transaction. My bank charges me 1% of the total on price for exchange fees.
11. What about traveler’s checks?
It’s 2018. Nope. Europeans find it weird we even still use checks, to begin with.
12. Tipping and Taxes?
One thing my European friends like to joke about is the tax in America being added at the cash register. In Europe, the tax is included in the price which is really handy.
Secondly, tipping is not expected here, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tip. Servers here make an hourly wage. But I still choose to tip.
13. Is travel health insurance worth it?
Nope. No. Nah. Even if you do get sick while abroad, then you can easily go to a private doctor (yes because everything is public here) and still only pay, maybe at most, 1/3 of what you pay in the States. Some visas do require you have it, and some don’t.
Phones & Electronics
14. Will my phone work abroad?
Besides currencies, I get this question probably once a week from someone traveling. My answer is yes and no. I have Verizon at home, and if I come to Europe I don’t have to do anything just turn my phone on and it will work, for 10 dollars a day, completely normal, meaning data, texts, and calls. But that gets pricey. You can also turn on international data plans which limit your data but are overall cheaper.
15. What is a cheaper solution for phones?
- Just use the internet! Everywhere has wifi, keep your phone on airplane mode and don’t use it unless connected. Seriously everywhere has wifi here–museums, stores, shops, restaurants, hotels, etc. My first two trips to Europe this is how I functioned. It works. I would also recommend downloading the google map of your city offline so you never have to worry about needing internet while getting from A to B!
- Buy a SIM card here. I have about 5 different SIMS from different countries, seriously ask my friends if they have me save in their phones as “katie england” “katie poland 1” “katie second england.” But this is a way cheaper option, you have internet the entire time, and a number to call places while you’re here. You have to call your phone company in America and ask them to unlock your phone and then presto good to go! And as of summer of 2017, the EU made it a law that your phone has to work in every EU member country (not just the Schengen Zone), so if you buy one in England you can use it in Spain, France, Germany, etc. They have them at airports, train stations, phone stores, etc. You can easily buy one anywhere. In Poland for unlimited data, texts, and calls a SIM card is 50 złoty (15 dollars), in England one for 4 GB is about 12 dollars. Do some research or ask me for advice, I would love to help you!
16. What about my plugs?
If you’re reading this, then we are probably around the same age. Thus meaning we all saw Just Married with Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Snow (Rest in Peace, my sweet angel). And of course, the scene where she blows the fuse. But! Shocker! There is no way her electronics would fit in the outlet. So you need to buy converters! England has its own outlet, but the rest of Europe all has the same. You can easily buy these at Target, Walmart, Amazon, etc. They’re about 5 dollars. I have about 10–curling iron, laptop, phone, hairdryer, etc.
Getting Around Europe
17. Is the rail pass worth it?
So, I have never done a rail pass. I think it has pros and cons. If you’re backpacking through Europe all summer I think it has its perks. But if you’re just here for one to three weeks, I don’t see the point of it.
If you don’t know what the rail pass is, it’s essentially an “unlimited” ticket on trains throughout Europe. I put unlimited in quotes because that’s how it is promoted, but it is far from unlimited. You pay by how many countries you will use it in, how many weeks you will use it etc. So, if you plan is to fly from America into London and have a trip for 2 weeks and you take the train to Paris and Amsterdam and Munich for example, I really don’t see the point. You would pay for 4 countries and two weeks and it would be about 500 euros a person. You can easily find cheaper train tickets on off hours or really cheap flights via discount flights. (For more information on discount airlines you can read my post here ) But if your plan is to hit up every country in Europe for 4 months, then maybe it is worth it. You don’t have to deal with airports, security hassle, you can have a bigger bag without checking it, it might be worth it. Especially if you’re backpacking with no itinerary and just hopping from city to city. But I would do a lot of research and prep work if that is an investment you are interested in making! Even though I have never used one, I would love to help you research it, if you need help making the decision!
18. Booking a train
Now, taking a train is still a great option. Especially any trip from London to Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, etc and vice versa. They drop you off directly in the city center, so you start at a great location. And they’re usually very fast. Things to know: You should book your ticket in advance, especially in hot season (spring and summer), you don’t have to go through security, you should get the train station about 30 minutes to an hour before, you can get food on the train in the snack cart, you don’t have to check a bag, and this is the most important just because you buy a ticket for the train does not mean you have a seat on the train. I have spent a few times standing on a train the entire way because it was so full and I didn’t get there in time to get a seat.
19. Does Uber or Lyft work in Europe?
Yes and no! Unfortunately, my Nashville friends at Lyft are not yet here in Europe. Counting down the days until they are though! But Uber is here, and it is my saving grace while abroad. Especially when taxi drivers do not always come from the country you are in. For example, my uber driver the other day was from Ukraine and we both could speak some Polish, but being able to type in my address without having to worry about miscommunication is a life saver. Another good app here is MyTaxi, I’m not sure if they are in the US or not. But it’s great, because you can schedule a Taxi for a certain time 3 days in advance.
20. What does Public Transportation look like?
Every city is different! Not every city has a metro, but almost every city has a bus system and/or a tram system in Europe. Luckily Warsaw has all three, so its moderately easy to get around. But of course, places like London and Paris have the best metro systems. But I think Budapest wins for most extensive metro, tram, and bus systems.
21. Can I drive in Europe?
If you rent a car, then probably yes. Some places might require an International License, which is good just to have in case of anything. But you can usually call and ask the company beforehand to see if they will require one.
22. When should I start planning?
It’s never too early to start planning a trip to Europe! I suggest giving yourself about 6 months to pay for flights and hotels separately and then time to save you money while being here. Flights are proven to be cheapest on the Tuesday and Wednesday 12 to 8 weeks before the departure date. I have a whole post here about it!
23. How much money should I bring?
Dang, I don’t like this question. Look if you’re a backpacker you can get by with about 30 dollars a day in Western Europe before hostels/hotels. In Eastern Europe maybe even less. But if you’re trying to travel like The Blonde Abroad I might suggest saving a lot more money. It really depends on your travel plans!
24. When should I go?
Really depends on what you like! Low season is winter. Hotels are cheaper, but there tends to be less happening in cities. And walking around can be miserably cold. Summers are more expensive and way MORE crowded. But the weather is more enjoyable and there are lots to do and see. I really enjoy traveling in the fall and winter months. Plus, hello, CHRISTMAS MARKETS IN EUROPE! But then spring and summer Europe is a floral dream world.
25. Hotels v Hostels v AirBNB v Couchsurfer?
Ahhh! Such a difficult choice. Hostels are FUN! Okay? They’re freaking fun. You meet so many people from around the world, they have events so you can make friends, and they usually have food and a bar there. So for solo travelers/backpackers, I always suggest hostels. There are tons of sites to find hostels in cities, some have girls floors and boys floors, some are coed, etc. They’re a great way to save money too. Hotels in Europe will be different than what you are used to, but they’re still very nice and sometimes can be super affordable. An Air BNB can be super fun too, usually, your host has great secret spots and will spend time with you in the city. I know a lot of people who stay with hosts and don’t do the private house Airbnb, and it works out great for them, though I have never done it. I have pros and cons with Couchsurfer, if it works for you, then great! But I tend to defer women from using it as I have heard one too many stories of sexual assaults when friends use this app. So if you’re looking for free, please only stay with someone you know or are friends with. Ultimately, trust your gut!
26. Is food different?
Yes. Simple as that. Think of going to a Mexican restaurant in the Midwest versus California. Food changes drastically in the borders of our own country. Food will also be different in Europe. (Though London has 3 Chipotle’s which I’m so excited to move back to London for).
PS: Drink refills are not a thing, so you are gonna pay for each drink you buy. Water is not free and sometimes can be more expensive than beer. Also they don’t use ice.
27. How do you deal with the language barrier?
Good news. In a globalized world where there are hundreds of languages, we have to be able to communicate with one base language, lucky for us Canadians and Americans it’s English. Almost everyone under the age of 35 can communicate effectively with you in English, the ticket counter, the passenger, the cashier at the store. With that being said, my best advice is to learn “do you speak English” in whatever the native language of the country you’re visiting is. People will love the courtesy, and usually, they will gladly respond in English. Also please learn “hello,” “thank you,” and “please” in the native language. Especially in countries with less popular languages but have destination Hot Spots –Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Croatia, etc.
I also live and die by the Google Translate app. You can type, speak into it, and take photos of things to be translated, though sometimes terribly, instantly. You can download the languages of the countries you are going to so you can use it offline as well!
28. Should I carry my passport around?
No, you shouldn’t. But you should have a photocopy of it, a pdf scan of it on your phone, and a picture of it on your phone. I have to carry mine around Poland because they actually require it. But most places you shouldn’t!
29. Is Vegan food hard to find?
N O P E. London, Paris, Berlin, Warsaw! These cities all have great vegan options. They typically are a little pricey. But they are completely accessible. If you’re vegan I am sure you know about Happy Cow, but if you are newly vegan it is a great site to vegan all the vegan goodness around you or in new cities!
30. What should I do in x, y, z?
My LEAST favorite question! I haven’t been making itinerary blog posts for a reason. I can tell you a few places to try for food or to go see. But part of the fun is stumbling into places. Some of my favorite meals or memories have been by accident. I don’t want you to map out every waking moment of your trip! But apps I use for food or cities are Like a Local, which my lovely friend Grace showed me last year, or simply Trip Advisor. Go Explore!! Of course, I will help you, but don’t plan everything down. It’s no fun!
So here you have it! The 30 most asked questions and their answers. Is a question missing? Is there something I didn’t touch on? Reach out to me! Or drop the question on my Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or drop me a comment below! I would love to help you plan your dream vacation to Europe!