Preparing to take off for a big European adventure? You’ve got your flights and hotels booked, and are already thinking about what to pack. The anticipation can be so much fun.
However, as responsible Cheapos, we must point out that this is also a critical moment to examine the “small print” of your trip. After all, there might be a few tweaks you could make now to save some cash, or some overlooked details that might end up costing you if you don’t address them.
From travel documents to smartphone settings, here are 10 things to do before you leave that will help you avoid any unpleasant surprises later.
Let’s start with the basics. As elementary as it sounds, passport issues happen to both newbie and seasoned travelers. Double-check it now. Don’t just make sure that it’s valid when you take off, but throughout the entire course of your trip. Americans, by the way, can spend up to 90 days (within a 180-day period) inside the 26 countries that are part of the Schengen agreement.
Secondly, do you need any special travel visas for your trip? Probably not, if you’re staying within Europe. However, you might need a visa if you try to venture outside the area (for example, taking a boat from Helsinki to St. Petersburg). Here’s a list of visa requirements by country for US citizens.
This one is never fun, but it’s always helpful. Call your bank prior to leaving and let them know that you’ll be abroad. You don’t want your first purchase in Rome to prompt the overzealous Chase fraud team to block your ability to take out cash or pay for something.
But wait, there’s more! While you have them on the phone, ask them:
• How much do they charge for ATM withdrawals? (This could be a flat fee or a percentage of the withdrawal amount.)
• Do they have a partnership with a bank in the country that you’re visiting? (You might find that withdrawing cash from some ATMs are free.)
• How much will they charge you to use your debit card?
Then call your credit card company or companies (if it’s not the same as your bank). Same drill: Tell them your travel dates and countries, and ask about their foreign transaction fees. If you have multiple credit cards, you could find that one is much cheaper to use than the other. You might just be surprised!
Also, if renting a car during your trip, ask if the card automatically provides insurance coverage—and clarify what that coverage is.
For more on this subject, read our guide to questions to ask your bank before leaving.
While you’re having fun with customer service professionals, why not call your mobile telephone carrier? What happens if you don’t call before arriving in Europe? Well, to begin with, you might find that your US or Canadian phone doesn’t work. More drastic, however, you might wind up with all kinds of crazy international data roaming charges.
First, tell them your travel dates and countries. They’ll make sure your phone is set up to work in those countries. Then, they will try to sell you international calling, text and data packages. Offers differ depending on the carriers, but most of the companies offer similar options. I’ve used AT&T below as an example, but you should check prices with your carrier.
• Calling packages usually cost a set monthly amount to lower the per-minute charges for making and receiving calls abroad. This could make sense if you’re planning to make lots of calls, but never makes sense for me. Without a calling package, AT&T charges $1.50 a minute to make or receive a call in Europe. If you buy a $30 calling package, you’ll get 30 minutes of calling (or $1 per minute). This could never be considered a steal (although the per-minute rates do fall if you buy a more expensive package with more minutes).
I typically make phone calls only in last-minute or urgent situations, and these calls are almost always less than a minute long. I’ve resigned myself to paying the regular $1.50 per minute rate for these. However, if you plan to make more calls or do business, it’s worth considering.
• International texting plans, in my opinion, are a great deal, as they make texting in Europe much cheaper. With AT&T, for example, without a plan texts are $.50 to send from abroad, but with a $30 plan you can send 200 texts (or $.15 each). A $10 plan (50 texts) and $60 plan (600 texts) are also available. (See international texting rates on AT&T.)
• And then there’s the data package. If you’re a power user and really know how to efficiently measure your data use, go for it. AT&T, for example, offers a $30 data package that covers 120MB of cellular data. They estimate that this should be enough to send and receive a whopping 1,300 emails, although that certainly doesn’t include using the Web, posting to Facebook or using Yelp. (Here’s a tool to estimate your data needs.)
To sum up my Cheapo strategy, I buy a texting plan, only use my telephone for quick and urgent calls, and turn off my data roaming. I only use my iPhone’s email and browser when I’m connected to free Wi-Fi. And when I do have Wi-Fi, I use my Skype app to call home for free.
For much more on this, check out our guide to using an American smartphone in Europe.
Take out your flight confirmation and double check your luggage allowance. How many bags are you permitted to check, and how heavy can they be?
These days, most American carriers flying to Europe allow Economy passengers one free checked bag weighing up to 50 lbs (23 kg). Extra checked bags or heavy luggage will almost always cost you dearly—unless you have status with the airline. Check with your carrier before you get to the airport and have to do some frantic unpacking and repacking.
Don’t forget that you’ll probably be putting on weight during your trip — or rather, your suitcase will. You’ll be accumulating souvenirs, clothing, your allotted two bottles of wine, books and other mementos. It’s better to start your trip well under the weight limit.
Also check the size of your carry-on. Your carrier will tell you the exact dimensions allowed for both checked and cabin baggage. Take a tape measure to it if you’re unsure.
Now for the grueling part. If you’re like me, you’ve got a suitcase and a carry-on packed with absolutely essential clothing (for every type of weather and situation), four or five pairs of shoes (the trip will be a great time to start jogging again!) and toiletries (including a bottle of Listorine).
Now pause and reflect: You’re going to be rolling, lifting, lugging and man-handling those beasts through airports, through train stations, onto buses and up hotel staircases. You’re going to be inching around them is a tiny hotel room, packing them into laughably small elevators, and searching for places to stick them on a high-speed train.
The time to downsize your luggage is now. Do you have a smaller suitcase available? Make it work—and yes, this will require ditching some extra sweaters, redundant pairs of jeans, shoes-that-would-have-looked-great-with-that-shirt… Out! Hold onto lighter sweaters, shirts and jackets that can be layered.
The same goes for your carry-on. Keep the essentials and give a hard look at the rest. Keep the guidebooks, of course, but consider ditching the novels and other books that you’re bringing along because “you’ll finally have time to read it.” Chances are you won’t. But you will be lugging it with you all over the continent. As for your laptop, if at all possible, leave it at home.
Side note on guidebooks: Yes, I still bring and love guidebooks. You can read them everywhere, on the plane, on trains, and over breakfast. Sure, you can hunt down information on the web once you arrive, but do you really want to? You’ll get distracted by work emails and waste time. What a buzz kill. Grab a Rick Steves’ or a Rough Guide and try to unplug.
The cheapest way for North American travelers to get euros is to use their ATM cards to withdraw money from bank ATMs. These ATMs are very easy to find throughout Europe. But what about arriving with some euros in your billfold? It’s really not that necessary, as you’ll find ATM machines in every major European airport as well, and, if the line is too long, you can also use credit cards to purchase items in the airport, like train tickets, food, and other necessities.
If arriving without a euro-cent in your pocket makes you (understandably) uncomfortable, go ahead and exchange some euros at your home bank before leaving. But chances are they’re going to give you a lousy exchange rate, and might even tack on a fee as well. And don’t even get me started about exchanging money once in Europe—especially at the airport! Again, exchange rates will be lousy and you might be charged a fee. Walk straight past them and to the nearest ATM.
It goes without saying that you should also hunt around for old euro coins and bills from previous trips before heading over. Have a friend or family member who’s traveled to Europe recently? Buy their old bills before you leave (at the current exchange rate). Hopefully they won’t charge you a fee…
European high-speed rail tickets are cheaper the earlier you book. If you’re planning to take a high-speed train during your trip, buy those tickets as far in advance as possible (most are available up to three months in advance). Note that advance purchase is not necessary for slower local and regional trains. This is only for fast trains between major cities.
Important: When you buy these tickets, it’s almost always cheaper to purchase them directly through the official railway websites than through a ticket agency or third-party reseller. The official websites for major European railways are:
• Austria (ÖBB): www.oebb.at
• Czech Republic (CD): www.cd.cz
• Dutch Railways: www.ns.nl
• Finland (VR): www.vr.f
• France (SNCF): www.voyages-sncf.com
• Germany (Die Bahn): www.bahn.de
• Great Britain (all rail operators): www.nationalrail.co.uk
• Hungary (MAV): www.mav.hu
• Italy (Trenitalia): www.trenitalia.com
• Ireland (Iarnród Éireann): www.irishrail.ie
• Poland (PKP): www.pkp.pl
• Spain (Renfe): www.renfe.com
• Switzerland: www.sbb.ch
Once you purchase your tickets, read the email confirmation closely. Do you need to pick up the tickets at the train station, or can you print your tickets off at home? If they are “e-tickets” that can be printed off at home, be sure to print off the actual ticket, and not just the confirmation email. Most e-tickets include a bar code that will be scanned once aboard by a (snappily dressed) conductor.
Take inventory of all of the electronic devices that you’ll be bringing along, and make sure that you’ve packed all of their power cords and connecting wires. Remember that plugs differ between European countries. An outlet in the UK differs from those in France, Italy and elsewhere on the Continent. Buy the right adapters for the countries you’ll be visiting now, rather than later from an overpriced souvenir shop.
I like to pack all of my cables and cords into a Ziploc bag. It keeps them contained and I can usually tell if I’m missing something. (For example, I always seem to forget my camera’s battery charger!)
A few words about the difference between “adapters” and “converters”. Adapters are cheap little devices that literally adapt your plug to fit into a foreign outlet. Most American electronics run on 110 volts, while their European cousins run on 220 volts. Fortunately, this isn’t a big deal for most modern devices (smartphones, laptops, cameras, etc.), as most will run on either current—if they are marked “110-220 volt”. If, however, you’re traveling with a 1950′s retro hairdryer, well, first read the bit above about over packing, and secondly, bring along a converter to convert the 220 voltage down to 110. If not, the surge of electricity will fry your beloved device.
Does your car rental begin upon your arrival in Europe? That makes sense if you’re immediately hitting the road and not spending the night in the city into which you’ve just flown. However, this doesn’t make sense if you’re going to hang out for a day (or more) in your arrival city. You’re going to end up wasting money.
Let’s say you fly into London, Paris or Rome, rent a car, and then drive into London, Paris or Rome for a few days. Now you’re paying for the car, and you have to keep it in an expensive garage. To make matters worse, you might attempt to actually use it to get around the city (leading, inevitably to great frustration, needlessly elevated blood pressures, and silent meals).
If you’re in this situation, look through your rental details and see if you can change your pickup date to the day that you’re leaving town. Many car rental companies are quite flexible about making these changes.
One last suggestion for those renting a car: Do some pre-trip research to understand your insurance coverage before you get there. Does your rental include insurance? Many European rentals automatically include liability insurance, which covers damage to things outside the car. For damage to the car itself, you’ll need a CDW, or “collision damage waiver”, which might already be included in your rental. If it’s not, you may be able to purchase it online in advance cheaper than you will once at the agency. (Note that these CDWs typically come with a high deductible, which can be lowered if you upgrade to a more expensive CDW. Got that?)
Finally, the credit card that you use may also automatically insure your rental, although it may not cover certain types or classes of cars, and may not give you the level of coverage you desire. Ask your credit card company about coverage when you call with your other questions (see #3 above).
When you’re standing at the Hertz or Europcar counter signing your paperwork and trying to shake off the jet lag, you’ll be so excited to hit the road that an insurance add-on will be an easy up-sell. I’m not saying not to take the insurance (I often do). Just know if you’re already covered.
What other tips do you have for ways to save on your European adventure before you leave home? Share with us in the comments section below, and if we like them, we’ll add them (and you!) to our list.
Now, take a deep breath and relax. You’re headed to Europe!