AAA Travel Counselors who specialize in European travel offer tips for your next trip.
Planning a trip to Europe? We sat down with two AAA Travel Counselors—Toni Snyder of Citrus Heights, California, and Marco Ruiz of Monterey, California—to get answers to some of your most frequently asked questions about traveling to Europe.
Vacation Now: What’s the best way for first-timers to experience Europe?
Toni: An escorted tour is absolutely the best way to see Europe for the first time. You’ll have an experienced guide with you at all times who’ll show you the highlights of each city on the tour. Plus, your hotel, transportation, meals and sightseeing are all included, so you know the bottom line. One of the biggest misconceptions is about free time. Tours typically build free time into the itinerary, so you won’t feel like you are constantly on the go.
Marco: Alternatively, you could choose a cruise. AAA partners offer a variety of river cruises in and ocean cruises to Europe, so you have plenty of options to choose from.
How do I decide which countries to visit?
Toni: Deciding on a country to visit is really a personal choice, and there is no wrong answer. Everyone has a dream country they want to visit. Maybe you have Italian relatives and want to dig into your roots. Or perhaps you’re a huge fan of the television series Outlander and want to see the Scottish Highlands. Your choice could even be based on something as simple as wanting to see the Eiffel Tower in person. Whatever you choose, there is no bad option.
Marco: Some of the most popular countries my clients enjoy visiting are France, Spain, Italy and England. Each country offers a unique experience, and you get a chance to see iconic cities such as Paris, Madrid, Rome and London.
Should I choose just one country and visit multiple cities, or should I visit one or two cities in multiple countries?
Marco: If you’re only visiting for a week, I always suggest sticking to one country and visiting multiple cities. For example, you could see Italy’s great cities—Florence, Venice and Rome—in one trip without feeling too rushed.
When is the best time to travel to Europe?
Toni: There is no bad time to visit Europe. If you’re traveling with your family, then you need to travel during the summer when school is out, and that’s considered high season. You will likely pay more for hotels and flights. Trips during the spring or fall are shoulder season, where you should be able to find some deals on travel. Low season, from early November through the end of March, is my favorite time to visit Europe. The weather is cooler, so boots and a jacket should definitely be on your packing list, but you can save up to 30 percent on travel. And the best part? Smaller crowds.
What is the best time to book a trip to Europe if I want to get a deal?
Marco: Prices are pretty set based on season, so the best way to get a deal is to travel during the off-season. Also, there may be opportunities to take advantage of early payment discounts.
Toni: As with any travel, the earlier you book, the more likely you are to get exactly what you want—a hotel with views of the Eiffel Tower, the tour dates you want, or the type of stateroom you want on a cruise. Six to eight months in advance is what I typically recommend.
Is it safe to travel to Europe at this time?
Toni: Yes, of course. You can treat European cities the same way you would cities in the U.S. Just be smart and stay aware of your surroundings.
Do I need any travel documentation other than my passport to travel to Europe?
Marco: U.S. citizens are covered with just a passport, with the exception of traveling to Russia. Other nationalities may need a visa on top of the passport. Always check with your AAA Travel Counselor to be safe.
If I’m traveling by train or by air within Europe, is there a limit on the amount of baggage I can take?
Marco: You won’t find luggage restrictions with train travel, but you are responsible for carrying your own luggage 100 percent of the time. For airlines, restrictions vary, so it’s best to check the policies for each airline you’ll be flying with and plan accordingly. Your AAA Travel Counselor can help you research the requirements for different airlines.
Do I need to have any of my travel documents translated before I travel?
Marco: No. English is enough for general travel documents. However, if you have a severe food allergy, you may want to consider having a card made up with details about that allergy in the language of the country you are visiting so nothing gets lost in translation.
Should I exchange money before I travel to Europe? What’s the easiest way to do so?
Toni: I always exchange money before I leave the country, because I feel better having cash on hand when I arrive. Airports are the worst place to exchange money as their rates are the highest.
Marco: The most convenient way to exchange currency is through your local bank. You should be able to do this a week or so before you travel. No matter where you exchange currency, you will likely run into fees, so plan accordingly to reduce the number of times you have to exchange currency or withdraw money from the ATM.
I’ve heard that chip-and-pin cards are the only type of credit or debit cards accepted in Europe. Do I need to get a special card for when I travel to Europe if I don’t already have a chip-and-pin card?
Marco: Chip-and-pin cards are the most widely accepted form of electronic payment, but many places in Europe can still accept cards without a chip. Automated machines, such as ticket machines for public transportation, may not accept regular cards, however. It’s best to call your bank before you travel to Europe and request an updated card with a chip if they offer that technology.
ON THE TRIP
What is proper tipping etiquette? Should I be tipping at restaurants, on tours and at hotels when I travel to Europe?
Marco: When it comes to restaurants, tipping is not as important as it is in the U.S., but everyone appreciates a good gesture. Ten percent is the norm in Europe, but many times is already included as a service charge in the bill, so be sure to check before tipping an additional amount. In hotels, tipping is not expected, but it’s appreciated. For tours, it can depend on the company you’re traveling with. Higher-end brands often include tips in the cost of the tour. If not, it is common to tip four euros per person per day to the tour director and two euros per person per day to the driver. Ask your AAA Travel Counselor for details about the tour company you choose.
What if I don’t speak the language?
Toni: If you don’t speak the language, learn how to politely ask if they speak English. Most Europeans speak English. The language barrier isn’t a problem on an escorted tour!
Marco: Always remember that while many Europeans do speak English, they are going out of their way to accommodate English-speaking travelers, so we can’t expect them to speak perfect English.
Is it worth purchasing a rail pass, or should I buy my tickets separately?
Marco: It always depends on your itinerary. Rail passes could end up costing more if you don’t plan carefully to make the most of the pass. Talk with your AAA Travel Counselor to decide what your best option is based on the destinations you are visiting and the length of your trip.
Should I keep my passport with me, or should I leave it in my hotel room?
Toni: I keep my passport in the safe at the hotel, but I carry a copy with me when I am out and about. I always tell my clients to have one copy of their passport with them, one at home and one in their suitcase in case of emergency.
Who should I contact if I lose my travel documents or need help while I am out of the country?
Toni: The closest U.S. consulate or embassy can help you replace lost or stolen travel documents. Having a photocopy of your passport makes the process much easier.
Marco: Lost or stolen passports are rare among careful travelers, but sometimes it happens. Be sure to copy the page of your passport with your picture as well as the last page with the bar codes in case you encounter any issues.
Inset photos: iStock