Europe is an incredible place to visit. That said, Europe is a hell of a lot of different countries, big cities, small medieval villages, hugely diverse landscapes from steep mountain peaks to gently rolling hills, thick forests and large beaches along with word famous places like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Acropolis in Athens, Big Ben in London, the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, and endless more.
Travelling to Europe is generally easy, with international flights arriving in a large number of cities and relatively straightforward immigration requirements for travellers from a large number of countries.
That said, owing to the need to increase security levels at European borders, a new travel security system will be in place staring in 2021.
And whilst for most travellers it will remain fairly easy travelling to Europe, knowing a few facts beforehand is essential if you want to avoid bad experiences.
The new European travel visa
Well, actually it is not a visa. Indeed, it does not involve having to go to a consulate and getting a lot of paperwork done.
Instead, it is a travel security system which will work fairly similar to the process European Union passport holders have already to do before entering the US or Canada.
Put simply, the new European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) will require passport holders from countries currently allowed to enter Europe visa-free to provide some information through the system in advance of their visit. They will also have to pay a small entry fee, currently set at €7.00.
According to information provided by the European Commission, compiling the application form is estimated to take no longer than 10 minutes. And the Commission also expects that 95% of applicants should receive an approval within just minutes, which is than valid for three years.
As someone who has gone several times through the two equivalent security systems ESTA and eTA to enter respectively the US or Canada, I can affirm the process is straightforward and getting the approval never took me long.
There are however some quirks you need to know about ETIAS
Europe in the case of ETIAS only refers to the Schengen Area.
What’s important to know, the Schengen Area is not the same as the European Union and Europe as a whole. It only represents those countries which are part of a special travel agreement that allows people to travel between these countries – in theory – without border controls.
In theory, because due to rising security issues some countries now might occasionally carry out passport controls at airports or even on motorway checkpoints at the borders.
There are currently 26 countries in Europe that belong to the Schengen Area including: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
All other countries still have their own immigration procedurse in place. So if you plan to arrive at a country which is not part of the Schengen Area (like for example the UK) or intend to visit countries which are not part of the Schengen Area during your travels, you need to check specific immigration requirements beforehand.
In any case, make sure your passport is valid for the full time of your travels. Most European countries will require your passport to be still valid three months after departing Europe. Depending how long you stay – with a maximum of three months allowed – this means your passport may have to be valid for at least six months at the start of your visit.
What you need to know before travelling to Europe
Europe is a vast place of different languages, customs, traditions and regulations
Europe is divided into many different countries. This not only means each country has its own language. There is still a huge cultural difference too.
Values, beliefs, norms, traditions, in fact the whole way of life can be quite different once you cross the border into another European country.
Whether your itinerary includes only one country or multiple countries, make sure to familiarise yourself with local customs. Some of them I am going to address below, but checking out a guidebook or local travel boards will help you to avoid the biggest mistakes or disappointment.
The best time to travel to Europe
Europe is a year-round travel destination. When and where you go really depends on your goals: City sightseeing, culture trips, beach holidays, skiing, hiking and mountain climbing …
However, before you decided where to go, what to do and pick a specific time to visit, it’s important to consider:
Summer (June to August) is when nearly all European countries at some point have local school holidays. This means, it’s peak travel time and the popular places will be crowded and prices will be at their highest.
That said, August is definitely the month to avoid travelling to the big cities in Italy, Spain but also France. Not only because of the likely scorching temperatures, but August is the month when most locals will take their holidays, fleeing the cities for the whole month. As a result, most shops, restaurants and even museums will be closed. So while you will not have to deal with huge crowds, you will often feel like being in a ghost city and finding a place to eat might get fairly challenging.
Spring and Autumn, the so called shoulder seasons, are likely the best months to travel to many European destinations. Crowds will be smaller and prices lower if compared to the peak summer season.
Beach holidays in the shoulder season are possible in southern Europe; however water temperatures will be fairly cool in Spring.
If you don’t mind temperatures dropping fairly low in winter in several places, this can be a good time to visit the larger cities.
In addition, December is the month of Christmas markets, which you will find across many European countries.
Unsurprisingly, climate and weather conditions are vastly different across Europe.
As a rule of thumb, temperatures will be lowest in the northern part and heat up the farther south you go.
Here are some general rules (but you know, talking about weather, nothing is guaranteed).
Northern Europe: July and August are typically the warmest months with temperatures rising to around 25°C and sometimes more. However, again the more north you go the lower temperatures will get. In the most northern areas of Norway, Sweden and Iceland, summer temperatures will be more likely somewhere just over the 20°C mark.
Winter in the north can be freezing at times with temperatures way below 0°C in most areas. In addition to the cold temperatures, keep in mind that the northern countries have the lowest hours of daylight in winter. In the farthest northern areas, this can mean almost no daylight for several weeks. On the other hand, these are also the locations where you are most likely to catch the awesome aurora borealis (the northern lights).
Western Europe: From mid-May to mid-September you are likely to encounter pleasant weather. Still temperatures can vary widely (and change quickly and frequently) ranging from around the low 20s°C to 30°C and higher. Winter months can be fairly unpredictable, from really cold temperatures to somewhere around 10-15°C in most areas. It is typically the time with the most rainfall too.
Eastern Europe: In this region, again mid-May to mid-September brings the most pleasant weather. However summer months typically get hotter and typically more humid compared to Western Europe. By contrast, winter months can be freezing cold. Spring and Autumn again are typically nice with mild temperatures.
Southern Europe: Summers will be hot with temperatures easily reaching 40°C at times. Spring and Autumn will typically be nice and warm with temperatures somewhere between 20 to just below 30°C. Winter months can be chilly and often fairly unpleasant even though temperatures are unlikely to drop anywhere close to zero. However, you are likely to catch quite a bit of wet conditions, often meaning heavy fog instead of rain and inside, some places might be overheated whilst others will feel too cold.
Local shop and restaurant opening times
Different countries mean different legislations along with different ways of life. This can be important in case you want to do some shopping or for booking a table for dinner.
Across Europe, shop opening hours can still vary widely. This in particular concerns openings on weekends.
Shops are typically closed in a large number of countries on Sundays, including Austria, Belgium, France (albeit here several exceptions exist so you might find some shops open on Sundays), Germany, Greece, Spain (again with some exceptions), Poland, the Netherlands and Norway.
An exception to the above could be in predominantly touristy locations, where shops might be allowed to open on Sundays.
In southern Europe, expect shops in the smaller towns to close for an extended lunch break. This could be any time from 12.30 pm to 4 pm when you might find entire towns centres closed.
Significant differences can also exist when you intend to head out for dinner.
In northern countries, dinner time starts as early as 5pm and it’s unlikely you will be accepted later than 9pm (and then you are already considered arriving unpleasantly late).
In most of Western and Eastern Europe, dinner time starts at around 6pm and ends at around 9pm.
By contrast, dinner time starts later in Southern Europe. Particularly in Spain, it can be difficult to get a table before 9pm whilst most restaurants will still let you settle down at the table at midnight. Dinner also starts typically later in Italy, Portugal and Greece.
Another important point to keep in mind if you intend to eat at a restaurant in the south: In many countries here, especially Italy and Spain, during weekend the emphasis is on lunch (i.e. large family events will always take place around lunch, not dinner). This does not mean restaurants are not open in the evening. However, you are likely to not see many other people around.
How to travel around Europe
There are lots of ways to get around Europe.
The big European cities and even a large number of smaller cities are well connected by air, train, rail and motorways. Between many of them, you can also travel by bus.
Which type of transportation you prefer is likely based on the different destinations you plan to visit and if these are largely big cities or include also countryside locations (which could be the moment a car would be helpful).
Travelling by train is easy even when including smaller towns as connections are typically fairly good. That said, it’s not unheard off (read: no chance it won’t happen) that trains are running behind schedule. Thus be careful planning enough time if you have to take connecting trains.
Should you opt travelling by train, definitely check out the various ‘rail pass’ options. There are many and which one is the best for you once again depends on where you want to go. There are options that include various journeys in a single country, travelling to multiple countries, travelling for a certain period (like a pass might be valid for say two weeks every time you want to travel), travelling for certain intervals, travelling for a certain number of days, etc.
For more information on travelling by train in Europe, the best options to check are Eurail or Interrail. However, keep in mind not all European countries might be included. For example, if you want to travel to the UK by train, you will most likely need a separate ticket.
For shorter distances or travelling around a country, travelling by bus is another option. Check Flixbus for their routes and various offers.
In case you consider renting a car (especially if your itinerary includes the countryside or you wish to stay more independent for other reasons), there are a couple of important things to consider.
Remember, I told you Europe means many different countries. This is quite important when renting a car. Whilst you won’t have any issues picking up your rental car at one location and return it somewhere else (including a different country), there are some very important things to know when it comes to driving around various European countries.
Firstly, make sure your driving license allows you to drive in Europe. Depending where your license was issued, you might apply for an international driving license. Which typically is easy and straightforward to get but you need to apply for it in your own country (the country where your driver license was issued). Otherwise, your rental car company will not let you pick up your car.
Before setting off, make sure you have checked speed limits in the countries you intend to drive in. These can vary in the different European countries, also in countries belonging to a specific area like the European Union. For example, there are no speed limits on motorways in Germany (although this does not apply everywhere as various speed limits will be applied at parts of the motorways). Most other countries apply speed limits typically between 120 to 130 kilometres per hour (just a rule of thumb, again make sure you have checked this before driving in a specific country).
Although important to keep in mind: driving styles can vary widely across Europe. There are good and bad drivers everywhere, off course. But you will know what I mean once you have driven (or been in a taxi) in cities like Rome, Madrid and even Paris.
In addition, whilst most European countries drive on the right side, the UK and Malta drive left.
Europe still has different currencies
Whilst a number of European countries now have a single currency, the Euro, there are still 28 different currencies in Europe.
For example, the UK, most of the Eastern Europe, most Nordic countries and the Baltic States still have their own national currencies.
Therefore, you might still have to deal with a variety of different currencies and different exchange rates.
In addition to different currencies, there is still a huge difference how you pay across individual countries.
In particular the northern European countries, from Scandinavia and the Baltic down to the Netherlands and Denmark are to a large extend already ‘cash-free’ meaning you not only can pay even the tiniest amount with your credit card, many shops and restaurants will not even accept cash any longer.
By contrast, in Germany and some of the southern European countries cash is still the preferred payment method. Though you can pay your hotel and restaurant bills with your credit card, often shops are not prepared to take a card. In particular for smaller amounts. The same is true for paying for a taxi – many still do not even have the ability to take a credit card payment.
As for getting cash in local currencies, the easiest and cheapest way in my experience is to get it from a local ATM (in case your credit or debit card allows withdrawing money from foreign ATMs – check ahead before you go). This way, you will be charged the official national exchange rate and the applicable service fees. This will be definitely less than going through a local exchange bureau (which often use less favourite exchange rates and additionally apply huge fees for their service).
Price levels can vary widely
Sure enough, you will pay more staying in a large city then in rural areas.
But that is not the only price difference you will find in Europe. Even within the single currency Eurozone, you are likely to see a fair bit of difference in price levels, from food and drinks to services, local taxes, clothes and other goods.
As a rule of thumb, the most expansive countries in Europe are in the north; Scandinavia has high taxes and you generally pay more for everything in these countries. Switzerland too is a fairly expansive location.
Southern Europe is normally cheaper compared to western European countries and the less expensive are found in the east, from Poland to Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Croatia.
Electricity – required plug types across Europe
If you want all your electronic equipment getting charged smoothly wherever you go, make sure to have the right adapter with you.
European countries typically use 220-240V across the board. But there are still many different plug shapes.
The most common shape is a two-prong plug (classified as type C or E/F plug).
However, when travelling to the UK , Ireland, Cyprus and Malta for example you will need a Type G shape. In addition, older hotels / houses in Italy will still require a Type L plug.
Have you already been to Europe or are you planning a trip? Let me know about your experiences /expectations.