Europe blog and travel tips

Lessons I have learned from travelling in Europe

February 3, 2014 (Last Updated: May 18, 2020)
by Carolyn
Pont du Gard France

No matter how frequently you travel, there are still lessons to be learned along the way. Each time I visit Europe I pick up new tips but my most important lessons were learned when my husband was admitted to hospital in France.

These tips may just help you to have a much smoother holiday experience in Europe (or wherever you travel).

Lesson #1: Pace yourself

Whilst we’d all probably like to see as much of Europe as is humanly possible (particularly if it’s your first visit and likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip), I’ve learnt that trying to cram too much in is a mistake.

Not only is it tiring having to pack up and move on every day or two, it also means you only have time to skim the surface of each destination, so much so that by the time you return home, you may not even remember much about it.

These days I always try and have a minimum stay of two nights in each place I visit – preferably three nights or more. My view now is quality over quantity – I’d much rather spend a good few days in a place and really get to know it, than drop in for a day before whizzing off.

Lesson #2: Have more than one nominated driver of your hire car

Luckily for me, my husband is a confident and competent driver in Europe and he has no qualms at all about doing all the driving. Because of this, I had never bothered to get my own International Driving Permit or nominate myself as a secondary driver when we hired cars.

This turned out to be a big mistake in 2010 when my husband was admitted to hospital in France for six days!

As we were staying in a small village about 30 minutes from the hospital, and there was no public transport available, the kids and I were stuck. I wasn’t licensed to drive our hire car and therefore we had to rely on the generosity of our rental house’s caretakers to take us to the hospital to visit on two occasions.

This was quite an inconvenience and made me realise the importance of having two nominated drivers.

Self-driving in Britain
Hopefully I’ll never need to drive in Europe but at least if I’m a nominated driver I can, if need be.

Lesson #3: Make sure each adult has their own credit card

Another lesson learned from my husband’s hospital stay was the need for each adult to have their own credit card when travelling.

As my husband’s credit card and mine are both linked to the same account, we decided to just take the one card as we figured we’d always be together when shopping. My credit card was the lucky one to be taken to Europe (is that because I make all the purchases?!) but this proved to be a problem when my husband was admitted to hospital.

As we are non-French residents, the hospital administrators were concerned that my husband would leave without paying the bill and were insistent on having an imprint of his credit card in case he did a runner!

As I had the credit card and was 30 minutes away and not able to visit the hospital at my leisure, my husband had to explain as best as he good to non-English speakers that I would bring the credit card in as soon as possible. Had we each taken our credit cards, this wouldn’t have been an issue.

Lesson #4: Let your travel insurance company pay the hospital

As soon as my husband had been admitted to hospital, I rang our travel insurance provider and explained the situation. They were fantastic and even rang me back a couple of times the next day to find out how he was getting on.

In our initial phone conversation they asked me if I would like them to contact the hospital to arrange the payment. I naively thought hubby would only be there for the day, or overnight at worst, so I told them that I would pay the hospital bill and claim it back on our return to Australia.

Big mistake!

A 6 day hospital stay ended up costing just over $4000 but the real problem was when we went to pay.

Apparently the hospital’s credit card machine wasn’t working that day (just my luck) so the only means we had to pay was with the money we’d already loaded onto our pre-paid cash cards, or cash. However, the cash cards had a daily withdrawal limit which we would have to exceed in order to pay the bill.

In the end, we paid as much as we could on the day my husband was discharged and then, leaving his passport as security, promised to return the following day with the balance of the payment.

Had I asked the travel insurance provider to contact the hospital directly, we would have avoided this dilemma.

Hospital road sign
Hopefully you won’t need to look for this road sign when you’re holidaying in Europe.

Lesson #5: Pre-book transfers

I’ve written about this previously but one of the first things I do now when I have booked my flights to Europe, is to book a transfer from the airport to my accommodation.  I’ve struggled with suitcases up and down flights of railway station stairs and crammed into busy trains with hundreds of commuters before and after a 24 hour flight from Australia, it’s no fun!

In my mind, a pre-booked transfer is well worth the cost. It might cost you a few dollars more than using public transport but having a car waiting for you at the airport with a driver to assist with your luggage and drop you right at your door, is gold.

I often now also pre-book transfers from my accommodation to the railway station (or vice versa) throughout my trip.

Lesson #6: Reserve your seats on trains

Not all trains in Europe require you to reserve your seat in advance but my advice is to do it. I travelled from Bozen/Bolzano in Italy to Munich in 2nd class and was very glad we had reserved our seats.

Second class carriages were ‘compartment’ style – the seating compartment, where three people sat each side, was to one side of the carriage with a narrow corridor down the other side.  On boarding the carriage, we couldn’t believe how many people were standing and sitting in the corridor.

Rather than drag our suitcases past all these people (why were they there?), my husband went ahead to find our seats whilst I waited with the suitcases by the door.

He came back to tell me that two other passengers – with non-reserved seats – were sitting in our seats and he’d had to ask them to move.  After negotiating our way down the narrow corridor with our suitcases and claiming our rightful seats, we discovered that this was one of the trains that didn’t require seat reservations. 

All the people sitting on their suitcases in the corridor had bought a ticket for the train but hadn’t paid the few euros extra for a seat reservation.  Unfortunately for them, the train was full and, as they didn’t have reserved seats, they had to sit or stand in the corridor. 

Our journey took four hours – I couldn’t imagine having to sit on my suitcase in the cramped corridor for that length of time.

Train travel in Europe
Not all trains in Europe (this 1st class OBB train in Austria does) require seat reservations but if you can reserve ahead, I strongly recommend you do.

Lesson #7: Buy Skip-the-Line tickets to attractions you know you will visit

No-one likes wasting their precious holiday time standing in queues but at many of Europe’s major attractions this is what you’ll have to do if you haven’t pre-purchased a ticket. 

Back in 2008 when I returned to Paris for the first time in 20 years, it wasn’t possible to buy ‘skip-the-line’ tickets for the Eiffel Tower so we joined the queue for our chance to go up this Parisian icon.  One and a half hours later, we finally reached the ticket window, purchased our tickets and up we went.

These days, you can buy ‘skip-the-line’ tickets for the Eiffel Tower and many of Europe’s other major attractions including the Vatican, Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and many more. 

No matter what time of year you are heading to Europe, my advice is to pre-purchase your entry tickets to the attractions that you know you will definitely visit.  In some cases (like the Eiffel Tower), this does lock you in to a specific date and time, but it will definitely save you the long waiting times in ticket queues.

I hope the lessons I’ve learned during my European travels help you with your holiday planning.  Have you learned any lessons that might help other readers?  I’d love you to share them in the comments below.