I head out in a few days for Europe. And as I pack my bag, I’m also recalibrating my brain for European travel — already thinking strategically about how I can make this trip smoother than ever. Over many years of traveling professionally, I’ve come up with a bag of tricks I rely on to save time, save money, and travel smarter. We used to call these “tips”…but these days, they’re “hacks.” And so, here are my 10 favorite hacks for traveling in Europe.
Research hotels online — but book direct.
When choosing hotels, I do my homework using guidebooks and online review sites such as Booking.com and TripAdvisor. But once I’ve made my decision, rather than just clicking “Book It!” on a booking site, I send the hotel an email to reserve. Call me old-fashioned, but I enjoy the personal connection of booking direct — especially at a smaller guesthouse or B&B, where I’ll be personally interacting with the host once I arrive. And booking direct allows me to make special requests clearly — such as asking for a quiet room.
Hotels and B&Bs pay a big commission if you book through a third-party site; with rare exceptions, they appreciate when you book direct — and sometimes offer a better rate or other extras (such as free breakfast). In our Rick Steves guidebooks, we list many hotels that offer a discount to our readers…but only to those who book direct. Finally, while a booking site may show that a hotel is “sold out,” you may find there are actually available rooms if you contact the hotel directly. (Hotels must commit a certain number of rooms to the booking site, but often reserve a few for their own use.)
Yes, booking by email means you have to wait for a response. But hotels are usually very quick to finalize the booking — and for all the reasons noted here, I believe it’s still worth a little patience.
Set yourself up to breeze through airport security.
A few years ago, I signed up for the US Customs Global Entry program — and it was the best $100 I ever spent. This lets me use the speedy Global Entry lane to zip through Immigration when returning home to the US. Even better, Global Entry also comes with five years of TSA PreCheck privileges.
Applying for Global Entry is, let’s be honest, a bureaucratic nightmare: confusing paperwork, sometimes-conflicting instructions, and an in-person interview in a gloomy back room at the airport that feels like an FBI interrogation. But if you’re willing to feel that pain once, it buys you five years of easier airport experiences.
It’s hard to overstate what a game-changer TSA PreCheck is: Not only do you have access to shorter, faster-moving security lines; you don’t even have to remove your shoes, laptop, or liquids from your carry-on.
TSA PreCheck works on domestic flights, and on most flights from the USA to Europe. But once you’re in Europe, it’s meaningless. To make things easier on those intra-European hops, I prepare myself for the security lines: Rather than dumping piles of stuff in the bin, I tuck my wallet, phone, keys, and other items into the pocket of my jacket or vest, then put that in the bin. And I’m never happier to have my noise-cancelling headphones than when I’m 50 people deep in a security line.
Take full advantage of Google Maps…and be aware that GPS works offline, too.
Until the perfect travel app comes along, I find myself relying heavily on the Google Maps app. It’s a digital Swiss army knife for navigating Europe. It’s easy to mistake Google Maps as strictly a navigation app, because its main feature is offering clear and accurate directions by car, by foot, and by public transportation. But if you dig deeper and discover other features, you’ll realize it’s also useful for planning and organizing your trip details.
The “Satellite View” and “Street View” provide a sneak preview of any corner of Europe. (As I was booking my upcoming trip to Ukraine, Street View let me virtually “go for a walk” along the Kiev street my Airbnb is on, to be sure it’s a neighborhood I’ll enjoy.) I also use Google Maps to keep track of places that interest me (restaurants, sights, shops, and so on).
Google Maps is useful even if you’re thrifty about data roaming charges: You can download the maps to your phone (look for “Offline maps” in the menu), and they work as if you’re online, including navigation. Little-known fact: GPS features (i.e., that little blue dot that tracks your location) still work even when you’re offline.
The more I use Google Maps for trip planning, organization, and navigating, the more uses I find for it. (And don’t get me started on Google Translate…)
Download videos to stay entertained while on the road.
I know, I know — you’re not going to Europe to watch Netflix. But let’s face it: Vacation can be a good time to catch up on your favorite shows. Better yet, bring along entertainment that complements the places you’re traveling: Saving Private Ryan for Normandy, Trapped for Iceland, Game of Thrones for Dubrovnik, Inspector Montalbano or the Godfather trilogy for Sicily, and so on.
Due to country-specific licensing agreements, most US-based streaming services are partially or entirely blocked in Europe. You could use a VPN to falsify your location (pro hack: I use TunnelBear), but increasingly, streaming sites won’t work if they detect one. The best strategy is to download what you want to watch before you leave home. This is possible on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube Premium, and apps for many major cable providers. Once downloaded, the videos can be watched offline — whether on a plane or train, or at a hotel with flaky Wi-Fi.
Be warned: Once you get to Europe, these downloads may be blocked (because your device knows you’re outside of the US). Easy fix: Put your device in “Airplane Mode” and turn off Wi-Fi, and it assumes you’re on the plane, not in Europe (and, therefore, perfectly legal) — freeing you up to watch whatever you’ve downloaded.
Find the local hipster neighborhood.
Every city in Europe has a bustling downtown tourist zone: cobbled lanes clogged with tourists, overpriced restaurants with obnoxious hucksters out front, and jaded locals who put up with you juuust long enough to extract their share of your travel budget. But every city in Europe also has an edgy, trendy “hipster” neighborhood, where locals (and savvy travelers) congregate for creative and affordable meals.
“Get off the main drag” is a travel cliché, but I’m talking about something more specific: Find the neighborhood where all the local artists, entrepreneurs, and creative chefs are opening up shop. It ain’t the classic, “ye olde” Europe, but it’s arguably even better: a vital, sometimes gritty slice of the real Europe of today. The more street art, the better.
Examples include Psyrri in Athens (instead of the Plaka), London’s East End (instead of the West End), the Seventh District in Budapest (instead of downtown), Monti in Rome (instead of the Pantheon area), the Design District in Helsinki (instead of the Esplanade), Chiado in Lisbon (instead of Baixa or Alfama), Śródmieście in Warsaw (instead of Nowy Świat and the Old Town), Södermalm in Stockholm (instead of Gamla Stan), the West End in Glasgow (instead of downtown), Oltrarno in Florence (instead of the historical center), and the Meatpacking District behind Copenhagen’s train station (instead of the Strøget).
Sometimes it’s as specific as finding that one street or square with just the right energy: In Edinburgh, I find wee Forrest Road ( just two blocks long, near the National Museum) a far more enjoyable place to dine than anywhere on the Royal Mile. And Oslo’s Youngstorget square — while not exactly pretty — has better food than the entire run of Karl Johans Gate.
Finding these can be as simple as googling the phrase “Florence hipster neighborhood.” Do a little scouting and figure out where locals are enjoying hanging out this year…and you will, too.
Use the train diagrams at the platform.
Have you ever hopped on the train and discovered that you’re five long, crowded cars away from your assigned seat? As you pull your wheeled bag down aisle after aisle, nudging your way past the beverage cart and stepping over backpackers napping in the aisles, you might think, “If only there were a way to get on the train at the right place!”
Well, there is a way: Use the handy train composition diagrams that are posted at the tracks, usually near the arrival and departure schedules. These show where different cars will arrive along the platform — so if you’re in car 7, and the diagram tells you it’ll be pulling in around sector C…well, then, you can just hang out at sector C. Even if you don’t have an assigned seat, the chart tells you which cars are first or second class. This is one of those hacks that seems painfully obvious for those who already know it…but is life-changing for travelers who didn’t.
Take advantage of free communication apps.
My stateside mobile service provider is T-Mobile, which is ideal for people who travel frequently to Europe — since texts and (slower) data are free, and calls are affordable. But other providers — like the almighty Verizon — still charge a pretty penny for international calls and data. To avoid incurring high fees, you can turn off voice and data roaming and rely on local Wi-Fi hotspots at hotels, cafés, and other public places. (For more on this, see our article on data roaming.)
Be creative about using Wi-Fi to keep in touch. If you’re calling between Apple devices, try using FaceTime in “Audio” mode (which is less sensitive to spotty Wi-Fi than “Video” mode). It’s free, and the voice quality is astonishingly better than the cell network. Bonus hack: Even when I’m data-roaming on T-Mobile, I still make calls using FaceTime. Instead of calling my wife over the cell phone network for 25 cents a minute, I can FaceTime her on the free data connection, pay nothing, and enjoy better sound to boot.
Skype also works for voice and video calls, on any kind of device. And my European friends swear by WhatsApp, a free messaging app, and Viber, an app for voice calls. None of these is fully reliable for always-on, 24-7 communication — you have to be on Wi-Fi or the data network. But they’re all free and work great when you need them.
Share snacks on the train.
If you’re in a crowded train compartment where everyone is working hard not to make eye contact, there’s no better icebreaker than offering to share your bag of pretzels, cookies, or candy. Even for introverts, this is a great way to show your fellow travelers that you’re not only friendly, but (let’s face it) a generous, all-around good human being who would be fun to get to know. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun a long train ride with 30 minutes of frosty silence, only to kick-start a party for the price of a couple of pretzel sticks. Works every time.
Use your phone’s camera (and photo roll) as a virtual notepad.
We think of our phone’s camera as a way to capture and share memories. But it can also be a practical travel tool — a way to keep track of important information.
At a Welsh B&B, I snapped a photo of the one page I needed from a hiking guidebook, rather than hauling the whole book along with me. (Or I could snap a photo of the map posted at the trailhead.) Out on the trail, if I get turned around, I can pinch-and-zoom my way around the map.
Once you start thinking of your phone’s camera this way, the possibilities are endless: If I show up at a museum and find it unexpectedly closed, I’ll snap a photo of the posted opening hours, so I know just when to swing by again later. If a pub has their handwritten live music schedule taped to the door, I can snap a photo to keep track of which night to return for traditional music. If I find a big, heavy book in a museum gift shop that I’d love to take home — but can’t spare the luggage space — I’ll snap a photo and buy it later online. And I can snap a photo of my passport, so I have those details at my fingertips when I’m checking in for a flight or filling out hotel registry forms…without having to dig around in my money belt for my actual passport.
Also, don’t forget screenshots, which are easy to take on both iPhones and Android phones. If you want to keep track of a webpage — say, a train schedule — but you know you’ll be offline when you need it, take a screenshot. When my parents asked me for tech support while I was in Spain, I took a series of screenshots to walk them through their phone’s menu. All of this stuff lives in my photo roll, always accessible, until I need it…and then I can just delete it.
Mail home dead weight.
Like snowballs get bigger as they roll downhill, travelers accumulate dead weight in their travels: souvenirs, brochures, a book from that museum exhibit that you’ll never look at again, a pair of sandals you packed before you knew it would rain the entire trip, and so on. But the postal system offers redemption to heavy packers. It takes all of 20 minutes and $50 to unburden yourself of several pounds of stuff that’ll only exhaust you more and more as your trip progresses.
One caveat here: It’s best to send things home from a country with a reliable postal system. That translates to “just about anywhere except Italy.” (I have Italian friends who would sooner pack it across the border — or walk it over to Vatican City — than entrust their stuff to the Italian Post.)
European post offices sell handy boxes in different shapes and sizes. When packing my box, I enclose everything in a plastic bag (for weatherproofing), and I ensure my address is written in several places on the box, including on a sheet of paper inside…just in case. (The one time that I sent a package from Italy, I got a call from US Customs in Memphis a few weeks later. The address panel had been torn off, but they found my phone number in one of my little notebooks tucked deep inside the box.) I travel with a very small roll of duct tape that I use to reinforce and weatherproof the box’s seams and corners.
Finally, be prepared to fill out some paperwork when you arrive at the post office — including “your” local address (i.e., your hotel), a list of what’s inside, and its approximate value, for the purposes of assessing duty. There’s no tax for up to $200 of European purchases, and anything you brought with you and are shipping back home is free.
Well, that’s all I’ve got. What are your favorite travel hacks?
Whether you call them “hacks” or just “tips,” we’ve got plenty in the Travel Tips section at ricksteves.com. You’ll find all the details on some of the topics mentioned here (using your mobile phone in Europe, for example), plus more: transportation, money, packing light, and so on.
For more tech advice, watch my colleague Kevin Williams’ talk on Traveling with a Mobile Device.