A Traveller's Guide When Visiting Europe for the First Time

Sunday, October 26, 2014


St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy
Last April 2014, my family and I went for a short vacation in Europe. Coming from Manila, everyone’s very excited since we’re crossing another continent. I was never a light packer (though I’ve been improving after this trip). I didn’t bother to bring food from home and I committed lots of mistakes along the way. For all the right choices and wrong ones, I’m glad I’ll be able to share with you insider tips on how to survive around Europe for several days – especially when it’s your first time.

Beautiful lake view at Brugge, Belgium
1 - Money

It’s common to have notes changed when you travel abroad. If you’re travelling to Europe, it would save you money if you have your cash converted in your homeland. In our case, we could’ve saved up more if we have our money changed in the Philippines than abroad. In London and France, most currency exchange counters have commissions (or at least, the ones we found). Plus, a lot of these counters are closed on Sundays. So just imagine how much money will be deducted aside from the conversion rate. The only downside if you’re getting your money changed here is the availability of a certain currency. It’ll be a challenge for you to find a money changer or a bank that will let you buy Euros, British Pounds and other foreign currencies other than US Dollars. Otherwise, withdraw cash using your ATM card. Just make sure it’s valid for withdrawals done abroad.

2 - Pack Light

If you’re bringing luggage, one is enough. I know men can fit their clothes and other stuff good for 11 days in one hand-carry luggage, but that’s just impossible if you’re a woman. I brought a luggage that could carry up to 30kg. I filled up the suitcase up to 20kg which was soooo wrong! It got me thinking that I need lots of sweaters and coats and boots because it was early spring in Europe. Living in a tropical country, 10 to 12 degrees Celsius is like winter for me. We had airport transfers in London, Paris and Rome so it wouldn’t be a problem carrying the luggage wherever we go. However, when you’re getting on a train, you have to carry all your belongings on your own. And that’s when all the difficulties began.

Thello sleeper train from Paris to Milan

Trenitalia train from Milan to Rome

3 - Train Ride

Keep in mind that when travelling around Europe, especially on neighboring countries, it’s more convenient to ride the train. We took the Eurostar from London to Paris, Thello from Paris to Milan, then Trenitalia from Milan to Rome. Most of the time, nobody will help you carry your [heavy] luggage. It’s just you and your companions. The train conductors roamed around the train, checking tickets and assisting other passengers so it’s really up to you to do the work. I was lucky I got help from Thello conductors. If you have a big luggage like mine, you have to leave yours at the end of the car. Space for your luggage at the end of the car (or compartment at the end of the seats) will depend on the type of train and time of the day. Trenitalia was very spacious, while Eurostar was almost packed so you have to reach your assigned car or cabin early. Thello is a sleeper train so imagine being jam-packed in one train compartment with 6 people together with everyone’s belongings.

Brugge, Belgium

Gelato in Rome
4 - Food

Rice is a staple food in Asia. So if you’re bound for Europe, expect to see less of it and more of bread, steak, potato and pasta. Food is actually great (especially in Italy!), but there are times when you will be missing rice. It’ll start kicking in by the third day. If you want rice, go to a Chinese or Japanese restaurant. There are a number of Japanese restaurants in central Paris, especially around Galeries Lafayette mall. We even saw a Chinese restaurant that serves buffet lunch for € 12. In London, however, I don’t remember seeing Asian cuisine. I didn’t miss Filipino and Asian food when I was in Italy. Pizza, pasta, gelato – it was pure heaven there! If you think you’re bound to miss food from home, pack something familiar like cup noodles, bread, peanut butter, etc. You can even buy food at the grocery and cook if you’re staying at an apartment. In Paris, we didn’t miss rice too much because the hotel we were staying at served rice in the morning (though it felt like the rice was half-cooked).

Pasta with Espresso

Bruschetta

Pizza Margherita
It’s ok to splurge on food once in a while. But if you want to save, take a late breakfast at the hotel and then just have snacks in the afternoon. In Europe, food serving size is bigger as compared to the Philippines, so you can save by sharing your food with another person or have it taken out. The cheapest clubhouse sandwich I found was € 6. It was in a restaurant near The Louvre. If you want fries and salad on the side, additional € 4 will be charged. For me the price was ok, considering you’re eating at a restaurant near a tourist spot. Plus, the serving was huge so my sister and I shared.

5 - Clothes

Know what will be the season when you get to Europe. Since it was early spring when we got there, the climate was still chilly. We only get to see the sun a few times in 11 days. Like I said earlier, I was never a light packer and I want my photos taken with me wearing different clothes. The key is to get basic pieces which you can mix and match (that I didn’t do). It saves luggage space and nobody will notice if you repeated clothes. Just pack maybe around 5 scarves and then use accessories to differentiate your every ensemble. If you’re visiting Europe in springtime, one pair of boots is enough. You can just carry flats or sneakers for variation. And bring laundry soap with you so you can wash some of your basic pieces and underwear. Just let them dry in the bathroom.

At an old church in Brugge, Belgium. I wore a knitted black sweater underneath, dark blue knitted skirt, black tights, black leather jacket and a thick, knitted infinity scarf.
My sister and I went to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros. Studios in London. I wore a mustard sweater, denim jeans, down jacket, scarf and combat boots (photo taken by my sister).
6 - Supermarket

One thing that can really save you money is when you rummage through the local supermarket. When I travel, I always make sure to check out the supermarket or grocery. You’ll get a taste of people’s lifestyle, food and products without paying for a hefty sum. When I bring pasalubong or small presents from my travels, I buy packs of local delicacies or small food items which can be found in their grocery. For instance, there are Cadbury products in the UK which you cannot find in the Philippines. Snack treats vary from country to country. Furthermore, if you want genuine ingredients for a dish you’ll prepare back home, add a few in your cart.

7 - Expenses

Water is expensive in Paris (well Europe in general). I am not kidding. Go to the grocery if you want something cheaper but the usual cost you can find in vendo machines is € 2 (around Php 110). It’s about 350 to 500 ml. I’m not sure if restaurants provide service water like here in Manila, but the average cost of water in restaurants range from € 2.50 to € 3. Water is a bit cheaper in London and Rome than in Paris and Brugge. Unlike in Asia, there are a few public toilets in Europe. I don’t remember seeing toilets in train stations or in the metro. There’s one in Paris Gare de Lyon (big train station for trains crossing countries or borders) but I remember paying for € 0.10 or € 0.30 just to pee. In addition to that, you can’t just barge in a restaurant to use the toilet. You can use the toilet for free when you eat there or you can pay up. Take advantage of museums and tourist spots even if you have to shell out money. If you want to go up the Eiffel Tower, do it at night so you’ll pay cheaper.

Water served in a glass bottle as we dine at a restaurant in Brugge

The sight of the Eiffel Tower at night. It really is a magnificent view when you visit starting from 10PM.

8 - Fare and Accommodation

Grab your chance to visit Europe when there’s a promo airfare sale. Plus, it’s also cheaper if you arrive and depart in the same destination. When we visited Europe, we got Philippine Airlines’ promo roundtrip airfare Manila-London-Manila (around Php 46,000+). In terms of accommodation, the bigger your group is, the more savings you can get (given you’ll be staying in one room or apartment). You can rent an apartment and save tons of money than when you stay at a hotel. You also need to consider the location. You pay cheaper for an accommodation far from the city but you will be facing transportation costs. On the other hand, a slightly expensive accommodation in the city can save you tons of time and transportation costs.

Typical Paris neighborhood

Unlimited train ride around Rome for one day at € 6. 

Keep in mind that most hotel accommodations in Europe, especially 3 stars below, have small rooms (really, really small) and not as extravagant as the rooms you can find in Macau. If you stay in Paris, there are day tours which can take you to other nearby countries like Belgium, Netherlands and more. Riding the taxi will definitely be more costly so learn to take the train when you’re in the city and buy a card that lets you have unlimited train rides within the day. However, riding the train can be very much tiring and time consuming. If you’ve got extra money in your pocket, take advantage of hop-on hop-off buses. They cost around € 25 in Paris valid for a day. If you’re planning to have a day trip to another country, consider booking coaches (buses) in advance. They’re much cheaper than trains.

9 - Pickpockets and Scams

Beware of pickpockets and scammers when you travel around Europe. If you think it only happens in third world countries, wait ‘til you get to Rome. In Roma Termini train station, you’ll see a group of teenage, European girls who converge in the station and they really know how to steal your stuff. We were warned by other Filipinos as soon as we reach the station and true enough, these girls were doing their business to another passenger on the train. You’ll actually think they’re harmless because they look beautiful, young and innocent but be careful. You cannot harm them of course, and the authorities just call their attention without bringing them to the police because these girls are minors.

Red phone booth and Big Ben - Find this very famous spot when you visit London!
The safest I’ve been to: London and Brugge. A colleague of mine had an experience at Notre Dame church in Paris where he was scammed. A ring was placed on his finger and the scammers demanded for payment. Not sure if they used the “religion speech” for the ring, but I’m glad that didn’t happen to us during our visit. Just remember to keep your personal belongings close to you, especially your passport.

10 - Research

Learn something about the country you’re visiting. Don’t just stick to the obvious like the weather, currency, tourist spots, food and shopping. Most importantly, learn about their culture. For instance in escalators, stay on the right side if you’re not in a hurry. This, I think is applicable anywhere else in the world, but not in the Philippines. In Paris, when it’s rush hour, do not occupy seats near the doors. Just stand up. Read before you ask. Don’t talk too loud in certain places. Learn a little bit about their culture. Watch people move. And best of all, learn how to say “hello”, “thank you” and “sorry” in their native language.

Will you be travelling to Europe soon? What are your dream destinations? Comment down below and I'll happily get your questions answered!

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