Traveling through Europe is an incredible experience, but it can have its stress points too. We just arrived home from a month-long road trip meandering our way through France and Italy and I can tell you we experienced a few. But we’re learning as we go and we’re getting better with each new trip we take.
Here’s a list of travel tips that I hope will help you avoid some travel mistakes that we’ve made over the years.
1. Go paperless with an electronic boarding pass
Our first travel tip can actually be applied before you start traveling. The next time you check in for your upcoming flight (usually up to 24 hours), enter your email address or mobile number to have your electronic boarding pass (EBP) sent to your smart phone. Most major airlines provide this option. Air Canada’s electronic boarding pass (EBP) is a 2D barcode image that contains all of the same flight details as the Air Canada boarding pass that you receive when you check in online or at an airport kiosk. You can also download your airline’s app that will hold all your flight plans. So get ahead of the game and stop fumbling for all that paperwork and go digital.
2. Cell phone calling while out of the country
We’re somewhere in southern Italy. I’m trying to call the ticket office at Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily using my iPhone. I have several phone numbers that I’ve scooped from their website including an 800 number, but none are working for me. The frustration mounts as I continue to use every combination of 011, 001, 00 and so on, in front of the number… with no luck. We eventually got our tickets and I’m happy to say that we thoroughly enjoyed Madam Butterfly. However, it was my American Express Platinum Card concierge that eventually saved the day (see next tip). Here’s a link to Rick Steves’ Europe who describes how to make a call to and from Europe. You’ll want to keep this link handy.
3. Credit cards
Credit cards can come in handy, especially if they offer a concierge service. Only after I had exhausted every attempt to make the call myself, did I reach out to the concierge service offered at my credit card company back in Toronto. If you run into a challenge, remember your credit card may have a concierge service that may be able to help you.
4. Car rentals
Planning a road trip? If you’ve decided to do the driving yourself, take some time to consider your ride. We had a rental for the month, beginning in Nice, France with a drop off in Palermo, Sicily. The next 4 weeks offered a considerable amount of driving which prompted us to share these next several tips.
Comfort: What car is right for those long drives through Europe? Our Audi A4 was an upgrade, but it was well worth it. Even long days in the car seemed effortless. I’m not sure we would have felt as relaxed with a smaller compact car. But, small cars have their advantages too, read on.
Size: Our nav system (WAZE) has us winding through the cobble-stone streets of Gravina, Puglia in search of our B&B. The roads are narrow, and they keep getting narrower. The Audi A4 barely fits the width of the street. There’s maybe six inches to spare on either side of the car and it’s causing Mary to freak. We made it through without a scratch, but it was moments like this (and there were a few) that I was wishing for a smaller car. So, before you decide on which rental car to go with, choose your comfort level as you navigate those tiny streets and many, many switchbacks that are most common throughout Europe.
Space: If you’re traveling over an extended period of time, you’ll likely have a few pieces of luggage. Our two hefty red Samsonites fit perfectly, side by each in the trunk – tucked out-of-the-way and hidden. Before you make your decision based solely on price, consider how much space you’ll need.
Know your vehicle: By the time I’d reached the town’s piazza, the electronic dash lit up once again. My left rear tire had a loss of tire pressure – which basically means you have a flat tire. We were very, very fortunate to have our B&B host take charge of the situation and within the time it took us to enjoy a Compari Sprtizer, the tire was patched and back on the car.
When you rent a car, ask questions about your vehicle before you leave the lot. Who do you call for Emergencies? In case of a flat tire, or worse if you’re in an accident. What do I need to know about this car? Regular fuel vs diesel. I only realized after the dash reminded me, that I was to add an additive to the fuel. Okay, who knew.
Cost: In addition to the options above, cost of course is usually the main driver (pardon the pun) in making your decision. But, in addition to the cost of your rental don’t forget to take into consideration the cost of fuel. The regular price of gas at some stations was 1.48 Euro per liter while diesel was 20 cents cheaper. You do the math.
5. Highway tolls
I have never seen so many tolls in my life. If you drive any distance along Italy’s Autostrada, you’ll experience quite a few tolls along the way. So, when you budget your trip, you may want to set aside a few dollars toward the cost of these tolls. The cost of a toll is determined by how long you travel on that particular highway, and some can add up. At one toll, we paid more than 100 Euro.
By the way, when you approach a toll, slow down and read the signs above each toll booth. Don’t go into the Telepass lane as we did and have to back up with cars behind you (kind of embarrassing). Most toll booths are not manned so use the lanes that offer credit cards or have some loose change set aside in the car.
6. Watch your speed
You don’t want to get home and find a batch of nasty speeding tickets waiting for you in your mail. We found quite a few photo radar traps along the highways in Italy. Be sure to watch the signs for the current speed limit and stay within it. Our navigation system was WAZE and pre-warned us of an approaching speed trap.
7. Car phone charger
First, take your smartphone with you, you won’t be sorry. We used WAZE on our iPhone to navigate everywhere. Our service provider provides an out of country plan that is well worth looking into. If you do decide to use an app on your cell phone bring along your car charger and keep it plugged into the car all the time. You’ll never run out of battery.
Most car company’s offer a navigation system but it can be costly. Consider using your cell phone instead using WAZE or Google Maps to help guide you. These are only two of the many nav systems out there and they’re free to download. One of the little nuances we discovered while using WAZE is that it provides the quickest route to your location. Which means, at times we found ourselves navigating our way through very, very narrow and sometimes remote roads and lane ways. You don’t have to follow it if you feel uneasy about the driving conditions she has you on. Simply exit that area and she’ll re-route you another way. Don’t worry, WAZE always comes through.
9. Heading to the beach
If you’re planning a bunch of trips to the beach, as we did, you may want to consider this next tip. France and Italy have some of the most amazing seaside towns and fishing villages, each sporting spectacular beaches. Many beaches will rent you lounge chairs and an umbrella for the day. Of course if you’re traveling you likely didn’t bring along your own chairs and umbrella so you’ll need to take on that rental. The daily fee can vary depending on the location and the time of year – like mid-August is going to be expensive since that’s when everyone in Italy heads to the beach. In a recent visit to St. Tropez’ Pompelonne beach, we paid (choke) 47 Euro for two chairs and an umbrella for the day! So here’s your tip; why not pick up a pair of ‘cheap’ beach chairs that you can stuff in the back of the car to use rather than paying these exorbitant prices. When your holiday is over, just leave them behind.
10. Call UBER
Driving around in congested, unfamiliar streets can be difficult and nerve-wracking especially in big cities like Paris and Rome. We normally beach the Audi for the duration of our stay and use Uber to get around. In some cases we’ll either walk, or hop on transit and take Uber back. If you haven’t already, take me up on this tip and download the app onto your smartphone, you won’t regret it. Choose your ride and set your location. Uber prices depend on distance traveled of course but also the choice of vehicle you decide on. Choose between economy (small compact car, inexpensive), premium (black car, more expensive) and the cheapest way to go is to Carpool, which we used most often. Carpool, (meaning they may be picking up another passenger along the way) is the cheapest way to travel and most of the time they didn’t pick anyone else up so our ride was cheap, cheap.
11. Hotels, B&B’s and Airbnb’s
One B&B in southern Italy that we stayed at was quite beautiful with nothing to complain about, with one exception. I had to climb three flights of long, steep stairs, making three separate trips with multiple suitcases and bags to get to our room. Which brings me to my next tip; if you have bad knees, back problems or worse, check your accommodation beforehand to make sure there is an elevator available or a ground floor room before you book.
If you’re driving you’ll want to check with your host hotel or B&B to see if parking is available. Parking in some places that we visited is not only scarce, it’s unlikely that you’d be capable of driving in those super narrow and steep streets. Italy’s Matera comes to mind. This ancient city doesn’t even allow for cars, so when you get to your stay you’ll need to let them park your car and you walk it from there.
13. Shop and save the tax
Okay, who doesn’t like shopping? Especially on your European holiday in cities like Paris, Milan, Venice and Rome. Mary did her fair share, but she also saved a bunch of money as well. Here’s your next tip: Look for stores displaying Global Blue Tax Free Shopping signage in the window. Keep this link to their website for future reference – like how to get your refund. Minimum spend is 154.95 Eur. Additionally there are many other stores that provide tax-free shopping, just ask the retailer.
Here’s your second tip: you’ll need your passport when completing the tax-free form with the retailer. Take a photo of your passport with your smartphone and that way you’ll have it when you need it. Stores don’t need to see the original. A photo provides all the information needed.
14. Vendors and markets
Between Paris and Palermo, I don’t know who does a better job at street markets. But they are a must-see in both cities. Before you make your move on that nice piece of jewelry, take me up on this next tip; don’t offer them what they’re asking. Start negotiating.
15. Hop on, hop off
When we’re in a city that offers a hop on, hop off bus, we take it. Maybe you do this already but if not here’s your next tip. If we’re in a city for up to three days, we’ll purchase a two-day pass minimum. Jump on board and do the entire route. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the city. As a photographer I’ll take snaps with my iPhone of locations that I’d like to come back to later, with all my photo gear rather than lugging it around with me at the time. Mary can check out what sites are interesting to come back to and we’ll hop off the bus at that point. Most are double-decker buses offering 2-3 different routes over a 1, 2 or 3-day pass at reasonable prices.
16. Hats and hydration
If you’re traveling through France and Italy in the summer or early September you should be prepared for hot weather. While we were in Paris the weather was unseasonably hot, like 36 celsius. Our ride on the hop on, hop off was pretty toasty to say the least. Tip one; make sure you carry bottled water and a hat with you just in case. Tip two; check the details of your hotel and B&B as a lot of hotels in Europe don’t have air conditioning – and you’ll love coming back to a cool room.
Some Additional Tips:
Pack an extra light-weight duffel bag. You may need the extra luggage room on your way home.
Pack an extra tote bag in case your luggage goes overweight and you need to store some of those items as a carry on.
All the accommodations that we stayed at in France and Italy had no clothes irons available. You may want to pack a portable steam iron.
Take a photo copy of all the credit cards that you travel with and passport(s). Store the copies in your suitcase. Hopefully you won’t need to reference them, but just in case.
Purchase tickets to major attractions (Eiffel Tower, Vatican etc.) online, before you leave. You’ll skip potential long line-ups and you may even save some money by purchasing in advance.
Back to you
I’m sure you have some travel tips and suggestions that we haven’t listed here. Let us know by sending them along in the ‘Comments’ window below. We’ll add to the list and share them with our readers.
Photography by Murray Sye: All images were shot during our four-week road trip through France and Italy. The top featured image was as beautiful as it looks. Tropea in Calabria, Italy. We spent a few days there enjoying the beach and warm turquoise, crystal clear water that you could see straight to the bottom. Click each image to see the enlarged version.