With hundreds of small group tour to Europe, The Traveling Professor has learned a lot in his last 25 years of traveling. Don't make these first-timer common mistakes when traveling to Europe:
Packing Too Much: Whether going for 10 days or 10 weeks, pack light. Travel to Europe often involves getting on/off trains, busses, ferries, and other modes of transportation. Hotels, especially older ones, may have no elevators or small elevators. On his small group tours to Europe, The Professor either sends his laundry out or takes advantage of hotel laundry services. The cost outweighs the inconvenience of dragging dirty clothes all over Europe. European stores have just about everything to be found in North America, so when The Professor travels, he will pick up disposable sundries like body wash, shampoo, and other personal items on the road instead of lugging them all over the place in his bags.
Moving Around Too Much: Never spend less than two nights at any hotel. Otherwise, travelers will find themselves spending most of their time unpacking and packing. Try to stay in a limited number of locations to be used as "hubs" to travel to other areas. For instance, when The Traveling Professor visits on a small group tour to Italy, we stay in Florence while taking day trips to Siena, San Gimignano, and even Venice or Padua.
Not Buying Museum Pass: Almost every city has a museum pass offering VIP, no-wait-in-line admission to the best sites. Sometimes these passes come with free public transportation. For instance, on The Traveling Professor's small group tours to Paris, the Paris Museum Pass allows visitors to skip the long, long lines at museums like the Louvre, Orsay, Orangerie and Rodin (along with about 75 more good attractions). Bergen's City Card not only provides admission, but gives access to the light rail system to and from the airport. The great value to the Museum Pass may not be in money saved, but the ability to save time by skipping long lines. Also, when attractions are "free" because they are included on the museum pass, travelers will tend to go to attractions they would not normally go to if they had to pay for them or wait in line. This is how The Professor discovered gems in Paris like Musée des Arts et Métiers and the Cluny. In Bergen, Norway our small group tour travelers love the trip out to Troldhaugen, the home of composer Edvard Grieg for an afternoon concert, all included on the Bergen City Card.
Not Having Travel Insurance: At the very least, every traveler needs to have health and emergency evacuation insurance. Emergency health evacuation from Europe back to North America could approach $100,000. A simple $150 annual health and emergency evacuation policy protects the traveler. Other travel insurance, like trip cancellation and baggage delay, is at the traveler option.
Not Hiring a Guide or Not Doing Some Sort of Organized Activity: When arriving at a new city, it can be overwhelming. On almost all Traveling Professor small group tours we organize a guided introduction to a city with a walking tour. On our Paris small group tours, we organize a river cruise down the Seine River. On our small group tour to Norway, we do a restful and entertaining tram ride through the city. Lots of cities, like London have excellent "free" or low-cost touring programs like London Walks that are great ways to tour. Even the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus can be good ways to introduce yourself to a city.
Saving Money by Staying at the Wrong Location: A good location in a city is relaxing, makes touring easy, and provides the best transportation options. Yes, it is possible to save a little bit of money by staying outside of town, but the time and expense of getting to desired attractions on the itinerary can be detrimental to your trip.
Taking the Metro: There is no doubt the metro is probably the fastest way to get from point-to-point in any large city. However, the bus or tram is better for the first-time visitor. A trip on the bus as it winds through interesting neighborhoods and busy streets gives the first-time visitor a perspective of how things are laid out in a city. While on the bus or tram the traveler may spot a market they want to visit later. They may see a restaurant for dinner. They see how one neighborhood transforms from one "personality" to another. The view from a window on a city bus or tram certainly beats what can be seen from an underground metro. A bus or tram ride is almost like an entertaining guided tour through a new city.
Having Too Much Cash on Hand: Most of Europe easily and readily accepts credit cards. Travelers get the best exchange rates by using no foreign transaction fee credit cards. When cash is needed, withdrawing it from the ATM makes the most sense economic and convenience-wise. A bad thing to do is to get foreign cash before departure at a local bank and even worse than that is to exchange dollars at an exchange bureau when arriving at the airport. Before departure, make sure your bank and credit card companies are notified of travel plans.
Over-Planning: Of course it is good to have an itinerary or plan when traveling. However, budget in some down-time. On The Professor's personal travels, many pleasant surprises have come unexpectedly. For instance, one a "down" day in Florence, we strolled through the Oltrarno district and found authentic artisans and restaurants.
Standing Out from the Crowd: Before visiting a country, become aware of some local customs like how to say "hello/goodbye/thank you" in your host's native tongue. In some countries, pick-pocketing is more of a problem than it is in North America. Don't become an easy target by wearing flashy jewelry or clothes that identify you as a tourist. No need to be obsessive, but protect your personal valuables.
Carrying Your Passport While Out and About: The loss of a passport on a European trip can be catastrophic. A passport is rarely needed for identification other than for crossing borders. However, a PHOTOCOPY of your passport, along with name of your hotel, medical conditions/prescriptions, and home contact info should be carried at all times. On a Traveling Professor small group tour to Croatia for instance, we once had a traveler who needed medical treatment. A copy of the passport with the information described was exceptionally helpful in getting that traveler properly treated.