Europe is the world's most ubiquitous travel destination, certainly for North Americans. At the same time, many travelers regard a trip to Europe as an item to be checked off a list, an excursion to be undertaken in one fell swoop before moving on to grander, greater adventures, be it as a college backpacker or as a retiree with a tour group.
A couple weeks ago, a friend departing on her maiden voyage over the Atlantic explained to me that while Berlin doesn't really fit into her itinerary, she planned to make the trek to the German capital work somehow some way. "I can't go all the way to Europe without seeing the Berlin Wall," she concluded, as if this trip would be her only opportunity to visit Europe.
Whether you're a novice Europe traveler, or have visited your favorite European country enough to be ambassador, it's easy to fall into mental traps like these, which ultimately degrade your travel experience. Here are seven tips on transcending the typical EuroTrip.
1. Travel Outside Peak Times
One of my biggest travel disappointments ever was the city of Venice, Italy. It's not that looking out over the Grand Canal at night wasn't awe inspiring, or that taking a boat out into the Venetian Lagoon didn't also take me back in time, but rather the sheer number of tourists rubbing up against me at all times -- I don't think I heard a single word of Italian the time I was there! This was kind of my fault: I visited in July, the peak of the tourist season in Venice and indeed, of Europe as a whole.
Over the course of my dozen trips to Europe, I've found travel outside of peak times to be a simple way to take your travel experience to the next level, whether you visit summer hot spots like Italy and Greece in the early spring or late fall, or hit the ski slopes when there's less snow and less competition for it! Avoiding crowds also tends to mean avoiding high prices.
2. Go Your Own Way
How you get to Europe - and how you travel once you get there -- can just as greatly influence your experience there are your choice of destinations or experiences. Do you look for special steals on major airlines like American, Delta or Air France, or do you charter a flight with a company like AirTransat? The cheapest and easiest way to travel through Europe is by rail with a Eurail pass, but maybe hitchhiking or cycling is more your speed.
The Northern Lights in Finnish Lapland
3. Step Off the Beaten Path
Of course, some destinations (Venice is a great example) are always going to be full of tourists -- and lacking in surprises. Another way to up the ante on your next trip to Europe is to travel off the beaten path and explore the lesser-known parts of countries. In Italy, for example, you can head south and east to Puglia, the "heel" of the country's "boot." Or, after getting to known coastal Scandinavian capitals like Stockholm or Helsinki, travel northward into the wild forests of Arctic Lapland.
4. Venture Eastward
Another mistake many EuroTrippers make is to ignore the vast travel treasures of eastern Europe. Countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain, from Poland all the way down to Romania, are filled not only with Old World charm and undiscovered destinations, but also incredible values. If you're on the hunt for an even more exotic European experience, fly over Turkey (another European treasure many travelers fail to associate with Europe!) to the Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Europe's true eastern frontier.
Mt. Kazbeg, Georgia
5. Live Like a Local
I won't get into the silly, unproductive "tourist vs. traveler" debate here, except to argue that sightseeing and local living aren't mutually exclusive. A local apartment, for example, might prove a better base to see Parisian treasures like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Seine River than hotels, to say nothing of its cheaper price. Speaking of values, another way to make your EuroTrip more local is to use the Couchsurfing, a service that's not only free, but allows you to see the places you visit through the eyes of a local host.
6. Stay A While
Europeans are known for being romantic - and I'd be lying if I said I'd never stuck a few days longer to enjoy more time with one. But even if you already hold the viewpoint that I eventually arrived at (that international relationships are doomed to failure!), there's definitely something to be said about staying in Europe longer than a few days or weeks. And there are many ways to make this happen, whether you teach English in the Czech Republic, work as an au pair in the south of France, volunteer at a surf camp in Portugal's Algarve or work on your Deutsch in Germany.
7. Assume You Will Visit Again in the Future
The biggest mistake travelers to Europe make, even those who've visited multiple times, is trying to pack too many experiences into too short of time. More often than not, they make this decision due to an assumption, either stated or subconscious, that they won't return ever, or at least for a long while. Like anything in life, if you make frequent travel a priority, you will travel frequently. Conversely, if you travel through Europe as if it's your only chance to do so, it might very well be.