Preparing for your European adventure

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 61 of the July 2012 issue.

Going to Europe is exciting, but it can be stressful, too. By arranging a few things while you’re still at home, you’ll greatly increase your chances of having a smooth, enjoyable European vacation.

Check your passport. Is it due to expire soon? You may be denied entry into certain countries if your passport will expire within three to six months of your ticketed date of return. Get it renewed if you’ll be cutting it close.

Stash photocopies of important travel documents. Whether you’re at home or abroad, anybody can experience unexpected problems from loss or theft. If you have a copy of a valuable document, it’s easier to replace the original.

In fact, make two sets of photocopies of your passport and railpass or car-rental voucher. (For debit and credit cards, just record the numbers, rather than photocopy them.)

Pack one copy and leave the other with a buddy at home, to be faxed or e-mailed to you in case of an emergency. I hide my copy in a second money belt clipped into the bottom of my luggage (don’t tell anyone).

Contact your debit- and credit-card companies. Prior to your trip, call your bank and credit-card company to let them know which countries you’ll be visiting. This will ensure that they don’t decline foreign transactions.

While you have them on the line, confirm your debit card’s daily withdrawal limit, request an increase, if you want, and ask about fees for international transactions.

Arrange your transportation. Buy tickets for any flights you might need to take within Europe as early as possible, since the cheapest seats sell out fast.

Train travelers should decide whether it makes sense to buy a railpass (these cover trips in one or more countries for a set number of days); if so, you’ll need to buy it before you leave the United States. If you plan to take the Eurostar between London and Paris, book tickets far ahead for the best fares.

If you’re renting a car, your driver’s license is all you need in most places, but some countries, including Austria, Greece, Italy and Spain, also require an International Driving Permit. While that’s the letter of the law, I’ve rented cars in dozens of countries without an IDP — and have never been asked to show one. You can get an IDP at your local AAA office.

Take care of medical business. Visit your doctor to get a checkup, and deal with any dental work that needs to be done.

If you use prescription drugs, take a sufficient supply to cover your trip, along with a copy of your prescription so you can refill it at a European pharmacy, if necessary.

Call your health insurance provider to see if they cover you internationally or whether you might need to buy special medical insurance.

Look into travel insurance. This can minimize the financial risks of a vacation. Your potential loss varies, depending on factors such as your health, how much of your trip is prepaid, the refundability of your air ticket, and what coverage you already have (through your medical, homeowner’s or renter’s insurance and/or credit card).

For me, trip-cancellation and -interruption insurance is the most usable and worthwhile type. If I think there’s a greater than one-in-twenty chance I’ll need it (for instance, if I have a loved one in frail health at home), this can be a very good value and provide needed assurance. But if I’m healthy and hell-bent on making a trip, I’ll risk it and not spend the extra.

Prepare gadgets for takeoff. If you plan to use your US mobile phone in Europe, consider signing up for an international calling, text and/or data plan, and confirm voice- and data-roaming fees.

If you’re taking a mobile device, download any tools that might come in handy on the road, such as translators, maps, transit schedules, eBooks, Internet calling apps and free audio tours (including mine, covering some of Europe’s top sights and neighborhoods).

Make sleeping, eating and sightseeing plans. For those who want maximum choice and peace of mind, book accommodations well before your trip, especially if you’ll be traveling during peak season, a major holiday or a popular festival.

To avoid long lines at major sights, such as the Eiffel Tower and Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, make advance reservations online.

The best travelers are those who plan ahead. With a little advance legwork, you’ll return home with rich stories of spontaneous European adventures.