The Travel Tips: Europe

The things I learned and the things I wish I knew before I left to Europe for three weeks.

I went to Europe in a carry-on bag, and a backpack slung around my shoulders for my laptop and camera. I envisioned I would need so much more, but as I put together what I wanted to take, I realized there was an easier way to coordinate clothing, shoes, and essentials. It was all strategy; finding a way to take as little as possible while still feeling like it was enough, and ensuring that everything I took, I could carry in my hands.  

In Figueres, Spain, outside Salvador Dali's flagship museum.

In Figueres, Spain, outside Salvador Dali's flagship museum.

Packing:

Play by function over form. You'll be doing a lot of walking around, and plenty of exploring, but you also want to stay classy and stylish. (My first thought: wear all black. My second thought: let's plan this out a little better.)

  • Stick to one or two color schemes. I took a lot of black clothing, solids, neutrals, and "statement" hijabs - the greens, the ivorys, the taupes and grays. I didn't want to step out of my comfort zone clothing-wise in an area where I was already unfamiliar, so I kept it simple.

  • Try not to take what you can easily and cheaply buy. We often like to take back-ups of clothing in case one gets dirty, lost, ripped, but no need. One or two pairs of denim over the course of a week or two should be more than enough.

  • These will count as liquids, but take concentrated detergent with you. This is helpful when you aren't sure the next time you'll be in an Airbnb or hotel with washers/dryers.

  • Be a bit skeptical about what you'll be wearing - try not to overestimate the clothes you'll need. When in doubt: if the item doesn't work with two or more outfits, leave it at home. T-shirts and a couple of statement pieces will be your best bet: I took a leather jacket, a winter coat, and my black boots, and mixed those between jeans and a myriad of sweaters and hijabs to mix and match throughout the days.

  • For jewelry, I wore my watch and Yusef's dog tags for most of the trip. I did not take my engagement ring, and chose to wear a thin band from my late grandfather.

What I carried: My black carry-on Samsonite suitcase; a black AmazonBasics backpack that held my camera and laptop; and a tan leather purse that I had in my carry-on. I used this purse to go out into the city to minimize carrying the rest.

What clothes I took: A black leather jacket, a black winter coat, four sweaters (black, gray, ivory, and black/cream striped); two pairs of dark denim (black and dark wash); black flats (that dirtied in the ocean in Spain); black boots; black kitten heels. I had 7-8 hijabs with me from various colors of light to dark - it changes an outfit completely, and I re-wore a lot of things.

La Fabrica, a coffeeshop in Girona, Spain. This particular shop is famous for being near the route of Tour de France.

La Fabrica, a coffeeshop in Girona, Spain. This particular shop is famous for being near the route of Tour de France.

Money:

This is my favorite thing to plan out, because it's a fun thing to save. Unfortunately, I didn't do too well in this category on this trip... but as it was a once-in-a-lifetime affair, I've forgiven myself.

  • Before stepping foot in a different country, understand and know how to use the local currency. Spain, Switzerland, and Hungary all had different currencies, and though I could certainly use the Euro or my credit card across the board, the exchange rates or hidden fees aren't always advantageous to do so. Vendors can easily take advantage of people who consciously or unconsciously identify themselves as tourists, so I was constantly exchanging money to have cash on hand.

  • Don't fall for the "Pay in euros or pay in USD?" trick when paying with your credit card - always pay in the local currency. (Here's why: let's say your dinner costs 25 euros, which is roughly $31. Let's say the machine asks you if you want to pay with euros, or with dollars. If you select to pay with euros, you'll pay $31 total - your bank will automatically convert x amount of euros times the current rate in your account. If you select to pay with dollars, however, you'll be charged that same $31, but with a 5% transaction fee, and an additional conversion fee if the vendor has it. And they do. Pay in local currency, always.)

  • Have a general idea of the dollar cost versus foreign cost before spending on anything.

  • Exchange booths are not a good idea. Err on the side of an ATM, but do so practically. In Budapest, there was a line behind me at the ATM, and a gentleman who made it very clear he was irritated at the wait. I panicked, and I picked a number to convert that I thought was reasonable to exchange (I recalled reading that Hungarian currency was weak against the dollar, so I selected to exchange USD for 100,000 Hungarian Forint). Throw that into a currency converter - it was a dumb move on my part, driven by the fear holding up a line. I should've checked beforehand.

What I took: $80 USD, my credit card, my insurance, and my driver's license. I bought a neck purse on Amazon that I wore under my clothing to hold my wallet and my passport when I was traveling on public transportation. Be sure to call and check with your credit card company before leaving the US - there may be international fees involved with using your card off of American soil.

The cause of much of my money woes: a beautiful vintage shop in Budapest, Hungary.

The cause of much of my money woes: a beautiful vintage shop in Budapest, Hungary.

Tech and Accessories:

As someone who greatly enjoys looking up people/places/things on Google, often takes photos, and has a decent social media presence, I like having my camera and laptop on me at all times. This is a good and a bad thing - they are fantastic assets to have when in a new place, but also a terrible liability should they break, should they be stolen, or should airport security decide it's not meeting the mark.

  • Stay as inconspicuous as possible about having a camera on your body, especially if it is a DSLR. As I was in Europe during the winter, I slung my camera over my body before putting on a coat or jacket. I lengthened the camera strap so that the camera sat on my hip. I then whipped a scarf over my neck to cover the whole fiasco. When I wanted to take a photo, I stopped, pulled the camera up under the scarf, took a photo, and dropped it back.

  • A portable charger for your phone is a must-have, and as is a proper adapter. But do be careful about the voltage of any adapter you use - you will be good for the most of Europe, but what works in most places will not work in Switzerland and a few other countries. A couple of $15 adapters off of Amazon are well worth saving your phone overseas.

  • Keep your tech as lightweight and easy as possible. I went through seven airports during my travel, and almost every time, had to prove that my DSLR was a DSLR (take off the lens, show the inside, take out the battery, turn it on, etc). I had a feeling that this would happen, so I only took one lens with me. I thought this would be terrible, but update: I learned how to use that lens better than before in various situations, and now love it.

What tech I had on me: A portable battery for my phone; my camera; spare batteries; two SD cards; my laptop; headphones; back-up chargers.

Out and about in Figueres. Can you tell how much I loved Spain?

Out and about in Figueres. Can you tell how much I loved Spain?

Apps:

Because apps are your friend.

  • Google Trips was a lifesaver. It's fairly self-explanatory, and I used it to download offline maps of whatever city I was in. It also had listings of places to see, how and where to plan your meals, and what was nearby and open at any given location. This was useful when I got lost in the heart of a downtown, and also very nice to have when I planned to be close to 4-5 different sights to see within several blocks. There was also a tool with local emergency, taxi, and hospital numbers, which I was certainly glad to have on hand.

  • Airbnb. I stayed in Airbnbs through Spain, Germany, and Switzerland, and was in contact with each host throughout my trip to stay aligned on arrival times and expectations.

  • Your banking app. I keep notifications on my banking app that will pop up on screen whenever I spend more than $1.50 USD on my card. A big fear was having my data stolen when using my card across Europe, so keeping track of exactly where I was spending, and how much, gave me peace of mind.

  • Apple Wallet. No more paper boarding passes! Everything syncs up here beautifully.

Along the coast in Llanca, Spain.

Along the coast in Llanca, Spain.

Safety:

This is the most important part, so please read through this and internalize it as best you can.

  • Traveling alone as a woman, as a Muslim woman, as a visibly Muslim woman, and as a foreigner, will not put you in the best position in terms of safety. This is not sexism, nor is it weakness. It is reality.

  • The way you walk matters. Walk deliberately and with purpose. This is not the time to look lost, even if you are.

  • When sunset hit, I was back at the Airbnb. Every night.

  • Check in with your family and friends at least two times a day. Let them know where you are and what you're doing for the day.

  • When travelling alone, the best bet you have is your observations, your reaction time, and your quickness of mind. If you're uncomfortable with someone coming toward you, walk away briskly, walk closer to others, or find a place you can grab someone for help. You are your biggest bet to safety.

    • If you spot a group of men on the road eyeing you, or a someone speaking to you in an alarming way, look straight ahead. If you are provoked, go expressionless, make no eye contact, and walk away.

    • Do not be afraid of asking for help from the people around you.

    • Do not leave a public space until you know where you are going. McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks/etc were the best WiFi hotspots to rely on, and I planned my sight-seeing in the mornings there.

    • Sit in the innermost corner of a room/bus/train where there is nothing behind you, and where you can watch everything going on around you. If I couldn't do this, I sat near families or women/men with children.

    • I have a distinct fear of train tracks. I stood with my back to the wall of the subway platform until my train arrived.

    • When an Uber or taxi driver asks if you are alone, say no. If asked if this is your first time in a place, say no. Remember that you do not owe anyone your personal information or your travel itinerary.

    • Much to my parents' chagrin, I used Airbnb, but only stayed with Superhosts. This meant that the host is verified and reviewed with the company as providing exemplary service.

  • I didn't go overseas with a global data plan. Though I'm grateful that I didn't, I would recommend it if you want the peace of mind. I had to rely on WiFi, and though everything I wanted was achievable through that, there were times I was off the grid.

    • If there's anything I learned, it's that being disconnected for periods of time as I explored was the one of the most beneficial things I could have done (there were no nothing to check, no notifications to clear, and no reason to look anywhere but the beauty in front of me). But from a safety perspective, I wish I had done so, just for the assurance of knowing that I could call or text for help if I needed it.

 

These are the best tips I can think of for now - I'll be sure to come back and update the next time I step foot in Europe.

Safe travels!