It's finally happening. Your long awaited vacation is just around the corner and you're ready to take France by storm! Or Italy! Or Spain! Either way, you've maxed out your suitcases and you're about to do the same with your credit cards as well. Soon you and your family will be frantically rushing from one overrated tourist trap to the next and waiting in line to eat at uninspired restaurants aimed at American tourists. You know you'll come back more exhausted and stressed out than before you left, but hey, that's just how vacations go, right?
We turned to experts, Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker—who have mastered the art of authentic, immersive, affordable travel— to share all the things you SHOULDN'T do on your next European vacation, along with tried and true tips you SHOULD try instead. "Sadly, this is the way many people travel when they tour Europe," says world traveler and author Zeneba Bowers. "And it's hard to blame them since most people don't take frequent vacations overseas. So when they do, they all tend to make the same tourist mistakes." Bowers, along with her partner, Matt Walker, authors of the Little Roads Europe travel guides, make travel an integral part of their lives and visit Europe about five times a year—despite the fact that they are average people with average incomes. In addition to their books, Bowers and Walker also have an Itinerary Building Service for tourists looking for authentic immersive experiences while traveling.
Keep reading for Bowers' and Walker's no fail ways to RUIN your vacation (followed by their expert advice on how to have an unforgettably great trip!).
1. Opt for a cheaper flight with a terrible schedule.
"Speaking as a professional cheapskate, I totally understand the desire to save a few bucks, especially on something as un-sexy as airfare," says Walker. "That said, any joy you feel from depriving the airline from wrenching a few more bucks out of you will dissipate the minute you realize you are stuck for an 8-hour layover in JFK airport. Your time is a commodity and you need to think about it like that. If you save the money on airfare but arrive at your destination filthy, frustrated, and exhausted, your first day will be a nightmare."
2. Pack too much stuff.
Pack your bag so that it is never more than 3/4 full, including an extra empty duffel bag in the bottom and a lot of bubble wrap. This will inevitably mean a drastic cut down on clothing, shoes, books, and toiletries. You can buy cheap shampoo, soap, and other toiletries abroad. And sure, some people might look snazzier than you, with multiple changes of clothes and shoes—but those are the folks who are throwing their backs out schlepping their giant bags through the town square at 8 a.m.
Plan to fill your bag with cheese, oil, beans, liqueurs, wine, grappa, honey, and jams. On the flight back home you can check a bag for free, and your bottles will be safely tucked inside the bubble wrap you packed. You can take the duffel as a carry on and fill it with your extra clothes, plus breakable non-liquids you bought on your trip.
3. Plan too many activities.
"A packed schedule is one of the premier ways to quickly destroy an otherwise great vacation," says Bowers. "Of course you want to see as much as you can. But imagine if you applied the same approach to your birthday dinner at a nice restaurant—you'd order the filet, AND the oysters, AND a spinach salad, AND the shrimp cocktail, AND the baked brie, AND the stuffed potatoes, AND the lobster tail, AND the molten chocolate cake, AND the cheesecake, AND AND AND."
Bowers admits that it's hard to whittle down all your desires, but it's much more fulfilling to experience a few things deeply, than to whip through multiple places and barely scratch the surface.
4. Try to cover too much distance.
Sure, you can base yourself in Rome and take day trips to Naples or Florence, but that is the equivalent of basing yourself in NYC and doing a day trip to Boston or DC. You will encounter traffic, delays, and problems, and creating an itinerary that requires you to drive like a cross-country trucker is a self-defeating exercise. Instead, pick an area, and give yourself the freedom to explore it—to find a great coffee shop or a local artisan, to spend more time at lunch, or to just sit with a drink and people-watch.
"After all, if you wanted to be on a minute-to-minute, demanding, frustrating schedule, you could have just gone to work," says Bowers.
5. Hit all the "must-see" destinations. "Must-see" destinations are always going to be chock full of tourists, who are also there because they "must-see" them. If you feel like you just can't live if you won't get to see the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, go at dawn, when no one is there. Or look nearby and visit cliffs that are just as high, with none of the tourists (like Loop Head). "Must-see" the David in Florence? Go in January or February.
"Just know that popular sites are popular for a reason, and therefore, will be highly populated," asserts Walker. "So think about going in the off-off season; or just pick one or two, and then find small-town alternatives to the bigger 'must-see' sights."
6. "Just wing it" when it comes to meal times. You don't have to plan every single meal in advance, but if you're in a country like Italy, there can be a wide disparity of food quality in restaurants, especially in the more touristed areas. Italy is all about the food, and you'll be thanking yourself for doing the research as you sit down to a handmade, memorable, locally-sourced meal rather than a plate of spaghetti and meatballs (this dish is not a typical Italian thing) in a restaurant that has American flags printed on the menu.
"Search out a few 'destination restaurants,' make reservations before you leave home, and get to know the culture you are visiting through its food," advises Bowers. "If you need to 'wing it,' head to local farm shops or markets, or ask locals in a bar where they like to eat."
7. Rack up debt on your trip. What could possibly be more relaxing than penny-pinching your way through a vacation, imagining how many hours you'll have to spend working once you get home to pay it off? Save up the money you need for a trip before you go.
"I can't stress this point strongly enough," says Walker. "Get a general idea of what things reasonably cost before you go (e.g. food, lodging, gas), then make a budget. Save the money and stick to your budget. You don't have to count every dollar (or Euro or Pound), just be aware that you are in the ballpark. When you get home, if you've gone a bit over, it will be by a few dollars. And you won't be saddled with thousands of dollars in debt you have to pay off for that 'restful' vacation."
8. View your entire vacation through a phone camera. For the love of all things holy, put your phone down. Unless you are a travel writer or a health inspector, you don't need to document every bite you put in your mouth. No one is going to look at those pictures anyway, including you! Human eyes are much better at capturing scenery and natural beauty than your iPhone, even if it is the latest model.
"You're going to see so many things you want to record for memory's sake, but wean yourself away from having the phone be your only 'recorder,'" says Bowers. "What sounds are happening? Are there interesting scents? What does the sun and breeze feel like on your skin? Try to put those 'markers' in your brain, and when you get home you will be able to recall these precious moments more accurately and with more pleasure."
9. Make a checklist and base your happiness on it. Don't make a checklist of the things you "need" to see, "need" to buy, or "need" to do while you are on vacation. If you have some really strong feelings about goals you want to achieve, pick one or two, make sure they are doable (e.g. the sight is open to the public), and get it done. A checklist can be a harsh mistress and a helluva way to spend each precious day you have off.
Try to make your goal learning something new, experiencing a new place, or finding something you've never seen before. Allow yourself to have the time and space to satisfy your curiosity ("What's down that small street?" or "I wonder what 'cervello' is?"—spoiler alert, it's brains).Make your goal to end each day having experienced something new, and feeling rested and invigorated. You'll thank yourself when you get home, and years later when you recall the vacation with fondness.
"There are two distinct ways to visit Europe," concludes Bowers. "Would you rather your vacation be an exhausting marathon full of crowds, mediocre food, and subpar hotels? Or would you prefer to feel you've deeply experienced another culture and taken the time to actually enjoy it? Take it from me, you want option #2. Don't ruin your vacation with rookie mistakes. I promise, you'll be glad you packed light, sought out the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and kept your head up and your eyes open to really see the beauty around you."