I’m Kim, wanderlusting wordsmith at STA Travel, die-hard pizza obsessive and Aperol spritz addict. So it’ll probably come as no surprise to you that when I was chosen to embark on Contiki’s Western Quest trip for a week exploring London, Paris, Bordeaux, San Sebastien and Barcelona recently, I was buzzing.
Alongside my fellow coach comrades, I saw a lot, partied a lot, laughed a lot and learned a lot. Some of which I thought I’d share with you in this blog.
Why? Because, no matter where you choose to travel, it will probably come as no surprise that you often only get as much out as you put in. And Europe is one hell of a big place, with arguably the most to see out of any continent on Earth. (Lucky it’s on our doorstep then, isn’t it?).
So here are some tips on how to wring every single bit of fun out of your European adventure this summer.
1. Before you go, do your homework
Rule numero uno: get your planning hat on.
Yeah, we know. The best experiences are often the spontaneous ones, and holidays are sometimes more enjoyable when you relax and play the whole thing by beer.
But nobody wants to be left out of pocket, sat in a strange restaurant having to force-feed themselves inedible tinned Bolognese because they didn’t know where the good restaurants were. We’ve all been there, but with the rise in travel technology and social media, these days, there’s no excuse.
And all those deserted alleys full of incredible street art, hyper-Instagrammable cafes, awesome record stores and 30 cent wine bars (yes, really. Venice, we love you) aren’t going to find you. So get online and do some research on the cities you’re most excited for!
The best tools?
Head over to the app store and download our brand new destination guides for Apple or Android for free, so you can take them on the road with you. They’re bursting with Europe recommendations and advice.
I also can’t recommend Instagram enough as a research tool. Just search the location you’re going to and see what other backpackers are sharing!
2. Map it out
Maps.me is an awesome mapping app which works anywhere, because it runs on GPRS, meaning you don’t even need a SIM or any data to use it abroad. Download maps of each city on your Europe adventure before you leave, do some research on the best galleries, bars and nightclubs, and get pinning them! Here’s one I made last month, of Prague…
You can even colour code the pins, for example make museums pink, and cool bars you need to hit up red. Don’t judge me by how much red is on mine.
3. Speak to everyone
Where I come from, there’s a saying. ‘Shy bairns get nowt’. Yeah, it’s a whole new level of weird but it holds a lot of truth when you set out travelling anywhere solo, especially if you’re in a hostel dorm or on a Contiki bus full of crazy strangers.
Even if you feel shy, just ask a question to the person next to you. The worst scenario is that they tell you to p**s off. But that’s their loss! The best scenario is you have a new travel bestie you suddenly couldn’t imagine life without.
Try it – by the end of the trip, you’re likely to have a network of free crash-pads around the world at your disposal for future travels. And your photos will look a lot more interesting with more beaming subjects in them.
4. Always look up
Because even through there’s always plenty going on at ground-level, every bit of lofty European architecture makes the stiff neck worth having.
Plus your photos won’t look like everyone else’s… which is never a bad thing.
5. Be curious
Try new dishes, drinks and dance moves, ask locals questions, explore every street, poke your head around every interesting corner and try the handle of every intriguing door, to see what lies behind it.
Sure, the big sights like the Eiffel Tower and Rome’s Colosseum are impressive, but often it’s the offbeat little intricacies of a city that stay etched in your mind forever afterwards.
6. Step awaaay from the McDonalds!
Even if you’re drunk or hungover. Those golden arches will be waiting for you back at home – so while you’re in Europe, try the incredible local food. Kudos for snails, frogs legs, or questionable looking seafood. Don’t knock it until you try it!
7. Experience the nightlife in each country as much as humanly possible
Europe’s nightlife is world renowned for good reason. There are entire networks of bars inside old ruined buildings in Budapest. There are clubs that go on for 40 hour stretches in Berlin (although we don’t recommend you try to, too). And then there’s Paris, where you’ll be served champagne and treated to the most famous – and sassiest – cabaret on the planet inside the world-renowned, original Moulin Rouge.
And really, in a decade’s time, are you going to look back, and remember that hot July night in Barcelona when you got a good eight hours’ sleep?
8. But whatever you do, don’t be hungover
When there’s so much to see, do and experience the next day, in a place so different to home, you should ask yourself, is it worth spoiling it with another raging Sangria hangover?
Pick your nights out wisely, especially if you only have one full day to explore the full city afterwards. If there’s no sign of movements towards a karaoke club, no sign of drunk, eccentric locals ready to scoop you up and take you to one, or nobody swinging from the bronze chandeliers of the pub by midnight, reassure yourself you’re not going to miss anything… and go to bed.
Then get up fresh and early the next day, and get on the Contiki coach/get to that incredible viewpoint or gallery before the crowds do!
Oh, and wine, in equal measures. No explanation needed.
10. Seriously consider jumping on a Contiki trip
Especially if you’re travelling solo. You’ll meet other wonderful travellers who will turn into friends, have a guide full of awesome, often juicy historical knowledge about each destination you visit, as well as heaps of local know-how on best spots to hit up in each stop-off.
Plus, Contiki takes you to all the best places – not just the biggest. I’d never even considered visiting San Sebastien, a tiny gem of a town on Spain’s Basque coastline before my Western Quest, but now, I can’t wait to return. Until then, I’ll be dreaming of the bottomless red wine and pintxos bars…
Find out exactly where else out of Europe’s 50+ countries Contiki can take you here.