I recently went on a solo trip to Europe. Although I have done day excursions by myself in various places including Hong Kong and Alaska, this was going to be my first solo vacation and my first time in Europe in a few years. I decided to do this trip on my own because I really wanted to go to the Herend factory, located an hour and a half outside Budapest, and I didn’t think any of my friends would find this interesting enough to be the basis for a trip.
Since I was going to go by myself, I wanted to pack my days full of activity. Visiting multiple countries in Europe would make that easy. I found a ticket on Aer Lingus that routed me through Dublin and London. It sounds like a fun itinerary since there are lots of things to do in Dublin and London.
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I was worried about a few things so I did a reasonable amount of research so that I would feel well prepared. (Note: If you are an American visiting Europe for the first time, it’s even more important that you do your homework.) Even with my planning though, I learned a few things during my travels that I will definitely be using for future trips. I wanted to share those with you so that you don’t have the frustration or the wasted time that I did:
- The most convenient, yet still cost-effective way, to exchange money may not always be to use an ATM.
This was actually one of the things I had looked into most, and even with my planning, I ended up changing my original plan. I had read about the various types of ATMs. In order to get the best exchange rate, you need to use one of the ATMs that is affiliated with a bank and not one of the “convenience” ATMs located in hotels or on the street. Also, these “convenience” ATMs are more likely to have skimmers that can steal your card information.
So, while I planned to use a bank ATM in Budapest (and there was an OTP bank located right outside of my hotel), I did not feel comfortable because there was no option to get the instructions in English and I was worried about withdrawing the right amount. So, my next thought was to go into the to the teller. I went to the self-service kiosk where I had to get a number to get a teller to come out from the back room. It didn’t even take five minutes to exchange my US dollars ($100 – five $20 bills) for Florints. I did have to provide my passport though.
The exchange rate exchanging US Dollars for Hungarian Florints at the bank was not terrible. The transaction cost a little under $3 compared to the interbank rate (that I would never be able to get, but is the ideal). I think that what I ended up doing may be my preferred method going forward. First, I knew exactly how much money I was spending to get the Florints. Second, exchanging the money cost me less than 3% in fees. Third, I did not have to give them my ATM card or any bank information, so there was that added security. Granted, the downside is that you have to take US dollars with you. Also, you can only do this during banking hours, so you may be out of luck on weekends, in the late afternoon and evening, and on holidays.
Where you can you should use a no foreign transaction fee credit card to pay and only exchange money for expenses that need to be paid in cash.
2. Think through the location for pick up of a car rental.
For my day trip to see the Herend factory, I rented a car. I picked the location in town because it was right by the metro stop and it was closer to the hotel than the airport. Looking back, it likely would have been easier to have picked the airport location. Yes, it was not in the same direction as Herend, but I got stuck driving through rush hour traffic both in the morning and in the evening. This took quite a bit of time.
Also, since the airport was not in the city center, I would not have had to navigate through the complicated and bustling city to pick up the car. It would have been much easier to return the car had I been able to follow road signs directing me to the airport. And in most cities, there is decent public transportation to get to and from the airport. Luckily, I was able to return the car on time, but there were a few stressful moments as I missed a few of the turns. Check out this post for more rental car tips.
3. Make sure to take advantage of the Value Added Tax (VAT) refund.
The VAT is a consumption tax that is used in the European Union. Luckily for non-EU citizens, much of it can be refunded for certain purchases by following a simple process. The store where you purchase the items will get all the paperwork ready for you. Then, once you get to the airport when you are leaving the EU you go to a VAT refund desk with your purchases and your paperwork.
I was a bit concerned about this because one form was in Hungarian for the most part, and I was leaving the EU from London. But, it was easy. I made sure to have all of my purchases when I went to the VAT refund counter (which is before security in Heathrow), but luckily, I did not need to show any of the items. There can be significant cost savings (and this varies by country) by purchasing items at places where you will qualify for a VAT refund and then following through and getting one. A few things to remember:
- buy from stores that handle VAT-refund paperwork,
- combine purchases so that you meet the minimum – this amount varies by country (although some countries including Germany and the UK do not have a minimum), and
- you have to get your paperwork stamped when you leave the EU – this can be a bit difficult if you are leaving by train or car.
4. Packing light really did allow me to see so much more.
If you are going to pack light, I would highly recommend investing in Longchamp bags. They fold over, so I was able to pack a big one to bring back all of my purchases. Plus, if you don’t zip the top, they can hold so much more. Granted, when I was sightseeing I wanted the bag zipped for safety, but as I was boarding the plane, I was comfortable unzipping the medium-sized bag so that the small one could fit in it. I had a 10-hour layover in London. I didn’t want to have to wait for a checked bag as this would cut into my sightseeing time.
Packing light was a huge priority. I chose all of my clothes based on what would take up the least amount of space. I also packed in layers – the base layer of a t-shirt takes up minimal space, so I was able to pack a clean one for each day of my trip. You can read more about my packing tips here. Also, I had to carry my bags around London, so I was cautious of how much my bags weighed. My day in London worked out very well – I was able to see so much, and there is no way that could have happened if I had a significant amount of luggage.
5. London is completely manageable with only a credit card.
Given that I was going to be in three countries with three different currencies, I really did not want to have to exchange any US dollars for pounds since I was not going to be in London very long. I made this work, but I did have to do a little leg work. I used public transportation and bought a day pass at the airport. Also, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to buy anything from street vendors, but I was okay with that.
I had a wonderful week in Europe. Although there were hiccups along the way, the advance planning that I did definitely helped to make the trip go more smoothly. As always, I learned a few things that I can incorporate into future travel plans. If you have any great travel tips, I would love for you to share them in the comments.
- Figure out your priorities for a trip and then make decisions based on those. My priority was getting to see as much as possible – in order to do so I had to pack lightly.
- Do research and have a plan, but also have alternatives if your original plan doesn’t work (like when I needed to exchange money in Hungary).
- Check out this Budapest Travel Guide for more ideas on what to see.
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I am very surprised by the ATM that did not offer English. Did you actually put your card in? Every country I have been in (and that’s a lot), the machine will offer English after you insert your card. Also, you do get the interbank rate with an ATM, the issue is what fees your home bank charges on top of that. Many US banks charge 3%, many credit unions charge 1%, the Capital One account I use for travel charges 0%. Changing cash is cumbersome and on a longer trip is dangerous since it eequires you to carry more cash than you would using ATMs.
Thank you for your comment and additional information. I did not put my card in because I was worried if there was no English option I might not get it back. I agree that getting money exchanged may not be the best option for everyone (depends on situation), but for me it is what I felt most comfortable with.
Great advice! I’ve never actually taken advantage of the VAT refund because it felt too complicated (paperwork and forms are my enemies). I LOVE using Longchamp bags to travel!
Thanks Erin – Hopefully you can take advantage of the VAT refund going forward and nice to hear that you share our love for Longchamp bags!