A Planning Guide: Reflections on 4 Months Traveling in Europe

The Trip of a Lifetime! I traveled in Europe from early September through late December 2021, and visited 14 different countries (woweee! 8 of which were new to me), while working part-time remotely. This is my guide to planning travel through Europe as an American, during year 2 of a pandemic (yes, it’s possible and can be done cautiously). It’ll include where I traveled, how I traveled, and answers to my most commonly asked questions. Everyone travels differently, so this is my personal experience, but I hope at least parts of it can be helpful for you no matter what type of traveler you are and what type of travel you are considering. Happy travels & stay safe!

Note: I do have some links within this blog post with referral links so I might receive a small commission, but all recommendations are ones for actual products/services I’ve used and liked. 🙂

Contents (click to go directly to section): How to get into Europe? | Where did I go? | How did I plan my itinerary? | How did I navigate Covid-19 requirements? | Who did I travel with? | How did I get around? | Where did I stay? | How did I plan what activities I was doing? | How did I pack? | What did I collect while traveling? | What did I use to pay while traveling? | Did I get travel insurance? | What were my favorite places in Europe?

Map of my travels:

What a whirlwind! When I started planning this trip, I had no idea where I was planning to go except the very first country (Greece). I had a general list of countries and cities to visit, but had not settled on any specific itinerary. The reason for this was two-fold: (1) needing to be flexible because Covid cases and requirements could affect where I could even go and (2) allowing myself to move around based on what I was feeling since long term travel gives you time (honestly not something I’m used to from most of my past travels). Plus, Europe makes it easy to plan on the fly! I’m such a last minute planner anyway. Before the trip, I had all these visions of this trip being about finding the perfect little quaint town in Italy and spending weeks there getting immersed in the local culture (haha watching Normal People in 2020 made me really think about this). Once I got there, I realized that I get so excited about discovering a new place that I found myself moving around more than I planned to (but I loved it!).

How to get into Europe?

I flew from San Francisco into Athens, Greece, via Turkish Airlines (with a layover in Istanbul, Turkey). The United States is one of the visa-exempt countries for Europe and American citizens do not currently require a visa for the Schengen Area (see map below) for short stays up to 90 days. NOTE: By the end of 2022, US citizens will have to apply for an ETIAS prior to their travel towards Europe, in order to be allowed to enter the territory.

This means that I needed to track how many days I was in the Schengen region since I was there for 4 months, and definitely over 90 days. With a mix of Schengen and non-Schengen travels, I ended up at 113 days total for my trip, and 88 days within Schengen. This worked out because I had spent a good amount of the days in non-Schengen areas like the UK, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Thought this map below was helpful to show which countries are part of what within Europe.

Note: that this was last updated in 2018, before Brexit (as of 2021, the UK is not in EU, and it hasn’t ever been a part of Eurozone OR Schengen region).

Source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/a-guide-to-europes-member-states/
  • European Union: The European Union is a political and economic union of 27 member states that are located primarily in Europe.
  • Eurozone: The eurozone, officially called the euro area, is a monetary union of 19 member states of the European Union that have adopted the euro as their primary currency and sole legal tender. The monetary authority of the eurozone is the Eurosystem.
  • Schengen Area: An area comprising 26 European countries that have officially abolished all passport and all other types of border control at their mutual borders. The area mostly functions as a single jurisdiction for international travel purposes, with a common visa policy.

As of September 2021 when I entered Europe in Greece, I needed proof of vaccination (CDC Vaccination Card was fine) with some Covid-related paperwork (Passenger Locator Form). This is very different by country so make sure to read specifics to where you are traveling. More details on navigating Covid requirements below.

Where did I go?

See below for the 14 countries I visited with some facts about each country (source: Wikipedia), along with a short snippet about my thoughts on each country. From someone that studied Political Science and Global Studies, and comparative politics being my favorite focus in school, I feel like understanding the facts about each country shapes the experience within the country (is it religious and how does that affect the culture? what type of cultural, religious, and political attractions are popular? how open is it to tourism?). I will go through each country in more detail in separate posts to come later.

[country 1] GREECE (Athens, Santorini, Crete, Milos) – September

  • Costs: Average | Currency: Euro (1EUR=1.14USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Athens | Language: Greek (hello in language: γεια σας) | Population: 10,768,477 | Area: 131,957km² | Population Density: 82/km² | Political System: unitary parliamentary republic | In European Union: Yes, since 1981 | In Schengen Area? Yes | Top 3 Religions: 93% Christianity (mostly Greek Orthodoxy, 4% No religion, 2% Islam
  • Traveled with friends
  • Thoughts: The perfect weather + jumping in the sea everyday! Was so beautiful and adventurous (and delicious!). Loved island hopping. Milos is my favorite Greek island! Fried saganaki (cheese), large baked beans, seafood – YES please.

[country 2] BULGARIA (Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna) – September

  • Costs: Low | Currency: Bulgarian Lev (1BGN=0.58USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Sofia | Language: Bulgarian (hello in language: Здравейте) | Population: 7,101,859 | Area: 110,910km² | Population Density: 64.9/km² | Political System: unitary parliamentary republic | In European Union: Yes, since 2007 | In Schengen Area? No | Top 3 Religions: 61.1% Christianity (mostly Bulgarian Orthodoxy), 9.3% No religion, 7.9% Islam
  • Traveled with a friends
  • Thoughts: So fascinating! Not many tourists, felt different than other places I’ve visited in Europe. A lot of their tourism/architecture came from the times they were part of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc, and had a ruling Communist Party. They moved to a democracy and market-based economy in 1991, so not that long ago. Great for a road trip. Super affordable. Tons of history.

[country 3] ROMANIA (Bucharest, Transylvania region) – September

  • Costs: Low | Currency: Romanian Leu (1RON=0.23USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Bucharest | Language: Romanian (hello in language: Buna ziua) | Population: 19,638,000 | Area: 238,397km² | Population Density: 84.4/km² | Political System: unitary semi-presidential republic | In European Union: Yes, since 2007 | In Schengen Area? No | Top 3 Religions: 92.3% Christianity (mostly Romanian Orthodoxy), 6.2% No religion, 1.5% Others
  • Traveled with a friend
  • Thoughts: Continuing on this adventure exploring most of Eastern Europe. Bucharest was a really pretty city (especially the old town) with beautiful architecture throughout. Felt like a Paris of the East. The Transylvania region had beautiful castles, including Bran Castle, near Brașov, which is known as Dracula’s castle (Dracula was imagined after the real-life Vlad the Impaler, medieval ruler of Wallachia).

[country 4] SLOVENIA (Ljubljana, Bled, Piran, Koper, Maribor) – September/October

  • Costs: Average | Currency: Euro (1EUR=1.14USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Ljubljana | Language: Slovenian (hello in language: zdravo) | Population: 2,066,880 | Area: 20,273km² | Population Density: 101.8/km² | Political System: unitary parliamentary republic | In European Union: Yes, since 2004 | In Schengen Area? Yes | Top 3 Religions: 77.8% Christianity (mostly Catholicism), 18.3% No religion, 3.9% Others
  • Traveled with friends
  • Thoughts: So much natural beauty (Lake Bled was the highlight, but loved Lake Bohinj, the Julian Alps, gorges, coastline (though short)). Saw Lake Bled from the water (canoeing), and from above (hiked to a viewpoint, plus views from Bled Castle). Ljulbljana (capital) is small but has some nice architecture along the river.

[country 5] SWITZERLAND (Zurich, Geneva, Luzern) – October

  • Costs: High | Currency: Swiss franc (1CHF=1.08USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Bern | Language: German, French, Italian (hello in language: Hallo, Bonjour, Ciao) | Population: 8,401,120 | Area: 41,285km² | Population Density: 202/km² | Political System: semi-direct federal republic | In European Union: No | In Schengen Area? Yes | Top 3 Religions: 65.5% Christianity (mostly Roman Catholic and Swiss Reformed), 26.3% No religion, 5.3% Islam
  • Traveled with friends
  • Thoughts: You cannot go wrong with a visit to Switzerland – it’s such a beautiful country! Spent more time in Zurich this time around and loved the vibe of the city. Drives to Luzern and walks around the lake, so pretty! It’s just pricey, but worth it. It’ll always be one of my favorite countries in Europe.

[country 6] FRANCE (Lyon, Burgundy region (Dijon Beaune, Chalon-sur-Saone), Paris, Giverny, Alsace region (Colmar, Strasburg) – October

  • Costs: Average | Currency: Euro (1EUR=1.14USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Paris | Language: French (hello in language: Bonjour) | Population: 67,348,000 | Area: 547,030km² | Population Density: 116/km² | Political System: federate semi-presidential republic | In European Union: Yes, founding member | In Schengen Area? Yes | Top 3 Religions: 50% Christianity (mostly Catholicism), 33% No religion, 4% Islam
  • Traveled half with friends, half solo
  • Thoughts: Have visited France many times, but getting to explore different regions by car was so much fun. Loved all the colorful architecture of the Burgundy and Alsace region, out of a fairytale. Spent more time in Paris, and it’s still as beautiful as the first time I visited. It really is an open air museum. Paris, je t’aime!

[country 7] UNITED KINGDOM (London, Cardiff (Wales)) – October/November

  • Costs: High | Currency: British pound (1GBP=1.35USD, as of 2021) | Capital: London | Language: English (hello in language: Hello) | Population: 66,040,229 | Area: 244,820km² | Population Density: 270.7/km² | Political System: unitary state under a constitutional monarchy | In European Union: No | In Schengen Area? No | Top 3 Religions: 59.5% Christianity, 25.7% No religion, 4.4% Islam
  • Traveled solo, but met up with friends from grad school there
  • Thoughts: London is one of my favorite cities in the world, and even though I spent more time there this time around, still feels like there is SO much to see. Went on a really fun historical pub tour and speakeasy bars tour, and they were great. Also visited Wales for the first time and it was so green and had the most lovely coasts. The town of Cardiff is nice to walk around.

[country 8] SPAIN (Alicante, Madrid, Toledo) – November

  • Costs: Average | Currency: Euro (1EUR=1.14USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Madrid | Language: Spanish (hello in language: Hola) | Population: 46,698,151 | Area: 505,990km² | Population Density: 92/km² | Political System: parliamentary constitutional monarchy | In European Union? Yes, since 1986 | In Schengen Area? Yes | Top 3 Religions: 57.6% Christianity, 37.7% No religion, 2.9% Others
  • Traveled with friends partly, solo partly
  • Thoughts: Oh Spain! I’ve never gone to Spain and not had a great time. There’s so much to see and do, and EAT (and all the eats were so so good!). Got to enjoy sun on the coast in the city of Alicante, and then spent some time in Madrid and got to explore the fun design-y stores.

[country 9] MALTA (Valletta, Sliema, Mdina, Gozo island) – November

  • Costs: Average | Currency: Euro (1EUR=1.14USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Valletta | Language: Maltese (hello in language: Hello) | Population: 445,426 | Area: 316km² | Population Density: 1,410/km² | Political System: unitary parliamentary republic | In European Union? Yes, since 2004 | In Schengen Area? Yes | Top 3 Religions: 90% Christianity (mostly Roman Catholic), 5% No religion, 2% Islam
  • Traveled solo
  • Thoughts: What an unexpected delight. Honestly, I had never really heard much about Malta, so getting to see it for myself was great. It is full of history and you can see the influences of so many cultures in its architecture, food, and language. Would love to go back when it’s warmer so I could go swimming & do water activities.

[country 10] ITALY (Puglia region (Bari, Alberobello, Martina Franca), Milan) – November, December

  • Costs: Average | Currency: Euro (1EUR=1.14USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Rome | Language: Italian (hello in language: Ciao) | Population: 60,589,445 | Area: 301,338km² | Population Density: 201.3/km² | Political System: parliamentary republic | In European Union? Yes, founding member | In Schengen Area? Yes | Top 3 Religions: 84.4% Christianity, 11.6% No religion, 1.0% Islam
  • Traveled solo
  • Thoughts: Have also visited Italy many times, but this was my first time in the Puglia region of I loved it. The towns were so cute and unique (especially Alberobello and Martina Franca). Oh, and hands down, Italy has the BEST food.

[country 11] SAN MARINO – November

  • Costs: Average | Currency: Euro (1EUR=1.14USD, as of 2021) | Capital: San Marino | Language: Italian (hello in language: Ciao) | Population: 33,285 | Area: 61.2km² | Population Density: 520/km² | Political System: parliamentary representative democratic republic | In European Union? No | In Schengen Area? No | Top 3 Religions: 97% Catholicism, 3% Other
  • Traveled solo
  • Thoughts: I am so fascinated by micro-nations, so while this visit may seem like just a visit to up my country count, I planned a journey here more because I am curious to learn how a country like this can come to be, nestled within a whole other country (Italy). Interesting history and the main town is on TOP of a mountain basically.

[country 12] FINLAND (Rovaniemi (Lapland), Helsinki) – December

  • Costs: Average | Currency: Euro (1EUR=1.14USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Helsinki | Language: Finnish, Swedish (hello in language: Hei) | Population: 5,509,717 | Area: 338,455km² | Population Density: 16/km² | Political System: federate parliamentary republic | In European Union? Yes, since 1995 | In Schengen Area? Yes | Top 3 Religions: 69.8% Christianity (mostly Lutheranism), 29.4% No religion, 0.8% Others
  • Traveled with cousin
  • Thoughts: Perfect for a visit in the Winter, close to Christmas time. We didn’t see the Northern Lights unfortunately (not strong enough/cloudy skies), but we did get to meet Santa Claus and visit the coolest post office. It felt like we were IN Christmas. Helsinki is a nice capital, and it had a lovely Christmas market.

[country 13] ESTONIA (Tallinn) – December

  • Costs: Low/Average | Currency: Euro (1EUR=1.14USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Tallinn | Language: Estonian (hello in language: Tere) | Population: 1,319,133 | Area: 45,226km² | Population Density: 28/km² | Political System: unitary parliamentary republic | In European Union? Yes, since 2004 | In Schengen Area? Yes | Top 3 Religions: 64.87% No religion, 34.03% Christianity (split between Orthodoxy, Lutheranism), 1.10% Others
  • Traveled with cousin mostly, partly solo
  • Thoughts: The prettiest Christmas market in the capital of Tallinn. Interesting history. Loved the hipster Telliskivi area just outside the Old Town, lots of cool art and restaurant concepts. Also felt like there were a lot of start-ups/tech and a cool scene to be a digital nomad – did you know it’s one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries? They started voting in general elections over the internet all the way back in 2005, one of the first countries to do so!

[country 14] LATVIA (Riga) – December

  • Costs: Low/Average | Currency: Euro (1EUR=1.14USD, as of 2021) | Capital: Riga | Language: Latvian (hello in language: Sveiki) | Population: 1,925,800 | Area: 64,589km² | Population Density: 34.3/km² | Political System: unitary parliamentary republic | In European Union? Yes, since 2004 | In Schengen Area? Yes | Top 3 Religions: 80.0% Christianity (split b/t Lutheranism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy), 18.3% No religion, 1.7% Others
  • Traveled solo
  • Thoughts: Spent a few days here and loved it! The old town in Riga (capital) is SO cute and it was snowing the entire time I was there. The capital has the largest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in all of Europe! So close to Estonia, and has similarities, but at the same time, it’s so different.

How did I plan my itinerary?

When I got to Europe, I really only had Greece (group trip) planned in its entirety (accommodations, transportation). I also had a list of potential places I’d want to travel to (United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Switzerland, Spain), but did not book anything for those by the time I got to Europe. I have a ton of experience traveling in Europe, plus Europe is one of the easiest regions to navigate so I had no problem planning on the go. I often was just booking a few days to a week in advance depending on what I was feeling, Covid-19 conditions, and schedules for friends I was meeting with. There were even a few days I booked hotels just the night before. Trains oftentimes don’t require advanced booking, and flights don’t need that much lead time. With the amount of budget airlines, it was easy to plan based on flight options as well. Hotels had plenty of availabilities as well.

Sunset in Suomenlinna fortress of Helsinki | December 2021

How did I navigate Covid-19 requirements?

When I first started dreaming up this Europe trip back in 2020, I was so sure that by the time I would go, the pandemic would be close to “over”. Obviously that was the not the case, so it became a part of the way that I navigated the continent. Covid-19 was a large factor in deciding where I was going and with the many waves of the pandemic, there were points when it felt like Covid was “better”, but then of course with Omicron, it got way worse. Every country in Europe had different Covid requirements, despite many being in the European Union. Given this, I was on the country’s government pages as well as the US Department of State travel pages for every country I visited (start here: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel.html), and was constantly looking up case numbers and vaccination numbers to decide where it was safe to go. Not only did I not want to get it myself, but I also didn’t want to be a part of the spread of it within these countries that are now allowing travelers in to support their tourism sectors. I am incredibly grateful to have gotten the opportunity to visit these places, despite everything going on. I made sure to understand all rules around vaccination, testing, and masking to ensure I was meeting local regulations.

A few tips for traveling during the Covid-19 pandemic:

  • Download the “Re-Open EU” app to read up to date requirements for how to enter a country
  • Search country name + “covid”, “vaccination” to find the latest articles on changes and requirements to get in (things were moving and changing very fast)
  • Get a vaccination QR code from any country that allows tourists to apply for one (sometimes called Green Pass, EU Covid QR). While the US vaccination card worked as proof of vaccination, not all places accepted it (I had an issue a few times in Switzerland because they required the QR before I received it). I was able to apply 2 weeks in advance online to get one for France (emailed them photo of passport, vaccination, etc) and they emailed it over just as we were arriving in France. I have heard that they aren’t doing it online anymore and you have to go into a pharmacy in France now (Google to find the latest updates). Anyway, that QR code ended up being SO helpful as I used it in many countries after: France, Spain, Malta, Finland, Estonia, Latvia.
  • Travel with a Covid-19 rapid test that is allowed for travel back to the US.
    • I used the the Abbott BinaxNow test (note: MUST be the one with live test observation session) to make it easier to fly back to the US. More details here: https://www.emed.com/airline-travel, but please Google to confirm that is still accepted. This ended up being so useful because I didn’t need to arrange to find testing in my departure country. All you have to do is log into the platform and there will be a live person there watching you take the test and confirming the results are negative (you will need video + audio on a computer). I had a couple with me and was also able to use it for Italy’s entry requirements as well. Bring an extra one or two in case you run into any issues.
  • Even if masks aren’t required in a country, use one anyway. I brought a bunch of masks with me, and also bought them while I was there. Many countries I visited required it indoors and on public transportation, sometimes even outside. There were some that didn’t (ahem United Kingdom), but I still wore one on the metro anyway. They are proven to help stop the spread, so it doesn’t hurt to use one.

Who did I travel with?

Solo traveling in Polignano a Mare, Puglia region of Italy | December 2021

I would say about half of my travels were with friends traveling to Europe at the time or meeting up with my European friends, then the other half was solo. There were countries I did completely solo (Malta, Italy, Latvia), some I did a mix of solo + travel with friends (Spain, France, United Kingdom), then the last batch was completely with friends (Greece, Slovenia, Romania). It was so nice to have a mix of both throughout my trip.

  • With friends, it’s so nice to share meals and drinks, discuss plans, and have someone to share the fun (& not so fun) times with. I genuinely enjoy the company!
  • Solo, you are truly an independent person and need to figure things out on your own. As someone that loves the act of travel planning, it was nice to go on my own schedule and stop anywhere I liked (this was a lot of bookstores, stationery stores, stamp stores, and stops for a TON of photos). I also enjoy solo travel because you don’t actually have to be alone, you are more likely to meet new people, whether it’s through AirBnB experiences, meet-ups, or other tours.

So – this isn’t meant to say one is better than the other (haha just want to be clear for friends that read this), they both just have their benefits and having a mix is very nice, especially for long term travel as it both gives you companionship and alone time to recharge.

How did I get around?

Modes of transportation:

  • Train: This was my favorite mode of transportation! I just love trains. They are so efficient and fast in Europe, and they are (most of the time) very comfortable. The best part, the views of the scenery outside the windows! I’m a window seat gal. I took so many trains throughout Europe (too many to count).
  • Car: When I was with friends, we rented cars a few times:
    • Bulgaria: Rented a car in Sofia all the way east to Varna on the Black Sea. Had a terrible experience with an electric car there, so do not recommend an electric car in that country! They just don’t have enough infrastructure for charging because the share of cars that are electric are quite low, PLUS our car would not hold a charge! We basically drove 2 hours, then needed to stop and charge car for 1 hour. And most of the charging places were in deserted areas. We ended up switching to a gas (petrol) car in Plovdiv and it was such a relief.
    • Slovenia: Rented a car from Ljubljana and drove all over Slovenia.
    • France: Rented a car in Lyon, drove north up to the Dijon valley, and then all the way up to Paris (returned car on first day because driving in Paris is NOT fun).
    • TIP: Get an International Drivers License when you are in the US (I got mine from AAA), there are some rental car places that will check in Europe and it’s good to just have that peace of mind. It costs $20 and you get it immediately when you go in person. Note that you do have to get it in the US before your trip.
  • Plane: Moved around to so many different countries, and ended up taking just 6 flights within Europe:
    1. Bucharest, Romania to Ljubljana, Slovenia
    2. London, UK to Alicante, Spain
    3. Madrid, Spain to Malta
    4. Malta to Bari, Italy
    5. Madrid, Italy to Helsinki, Finland
    6. Rovaniemi, Finland to Helsinki, Finland
  • Ferry: Took a ferry a number of times in Europe! Mostly when island hopping in Greece, and then took a ferry from Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia as well. That ride was 2 hours long and on a huge ship! I like taking ferries when it is an option.
  • Bus: I don’t prefer buses because I’m more likely to get motion sickness, but when trains weren’t an option, it was the next best choice. Took buses a few times:
    1. From Varna, Bulgaria to Bucharest, Romania
    2. Round trip from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia (this was on a luxe bus and quite comfortable)
    3. A few other buses between smaller cities for day trips (San Marino, Murcia (Spain))
Old town of Polignano a Mare | December 2021

Where did I stay?

When traveling with friends, I mostly stayed in AirBnBs, but also some hotels. When solo, I mostly stayed at hotels. No bunks in hostels for me anymore–while I love the social aspect of it, I need my own room these days and have had way too many interesting stories staying in hostels to last me a lifetime. Since I was working part-time, AirBnBs were nice when staying with friends because it gave space to have a separate room in case of video calls and different work schedules (I was working quite late into the evening) and it would’ve been hard in a one-room hotel room. In general, while traveling solo, I preferred hotels because they felt safer having a space where its all travelers, plus a reception (usually there 24 hours). I booked most hotels through Booking.com, hotels.com, and sometimes directly through the hotel to save them the cost of fees to the booking websites. A few things I looked for in booking hotels:

  • Good Wi-Fi: This was crucial for working and photo uploads. Tip is to search reviews for any mentions of Wi-Fi and see if there were a lot of complaints. Booking.com also has a section that has reviews for different features and Wi-Fi is one of them so you can look at the rating specifically for that.
  • Room With Windows: This feels like a given, but when I was in Bari, Italy, I booked a guesthouse that looked really cute in photos, but when I got there, no windows. It’s not something I typically even look for because I always assume there are windows. This one was really important for me. I wanted to leave that room after the first night because of that, but ended up just staying because searching for an alternative was too complicated. I want to see what the outside looks like or at least have SOME natural light!
  • Proximity to Walkable Areas: Having to take a car or long bus ride to the main attractions can take the fun out of things. Even if public transportation is close by, it can be a pain to need to “commute” more than 30 minutes into the area you want to be in. This happened when we were staying at an AirBnB in Nantes, just outside central Paris. It took just about 40 minutes to get into Paris via the Metro, but then you feel like when you leave for the day, you need to have everything because you could be out ALL day. For some of my other days in Paris, I got a room in the city centre and it was so convenient to just be able to step outside and walk to the places I wanted to go to (or take short metro rides).
  • Laundry Accessible: Since I was traveling for a while, I knew I needed at least a few places where I’d need to do laundry. You can find these details on AirBnB or booking websites.
  • Good Lighting: I love to wake up to a bright room and windows/balconies are great to bring in natural light, but also to see what’s going on outside.
  • Good Views: Love a balcony or window that overlooks scenery or a plaza in a town. I had the best experience in Malta at a hotel that overlooked the water, with the old town of the capital of Valletta across.
View from hotel room in Sliema, Malta overlooking the water and Valletta (the capital of Malta) in the distance. | November 2021

How did I plan what activities I was doing?

  • When arriving in a city, my favorite thing to do was to look for free walking tours. These are very common in cities all throughout Europe. You can do it by doing a quick Google search for “free walking tour in [city]”, or search on Guru Walk. These are actually free, but you do pay tips after the tour, and that’s how they make money. I think that doing these tours is the best way to understand the history, top sights to see for a city, and get oriented within the city.
  • Find tours through:
    • AirBnB Experiences: These are hosted by locals in many destinations around Europe. The experiences include everything from food tours, to day trips to places (with transportation), bar tours (speakeasies, pubs), or history tours.
    • GetYourGuide: For most cities, they had tours that you could book within the platform. Most tours included transportation and a guide, which is really helpful especially as a solo traveler.

For my personal travels, there are always a few types of places I look for in any new cities:

  • Post office (to buy postage stamps!)
  • Bookstores (love browsing bookstores)
  • Stamp museums (love seeing unique, vintage stamps + history)
  • Bars on the list of best bars in the world
Gozo Island, Malta | December 2021

How did I pack?

Since I went from late Summer (September in Greece) through Fall to Winter (The Arctic Circle in Finland), packing proved to be challenging and I had quite the ordeal with luggage:

  • I started the trip with a Carry-On luggage (the Away Bigger Carry-On), with a backpack that had a laptop sleeve and plenty of room (Everlane). This was good while it was warmer out and my clothes were smaller (shorts, tanks, swimsuits, tees, skirts) and this was good for me through the first month or so. I did start accumulating more (some souvenirs), and as it got colder, I needed to buy warmer clothes. I purposely did not pack coats because I (1)did not know where I was going and how warm I needed to be and (2)did not want to carry extra clothes for over a month and not need it.
  • By month 2 (October) I bought an extra bag to store more stuff (and made sure it had a luggage strap) so it could go on my suitcase and be easier to maneuver. This was a packable duffle that I got from Amazon.
  • By the end of month 2, it was starting to get a lot cooler (in London) and with upcoming flights, I needed to figure out a plan because I had way too much stuff. So, I used this service called SendMyBag, and sent my carry-on suitcase (filled with clothes I didn’t need anymore & souvenirs) back to the states, and bought a new larger size suitcase at Muji while in London. They picked up the suitcase from my hotel and delivered direct to my US address (cost was about $90).
  • By early December, I was in Malta and planning for the last leg of my trip in northeast Europe (Finland, Estonia, Latvia) with below freezing temperatures, so I needed snow boots and (extra) warm coats, socks, and other winter gear. So to prep for that, I sent a box from Malta post with more of my clothes / souvenirs (it was about 8kg). I didn’t need those back quickly so I chose the slowest option (by ship) and that cost about $35 (super affordable!), and it ended up only taking a few weeks to arrive in the US.

My favorite products for travel in Europe:

  • For luggage
    • Away Bigger Carry-On Luggage: the always reliable Away bag. I actually ended up with a crack in my suitcase but with its lifetime warranty, I actually was able to bring it into the Away in London and get it replaced right away.
    • Muji Adjustable Handle Hard Carry Suitcase 88L: Bought this one when I needed more space. One really nice feature is a button on the top of the suitcase you can push that locks the wheels of the suitcase. Great for when you are in the metro or somewhere you need to prevent it from sliding around.
    • Everlane Backpack: Spacious and has lots of compartments. There’s a luggage strap on the back and it’s a game changer because it allows you to put the backpack over the suitcase handle bars so it won’t fall off when you are pushing your suitcase around. Highly recommend looking for this strap – plenty of bags have it.
    • Foldable Duffle Bag (like this one): Packed in my bag and opened it up to allow for more space when needed.
    • Longchamp Le Pliage Original Backpack: This was my backpack for day to day exploring. It’s foldable, lightweight, and has a good amount of space.
    • Small crossbody purse: I really like wearing backpacks to carry things for day to day exploring, but I find that it was annoying to have to take my phone/essentials like wallet out from my backpack everytime, so it was nice to have just the essentials in a purse for easy access.
    • Luggage scale (like this one): Especially when flying on budget airlines, luggage weight is very carefully looked at.
  • Camera + PhotographyTripod (like this one):
  • Accessories
    • Travel Power Adaptor (like this one): Works basically for all travels to anywhere in the world. Always get one with USB so you don’t need another adapter for USB to plug in.
  • Journaling
    • Traveler’s Company Notebook: Bought this when I was in Japan (at the actual Traveler’s Factory location) and like it because it’s a system where you can add different paper/notebook types, plastic sleeves, calendar, and other fun options. The one I got was a durable brown leather.
    • Sharpie S-Gel Gel Pens (Medium Point (0.7mm)): Doesn’t bleed, very reliable. Feels nice to write with.

Tips for packing & not getting tired of your outfits (for women):

  • Pack neutrals / separate pieces (tops, shorts, skirts, pants) that can be more easily mix and matched. Think about each item you add in and if it can be worn with a couple other pieces.
  • No dresses, rompers (not that versatile).
  • Bring items to layer like cardigans, scarves to change up outfits.

Plan for if you’ll have access to laundry, so you won’t need so many outfits.

Lapland region, Finland | December 2021

What did I collect while traveling?

In case you didn’t already know…I love collecting stuff. Here are a list of things I collected while traveling:

  • Postcards
  • Postage stamps (current + vintage one)
  • Local currency (bills + coins. I save a few extras at the end of my trip)
  • Magnets
  • Le Petit Prince (by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) in the language of where I’m traveling.
    • I read The Little Prince (in English) for the first time while in Paris this trip, and thought it’d be fun to buy the book in other languages since I learned it’s the most translated author, same book! and I love seeing other languages.
    • I ended up getting it in English, French, Spanish, Maltese, Italian, Estonian, Finnish!

What did I use to pay while traveling?

  • Credit Card: This is top choice for paying while traveling in Europe (and most other travels). Always make sure to get a card with no foreign transaction fees, and always pay off your balance every month so you aren’t charged interest. I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve which is a great travel card that comes with great rewards and benefits, but it comes with a hefty fee so I only recommend this if you think you can make it worth it. There are plenty of other cards that have no foreign transaction fees, and little to no annual fees so do your research if you are considering.
    • TIP: When you pay with card and you are asked whether you want to pay in your local currency or USD, always pay in local currency! The credit card will do all the conversions for you and give you the best rate.
  • Debit/ATM Card: To get cash, getting a debit card is the best option if you have a good card, because it’ll give you the best conversion rate, no foreign transaction fees, and even better when you have a card that refunds ATM fees anytime you use it (already have a debit card? Check whether it has these benefits). I have the Schwab Bank Visa® Platinum Debit Card opened with a Schwab checking account and it fits those requirements. Need a referral? Create your account here. Note: I don’t get any commission for this, but depending on how much you deposit, you may get a sign-up bonus.
    • TIP: Warning for Europe – whenever the ATM machine asks you if you want it to do the conversion for you, decline! It’s so easy to accidentally do this (I did it because I wasn’t paying attention and thought I had to). The ATM card should already be giving you a good conversion rate, you don’t need an ATM machine to do that for you because (1) you’ll get a worse conversion rate and (2) they usually charge a fee to do this.
  • Note: I bring some USD cash with me just in case, but I RARELY exchange money. I don’t even remember when I last did that. With my debit card (as above), there’s really no reason to exchange money because they charge you fees and you get a worse conversion rate.

What are my favorite planning apps/tools for trip planning, especially in Europe?

  • GoogleSheets: List of my daily activities, accommodations, costs, and other notes (also, I LOVE spreadsheets in general haha). This helped me to keep track of my budget while on the trip.
  • GoogleMaps: I saved all the places I wanted to go to my Googlemaps so that when I was traveling, I could easily look at the list. While in country, I used it to navigate, look up reviews, and post reviews as well.
  • Swarm (from FourSquare): Yes, haha people still use this. Everywhere I visited, I checked in. It makes it so much easier to figure out where I was at a certain time.
  • PolarSteps: I started this later in my trip, but wish I started earlier! This app tracks all your movements to a journey (it just works in the background and uses minimal battery), and allows you to see your travel journey visually on a map.
  • GetYourGuide: Looked up activities and booked directly in the app. One easy to access place to look at details for any tours you booked.
  • TrainLine: So useful in Europe! You can look up almost every train route and book tickets directly in the App. This was easier than going into each country’s separate train website to book and have to figure out where tickets were.
Sun setting over the town of Alberobello, Puglia region, Italy

Did I get travel insurance?

I will admit that even with the amount of travel I’ve done, I rarely get travel insurance. However, given Covid and the length of my travels, I decided to get travel insurance this time around. When I was looking for what to get, I was looking for good price point, inclusion of Covid coverage (for example if you end up testing positive and need quarantine coverage), medical related coverage, and good reviews. I ended up choosing SafetyWing as it’s an easy monthly payment and does cover Covid if you get the insurance for at least 28 days. They don’t need to know every place you are going to, so I was able to just do the auto renewing monthly plan. Thankfully I didn’t end up needing to claim anything, so I don’t have direct experience with how the claims process goes. In general – do your research. Just wanted to share what I ended up going with. Cost depends on age.

Many credit cards also have some element of travel insurance coverage, but best to look directly into your credit card details.

What were my favorite places in Europe?

I am asked this question a lot and honestly, it’s really hard to say because I really enjoyed the trip and SOO so many places and experiences along the way. However, if I need to answer, then these were 2 of my favorites (these were also 2 completely new countries to me, and a bit more off the beaten path):

  • Slovenia: Loved all the natural beauty. There’s lakes (Lake Bled), mountains (the Julian alps!), gorges, coastlines, history, culture. So much to see and best explored on a roadtrip throughout the country.
  • Malta: Tiny island country south of Italy but so full of history and such an interesting mix of cultures and influences. Beautiful architecture and natural scenery. The Maltese language comprises of something like 40% Arabic language, then influences from Romance languages (mostly Italian and Sicilian), but also phrases in a number of other European languages. This just tells you how much history they have! Malta was a British colony from 1813-1964 so you can see that in a lot of the architecture as well.

I love cities, so it’s always nice to visit some of my favorites like Paris, London, Madrid. And then to get the opportunity to visit more in the countries I had been to in the past, and spend more time in was great: Spain, France, UK, Greece!

Favorite memories:

  • Views of the Santa Barbara Castle from a rooftop bar in Alicante.
  • Getting to visit the micro-nation of San Marino atop a mountain (the whole country is within Italy).
  • Spending my birthday in October at a historical pub crawl in London, with a group of strangers.
  • Reuniting with friends from grad school (from University of Sussex) in UK, Switzerland, Spain and reminiscing on Brighton days.
  • Visiting Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland (in Lapland within the Arctic Circle). So touristy but so magical.
  • Seeing the snow fall in Tallinn, Estonia at the Christmas Market. Snow is so magical (and so much more fun than rain!).
  • Meeting Vietnamese people in European countries at Vietnamese restaurants. I definitely craved Vietnamese food and bonus when we also get to chat with restaurant owners who were also excited to see fellow Vietnamese people (I mean, what an experience having Vietnamese food in Ljuljbana, Slovenia or Rovaniemi, Finland, and then chatting in Vietnamese to learn more about how they came to live in these countries).
  • Spending winter in the “heel” of Italy (in the Puglia region), and eating all the delicious Italian food.
  • A (long) day trip from Paris to the Alsace region in eastern France (Strasburg, Colmar)
  • Jumps into the sea from our boat on the island of Milos, Greece. I actually got a tan!

Honestly there are so many more amazing experiences that I didn’t include here, but will share more when I write about each country.

Have any questions? Let me know! Always happy to chat travel & travel planning!

Note: I do have some links within this blog post with affiliate links (so I might receive a small commission), but don’t worry, these are my actual opinions on actual products/services I’ve used. 🙂

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