By Rick Steves
Europe is always changing, and it's essential to plan and to travel with the most up-to-date information. Study before you go. Guidebooks, maps, and travel websites are all key resources in getting started.
While information is what keeps you afloat, too much can sink the ship. So winnow down your resources to what best suits your travel needs and interests. For instance, WWII buffs research battle sites, wine lovers brainstorm a wish list of wineries, and MacGregors locate their clan's castles in Scotland.
A word of warning as you hatch your plans: Understand what shapes the information that shapes your travel dreams. Information you seek out yourself is likely to be impartial, whereas information that comes at you is propelled by business (see the sidebar on the next page). Many printed publications and websites are supported by advertisers who have products and services to sell; their information is often useful, but it's not necessarily unbiased. And don't believe everything you read. The power of the printed or pixelated word is scary. Many sources are peppered with information that is flat-out wrong. (Incredibly enough, even this book may have an error.) Some "writers" succumb to the temptation to write travelogues based on hearsay, travel brochures, other books, public-relations junkets, and wishful thinking. A writer met at the airport by an official from the national tourist board learns tips that are handy only for others who are met at the airport by an official from the national tourist board.
Too many people are penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to information. I see them every year, stranded on street corners in Paris, hemorrhaging money. It's cascading off of them in €100 notes. Tourists with too little (or too dated) information run out of money, fly home early, and hate the French. Don't let this be you: choose a recently updated guidebook that's right for your trip, and use it.
For my run-down on guidebook series that cover Europe, see Comparing Guidebooks.
When you pick up your guidebook, choose a map or two for planning purposes. The Michelin Map Europe 705 provides an excellent overall view of Europe. Many guidebook publishers (including Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, and Rick Steves) make maps or combination map-guidebooks. For example, my European planning maps are designed to be used with my guidebooks.
Tourist Information Websites
Just about every European city has a centrally located tourist information office loaded with maps and advice. This is my essential first stop upon arrival in any town, but you don't need to wait until you get to Europe to access their information. Each European country has its own official tourism website — often a great place to begin researching your trip. Many of these sites are packed with practical information, suggested itineraries, city guides, interactive maps, colorful photos, and free downloadable brochures describing walking tours and more. In addition, nearly every European country has a national tourist office in the US that you can call or email with specific questions.
I'm a big fan of local sites loaded with insider tips. Not only do they fill you in on the latest happenings and hot spots, but they help you feel like a native in no time.
Any major city has a host of online resources dedicated to arts, culture, food, and drink. For instance, AOK is a great city guide to Copenhagen, with helpful information on restaurants, nightlife, and neighborhoods. Chew.hu, part of a network of expat sites in Budapest, is a fun read for foodies visiting Hungary. Secrets of Paris, by American-born travel journalist Heather Stimmler-Hall, has a calendar of events, hotel reviews, and a monthly newsletter with dining recommendations and information on exhibits and other Parisian happenings.
One of my favorite resources is Matt Barrett's Athens Survival Guide. Matt, who splits his time between North Carolina and Greece, splashes through his adopted hometown like a kid in a wading pool, enthusiastically sharing his discoveries and observations on his generous site. Matt covers emerging neighborhoods that few visitors venture into, and offers offbeat angles on the city and recommendations for vibrant, untouristy restaurants.