By Rick Steves
Europe is always changing, and it's essential to plan and travel with the most up-to-date information. Study before you go. Guidebooks, maps, travel apps, and 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. 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. Many 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. Don't believe everything you read. Many sources are peppered with information that is flat-out wrong. (Incredibly enough, even my books 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 my tips for 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 make maps or combination map-guidebooks. While many online mapping tools are excellent for help in planning the finer points of your itinerary (especially if you're driving), there's nothing quite like laying out a large map on the table to get a sense of relative locations and distances, then inking in your intended route. For example, my European planning maps are designed to be used with my guidebooks.
Once your trip is underway, more detailed maps — including digital ones — are key to a good trip; see my tips on selecting maps for navigating Europe.
Tourist Information Office 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 can access their information well before showing up in person. 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, inviting photos, and free downloadable brochures describing walking tours and more. In addition, nearly every European country has a national tourism board, often with an office in the US that you can email with specific questions.
Locally Focused Websites
I'm a big fan of locally produced websites and blogs 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. Serious foodies looking for Paris restaurants and specialty shops should consult the always appetizing ParisByMouth.com. The Local, with websites devoted to nine countries, is the largest English-language news network in Europe (worth checking out despite article-count limits for nonsubscribers).
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 and offers offbeat angles on the city and recommendations for vibrant, untouristy restaurants.
To plan a trip, I once relied on travel agents, other travel writers, and the word-of-mouth advice of friends. Those sources are still valid — but my circle of "friends" has increased exponentially. With the advent of websites and apps such as Yelp, Booking.com, and TripAdvisor, the opinions of everyday travelers are changing the way we approach trip planning.
Consumer-generated reviews can be useful throughout your planning process, allowing you to browse destinations and get a consensus of opinion about everything from hotels and restaurants to sights and nightlife. But the reviews also have their drawbacks.
When I started traveling, there wasn't enough information. Now there's too much, and it's uncurated. Those enamored with crowd-sourcing might plan an entire trip based solely on user reviews. But it's risky: Your reviewer may be someone who visited once and had a bad day, a company in India that's being paid to say good (or bad) things about European businesses, a couple who promised to write a good review of a B&B in exchange for a free breakfast, or a guy who goes to Paris to eat Tex-Mex. My hunch is that a significant percentage of user reviews aren't legit (it's estimated that one-third to one-half of online travel reviews are fake).
Review sites can also become an echo chamber, where one or two well-located, flashy businesses camp out atop the ratings. Travelers rave about these already-popular places, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of positive reviews. Meanwhile, a better, more affordable, and more authentic alternative may sit ignored, tucked down a side street. Or a hotel can pay a website to be a "preferred property" and get its listing bumped to a high spot — even if the reviews are mediocre. And hotels and B&Bs who refuse to pay a commission won't be listed at all.
There is a big difference between this uncurated information and a guidebook. A user review is based on the experience of one person, who likely stayed at one hotel and ate at a few restaurants, and doesn't have much of a basis for comparison. A guidebook is the work of a trained researcher who, year after year, visits many alternatives to assess their relative value.
The most helpful crowd-sourced ideas for travelers usually come from the categories for tours, sightseeing experiences, and entertainment. If I'm coming into Amsterdam and I want to know what's new, I might look at TripAdvisor: It lists every food tour, every bike tour, every zipline, and every goofy goblin tour. You can sort through all of those options and decide what you want to do with your time.
But also keep in mind that guidebook writers have already done that for you. I see review sites as a useful complement to a thoughtfully updated guidebook. If something is well-reviewed in a guidebook, and also gets good ratings on one of these sites, it's likely a winner.