Right after seminary, my friend and I spent a week and a half touring cities in Italy and France. This article is not based on any expertise or extensive experience, as neither of us had ever planned anything like this before, but I would love to share some tricks and tips we picked up along the way. These travel tips are pretty universal, but many are especially relevant for teens, who likely don’t have a car and are on more of a budget.
Make a Google Doc. The two of us began planning the trip about a month and a half before seminary ended. A Google Doc was an easy way to keep track of all details, financial and technical. If one of you books something while the other isn’t around, they can put it on the Doc and keep the other updated. Also, if you organize it in chronological order, it serves as the itinerary for your trip to keep you organized.
Book as many activities as you can in advance. The lines can get really crazy, especially in the summer, which is prime tourist season. Also, research which attractions you want to buy skip-the-line tickets for. It costs more, but it is often worth it. For example, the lines for regular entry to the Palace of Versailles can be up to five hours long.
But leave some chill days/times. Some cities are just beautiful to meander around, and it is good not to schedule every hour. For example, though we planned Rome pretty much down to the minute, for Venice we basically left the day open, taking a boat bus to Saint Mark’s Square and pretty much winging it from there.
Balance live guides and audio guides. Live guides are expensive, and while they can add a lot to a tour, sometimes a private audio guide is better. For tours that were big and spread out, like the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, and the city of Pompeii, it was worth it to book a live guide to help us navigate. But for museums, famous squares and monuments we found audio guides to be better because we could move at our own pace. Live guides typically come with a bigger tour group.
Make use of resources and apps. Rick Steves is a sort of travel “guru” whose content is extremely helpful—and mainly free! His website includes tips and guidelines for planning each city, and his app has audio tours you can download before your trip for many sites and attractions for the main cities in Europe. More apps include Kosher Near Me, which shows you what kosher food is closest to you, and Moovit, which helps navigate public transportation.
Take the time to figure out the public transportation. It can be tempting to cab, but try to become familiar with the buses and trains, even if it takes some trial and error. Apps like Moovit (mentioned above) are very helpful. This saves a lot of money and also helps you get the full experience of the city. However, if you ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe—such as late at night—splurge on a cab. Safety is priority.
Be OK with splitting up sometimes. In Venice, I wanted to look around in the glass shops, and my friend wanted to do an audio tour of Saint Mark’s square. By splitting up, we each got to do what we wanted and had some time to be alone, which is always healthy. Just make sure to have a meeting time and be in touch periodically.
Bring tons of food and buy tons of fruit. Eating out three times a day is expensive and takes up a lot of time. We ate about one restaurant meal a day, and for the rest we brought tons of pitas (they lasted a few days), granola bars, crackers, nuts and dried fruit. Peanut butter in a carry-on gets confiscated by some airlines, so it’s up to you if you want to risk it. We also bought fresh fruit and vegetables wherever we went, which I highly recommend: the produce is so amazing there! My friend can attest: I had at least 40 fresh apricots over the span of our trip.
Watch out for birds. I’m not kidding. Outside a museum, a bird swooped down and tried to grab my granola bar; and in Venice, a seagull actually grabbed a croissant out of my friend’s hand and bit her finger. Keep an eye out when eating in public places.
Wear comfortable, supportive shoes. This may seem obvious, but from the choice of footwear of many of the tourists around us, not everyone had gotten the message. (Who wears stilettos to the Colosseum?!) The cobblestones in Europe, though picturesque, are very rough on the feet, and you will be doing a lot of walking.
Bring more socks than you think you will need. You will run out. I did.
Wear a money belt or fanny pack. Fashion-conscious readers, I apologize. But pickpockets are rampant in Europe, and it’s good to keep your most important and valuable items, such as your passport and most of your cash, both safe and accessible.
Bring a good portable charger/charging case. Google Maps and Moovit burn a lot of battery.
Don’t bringing good jewelry/watches that you won’t be wearing at all times. It adds unnecessary stress.
Minimize what you pack. It is much easier to move from city to city with less stuff; and also, not checking luggage saves time, money and stress. (A lot of these small airlines are notorious for losing checked luggage; if you do check luggage, read the airline reviews before choosing a flight.)
Consider doing bike tours. We did two bike tours and loved them. They were fun, allowed us to experience a lot of the city in a short time, and cost less than segways. Only do them if you are comfortable biking in traffic. Also, ask for a helmet; most of the tours are happy to give you one, but only if you ask.
Research the synagogues in advance. Many require you to show your passport to get in and have specific entry times. Make sure to allot enough time for the synagogue in Florence; it is one of the most beautiful in the world and has a nice museum inside.
Take pictures with you in it. It can be tempting to snap pictures of every amazing site, but remember: you could always Google search a picture of the Eiffel tower. A picture that has you in it is much more special. Invest in a selfie stick—and be discerning of who you give your phone to if you ask someone to take a picture of you. One trick is to offer to take a picture of a couple; they will be grateful and more than happy to take a picture of you and your friend in return.
Expect setbacks and embrace them! You can’t plan for everything. On the very first day of our trip, seconds before our (outdoor) Colosseum tour, the skies opened up and it suddenly began to pour. We quickly bought ponchos (we had left our raincoats in the hotel) and did the tour anyway in torrential rain. In the end it was an adventure and made the experience far more memorable.
Traveling is an opportunity of a lifetime. If you plan well you can maximize your time, stay safe and spend wisely. Good luck!
By Rachel Retter
Rachel Retter is a third-year intern and contributor to The Jewish Link. She is a rising sophomore at Stern College for Women.